Momentous change

Felix, working cocker spaniel

Sometimes we don’t realise how much we can change our own lives and need to be shown the way. We could not have foretold the impact that an event taking place on 21 April 2000 would have on us. That was the day our first cocker spaniel, Felix, was born.

I wanted a dog, an active dog, to help me become more active after working from home for six years. Mrs Z had always wanted a black spaniel and she tracked down his litter in Hampshire. When he came to live with us in June, he changed our lives forever.

For a start, I had no idea what a challenge it would be to train a working cocker spaniel. We have come to realise that he trained us. He tested us and I like to think that we passed his test. He developed in me calmness and patience I never had before. Life became an adventure as on our walks and his swims, and he became a true pal.

In 2002, when my Mum and Aunt needed a lift down to Devon on their holiday, Felix and I volunteered. We stayed over for a day and visited Ilfracombe on a glorious sunny day. Felix decided we should move there and we all agreed. We swapped the background din of M4 traffic and Heathrow aircraft in Windsor for the beauty and serenity of Devon.

We rarely looked smart as waterproof coats and wellies became our new uniform and we strode along muddy paths and many beaches in whatever the weather threw at us. I easily lost weight and became accustomed to walking for three hours every day, benefiting from sunlight, a greater appreciation of nature and far less stress.

Running along the fringes of the waves on Woolacombe beach, carefree and content, Felix personified freedom. He was a toned athlete and a rascal, with a remarkable sense of humour.

He was there too in tough times. During my own illness and when family passed through illness and we felt despair, he was an immense comfort, as though he knew and felt everything, exerting a presence of infinite strength.

As time went on, he was joined by a ‘brother’ cocker, Bosley, a delight in different ways. Possibly affected by a difficult birth, Bosley seemed unable to learn, but followed Felix and adored him. It seemed we would all live forever, but, of course, life is as full of good byes as it is of hellos, and we lost both in 2013. Now we have Barley, a sprocker spaniel, chocolate not black, because we did not want to try to replace Felix and Bosley.

Felix opened our eyes to living a more fulfilled life, for which I will always be grateful. I cannot underestimate the beneficial changes – physical, mental and spiritual – that I underwent since he entered life with us. Thinking of him reminds me that we have considerable power to change our lives for the better, even when life appears bleakest.

This evening we will drink a toast to him in gratitude. What a giant character. Along with Bosley, he lives on in our hearts.

Felix, working cocker spaniel
Posted in a musing.

The value of understanding feuding families

After completing my MA in History, I have continued my attempts to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, although for every little bit learned I discover even more still to learn. One of the topics I am interested in is the Wars of the Roses, which confounds me with the complex relationships, and twists and turns of the various families who competed with each other for power.

Nathen Amin’s ‘The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown’ has clarified a number of these relationships for me by following the development and demise of the Beaufort family, not necessarily the greatest family, but one that at times wielded considerable influence.

The four bastard children of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swinford, might not have expected to see a descendant of their blood sit on the English throne, but the eventual marriage of their parents and their legitimisation made this possible for Henry VII, son of Margaret Beaufort who was daughter of John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, second son of John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset, first son of John of Gaunt, whose father was Edward III.

When a brother died, such as Henry Beaufort, 3rd Duke of Somerset (son of Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset), a younger sibling would inherit the title, as did Henry’s brother Edmund, who became 4th Duke of Somerset. Just remembering which Somerset is being referenced is certainly a challenge to me and when you add all the dukes and earls, from Exeter to Gloucester, Suffolk and York, family trees become a necessity. Amin provides a basic family tree of the Beauforts as an essential reference and trees of Gaunt’s other children and other relevant families would have been useful, although this book’s focus is on the Beauforts.

While following a timeline of events in the order that they occurred is not necessarily the best way to learn about a historical topic, Amin’s well-researched book applies this approach effectively. Much of the writing on this period focuses on the motivations of the primary figures, especially the monarchs and individuals who opposed and wrenched the crown from each other, such as Henry Bolingbroke and Richard III, and Amin’s different viewpoint helps to provide a broader, deeper understanding of events and the motivations behind them.

After Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, was hacked down by the Yorkists at St Albans, his son Henry, the 3rd Duke, was in his minority and assigned the ward of the family’s deadly enemy, Warwick, described by Amin as the “instrument of his father’s death”. It’s no surprise that family feuds festered in such circumstances and that son after son of the affected families met their deaths in pursuit of revenge.

Amin’s readable style makes the topic accessible, although I would recommend this book for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Wars of the Roses rather than an introduction to it. It has awoken in me the curiosity to learn more about the other families whose members participated in these events.

Writing this review has made me appreciate the importance of making notes when reading history. After completing my formal studies, I was relieved not to have to note down every thought that occurred to me, as I imagined the pleasure of reading would be sufficient gratification. Now I’ve decided to resume making notes as I read about history.

Posted in history.

My three words for 2020: vital – work – jigsaw

In 2016 I chose three words to focus on during the year, following a suggestion by Chris Brogan, and I repeated this in 2017, 2018 and then 2019, when I chose: responsible – source – alive. How did I do in 2019?

  • Responsible – I believe outsourcing personal responsibility to government, large technology companies and other organisations is one of the biggest dangers we face, because it allows them to shape and control our lives totally. There is no brake on these organisations where individuals cede responsibility. I continue to make my own way where I can by shouldering responsibility and must continue this at all times.
  • Source – Another tough challenge when there is so much pressure from giant global manufacturers, retailers, technology companies and similar organisations to accept what they offer and not necessarily what we want. Wherever possible, I try to find what I want, according to my own requirements, sourcing local goods and services from local suppliers.
  • Alive – It is so easy to be seduced by different forms of media, especially when using these for work, and passively to accept that the illusion of reality created by the online world. I have switched more of my time back to the real world and, again, will continue working on this.

This brings me to my words for the year ahead: 

vital – work – jigsaw

Why have I chosen these three words for 2020?


More than ever I am aware of the real world – the world beyond devices, networks and the rich illusion of empty nothingness that seduces us and drains our energy. I am aware of the raw energy of cold, damp and wind, of heat and dry, even of time passing slowly when apparently nothing happens. All too often we are deceived into ignoring life, with all its harshness, upsets and struggles alongside exhilaration, magic and breath-taking beauty. I don’t reject the tools technology offers us, but I will be putting them back in the toolbox at the end of the working day in preference for vitality.


Five years of grief have taught me that what brings me joy is work: doing things. In 2019, I have co-founded a business magazine, co-organised a successful business exhibition, researched and written a dissertation to complete my History MA, started reading history for pleasure, returned to writing and performing in theatre, and completed my first sculpture project – all only possible through work. At the moment, there is a widespread focus on mental health and, I believe, a misguided emphasis on encouraging people to talk about their problems. This simplistic approach might work for some, but I believe it is has the deep flaws of tunnel vision: the last thing I wanted to do was talk. Every person’s struggle is different and the key is for each of them to discover what will open their door back into life. Helping them to find their unique key is a complex and exhausting task which has to be recognised and supported. Work, getting on with things, has turned me round from not wanting to get out of bed in the morning to being possibly more productive and successful than I have ever been. Being invited to a reception at the House of Lords in recognition of our magazine was the icing on the cake this year – I could not have imagined this even a year ago. I also work on leisure projects for enjoyment and these have helped me rediscover the benefits and importance of the opposite of work: doing nothing to relax and refresh. Each complements and feeds the other. Life is cruelly tough and, for me, work has recovered my hope and optimism in a world where many have lost sight of both.


Many of us are unconventional, yet are pressed by the suffocating identity politics of our authoritarian culture to identify with tribes that are then pitted against each other in aggression. I don’t belong. This has been a challenge all my life and for a long time I tried to belong before eventually recognising that I don’t. At the same time, I realise I do belong. I understand that while some of us may not be capable of belonging to a club, gang, society, organisation or other group in a community, we do, as individuals, have our own place in this world. While we may feel alone and separate, there is always a place in the universe where we fit snugly, even though it doesn’t always seem obvious. We may not inhabit the networks of social groups in our communities, but we nevertheless have a place, even though it is not easily defined. Every one of us is a piece in the greater jigsaw and without us the picture remains incomplete. In the coming year and beyond I will rejoice in my place in the jigsaw.

Starting now . . .

This year the struggle to define my words has been a bigger challenge than in any other year. Do I mean what I say? I think I do and I will find out as I progress through 2020.

Do you have a direction you have set for yourself in the year ahead?

Good luck with what you believe and want to achieve, and may you have a wonderful New Year.

Posted in a musing.

My life’s essentials 14: Ilfracombe

Ticket to ride

This ticket started me on a journey 50 years ago on Saturday, 2 August 1969.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that train journey from Paddington to Ilfracombe, on the north coast of Devon, would bring me to the place where I would live 50 years later.

We had a marvellous fortnight’s family holiday, magical even, before returning home to resume everyday suburban life. That, it seemed, was it. But my family loved railways and I remember in my teen years daydreaming in school lessons about modelling the station at Ilfracombe. It seems the place had caught hold of me.

Now, I’ve always been a dreamer. Sometimes, when people ask me a straightforward question, if my mind isn’t in gear, I struggle to come up with an answer there and then, only working it out later on. However, deep down I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to do – write, create and communicate – although back then I didn’t realise I would do this with computers and the internet. 

What has started me thinking about my journey, in terms of my home, my work and who I am, is finding this ticket from all those years ago. I didn’t think I had mapped my future out, but, looking back, I took definite steps to get here. I started out in the corporate world, but after 10 years realised I did not fit. I remember, when working at British Airways, I visited the North American Air Fares department about a job there, which would have been a big promotion. As the chap talked, I felt my eyes glaze over and realised how stifled I would be in that role. I didn’t apply, but he rang me up after applications had closed to see where mine was. The job would have been mine, but I could never have stood it. And that’s how my career progressed, from Cromwell Road, Earls Court to Heathrow Airport to the Aldwych in London, back to a soulless business park in Maidenhead and then, when I jumped off the corporate ladder, to our spare bedroom in Windsor. Here I established our communications partnership with my brother Simon.

15 years ago, when Mrs Z and I wanted to escape the Heathrow noise pollution and mindless rush of the South East, I suggested moving to Ilfracombe. I thought she would tell me not to be so stupid. She didn’t and we moved. As with the rest of my career, it wasn’t easy. The telephone exchange had only just been upgraded to ADSL and the small population restricted, as it does still, the size of market for many sectors, especially mine. But with the internet, I worked virtually for clients across the country, some of whom I never meet. 

Am I happy? Apart from reaching the age where I often feel melancholic because of all the dear souls no longer present, I am content. I’m now close to celebrating working for myself, at home for 25 years, am just about to complete my dissertation for my History MA, launched a business magazine this year, which is giving me the most fun ever, and am organising a business exhibition in October. All in the loveliest place I can think of living. 

In summer, I start the day early with a walk on Woolacombe Beach with our spaniel, while in winter the two of us brave the winds as we crawl round Capstone Hill in a storm in December darkness. Mrs Z is content and our spaniel arranges our life so that we exercise and relax every day. What more could we ask?

Some say that Ilfracombe and North Devon are 30 years behind everyone else. I see them being 30 years ahead, because here many people value time more, are closer to nature, which I interpret as life and death, are more generous with their help, and appreciate what we all have. I think many businesses have forgotten these values, but perhaps more people are slowly realising how important they are. 

I do not have as much monetary wealth as I might have had from staying in the corporate world in the South East, pursuing opportunities purely because they were lucrative, but I am doing what I always wanted to do. And I am doing them where I have wanted to be for 50 years since the date on that ticket: Ilfracombe.

Posted in a musing, history, Ilfracombe, my life's essentials.

My life’s essentials 13: my lawn rake

Garden rake | My life's essentials | | robertz

My trusty lawn rake must be 29 years old. My Dad gave it to me, I think, as a birthday present the year Mrs Z and I moved into our first house, which had a garden some 50 feet long by 11 feet wide.

To me, this was paradise. The house I was born in had a much bigger garden and some of my earliest memories are of gardening with my Dad: helping him mow the lawn or plant vegetables, especially radishes. He loved radishes and, by coincidence, so do I.

I retained my love of gardening, as a teenager and adult, and when we bought our first house, I was thrilled to have a tiny patch of lawn and some borders in which we grew 50 or different herbs.

The house we live in now has a much bigger garden space, although when we moved in, much of it was covered by plant-killing membrane, and rocks and stones. We took all these up to discover the soil was dead. I planted several lawns, hedges and trees. At first, our main lawn would get water-logged during a downpour, but over the years all the plants and trees have improved drainage to soak up the water and now we don’t even get puddles. It’s no surprise that there is so much flooding in towns these days, with people and councils chopping down trees, concreting or tarmacking over the soil, and covering it with decking. Only the other week, I saw someone move into a house and – even though it has a garage with another car space as well as unrestricted on-street parking out the front – tear down the garden wall, dig up the lawn and cover it with tarmac. I am against this from an environmental perspective.

Anyway, today I mowed our main lawn and clipped the edges with shears. When you get down close, you discover not just grass but moss, dandelions, daisies, clover and other plants. As you can guess, my lawn is not bowling green standard, but we don’t want it to be. We want a natural cushion where we can sit to enjoy warm dry weather. I never treat it with weedkiller or chemicals, so now we have worms busying themselves all over the garden and lots of insects buzzing around. If we could have more garden, I’d like a wildflower meadow.

And so, after cutting the grass, I gathered it up with the rake Dad gave me. It is somewhat battered now, but it’s still serviceable and I hope it will be for a few years more.

Garden rake | My life's essentials | | robertz
Posted in my life's essentials, wild and gardens.
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