The advantage of living on the edge

Many years ago – in the 1950s and 60s – I went to Hemsby a lot. We used to rent a bungalow in the dunes furthest from the sea, accessible by a road with interesting ups and downs. It was the way the greengrocer got to us, in the days when the entire shop came to you and not just parcels. 

There was no internet, of course, and there were no mobile phones, although there were rudimentary slot machines in the bright new emporium in the village. As I recall, you put an old penny in, and if you were successful, you got it out again. Pretty exciting. There was also a juke box, playing up-to-the-minute tunes like Last Train to San Fernando.

There were no trains to Hemsby, which is on the east coast of Norfolk, but there was a double-decker bus, which used to turn round in the field just down the road. Sometimes I used to go and watch it. I was easily amused, and quite happy, I seem to recall.

From our bungalow we had to negotiate a steep footpath to get to the sea. It went down into what we called The Valley, which was an area of grass, ferns and bushes where you could play football and cricket, or just sit out of the wind and have a picnic. The Valley ran from the centre of Hemsby (south a bit) up to Winterton (north a bit). It still does, actually. 

To reach the sea, you had to climb the other side of The Valley by a sandy footpath (there were a maze of them) and then – after surveying the wide expanse of beach before you, possibly with the help of a telescope – tumble down into the soft sand and, if you had time, walk to the sea. It was quite a trek. 

There were bungalows on that second stretch of dunes: you might pass them on your way to the sea, if you took certain paths. They are no longer there, because it is too dangerous. Further down the coast, similar bungalows have been falling into the sea with some regularity, because the sea is no longer miles away. It is eating away at that second row of dunes, and will soon break through. The Valley will be no more, and – well, you can guess the rest.

Climate change, I hear you say. Well, obviously the climate changes, but it may not be what you think. Two hundred years ago, for instance, I am told there were no dunes, and the lighthouse at Winterton, now a holiday home more than half a mile from the beach, was adjacent to it. 

The dunes built up and now, of course, the story is about erosion, and whether it can be stopped. The question that interests me, however, is why people choose to live on the edge. where they are clearly at risk. The answer turns out to be that it is beautiful. It is a conclusion I came to after visiting Santorini, where stunning homes decorate the rim of an extinct volcano – except that it isn’t extinct. It is simply dormant at the moment. Risky? I should say so. 

I rather admire people who live at Hemsby, even though it is not quite Santorini. And I do so because they are bucking the trend. The depressing truth about life in the 21st century – in the UK anyway – is that what concerns people most is staying alive. Health and Safety. Accident statistics. Ludicrously slow speed limits. 

I suspect this may be because so many people believe that this life is all there is. You might describe that as a dangerous delusion, and I would agree. If you spend most of your life trying to make sure you stay alive, what you are doing is refusing to live life as it should be lived. Jesus Christ said he came to bring abundant life – real life. Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Beauty’s nothing but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.” 

By “terror” he meant the deep reality beyond the deadly routine. Helen Keller, who should know, said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

I never thought of Hemsby like that. But I wish I had.

The Lost Princess

This is the opening of a downloadable short story that I wrote a few years ago. It’s never been published. I hope you like it.

The east wind had been blowing for days, and it was good to feel the warmth of the sun at last. Anne watched the tide push the water up river: it was high today, almost on to the path.  And apart from the calls of birds, and the sound of the air pushing through the reeds, everything was quiet. 

This was how Anne liked it. The tall reeds hid the big house in the distance, and she felt as if the world was made just for her. She loved the house, but it was so busy. People coming and going, lots of work being done – sometimes, she thought, just for the sake of it. She tried not to get involved, although of course there was plenty for her to do, and if she hung around, jobs would find her.

That was why she liked the Fen. The quiet paths through the reeds, the tangled roots of the trees by the river.  The coots and the grebes; the geese and the swans. The secluded spots where she could just stand and look, as she was doing now, with nothing and no-one to disturb her.


It’s all there in black and white – or is it?

We all have secrets. Obviously I can’t tell you most of mine, but one I can reveal is that I used to train journalists. This was in the days when people read newspapers in order to find out what was going on.

In order to ensure that the reader got a fair crack of the whip (apologies if this now comes under the heading of violent and therefore forbidden language), we used to have an ABC of news writing. Oh, yes. Cutting edge stuff. The A stood for Accuracy; the B stood for Balance; and the C stood for Clarity.

We were aiming in those far-off innocent days to tell the whole truth, and if there were two views on a subject, to give them both. If there were many views, we tried to say so. Another word for this was Objectivity.

There are still some journalists who try to do this. But nowadays objectivity has largely gone out of the window. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that there are certain things we cannot say. 

At one extreme, this borders on the absurd. In America recently five black police officers murdered a man, who was also black. This was frustrating for many people because it fell outside what they considered the norm: white people being violent towards black people. Sadly, there is a history of that kind of thing in America. One US journalist wrote that the policemen killed the black men because they had “internalised white supremacy”. Another claimed that the murderers were “carrying water” for whiteness. 

Obviously this is rubbish. Sorry: I can’t say that. 

Nearer home, there are other things we cannot say – because they are not regarded as “sensible”. The consensus is against them. 

I have always reacted against the word “consensus”. To me it means I am not allowed to hear or talk about certain views because most people, or certain “experts”, don’t hold them. To me, this seems a great way of covering things up. And, as Tolstoy said, “most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives”. And ours. Tolstoy didn’t say that last bit.

If you can get the Government behind you, or the BBC, You’re made. People never get to hear the opposite views. As Bertrand Russell said, “There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action”. Or by the BBC abrogating its responsibility. Russell didn’t say that bit either.

So now no-one can put forward different views on climate change, and no-one can suggest that covid vaccinations may have adverse effects. All this can conveniently be lumped under the heading of “conspiracy theory” – instead of being considered as alternative points of view that we can consider. If that kind of talk were allowed, pillars of the way we live would tumble: the applecart would be turned over in a momentous way. Net zero, carbon capture, wind farms and lockdowns would all be pointless. Among many other things.

OK, I’m getting on a bit. It’s a new way of life. But to me all this abandonment of the ABC of journalism eats away at our freedom, like data manipulation and hidden cameras. It must be very hard for someone with basic, revolutionary, lively ideas of freedom and openness to work in journalism nowadays. I said that. There may be other points of view.

Let’s hear the views of the minority

I am in a minority. I always was, because there’s only one of me – a fact that most people find reassuring.

Most of us find comfort in being part of a group, which is why schoolchildren seek the approval of their peers as part of growing up. That is how gangs start, as well as friendlier social groups.

Teachers – well, good teachers – try to manage this process by reassuring individuals that they can be independent, that they have value as individuals with specific talents never exactly reproduced in others. This is a liberating concept. 

When we try to build communities, it is tempting to forget that they are made up of individuals. Some of the worst communities on the planet have demonstrated this. 

Unfortunately it is not always easy to tell whether the community you’re forming is good or bad. It may have what you think are excellent aims, but if this means that those who disagree with those aims are ostracised, disenfranchised, expelled or worse, then your community, whether large or small, is a bad one.

This is reflected in the current tendency to think there should be only one permissible opinion on each of a wide variety of issues that face us in the 21st century. When it comes to gender, diversity, speed limits, climate change, covid, vaccinations, lockdowns, restrictions on movement, cycle paths etc etc, if there is only one acceptable view – whether it claims to be for the good of society or not – that is, in my minority view, dangerous for the society in which it occurs. 

Democracy works on the principle that the views of the majority get preference. This is fine, as long as the views of the minority are permitted, and heard – and not dismissed because the consensus is different. I like the observation of Michael Crichton, who said that “historically the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled”.

Not long ago a Tory MP with views on covid vaccinations that do not accord with those of most of us expressed these views in Parliament, as he is entitled to do. I am glad he did. I would like to hear as wide a variety of views on key issues as possible. But he was immediately dumped on from a great height by people determined he should not be heard, including the Prime Minister.

He was accused of being anti-Semitic because he said the covid vaccine was “the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust”. This may not have been a wise thing to say, but it is in no way anti-Semitic. He was not denying the Holocaust. He was not belittling the Holocaust. Quite the contrary. He was trying to emphasise what he believed to be an extreme danger to people in general.

We may or may not agree with him. But the fact that senior politicians and others felt they had to misrepresent him in this way is in fact quite worrying, and would make any independent-minded person think he might have been saying something that we weren’t supposed to hear. What better way to “gag” him than to denigrate him, present him as worthless and make people feel guilty for listening to him?

This particular MP is clearly no longer part of the gang. Should we be worried? Yes, I believe we should. We could be next. 

Exit, pursued by Christmas

It has been the strangest of Christmases. My brother Andrew, who had a disrupted life and was never at peace, is at peace now. He died suddenly of choking, followed by cardiac arrest, on December 23.

He is in a much better place. This is not to say that the Coventry care home where has been for nearly ten years was a bad place: on the contrary, it was excellent, and the staff were lovely – distraught when he died at the age of 74. 

Over the years Andrew has been in many different places, some better than others. He was a “miracle” baby – the first to survive an after-birth operation to correct obstructions in the lower abdomen. But as a result he had many other difficulties – repeated bilious attacks as a child, general fearfulness and other mental and emotional problems. He was hard to live with. He undoubtedly found us had to live with.

He went to school and even had jobs for a while, but we believe he was assaulted on a couple of occasions. Our father had died when he was seven, and eventually he was too much for my mother to handle, and in his late teens he went to live with a psychologist friend in Coventry. 

Andrew Jonathan Lenton, at Winterton in 2009

He has been in Coventry ever since. When the friend died, in the  early 1990s, he moved into a series of different situations. He tried living in sheltered housing, but called the emergency service so often that he had to move to where he could be looked after. 

He had several encounters with the police, involving behaviour dangerous to himself or others. There was no intent: he simply did not make connections. On one occasion he was brought home after being found cycling on a motorway. 

He said he wanted to remain in Coventry after our mother died in 1994; so he did. Together with our other brother, Phil, I visited him quite often, and he stayed with us in Norwich on many occasions. I think he enjoyed this: it was quite hard to tell. 

I took him on holiday once, to Northumberland, but this was so out of his routine that he could not cope. I had to take him home halfway through, which left me with three days alone in Northumberland. It was May, and unseasonably warm. 

He has had several severe physical and mental relapses which landed him in hospital, either in Coventry or Warwick. Coming to Norwich gradually became impossible, though the care he received at Minster Lodge in Coventry stabilised him for a longish period up to his death.

In his happier moments he loved walking, watching construction workers and, for quite a long time, cycling. He believed in God, despite what some may consider a very raw deal in life. He was good-looking and had an infectious smile, as well as a genuine sense of humour. With some exceptions, he liked people. He was not stupid, but he forgot a lot.

We won’t forget him.

Please ask about my background, if you can bear it

I am unlikely to be invited to upmarket functions. But if I were, and if, while minding my own business, I was approached by someone – a lady-in-waiting, say – who inquired about my name, background and family history, I should be delighted. 

The conversation would probably not last long, because none of the information likely to be gleaned would be very interesting. In fact, I might get annoyed at being treated in such a cursory manner and tweet about it afterwards. But probably not.

True, I was born in Earlham Hall, Norwich, but that’s only because it was being used as a maternity home just after the war. The second world war, since you ask. 

The rest of my family history its less impressive. The words “agricultural” and “labourer” appear often, and my paternal grandfather’s line comes down to us from just outside Peterborough – a hamlet called Norman Cross, which was largely swallowed up when the A1 in that area became a motorway.

His mother’s name was Archer, and she came from Harlestone, near Northampton and close to the Spencer pile at Althorp. In fact her parents’ gravestone at Harlestone is suspiciously swish: could there be a connection? You tell me. Please.

My father’s mother, on the other hand, came from Sheffield, which is obviously more exciting. Her name was Booth, and she claimed to be related to the founder of the Salvation Army, which I suppose is possible, though not traceable.

I could go on, but perhaps the lady-in-waiting would be more interested in my recent history. Between the ages of five and 11 I lived in Coventry, but we returned to Norwich after my father died. 

I can remember a great deal about what Norwich was like in those days – the livestock walking down Ber Street to the cattle market just below the Castle; the ships loading and unloading at the mills on King Street, where my brother worked for a while; the railway goods yard off Grove Road; the slums replaced by Rouen Road; and Prospect House, where I would later work on the Eastern Daily Press, now sadly in reduced circumstances.

What is the same? Certainly not St Stephen’s, which was a bustling street full of cars, cycles and pedestrians. But the Market, the Castle, the stunning Cathedral and the relatively new City Hall (where I also worked) look very similar. 

By now the lady-in-waiting is receding into the far reaches of the room, smiling in a distant sort of way.

Church name change comes as a shock

Part of my childhood – and indeed a good chunk of my adulthood – has been wiped from the map of Norwich. Not, for once, by the council shutting yet another road, but by a simple name change. 

Surrey Chapel, the free church whose most recent location is within a stone’s throw of Anglia Square, has changed its name to CityGates Church, arguing that the old name doesn’t mean much to Norwich citizens nowadays.

Maybe. It means a lot to me, though. I was brought up there, was baptised there, and for a while as a teenager operated the rather stone-age sound system. My parents were married there. With my friend David Green I helped to found the football team which played twice yearly against Park Church and eventually mushroomed into the now vibrant Norwich Christian Football League.

I used to walk home my first girl friend from Surrey Chapel – quite a long walk, but worth it. Sadly she died a couple of weeks ago; she lived in North-East Norfolk, an even longer walk.

Why Surrey Chapel? Largely because it was situated just off Surrey Street near the centre of the city, and was accessible via Chapel Loke, along which it was just possible to drive a car. Maybe it still is. It was eventually crowded out, first by the ugly Norfolk Tower, which might have been built deliberately to obscure it, and then by the construction of the John Lewis car park, which necessitated its demolition.

As a result the church congregation moved to Botolph Street, where I preached on one occasion, just after my mother died. They didn’t ask me back.

Oddly my church is now St Augustine’s, within a couple of hundred yards of the CityGates building.  

Surrey Chapel was founded in 1854 by Robert Govett, an Anglican who had one or two problems with Church of England ideas at the time. He was a prolific evangelical author, as was his successor, D M Panton. Their graves can be found in the Rosary Cemetery off Rosary Road, as can that of their most famous successor, David Middleton, a basically shy man whose preaching from the 1960s onwards was compelling. He introduced me to Lord of the Rings, among other things.

It’s a strange experience to walk through the graves at the top of the Rosary and see that so many of them are former Surrey Chapel members – people I can picture very easily but who slipped away while my attention was distracted.

I guess I can understand the name change. But I wonder what they think.

The problem with buses and, in some cases, coyotes

The clocks are about to go back to where they came from, the nights are drawing well in, and several other similar cliches will be employed over the next few days to convey that summer has well and truly disappeared, and winter is out there, just waiting to pounce, like the coyotes I saw from a kitchen window in Ontario earlier this month.

It is at times like this that public transport, unlike coyotes, should be brought under the microscope. What do we in the UK need from it, and does it work for everyone?

Take buses. This is what we are urged to do, and in the summer months it is often quite pleasant to hang around bus stops in the sun, with nothing much to do, waiting for a bus to turn up. Not so much fun when the temperature drops, and we shiver in the scant protection afford by a pole and (if you’re lucky) a bit of a roof. That’s if your local council hasn’t mislaid the roof.

We usually walk into the city, but sometimes a bus becomes necessary. The other day my wife had a routine appointment at the hospital and, in view of the difficulty of parking a horse and buggy there, decided to take a bus from the station, just  round the corner from where we live.

She waited for a long time – well beyond what was advertised – and in the end, concerned about missing the appointment, went over and took a black cab. This was, as you might imagine, hugely more expensive. 

Someone once said that a bus is something that takes you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be. In other words you have to walk at each end, and the attraction of that decreases when there is ice on the pavement and rain is sleeting down.

So in those circumstance, as in most others, it’s good if the bus is on time – and if you have an appointment (and who doesn’t?) it’s important that it makes good time too. Last weekend I and two others caught a bus at the university to travel to the centre of Norwich. I wish I’d timed how long it took.

It waited for an eternity at the university while most of the student enrolment climbed on board – many of them not in sight when the bus pulled up. The bus was then extremely late, which meant that at every stop a large congregation of assorted people wanted to get on. It was clearly a kind of Tardis, because everyone did get on, but it took an inordinate time for them to do so. I don’t know, some of them may have been unfamiliar with the payment system…

Many moons later we reached the centre of Norwich. Fortunately, it was a lovely day; so we got off. Immediately behind us, another bus on the same route pulled in.

It reminded me a bit of the last time I got a bus from the university, on a slightly different route. It seemed to find every speed bump and pothole in existence – most of them kindly provided by a deluded council – and I ended up feeling so battered and bruised that I got off at Orford Place instead of going on to the rail station as I had intended. If it had been winter…

I am in my mid-to-late 70s but in reasonably good condition through no fault of my own. I would imagine most people of my age or older (and many much younger) would have been in considerable pain from such an experience. Not much encouragement to travel by bus. And then there’s the coyotes. 

To be fair,  I have been on bus journeys that were fast, comfortable and more or less on time. Computer models predict that this can happen. But do you want to take the chance?

Home, home, home and away

I have a new home. By “home” I don’t mean a house I own or rent, but an area where  I feel at home, I know where I am and am familiar enough with the immediate area to be comfortable.

One of these “homes” of course is my actual home in Norwich, UK, that fine city which traps anyone who studies at the University of East Anglia and doesn’t let them leave. At least, not for long.

That wasn’t how it got me. I was fortunate enough to be born there, in the eminent setting of Earlham Hall. I am not remotely upper class: it was serving as a post-war maternity home at the time. Now it’s part of the aforementioned UEA – the School of Law, in fact. Odd, Holmes.

Norwich is fine. It has a ludicrous council, but what city hasn’t? It survives being dug up and put back together again in a hamfisted way that makes living more difficult. But that’s life. 

My second home was Coventry. I spent five or six years of my childhood there until my father died and we returned to Norwich. My brother Andrew still lives in Coventry; so I visit quite often. My third home was London, bits of which I got to know well: Stamford Hill and Winchmore HIll, for example, and Acton (no hill), where I worked for a while.

My next home was Yelverton, a village just outside Norwich, where I spent 12 years, and where my son grew up. Then it was Norwich again.

These were all “real” homes. But there were also places that I visited often and knew intimately. One was North Walsham, where my wife grew up, and another Blakeney, a favourite holiday haunt. Both are in Norfolk. I know most of Norfolk pretty well, because I worked on the local newspaper, and had to.

Outside Norfolk  there is Buxton in Derbyshire, where we stay once a year, and Corwen in North Wales, where my wife’s cousins live. Many happy times were had in both those beautiful places. 

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, next to Balmoral and in the middle of some stunning scenery, is irresistible – so irresistible in fact that we have stayed there almost every year for the last 30 years (pandemic permitting). A real home, that one.

Which bring us almost to the point of my opening paragraph. Which is quite soon, for me.

One other place that has become home for me is in Ontario, Canada, a few miles north of Toronto, where we have spent time over the years with old friends. Well, we’re all old now. Canada for me is all space, relaxation and walking. A lot of walking. 

And now… and now… we’re in Canada again, at the home of our son and his wife – who also happens to be the daughter of our old friends. In the space of a few days we have explored the neighbourhood, visited key points – the mall, an excellent restaurant, a fromagerie, farmers’ and antiques markets and Canadian Tire. Just for the smell.

Yes, it’s home. We’ve done the walks. We know where we are. This may be bad news for them if they wanted a quiet life, but it’s good news for us.

Conjecture at Ten is a big turn-off

Like many people, I stopped watching the news on television. Not because I was getting it off TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but initially because if I saw one more scientist standing at a podium next to the Prime Minister, I was likely to scream and race from the room. And later, because I came to realise that TV news wasn’t news anyway. It was prediction, with a bit of walking about.

This became very evident with the advent of a new Prime Minister. Up to the moment when the results were in, there was a great deal of discussion on the “news” about how many votes she might win by (if she won at all), and what she might then do; there was conjecture about who would be in her Cabinet, what  their jobs might be and what people might think.

What people might think is a big issue, apparently. Every now and then, a TV news reporter will wander off to somewhere remote, like Salford, and find someone who thinks that chaos is looming, either from Tory policies, energy bills, climate change or inflation. They never seem to find anyone who has a life remotely like mine, but I guess that’s my fault.

And it’s not news! We have a largish, overpopulated country. Surely something is happening somewhere that would be of interest. Trends and statistics are not news, because they can be easily twisted. What actually happens is news. 

Eventually Liz Truss reveals who is in her Cabinet: we want to know who they are, and a bit about them. But what we get is acres of meaningless conjecture about how they might work together and what policies they might pursue. Never mind that in a few hours we will be told all that. 

“And now let’s go back to our top story.” Which will be a newsreader standing outside Buckingham Palace, or Downing Street, or somewhere else where they don’t need to be, offering conjecture about what might happen in a few minutes time.

And then there’s the weather forecast. That’s often wrong too.

** It’s ironic that as I finished writing this, the Queen’s death was announced, and real news took over. If I said that it was tremendously sad, and her faith and service would be sorely missed, I would simply be saying what everyone else has said. Nevertheless, I say it. She took the throne when I was seven, and so I remember no other monarch. She was a truly amazing woman. The next few days are going to seem extremely odd.