A few weeks ago, out of the blue the phone rang to tell us that our old, and much-loved next-door neighbour Tony Bray had died. This sad news, followed by his memorable and moving burial at sea near Gosport a few days later, reminded me just what a formative period this was for us all.
Looking back, Tony, his wife Adrienne and their two sons remain right up there in the top ten greatest strokes of luck we ever had. There’s only so much research you can do when looking for a new home – estate agent blurbs, surveys, casing the joint, it’s always hit-and-miss, and one of the most important factors, your new neighbours, is the hardest factor to find out about. In this case we had won the lottery, but we didn’t know it straight away.
Over the seven years we lived in Netley, near Southampton, Adrienne and Tony (AKA “Fev” – don’t ask,) became de facto Auntie and Uncle to our kids. Although our previous lives had been so different, we just got on from the word go. I think it may have had something to do with living either side of a party wall. The good old British tradition of semidetached and terraced houses must have a lot to answer for in our social history, and in this case it was entirely benign, certainly for us, and as I now know, for the Brays.
Tony was a marine engineer by trade, but when we knew him he worked as a lorry driver. His great love was the internal combustion engine; he drove a vintage Riley which he had lovingly restored. His greatest sadness was the destruction of our environment. It was partly he who inspired me to create and produce a strand of regional environmental TV programmes, “Don’t Fence Me In”, which attracted respectable audience figures until I left the BBC in 1983. Tony also put me on to some good stories, one of which featured an interview with Michael Heseltine, then head environment honcho in Mrs Thatcher’s Tory government of the day.
The story was about the decaying remains of a stately home called Northington Grange, owned then by the former Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, Alexander Baring, 6th Baron Ashburton, who was suspected by some of allowing the Grade1 listed building to rot so it could one day be demolished. First built in the 1660s as a Palladian brick mansion, most of the original building had been recently demolished, apart from the conservatory. Some conservatory.
Today the restored Grange provides an impressive venue for opera performances. According to its current owners English Heritage, the conservatory “was dramatically saved from demolition in 1975 when it was taken into state care”. This is true, but all the state seemed to do was put a fence round it. Not a lot more happened for about about four years, while a local heritage conservation group campaigned for its restoration. Then, in 1979, when I was preparing to run the story using previous South Today footage, I was phoned by someone in Whitehall offering me an exclusive interview with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Hazeltine. (I didn’t tell anyone at the time, especially the South Today newsroom journos.)
The interview was filmed on transmission day of the first episode of Don’t Fence Me In. I went to London with a film crew and my presenter Gwyn Richards, to shoot the interview in the parliamentary TV studio in Marsham Street before lunch, then I scurried back to Southampton to develop and edit the film and inject it into the pre-recorded programme, live after South Today.
During the interview, Heseltine revealed that he had – that very day! – decided to put the fate of the conservatory out for public consultation to help him decide whether or not to spend up to half a million pounds of tax payers’ money on saving it. That’s about two and a half million today. He subsequently did decide to fund the restoration in full. My first – and last – scoop.
I realised this was a classic example of media manipulation by wily politician, but how could I have turned him down? But after I gave the instruction to cut, Gwyn asked Heseltine, off the record, whether he would have considered saving the Grange if we had not been featuring the determined fight to conserve it. As I remember it, his candid off-camera answer was something like “Of course not, dear boy”, delivered in his typical laconic way. What a pro.
For me there was a bizarre sequel. As I went for the customary post-transmission swift half in the BBC South bar, I was complimented by the only journo present and offered membership of the National Union of Journalists. I declined.
And it was really all down to my lorry driver mate next door, the extraordinary Tony Bray.
One of Tony’s last wishes was that his obituary should be published in the National Press. Thanks to the efforts of his sons Nick and Simon, it was, in the Guardian: “After his retirement at 65, Tony devoted his time to his considerable interests in the natural world, birds, plants and anything environmental. A passionate defender of the countryside, he was a supporter of the CPRE, RSPB and the Woodland Trust, and worried about the decline of the English countryside, particularly in his beloved Hampshire and Sussex. He offset this by managing an enormous back garden and producing enough vegetables to feed a crowd.” [Anthony Bray Obituary, The Guardian]
Working for BBC South (1976 – 1983) had its ups and downs, but the life it made possible was more ups than downs. The stress associated with a major move from one part of the country to another had been more prolonged than with previous moves, but once we managed to find an affordable house within easy commuting distance from BBC South’s HQ in Southampton, things got better all round. Looking back, this was probably the best place we have ever lived in as a family.
The house we eventually bought was a three bedroom red brick semidetached Victorian place in a quiet street in Netley, a village known mainly for its ruined abbey and The Royal Victoria Park, formerly the site of The Royal Victoria Hospital, a military hospital built at the end of the Crimean War, where physically or mentally damaged soldiers were offloaded on their return from various fronts in both world wars.
It was only some time later that we learned that one of Margaret’s uncles had been treated there in World War II, after losing a leg on active service. His wife had a very clear memory of standing in line at the main gate waiting to see her wounded husband.
Today only the chapel and a few offices remain, but during our stay by Southampton Water, the country park, as we knew it, was a life-saver for us in a different way. The back gate was only a short walk from our house, and during the school holidays here was our default picnic destination. I also remember teaching various kids to ride a bike there and one Christmas, when Margaret’s sister and family came to stay we came across a distressed boy in the park, down by the shore, whose brand-new football was floating merrily down Southampton Water, bound for the Isle of Wight and points south. His Dad was trying to console him when our eldest nephew Caleb, a champion swimmer in those days, promptly stripped off, dived into the sea and rescued the ball. Given the winter water temperature there, this was a very reckless venture, which ended with us trying to prevent hypothermia mainly because he was rapildy turning blue. He did take quite a while to thaw out back home in a warm bath.
Moral: football is more dangerous than you might think.
We sometimes hosted Spanish students, all male, during the school holidays. They came over, ostensibly to brush up their largely non-existent English, on an educational scheme operated locally by a neighbour. In reality, they actually spent most of their time talking among themselves, hanging out in the park and village, and resisting (we hoped….) the advances of local schoolgirls. One student we remember was called Jesus, which amused the neighbours, and another turned out to be a not-so-secret junior agent for Basque independence. They were excellent guests, obviously bored and homesick but always polite and respectful. We really loved having them around and they added a dash of exotic colour to otherwise rather dull summers.
Another Victoria Park incident was caused by some very naughty dogs we were minding for Margaret’s cousin, who was attending a conference in the area. She bred pedigree dogs for a living and Margaret took her Beagles to the park for a run, in all innocence, presumably not realising that Beagles are the ultimate canine opportunists who will exploit every occasion to eat. These doggies were also skilled thieves so when they were let off the lead they immediately dashed off to snatch the sandwiches belonging to a couple innocently enjoying an otherwise tranquil picnic nearby.
We did come by a dog of our own, the outcome of a war of attrition waged by my eldest daughter and of my obsession with parrots. Somebody had told me that there was a macaw for sale in a pet shop in Southampton, so I went down there to have a look, only to find the bird had flown, or rather just been sold.
As I was leaving the shop, I noticed two labrador / springer spaniel puppies huddled together in a cage. One of them, a male, got very excited, but his sister simply cowered in a corner. She looked so sad, on impulse I bought her as a surprise present for the family. The most disastrous decision I had ever made. I’ll spare you (and myself) the gory details, but from then on I was known as the idiot who went to buy a parrot and came home with a dog, very nearly causing a divorce on the spot.
My immediate punishment was to spend the first night sleeping with the unhappy dog (now named Jenny,) on the sofa, convinced that this was to be my destiny for years to come. And serve me right. It took a while, but eventually Jenny turned out to be the best of dogs (who developed much more subtle ways of getting illicit food from humans than the Beagle bully-boys gang), no doubt due to the stern methods of her trainer, Margaret. Later she spelt it out for me – after bringing up three children, mostly on her own, here she was, denied her liberty by my crass stupidity.
A few years later Jenny briefly became the stuff of Lassie movies when we had lost our son Ben on a beach in Dorset. Suddenly he was nowhere to be seen, even when we searched the shoreline. In desperation Jenny was commanded to go find Ben, and amazingly she did just that, returning with him in tow minutes later. I still marvel at this. I doubt whether a parrot would have pulled this off, but you never know.
This period is also memorable for slightly eccentric cars, such as the elderly Morris Minor Traveller I bought from a farmer, a mate of our South Today regular agricultural correspondent, David Butler. Now a classic (the car, not David,) she was a marvellous family runabout, famous for her rear-end woodwork, once identified by Dame Edna (Barrie Humphries) as the half-timbered car.
She had some very bad habits though, such as brake failure, floor rusting, gearbox failure and wood-rot. We found out about the brakes when Margaret and the kids were coming up to some traffic lights in Woolston; the brakes failed when she hit the pedal. They just shot the red and sailed across the junction. The floor rust became evident when Margaret, in the passenger seat at the time, observed that one good thing about the car was the underfloor heating; she had her feet on the exhaust pipe. The gearbox failed when we lost 3rd gear half way up a steep hill in Cornwall and had to drive 200 miles home in second, top speed 30mph. I got a second hand box from the local scrapyard and installed it myself using Tony Bray’s garage pit. (Never again!) The wood rot was just a cross I bore with endless patience and occasional carpentry.
Years later we said goodbye to the car, now an MOT failure, and returned her to the dodgy farmer, on the understanding that she would be used only off-road. Some time later I came across her in a side street in Southampton, apparently born again. She looked like the same vehicle – same plates and seat covers – but something seemed wrong. As I stood there, an angry bloke came along wanting to know why I was giving his car the once over. His aggression made me even more suspicious, but when I told him I was a former owner, he calmed down a bit and tried to sell me the car, which by then I suspected was probably an illegal “cut-and-shut” (a car that has been made by joining the front half of one car to the back half of another,) for a ridiculous price. I had sold it for £100 and he wanted thousands because she had a vanity number plate – 571 LOU. Wish I’d known that when I sold her as unroadworthy.
(There’s some LOU plates up for sale today at £10,950, apparently due to the popularity of the name Louise.)
The demise of the Morris Minor gave me an opportunity to get back to our campervanning days. I wasn’t really in a position to convert a bare van as I had in New Zealand, so I traded in our faithful Traveller for an elderly campervan conversion based on a Leyland van. She had all the basics – rising roof, cooker, beds etc., but turned out to be the slowest and most unreliable campervan in the country.
The handbrake was a real liability; I used to dread having to hold the vehicle on the handbrake on even the slightest of slopes, and once we did actually slide backwards on a steep incline somewhere in Dorset, inevitably coming to rest on the car behind. Ever-so-gently, mind. Fortunately the driver behind had a sense of humour. Eventually I got rid of the bloody umbrella-style dashboard handbrake lever arrangement, substituting a floor-mounted scrap brake lever out of a truck. That did the trick, but it did nothing to cure the numerous other faults the van routinely exhibited, such as inexplicable breakdowns (we sure got our money’s worth off the AA,) and the habit the back doors had of opening of their own volition, to name but a few.
Despite these maddening drawbacks, including the rollicking I got from the cops when half a dozen welly boots shot out from the back doors, the blue van did set us free to have some great camping holidays in the New Forest and Dorset. One year Margaret went down with glandular fever and was laid up for weeks over the summer holiday, under doctor’s orders for complete rest. After a week or two we were all going stir crazy, so we decided to experimentally try some light camping, on condition that we should not go so far as to make it difficult to turn back. We came up with the idea of driving west until four o’clock and then taking the first left turn. It worked, and became a family tradition which rarely failed. And Margaret got better. Camping as therapy.
The van (we never hit on a name for her,) also served us well on longer trips, such as regular visits to my parents in Norfolk or when Margaret’s father died and we had to rush up the Scottish Borders, or when we fetched her Auntie Susie down from Edinburgh in a blizzard, protected by a convoy of kind lorry drivers down the A1. For all her faults, the blue van was one of the family right up to the day when our window no longer faced the South.
Our house was quite close to Netley railway station so quite often I used to travel to work and back by train. One day I got on the train, depressed about a programme the previous day about how Portsmouth FC had retained the FA Cup during the war. We had reunited the remaining members of the winning 1939 team in our studio and played back a clip of their cup-winning game, which they had never seen before. That plan went well, but once the Pompey lads started to chat about the good old days the floor manager realised the goalkeeper was drunk and the cameras had to dodge around him as he gradually slumped into happy torpor during the recording, due to be transmitted that evening.
As the studio director I assumed the programme had been a disaster but as the train chugged along the following morning I became aware of a group of workers bound for the Southampton shipyards (Vosper Thorneycroft) who were raving about this programme they had seen last evening. They had evidently not noticed our drunken goalie problem and they had nothing but praise for the programme. Lesson learned.
Though the village itself seems rather down-at-heel these days, our street hasn’t changed much, apart from the recent massacre of the lime trees right outside our window. One of its merits was, and remains, that it is a cul-de-sac, where kids can play in relative safety. I really appreciated this, perhaps because I and my sister had been prohibited from playing in the street when we were prefab kids. It’s a friendly street; neighbours still chat and put the world to rights.
Next door to us on the other side to the Brays, were Fred, Pearl and their daughter Linda. Fred worked at the Ford Transit Van factory in Eastleigh and he had a quite good stock of work-based anecdotes. I remember a story he told about a co-worker who was found in the factory car park after work, lying alive but unconscious. When help was summoned, it was discovered that he was slowly being suffocated because he had a set of stolen heavy-duty clutch plates hanging by a rope around his neck, under his overcoat. He was revived just in time to be sacked for theft.
On reflection, maybe I should have got Fred or one of his pals to purloin a Ford Transit bit-by-bit, to convert into a campervan, instead of the Leyland liability.
My daughters were bridesmaids at Linda’s wedding, and our son was her page boy. The event is remembered for my son’s timeless observation, delivered in a quiet moment from the top table “I done a fart”. Full marks Ben.
Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end…..
But end they did. In 1983 we left the south coast and turned north to start a new life among the satanic mills of the West Riding. I had been unhappy for some time having been turned down for a producer’s job several times even though I regularly worked as a producer and got good audience ratings – sometimes better than those bearing the title and taking home the pay-packet. The final straw came when the Head of English Regions, a contemptible buffoon called Mike Alder, told me I never would be a producer because producers “made things happen”. I suppose getting a Secretary of State on the box didn’t count in his befuddled brain. I suspect the real reason for the snub was that I wasn’t a journalist and he thought all regional producers ought to be. It might also have had something to do with my choice to represent my colleagues as the local union shop steward.
So I decided to leave the BBC. Perhaps I was hasty, but not long after I left, the entire BBC Regions opt-out programme operation was handed over to the newsroom brigade and my former colleagues were made redundant or given early retirement.
Northington Grange history
Alexander Baring (Wikipedia)
Tony Bray Private Papers (IWM)
Netley Hospital (Wikipedia)
Cuts and Shuts (The Guardian)
Semi detached houses (Wikipedia)
Terraced houses UK (Wikipedia)
Loathe thy Neighbour? (The Independent)
My Window Faces the South: Part 2 (John Fowles)
My Window Faces the South: Part 3 (Lawrence of England)