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: https://estraden.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/seamus-heaney-blackberry-picking/

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.


Purcell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuHtLxxuJsY

Byrd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co5SaYT6-k8

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.


(Image: https://mleuven.be/en)




Free Beer

The Dublin Jack on Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong is patronised mostly by those seeking home-reminding pints of draught bitter and you-know-what stout. Philip, whom I had just met at a client’s, took me there on a warm April evening in 2002. He was interesting, not only because he was a young techhead with ever-changing life objectives – both qualities beyond me – but also have you ever met an Ulster-accented Chinese man? Well, he  was your man.

The pub doors were bursting, drinkers of all ages, sex and colour spilling on to the pavement. Entry was guarded by a young Irishman in a white shirt, tie and black trousers. Hands up, he stopped me.

‘Would you be having an invite?’


‘A private party it is, in there, and only by invite.’

‘Well, we don’t have one but this is a pub, we’re bloody thirsty, and we have come a long way.’ Two out of three, but he didn’t know that, so cross fingers.

‘In that case, you must be going in. And the beer’s free,’ said the guard, looking to and fro in fear of witness to such dereliction of duty.

Free beer? And such was the case, you only had to jostle your way through the press to the counter for ready-drawn Kilkenny or Guinness, sweep off one of the many foaming glasses, and hey presto!

Outside as I handed over a pint, I asked Philip, ‘Is this a dream?’

Unblinkingly, he accepted this unheard-of occurrence phlegmatically. ‘What do you mean?’

For all his Belfast brogue he was at heart Chinese, expressionless even in the face of serendipitously gratis grog. But for me, whilst we supped outside in the tropical evening and our glasses emptied, I pondered about whether I could get back in to this Shangri-la.

‘Do you think we can try it on again?’ I asked him, who had been drinking alongside me in more or less silence.

‘Why not?’ Which was about as far as his excitement got.

‘I’ll go,’ I replied, even though it was his turn.

Barring the way was a different Hibernian, a little older, but again with the white shirt and business, ‘Would you be having an invite?’

‘Er, I was in there a little while ago.’

‘Sure, in that case, I must have let you in before.’ Yes, that was exactly what he said.

And so the beer flowed free for Philip and me, and at a might-have-been fifty Hong Kong bucks a pint, it was among the sweetest I ever tasted.

Some hours later, I took the night flight home to Sydney. I never saw Philip again and like me, I don’t suppose he came across free Guinness again.



Mum and the Snake

While Dad fought in the Korean War, and when I was 9, my mother and my brother lived in the Highlands of Scotland. Strathpeffer (pop. 1,500) was and is an old Victorian spa town whose imposing Highland Hotel was commandeered by the army in WWII for army families, many still billeted there in 1953. It had a sweeping, varnished staircase up which I once saw a man in brown overalls carry a tiny coffin; it had spacious grounds with rhododendron bushes where I played; and my mother would gather other children from the hotel and take us walking up into the mountains. Like the Pied Piper, Mum would lead us joyous kids along tracks, through woods and beside clear-running burns. Once on a narrow path we came across an adder, the only venomous snake in Britain. I can see her now, worried sick for us, waving her flock behind her, raising a rock above her head, crushing the poor reptile to death.


Birthday Party

It’s a town in Lancashire, population 79,000, known since the Middle Ages for cotton spinning, black puddings and now Metrolink, a train that becomes a tram once it enters the nearby city of Manchester. Auntie Alice and I once travelled to and from Old Trafford on this system in 1993, even right behind Warne when he bamboozled Gatting first ball of the series. One of its famous sons, Sir Robert Peel, founded the Metropolitan Police and sadly the Conservative Party. Another of these sons was my father, born 1923 around the corner from the Bensons Sweet factory. And he, indirectly, was the reason that we drove to Bury one recent Sunday.

We were going to a birthday party, my Aunty Lily’s 90th. Lily has lived in Bury all her life, still manages well on her own, although her eyesight is failing. Well known in the town because of her lifelong voluntary work with schizophrenia carers, she received the MBE one day at the palace in 2006; I know this, because on my 62nd birthday I watched the HM pin it on her.

These days we don’t undertake such long drives: 175 miles over three and a half hours along two of the busiest motorways M1 and M6 – at least it was a Sunday. And we were late, having to stop for the loo at a Macdonald’s. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it doesn’t matter, we can just mingle surreptitiously.’ No chance. When we entered Elton Liberal club, the celebration was a sit-down job, with china cakestands, tablecloths, trimmed sandwiches and pots of tea. And there seemed over a 100 people, including the town mayor and his deputy in their chains and ties.

My sister and her West Yorkshire contingent of husband, son and daughter had kept places for us, so we were thankfully able to ease into the throng quickly but more publicly than I had wanted. Lily looked pretty amazing for her age and was infused with birthday pleasure. More formal that I had thought, speeches were delivered including my own one about the late 60s, when as a student I would take buses to Bury from Stockport and do the rounds of clubs and pubs with aunts Lily and Alice. Those events were not as alcohol-fuelled as separate outings with my Uncle Jack, who besides paying for my beer gave me half-a-crown for the and bus fare. Boundless was my gratitude since my grant was always much diminished; most likely both our as Jack was often on the dole.

Back to the tea party, where its time slot (hire-free to pensioners) was coming to an end, and we were to drive over the Pennines to my sister’s, where my niece was to have her own birthday do. We had a rushed goodbye with Lily, actually had to queue, and still she was lapping up being birthday girl.

As we drove away, I remembered how Dad hated going back to his home town. Memories of the Depression, unheated houses, outside toilets, horse-drawn moonlight flits, being fostered out for several years and once age 15, having run away to sea, his mother dragging him back for the pittance he earned from some god-forsaken job, all did not endear him. Thatcherism or a derivative of it administered the coup de grâce, and it doesn’t look much like I knew it 50 years ago, let alone almost a hundred.

This journey, into which I was rightfully pressed as family duty, reminded me of my paternal roots. Dad was 14 when The Road to Wigan Pier was published, a shocking glimpse of the living conditions of the British underclass (compare to the Grenfell Tower fire, 80 years later so – plus ça change). Lucky me to be born into the fairer socialism of postwar Britain; or not, because I don’t have a town to call home. And that’s Dad’s fault.

(Photo above is actually from Lily’s 80th birthday)


Buckingham Palace, 2006