A dinner that opened a new world for me

Formal dinners can be extremely boring, but sometimes you can get lucky and sit next to somebody really interesting. I got lucky last week when I sat next to Jay Richardson at a Cambridge Union dinner: I learnt something and was introduced to what I think will prove a treasure trove.

Jay told me that he was the “access officer” of the Union. I thought at first that that meant access to the building, making sure that people in wheelchairs could get in. But I was wrong: the job of the access officer is to get more people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, to join the Union. I said that I thought that dining in dinner jackets was not a good start.

But then we got onto the interesting stuff. Jay is a composer. I asked if he played an instrument. He does–he’s an organist in one of the colleges–but he told me that you didn’t have to play an instrument to be a composer. That surprised me. I asked him how he composed. Did he sit at a piano? Did he use a computer? Did he have a synthesiser that would play the music he was composing, making the sound of the strings, the brass, the woodwind? No, he said, he did it all in his head. Many composers do use software that will create the sound of an orchestra, but he thought it too unlike the real sound, too messy; it got in the way of his composing.

I fund it astonishing that he could create the sound of an orchestra in his head. It seemed to me inhuman, that you could hold in your head the sound of a 100-piece orchestra with its 30 or so different instruments and compose a symphony. But then I thought of Beethoven, deaf and unable to hear his music even when it was being played by a real orchestra.

I asked about the difficulty of getting an orchestra to play your work. Wasn’t that expensive, especially with the need for rehearsal? He said that it wasn’t too bad if you had a “residence”– and he has one at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge. He told me as well that English orchestras can play a piece without any rehearsal. He told the story of the recording of the music for Star Wars. An American orchestra said it would need weeks to rehearse. The producer said that would be impossible, and then two English orchestras bid against each other, with one eventually recording the score after a rehearsal of just one or two days.

Could I listen to his music? He told me that he is just about to have a piece on Spotify–and he has had a piece played on Radio 3. But the place to go to hear is Soundcloud, “a sort of YouTube of new music.” I asked if it mattered to him whether people enjoyed his music. I imagined he might be composing something very modern and difficult, but he was clear that he wanted people to enjoy his music.

I’ve now been to Soundcloud and listened to two pieces by Jay. I like them both very much–they have the still, pure melancholic sound that I love. on every street is an exquisite piece for solo cello, performed by Joy Lisney in the chapel of Jesus College Chapel. https://soundcloud.com/j-richardson/on-every-street my body is an ocean is an evocative piece for piano that is almost as much silence as music. https://soundcloud.com/j-richardson/my-body-is-an-ocean I have already listened to these pieces several times and will continue to listen to them, and I will explore other pieces by him and by other composers on Soundcloud.

Rarely has a dinner brought such a return.








A morning of five generations

While making toast with Alexander, my three-year-old grandson, I hear on the radio that Ken Dodd, the comedian, has died at 90. Suddenly five generations are connected.

They are connected because I remember going with my grandmother to see Ken Dodd at the Palladium. I was perhaps 10, it was 1962. I called my grandmother Nana, and I loved her. She was Irish, warm, and gentle with red hair. I can remember the smell of her, a mixture of face powder and Kensitas cigarettes.

I had a much closer relationship with her than any of my other three grandparents, all of whom I knew. Nana’s husband, Jim, wasn’t much interested in children. Usually he wore a dressing gown, but sometimes he exchanged it for a loud check suit. He’d been a comedian, a song-and-dance-man, a fast bowler, a bookie, and an embezzler. My father’s father, Major Bill Smith, had been in the Indian army and was stern and Victorian. He always wore a suit and shouted at people with long hair. His wife, Ethel, was worn out, fat, and slow–very gentle but very distant. She died before I could ever know her properly.

It was just Nana and I who went to see Ken Dodd. Nobody else. My memory is that we were so high in the gallery that I had to look down between my knees to see Ken Dodd. I can still remember one of the jokes he cracked: some people came in late, and he shouted “That’s the team from British Rail, just arriving.”

Nana, born in 1904, had danced in the music halls, and that’s where she met Jim. They may even have had a double act. Jim led her a merry dance as a husband, probably both beating her and being unfaithful. I’m not sure, but he certainly beat my mother, who sometimes thinks he’s still alive and can’t forgive him. When I look at the photo of Nana from the 1920s I see how beautiful she was. I just remember her as old, although she would have been 58 when we went to see Ken Dodd, eight years younger than I am now.


Ken Dodd was described on the radio as the last of the music hall comedians, following on from Arthur Askey (who lives in the flats where my brother Brian lives), and Max Wall, whom I saw perform at the Greenwich Theatre in the 70s. Ken Dodd was famous for his stamina and his love of being on stage, giving five-hour shows well into his 80s. My brother, a comedian, has performed with him.

What will Alexander remember of me in 56 years’ time? Will he remember how this morning we made breakfast together, had a porridge-eating race, drew pictures (the picture shows his drawing, “No Spiders,” done his morning), did the washing up (with him making a mess), and sang? The answer is that he won’t, although I hope that we will have time together when he’s older and will be able to remember me.

Is my relationship with Alexander different in some fundamental way different from my relationship with my grandmother? On reflection I think not. Love is stretching across five generations.


Sex with vegetation

D H Lawrence preferred nature to people. In the passage below, it seems to me, he describes sex–only with vegetation rather than another human. I think he writes this partly because of his preference for vegetation over people but also because he couldn’t in “Women in Love” published in 1920 write about sex between humans. He did in “Lady Chatterley’s  Lover” published in 1928, and we all know there that led. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/lady-chatterleys-lover-was-in-both-catholic-and-puritanical-traditions/

The context of this extraordinary passage is that Rupert Birkin (surely modelled on Lawrence himself) has been hit over the head with a lapis lazuli ball (very Lawrentian that, he loves colour) by his ex-lover Hermione Roddice (modelled to her dislike on Ottoline Morell https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/ottoline-morrell-as-hermione-roddice-in-women-in-love/ ). For many this passage will seem ridiculous, like a pastiche, but it worked for me.

Birkin, barely conscious, and yet perfectly direct in his motion, went out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills. The brilliant day had become overcast, spots of rain were falling. He wandered on to a wild valley-side, where were thickets of hazel, many flowers, tufts of heather, and little clumps of young fir trees, budding with soft paws. It was rather wet everywhere, there was a stream running down at the bottom of the valley, which was gloomy, or seemed gloomy. He was aware that he could not regain his consciousness, that he was moving in a sort of darkness.

Yet he wanted something. He was happy in the wet hillside that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.

But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges—this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!


Women in Love

Grandad in the pub

Alexander is in his high chair singing:

“Grandad in the pub

Grandad in the pub

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad in the pub.”

He actually sings “pump” rather than “pub,” but I know what he means and thought I would translate.

Alexander likes to sing, and I like to sing with him. I also sing with my 88-year-old demented mother, and she usually remembers the words better than I do. There’s something deeply human about singing, and it allows us to connect when complex rational speech is useless.

I’m not sure why he sings about me being in the pub. I don’t often go to pubs, and I’ve rarely been in a pub with him. But when we were playing in the piazza (don’t worry, Venice, Clapham’s piazza will never upstage yours) the other day, he kept wanting to go into the pub. I stopped him.

Then he sings

“Grandad up the tower

Grandad up the tower

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad up the tower.”

He knows what scans, and his high, thin voice is lovely. When we dance, as he loves to do, he keeps better time than me, as Lin likes to point out. But where did the idea of me being up a tower come from? I didn’t know that he even knew the word tower.

But then he resorts to a favourite:

“Grandad eating porridge

Grandad eating porridge

Wibble wobble

Wibble wobble

Grandad eating porridge.”

Porridge features a lot in our lives. I can imagine that as an old man the only thing that he’ll remember about me is my love of porridge. I’m happy to be remembered for that.

Nationalists versus citizens of the world

Citizens of the world are a liberal global elite who arrogantly ignored the damage being done to citizens of somewhere, nationalists, and so brought about Brexit and the election of Trump. No, citizens of the world recognise that you can simultaneously be a citizen of somewhere and of the world and that our most pressing problems–climate change, inequality, and mass migration–are global, and hold the key to solutions to those problems; and citizens of somewhere, nationalists, threaten democracy.

This is my attempt to summarise the position of the two opposite sides in a debate last night organised by Intelligence2 based on Theresa May’s quote: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.” David Goodhart, creator of the idea of citizens of somewhere and everywhere https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/people-from-somewhere-anywhere-and-nowhere/ , and David Landsman, a diplomat turned businessman, were the citizens of somewhere; and Simon Schama, the historian, and Eiif Shafak, the Turkish novelist, were the citizens of the world.

There were some 300 people in the Emmanuel Centre, and probably everyone in the room, including the speakers, were part of the liberal global elite, even though there were some who did not see themselves as citizens of the world. There probably wasn’t anybody who didn’t have a university degree, and everybody agreed that the fact that such a discussion could be held with polite, informed, and often funny interchanges was fundamental to democracy.

Indeed, the reminding by Elif Shafak that democracy is much more than regular elections was my main take-home message; I knew it, but I  needed clarification of the idea and reminding of it. I went to the debate with my son, James, and he, a keen student of politics, thinks that only 5% in Britain could describe the basics of democracy.

Elections are fundamental but alone are not enough. It’s because so many people think of elections as the same things as democracy that tyrants (Putin, Erdogan, Sheika Hasina, etc) manipulate them to give themselves the appearance of mass support. Elections become simply part of the tyrant’s toolbox.

Also essential for democracy are the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights. If one of them fails, democracy is undermined.

James emphasises that Britain is a representative democracy. We elect people to spend time studying and thinking about the many issues we face and take decisions on our part because we don’t have the time or knowledge to take wise decisions on everything. One of my favourite ideas is that of “rational ignorance”: it is wholly irrational to try to know all about everything.

So Brexit–where people, even the very smartest, didn’t know what exactly they were voting for and where the campaign was fuelled with disinformation (lies)–was the undermining of our representative democracy.

Back to the debate, there was more agreement that disagreement. It’s a false dichotomy to think that you have to be either a citizen of somewhere or a citizen of the world: you can be both. People also agreed that when the “us” starts seeing the “them” as a threat things are turning sour.

There was, however, disagreement over whether “moderate nationalism” was a good or bad thing. Goodhart thought it honourable, real, and no threat, whereas Shafak thought it a starting point for tyrants to undermine democracy; it’s happening not only in her own country but in Hungary, Poland, and across the Middle East.

The speakers also disagreed over whether Brexit and the election of Trump was democracy working–in that the liberal elite have been forced to pay attention to the plight of those left behind by globalisation–or a threat to democracy.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Shafak answered by quoting Antinio Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, Optimism of the will.” Actually she said we should have pessimism in the head and optimism in the heart. I liked that in it describes me.

Citizen of the world


My embarrassing meeting with Sir Roger Bannister

The death of Sir Roger Bannister has led me to remember my embarrassing meeting with him. That memory in its turn made me thinking of my absurd conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/my-ridiculous-meeting-with-aung-san-suu-kyi/ My meetings with the world famous seem to be characterised by ridiculousness.

I met Sir Roger only once, at Leeds Castle in Kent. I’d been invited to give an after-dinner speech to a group of health policy wonks assembled by the King’s Fund. These were the days when I often gave such speeches, and I had something like a set speech that I’d adjust for the event.

For some reason I can’t remember–perhaps fearing that many present  at the dinner would have heard my set speech or perhaps boredom with the speech–I decided to do something different. I hit on the idea of using my father’s jokes. He had a great collection of jokes, many of them to do with bodily functions–particularly defaecating.  There were lots of a-man-goes-to-the-doctor and a-man-goes-onto-a-pub jokes. I didn’t stop to think that this sophisticated audience might not appreciate such jokes; nor did I know that Sir Roger and his wife would be there.

After a few drinks I launched in. I won’t give you the full speech, not that I can remember it anyway, but I can remember Syd’s jokes. We still tell and laugh at them, mainly through remembering Syd and how he told the jokes. Here’s a couple:

A man goes to a doctor. “Doctor, my shit is coming out like spaghetti.”

“Let me have a look. I can see the problem. That’s it fixed.”

“What have you done doctor?”

“I’ve cut six inches off your string vest.”


A man goes to a doctor. “Doctor, I’ve got problems with my bowels.”

“What’s the problem? Do you go regularly?”

“Yes, every morning at 6.”

“What’s the problem then?”

“I don’t get up until 6.30.”

As I told the jokes, I felt that I hadn’t struck the right note. But I continued. People laughed. It wasn’t a disaster.

During the night I reflected on my unsuitable speech but comforted myself that it would all be forgotten quickly.

But at breakfast I was in the queue behind an elderly man and his wife. “Good morning,” said Sir Roger, “I’m Roger Bannister, and this is my wife. Thank you for a wonderful talk.”

He was charming and humble, as everybody says he was, but I knew he was being polite–and actually thought my talk far from wonderful. All I could think is “I’ve been telling smutty jokes to a very famous man. I wish that we could rewind and start again.”

I never saw him again.

There is another parallel with my memory of Ang San Suu Kyi. She came into the news because of her fall from grace–with her failure to speak out on the plight of the Rohingya people. Sir Roger hasn’t fallen from grace, but sport, including his sport, has on the very morning his death has announced. It seems that our currently most famous Olympians–Mo Farrah and Bradley Wiggins–both used drugs. Both too have got rich from their sport, while Sir Roger never made any money. He had to squeeze time from his medical training to train and run, and he trained for only 45 minutes a day. He was a kind of middle class Alf Tupper, the athlete I read about as a child in comics who would catch the bus to his races and eat fish and chips before winning the race, usually against “toffs.”

RIP, Sir Roger. I hope the memory of my smutty jokes faded fast.




Ottoline Morrell as Hermione Roddice in “Women in Love”


Ottoline Morrell and D H Lawrence were great friends, so much so that Frieda, Lawrence’s wife, was jealous of Ottoline. It’s always dangerous to be friends with a writer, particularly if you are a unique character like Ottoline: you may find yourself in a book in a way that is not pleasing. That’s what happened to Ottoline when Lawrence depicted her as Hermione Roddice in “Women in Love,” taking little trouble to hide his model. Their friendship ended but was resumed towards the end of Lawrence’s life.

Here’s how Hermione is first introduced in the book, at considerable length.

“One of them she knew, a tall, slow, reluctant woman with a weight of fair hair and a pale, long face. This was Hermione Roddice, a friend of the Criches. Now she came along, with her head held up, balancing an enormous flat hat of pale yellow velvet, on which were streaks of ostrich feathers, natural and grey. She drifted forward as if scarcely conscious, her long blanched face lifted up, not to see the world. She was rich. She wore a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow colour, and she carried a lot of small rose-coloured cyclamens. Her shoes and stockings were of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat, her hair was heavy, she drifted along with a peculiar fixity of the hips, a strange unwilling motion. She was impressive, in her lovely pale-yellow and brownish-rose, yet macabre, something repulsive. People were silent when she passed, impressed, roused, wanting to jeer, yet for some reason silenced. Her long, pale face, that she carried lifted up, somewhat in the Rossetti fashion, seemed almost drugged, as if a strange mass of thoughts coiled in the darkness within her, and she was never allowed to escape.

Ursula watched her with fascination. She knew her a little. She was the most remarkable woman in the Midlands. Her father was a Derbyshire Baronet of the old school, she was a woman of the new school, full of intellectuality, and heavy, nerve-worn with consciousness. She was passionately interested in reform, her soul was given up to the public cause. But she was a man’s woman, it was the manly world that held her.

She had various intimacies of mind and soul with various men of capacity. Ursula knew, among these men, only Rupert Birkin, who was one of the school-inspectors of the county. But Gudrun had met others, in London. Moving with her artist friends in different kinds of society, Gudrun had already come to know a good many people of repute and standing. She had met Hermione twice, but they did not take to each other. It would be queer to meet again down here in the Midlands, where their social standing was so diverse, after they had known each other on terms of equality in the houses of sundry acquaintances in town. For Gudrun had been a social success, and had her friends among the slack aristocracy that keeps touch with the arts.

Hermione knew herself to be well-dressed; she knew herself to be the social equal, if not far the superior, of anyone she was likely to meet in Willey Green. She knew she was accepted in the world of culture and of intellect. She was a KULTURTRAGER, a medium for the culture of ideas. With all that was highest, whether in society or in thought or in public action, or even in art, she was at one, she moved among the foremost, at home with them. No one could put her down, no one could make mock of her, because she stood among the first, and those that were against her were below her, either in rank, or in wealth, or in high association of thought and progress and understanding. So, she was invulnerable. All her life, she had sought to make herself invulnerable, unassailable, beyond reach of the world’s judgment.

And yet her soul was tortured, exposed. Even walking up the path to the church, confident as she was that in every respect she stood beyond all vulgar judgment, knowing perfectly that her appearance was complete and perfect, according to the first standards, yet she suffered a torture, under her confidence and her pride, feeling herself exposed to wounds and to mockery and to despite. She always felt vulnerable, vulnerable, there was always a secret chink in her armour. She did not know herself what it was. It was a lack of robust self, she had no natural sufficiency, there was a terrible void, a lack, a deficiency of being within her.

And she wanted someone to close up this deficiency, to close it up for ever. She craved for Rupert Birkin. When he was there, she felt complete, she was sufficient, whole. For the rest of time she was established on the sand, built over a chasm, and, in spite of all her vanity and securities, any common maid-servant of positive, robust temper could fling her down this bottomless pit of insufficiency, by the slightest movement of jeering or contempt. And all the while the pensive, tortured woman piled up her own defences of aesthetic knowledge, and culture, and world-visions, and disinterestedness. Yet she could never stop up the terrible gap of insufficiency.

If only Birkin would form a close and abiding connection with her, she would be safe during this fretful voyage of life. He could make her sound and triumphant, triumphant over the very angels of heaven. If only he would do it! But she was tortured with fear, with misgiving. She made herself beautiful, she strove so hard to come to that degree of beauty and advantage, when he should be convinced. But always there was a deficiency.