‘Keeping Sane in an Insane World’. Pt. 2 : British Humour

Without Private Eye, which is published fortnightly, I would not have made it through Brexit, and it continues to provide solace for me now, as it has done for years.  It is wickedly funny.

Its articles, comments, jokes and cartoons are superlative, and its house-style follows  in the glorious tradition of satirical humour that goes back to the eighteenth century. To the work of Hogarth, Thomas Cruickshank and James Gilray.

I truly feel that we live in a second ‘golden age’ of cartoonists, shown in the work of the outstanding  Steve Bell, who lives in Brighton, Martin Rowson, Ben Jennings, Christian Adams, Morten Morland and Chris Riddell. At times, I feel they are as great, and almost surpass, the legendary Gerald Scarfe.

As I worked for Mel Calman and ran his ‘Workshop’ gallery in 1970-72, I feel I know a little about the art of the cartoonist.  I met and sold the work of Bill Tidy, Patrick Garland, Hector Breeze, and many others.   It is good to know that there is a Political Cartoon cafe and Art Gallery now in Putney.  Also, the British Cartoon Archive is kept at the University of Kent.

Apart from our stupendous cartoonists, radio and TV programmes such as Dead Ringers, and The Now Show  are unmissable, as indeed is the hilarious Spitting Image on TV.  How would we have survived the Thatcher Era without it? And it is about to return to our screens soon. It is badly needed.

My love of satire goes back to the early Sixties, when I was locked away studying for my ‘A’ Levels.  Truly, the highlight of my week was Saturday’s That Was The Week That Was.

I never missed a single show, and was sad when it ended.

Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Cleese, and all the Pythons were my comedy Gods in these years, as was the magnificent Tony Hancock.  And, further back in my youth, I loved the Goons.

And classics such as Fawlty Towers, and, dare I mention him Mr Bean, so beloved by the foreign students that I used to teach. I can still quote large chunks of these programmes by heart.

There are so many brilliant  journalists to cheer us up these days:  Stewart Lee, John Crace, Marina Hyde , and comedians such as Ricky Gervais, whom I have met, and Russell Brand. And too many talented young stand-ups at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe festivals to mention.

James Gillray, whose cartoons lampooned George 1V ( the Prince Regent) and are now displayed in Brighton Pavilion, would have chuckled at the outrageous portrayal of Prince Charles by Harry Enfield in the spoof satirical show The Windsors on Channel 4 now ( another unmissable highlight of my week nowadays!).

This is just a brief hommage to my own personal favourite satirists and comedians. There are many others that I have not mentioned.  Chapeau to  them all, and the joy and laughter that they bring.








‘Keeping Sane in an Insane World’ : My simple personal strategies for survival. No. 1 My Love of Birds.

Every morning I wake to the sound of birdsong.  A flock of house sparrows are nesting in the jasmine that grows around my cottage door in the semi-rural village where I live.

Their music is something I have longed, for many years ,to hear.  There’s no traffic noise at all, so for around ten minutes, before I get out of bed, I allow the pure, clear notes to filter through my ears into my consciousness. It is the most perfect form of meditation  I know.  And the gratitude that I feel for this sound is immeasurable. I realise how fortunate I am to be able to live here.

For most of my life I have lived in cities. Most recently, I lived  for thirty-five years in a house that was overshadowed by a massive tower block ,and, in a street that  was lined on both sides by cars.

Yet, when I was a child, from the age of six to eleven, I lived in deep countryside, again in a cottage surrounded by birds. In this case, tall elms filled with rookeries. I even had a pet bird – a rook – that I fed and looked after, as he had a broken wing. I feel that I  have come home at last.

Birds now fill my days again.  From my kitchen window, I look out onto a gardenscape full of birdlife.  My bird feeders attract several blue tits, dunnocks, sparrows, a glossy blackbird, and  the occasional starling. There is a great deal of activity, especially from the dunnocks.

Now that all my cats have gone, a rotund robin owns the whole garden and is ubiquitous, flying from tree to tree and bush to bush.

My neighbour, too, has many more extravagantly filled bird feeders than I do, which helps to attract even more birds such as collared doves, wood pigeons, and magpies. To my astonishment, I even saw a raptor ( a buzzard?)  in one of his apple trees last summer, and  a pair of jackdaws visit me on the roof  outside my study window, which has a distant view of the sea. Seagulls nest in my chimney stack every year, and their offspring invariably fall into the neighbourhood gardens,or my own, and have to be taken to the nearby wildlife sanctuary or deposited safely onto the beach.  A lone chaffinch and a colourful jay even turned up recently ! Two birds that I had never seen up close before.

Watching and loving these birds has become a passion of mine.

In the village, there are also two nesting grey herons that roost locally, and can be seen at the village pond.  We also have cormorants, herring gulls and terns on the coast.  And further out in the countryside there are reservoirs and nature reserves with more birds to watch from hides.

But the most joyous sight locally are the skylarks that nest at the local nature reserve, high on Beacon Hill five minutes from my home.  There’s a small stable population there and, as early as February, they can be seen nesting.  In the same vicinity there are also migrant whitethroats and goldfinches, but I have yet to see them.  In late summer the hill is filled with swifts feeding on the insect-dense air before they leave for Africa, and I  have also seen the occasional kestrel here, too, hunting for prey in late autumn and early winter.

The numbers are down for so many birds, sadly, so I cherish the ones that I see every day, and have let my garden grow wild, so that a variety of insects and caterpillars can thrive in order for the birds to feed on them.  It helps to be pro-active in these frightening times of climate emergency,  and to be able to protect our environment a little even in a small country garden.

Apart from my invaluable RSPB bird manual, I have enjoyed reading This Birding Life by Stephen Moss, the writer of  Birdwatch  in  The Guardian.  Also, the riveting  H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, and A Single Swallow, by Horatio Clare. It was sensational to read that the critically endangered turtle dove has been brought back from the brink by the hard work and dedication of Isabella Tree at Knepp, as described in her book Wilding.

For so many of us, the beauty of birds offers solace, tranquillity and hope in difficult times.



















Such an auspicious date.  The start of a new decade.

And yet is has begun with horrific bushfires raging in Australia ; and the devastating prospect that  a BILLION wild animals, reptiles, insects and birds – such abundant wildlife – have all perished in these infernos.

More than 25,000 koalas – gone. Already ‘vulnerable’ to extinction. Now ‘critically endangered’.Only 5 % of koalas remain.

‘Going Down With the Ship’. Post scriptum.

There are several books  relating to our environmental crisis that I have read; and some that I cannot bear to read.

‘Wilding ‘ by Isabella Tree brought great hope and solace to me,especially because I learned about the reintroduction of critically endangered turtle doves into the Knepp estate.

‘The Garden Jungle’, ‘Or Gardening to Save the Planet’, by Prof.Dave Goulson, also brought a means of being proactive on an individual scale by encouraging the  re-wilding  my garden, which I have done.

I recently met and spoke to Matt ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ Haig at a Green Party gathering in Brighton, and he said that we must’nt sink into despair about the climate emergency, but ‘do our bit’ and be as positive and proactive as possible.  Certainly, one gains a little bit more control by rewilding a green space, and enjoying seeing an insect-dense environment emerging.

I have just installed a wooden insect bee house in my garden. It’s a very pretty object, and smells of cedarwood.

‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, by David Wallace Wells, has been required reading, and it is an absolutely terrifying view of the future.

Other books that I may one day read are: ‘Losing Earth: the Decade we Could’ve Stopped Global Warming’ by Nathaniel Rich,which  is regarded as significant as Silent Spring was in 1962.

But I am not emotionally strong enough to read it yet. ‘On Fire’, by Naomi Klein, and ‘There is No Planet B‘ by Mike Berners Lee are both on my reading list as well.

Meanwhile, I try not to despair too much, and hope against hope that more action is taken to save our  precious, exquisite planet in the coming years.

But  I am not optimistic.





‘The Sandison/Stirling connection’.

There  the parallels between the two women end.  Apart from the fact that they both enjoyed smoking cigarettes ( my mother managed to give up in her forties), their lives were quite different.

Monica made a long, successful and happy marriage to her husband, Peter Raban, a rural dean in the Church of England, and gave birth to four healthy sons: Jonathan, Colin, William and Dominic, and enjoyed the company of her grandchildren.  In fact, she longed for them.  Alex, born in 1973, was her first longed-for grandchild, but she was denied any access to him by his father, Jonathan, who would not allow her to be in any kind of contact with him.  This caused her, and myself, immeasureable pain, and robbed Alex of the chance to meet this remarkable woman.

I first met Monica in 1968, and liked her immensely. She was warm , kind and feminine, with a lovely, gentle voice.  She was also politically  left-wing, with a strongly- developed  social conscience, honed possibly from her exposure to poverty in the working-class area of Millbrook, near Southampton, where her husband was based.

We kept in touch, by telephone, over the years, and she was always supportive towards me and interested in Alexander’s development.  We lost contact towards her later years, because she left her house in  Market Harborough to go into a care home.

I’m told that shortly before she died she mentioned the existence of her first grandson – Alex – to her youngest son, Dominic.

Marjorie was a different kettle of fish to Monica.

Her marriage to my father in 1939 sadly didn’t last.  Like Monica, who was separated throughout the war from Peter, my mother, too, had to reconnect with my father in 1945, after the war ended.  I was born in that year, and the marriage struggled on until about 1950, when my mother finally left.  My father , unusually, obtained full custody of me in their divorce.

How interesting that these two very vibrant and beautiful women are now brought together in my son’s DNA profile. They live on in him.

I admired them both for their strength, poise and resilience.

Monica was a doctor’s daughter; Marjorie the daughter of an architectural draughtsman.

They both had style and taste.  Both were well-mannered, and ‘bien elevee’. ‘ Alpha -grandmothers ”that Alex can be proud of, and whose genes continue to power on in their great- grandchildren.

I see Monica’s beauty in the delicate features of my grand-daughter, Esther, (Alex’s 12-year-old daughter), and Marjorie’s intelligence and common-sense in Esther’s high academic and creative achievements.

Both women have contributed so many gifts to her; and she is more than worthy of them both.


‘The Sandison/Stirling connection’.

Recently, my son, Alexander, took a DNA Ancestry test . There are several of these kits on the market right now, I believe.  He paid in the region of £50 for it,  and all that was required was for him to send a swab of saliva off to be tested.

The results are truly fascinating and illuminating.

On a map of the UK and Europe, his ancestry was very clearly explained, and the range was interestingly wide and well-defined.  It extended from the far north of Scotland from the Orkneys and Shetland and other parts of Scotland and northern England across to Denmark, with a sprinkling of activity in the Channel Islands and various  parts of Europe, including Belgium and Switzerland.  France and Germany weren’t included.

Two family names stood out: Sandison and Stirling.

And the test linked him to putative  third or fourth cousins who share the same family tree/ lineage.  Obviously, these individuals have also taken the same test, and are part of a bank of genetic material that links them together.

In a way, Alexander had leap-frogged a generation directly back to his two grandmothers: Monica Sandison ( b. 1918) – his father’s mother, and Marjorie Stirling (b. 1918). My mother.

Both women were of Scottish origin.  Monica hailed from the Shetlands; my mother from Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Both were lively, hardy,intelligent, very slender, slight women, who lived on until their nineties.  Monica died at 96, I believe, and my mother lived on until a few weeks short of her 99th birthday. They were clever.  My mother left school at 14, but was in the top three of every class for every subject: Maths English, French, History – and so on while she was at Hill Head High School in Glasgow; Monica was creative and imaginative, and wrote short stories that were published in women’s magazines.













‘Going down with the Ship’ cont.

By 1979, I had travelled to Australia and lived in Paris, teaching English firstly to ‘migrants’ in Sydney, and then to executives and businessmen in Paris.

I had thought that the TEFL  qualification I had received from International House in London, shortly after my son’s birth in 1973, was to be  only a temporary measure, to be used abroad.

But, when I decided to settle in Brighton, I found that there were many language schools here, looking for teachers. The hours and holidays fitted in perfectly with my son’s schooling.

During this time, I had joined both ‘Friends of the Earth’ and ‘Greenpeace’, both founded in 1969,  and my interest in environmental matters was stronger than ever.  I am a member of both to this day.

The students I taught were a mixed bag : lots of Swiss-Germans, a handful of Japanese and Brazilians, students from Saudi Arabia, Libya and the Yemen, and many Iranians ( however,they all vanished after the 1979 Revolution, and many language schools closed as a result ).

It was to these students and in these schools that I began to teach these young people, mostly teenagers, about ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. It was a useful teaching method and tool for discussion in class.

I would draw a pie-chart on the whiteboard showing all the factors that contributed to a rise in global temperature.  I remember being fascinated to see that nearly a quarter of all emissions came from animal-created methane. Sperm-like squiggles showed CO2  going up into the atmosphere.

The students were fascinated. It was their first exposure to this phenomenon and they thanked me for telling them about it.  Many would come up to me and say:’ When I go back to my country, I am going to study this subject more’.  They were all concerned.

Incidentally, I would sometimes write ‘CHINA’ on the board, and suggest the possibility  that  China might  become a super-power one day.  But this was hotly contested with howls of derision.  ‘No chance’, the students would say. ‘It’s never going to happen’. ‘China is communist’. ‘They have no natural resources’ Mrs Swell ( Sewell was hard for the students to pronounce).

It just shows you how wrong people can be.

As I wake  daily in the early hours of the morning in a complete panic about the fate of our beautiful planet, unable to sleep, I think of the fearful legacy we have handed down to our young people.  I pray that they may be able to save us, as young people have always done.  I support dear Greta and all the kids on the Extinction Rebellion protests.

After all, my  generation fought for civil rights and helped halt the Vietnam war.

But what is so wicked about the ‘climate change catastrophe’ facing us all  is that the consequences of global warming were known for many decades before now – and NOTHING was done.

So when  I witness the terrible floods and man-made drought in southern Africa, the world-wide wildfires in the Amazon, Bolivia, Peru , Australia ,California and weather events elsewhere, and especially the suffering of the poor animals and wildlife caught in this maelstrom, I break.

I am broken.








‘Going Down with the Ship’ (Doing my tiny bit for climate change).

For all of my adult life I have feared the prospect of ‘global warming’ increasing to a tipping point.  And this is happening now.

As Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general said recently ahead of  the 2019  COP 25 climate summit in Madrid:  the Earth may have reached ‘a point of no return’.

And I  now have to look into the terrified eyes of my 12-year-old grand-daughter, Esther, a little eco-warrier, frightened for the future of this planet.

In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. Truly the most prescient book of its time.  It launched the environmental movement. I was 17 when I, and many of my generation, read it. It was life-changing for me, and I still recall the ice-cold terror I felt  on reading how human beings could poison the earth with indiscriminate pesticide use ( aka biocides).

Thousands  of birds were dropping  dead  after the aerial spraying of DDT, used to kill mosquitoes.  Canaries in the mine. And this was years before Agent Orange – the toxic herbicide – was used so horrendously in Vietnam.

In 1972, I read ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ in  The Ecologist. In it, the ecologist, Edward Goldsmith warned:

‘Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival’.





‘British Museum Reading Room Memories’

It was, in fact,  Lucien Stryk who suggested to Michael Pennington that he should put on a ‘one-man’ show about Chekhov. More about this can, of course, be accessed on-line.

Lucien was friendly and sociable, and I was to meet him again at ‘The Poetry Society’, but after that I lost touch with him.

At the BM cafe, however, I recall him chatting to other ‘regulars’, one of whom was the industrious ‘man of letters’, Vincent Brome, ( 1910-2004),  who was once called ‘

‘the life and soul of the British Museum Reading Room’.

Vincent Brome (1910-2004) was a prodigious writer of biographies of Freud, Jung, H.G.Wells, Havelock Ellis, Aneurin Bevan, and novels and essays of his own. He regarded biography writing as ‘slavery’, and he  held court, most days, in the BM cafe, with his friends, cadres and companions.  He spoke constantly and vividly on many subjects that he was working on: politics, gossip and general chat.  I still vividly   remember his sparkling animated eyes.  He was always interested and amused by those around him. A loyal friend.  As Margaret Drabble has written :

‘The biographer Vincent Brome has been working in the Museum almost daily for more than half a century and he still looks as though he’s about 60: the Museum air must have preserved him’.

The museum was his office, playground and sanctuary. Vincent lived for 50 years in his third floor flat in Great Ormond Street, and commuted to the reading room almost every day.   He became a fervent supporter, however, for the library’s move to its new home at St. Prancas, which I find quite brave. He must have realised how bright and light the space would be at the British Library, which it is.