Writing Portfolio


A pub called Dick

Pub closures are national news, with dozens of them apparently closing each week. There was even a programme about the decline of the pub on Radio Four quite recently. Here in East Finchley, time was called on the Dick Turpin on Long Lane last year and it is currently awaiting demolition. I can’t really say too much about what it was like as a pub – I only went there once and I was the only customer in the place. But it’s always sad to see a pub go to the wall.

This particular one, which gets a mention in the excellent Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names by Jacqueline Simpson, was named after the infamous eighteenth-century highwayman (c.1705-1739), who is one of those figures from English history about whom much of what we think we know is more legend than fact. For example, the story of his 200-mile ride from Kent to York to establish an alibi first appeared in a novel written almost a century after his death, and was originally attributed to another highwayman who died two decades before he was born.

Turpin’s supposed associations with East Finchley – which is presumably what led to the pub getting its name – are also a case in point.

In Turpin’s day, the area was known as Finchley Common and was a popular haunt of highwaymen eager to relieve travellers on the Great North Road of their possessions. Despite the fact that a large tree by the side of the road was known locally as ‘Turpin’s Oak’ (for many years, it stood on the corner of the High Road and Oak Lane), the man himself is not known to have committed any of his crimes in the vicinity of modern-day East Finchley. Before he moved up north, Epping Forest was more his kind of territory.

But local Turpin legends persist here in North London. Not far from East Finchley is a very old pub called the Spaniards Inn, which sits at the top of Hampstead Heath and claims to be the building in which he was born, although the pub’s website hedges its bets by stating that he was “apparently born here”. Sadly, this particular legend also has little basis in fact, as all historical evidence says that he was actually born in Hempstead in Essex. In a pub, admittedly. They got that bit right.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there would appear to be many pubs that claim a Turpin connection, and no doubt quite a few of those are somewhat tenuous. The last word here should go to the historian James Sharpe, who wrote a biography of Turpin a few years ago and stated that “if all their claims were true, the career of England’s most famous highwayman would have been passed in a combination of perpetual motion and a permanent alcoholic haze.”


An unexpected sighting in the City

It really is the case with birdwatching that you never know what’s going to show up at any given time. It’s possible to see birds in the most unusual of places, provided of course that you look. Since I started a new job in the City a couple of months ago, casual birdwatching opportunities near my place of work have been limited, especially when compared to my previous job in Hendon which happened to be near a park where bird life was, if not abundant, at least varied – I could usually count on seeing at least half-a-dozen different species during my lunch break. Now, it’s usually a case of lots of pigeons and (if you’re lucky) the odd starling.

But this morning I saw something out of the ordinary on my walk between the Tube station and the office. This usually takes me through the churchyard of the wonderfully-named St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, where I saw something small moving in one of the trees. It was too small to be a blue tit, and not brown enough to be a wren – more greenish-grey. Luckily for me, it flitted from branch to branch for long enough for me to identify it as a goldcrest – one of the smallest birds you can see in this country, and not something I would’ve expected to see in the middle of London.

Then it flew off, and I continued on my way to work with a smile.


The Rollerblade King of Mzuzu

During my African journey back in 2005, an excursion to find the nearest cash machine led to an interesting encounter on the streets of a Malawian town…

Staying at the Mayoka Village backpacker lodge at Nkhata Bay overlooking Lake Malawi was a fun and relaxing experience during my African odyssey. The place was very laid-back, the food good and the staff and villagers were friendly; one of the local chiefs even had a stall by the bar where he sold sweets in the evening. I spent my days wandering around the town and snorkelling in the lake while I waited for the weekly Lake Malawi ferry that would take me further south. However, after a couple of days I realised (not that this was too difficult to work out) that Nkhata Bay possessed virtually nothing by way of money-changing facilities or cash machines – there wasn’t even a bank where I could change my travellers’ cheques. 

The nearest place with a bank was the city of Mzuzu, the regional capital which was 30 miles away. I’d passed through there on my way to Nkhata Bay and hadn’t thought to get some cash from an ATM while waiting for the minibus to leave (naively, I’d assumed there’d be one in Nkhata Bay), and being short of ready cash I decided that my only option was to retrace my footsteps, head back to Mzuzu and find a bank. Not feeling much like doing this on my own if I could help it, and suspecting that I wasn’t the only backpacker at Mayoka Village in this situation, I happened to mention this to some of the others, and as a result I found myself accompanied for this day-trip by Peter, a South African who was also staying in the main dorm. I’d have preferred one of the girls, but there you go.

Once we’d got as far as what passed for the High Street in Nkhata Bay, we found a pick-up truck heading ‘our’ way. If nothing else, we reckoned that the fresh air would do us some good (we were both rather hungover that morning). It took the truck half an hour to fill up enough for the driver to decide that it was worth going – but only as far as the first police checkpoint on the road out of town, where he stopped to pick up even more passengers and some livestock. When we eventually set off from the checkpoint, the rather motley (human) cargo included a priest and five of his female ‘followers’, carrying among other things a large wooden collection-box which they thankfully didn’t pass around, and several mothers with young children. One of these was sitting directly in my line of vision, which meant that when the inevitable breast-feeding routine started I had an unobstructed view of what is a common sight on African public transport.

Thanks to numerous stops, it took over two hours for us to cover around 30 miles. There is nothing unusual in this as far as Africa is concerned, and as far as major African towns go there is nothing remarkable about Mzuzu. In fact, this excursion of ours would not have warranted a mention at all were it not for what happened next.

The minute we disembarked in Mzuzu, one of the street-traders approached us with, of all things, a pair of rollerblades. New-looking rollerblades. This did not interest me in the slightest – it’s not my sort of thing, they looked far too heavy for my backpack and in any case all I wanted to do was find the banks and maybe find an Internet café so that I could check my e-mails for the first time since Zanzibar. I made to move off, but I had reckoned without Peter.

'Mate, have you got a thousand kwacha you could lend me?’ In less than a minute, he had commenced negotiations for the rollerblades, knocked the asking price down to 2,000 kwacha and then realised that he didn’t have that sort of money on him. Luckily for him I was able to make up the difference with what money I had left – well, we were there to get some money, so it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t soon be in a position to pay me back.  On the way to the banks, Peter explained that these rollerblades were more or less brand-new, and back in South Africa he’d have had to pay the rand equivalent of a few hundred pounds for them; here, in Mzuzu of all places, he’d got them for less than a tenner. Jointly, we decided that speculating on where the street-trader had managed to find a pair of almost-new rollerblades wouldn’t get us anywhere apart from assuming that Peter had purchased stolen goods. More to the point, so pleased was he with his new purchase that he soon put the ’blades on and set off down the roads of Mzuzu, which unlike the road from Nkhata Bay were sealed. He had clearly done a lot of rollerblading before.

Well, we did what we’d gone to Mzuzu for – at the bank we both took out enough ready cash to tide us through the couple of weeks, and subsequently found an Internet café where, to my despair, Hotmail proved impossible to access. Our business done, we set off back to the bus-station, myself on foot and Peter on his new ’blades, performing all manner of stunts on the thankfully not-very-busy roads as he went. I’m no rollerblading expert, but I could see that he was good.

It was by a garage that I first noticed small gangs of children laughing and running after him along the street, and by the time we got to within two streets of the bus-station Peter had amassed a ‘following’ which amounted to well over a hundred people. He performed some sort of stunt in a driveway which involved a hand-stand (told you he was good) before getting himself ‘dragged’ along the road by a passing truck. Then, with his new fans in hot pursuit, he entered the bus-station itself, where his various rollerblade tricks almost bought the place to a standstill. Mzuzu had probably never seen anything like it before.

After this, the matatu ride back to Nkhata Bay was somewhat anti-climactic, though Peter, buoyed up with his success and still on a bit of an adrenalin high, achieved the hitherto impossible by getting one of the many street-traders to get a bottle of ‘green’ (local slang for Carlsberg beer) for him to drink when we stopped at a village on the way back. On reflection, my only regret about the whole affair was that I hadn’t taken my camera with me, so sadly no photographic evidence of the Rollerblade King of Mzuzu exists.


American paratroopers, French wine and a British spy: Three books about the Second World War

I have always been fascinated by the Second World War, from visits to the Normandy landing beaches as a schoolboy and hearing my grandfather tell me about his experiences in the Navy to using the royalist Yugoslav resistance as a dissertation subject, diving to the wreck of a British destroyer off the coast of Malta and undertaking a solo excursion to El Alamein when I was backpacking in Egypt.

Oh, and reading a lot of books.

Recently, I’ve read three more books that have shed further light on different aspects of the war.

I’d seen the TV series, of course, so I reckoned I knew what to expect when I found a copy of Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose in a local charity shop. It follows the officers and men of an American paratroop company – Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division – from their training in Georgia to the capture of Berchtesgaden, via the horrors of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.

It turns out I did not know the whole story, because as is the case with many books that are the inspiration for a film or TV adaptation you get so much more from the book. Ambrose succeeds in taking the reader into the minds of a group of seemingly ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers (the book is based on extensive interviews with the veterans themselves). One feels with them the fear, the pain and above all the intense cold. In addition, Ambrose does a good job of providing the context for each of the battles before taking us into said battles from the soldiers’ perspective.

I have one quibble. Obviously this is a book about the men in one (American) unit and their war experiences, but I find myself shaking my head every time they find themselves working with British troops as these are invariably portrayed as bunch of poorly-trained bunglers. In this context, I note that Ambrose has also written a book about the British capture of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day. Having visited Pegasus Bridge myself, I’d like to give this one a go but I wonder how the men of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry will fare at the hands of this author.

Towards the end of the war, Easy Company and the rest of the 101st Airborne captured Hitler’s mountain stronghold of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, which contained (among other things) more Nazi souvenirs that you could shake a swagger-stick at, several staff cars that the soldiers were understandably quick to take for test-drives and enough booze to sink several battleships. That’s where my next war book begins.

The book starts at the end of the war, when one Sergeant de Nonencourt of the French Army found himself in Berchtesgaden alongside the Americans. There, he and his men helped to ‘liberate’ many bottles of the finest champagne that the Nazis had been hoarding. Quite incredibly, Sergeant de Nonencourt was not only from the Champagne region, but his family was (and still is) in the champagne business and he had witnessed the Germans carrying away those same bottles back in 1940.

Thus begins Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, a book which tells the wartime story of ‘France’s greatest treasure’ – her wine.It’s an unusual angle, but the Kladstrups succeed in presenting an informative, poignant and highly readable account of how France, with particular emphasis on the French wine industry, coped with the German occupation. Hitler’s teetotalism notwithstanding, many Germans from ordinary soldiers to high-ranking Nazi officials regarded the wine as the best of the spoils of war, and the Wehrmacht requisitioned tens of thousands of bottles to be sent back to Germany. This book is the story of how the vintners of France reacted to this.

There are tales of heroism, ingenuity, black humour, resistance and (it has to be said) a few actions which verge on collaboration – be it with either the Vichy regime or with the Germans. Some vintners, like the owners of Moët & Chandon, engaged in acts of outright resistance whenever they could, while others resisted in more passive ways, such as lying about yields and relabeling inferior vintages to fool the Germans into thinking they were being given the best bottles (which were hidden in walled-up parts of the cellars). Ultimately, it is the extraordinary stories of individuals that shine through, as ordinary people risked their lives and the lives of their families to save something that they believed, with considerable justification, to be worth saving. As such, the wine at times almost becomes a metaphor for France itself.

If you are interested in the war, or interested in wine, I would recommend that you read this book.

The final war book is Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, which describes the adventures of a lone, rogue Englishman – wartime spy Eddie Chapman.

A hardened if rather unsuccessful criminal, Chapman found himself in a Jersey prison cell when the Germans invaded the Channel Islands. He saw volunteering to spy for Germany as a way of getting back to Britain, where he planned to turn himself in and offer to send false information to German intelligence.

What follows is a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would’ve been denounced as far-fetched if it were the plot of a novel as this unlikeliest of heroes is trained (and wined and dined) by the Germans, survives a parachute drop into East Anglia, turns himself in and, with the full backing of MI5 (who already knew about his mission thanks to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park), embarks on a life of double-cross and deception as he passes false information to German intelligence. MI5 even fakes a sabotage attack on the De Havilland factory in Hatfield at one point to convince the Germans that Chapman is still loyal to the Third Reich.

Although as suspicious of Chapman as his MI5 handlers were (rightly so, given that the man himself even admitted that ordinary people shouldn’t trust men like him), Macintyre has written a highly enjoyable biography which shines a light onto both a fascinating if very disreputable man who for all his faults must’ve had nerves and other body parts of solid steel, and the murky world of wartime intelligence.

It so happens that I was working in Hendon when I read this book, and I noted with interest that Chapman lived there with his MI5 handlers while he was transmitting false information to Germany. A quick perusal of the A-Z told me where the road in question could be found, and naturally I went to take a look. Well, let me tell you that there’s no evidence that the house where he lived was ever an MI5 safe-house. Not that I was really expecting any, of course. But, such is my interest in the war, I couldn’t resist going along to take a look and make sure.