Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Ivan Hewett

There are certain areas of feeling that classical music does especially well. One of them is the sense that everything will be all right, that there is order underneath the chaos, that peace will win out over rage and darkness. Let’s call it consolation.

It’s found most often in religious music, but not only there. And even when there are consoling words, there’s something in the music itself which redeems the mess of this world, even if we don’t believe in the words.

No composer expresses this mysterious feeling more powerfully than Bach, which may be why he appeals so much to unbelievers like me. Many things conspire to produce that feeling. It’s partly that so much later classical music springs out of Bach, so listening to him feels like going home. There’s also the sense that the music is obeying deep laws which spring out of the nature of music itself. Nobody invented them, they just exist. And finally there’s the sense that the crystalline order of Bach is rooted in simple everyday things – the rhythms of breathing and dancing, and sturdy common chords.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nest feels a little emptier after family ties fortified by floodwaters

A tale from Brisbane's big flood by John Henningham

OF COURSE you must stay with us, I assured my suddenly homeless son. For as long as it takes to rebuild.

Which could be weeks, I thought, looking at the muddied wreck that had been home for the family of four.

We'd seized as many of their possessions as we could, splashing through the rapidly rising waters in our little convoy - cars and a truck bursting with mattresses, fridge, clothes and fluffy toys. A team of touch football mates helped load and disappeared just as rapidly to help other families.

Then the waiting, on that fine and sunny January day, eerily free of portents of the rising catastrophe. Within hours all access was cut off and the broadcast warnings were increasingly grim.

By the end of the day, the slab beneath our high-set Queenslander looked like a bazaar, with son's and a neighbour's chairs, rugs, fridges, beds, cupboards and linen jammed together.

But then the waters receded, and after another day we finally saw our son's house. And saw his heartbreak. Everything inside and out was coated in the drying black muck left behind by the river, its stench filling our nostrils.

The kitchen clock was frozen at 26 past six, witness to the moment the waters had reached halfway up the walls, before rising above the ceiling.

And suddenly the clean-up was on, like a pitched battle. Friends and family were joined by dozens of robust volunteers. The footpath looked like a long garbage tip. Water tankers hosed the slimy mud off the road while trucks picked up the rubbish.

The street took on a carnival atmosphere, with sausage sizzles, drinks and ice creams, everyone helping each other. It was Brisbane at its finest.

The house ended as a skeleton, a framework of studs, joists and trusses, but with the outer boards and tiled roof intact. We settled into a new life - empty nesters no longer. The fledglings sent off by the parent birds had returned with chicks of their own.

There were sympathetic looks from old friends. "It must be difficult," murmured one. They saw my cheerful denials as lacking credibility, perhaps because they knew how grouchy and difficult men of a certain age can become. We'd allocated the little family two rooms plus the second bathroom. Yet over the months there seemed to be a gradual encroachment. The carpets in living areas were colonised by toy cars and trucks, a doll's house, blocks and a train table.

Our bathroom had the house's only bath, so it became a home for rubber duckies, turtles and tiny boats. I'd often find the toilet had a little insert in the seat. The backyard soon had a sandpit and play castle, plus scooter, balls and Tonka truck. Soon it seemed we were confined to two rooms, while the young family had the rest. But story-time and goodnight kisses were a boost - something grandparents normally don't get to experience every day.

Our grandson Patrick turned three during their stay. He delighted in nicknames, had renamed Gran as Nan, and now the tongue-twister of Grandpa was simplified to Punka. I got to like that name.

But it wasn't easy for the young parents, suddenly thrown into a role of dependency while trying to manage their family as well as do their jobs and part-time study, on top of dealing with all the complications of rebuilding and applying for flood funds.

Buttressing the young family was the support from friends and strangers who didn't forget and kept pitching in. Gifts of toys, furniture and clothing poured through our doors. An acquaintance sent a huge hamper of goodies, while meals, cakes and drinks kept arriving from myriad friends.

Very generous cash gifts were quietly and often anonymously dropped in. A former student in Japan sent a donation, little knowing his own country was just weeks away from a far more terrible devastation. And ongoing labour was at hand to get the major reconstruction started, led by my son's parents-in-law.

Surplus gifts of furniture were distributed back and forth between other families in the street, until finally anything extra was packed off to the serious flood victims at Grantham.

A week or so after the flood, the muddied kitchen clock began ticking again. Surely a good sign.

After months when nothing much seemed to happen, a flurry of professional building activity after the flood funds came through meant the house was ready to be lived in again. And so the little family left us, 7 1/2 months after the January disaster.

It was disturbingly quiet and still the first morning after they'd gone. No happy babbling of baby chatter or toddlers' yells and laughter.

No toys being trundled up and down the hallway. No little boy waking us at dawn to ask if we'd play. No calling to order from the parents. No big pot of porridge on the stove.

A dreadful hush that made the place seem lonely. Carpets lay sadly bare, deprived of their toys and kiddie furniture. It was all too quiet and neat.

A couple of days later, as we visited the little family and I looked around at their beautifully restored house, my grandson begged us to stay longer. We realised he was missing us, too.

I told him we had to go back to our house, but we'd be seeing him and his sister often. He threw his arms around me and gave me a tight hug. "I love you Punka," he said. Not entirely a bad flood.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

So Jacob, did you really go canvassing in a Bentley with your nanny? No! It was mummy's Mercedes: JANE FRYER meets the poshest man in politics

The honourable member for Somerset North East, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is enjoying a bit of a purple patch.

He has recently been described as a ‘mini Boris’ and the ‘undisputed star of the backbenches’, constantly perking up dreary Commons sessions with his brilliant speeches and wonderfully dry humour (often in Latin) and sitting (very elegantly) back down to cries of ‘More! More!’ from both sides of the chamber.

Quite a feat considering 43-year-old Jacob — second youngest child of the late Sir William Rees-Mogg — must be the poshest man in politics, alternately known as The Mogg, a Bertie Wooster throwback, ‘David Cameron’s worst nightmare’ and ‘the honourable member for the early 20th century’.

He is so unashamedly upper-class he’s rumoured to wear wing-collared pyjamas in bed, has never knowingly been seen in casual clothes and, at Tory Party conferences, tethers his plastic security pass to an elegant gold watch chain.

He has also been surgically attached to his briefcase since his first day at Eton and, during the 1997 General Election, took his nanny canvassing during his failed bid to win the safe Labour stronghold of Central Fife.

Of late, he’s caused quite a stir by commuting from his home in Mayfair (he also has a rather lovely pile in Somerset) to Westminster in a grey 1968 Bentley that he bought at auction for £8,000 when he was just 22.

‘I usually drive my Lexus around town, but it’s been broken recently. In fact,’ he adds with a joyful cry, ‘I’ve got two Bentleys — the 1968 one and a 1936 model.’

And, er, which Bentley did he and Nanny take canvassing in Fife in 1997?

‘Oh, no. That was wrong. Well, the Nanny bit is right. Of course she came canvassing; she’s part of the family after all — she’s been with us 47 years. But we took my mother’s Mercedes Estate. I don’t think a Bentley’s a suitable campaigning car. As much as anything it was the petrol consumption: six miles to the gallon.’

In the flesh, as he dollops clotted cream and jam onto his scone in the House of Commons tea room, Jacob is just as posh as you’d expect, indescribably polite and old-fashioned, very young looking and extremely funny and self-deprecating (‘Oh no, my Latin is awful — I just know a few useful phrases’), despite clearly being terrifyingly clever.

This is, after all, the man who last year stunned the House when he casually dropped the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ into a debate on the remuneration of EU staff.

He’s always been bright — aged eight he was reading the FT and playing the stock market with the help of a £50 inheritance from a distant uncle. Nanny telephoned his broker on his behalf.

One Eton contemporary recalls him as ‘immaculately turned out, and with a brain so large you could almost see it throbbing’.

Aged 11, he had turned the £50 into £3,500 and was terrorising the City with regular appearances at company AGMs. At one GEC shareholders’ meeting, he castigated the chairman about the company’s ‘pathetic dividend’.

Soon, he was giving regular interviews to the media, telling the public about his plan to be ‘a millionaire at 20, a multi-millionaire at 40 and Prime Minister at 70, when I’ve made enough money to be able to afford to waste some on politics’.

In a moment of frivolity, he revealed that he loved Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, had made three wills and was obsessed with Dallas. And that the people he’d most like to meet were: ‘Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, Geoffrey Boycott and Larry Hagman, in that order.’

Thirty years on, he hasn’t made much progress.  ‘Of the four, I’ve only met one of them — Margaret Thatcher. And Larry Hagman’s dead.’

What, not even the Queen? ‘No! I was supposed to meet her the other day at Buckingham Palace.  I went in the Bentley because I thought you should go in a proper car if you’re meeting the Queen, but she was ill, so I missed her by a whisker.’

After his 1997 defeat in Fife — where he canvassed tirelessly and enthusiastically and won 9 per cent of the vote — he tried again in 2001, losing The Wrekin in Shropshire to Labour’s Peter Bradbury, and later failed to be selected in the fantastically posh London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for ‘lacking the common touch’.

But in 2010 it all finally came good in Somerset North East, where his family has lived for centuries.  ‘The party hierarchy didn’t want me to be the candidate,’ he says. ‘The timing was unfortunate — they’d just launched a  big thing to change the image  of candidates and then they immediately selected me.’

Which is why, he maintains, he’ll ‘never, ever, ever’ be offered a place in David Cameron’s Cabinet.  ‘I had more chance of becoming the new Pope. Though I don’t think my wife would be very happy if I became Pope.’

It must be a bit frustrating — to be stuck on the backbenches, with his enormous brain and all that energy courtesy of seven coffees a day and endless Creme Eggs (yes, still).

‘No, no, no! I love being on the backbenches. My office is the size of a broom cupboard, but I’m right in the thick of it. And I’m much freer. For example, I can say to you that I’d love the Tories to do a deal with UKIP, whereas ministers can’t really say things like that.’

So what does he think of Nigel Farage? ‘I think he’s one of the ablest politicians around and says things — a great deal of which, but not everything — I agree with.’

Would he be tempted to defect?  ‘No! Never, never, never! I was born a Conservative and I shall die a Conservative.’ He has certainly remained impressively committed. At Eton, where he was frequently teased (‘in a nice, jolly way — I still am, and I most likely deserve it’), he was once sent out of class for sporting a large Tory rosette during the 1983 General Election.

‘It’s pretty sad, isn’t it, that the most serious, worst, naughtiest thing that I’ve ever done is wearing a Tory rosette in class? In fact, no! I got sent out twice at Eton,’ he says, looking pleased. ‘The second time was for an argument with a beak [teacher] over the infallibility of the papacy. I seem to recall mine was a very hardline view.’ Jacob is a committed Roman Catholic.

After Eton came Trinity College, Oxford, and then a very successful career as an investment banker. He still works 30 days a year for Somerset Capital Management for a reputed £10,000 a month, presumably to service the Bentleys.

Not renowned as a ladies’ man, everyone was a bit surprised when he met and, in 2007, married Helena de Chair, daughter of the late, very rich Somerset de Chair and the former Juliet, Marchioness of Bristol.

‘We met at a campaign for a referendum on the EU constitution, as you do. And then we met a few times subsequently, and here we are — four children later.’

He proposed in front of one of her mother’s five Van Dykes. (Apparently the two Stubbses were on loan to a gallery. According to a friend, the engagement was lengthened at Juliet’s request until they were returned so the wedding guests could admire them.)

Of course, there’s no disputing Jacob is, well, different. Some people have questioned whether anyone could really be like that, or if he is playing up to the public perception of him.

‘I’m just me,’ he insists. ‘I just carry on doing what I’ve always been doing.’

There are so many (presumably) apocryphal stories doing the rounds that I ask if I can run through a few and see which, if any, are true.

‘Of course! What fun. Why not?’

OK, here goes . . . did he, or did he not ever pay a boy at Eton to shield him with an umbrella on a cross-country run?

‘No. I wish I had. What a good idea!’

Did Nanny and his maid really take turns to stand behind him shielding his neck from the sun at Glyndebourne with a book?

‘That’s true, though I’m afraid I can’t remember which book it was.’

Did he and the King of Spain have sole access to an exclusive hidden upstairs loo at Claridges?

‘Yes! You can’t have too many people using a special loo or it’s no longer special — but it’s now a disabled loo, so anyone can use it.’

Does he dress for dinner at home?

‘Not every night, no. And not on my own. And, yes, the ladies do leave when the port comes in.’

Does he possess a pair of jeans?

‘No I don’t! What on earth would I do with them?’

Is his favourite food still Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.

‘Oh, I love Creme Eggs. And ready salted crisps — my ideal supper.’

Did he try to change the last four digits of his phone number to 1649, the date of the execution of Charles I, to make it more memorable?

‘I didn’t try to, I did.’

And finally, did his wife, Helena, really sport a tongue stud when they met?

‘Yes she did! She got rid of it when our eldest, Peter, was born. She thought mothers ought not to have tongue studs.’

Gosh, was it a bit, well, startling when he first encountered it?

‘Oh, goodness! I think she told me before I, er, spotted it.’

We both go pink. Presumably he doesn’t have any piercings himself?

‘No, not so far. And not any tattoos either — yet. I’m still waiting for my rebellious stage.’

Yes, Jacob is 43 going on 60, but that’s half his charm. He’s also kind, courteous, hard-working and unfailingly patient when faced with a raft of silly questions.

Despite his penchant for nannies, Bentleys, ridiculous private loos and preposterous poshness, I’d love him to be my MP.

Unlike David Cameron, I’d love him and his throbbing brain to be in the Cabinet. In fact, forget that — Jacob Rees-Mogg for Prime Minister!


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The flood dog that miraculously came back to life

A southeast Queensland council is putting out a call for anybody who recognises this plucky pooch to get in touch.
The series of images released today were sent to Somerset Regional Council, to the west of Brisbane, for inclusion in a commemorative book of photos documenting stories of recovery from the 2011 floods.
Two show what appears to be a bloated, muddy and lifeless staffy-cross lying in a field.
bnefloods 2011 dog comes back to life after a wash

When first found lying in a field, the dog was bloated, muddy and lifeless. A third shows a person hosing off the unfortunate animal, as it becomes more recognisable.
A final instalment in the series shows the newly-clean dog, smiling happily for the camera.
Council plans to use the photographs in its book The Somerset Story, documenting the region's flood recovery, if it can identify the dog's owner or the person in the picture.
bnefloods 2011 dog comes back to life after a wash

As this person hosed the dog down, it gradually became recognisable.
Somerset Regional Council flood recovery officer Jane Williamson said the dog had won over everybody involved in the production.
"The photographs tell an amazing story of a dog that truly looks like it's had its day," she said.
"It's quite amazing that the dog survived the floods when you look at the earlier photos of it bloated and lying in the grass.

Finally from bloated, muddy and lifeless, the pooch staged a miraculous return from the dead, cracking a smile for the camera. If you recognise this dog or the person hosing it down, contact Somerset Regional Council.

UPDATE:  Apparently the doggy was just enjoying a roll in the mud -- as doggies sometimes do.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A 1956 Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire

Complete with suicide doors

I always admired them in their day.

Monday, March 4, 2013

'I'm keeping all four!' What this courageous mother replied when butcher NHS doctors said: Sacrifice two of your quads to save the others

How will the boys feel when they learn that the NHS wanted to  kill two of them?

Pregnant with quadruplets, Emma Robbins was told again and again that she should terminate two of her babies to give the others a better chance of survival.

Again and again, she told doctors she had no intention of sacrificing any of her boys, who were conceived naturally at odds of 750,000 to one.

Now she has all the proof she needed that her instinct was right: four happy, healthy and utterly adorable one-year-olds.
The quadruplets from left to right, Sammy Robbins, Zachary, Joshua and Reuben Robbins

The healthy quadruplets from left to right, Sammy, Zachary, Joshua and Reuben Robbins at home. Mother Emma Robbins was advised to consider terminating two to save the other two during her pregnancy

Zachary, Joshua, Reuben and Sam had their first birthday party yesterday. The brothers are even more remarkable because they were born on February 29 last year – at odds of 3.5million to one – so will celebrate their true birthday only once every four years.

Mrs Robbins, 31, and her husband Martin, 39, already had a son, three-year-old Luke, when they tried for what they thought would be their second child.

Mrs Robbins said: ‘Never in a million years did we think we’d have four babies at once. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but we’re so glad we never gave up on our babies.’

She added: ‘At ten weeks I was a lot larger than I’d been with Luke and I was suffering from horrendous morning sickness. I was worried that something might be wrong.

‘The sonographer looked at both of us wide-eyed, turned the screen to us, then said she could see three amniotic sacs and not just two babies but four. And not just quads but identical twins as well.’

Mrs Robbins said her husband, a sign-maker, ‘looked numb and just laughed’. The next time they visited St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol, the consultant congratulated them – but then warned the couple they should consider terminating some or all of the babies.  ‘He told us the risks were so high it would put me in danger and the babies too,’ she said.

‘He said we had three options. We could terminate the pregnancy, reduce the pregnancy by terminating some of the embryos, or carry on. Instinctively I clutched my bump. An overwhelming sense of love rushed through me and I told him that we were keeping all four of them.’

The former project manager, who lives in Bristol, said the same advice was given after her 12-week scan.

She said: ‘I’d just been scanned and had been told everything looked fine but now he was pointing out the risks again and asking me to consider aborting the twins for the sake of the other two. I was beginning to feel pressured and it didn’t feel fair. We’d already made our decision.

‘All our babies were doing well. We’d seen their tiny outlines on the screen and we’d already begun to think of them individually.’  Once again, at 16 weeks into the pregnancy, the couple were told to consider aborting the twins. Mrs Robbins said: ‘By now I felt under immense pressure and I was getting angry.

‘Each time I went to the hospital it was all about the risks and asking me to consider aborting the twins to save the other two babies. But I knew that each time I looked at my surviving babies I’d also be thinking about the ones I’d lost. The thought of it broke my heart.’

At Mrs Robbins’s 18-week scan the consultant warned her again, saying 20 weeks would be the last time a termination or selective reduction would be possible.

She said: ‘By now we’d found out that all our babies were boys and as soon as he’d finished I told him it wasn’t an option and that was final.

‘We didn’t know how we’d manage financially and practically but I felt it must have happened for a reason. I decided I’d do everything in my power to give birth to four healthy babies.’

On February 29 last year, two months before her due date, Mrs Robbins went into labour. Reuben was the first to be delivered by caesarean section, weighing 2lb 14oz, followed by  Zachary, 2lb 8oz, and his twin Joshua, 3lb 1oz, and finally Sam, 2lb 13oz.

After two months in hospital, the boys, whom Mrs Robbins calls her ‘little miracle Peter Pans’ were strong enough to be taken home – where they soon made their presence felt. She said: ‘Each night the babies would wake up one after the other and start screaming, which would wake Luke up too.

‘We had to turn our lounge into the nursery and would take in turns to sleep down there. With four breastfeeds to coordinate every four hours, day and night, as well as bottles, 30 nappy changes and endless baths, life was exhausting.’

And as the boys get bigger, so do the challenges. Mrs Robbins said: ‘When they’re all in the buggy together it weighs ten stone. Pushing it is a serious workout.’