Boom Gates

The guardroom corporal clanged the boom gate into place behind me. Released, I left the camp and trudged up the Sussex country lane to a bus and train, and home to Mum and Dad. A June afternoon in 1965, it was a month since my twenty-first birthday and I was a civilian for the first time since November 1962. And one of the first things I was going to do was see Oh What A Lovely War!, a bitter-sweet prospect considering my buffeting of the last unpleasant two and half years. Goodbye and good riddance to the Intelligence Corps. Hello again, Civvy Street.

Forty-seven years later, I found myself, also alone, passing through another boom gate of theirs, one that rose and sank at the press of an unseen button, soundlessly. Why was I here? We had moved to a small town in Bedfordshire in order to be nearer our grandchildren, and I discovered that my old corps was now a few miles away, and that they had a museum. I suppose I was curious, wondering about myself and the scars of that naive encounter of the 1960s.

An elderly museum volunteer escorted me from the gate to a rebarbative, one-storey building. Outside was a large board whose banner blared Share the Secret! On the way, I had seen a squad of marching young soldiers and … some were women. Astonishing. Not in my time. Inside, my chaperone introduced me to a short, elderly, fair-haired man in a crumpled suit and faded regimental tie.

‘Good afternoon Mr Yates,’ he said. ‘Alan Edwards.’

Lilt. Welsh.

‘Hello.’ Looking round at the exhibits, I ventured, as if I couldn’t wait to get it out, ‘I was in the Corps in the mid-sixties. I do feel rather strange being here after all that time.’

Alan himself had been in the Corps since the fifties as an officer and immediately I put bad memories between us, couldn’t help it, all that saluting stuff. He struck up with a history of the Corps, which I had known little about when I served, quietly and carefully giving words to the displays. Here a large, glass terrarium with a life-size SOE woman hugging a sub-machine gun, her head and eyes thrown back, looking for danger in the night; there a single, blancoed gaiter belonging to a hero; another a rusty metal canister used by the IRA as a bomb. In the photo interpretation room, ‘I know them, they’re stereoscopes,’ I cried. ‘You can estimate the height of buildings using those, in 3D.’ Alan smiled. The only photograph of wartime-built Maresfield camp where I had trained, was disappointingly of the officer’s mess, where I was once drinks steward, and got extra pay. The unhurried tour took two hours, Alan unfailingly interesting, unflaggingly amusing.

‘Would you like to visit the Corps archive, Chris?’

And I really don’t know why, but that’s where we went, and where my retired life unexpectedly changed. Here was another flat-roofed, nondescript, building, blinds firmly drawn against nature’s light. Although he had been the Corps historian for over ten years, Alan was not supposed to take visitors to the archive, whose three cramped rooms were run by Joyce, the archivist. Politely accommodating my innocent presence, she glowered at him while he busied making tea. An officer, serving me tea. I looked around at desks of untidy piles of books, papers, some delicate, yellowing foolscap, not an inch of wall showing between tall metal bookshelves. Untended computer monitors mutely waited for their keyboards to be fingered.

Alan showed me some document, explaining it was an enquiry from a former serviceman about old comrades and could the archive put him in touch with them. A common enquiry, as I was to discover.

‘I wonder if he’s a sergeant major I worked for in 1964,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s Micky––,’ Alan said. ‘Did you know Micky?’

‘Well, it was not usual for privates to call warrant officers by their first name,’ I said.

An academic, quietly researching in a corner of the archive, sniggered. Alan didn’t hear that, or even all I said, for he was a little deaf.

‘Where were you in Germany?’ he asked, remembering what I had said in the museum.

‘Hubbelrath, with the Guards.’

‘Ah, the Guards. I understand.’ Alan nodded slowly, and in that moment something moved me closer to him.

Later, as I was leaving, he asked, ‘How would you like to work here, Chris?’

I write this seven years later.

(Alan had met former Private Chris Yates, BA, M Litt, Boys Brigade, civil servant, regular soldier, driver’s mate, labourer, HR manager, senior lecturer, home tutor, Samaritan listener, lifelong fretter. I met retired Major Alan Edwards, OBE, B.Sc., Boy Scout, national serviceman, regular soldier, colonial policeman, civil servant, historian, teacher of English to immigrants, raconteur, server of Christmas dinner to the homeless.)

I work in the archive one day a week. On arrival, and when he could remember the door combination, Alan would throw open the door, delivering a ‘Wie geht’s’ or a ‘Habari ya asubuhi‘ or a ‘Bore da’ to me toiling at a desk. Whatever the task, he would have a joke for it.  Whatever my question, he gave his entire attention to me, no matter the time, no matter how important his own work. Until my problem was solved, we were locked in pure enquiry. Some of Alan’s palpable love for his Corps would waft towards me; I couldn’t share his love but I could take pleasure from his.

Although he had had a distinguished career, receiving his OBE for broadly unreportable work in Washington, he was self-effacing and would often say, ‘If I didn’t come first, at least I got into the first three.’

Another volunteer, a former Corps national serviceman would sometimes attend; he and Alan bantered, at ease with each other’s persiflage. Mistakenly, I thought that Peter had been an officer but he said, ‘Oh no, I was a sergeant, not like Alan; majors were ten a penny when I was in the Corps.’ Unsure of my ground, I smiled weakly.

Later, the archivist asked me if I’d like to interview Alan, officially get down his service life, ‘Just for an hour’. Something I jumped at. We ended up together for six hours, Alan talking into a recording machine that I constantly fiddled with, praying it was working. A career soldier since the early 1950s and later the Corps historian, there was much to record about this gentle little Welshman who had played in many of the endgames of Empire. For example, when on leave from foreign parts, he was given to taking long journeys home by car and boat.

‘Once I was stood down in Kenya and took a slow boat, but round the Cape see, not Suez. A knockabout freighter with the captain suffering a few passengers.’

This is why it took several hours.

‘I’d always wanted to go to St Helena,’ he said, ‘and we tied up there in the evening, and the passengers were going ashore the next day to see it all. But the crew had a party on board that night.’

‘The crew?’ Weren’t you a passenger?’

‘Well, we were not supposed to fraternise, but that night I was the only non-crew member at the party.’

Resigned, I asked him how it went.

‘Chris,’ his blue eyes on me intently, and spacing his syllables ‘it was a party beyond belief.’ At which I nodded in soldierly communion.

‘And St Helena?’

‘Got to bed at about 8, half an hour later the passengers couldn’t wake me so they went ashore. Zonked out all day in my pit, I was. Never saw St Helena.’

Alan started to slow up, leaving uneaten sandwiches on cabinets, crumbs over his pullover, undrunk coffee, sometimes he forgot people’s names, paltered over the simplest of enquiries. The boss got worried. Dementia was mentioned. One day he did not come in and his wife phoned to say that he couldn’t, ever. I never saw him again.

His sad, corporeal demise was simultaneous with my own late-life ascent of archival skill and re-interest in the Corps. With a life that had already been full, for me it was like Concord’s second take-off, soaring upwards from a runway in the air. His museum tour had delightfully hooked me into the archive; his good humour and knowledge kept me there.

Alan inhabits the archive still. Several years after he left and died, we still call where he sat: ‘Alan’s desk’. His signature, initials, and neat, handwritten notes are ubiquitous. Only the crumbs are gone.

He’s just got to meet me and show me round after I go through that Final boom-gate.

























Wilfred, RIP

Wilfred has appeared on these pages once or twice. Born in Sale, he came to us in April 2005 as a bundle of light-brown fur and soon became part of the family unit, moving from Clayton West to Ampthill via Southend-on-Sea in 2006 when he got the deep chocolate colour of his breed. Mid-way through 2018, he started to go off his food, lost his famous penetrating meow and generally slowed up. Fair enough for the last bit, as he was in his thirteenth year, well advanced in equivalent human years. Vet treatment didn’t help much and he continued to be unusually finicky with food, until just before Christmas he stopped eating and drinking altogether.

After New Year, we took him to the animal hospital in Barton-le-Clay, where, as a nice young vet called Ed examined his nether parts, Wilfred’s eyes gazed soulfully at us. ‘Perhaps a blockage in his intestines,’ said Ed, ‘best to leave him in overnight.’ We left him there and that’s the last we saw of Wilfred. Ed said Wilfred had an inoperable liver tumour and only palliative care could be offered, so we decided not to prolong the agony for all of us: I gave the dreaded instruction to have him put down. We cried a little, and I began to put away Wilfred’s bits and pieces for feeding and sleeping. Then we cried a little more.

It’s been six days or so since he’s not been present in the household, and in our minds he has joined the other lovely Brown Burmese that we have enjoyed: Boycott, Yorick, Hedley and Blythe. Of course a cat isn’t a human, and grieving is necessarily shorter, but remembering Wilfred will last for as long we have breath.

Those who know us might have already spotted a compensatory fact. At about the same time in midsummer when Wilfred began to fade, the gorgeous Verity came to us (now it seems as if from heaven) our first girl cat, and, by the way, Wilfred’s great-great-niece. If similar to Wilfred’s, when her own time comes to pass ‘neat through the loophole’ to the other side, I might be 89.

Cats no less liquid than their shadows
Offer no angles to the wind.
They slip, diminished, neat through loopholes
Less than themselves; will not be pinned

To rules or routes or journeys …
Arthur Tessimond



Most of the back gardens in our street are nicely decked out with well-mown lawns, ornamental ponds and fittingly planted flower beds. At least mine is. Not so that of my near neighbour and friend, Jim, whose unmanicured patch is given over to beans, tomatoes, marrows, squash, fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries. Jim tends this in a wandering sort of way, picking his way through tangled thickets of unkempt plants, for Jim is one of nature’s socialists, enjoying the unkempt garden sprawl of his garden as a foil to our small-town conformity. For him, plants, brambles and shrubs can shift for themselves like an unfettered market, sadly, much at odds with his lifelong socialist dream of a planned economy. A retired GP and practising Catholic, Jim cares for fellow human beings at large as well he did for his erstwhile patients. This gentle affection is carried into and from the vegetable garden, where he can be seen pottering much of the day occasionally pulling out something eatable for himself and Mary, both vegetarians. Jim not so much harvests as gleans his own produce.

He is also a devoted, if too tolerant, grandfather. Once, in his September garden I asked  why he was not propping up several six-foot sunflowers, falling over and into themselves like drunken Triffids.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I grow those only for the children so they can look up and be amazed.’

‘As one would to heaven?’ I asked.

Rarely provoked, he gave me his quiet smile.


Spitting on Blackberries

Legend has it that if you pick pick your blackberries after Michaelmas (29 September), the Devil spits on them. So, giving that horror a wide berth, we picked a few on the last day of August, and they ended up in two delicious apple and blackberry pies. From bramble to tummy was at most five hours.

We had tried at a favourite spot just outside town earlier in the week, but the problem was that it seemed to be a favourite for others as well; it was a bank holiday with people and cars everywhere. Racking my brains for lesser-known alternative, I remembered that while hiking I had seen several bushes on a little-used road out of nearby Steppingley, a couple of miles from home. Appearing in the Domesday Book, the village boasts a fine parish church in St Lawrence, built in the Early Decorated and Perpendicular styles of the fourteenth century. Not only that but also the village supports a cricket club with a fine pavilion and ground.

Judicious selection at the side of the road got us thirteen ounces of fine berries in plastic containers. Sadly, the ritual of blackberrying is diminishing, consequently for most there’ll be fewer childhood memories of stained fingers and clothes, not to speak of pricked skin and futile reaching on tiptoes for the highest delights. My own memories were set in September and often beyond the onset of Satan’s expectorating, since the fruit ripens later in Scotland where I spent most of my early life.

What are the benefits of eating blackberries? Among the claimed fruits of eating the fruit are improved immunity; weight loss; healthy bones, skin and eyes; digestion; and cognition. They also prevent endothelial dysfunction, which squeamishly I don’t want to go into. And I’ll be pretty pushed to get all that advantage from my annual consumption, typically a half share of this year’s harvest.

Pre-cooking tips are to soak them for an hour in water just before using them, then rinse well before eating. But they should be refrigerated unwashed. Just so you know.

In 1960, an Irishman expressed it better …

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 1939–2013

If you like, listen to him at:

With noticeboard 2.jpg


Fleshpots of Ampthill


Living as a temporary bachelor for the last week has had its good and bad points. Notably good is the freedom to have several items in the kitchen where my mother used to call ‘to hand’, rather than stowed neatly so as not to offend the eye. Not so good is the amazingly rapidity with which dinner comes around, when instead of finely cooked repast, I have to have remembered at breakfast to start to thaw items. For example, this evening is a chicken curry among many made last month in bulk, and I eschewed one plastic container of that same food, but whose date was in July last year. Surely the shelf life must have passed even in deep freeze?

It’s not that I get lonely – who would with such a voluble cat as Wilfred – but sometimes you like another human around. Accordingly I got my friend to visit. In the throes of trying to bring to a decent conclusion a complicated divorce, he resides in two houses: one the former marital 18th-century pile in Essex; the other, his own fine-looking Victorian building in New Brighton. (On first hearing about this place I thought it was a housing development on the outskirts of the southern city, but it rests in the Wirral where the River Mersey meets the Irish sea.)

Pretty much the sole idea is to tackle the fleshpots of Ampthill, the first of which after plodding through the rain, is the Queen’s Head. Anything that refers to the queen in this town is after Catherine of Aragon, for it was in the long-since demolished castle here that Henry VIII detained his wife for two years until his divorce came through. and we all know what a kafuffle that caused. On one occasion the current landlord substituted Catherine’s face on the pub sign with that of the Duchess of Cambridge and was there a to do about that! Anyway, here the landlord dispenses some of Bedfordshire’s finest (it is a Charles Wells pub) but I have a pint of Courage Director’s while my friend, not an ale-lover, goes Continental with a Peroni. For six years I lived just across the road and sure enough there is someone I know in the bar, and he comes over to chat for a while about landlords and customers past.

After a couple, we move down to the red light district that is the market square and have an agonising choice between Indian and Italian. Fratelli wins, especially as they have a pretty good table for us, and even now there is another who knows me. Luciano is one of the three brothers who own the restaurant and lives over the town butcher’s, remembers me. He becomes Latin-lavish with promises of closely attentive service, nothing too much …. The food is superb, as always, especially bolstered by a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Homeward-bound I plan an attack on the 1950s cocktail bar that we brought from Australia, the one dubbed with a warning by a friend out there: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’. As that became increasingly prophetic, I persuade him for us to polish off one of the bottles of Pálinka that a Hungarian friend presses on me when she visits. This one is szilva (plum) from the Körös Valley and at 40% proof soon gets that abandonment going nicely, especially knocked back in proper schnapps glasses. On and on into the night with a good old-fashioned booze, two men in their early 70s reminisce about … what do you think when you’re 70? Loves lost and found, what ifs, one or two tears, all underpinned by crying egészségedre (and that’s the correct second person singular for ‘cheers’).

A stinking hangover in the morning one of those when it feels like you are wearing a balaclava inside your head, just don’t get them like that any more. But my friend handled it all better than I, and was off in his car in the morning to the Essex fork of his yet-to-be settled life.

Back to Wilfred, my thankfully totally abstemious companionfor another three weeks.






A Nice Wedding

‘I think weddings is sadder than funerals, because they remind you of your own wedding. You can’t be reminded of your own funeral because it hasn’t happened. But weddings always make me cry’. Brendan Behan, Richard’s Cork Leg.

Last Saturday we drove 60 miles of mostly country roads to an early afternoon wedding in deepest Northamptonshire.

Slawston is a Domesday Book village (pop. 191) with a small, late-thirteenth-century church, seating on this occasion some 50 people. They included a brass ensemble, and four fanfare trumpeters from the mounted Band of the Household Cavalry in full regalia; both bride and bridegroom are actually in that band. She wore a white dress and stole and he his ceremonial crimson uniform. His best man was a similarly clad, tall, uniformed lance sergeant of Grenadiers, the most senior regiment in the British Army. All this pomp was waiting for me after I had found a space to park in the tiny village, walked to the church but had to retrace my steps, following tied-up balloons indicating the nearest toilet. That was at Black Horse farm (thankfully on the street), in what seemed like a cow barn. Relieved, and sitting back in the pew, I saw the families sorting themselves out along the front pews, the father of the groom praying (too late now!), his ex fussing about as mothers in fascinators ought, and several young women weirdly bare-armed against the unheated December interior.

Reverend Alison carried us all along in a jolly but respectful way, looking and sounding amazingly similar to the vicar of Dibley. No hitches, no lapses all smooth and well conducted. We gave voice to the Lord to ‘forgive our foolish ways’ and became reclothed in ‘our rightful mind’, which is fair enough when you are in church and appropriately, written by a Quaker. To the ensemble’s ‘Earle of Oxford Marche’ by Byrd, the now-spliced couple signed their lives away in the register and processed grandly back up the up the aisle to Purcell’s ‘Trumpet Tune and Air’. All very splendid. Afterwards, sensibly clad ladies of the parish moved amongst us, serving delectable homemade savouries, sweets and mulled wine. Also splendid. And also, time for home. (Although kindly invited to the evening reception and ceilidh, we had declined, citing age, but severely underscored by my own palpable aversion to large-group social events.)

Why the lines from Behan’s little-known play? Well, at the moment Kate and Julian were pronounced by the rev, thinking back on my own three weddings and 45 years of wedlock I found myself scrabbling for a handkerchief.

A smashing afternoon.




A Week in Antwerp

Drove the 122 miles to Eurotunnel, plunged under the Channel, then 172 more to Hove, Antwerp. The exchange house is comfortable, solar-energised, with a scaredy-cat called Tjupke.

Settled and stayed in on a bad-weather day. I made a rare (still with the fasciitis) 1.2 km walk along the railway line to the nearest tram stop, Oude-God.

Made a motoring (lovely, comfy, old-fashioned term) tour, crossing the border into Zeeland in the Netherlands, a 240 km-round trip. Crossed the 6.6 km tunnel under the Westerschelde and past Middelburg, stopped at Domburg on the coast, and walked on the sandy beach in a cold wind. Remembered how a few years ago we had done the same at Blakeney on the opposite side of the North Sea and stared out towards Europe. From there, crossed a long, long bridge from De Roompot to the area of Zuid Beveland with so many constructions of mighty tidal barriers. Luctor et Emergo (I struggle and I survive) is Zeeland’s slogan, aptly recalling 1953 when almost 1,900 people died in tidal floods, and the start of the massive land reclamation for which this little country is famous. Suzanne got excited at ‘tiny Dutch houses’, and especially windmills, sometimes squealing so loud it frightened the wits out of me, driving. Once we chased the sight of a windmill into some town or other, only to get lost and the sat nav no help; and a 1:300 000 map goes only so far.

To Edegem and Fort No. V, one of eight built in the 1850s and 1860s to defend the city, set on earlier Middle Ages’ fortifications. Heavily built, with wet and dry moats, thick walls and extensive overhead layers of soil, swiftly advancing technology of war quickly overcame their effectiveness. They were never under attack and these days most have fallen into disrepair.

Organised by our exchange partners, our guide, a Holland-born Belgian in his sixties with a Chinese wife, told us fascinating stories historically, socially, politically and in other ‘ilies. We learnt that the military intent of the forts was solely defence; for every hour the enemy was kept back, another activity elsewhere might save the day. I remembered the Intelligence Corps in West Germany in 1963/64, when my unit had only a theoretical four hours before being overwhelmed by Russian and East German forces. He was much impressed by this military defensive posture and said he would use it in his subsequent tours. (Long after disbandment, 4 Guards Brigade will live on in peacetime Belgium.) Two and a half hours of delight, inside dark alleys and cramped firing positions and outside on overgrown defensive embankments, no compromise for Suzanne whose walking gets better and better.

Then to pretty Lier, where harmonious marital systems broke down at lunchtime with an argument about where we would eat – even if we would eat. And once having sat down (I lost) drew great enjoyment from seeing another couple in the same street arguing about whether to enter our restaurant. At this place I ordered a ‘Highlander’ sandwich roll, which contrary to what I thought was herring, a great favourite of mine, turned out to be mostly of sickly sweet honey, sultanas and cheese. That part of the day did not go well.

To Antwerp, parking the car, taking a tram from Oude-God station, 30 minutes to Groenplaats in the centre. The Cathedral of our Lady charged €6 but was worth it, keeping riff-raff and numbers down, therefore blissfully quiet. Saw Reubens’s The Descent from the Cross, Mary in a brilliant red dress. At the Plantin museum, recommended by the redoubtable Bart, we learnt about Antwerp’s printing history in the sixteenth century. Plantin was a Reformation printer who produced books not only in his native Flemish, but also in 14 other languages, very different from the church’s control of literacy by way of Latin-only, which few could read. Good old Luther, some might say.

We set out at 10 to walk to the tram, but I broke down with my chronic back pain, despite my heel feeling ok. Such a contrast with Suzanne who was keen, and very able to walk. Changed plans and drove 18 km to Mechelen, nice with a big town feel, yet also village-like. St Rumbold’s Cathedral houses a Van Dyke and a 25-panel depiction of the life and death of the saint, some including a kneeling ‘sombre and pious couple’; they had paid for it all, so got a mention on a panel or two. Even better was the emotive Kazerne-Dossin, a memorial to 22,000 Belgian Jews who were assembled there by the German occupiers, for dispatch to the camps. Quite a bit on Belgian agonising over the degree of collaboration, especially by the police. What would I have done? Pity about two noisy groups: one of grey hairs, and the other of teenagers every single one of them with eyes glued to a tablet. A nice little man in a moustache spoke kindly to us, asking how we felt about the museum. He showed me to the toilet, where my 50 cents placed in a saucer was barely noticed by the large, middle-aged lady who barely looked up from her mobile. Not just kids, then, are screen-fixated.
Quiet day in Antwerp climbing up and down creaky wooden stairs in the Rubens Huis. The many visitors included the almost-statutory Japanese girls clinging to each other, taking selfies and there was a group of quiet and respectful small schoolchildren taking instruction from their teacher in French. Outside, I kid you not, another little man with a moustache stopped us, pointing out what was the ‘Gestapo’s HQ’, but when I walked over to check, there was no evidence showing, Probably quite right, not to plaque evil.

Grocery shopping in Hove, a kind of Chelsea/Double Bay, for nice ingredients for dinner, since, to the despair of Suzanne, we shall eat chez nous yet again. Dinner will be coiled-sausage salad and massive-calorie cake topped up with fine Belgian beer. Tjupke’s noise had me up at 2, again at 4, so I rose, typed an email then back to bed.

News from another country: my sister texts that my 48-year-old cousin has died.

At Eurotunnel, for the boarding queue and in the shuttle we were parked behind a car of five young men in football tops, beering, belching and swearing. Lovely – welcome back to Blighty.

Looking back on this mixed week, from Europe I could see my country much diminished, administering economic suicide, pauperising its influence for good, riven as never before, ‘led’ by self-serving, ignorant, and weak politicians with a husk of a prime minister. Hail Brexit.

Waterside in Mechelen





Teaching my Grandson Three-Card Brag

Last week, we answered an urgent call to babysit, or ‘boysit’ as Jonathan used to insist on back in the 1970s. Indio, 12, was coming home from school to a dad working very late, mum having driven the older brother 200-odd miles to a fencing competition in Manchester. Instead, we looked after him until after 10. You don’t need to look after a 12-year-old all that much, basically fuel him with grub, monitor his ration of computer and TV, then off to bed.

He invited me to his room where I received a recital on his guitar, which I thought was a classical piece but apparently was a bass accompaniment or something. When he mentioned Green Day, I got animated, eager to show my credentials.

‘Green Day, I know them.’
‘Yeah, sure you know Green Day,’ he said.
‘Yes, they’re folk–punk. Or is it the other way round? They started in the 1970s.’

He corrected me on the right balance of folk and punk, but there was no doubt of the admiration in his eyes. (None of which, I must say, is engendered when I have asked him about the Beatles, which attracts a snort.) Little did he know that only a fortnight previously, I had interviewed a 22-year-old assistant curator for the museum where I work, and Green Day are the light of her life.

Having stamped a degree of authenticity on my presence in his world, I retired downstairs to my New Statesman in which, although Green Day was absent, there was a sufficiency of my own form of modernity to assure me at least of my existence.

After dinner, we three sat, ate and chatted, then he watched some TV, in my book American soap junk over-laughed every few seconds by a demented recording. Not something we could exercise control over for he is a well-behaved lad and knows what he is allowed to watch, and what not. So we left him to it, until he asked if he could play chess.

I’m rather proud that I taught both grandsons chess, when as a child I taught myself from books; I knew neither of my grandfathers. The one game we played I am afraid I won, since I’ve given up losing to the kids on purpose. Is it dishonest to provide a kindness based on a falsehood? I think of other, grown-up episodes of my life. After that we played cards, a bit of knockout whist, rummy,  innocent blackjack.

‘Have you ever played three-card brag?’ I asked.
‘It’s easy, how much money to you have?
His eyes widened.
‘It’s all right, you can play with your pocket money and owe me if I win.’

No, no he said and kept on saying it. I said that my Dad made me play for money. Then he rushed to the games drawer again and produced an impressively big case of gambling chips, some with 1,000 on them, which did all right. Now, Indio it’s three of a kind best hand, with three-threes tops, right down to a high card, but the thing about brag is that you can bet without looking at your cards and force your opponents to bet double your amount, and they can neither raise nor see you. He got hold of it pretty quickly especially when we both went blind and I chickened out, seeing him first. Reminded of my dissolute HND days at Stockport College, lunchtime at the Nelson; my grant provided a modicum of fun after food and rent, but sadly, at brag I rarely came out on top. And not much better in the army a couple of years previously, when all-found employment provided more dosh to lose.

Back to boysitting. It was not so much the games as the nattering, bridging the sixty-one years between us. Lovely. Soon it was his bedtime which involved his goodnight ritual, precisely at 10 o’clock. Even got a hug and a kiss.

‘Nice to see you, Indio.’
‘And you too, granddad.’


A London Jaunt

Richard and I are determined to avoid two things that spoil a pub crawl in London: to avoid the pressure on racing for the afternoon’s last off-peak train; and being civilised with the drink, i.e. eating something. On the last day of July, we have managed both.

For exercise we get off the train early at St Pancras International. As provincials, we admit to feeling the usual frisson of London, admire the new Crick building, cross impossibly busy Euston Road and walk down Judd Street, named after Lord Mayor Sir Andrew about 1650. At Handel Street we turn into the peaceful, 18th-century St George’s Gardens, a still-consecrated burial ground and an oasis in heavily built-up WC1 surroundings. This takes us to within a whisper of Gray’s Inn Road, but we turn right along Mecklenburgh Square, speculating about its German origins. (It’s named after Georges III’s Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.) Striking south we turn left at Theobold’s Street – once pronounced ‘Tibbalds’ – a route that James I used to get his entourage across the capital to Theobolds (sic) Palace in Cheshunt. Enough of this, we need to hurry down Leather Lane thence into Hatton Garden, where bulky, suited African men in dark glasses stand outside the famous jewellery shops.

On, on we are a few minutes late and just before Holborn sidle left into a slit in the wall and revealed is Ye Old Mitre. It’s five minutes past eleven. Originally built in 1546 but this version a modern 1772, it was until the 1970s, along with pricey Ely Place at the end of the alley, under the jurisdiction of Cambridgeshire. Two pints of London Pride please, but it’s the end of the cask and we have to wait, sitting uselessly without beer at a wooden table. As soon as they are ready we go outside, standing round a large barrel and isn’t that first taste just divine!

Next, we are walking up Charterhouse Street and through Smithfield Market, now on its last legs before property developers get hold of the latest bit of old London. Bartholomew Fair and Bart’s Hospital are in view but the Butcher’s Hook and Cleaver calls us in. Although a modern pub, with much open space ready for the suits and no guest ale, Fuller’s again does almost as well.

The doors to 12th-century Great St Bart’s place of worship ask for payment to view. We pass up this transactional spiritual refreshment in search of the other and saunter along Cloth Fair to The Hand and Shears, a wooden-floored yet well-appointed pub of Victorian vintage and very welcome Courage Director’s. Two pints and a packet of crisps cost exactly a tenner!

Exiting and now tending to mellow, we get to the top of Charterhouse Street, with its eponymous 13th-century monastery-turned-public-school, and the Fox and Anchor. Mahogany doors lead into an art nouveau interior with Doulton tiling, before us a long, straight bar with some partitions. Won’t remember what ale we are drinking but the barman is co-operative in turning down the noise that many people call music. The Fox and Anchor, and the Hope, a little further down the street, are Smithfield early-openers, at 7 a.m. and 6 a.m., respectively. The Hope, with a lovely sunburst window, is a one-roomed Victorian affair with Young’s, but no longer is it cosy for the piped noise drives us outside with our pints, or in my case a half.

Unlike on other crawls, we had determined that we should eat something, and in Cowcross Street down from the Hope there is fast food galore. Whatever we have fills us up; memorable it is not.

And so just into EC1 to the quirkiest pub of that day, some way along Britton Street named after Thomas Britten, an 18th-century charcoal merchant and singer who once performed with Handel. Jerusalem Tavern, originally 14th century is a tiny, tumbledown sort of place in a 1720s house, but modern-day equipped and whose full-tasting beer is from the St Peter’s Brewery of Suffolk, dispensed from wall casks. We sit outside in the rather too busy street, and muse upon the ending of our day.

A few minutes walking takes us to Farringdon station where a late afternoon train whisks us out of London. Richard and I congratulate ourselves on a delightful day’s drinking and scoffing, albeit within churlishly limited off-peak hours.


Hostelries Visited
Ye Olde Mitre
Butcher’s Hook and Cleaver
The Hand and Shears
The Fox and Anchor
The Hope
The Jerusalem Tavern

Map: Camra’s London Pub Walks, Bob Steel, 2009.



In Belgium

Halfway through a ten-day house exchange, and it’s a rest day, sitting around the house listening to the rain. Rest days are much to be enjoyed following days of getting out and about, either into the melée of Brussels or the frantic road system. Rest days renew the dissipated spirit, refuel the knackered body, prepare for the affair of the holiday to begin again. You might have got the impression that I quite like them.

It might  a bit unfair to rough up the habits of Belgian drivers for they are not quite as the French. Within minutes of entering the roads you have a car up your backside as you obey the very reasonable 50 km suburban speed limit. Not so the locals, who treat speed limits, unless policed, as reference points from which to indulge their boy-racer persona. I was wrong, they are as bad as the French.

Brussels has had a bad press, largely due to their having torn down so much of their architectural heritage in the 1960s. Despite that, in parts it has a lovely Parisian feel, supported beautifully by the predominant language of French at which we are not bad, at least ordering food, buying stamps and the like. There are rewarding quartiers to explore, sinful beer to try and don’t you just love the transport: efficient and cheap, at least the latter beating London. Best of all is coming home to an exchange-house that clasps you unto it, sets you down in the quiet, soothes the fatigue of older age.

Yesterday we drove to Leuven, drove rather than on the tram/train/bus as planned, not only for Suzanne, who has attempted too much after her operation, but also for me with this blasted plantar fasciitis that has persisted for months. Appearing in the square above the car park we were greeted with one of the modern sounds of summer: the banging together of racks of chairs preparing for a rock concert. Another victim of the wars (it’s beginning not to matter which) when the Germans razed lots of the old town for no apparent purpose, Leuven is the country’s oldest university town (1425).

Towards the end of the stay, we visited the town museum where I expected my eyes to glaze over with exhibits of bits of Flanders cloth or spiky mediaeval helmets. Instead, your 10 euros bought four floors of weird arrangements of children’s blocks on tables, pointless films of Indian dancers, pictures (and not many of those) of bits of rope or hairy carpet, and most disconcerting of all a three-act play with two child-robots talking in an American accent to projected films of pole dancers. We did not stay beyond the first act.