Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

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Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

Centenary of Britain’s Big Four railways

The Times marks LNER’s 100th birthday

The LNER rail company has been celebrating its centenary this week, with this splendid video:

I admire the company’s enterprising PR spirit. But there’s more to this 100th birthday than you’d think reading an @LNER tweet. The current LNER is just five years old, taking over rail services on the east coast main line in 2018. The new operator revived the name of the historic LNER, which was created on 1 January 1923 when some 120 British railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway. Those iconic brands disappeared exactly 25 years later when the railways were nationalised. Yet their enduring appeal led to three of the famous names being revived by privatised-era rail operators: GWR, Southern and LNER. (The reborn LNER scrapped the conjunction in the old name, London and North Eastern Railway.)

The British government’s 1920 white paper that led to the 1923 grouping

It is striking that the aim of the grouping was to make the railways more efficient, and to eliminate direct competition ‘as far as possible’. Indeed, Winston Churchill spoke in favour of nationalising the railways in 1918, but changed his mind by the time the 1945 Labour government nationalised the Big Four as British Railways. The eventual amalgamation created just four groups rather than the seven suggested in 1920.

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Cycling into 2023

Bealach na Bà: my Highland highlight

It’s traditional for me to mark the end of a year by reflecting on the year’s cycling achievements, and looking ahead to the following 12 months.

This year was a modest one in my cycling career. That was largely by choice. I was thrilled to complete over 6,250 miles in 2021, including at least 500 miles every month, but felt so relieved to step off the treadmill when the clock struck midnight heralding 2022. I no longer felt any pressure to go cycling, but could devote more time to other things, especially family. Inevitably the pendulum swung the other way and I leaned too heavily on my self-issued dispensation.

Yet if 2022 proved my most modest year for cycling since 2015, it included spectacular highlights that I will cherish for years. I wrote 12 months ago about my anticipation at returning to Scotland, one of my favourite cycling countries. That expectation was more than fulfilled. My Highland 500 tour with Peak Tours in May was a joy, testing and rewarding me in equal measure. The weather improved with every passing day, as the scenery grew ever more spectacular.

Loch Cùl Dromannan, north of Ullapool

I’ve posted a day-by-day account of my Highland adventure starting here, so won’t repeat the whole tale. That holiday included two of the most alluring roads I’ve ever pedalled: Ullapool to the Summer Isles, and from Hope on the far north coast of Scotland along Loch Hope and Strath More to Altnaharra. The first of these featured on an optional Peak Tours day ride; I was sorely tempted to take the rest day, pottering around Ullapool, but accepted the challenge to cycle. At first I cursed that decision as we endured hill after hill, but that changed in an instant as I glanced to my left and saw the breathtaking sight above: Loch Cùl Dromannan. Minutes later we turned off the main road onto a lonely lane, skirting lochs and mountain peaks towards the coast. We had lunch in the sunshine overlooking the Summer Isles.

Any cyclist who’s feeling jaded need only tour Scotland on two wheels to remember why they fell in love with cycling – and life itself.

OK Commuter

My Brompton at Fleet Place, City of London

My other cycling highlight of 2022 was more mundane, but arguably just as significant. This was the first year since March 2020 that I was able to return to the office after the pandemic. We opened a new City of London office at Fleet Place in September and I rediscovered the pleasure of using my Brompton Electric in combination with the train to commute there from Buckinghamshire. It saves me around £13 a time plus the joy of cycling across town, with the iconic view of St Paul’s and its younger cousin the Shard as I freewheel down from Farringdon towards Holborn Viaduct. The experience positively encouraged me to use Fleet Place as my London office rather than drive to lovely Richmond.

Electric dreams

My Brompton wasn’t my only electrifying ride in 2022. In February I bought a Trek Domane + electric road bike, and quickly fell in love with this special bike. That wasn’t a surprise: I found the electric Brompton a revelation three years earlier, so it was natural that I’d enjoy the road bike equivalent. On days when I couldn’t face jumping on the bike, I’d make an exception for the Domane +. I’d revel in that electric boost as I climbed away from our village. When I found I’d lost my way, and faced a steep climb to regain the route, I laughed rather than cursed. And forget those lazy cliches mocking e-bike riding as cheating: because the motor cuts out by law at 25kmh you still get a decent workout. (Especially as you’re pedalling a much heavier bike.)

But the Domane + had another special trick. You can remove the battery and motor to transform it into a regular sportive bike. On a Sunday ride before the Highlands tour I was jubilant as I beat my Strava times on a few Chilterns hills. It wasn’t quite as sprightly as my old Cannondale Synapse but as an e-bike it was a wonderful bonus to roam free.

Portugal calling

Porto. Image: Peak Tours

As 2023 dawns, I’m looking forward to my next cycling adventure. I’ve booked another Peak Tours holiday, pedalling the length of Portugal. It will be my first foreign cycling holiday since 2005. I’m hoping for sunshine although I know from my experience this year that it can rain in Porto in May. I’ll need to lose the Christmas pounds to make those Portuguese mountains a little less painful. (A lesson from Bealach na Bà and many other Scottish climbs this year…)

I can’t wait to experience spectacular Portugal – including a glass or two of vino tinto, and the temptation of the native pasteis de nata custard tarts….

Remembering Pelé, the world’s greatest footballer

Brazil, and the world, is mourning a legend. The greatest ever footballer, Pelé, has died aged 82.

Meeting a legend: Rob and Pele, London, June 2016

I was privileged to meet Pelé in 2016. He was the star speaker at an event organised by Shell, speaking movingly about his charity work encouraging deprived young people in the favelas of Brazil’s cities.

We met the day before the Wales men’s football team played in the quarter-final of Euro 2016. I commented to Pelé that the last time Wales appeared in a quarter-final he had scored the goal that knocked us out of the 1956 FIFA world cup finals. It was a magical moment: Pelé’s face transformed into a dazzling smile as he remembered the game and tournament that made his reputation.

I will never forget the moment I shared with the true gentleman who was the world’s greatest footballer.

PS: the BBC invited me to talk about my memories of Pelé on the World Service OS programme this evening. I enjoyed hearing of the experiences of the other guests, especially one taking part from India who saw Pelé play in Brazil in 1972 when his ship docked there.

Memories of Christmas past

Christmas is such a precious time, even for those of us who aren’t religious. It is a time for reflection, yet we often invest such unrealistic expectations of the festival that we risk feeling disappointed. Happily I have almost universally happy memories of Christmas past.

This year is a poignant one for our family, as my father Bob Skinner is in hospital, marking his unhappiest Christmas since 1942, days after his father died. We had planned for Dad to spend Christmas with us. I have been blessed with countless happy Christmas years, so I should not feel downhearted. Instead, I have been looking back on Christmas memories – especially during my childhood years.

1967

Grove Place, Penarth: venue for the first Christmas I can remember

Christmas 1967 is the first Christmas I can remember. Unusually we were staying with my maternal grandmother, perhaps out of sympathy after she was widowed when my grandfather died suddenly just before Christmas the previous year. 15 Grove Place was a cold house, without central heating. It had fireplaces in every bedroom, although I can only remember a fire in the living room. Dad was ill with flu and spent the whole time in bed, which was the warmest place to be.

Rob and his sister Beverley with their grandfather, Penarth, 1966

I have warm memories of my grandfather, Grampy, even though I had only just turned three when he died. I recall him shelling peas in the living room, perhaps on the day captured in the rare photo of my early childhood seen above. A decade ago my late mother told how my grandfather felt his way home along the wall that lined the back lane in an air raid. My grandmother was under the hairdryer in the hair salon in Penarth when the air raid siren wailed out over the town. The hairdressers raced to the bomb shelter and only later remembered that grandma was under the dryer, oblivious to the drama. I bet she never forgave them!

That house was a time capsule. The front room followed the Edwardian tradition of being kept for special occasions – happy or sad. My grandmother had good taste, and the furniture, presumably dating from the 1920s, was elegant and well preserved. In the middle room was a selection of books, including David Lloyd George’s two volume war memoirs, still in their delivery package. After Grandma died in 1981 I found the 1969 calendar I had made her in my first term at school.

1969

This Christmas, we stayed with my other grandmother, Nanny, who lived with my aunt Dorothy and uncle George. It was a much more hospitable venue – I loved my Nan so much, who was the perfect grandmother. (Dorothy and George were wonderful hosts.) It was a special family Christmas, with my cousins Valerie and Wendy also still living at home. Yet my most vivid memory, lying in bed on Christmas Eve, was seeing Father Christmas late that evening, placing a stocking with presents. Spoiler alert: I presume this was Dad or Uncle George, but I will never know for sure.

1970

Christmas 1970, with Mum and sister Beverley

This is the first Christmas I remember at home. We had moved to England when I was two, and typically went home to Wales for Christmas and other holidays. For some reason this year we stayed at home in Whitton, Middlesex, and enjoyed the first white Christmas I can remember. I remember Dad making a sledge from a baker’s tray – yet in pancake-flat Whitton the expectation was more exciting than the reality. We went to friends on Boxing Day, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel Christmas. The following year we moved back to Wales.

1979

I shouldn’t have such happy memories of my pre-O levels Christmas. I’d sat my mock exams just before Christmas, and was already planning my expectation management after what I knew was a disastrous performance in Chemistry. (I didn’t manage expectations very well – my 22% still came as a shock to Mum and Dad…)

Dad found my maternal grandmother (mentioned in the 1967 Christmas note above) unconscious under her bed on Christmas morning. He called his cousin, the lovely Dr Donald Dymond, whose on-call colleague paid a house visit. She declared that my grandmother was not in any danger, and would revive with no ill effects, which indeed happened on Boxing Day. This provided great excitement to me as a 16 year old, especially as it spared me the usual ritual of going round to my sister’s in-laws for the ordeal of sitting at their Christmas dinner table for five hours. I much preferred our resulting unplanned festive dinner of cheese and biscuits.

My sister was 26 in 1979, 10 years older than me, and we were at our closest as I was better placed as a teenager to appreciate her adult sensibilities. On 27 December we all went into Cardiff and enjoyed a snack in the cafe in Howell’s department store, before I spent some Christmas money in my favourite shop: Lear’s booksellers. Later, we went for a family walk along disused railways near Creigiau, where the Barry Railway crossed the Taff Vale Railway. (I would love to retrace that long-ago family walk, 43 years on.) The following day, we came home from another shopping trip in Cardiff to find my grandmother sitting in our living room in the dark. We’d not realised we’d be home after dark…

Cardiff suffered severe flooding just after Christmas 1979, as the river Taff broke its banks, and we were very glad that we lived well above the city’s rivers and lakes.

1981

At home, Cardiff, 27 December 1981
Our house, January 1982

1981 was not, strictly speaking, a white Christmas. The real winter began in the new year. But it was the snowiest winter of my lifetime, as I blogged here.

This was my first adult Christmas, graced by my one year old niece Siân. I was so fortunate to become an uncle at an early age as it gave me the chance to see Siân and later Ria (born 1982) develop when I was myself still growing up during my teenage and young adult years. I was also conscious that this was the last Christmas before A levels and university. A rite of passage.

2008

Mum, Dad, me and 5 month old Owen

My first Christmas as a father. Happily, Owen spent time with all four grandparents. My mother especially was boosted by the arrival of her bonus grandson 19 years after the birth of her previous grandchild, my sister’s son Ben. was lucky that I had changed jobs just after Owen was born. Our offices closed between Christmas and New Year and everyone had time off, which avoided any arguments about who should work between Christmas and New Year.

This has been just a small selection of my Christmas memories. Christmas remains a special time for me, offering a chance to reflect, relax and enjoy the company of family. I’m looking forward to many more festive memories in the years to come.

Memories of Penrhos junction, Caerphilly

Penrhos in its heyday. Photo: Briwnant, National Museum of Wales

It’s curious how certain places exert a disproportionate influence on our thoughts. More than 40 years ago I stood on a bridge and took a photo of a railway at Penrhos, near Caerphilly. I have no idea why – not a single train graced the lonely route up the big hill from Nantgarw towards Caerphilly.

My first view of Penrhos, circa 1981

Perhaps I sensed the pull of the ghosts of trains past. Penrhos was the site of a mighty battle. Three Welsh railways locked horns on that hillside. The Rhymney was the oldest, opened in 1858 to transport coal from its namesake valley to Cardiff. The later Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport hauled the black gold from the Taff and Rhondda valleys to Newport. But the star of the show was the Barry Railway, the parasite that drew trade from the incumbents to its own, new port of Barry. By 1914, Barry had overtaken Cardiff as the world’s greatest coal-exporting port.

At the start of the 20th century, the Barry Railway set off on an outrageous, audacious venture to steal traffic from its earlier rivals. It blew vast sums on a line that soared against the grain of the South Wales landscape. Its new line spanned spectacular viaducts across the Taff and Rhymney valleys to join the Brecon & Merthyr Railway opposite Llanbradach. The expensive line was closed by the Great Western Railway, which absorbed the Welsh railways exactly a century ago, and the great viaducts demolished in 1937, as my father recorded during his reporting career after the second world war. (The steel was recycled for Britain’s frantic rearmament on the eve of Hitler’s war.)

One of the Barry’s more modest bridges crossed the Rhymney and PC&N lines at Penrhos, just west of Caerphilly, seen in Briwnant’s image above. By the time I took my first photos here in the early 1980s just one double track line remained. Within a year even that route had closed.

Yet the pull of that lonely hillside still captured me. In the snows that followed Christmas 1993, Dad and I drove over Caerphilly Mountain to witness Penrhos, now bleak and rail-less. The pillars of the Barry’s overbridge provided the only evidence of a lost railway. I don’t remember mourning this monument to the loss of South Wales’s industrial might. But I feel it keenly now. Forty years ago, no one thought the loss of king coal was a victory for planet Earth. But let us cling to that consolation.

When the rails left Penrhos, the coal trains from the Rhymney valley were restricted to the later 1871 Rhymney Railway mainline through the tunnel to Llanishen and Cardiff. Lying in my bed in Lakeside, Cardiff, as night became Bible black, I took comfort in the throb of the class 37 diesels as they piloted their black gold cargoes down the embankment towards Cardiff. The diesel song occasionally joined in harmony with City Hall’s bells sounding the hour, and the foghorns of the capital’s still active docks.

The reign of king coal is over. The surviving South Wales rail lines are largely devoted to human not industrial traffic. Some of the lines closed by the malevolent Dr Beeching have reopened in the past 35 years, with more to follow. But Penrhos is unlikely to echo once more to the sound of trains. Any dreams of a resurgence will be confined to small scale models. North of the road bridge where Dad and I parked our cars the railway cutting has been filled in as a foundation for Caerphilly’s expansion.

I’ll end with an image of Penrhos in its twilight days. The photo above shows the Barry viaduct intact, but disused, as a GWR coal train steams up the hill from Taffs Well. Today, the hillsides echo to footsteps and barking dogs rather than panting trains. We can but dream of the days when Welsh steam coal fuelled the world.

80 years on – mourning the grandfather I never knew

My grandfather Frank, left, and father Bob, right. Margate 1938

My grandfather died 80 years ago today. I was born 21 years after his passing, so Frank Skinner lives on in my father Bob’s precious shared memories of the father he lost when he had just turned 16.

Dad recorded his memories of that terrible day in December 1942 in a poignant, brilliantly observed blogpost two years ago: “At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.”

Dad went on to reflect on the sense of shock and loss: “Like this year [the coronavirus Christmas, 2020], it was an unusual [wartime] Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour. Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad.”

When I was 16, I was fearful of history repeating itself and losing my own father at an early age. (Dad’s grandfather had also died young, so I had reason to be concerned.) Ten years ago I told Dad of these fears for the first time, during a wonderful, celebratory dinner to mark Mum’s successful cancer operation in January 2013. Now, as Dad faces Christmas in hospital, I reflect on his extraordinary life, and his memories of losing a much-loved father 80 years ago.

I’m also thinking about the lovely grandfather I never knew. Here he is above in his Great War army uniform. Frank survived the catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and before the second world war forbade Dad from joining the school cadet corps because of his horror of war – a similar emotion that inspired Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Dad told me that his father featured in the national press after Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Frank featured in photos of two barges named Italy and Abyssinia. He was on Abyssinia and was throwing stones at the boat named Italy. It would be fun to track down the images in the newspaper archives for 1935.

Frank died almost exactly half way through the second world war, not knowing what tragedies his family might endure as Bob and his elder brother Bert entered adulthood. Happily, all lived to celebrate VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. As my father has noted, they never lived together as a family again, but remained close, a precious closeness that we all share to this day.

The 96 year old failed by Cardiff & Vale NHS health board

Lost in Llandough: please help my father

It is heartbreaking when the NHS fails the people it’s dedicated to help.

When my father Bob Skinner was brought home by air ambulance from Spain on 2 July, I was mightily relieved. It had been a huge battle getting him home after an accident on holiday, and it wouldn’t have happened without the valiant support of Dad’s MP, Stephen Doughty and his team. Yet his ordeal was only just beginning.

Fading hopes

Dad is still in hospital five months later. He has also been unable to eat properly for those five endless months, because the Cardiff & Vale university health board lost his dentures when transferring him between hospitals at the start of July. Shamefully, Cardiff & Vale has totally failed to take any responsibility for putting right the loss and getting Bob a replacement set of teeth. I made a formal complaint to Cardiff & Vale in September. Three months on – a quarter of a year on – we have had a string of broken promises to sort things out. I have twice asked Bob’s member of the Senedd, the economy minister Vaughan Gething, to help. Vaughan’s team contacted the ‘concerns’ team at Cardiff & Vale, but got nowhere. I feel so bad at failing to get the NHS to help Dad. But if Vaughan Gething, the Welsh government’s health minister through the worst days of the pandemic, can’t do anything, what hope do I have? Do I have to write to @PrifWeinidog (first minister) Mark Drakeford?

I say this to Suzanne Rankin, chief executive of Cardiff & Vale university health board. How would you feel if it was your father who was being neglected so badly? Can you imagine what it’s like for a 96 year old type 2 diabetic, constantly fobbed off and living off lukewarm soup and ice cream? Please, take responsibility and end the neglect. As a veteran who served in the army during the second world war, Bob deserves so much better. No one denies that the NHS is under huge strain, but Bob is just the latest example of how the service all too often lets down the most vulnerable and has to be chased repeatedly when things go wrong.

Happier days: Bob praises pandemic care home workers on primetime TV, April 2020

It’s heartbreaking seeing Dad in such a plight. He has an unquenchable spirit, although the past five months have tested his resolve to the limit. Back in the early days of the pandemic, he repeatedly went on national television to praise his care home workers. Our first lockdown reunion appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. And he survived Covid and a fall in his former care home – all experiences that he reported in a pandemic blog which we later turned into an e-book, which featured on BBC Wales Today.

I just hope that Dad’s Llandough ordeal will have a similar happy ending.

PS: I should point out that the medical staff at Llandough have been kind and caring, especially Hannah, Manuel, Siân and Andrea – and there will have been others whose names I do not know. And a decade ago I praised Cardiff & Vale for its amazing work getting staff to its hospitals in a blizzard, enabling my late mother’s cancer operation to go ahead.

PPS: I was grateful to receive a call this morning from a director responsible for dentistry at the Cardiff & Vale university health board. My father’s case now appears to be a priority, which is good news. Thank you, Bev.

POSTSCRIPT

Bob with his new teeth, Friday 13 January

It’s only fair to update this post with praise for Cardiff & Vale university health board’s response to my cry for action. Roz and Bev sprang into action and Bob got his replacement teeth soon after the new year. On a video call just before Christmas, the team explained how they intended to apply the lessons from Bob’s experience, in particular to check that a patient does not leave hospital without their dentures.

Bob has made amazing progress in January, and is now blogging again! You can follow his progress here.

Radio panic: my letter in The Times

Bottom-right fame…

“There are, as we all know, some things in life that money simply cannot buy. The bottom-right corner of the letters page of The Times is one of them.”

So declared Andrew Riley, The Times letters editor, in 2018. Today, my latest letter to the paper appeared in that prized slot. It was inspired by Matthew Parris’s always-enjoyable Notebook column yesterday, in which he lamented the decline in audio quality on British radio during and after the pandemic. It reminded me of my alarming scare when interviewed live on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 show in 2014.

I’m in good company: Queen Victoria once had a letter published in The Times. The late Queen’s epistle was in response to speculation about her resumption of public appearances following the death of the Prince Consort three years earlier. Mine may be seen as trivial in comparison. But I made the coveted bottom-right corner..

In his column explaining what makes a good letter for The Times, Andrew Riley urges brevity. He quotes the late Times literary editor Philip Howard’s warning that “the most common reason for the rejection of a letter for publication is overwriting”. Riley adds that it is hard to consider a letter if it’s substantially more than 200 words. Mine was just 78 words. I wrote it on the train to London after enjoying Parris’s column over a coffee. (Travelling by train remains an enjoyable experience despite the vagaries of incompetent management and strikes for better pay.) My last published letter, about the accents of Cardiff’s old Tiger Bay docklands, was even shorter at 51 words.

Brevity is a noble aim, whether writing to The Times or giving a presentation. It’s a human instinct to keep going. But knowing when to stop is a gift that others will value.