Mrs Warboys Weekends

The M5 will be at a standstill.  It is a Mrs Warboys weekend.

On Mrs Warboys weekends, the entire populations of large cities decide it is the very moment for the whole family to jump in the motor car and to head for seaside towns. The seaside towns of the south-west of England are there every other day of the year and are pleasant places for a walk even in the winter months, but only on Mrs Warboys weekends are they the focus of such massive invasions.

Mrs Warboys days represent the triumph of hope over experience. Perhaps they are the aspiration of people for a bygone age; a time when they were young when going to the seaside for a day out was a major landmark in the year. There is a collective consciousness in which the seaside means sandy beaches and stripy deck chairs; and arm bands and rubber rings; and buckets and spades and beach balls; and brass bands and Punch and Judy. (Aspirations don’t come cheaply – in Weston-Super-Mare it costs £10 to park your car on the sea front, some of that parking is actually on the beach itself, not good for a car!)

Mrs Warboys days were about taste as well as sight and sound and feeling; they were about candy floss and ice creams; they had the saltiness of cockles and mussels and fish and chips; they had the coolness of bottles of Coke and flat English beer.

In search of an idyll that maybe never existed, millions of people set out on Bank Holiday weekends; how many find what they were searching for? Who knows? How many actually reach their intended destination might be a more useful question.

Why call them “Mrs Warboys weekends”? Because there is a memorable episode of the British television series One Foot in the Grave where Victor Meldrew, the chief character, and his wife set out for a Bank Holiday Monday outing with their friend Mrs Warboys.

Poor Mrs Warboys spends four hours sitting in the back of the Meldrews’ car, which is trapped in motorway traffic gridlock, looking at the bottom of a horse in a box being pulled by the car in front while Victor Meldrew rages against the world and against other motorists, articulating thoughts all of us have had, but would never put into words.

Mrs Warboys would be advised to stay at home and sit in her garden.

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Arcade incompetent

“Uncle Ian, they have a vintage arcade game in the pub now, you would enjoy it.”

It would have been churlish to say, “No, I wouldn’t!” It would have been hard to explain that I think I was born far too early to ever be adept at electronic games.

The game where you played table tennis with two controllers connected to your television, which you could obtain cheap with vouchers from Corn Flakes boxes,  came out when I was at boarding school; there was great competition to use it at first, but after a while it seemed slightly absurd to try to play table tennis with an electronic controller, when it was much more fun playing with a table tennis bat in the games room.

By the time I was a student, Space Invaders proved beyond any doubt that I was not cut out to save Planet Earth. I stuck to the pinball table if I wanted to waste 10 pence pieces, it was much more mechanical and responded directly to physical force, usually with the “Tilt” light coming on, resulting in the loss of one of the three balls.

By the mid-80s there had been a revolution and I had been left a long way behind; the kids at the local rectory roared with laughter at my attempts at Donkey Kong. By the mid-90s there was Gameboy and the like. There was no prospect that the Super Mario brothers would ever rescue the princess under my guidance; they rarely got beyond the first level.

Once the children had gone beyond the age of playing Gameboy, electronic games disappeared from the household. There was still an online role-playing game played by the older of the offspring that demanded a few dollars a month, but it was not about the frantic pressing of buttons in order to zap virtual enemies.

What has been astonishing in recent times is that electronic games have extended their grip into the lives of adults; people, particularly men, can spend hours on Play Stations and X Boxes.  People who in former generations went to the pub and played darts and snooker and pool with their mates, or did DIY stuff in their houses, or worked in their gardens, now sit in front of a screen pressing buttons, in a quest for what?  The advertisements for the games can be quite bizarre; one for a war game suggesting it demanded particular personal qualities to play it.

What happened that real living came to be replaced by a virtual existence, that people who might have been out playing real soccer became content with a version on a screen; that men who in former generations might have been fighting actual wars, came to think that an electronic simulation of gore and blood and death and slaughter was somehow a worthwhile leisure activity; that reality became replaced by something virtual, something very far from reality?

Our primary school teacher always told us that inanimate objects could not be stupid, so if spending hours on unreal activities cannot be stupid, it is plain silly.




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Being scared would be welcome

Scary music was the topic suggested for a listeners’ response on BBC Radio 6 at 6.30 this morning. One listener spoke for many when saying there was no music more scary during childhood than the theme music of Doctor Who.

It was certainly music that frightened me. We had only two channels on our black and white VHF television set and I hated Doctor Who with its daleks and cybermen. I hated stories of “flying saucers”. I once spent an evening on my grandad’s farm avoiding a television version of War of the Worlds. As the years have passed, the aliens have become an increasingly attractive option. If they have arrived here, their technology and knowledge is infinitely in advance of ours, and surely they would be more inspiring than the rulers of our world?

The Drake Equation calculates the possibility of an imminent arrival of aliens. If they arrived in Somerset, it would presumably be a case of landing their ship on Glastonbury Tor. The Drake Equation is the mathematical calculation devised by Dr Frank Drake to estimate the likelihood of there being someone out there. For someone whose mathematics knowledge did not extend beyond that required to pass the Certificate in Secondary Education, the Drake Equation is almost comprehensible. The Drake equation is:

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible


R* = the average number of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

It is an equation that would have terrified me as a child because it suggests that there is a likelihood of  other civilisations in our galaxy. Of course, the problem is that our civilisation is likely to end before the flying saucers can reach us. What a depressing conclusion. Is there not a single extra-terrestrial out there who save us from our incompetent governments? Scary music would be welcome.

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Wet Monday endurance

Somerset County Cricket Club play in the one day cricket cup final next Saturday at Lord’s. It is good that they have retained their proper county name instead of adding words that have nothing to do with cricket. Somerset have never won the county championship, the premier prize of county cricket. There have been times when they came very close, losing out in the last minutes of the last day of the competition in 2010 and 2016 (losing only by a statistical quirk in 2010), but the title has eluded them for more than one hundred and forty years. The team forty years ago was particularly strong, losing two one day competitions in a final single weekend in 1978, before winning the respective competitions in a final weekend of the season the following year. Three more one day competition titles were to follow in the next four seasons, and one day titles in 2001 and 2005, but the county championship was always beyond them. A commentator on their prospects for the 1981 season said they lacked the consistency to win matches on “wet Mondays in Chesterfield.”

Chesterfield is a very fine town and a fine place to be, even on a wet Monday, but the image has remained of a cricket team trying to grind out a result on a pitch that is greasy, with a ball that is slippery, in humid conditions, under grey clouds, with a handful of hardy spectators dotted around the stands. It is an image of gritty resolution and plodding forebearance.

The metaphor of “wet Mondays in Chesterfield” has often been useful in getting through daily work. Flamboyance, beauty, and significance are rare commodities, life is mostly  unremarkable, like the Monday of a county championship match.

There is heavy cloud cover this evening, a deep slate grey colour fills the sky towards Yeovil. The light has faded early, it is dark enough to stop play at a cricket match. If the umpires took the players off now, there would be no resumption of play today

Like Somerset on their “wet Mondays in Chesterfield,” there are probably more defeats or draws in ordinary daily life than there are triumphs, but the game is still played because, one day, the elusive might be reached; perhaps, one day, the long awaited victory might be achieved. Somerset will hopefully triumph on Saturday and go on to win a first county championship at the end of the summer – and the mental picture of wet Mondays in Chesterfield will remain as a reminder that the game is there to be won.

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Driving to hoe

Don would drive the Land Rover with one of the old hands beside him in the front. The rest of us sat in the back, on the bench seats that ran down either side. The journey  was made from a nursery in Langport in order to work on fourteen acres of land used for growing herbaceous plants.  An schoolboy who knew nothing about plants would not have been entrusted with anything responsible, instead the rows of plants had to be hoed. A tractor was used for clearing weeds between the rows, those growing between the individual plants had to be cleared by hand; the hoe would cause blisters on the palms of the hand that would eventually harden into calluses. It was tiring and boring work, the only consolation was that the journey to and from the land was made in working hours. A slow journey there and a slow journey back could take an hour off the eight hour working day which began each morning at 7.45 and finished each afternoon at 5.00, no-one was paid for taking breaks.

Only years later did it occur to ask the question as to why did the nursery grew plants on land that was so distant from its premises. The best suggestion was that the soil was different, that plants which did not thrive at the main nursery might grow well in the soil of the fourteen acres at South Petherton. Perhaps they might: nursery plants were unpredictable species. Sometimes they might not grow as  people had expected, or sometimes they might not grow at all.

Irritated customers sometimes arrived at the nursery with a complaint, intent upon imparting a piece of their mind to the nurseryman responsible for the fact that their plants had not thrived. Standing in the packing shed one afternoon, Don, the foreman, spied a woman crossing the yard from the office, a determined look on her face. “Here comes trouble”, he muttered.

The woman opened the door, “I want to speak to the foreman. I was told I would find him here.”

Without flinching, he said. “I’m terribly sorry, madam, he’s not available this afternoon. May I give him a message?”

Don particularly enjoyed the opportunities to be in South Petherton, where no-one could find him. Although this week he would have been busy in the sheds, preparing plants for the annual trip to Chelsea, where old Land Rovers would have been a rare sight.

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