Reading in High Places

My career took place in business class,
Living out of an impossibly small
Roll-on that never saw the hold.

As a perk of this caper, I read novels,
Drank champers and ate
Smoked salmon that I got to hate,

Flew a day and a quarter from Sydney to
Delaware to the maw of corporate HQ, where
They talk a language I’ve guiltlessly discarded.

From London once, all day to the Caucasus
I read and drank the silences from
The empty seats beside me, fore and aft.

That afternoon the pilot banked obligingly
Over Istanbul to balance me above
Coppery glints of minarets and domes.

At darkening India, I fell asleep over
My third novel and dreamt of
Ants at prayers in mosques.

Ampthill
28 January 2008

 

At the Seaside

A friend has a grand Edwardian house in Westcliff-on-Sea, and generally comes to visit us because she and I walk, footpaths being handier here. On this occasion, we drove the 77 motorway miles to her one afternoon in May. She had also invited her daughter and two children so we had a sort of domestic afternoon, including a visit to the beach. A chilling wind blew off the flats, the two- and four-year-old indifferent to it, intent on patting sand, while the adults stood around in warm coats.

Leaving the others to themselves, I wandered off towards the Crowstone, something I had heard of but only seen its tip in the estuary waters. It’s a 14-foot-high granite obelisk with a history going back to 1197, but most recently re-erected in 1836 to show the seaward limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction over the Thames. Nosing around it alone, taking in the sea air, I remembered childhood days at the seaside on the Isle of Wight. When the little boy came up, I showed him how to skim stones off the water.

After the beach it was back to Camelot, for so is the house named, and for mum to get the children ready for bed and their sleepy car journey home to Bromley. I was roped in to read a story to the now pyjama-clad little boy, who had equipped himself with no fewer than three children’s books. Took me back 40 years, especially my own son being 44 that very next day. They don’t change: after three books were despatched, he waited for more. I asked, ‘Which one shall I read again?’ He chose Bear Hunt, an illustrated narrative by Anthony Browne, in which your ursine hero evades a pair of incompetent hunters by deftly drawing rescue devices with a pencil on the page. For example, a hunter advances behind with a noose and Bear draws a horn, which on the next page is at the end of a menacing rhinoceros. An interesting metafictional device that the lad couldn’t quite grasp when I put it to him.

Outside in the spacious garden, a mangy fox padded over the lawn. Later, Mr Grey, a tomcat of the same colour meowed at the back door for his tea. Mr Grey has a (bad) thing about men so I had to pretend that I wasn’t there, but he dashed in for his grub, and out again, eyes wide-eyed with distress.

Next morning, the party reduced to three adults, we drove forth through Southend and beyond to Shoeburyness, the end of the train line to London. Here we walked up to Poppies: Wave a marvellous adaptation of the moving Tower of London remembrance poppies of 2014. At the end of a pier on MoD land, it’s on a UK-wide tour, a stream of bright-red poppies on stalks flowing towards the estuary. Lovely. You could leave a handwritten note to be displayed and laminated by red-poppy-coloured volunteers; on mine I wrote ‘Thanks to Dad, Sergeant Yates of The Black Watch 1942-1961’. (Dad went up Gold Beach on D-Day and wounded later, served in Germany, Korea, and Kenya where he was also wounded.)

To nearby Shoebury Garrison, set up for the Crimean War but now the defunct garrison’s buildings are rather posh residences. Driving around the development reminded me of my own life in barracks more or less until the age of 21, and how most of my old homes are not just defunct but demolished.

Back to Camelot for coffee, motor back to Ampthill.

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Poppies: Wave: http://www.visitsouthend.co.uk/poppies/poppies.aspxCrowstone: http://southendtimeline.com/crowstone.htm

Bear.jpg

Mussolini’s Gardener

I did not start serious hiking until I returned to live in my native country, in December 2004. Just a fortnight later on a black January morning at Devil’s Dyke, I was beginning the South Downs Way with a friend, now of fifty years. Since then I have completed the SDW, the Thames Path, Greensand Ridge Walk and John Bunyan Trail (both twice), besides extensive local walking in the pretty but flat local Bedfordshire countryside. All this for twelve years and the body holding up fairly well. Until now.

What has this to do with the infamous Benito? Another friend (isn’t it easy to mistype it as ‘fiend’?) of mine, a wag of sorts, and who doesn’t walk as much as I do, listened kindly enough to my tale of woe about the bad foot that has brought my walking to a stop. In fact, so stopped is it that my doctor has ordered only walking around the house, whatever that means: I am housebound, and for a month. That was ten days ago but I broke the rule a few days later when I struck out the almost two miles to the station and a suburban pub crawl in St Albans. Not a good idea, and since then I have followed the doc’s advice to a T.

Must hasten to the point. The wag likened my complaint to an imagined horticultural assistant to Il Duce. A painful condition of the heel, it’s called plantar fasciitis.

Mussolini.gif

Mothers-in-Law

Born in England on the first Christmas Day of the Great War, my first mother-in-law Gwen came into my life in 1966 (she died in 2005) when I met her daughter, my first wife. Betty, born in Australia in 1924, I first met in 1975 when asking for her first-born daughter’s hand. Betty died recently and I got to thinking about both my mothers-in-law. Why not a comparison?

Similarities

For most of their lives they were housewives, full-time mothers, both lived through the Second World War, in Betty’s case as a military dental nurse, but as for Gwen I do not know, she would have been 25 at the outbreak of WWII. Both had what might be termed successful husbands, Betty’s Ray a stock and station agent and owner of a concrete fabrication factory, and Gwen’s Francis an automotive engineer who designed the aerodynamics of Bluebird. (He went with Donald Campbell to Australia in 1964 for the ill-fated attempt on the world record.) Finally, in their own way both mothers-in-law were good cooks, from Gwen’s signal Scotch eggs to Betty’s famous recovery breakfasts at Hill Street and Prentice Avenue. And no mean feat for that generation, they both got into their nineties.

Contrasts

Betty was undoubtedly the matriarch of the family I had glimpses into, in her pomp strong and protective; Gwen was timid and submissive, especially to Francis who, tall but thin as a rake had a big booming voice that bespoke authority. Ray could never be described as submissive but he, like many, seemed to stand in Betty’s shadow. Oh, yes and I never remember religion even being mentioned at the bungalow in Rugby, quite different to the all-pervading Catholicism at Betty’s houses. Another big difference was that Gwen was strictly teetotal; my second mother-in-law was most assuredly not. Others were that Gwen had two daughters only and Betty produced eight children, but as Leslie Nielsen said in Flying High ‘that’s not important’.

Physically, Betty was tall, at least she seemed so to me, while Gwen was shorter although possibly her pronounced stoop made her so. Gwen rarely smiled, certainly I never remember her laughing, not as much as her successor, who was pretty jolly. (Round both, you had to watch your language, as you did for your own mum and dad.)

As an in-law, for what shall I remember each? For Betty her strength and generosity, for Gwen her quiet ways of handling difficulties (mostly to do with her husband), but in truth I didn’t know her as well as I did Betty, thus I am probably short-changing her.

Extra

I can’t resist something about the fathers-in-law, because long-married couples can re-shape each other. In the hour it took me to drive him once to Manilla (NSW) I learned from Ray what a long paddock was, e.g. that it doesn’t have a gate. So that’s a nice person to live with, someone who knows about long paddocks. On the other hand, one evening at the bungalow, finally Gwen and Frances went to bed leaving their daughter and me alone. Gasping for a fag but without a light, I reached down to the (faux) hearth for one of her dad’s Swan Vestas. ‘Don’t you dare,’ she cried, ‘he counts them.’

Finally

To both Betty and Gwen, may you rest in peace and I thank you for your daughters.

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Amiens, February 2017

Monday the 6th of February and thrilled to be setting out for Eurotunnel, off the island and onward to Amiens. With a population of 136,000 it used to be the capital of the historical region of Picardy and sits astride the river Somme, which set against the ferocious battles fought there, is Celtic for ‘tranquillity’. Why Amiens for us? It’s an hour and a half’s drive from the Channel, nicely reachable compared with some of the other eight-hour treks into deepest Europe, getting too old for all that.

Well, the town isn’t bad, although much destroyed and rebuilt after two wars. For example, the train station (1857) was razed by German shelling in WWI, rebuilt identically, then Allied bombing destroyed it again. Now it is a thoroughly modern structure. Boasting a stunning Gothic cathedral, the biggest in France, Amiens was home to Jules Verne and where the Red Baron was brought down for the last time. We had a pleasant time attending the bars and restaurants. Pretty cold at 2-3° lots of the time but we don’t mind that.

What we did mind was the Airbnb-booked three-storey 18th-century gîte called La maison de Sophie in the St-Leu quartier, with an arm of the river Somme flowing languidly by. It all looked lovely on the website but when we arrived we were greeted by a posse of elderly French-speaking (actually, shouting) fisherman smack bang opposite the house, drinking the time from after 8 a.m. until dark, every sodding day. Lovely. Sophie’s was poorly maintained with a broken window lock, lights not working, an unanchored safety rope on the perilous stone spiral staircase, a filthy rubbish-bin area and an eyesore of a garden. Thoroughly poor value.

A longish walk through dubious streets to the Jardin des Plantes revealed nothing in the beds, and the greenhouses were strictly accés interdit. Well, it is February. Best part, aside from the truly lovely cathedral, were two days driving up and down the Somme, visiting villages, military cemeteries and other old stuff. Most notable was the British cemetery at Crouy, where the majority of headstones showed 248 Aussie war dead. In one corner of the cemetery stood a couple of dozen German graves, suitably but sadly divided from their former enemies. And another time we were at the site of the famous Australian victory at Le Hamel, recently been made into a moving, windswept war memorial to those unfortunate lads of a faraway country.

My lasting impression of the town was one of visible homelessness and poverty, and if you are unlucky enough to be victim of those, you are not persuaded by higher liberal values but of how to make ends meet. If you think Marine Le Pen will get that for you, why wouldn’t you vote for her? Much ado à la Trump.

Home in Ampthill after five days of all this, I almost kissed the carpet John Paul II-like, with thanks for a much-desired homecoming and rebalancing of our dosha.

 

Neglected Somme.JPG
Not quite Sophie’s!
Suzanne at Crouy cemetery.JPG
An Aussie amongst Aussies

Breakfasts

 

Possible attendance at men’s breakfast had always fostered velleity in me, until I buckled to the strenuous invitation from my Catholic deacon friend. It was to be the setting to present his epic 500-mile Camino pilgrimage; and it was going to help me a little since I was also editing his book on it. A couple of friends, to whom I had shown without comment, ‘Saturday – men’s breakfast’, in my diary, had each lifted an eyebrow, so no pressure then.

Yesterday I walked the just-over two miles to the church, located in Pope Close (yes). Under an overcast sky and wrapping-up weather of 2°, it took about half the distance for me to cognitively restructure enough to finish the second half. But by the time the unassuming modern brick and timber structure came into view I was back to steeling myself for the encounter. Inside, most of the men had arrived, happily standing about in jumpers and cardigans with mugs of the steaming proverbial. Having found my deacon to say hello, I saw with great relief that there was someone else I knew, a man who lives a street or so away from me, and importantly a fellow non-Catholic, and like me, married to one.

Half-a-dozen tables were laid out with paper tablecloths and a large plastic dispenser of tomato sauce. Pretty soon we sat down, I at a table with my neighbour, someone who works with St Vincent de Paul, and three others. After the La Faba pilgrimage prayer, a male hubbub sprang up similar to when I breakfasted at Peckham Spike* in 1965, but at that grim place tin plates of porridge ladled from dixies were slid with great force down to those at the ends of long trestle tables – keep your elbows up, boys! Here, on the other hand, three smiling women from the adjacent kitchen bore aloft salvers of sandwiches steaming with sausage and bacon, while a slim young man in a grey waistcoat walked amongst us with a coffee pot and milk jug, like an airline steward.

Thank goodness for the neighbour, a bloke I see from time to time, a few months younger than I, and formerly in the merchant navy. When the deacon started to talk and apologise for his neglecting to include music for the slides, I muttered almost to myself, ‘Well, could be a blessing.’ And the SVP-man grinned in agreement. Everyone attended to the deacon’s energetic photo and feelings presentation of his walk, while simultaneously relieving the plates of their munchy offering.

’Twas all not so bad, but then frequently things aren’t. With the presentation over, there were the usual questions that dragged things out enough to get my fingers drumming. Finally, my sailor-neighbour gave me a lift back during which, because he said he was going to Nottingham that day, I hogged the time mournfully reminiscing about picking up girls at the Sherwood Rooms dance hall, a couple of years before that other, homeless breakfast in South London. At last, my house’s warmth closed in on me wonderfully.

I’d done it! I’d survived men’s breakfast!

* see: https://vimeo.com/4042606

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On Leaving an Action Learning Set – One Year On

What follows is neither a how to, nor a how not to, but a one-year-on reflection on my departure from a long-established self-managing set, to which I had belonged for nine lovely years. What led me to leave? How did I do it? How do I feel now?

The set had been active for many years; I joined it in its maturity, so that I was the one to adjust my Action Learning thinking and practice to the set’s way of doing things. There were sound lessons, for I learned the strength of bringing in others’ ways, of tempering my own practice which I had ‘proved’ in other spheres. I became immersed in a way I had not done with any other group, Action Learning or not. (We met pretty well every month on a weekday for five hours.) For six months or so before I left, I had had vague feelings of not being quite settled in life generally. I never got to the bottom of them. I never took airtime to bring the feelings out, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

In coping with change we can be subject to two forces: propulsion and impulsion. The former pushes you away from something and the latter beckons you towards some new state. Of course, you rarely know in the moment that you are victim to these forces – hindsight works wonders. One of the propelling forces, I think, was that I had had my day with the group, along the lines of Ecclesiastes 3,1–4: ‘To every thing there is a season’. Impulsion? Perhaps it was a self-gift, reclaiming the time that the set took and returning it to me, not for anything specific but for the mere pleasure of ownership.

As to the how to, it took me several months to conjure up the courage to tell my fellow set members. Send them an email? Make telephone calls? I decided to announce it at the beginning of the January meeting and not to harbour it until the end, and having done that I left; ‘slunk’ might have crossed my mind. My reasons came out incoherently, it was like precipitating a divorce – as well I know. Another feeling that comes to mind is that of Arthur Mailey, the young Australian cricketer who bowled the Olympian, graceful Victor Trumper with a googly, writing: ‘I felt like a boy who had just destroyed a dove’.

And now. Aside from one email contact with one of the set, I know nothing of their doings the past year. It seems once you cut, you cut clean and forever and that seems right; that set is for Action Learning work only, and never socialises as a group although bilateral connections are common – I had several. My feelings are still the loss of intimacy with dear, intelligent, true-feeling people, but no regret at the relief of the obligation to attend.

This last Christmas morning, I attended my once-yearly Mass in a plain, 1930s church in Oakwood, led by two young Polish and French priests. As for every year, as soon as I sang the first words of the first carol, tears filled my eyes, enough to have to wipe them. I don’t know why that happens, just as I don’t really know why I left my set. But both the tears and the severance somehow feel right.

Mister Cochrane

Sometimes I read a poem out loud to myself, which I did from this weekend’s Guardian. Andrew Motion’s elegantly scanning ‘In Memory of Peter Way’ laments the recent passing of his English teacher and friend.

My teacher, who reached down inside my head

and turned the first lights on. Who gave me Keats

to read, which turned on more, who made me

read. Who made me write. Who made me argue

for the truth in things themselves, who told me

manners maketh man. Who let me question

even the things he said himself were true.

Who gave my life to me, by which I mean

the things I chose and not inheritance.

Who showed me a quiet voice can carry far.

Who took the gratitude I owed to him

and changed it into friendship. Who was kind.

My teacher, who died yesterday at peace –

His hardest lesson and the last of these.

But who is Mister Cochrane? He was my brown-suited, gangling English teacher at Shawlands Academy, Glasgow in the 1950s. Although Mum had first got me in love with books, it was he who put breadth on my table, despite the heavy weight of Scots literature (I still resent the gloom of ‘Marmion’) the national curriculum demanded. He would take me aside after class and ask me if I had read this book or that, and when I won a certificate in the 1957 Glasgow Dickens Society competition, was beside himself. Our school of some 2,000 pupils did not have an assembly space. Announcements were made over a tannoy in each classroom, and when my name was intoned one morning the class gasped: I had told no one I had entered, not even Mr Cochrane.

Shawlands Academy had quite a few rough edges in those days and teachers used the tawse* freely. I felt it twice from the science teacher: once for misremembering my physics homework and another for whispering his nickname, ‘Stalin’, well he was a dead ringer for the Russian. Belting my hands never endeared me to physics. Mr Cochrane, on the other hand, when the class got unruly, used to ease open his desk drawer where he kept his strap, at which the class hushed, whereupon he closed it without comment. It was rumoured that he baked it in vinegar each night; no one had ever seen it used, nor knew any one who had, but silent deterrent it was: Trident-in-a-drawer

In my two years in his class, Mister Cochrane – whose Christian name I never knew and who was not my friend – stimulated my reading and love of the language for the rest of my life. Sometimes I have even had a stab at writing. But I never forgave him for ‘Marmion’.

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* Also known as the belt or strap: hard-leather instrument for corporal punishment of children by teachers in Scottish schools until the 1980s.

A Friday in London

A week or so ago we travelled to London for the day, for two reasons: to renew Suzanne’s Australian passport and attend a tour of the Houses of Parliament. It was a cold day about 5°, unusual in this very mild winter, but sunny. From Blackfriars station we walked along the Embankment and up Temple Avenue where we had a coffee in Tempio’s, a pretty good basement-level restaurant run by Bruno.

At the Australian High Commission on the Strand, Suzanne had to surrender a pink comb with a long pointy bit, to the security guard. While she waited for the business to be done I made a quick walk where I had a look at St Clements RAF church, with rather small statues of Tedder and Harris flanking the approach. Richly decorated, it has much about Britain’s junior service, including many sombre rolls of honour in glass cases.

Lunchtime loomed, so we wandered around Covent Garden looking for a Turkish restaurant in Tavistock Street which we had visited a year it so ago, but to no avail; we learned later that it had closed down. Café Murano, however, provided decent Italian food served with a flourish by our waitress who took the dishes from a tray carried by a man from the kitchen staff. All much recommended.

Time was passing quite nicely towards our tour time of twenty-five past four; we took the Tube to Westminster, from which we emerged to brilliant, low afternoon sun playing on Big Ben’s facia like gold. Striking. Everywhere were crowds, throngs, selfies being taken, people staring into mobiles, hurrying office workers. But we were above all this and made our way to the entrance to the Palace of Westminster. Once in the Great Hall and sat down to wait, we gradually froze in the massive, unheated, 900-year-old chamber with hundreds of tons of wooden vaulting overhead. On the dot, we were called to a group of 18 (we were sponsored by our MP, Nadine Dorries) and off we went with Nick, our guide. Pleasant of personality, slightly bent in stature, grey-haired, about 55, he often cajoled us not to dawdle: ‘This way please, move forward, thanks so much.’ Nick explained that Westminster, a royal palace sort of leased to the Lords and Commons, is floor colour-coded to show who has sway: blue for the sovereign, red for the Lords and green for the Commons. In the debating chambers you are not allowed to sit on the benches, not even the splendid Nick, because only those MPs who have given their oath to the queen can do so, those oaths kept in the famous two dispatch boxes that frontbenchers sometimes petulantly hammer on. When I bowed my head to inspect the MPs’ pigeonholes, a frisson went through me as I read ‘Jeremy Corbyn’.

Almost two hours later, the day already advesperated, we made our cold way back to Blackfriars. Late-running as usual, the Thameslink train managed to get us to Flitwick.

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Thought for the (or any) day: Better to be insufficiently clear than to be, insufficiently.

 

Christmas Day Words

One of my regular walking companions is a Catholic deacon who does not give up trying to save me from my amateur humanism. Sometimes his theological advice is rough and ready: once when I asked, ‘If I do enough good works on earth, will St Peter let me in?’, he replied: ‘Doesn’t matter how many good works you do, without faith you are buggered.’ I understand that this take or leave it support has been ameliorated of late by RC church authorities, so I live in hope. On our last walk, two days before this Christmas he was telling me about a course on lectio divina he is promoting in his parish, and is dead against calling it a course so as not to put people off, but of course it is a course, with breakout groups, a guru to lead, the lot. Taking me at my word when I expressed slight interest, afterwards he sent me a book by Brendan Clifford, a Dominican Preacher, subtitled Lection divina and the human experience, at first sight one of those self-help polemics based on ‘interesting things that have happened to me’, but not so in this case. On Christmas Day, I read Clifford talking about a lady who took comfort in Ecclesiastes 3,1–4: ‘To every thing there is a season … a time to weep, and a time to laugh’. It actually did give me a form of consolation. illuminating some of my current bothersome anxieties as passing worries. Wanting to read it in the proper (is there any other?) King James Version, I went to my Bible on the sideboard where it rests alongside the Upanishads, the Koran, The Teaching of Buddha, and The Little Red Book. Having verified the words as suitably early seventeenth century, as I put the Bible back in its box a page flew open on which is inscribed ‘To Mum, Christmas 1964, much love Chris’. I was 20.

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