I’m back in London with Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte, Duchess of Hammersmith for the second and last tranche of staffing and management duties. The Secretariat or Charlottery, is running like a well oiled machine with expertly and freshly served kibble-shaped bikkies, clinically proven to reduce plaque and combining fibre matrix technologies, and Science Plan chicken chunks & gravy – all by Hill’s and Veterinarian Recommended – a diet to tempt all feline epicureans. She is fastidious and dainty and has the appetite of a sparrow though her neediness for ecstatic experiences, strokings, tender touches, jumpings on and off, on and off, on and off beds indicates an indecisiveness bordering on psychosis but which the current staff are able to satisfy, exhausting though it may be. She is of course a spinster though her predilection for men borders on embarrassing. Poor Libbie, Charlotte’s other manager, with a big heart and a love of all animals, gets no attention at all. I have tried to explain to Charlotte that she should really treat the servants with greater even-handedness but she gazes at me through those big, green Marschals quite unperturbed by the hurt she inflicts on the feelings of those not privileged to been in the orbit of her affections.
And so we approach Christmas on an uncertain path. Omicron seems to be queering the pitches of holiday and party planners with different signals emanating from the Downing Street Circus where Bojo and his Shudder amuse and confuse, deceive and ashame us with hypocrisies and mendacity.
Lets see where the science leads us, not our leaders!
Lovely reunion with friends at the Polish Ognisko Restaurant in Exhibition Road. Always a great place to go but it’s what happened as we walked there from our bus stop at Princes Gate. We turned right into Exhibition Road. It was dark save for the sodium glare of the street lights which shone over a cluster of policemen and their van, and a traffic warden, all inspecting a sleek, magnificent, state-of-the-art, stealth-bomber grey, all-electric Porsche Taycan which had been illegally parked and dumped on the corner of Exhibition Roads and Princes Gate.
The police told us it was uninsured, unlicensed and customised and accessorised so that it’s value was well in excess of £150,000. It had only a back number plate.
“It’s been abandoned by its owners,” said the cop, “they’re members of the Royal Family of Qatar and on their way home in a private jet. Rather than pay shipping and court costs for recovery, fines and so on, they’ve just abandoned it.”
“What will happen to it? How will they get it back?”
“They’ll just buy another one when they get home. They don’t care.”
“Can I have it?” I joked.
“It goes to the car pound and if never claimed will either be auctioned off or just destroyed.”
We walked to Ognisko’s for quite a lot of buffalo grass vodka, Kopytka Dumplings, Blinis and Kaczka Pieczona – don’t ask! But it was all very nice.
I like Polish cuisine. We often eat at Daquise in South Kensington and in fact had a merry time with friend Mary Omond there last week.
We saw a preview of a revived Peggy for You last night at the Hampstead Theatre. Directed by Richard Wilson who was sitting in our row taking notes. It opens tonight but not to a full house. The Omicron scare is biting and people are staying away. Once more the entertainment and leisure industry are taking a hit. It’s a pity because this was a wonderful production. I never saw the Maureen Lipman version back in 1999; in fact I’ve never seen it at all though I did read Simon Callow’s Love is Where it Falls when it was published, also in 1999. Tamsin Grieg is excellent in Alan Plater’s play which I found funny but also moving.
Writes Michael Billington in 1999: “Drama like sex, should never be rushed. Hollywood producers and agents are pimps turning her [Peggy’s] writers into whores: “If any of my clients are rich,” Peggy claims, “it’s entirely by accident.”
And a play to her is an event that should tell us something we don’t already know………Plater’s play transcends gossip to achieve the dignity of metaphor: his agent-heroine suddenly stands for all those who believe that art is more important than fame or profit and that living requires more courage than a drunken suicidal death.”
Talking about postponements and cancelations in this run up to Christmas we have had a few already. We’ve just learned that Tony’s son Zac is stuck in a ski resort in Tignes for Christmas because of the new French rules preventing unnecessary cross-channel visits. So we’ll not see him or grandson Tyger for the duration. Sadness.
Zac in the French Alps. Do we feel sorry for him? No!
Still, just in time Friend Jane B- and I squashed in a visit to the Portobello Electric to see Steven Spielberg’s offering of Sondheim’s slightly re-worked Westside Story which has been controversially received though I can’t think why. We thought it excellent. Does anyone else have an opinion on this? See it on a big screen.
Lloyd-Webber’s new Cinderella was diverting too though I do find his music repetitive: old themes re-visited and blatant use of others’ tunes. Did I hear some Gilbert & Sullivan coming through there?
But it was brilliantly staged with clever use of the revolve in the Gillian Lynn Theatre and a whole new take on the Cinderella story which more than made up for any other short-comings.
And Verdi’s Macbeth at Covent Garden was sensational too. Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production revived with Simon Keenlyside and Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi in the “Jock & Jean” roles were mesmerizing. Why I’ve never seen this opera before defeats me. I think it’s one of his best. Daniele Rustioni conducted. Rumour has it that he may well be taking over from Antonio Pappano who has been in residence since 2002. A popular choice.
And Queer Life, Queer Love has been published and launched, a new anthology in which Tony’s sweet story, Man Dancing is one of forty-two. I’d be crackers if I didn’t recommend it! Give it a whirl, Friends!
There have been Covid postponements and cancellations of course. I’m sure all of you have been affected in this run up to Christmas?
Tomorrow I relinquish my position here on Charlotte’s staff and Lateral Flow Tests willing join what’s left of the family in Cambridgeshire.
May I make passing mention of some other film streams I have enjoyed here at Charlotte’s home – she even joined me briefly on the sofa during a news cast but was unimpressed and retreated rapidly when Jon Snow appeared. Nothing personal I’m sure, and she hates violence. Passing was lovely; moving and beautifully filmed. And Tik…Tik…Boom! too.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest offering, The Power of the Dog was intriguing though I don’t think I saw it at its best. My date at the cinema was Covid cancelled and I watched it on the small screen at home. I don’t think that helped! Jane Campion’s epic style production with sweeping landscapes needs a huge space to view properly so I think I’ll re-visit it.
Otherwise what, dear Friends? Oh yes – the Christmas Lights in London this year are the most spectacular I have ever seen with many, many more areas lit up, not just the usual Bond, Regent and Oxford streets – I think it’s a concerted effort to cheer us up and persuade us to get into the festive mood.
And on that note we both wish you, Dear Friends everywhere, a very very Happy Christmas and a Healthy New Year. Please stay in touch!
I am cat sitting for Friend H, in London at the moment, while she winters in Cape Town for a few months. Charlotte is a sweet, shy creature and views me, like all cats, with a disdainful eye, rather as if I were a particularly difficult staff member who is unlikely to come up to scratch. And that’s the thing of course: dogs are managed but cats are staffed. I think I may have posted about this before as she and I have looked after each other in the past. Sometimes she melts a little and will present her little, slim, black-furred body for strokings and has even been known to purr during these moments of ecstasy. Then I feel privileged and to an extent, vindicated in my role as loyal carer and Equerry to this Duchess of Hammersmith.
Charlotte’s domain is behind Kensington Olympia and its been revelatory to live here these few weeks. When I came to live in London 42 years ago, I shared a flat with dear Friend L. in Westgate Terrace a few hundred yards from the Earl’s Court Underground station.
I knew no-one here at all really. Just Friend L., a ways away in West Hampstead Friend P. and, here in this very house, where I now slave for “herself”, friends R & H were a godsend for a lonely, barely-outed gay actor from the sticks of Apartheid South Africa.
I got to know West London very well; this was my first stamping ground before I moved into the arms of my beloved Tony in Camden via Pimlico and Amsterdam.
The Reguliersgracht in Amsterdam where I lived for several months while rehearsing and playing in Anthony Akerman’s Somewhere on the Borderthe audition script for which I picked up from Tony Peake’s office at Cori Filmsin July 1983 – which is how we first met.
Its been bright and sunny and not very cold while I’ve been here and I have not let the grass grow. How it has all changed in these forty years.
Vast shopping complexes have opened in Shepherd’s Bush, the Hammersmith roundabout has become a huge conglomerate of marbled office blocks, bus and rail stations gyrating traffic in all directions. In the olden days, in between theatre and television jobs I helped run the Riverside Studio Box office under the then auspices of Tammy Collins (FOH) and Peter Gill (AD) where many acclaimed productions went on under the most ramshackle conditions in those cavernous old film & TV studios.
Each year the Dance Umbrella had its festival, with particularly complicated, un-computerised ticketing arrangements, all manual; charts with thick red felt-tipped ticks and crosses, awkward books of tickets, COBOs and Comps; the telephone endlessly shrilling.
Friends R & H helped me into this welcome cash-in-hand job and the wonderful Christopher Hahn (now General Director of the Pittsburgh Opera via the San Francisco & Los Angeles Opera Houses) aided and abetted. I would not have been able to remain an actor without these sorts of jobs.
To-day I lunched at Sam’s in Crisp Walk with Friend A. and I was absolutely amazed at the changes that have taken place since I appeared there a few years ago in Sylvester Stein’s Who Killed Mr. Drum.
The place is unrecognisable. The studios are still there; the cinemas are still there but the entire building has been turned outward toward the river, with views of Hammersmith Bridge, there is a promenade linking the bridge all the way down to Fulham, south-facing, glassed apartments line the Cote de Thames and there is light everywhere.
Sam’s is great. Thank you for introducing me to it dear Friend A. and for the perfect seating, the sun pouring in and that beautiful, albeit broken-down bridge, its larger Doppler traversing the Danube in Budapest, elegantly swooping across the river.
“People have been very kind,” John Gielgud was once heard to say though under very dissimilar circumstances to my own. He had been charged with indecency and was referring to the warmth and support from actor friends in rehearsals.
“You’ve been a naughty boy, Johnny,” Coral Browne was reputed to have said, “now come on and lets get back to rehearsals….!”
I am only a temporary widow as Tony visits our family in Canada and I staff the Charlottery.
But friends have wined and dined me; I have been schooled further in the complexities of Jazz by Friends C & R; an evening at Kings Place last Monday – Chick Corea : The Vigil Songbook with Tim Garland, Jason Rebello & Friends – revelatory for me as a newboy.
Ceviche at Canary Wharf
To Brentford for pasta with Friend J; to Canary Warf for Friend R’s. wonderful company and glorious Ceviche, the best in the world; dinner in Dulwich; an evening in Southfields : much discussion, argy-bargy and fab food with Friends D & D and P & O (sic); luncheon in Streatham – see the movie – and of course far too many Martinis at the American Bar with Friend L. wining and dining at the Wolesley followed by an introduction to The 2 to 5 Hertford Street Club where baroque eccentricity meets chic chintz in a labyrinth of Georgian drawing and dining rooms, bars and other crannies.
To bed with Nurofen and goodnight diary!
And I’ve not forgotten Dame MM……and our Ivy lunch in Kensington on Saturday. Far too much chatter!
Nor have I forgotten bridge dates in Sheen and Clapham with Families H and R-W. Splendid all – especially if I win, which in the case of the R-Ws I didn’t – but a fine evening nonetheless.
Lunch in Streatham with Flempots!
A whirlwind of friendship. Thank you all for your kindness and generosity. I think I shall cat sit more often! I am promised Loulou’s in the next tranche of Charlottery!
Charlotte likes to watch television though she has been rather bored by The Morning Show finding Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston a little over the top and Succession and the horrendous shenanigans of the Roy Family left her in shock and she retired to bed. I did not and watched them both as one would a Cobra, bingeing Apple TV+ for The Morning Show to complete before the trial week is up. Twenty hours of freebie. Am I a cheapskate?
In a few minutes we shall fall silent for two, as we remember.
Five years ago a small group of South African friends visited the Ypres Salient and the Somme for the 100thAnniversary of that terrible battle in that ghastly War-to-end-all-Wars, with emphasis on Delville Wood where so many South Africans died and where there is a beautiful memorial designed by Herbert Baker and where, incredible to relate, I stumbled upon my Great-Uncle Alexander Keay’s name listed as missing during that battle and then found him at Thiepval where we attended the Armistice Remembrances on the 11th November.
An extract from my diary reads:
11.00am., 11th November, 2016.
It’s a sacred public holiday in France today.
A glorious, sunny day; blue skies but a chilly stillness.
Thiepval is a massive memorial dominating the heights above the Somme River valley and offering a panoramic view of the epic struggle that raged exactly 100 years ago here from July through to November. Our views were perfect : the stillness, the Autumn colours, the mown lawns with the tiny hamlet of Thiepval and its little church backing the monument where we collected with hundreds more for the short ceremony at 11.00am European Winter Time. The Royal Hampshire Constabulary provided a fitting band and a short ceremony, the sashed Mayor of Thiepval saying words which were translated through the British Legion representative……The church clock chimed eleven, the Last Post was played, two minutes silence ensued, then we were at ease. The main event, complete with bilingual prayers, hymns, wreath laying and the band, played out at 12.00 to coincide with ceremonies in Britain at GMT.
Our thoughts went out not only for the Great War warriors but all the millions of fallen in all the wars then and ever since.
It was made all the more poignant for me discovering my great-uncle’s name at Delville Wood the day before. A. Keay. My mother’s maiden name was Keay. At Thiepval this morning amongh the records I found his name:
KEAY, Lance Corporal, ALEXANDER, 228. “C”Coy. 4th Regt., South African Infantry, October 1916. Age 22. Son of Andrew and May Evelyn Keay, of Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. Grave Reference: Pier and Face 4C.
Altogether a very moving moment.
He was Lance Corporal in the South African Infantry and went missing at Wallencourt Butte which we had visited yesterday and where there was such confusion and mayhem that no bodies were ever recovered and the men were listed as missing. And so my mother’s uncle, Alexander Keay, my great-uncle, brother to me grandfather Ralph, went up on the lists without number and has his name carved in section 4C on the memorial.
No one in our family has ever visited him though our grandmother often spoke of him and wept. I immediately phoned my cousin Avril in Johannesburg to share this moment and we were both much moved.
Great Uncle Alexander. Just one personal discovery among millions; for to these places pilgrims come in their thousands, searching for connections, for some understanding of a world gone mad.”
It’s been a while since I last posted. What an Autumn it has been one way and another.
Well Friends, it’s not over yet. Autumn I mean. The world is in such a state at present it’s quite difficult not to feel a sort of paralysis: Pandemics, climate crises, Anglo-French tensions, inflation.
Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Sleaze, Sleaze, Sleaze.
Pass the Quaaludes! The Mandies? The Quack! Ha! Rants-in-my-pants! Wake me when it’s over!
But I wanted to share our joy at the news yesterday of our dear friend, Damon Galgut’s winning the 2021 Booker Prize for his beautiful book The Promise.
Here is a link to the announcement made by The Guardian:
It’s been an incredible privilege to be Damon’s friend over all the years he has been writing; As another dear friend wrote, “It has been a long and happy road to walk with Damon, and this richly deserved recognition is so heartwarming……….then to see the singular Damon lope as he went up onto the stage with that familiar anxious smile … followed by words so typical of the man, gracious and generous of spirit, well, what more does one need?”
I second that. Congratulations dear friend!
Other news since my last post has been thin on the ground. Here and there, to London and back we have been. Dipping our toes into the theatrical and cinematic water in some trepidation as mask wearing is thrown to the winds while the scientists say that they shouldn’t be.
Indecent at the Menier Chocolate Factory was revelatory: a play by Paula Vogel, It recounts the controversy surrounding the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, first produced on Broadway in 1923 for which the producer and cast were arrested and convicted on the grounds of obscenity.
And then of course there was Leopoldstadt after many false starts beginning in March last year when our tickets were cancelled because of the lockdown; and re-issued twice more only to be withdrawn. As we understand cut down from three to two hours and – legs crossed – no interval. A cast of many in a complex weaving of family history between 1900 and the end of Nazi Europe in 1945, we both thought it brilliant though it has had mixed reviews and there are certainly the occasional longueurs. We thought it an elegiac almost Chekovian piece complementing well the TV documentary Alan Yentob put together on Stoppard for the BBC’s Imagine series. It was beautifully staged, lit and acted by a superb ensemble. It also complemented the wonderful Indecent we saw the day before. And we were incredibly moved by it. Neither of us were confused by the web of family relations and interactions as we had feared we might be.
Good to be in front of the large screen again. Apart from Terence Davies’ Benediction in San Sebastian in September, the last time was in August 2020, with grandchildren, to see the impenetrably complicated Tenet. The new James Bond film No Time to Die which was a Curate’s Egg we both thought. But diverting enough with its problematic ending leaving many questions unanswered. I’ll say no more.
Then again with the grandchildren to Dune – the remake. Epic. Great soundtrack. I even understood it though it helped to have recorded the book years ago and seen the original film which was not nearly as good as this. The cinematography is mind-blowing and the film has to be seen on the largest screen possible to do it justice; and then there’s Timothée Chalamet – who is everywhere these days – being beautiful.
Television, mainly streaming:
We continue to watch Succession as one would a cobra – transfixed by the Roy family’s pure awfulness and mesmerised by the performances and the writing.
Two other TV series have intrigued: Maid an American drama series inspired by Stephanie Land‘s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, created by Molly Smith Metzler and starring Margaret Qualley as Alex and her real life mother (being brilliant), Andie MacDowell playing her screen mother.
Then The Boys an American “superhero” television series we were put onto once more by our influential grandchildren! And Squid Game? Sorry. Gave up fairly rapidly on that. What a dreadful premise. Yukkel-Stukkel I don’t know what to say!
Then down memory lane for a bingeing visit to Jewel in the Crown which I found to be as fresh as ever and just as absorbing and wonderful as I remember the first time round to be – the quartet too. I recall reading the entire saga in 2000 when I shipped from Durban to Tilbury on a three week container vessel transit. A brilliant read.
What else in October?
Oh yes. I was fined for speeding on the M25 now re-branded a Smart Motorway. I was going 59 in a 50mph variable speed lane and given the choice between three points on my licence and a £100 fine, an appearance in court or a “Motorway Awareness Course” costing £100 sans three points. What’s to decide. I took the course on Zoom with eleven other sinners and learned all about Smart Motorways of which there are only two and a half in Britain and which I subsequently discovered are very controversial and extremely expensive to build. There you go. I’d never heard of a Smart Motorway before. Have you? And I was caught speeding on a section of the M25 which is normally 70mph.
It’s the turn of the 1951/52 Cohort, Friends, and 70th birthdays are falling thick and fast.
What to do? No inspiration: the Pandemic discourages planning but a miracle occurred on The Green a month ago to change all that.
We were enjoying far too many martinis in the September sunshine with our friend and neighbour, the Auteur, Terence Davies, along The Green from us, when he mentioned that his latest film about Siegfried Sassoon, Benediction, was to be screened at the Vancouver, Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals and that he had been asked, naturally, to attend.
Exciting upshot : the San Sebastian festival was in the week of Tony’s 70th Birthday and provided the solution to my dilemma – What To Do For The Special Day?
Pandemic hurdles: Vaccination Certificates, Digital Passenger Locator Forms (dPLF) and Antigen Test Certificates were procured; train tickets to & from Plymouth and a night on the Hoe at the Crowne Plaza booked, passages on the Santander Ferry from Plymouth obtained; Spanish car-hire for a week arranged; accommodation at the Parador de Hondarribia, 20 kms along the coast from San Sebastian near Irun on the French border secured – an hotel long desired but never acquired – and, slightly stressed and rather nervous, off we set.
Stressed because any or all of these could have misfired and the omens didn’t look good when the intercity from Paddington to Plymouth was cancelled. Had we travelled on the ferry day, we would have missed it altogether. We have learned to build time into all our travel arrangements especially in Britain where things always seem to go wrong.
There were tests that needed to be procured from laboratories in Spain for our return and these had to be sought only 72 hours from boarding the Pont Aven inbound on a Monday with all laboratory services shut at the weekend! No Antigen Test? No ferry ride!
Terence kindly arranged comps through the Benediction production office who passed the request on to their Spanish distributors who promised to email us barcoded eTickets. We waited all week for these to arrive and were sitting in a bar opposite the Kursaal a bare hour before lift-off thinking we were fated never to see the film when – gadzooks – Tony’s phone, almost out of charge, pinged the vital PDFs and, once they were certain all the really important people had traversed the red carpet, they allowed us to skip down it and into our pandemically spaced and sanitized seats to watch Terence’s heart-breaking film.
And it isa beautiful film; cherry on top? It just won the San Sebastián, Jury Prize for Best Screenplay.
Hondarribia is beautiful like he whole Cantabrian coast. Forested mountains sliding into the sea; long, narrow bays in which towns like San Sebastian, Bilbao, Lezo, Errenteria, Hendaye and Hondarribia are tucked into narrow valleys running down to the sea – Zumaia and famously Guernica are on rivers that have shaped these valleys over eons. The landscape is Alpine; the architecture is Alpine – cuckoo clock houses with wide eaves and shingle roofs.
Neat towns, restaurants and bars spilling out under shaded, tree-lined streets; sandy beaches lapped by cool, clear Atlantic water – from the hotel terrace we looked across the lagoon to Hendaye, Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz in the distance, the halyards on the serried yachts tinkling in the breeze and the ice tinkling in our large, globed Hendricks & Tonics!
The Parador de Hondarribia is built into the ruins of a 10th Century castle on the top of the hill dominating the land around, guarding the approaches from France one way and to the South the other – better to stop the marauding Umayyad Caliphate which by the 8th Century had reached the Cantabrian coast and threatened France. They had already reached Poitier in 732 but were defeated and retreated to Iberia.
Did you know that there are 18 Michelin Stars within a 25 km radius of the San Sebastian Town Hall? More than any other in Spain. Not Tokyo, Paris, London nor New York perhaps, but they are all vast: San Sebastián is a small city by comparison and wherever you go there is wonderful food.
Arzak, where kitchen duties are now shared between Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena who are the grand and great-grand children of the original founders, specialises in New Basque Cuisine. It began as a wine inn and tavern in 1897 and been developed over four generations into the restaurant we visited for Tony’s birthday. Getting in there of course is like getting in to see the Pope. Weeks of emails and disappointments; when push came to shove we managed to get a lunch break the day after Tony’s actual 70th which I grabbed as being better than nothing, took an enormous breath, decided on the tasting menu and took out a mortgage.
Here we are with newly refurbed Arzak in the background, taken from the bus stop across the road! On the site of the original tavern. The first two floors are the restaurant and the top floor is offices and laboratories. Both Juan and Elena came round to say hello and thank us for coming. We were on the second floor where a respectful quiet descended on the cooled air and all were outlanders. On the ground floor there was more animation and a relaxed atmosphere. We think “locals” habituate the jollier (and cheaper?) ground floor.
Unlike the other patrons who seemed mainly American and swept up in limos sporting designer clothing, we arrived in the municipal bus at the stop outside, dressed down in shabby-chic; none of which made the slightest difference to the incredible culinary odyssey on which we then embarked: an amuse-bouche of –
Sunflower shot with cod,
Ear of blue corn,
Chinese bread with “aji”
Sardine with Absinthe
– to unmoor the barque and ease it toward the tide of nine courses with accompanying wines and liqueurs. Supple, delicate in texture and taste it was epicurean drama at its best to end Tony’s 7th decade and usher in his 8th.
The week flashed by. The sun did not always shine; there were hot days and rainy days.
We walked the town flat. It’s a handsome one, beautifully situated on Bahía de La Concha facing north, an apron of sand in front of the promenade, a view of the open sea through the tall headlands that form a crescent protecting the city, the Old Town tucked under the eastern wing, dominated by the Basilica de Santa Maria.
Couldn’t resist the sea and sand and had to spend a morning on that lovely beach. I have a rule – I must be able to see my feet in the water; muddy, murky water I find alarming. “My dears……what is in there that I cannot see?”
Some years ago we were in San Sebastian briefly and were told that it is a tradition to cast the cremated ashes of loved ones into the sea from the Fuente de la Atalaya, o de Bardocas on the Pasealeku Berria, the point overlooking the entrance to the bay. Disconcertingly, if the tides and currents are incoming these have a habit of popping up next to you when you are bathing. Little caskets of death marked with names and dates. But not today! No death today.
Tony remembered that exactly 44 years ago on his 26th birthday he was standing on this very beach. He and some Argentinean friends were travelling Spain, from Ibiza, selling luminous green necklaces at raves and fairs. Even Bob Marley had one – an exceptional endorsement that sold all their product but did not make them rich.
They were a homemade invention the five companions put together in the back of a hire car and sold as far as the Münich Beer Festival where they ran out of plastic rods. He learned his Spanish from the Argentinians they having no English.
On another day we drove the spectacular coast along the Autovia that confidently rollercoasts through, under and over the mountains and valleys to visit the Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga at Getaria, a small fishing village really, where the great man was born and where he now rests.
And of course Pamplona.
I’d never been. Tony was there with his luminous necklaces and Argentinians all those years ago. A fifty minute drive through the mountains. Another beautiful city with its famous annual Festival of Sanfermines and the running of the bulls. None of that now. Not since July.
Tony brought an ancient, yellowed copy of Fiesta (Pan Ed. 1952) Ernest Hemmingway’s story around the running of the bulls written in 1926 and usually called The Sun Also Rises. I read and he re-read the story which is evocative of both the city and the festival though I can’t say the characters impressed too much. Lost souls all who had it in for poor Robert Cohn in an anti-Semitic way that from this vantage I found uncomfortable.
But it describes Pamplona all right – even down to the Irena Café which exists exactly like it did in 1926. It exhausted us both just imagining the drama and danger of the running as we walked the route. Definitely for the young and daring, I fear; it is not on our list! How the lost souls in Hemmingway’s book could even get out of bed each morning on the vast amounts of liquor consumed I can’t imagine. Skinsful of wine – literally – bottles of the stuff and the martinis, absinthes and sundry other elixirs on top of that. I had to reach for the Alka Seltzer just thinking about it.
And so our week drew to a close. Just one, last nerve-racking hurdle – the obligatory Antigen Test. Without it Brittany Ferries will not let us board. It must be no earlier than 72 hours before sailing but the laboratories in Spain are closed at the weekend; and our ferry sails on a Monday. Is 72 hours literal? Or will three full days before our 5.00pm boarding be okay? To stick to the letter we’d need to complete the test on or after 5.00pm on the Friday before sailing. No-one seemed able to tell us! If we couldn’t board then we’d have to stay behind. If we were positive we’d have to quarantine in Santander. The prospects of a relaxed last few days in sunny Spain seemed doomed.
Eventually someone confirmed that three days would be acceptable and we tracked down a laboratory which gave us the test for €50 a pop 80 hours before our sailing time.
We held our breath all the way along those switchback roads on that last day driving to Santander through scudding rain and heavy lorry traffic to return the car and eventually board the Pont Aven – no probs. no worries, as they say.
The Bay of Biscay on a rough crossing seemed calm by comparison.
Tuesday, 21st September we docked on the dot of 2.00pm in Plymouth. High tension – would the taxi be there? Would GWR be running a decent service to London? Would we be presentable for the Oxford & Cambridge Club Players Dinner in Pall Mall?
It was. It did. And we were.
In Spain there were no petrol queues, the supermarket shelves were full, the markets buzzing. Everyone wears masks. Everyone. Even youngsters in the school playground we noticed. It is etiquette. I won’t start a rant. We’ve all seen the news!
CURRENT TV FIXATIONS!
We are enjoying the Russian Dr. Zhivago made in 2006 as a series in eleven parts. Subtitled.
The White Lotus from HBO is intriguing us. We shall not be booking into that resort, my dears!
Vigil on BBC1 was wrecked for us by overcrowded story lines and complicated plot structures – but held my, if not Tony’s – attention! Impossible to believe and with all that money spent could the underwater effects look less amateur?
Succession is riveting. We are hurrying through the first two series to be ready for the third. What a ghastly family. King Lear and Titus Andronics rolled into one with the Murdochs, Maxwells, Hearsts and Trumps thrown into the mix. Great television!
Few, sadly but hopefully that’s about to change.
I went to a matinee of Bach & Sons at The Bridge Theatre and loved every minute of it. Talk about dysfunctional families – wow! But oh, that music.
Constellations? We were underwhelmed. We saw Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas but at those prices, for seventy minutes of theatre, crowded to the nines with no lip-service paid to Covid at all, we will not visit the other three couples I am afraid. The two actors were excellent but the piece just went round and round with over-cleverness. “Up itself” is an expression that springs to mind.
Blues inflected Jazz at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho with Paul Jones and John Etheridge was great. We know very little of Jazz but are being gently inducted by Friends Cathy and Richard -G. Hopefully there will be more Jazz outings. I am ignorant – but love it!
Thanks friends for getting this far. The multiple-choice exams will be online, no masks needed. Please bring your own pencils. You may cheat if you wish!
Paper cups and social distancing! Bill Bailey! At the Royal Opera House! What next? Our first visit to the theatre and, specifically the Opera House since Swan Lake on the 12th March last year. Seventeen months. It seems incredible; and that it should be the most un-operatic show too – Bill Bailey’s Summer Larks certainly provided a refreshing change.
I don’t have to start with my usual Worzel Gummidge/Bojo and the Shudder of Clowns rant. Bill Bailey did a wonderful hatchet job on the lot of them and had a largely sympathetic audience in stitches. What a pity the tragedy of Afghanistan had not started yet – he could well have had a lot more to add. Shame on us!
We visited Nero at the British Museum before walking down to Covent Garden.
They are politically re-habilitating Nero it seems, rather like Richard III and other monsters in history, the myths are being unwrapped and we find that Nero may well have fiddled while Rome burned but that he did not start the fires nor was in Rome when they were lit but, rather, at his villa strumming his lyre and seeing the flames engulfing the city from a distance. He introduced many reforms and had some good ideas many of which were inimical to the interests of the Roman elites who saw to it that the social media of the times destroyed an otherwise good man in their quests for power and wealth.
That, at any rate, is the new air-brushed Nero presented here.
So, no fiddling friends, though it didn’t stop the museum from placing a vast poster of Peter Ustinov laurel’d and lyre’d at the entrance to the exhibition, to remind us of the mythical version.
Lots of headless, legless and armless statues, all looking suspiciously similar, the Julian-Claudian gene evidently a strong one, illustrated the man and his deeds, though rather like Beckett, there was less there than at first it seemed.
Opposite the opera house of course, are the Bow Street Magistrates’ Courts where Oscar Wilde was famously committed for trial at The Old Bailey. The building has been converted by the NoMad chain into a 91 room (sic) boutique hotel though I am sure that can’t be right? 91 rooms? More like 19 surely?
Thirty quid for two glasses of Grenache gives you some idea of what your stay-over bill might look like. It was filled with trendy thirty-somethings and Tony and I were definitely the oldest things in the NoMad bar! It set us up nicely for Bill Bailey.
The rain in London these two days has been astonishing. Tropical downpours reminiscent of the Zambesi valley or Amazon jungle – just stair-rods and vast pools of water which the drains seem incapable of removing fast enough. I’ve never seen anything like it here before. So our walk up to Swiss Cottage for The Two Character Play, one of Tennessee Williams’ late plays now being revived at the Hampstead Theatre – where it premiered under the direction of James Roose-Evans in 1967 – was somewhat spoiled.
Back to Mistley for the Regatta Fireworks, an annual event in our local calendar; friend H- to stay and much walking and talking.
Vacuum cleaners always remind me of the wonderful film of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana? I think it was the first time I encountered a modern vacuum cleaner actually, in the shape of “nothing sucks like an Electrolux”! A sausage shaped thing with a hose protruding that forever reminded me of Noël Coward and Alec Guinness!
I had no idea it had been turned into a (not very good) play; but there it was as part of the Aldeburgh Summer Festival along with others, including Alan Ayckbourn’s rather clunky It Could be Any One of Us, written in 1983 and billed as a comic murder mystery. Great Summer Stock. Thorpeness friends Kathy- and Trevor- always ask us to join them in their annual visit to the festival and this year was a good one. Masked or not, we inch towards normality. Thanks K & T – it’s always a pleasure.
I have had my hands rapped (it happens often) for using the word Staycation to describe holidaying in the United Kingdom.
Apparently it’s not PC and causes offence to the leisure industry who complain that it subtly downgrades holidaying in Britain implying it to be inferior to foreign vacations. A Staycation I am informed by the Etymological Stalinistas describes a holiday spent at home – rather like the German version, a Balcony Holiday.
So, Friends what to do? I have come up with UKcationing and hope that will explain more clearly our earlier Summer idylls and our current odyssey with two of our grandsons, as we make a stately progress through the cities of Oxford, Bath and Bristol – to London.
But not before the Vietnamese Reunion with Cousins at Westwood Farm in Semley, Dorset.
Five years ago we were all on the beach at Mũi Né witnessing and celebrating Cousin Rufus’ nuptials. Sadly neither he nor Diah, currently locked down in Saigon, nor Oliver his brother could be with us but that did not dampen proceedings a jot as family embraced in the bucolic surrounds of Semley, glasses raised to absent friends, an excellent way to remember a happy event in these times.
And so to Oxford.
Putting up at the newly refurb’d Randolph Hotel handily positioned opposite the Ashmolean where breakfast was not included nor rooms ready for the arrival of Team Jabe. No wet room; breakfast á lá carte with a rack of four toasted triangles, a knob of butter and a thimble of Tiptree marmalade weighing in at ten quid. Toasts for five over two breakfasts came to £100! Coffee, eggs to order, freshly squeezed orange juice, fruit and yoghurt – the Greek variety – all priced separately. Times five, times two! Shock horror!
UKationing does not come cheap; and very iffy service all round. John Thaw everywhere and Tony and I were bedded in the Oscar Wilde room. I kid you not. Though I noticed I had a Margaret Thatcher keycard.
But what a city. So beautiful. I’d forgotten.
Jabe asked us last year if we would travel with him to France during the summer holidays but that was all put into touch by the Pandemic and a much smaller scale UKation was planned and our entourage, Team Jabe, met in Oxford last Monday.
I first came here when I was 12 years old, to be re-introduced to my Godmother Sister Julia SLG (Sisters of the Love of God) at the Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres; up the Iffley Road, passed the famous 4 minute mile athletics track; and when I came to live in England forever in 1979 I visited her with special permission, every Easter, Christmas and Birthday until she died in 2004. I raced down from Manchester between shows for her funeral and that was the last time I was in the city.
Family legend has it that, thwarted by my Mother in a race for my Father, she became a Nun. Perhaps. Whatever. She was a wonderful Godmother. I adored her and loved Oxford where I was nearly once myself a postgraduate – but that’s another story.
Jabe loved Oxford too; we managed to dip in and out of Exeter, Magdalen and Oriel, gazing at that Imperial monster Rhodes in his niche as we passed by, thinking of the £12,000,000 endowment and how he earned it.
To the Bodleian, no access; along the river, no punting of course, but success at the Ashmolean where there was a stupendous exhibition on Tokyo well worth a visit if anyone is in the neighbourhood. I’d never been in the Ashmolean and loved the whole place. There’s an excellent collection of paintings there, in the European section, which we enjoyed.
Much of the city centre has been pedestrianized; great for walkers and the wheelchair; and it’s immaculately groomed. A café society has developed and the fresh air disperses the germs we are told.
Travelling with Team Jabe is an event in itself. He has a specially designed VW van for his collection of wheel chairs and two PA’s who travel with him, this time his brother Tyger and Manager Emily – so we are five altogether. Irritatingly none of the Parking Garages allowed access. Too tall.
Holidaying in Britain has always been fraught in one way or another. The traffic, the cost of petrol, parking costs, the astronomical expense of accommodation in England and often poor service, all make the experience daunting.
Add to these Grandson Jabe’s special needs and the endless frustrations with accessibility and often indifferent staff, you’d be forgiven for not starting off on any journey ever. Brexit and the Pandemic have only aggravated these realities. In restaurants, café’s and hotels staff shortages are endemic and these have a knock-on effect.
For further rants, see below!
Blenheim of course. We had to go there, just 25 minutes down the Woodstock Road – it’s all part of the Imperial endeavour and certainly impressive; a sort of massive theme park complete with miniature railway – pulled by Winston, the engine – to whisk you to the walled garden and the maze and back – if you felt like it. We walked. A beautiful sunny day, blue skies with cotton wool puffs; absolutely perfect English weather and when Britannia basks she looks fabulous.
It’s interesting revisiting places you think you’ll never see again and watching the reactions of those for whom it is a first time; hearing what they think. By now we are in London on the last leg and so far only Bristol Zoo has disappointed Jabe he confessed this morning.
I remember my first visit there too, back in 1965, when in front of the Gorilla cage brother David was pelted with turd. It smelled terrible and I think we may well have taken the smell into My Fair Lady which had just opened at the ABC nearby. Loved the movie; hated the smell.
Poor brother David, he was always falling into Devonshire streams, Warwickshire cowpats and other uncomfortable things.
Poor Aunt Barbara, she never knew what to do with us all. “I’m only an artist!” she’d exclaim in answer to all questions. Brother David got into scrapes. At Stratford we were taken to see The Merchant of Venice and he thought he was being helpful during the interval when he returned to their holders all the opera glasses in the dress circle at a shilling a pop. Poor Barbara indeed. I recollect many shilling pieces, or sixpences, being frantically sought and binoculars released.
This picture is from my 1965 diary and reveals that Janet Suzman played Portia, Eric Porter was Shylock and I see Charles Kay played Launcelot Gobbo.
Putting up at the Double Tree by Hilton a few hundred yards from the Pump Room and Roman Baths where we headed immediately.
On that same trip when I was 12, we were brought here, again by My Aunt Barbara (MAB), and I remember eating in the Pump Room. I think it has been restored to within an inch of its existence since those days and the Roman Baths made far more fascinating than I remember them. Team Jabe had “Champagne Tea” accompanied by a palm-fringed quartet playing Mozart and Bach. Necessary sugar input for the gruelling walkabout this Mendip’d town. Please don’t let your batteries run down, Jabe, we have a ways to go! The thought of deploying the manual chair made us quail!
Bath is in good shape. Also well groomed – and popular. Timed entries everywhere of course though not always ramps when needed. The ghosts of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley are all about – and others besides. It basked in sunshine too and it’s easy to see its attraction to Romans and English alike.
Bath Abbey was beautiful. It was the first time we came across a real attempt to contextualise some of our less savoury history. There was none such at Blenheim.
The debate about Rhodes in Oxford rages on. Inside Bath Abbey the subject of our Imperial past is met head on. Personally I am very much against airbrushing history or anything that resembles “cancel culture”. The Slave Trade and its hideousness looms large in this part of the world.
Mini rant coming up – Slavery should loom large over all Britain since everything we are today is because of the wealth and power generated by our trade and the exploitation of subject peoples throughout our Imperial past.
Bristol next and contextualisation is everywhere. In the MShed Gallery, on the docks, there is a comprehensive history of the city and what made it. There the disgraced statue of Edward Colston lies in a special exhibition dedicated to the events leading to his de-plinthing, and drowning in the harbour. It is an extension to a fascinating, existing exhibition of all Bristol’s endeavours and quite shocking in the virtual holocaust it reveals. There was a lot of interest and I’m glad because surely this is a subject that should be compulsorily taught in our schools? Along with so many social, political and economic wrongs perpetrated in our name through our Imperial Past? I can’t help feeling it can only help mend race relations?
We put up at the Radisson Blu Hotel and here our experiences reached their nadir: it took three and a half hours to check in! In fact they told us to go away and see the Isambard Kingdom Brunel miracle (The IKB Experience) the SS Great Britain; perhaps by then they might have found us rooms.
They didn’t. Tony and I checked in but Team Jabe languished in the foyer for a further hour at least before the wrong rooms finally became available. No accessible wet room, the lifts were not working properly, the rooms had clearly not been properly cleaned, parking in the nearby NCP cost the earth and all this despite the long term planning. It was grubby. Actually, unlike Oxford and Bath, Bristol itself was grubby. End of mini rant!
Travelling with a wheelchair user is a humbling experience. Our grandson Jabe is one of the politest people I know. He has such huge difficulties; often people are patronising; often, too, expectations are not met; promises of accessibility are either exaggerated or broken altogether yet he and his carers, Team Jabe, are patient, polite and show a forbearance and humour that is a lesson in diplomacy and tolerance I find very moving.
Care of course is much debated at present. There is not nearly enough of it, spread so thinly and unevenly as it is, and what there is costs the earth in funding almost impossible to source. A radical rethink not just for the elderly but all who need care and help is long overdue.
Last leg London. Easy for us as we just checked into our flat. Team Jabe, having changed horses so-to-speak, put up at the Camden Holiday Inn where things were altogether more efficient for a change.
Sit still long enough and someone will take a picture, trying to remember which character you were and where they’d seen you before!
Handy for us and the West End, we embarked on at least twelve thousand steps a day across parks, along canals, via rose gardens to Van Gogh Alive, Madame Tussauds, The London Eye, Fortnum & Mason, Covent Garden as part of a list of boxes Jabe wanted to tick, some of which we’d not been near for many, many years and never thought we’d see again – most unrecognisably worked over and modernised.
Jabe is amazing. He is at Loughborough completing an MA in Mathematics. There is nothing he won’t try. He will paraglide off mountains, skydive from planes, ride any ride, play Boccia for the UK, the list is endless – if others can do it why can’t he?
Averaging 12,000 steps a day we covered 120,000 and the only batteries that ran our were ours! Oh….and Jabe ran over my foot in his 350Kg Wheelchair, an occupational hazard said carers Vic & Emily.
Top hole, Jabe! Top hole! It’s been a great little UKation!
Worzel Gummidge – aka Bojo the Clown – and his Shudder of Ministers, have succeeded in further bewildering us all with the great “Freedom Day” last week which seems only to have sown more confusion, information flying at us from every quarter. Friends, best keep wearing your masks – not material ones apparently – and hope that the massive experiment now being conducted here will really lead to the sunny uplands outlined in Professor Neil Ferguson’s latest communiqués.
It’s all Staycation! Staycation! Staycation! Following the success of the North Norfolk meander, it was touchy-touchy, feely-feely the following week and the blessed relief of actually seeing so many friends and clasping them (in my case) to ample bosoms.
So to London for our first extended stay – a week – in sixteen months. Extraordinary feeling. How small our world has become and how timid it makes us feel.
80th birthdays in Kent; Haute Cuisine at The Ivy City Garden: Yay! Someone else is cooking; at Daquise, our favourite Polish haunt in South Kensington, Golonka & Golubki recommended; moving to Primrose Hill and Lemonia for Greek cuisine and more friends, not visited for years. Parliament Hill Cafè on the Heath for breakfast.
Daquise is at the bottom of Exhibition Road and we decided to walk off lunch visiting the new Pavilion at the Serpentine and the fascinating James Barnor Photographic exhibition at the Sackler next door.
Lets have a cultural breather : fitting in The Noël Coward Exhibition at The Guildhall Gallery – a must – and the Football Final in front of a vast TV screen in Redcliffe Gardens, Turkish meze Deliveroo’d to the ensemble. I didn’t realise we could be so butch.
How can I make lists more interesting? They’re lovely lists though, signalling a feeling of normality almost forgotten. Best of all are you, Friends!
To Beckett at the British Museum we walked; rather uninspiring we thought, and very pedantically policed, taking forever, as the 69+’s all had to peer in the gloom at every impenetrable icon and cypher. Why do they insist on such poor lighting? Besides, Henry VIII made sure there was not much left of the Saint to show off anyway. We couldn’t wait for Brown’s, and more of you, dear Friends.
And we got you – at Bill’s in Muswell Hill, a duet with Friend Paul (I can mention your name can’t I, Paul? Great to see you.) – then Lennox Gardens for supper in what turned out to be my Grandmother’s flat renovated beyond recognition but, yes, it was the same street number.
Granny died years ago of course and the coincidence is astonishing. Thanks Laura for a lovely evening. I shall probably get into trouble for mentioning your name but, hey, it’s been so lovely to be in touch and I wish I could mention you all!
Not finished yet by half. Catch-up morning coffees in Tufnell Park; Table Du Marchè in East Finchley for the evening. Such fine food. I never want to cook again. This is so wonderful.
Are you exhausted by this list? We were and staggered home via Hildenborough, Kent, for the aforementioned 80th birthday, where more of you were warm and lovely.
A day on The Green for laundering and repacking thence to Yorkshire, roof down for the sunny, four hour trip, to Thirsk and a week of reconnecting. Thirsk is where my Bridge Club is – also my Bridge Mentor, Cathy. The pandemic encouraged an online membership and I’ve yet to physically meet the other members, and probably never will, though they are still streaming their Tuesday Tournaments for a while longer. Gazing across the green baize in actualitè , real cards trembling in hand, terror-in-heart, has yet to happen, except at Grandson Jabe’s home Cambridgeshire. But that comes later.
Yorkshire is lovely. I’d forgotten. We’ve been there several times in the past : Godchildren at Ampleforth, visiting performances by friends at theatres in York and Scarborough always entailing stays enabling visits to places like Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and Castle Howard, famous for its Brideshead Revisited association. I remember a particular journey to Scarborough to see Friend Paul (again) in David Mamet’s Oleanna which was well worth the terrifying, endless drive through cold rainstorms and failing light – long before Google maps and Tom-toms!
So it’s been a while; it’s unlike East Anglia, especially Essex. Almost like visiting a foreign country; even the people are different.
Thirsk sits in the broad valley separating the Dales in the west and the Moors in the east and some walking and driving took us, with Cathy, our Bridge Mentor and dear friend, to a Dale and a Moor or two.
Starting in Lastingham, from the Church of St. Mary, an 11th Century Norman gem, built on the remains of a much earlier (circa CE 690), Saxon monastery and famous for its crypt with an apsidal chancel, we set out on a three hour circular walk through woodland and over moors to Hutton-le-Hole through Spaunton and Appleton-le-Moors.
Bracken and heather; high, blue skies, thousands of black-faced, horned sheep in urgent need of shearing, eating or both! Beef baguettes and beer in the hot sun set a slower pace home via the kilns at Rosedale Chimney Bank. Quite steep there; had to change gears!
Harrogate was a discovery for us. Lovely town. Lunched at Betty’s of course – and understood why we know so many who’d love to live here – in Harrogate not Betty’s!
Home of The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Thrillers and all.
To Wharfedale for Bolton Abbey, a beautiful 12th Century Augustinian monastery, also wrecked by Henry VIII but affording a wonderful walk along the river and through the grounds.
Turned south in convoy to Stonely-Kimbolton, Cambs., for a Bridge-fest with Grandson Jabe in hot weather. A weekend of 16 Rubbers and much humiliation for me who succeeded in ending the stay far too full of food and wine and 101 down – the outright loser. Still it was a happy family event and at least it was real; we’d have done no other.
Back to Mistley via more family in Northampton, Aunt Sally and Tony’s Uncle Trevor, now 93, the week somewhat marred by news from South Africa where rioting, looting and murder have caused paralysis and fear in, particularly, KwaZulu-Natal.
Vasbyt family & friends there, vasbyt! We think of you all the time with hope. Take great care.
OPERATION SHOEBOX FILES!
The pandemic invents new obsessions, don’t you find? Operation Shoebox Files swung into action last week with the delivery of an Epson FastFoto Digitiser and a solution to the storage and display possibilities of thousands of photographs dating back to 1952.
Just throw them into the rubbish?
When our heirs comb through our goods and chattels after our departure to Hades/Nirvana, they’ll probably do just that! Chuck it all, along with the gigabytes they have been reduced to.
But then there’d be no project for the pandemic would there?
The machine had to be ordered in advance and space made in the calendar for the hire period.
Friends, there was barely enough time! Nor was I prepared for the emotional and psychological impact of a life literally passing before my eyes. There were moments of darkness I have to confess but also light and humour as the relentless schlick-tack, schlick-tack, schlick-tack of the trusty Epson churned out a lifetime. The Gelopetah-Gelopetah machine we came to call it.
What a life. Could it have passed by so quickly? Is there really so little of it left? Terrifying regret passed over me at moments. Had I appreciated it enough? Did I really do all those things? Were we really there? At such and such in such and such a time and place?
And could we have expended so much money on such badly taken photographs! And bothered to store them in those endless rows of albums in that cupboard – little, Instatmatic’d squares of blurred memories, Polaroid’d pleasantries faded to misty memories.
It has been a tense few days. I undertook the project while Tony was isolating in London before having a biopsy at The Macmillan Centre. It had the effect of heightening the experience somewhat; an awareness of mortality I suppose?
There are some wonderfully photographs, and on balance, I am glad we undertook the project but I was relieved when Envio took away the Gelopetah-Gelopetah machine and glad to have neatly consigned all those pictures, removed from their albums, stacked into elastic-banded years from 1952 to 2021, to a box headed for the attic.
A word of warning, Friends: do not undertake anything similar with Wagner in the background! Especially not Tristan und Isolde!
The buttercups, dandelions and cow parsley have given way to profusions of elderflower, poppies, dog-roses, abundant grasses tame and wild and the full, deep green of midsummer; the fields are ripening and the harvest already beckons.
“June just rains and never stops,
Thirty days and spoils the crops!”
On the 21st June, Midsummer, I wrote :
“……the temperature is 13˚C and it’s raining. In Scotland this morning there was frost on the ground and today we have had to start self-isolating again would you believe? We’ve been in contact with someone who has proved positive and though we have both had Covid, two vaccine jabs and are showing negative with the lateral flow tests, we still have to hang up our hats for ten days – or until the government officially declare exceptions for those of us who have had the jabs. We’ve had to alert one or two friends; cancel a visitor who would have been with us for three days and abort a trip to Yorkshire, part of a small Staycation Itinerary! It’s a bit of a bugger, Friends!”
But on the 30th day, the anniversary of the Night-of-the-Long Knives, the birth of Susan Hayward, Leonard Whiting, Peter Pollock and a host of famous forgotten names, was my own, Swuss-aunty-Nerf birthday, we made it, with Friend H….. to the Blakeney Hotel in Norfolk for three days under an unseasonable blanket of cloud, drizzle and mid-teen temperatures that chilled but did not discourage us from walks along that magical stretch of coast with its tidal wetlands, huge, sandy beaches, high skies and a bird life that helps you for a second or two to forget the drastic stories of extinctions and climate catastrophes. It all looked very normal-for-Norfolk.
Clay-Next-the-Sea. More grasses and another windmill.
On the way there last Monday, we detoured to check out Winterton-on-Sea:
A Hidden Gem
Bounded by a stunning sandy beach on one side and the Norfolk Broads on the other, Winterton-on-Sea is one of Norfolk’s best kept secrets. Away from the brash bright lights of nearby seaside towns, this ancient fishing village is the perfect get-away-from-it-all destination, whether you want a traditional bucket and spade holiday with the children, a romantic break or a chance to see raw beauty and the wonders of nature. Winterton is also one of the dog friendliest villages in Norfolk…year round.
So says their Blog. We were very taken by the Hermanus Roundhouses, an hotel we were convinced had to be owned by South Africans. There we call them Rondavels and Hermanus is a famous beach destination in The Cape. Hermanus. A good Dutch name. But how wrong we were. At the Winebago Coffee Stall on the beach we were told by a local that it has been in a Norfolk family for generations – without the benefit of any South African or Dutch input.
Of course there was a lot of Dutch help centuries ago when they taught us how to drain polders, build dykes and install windmill pumps around The Broads and the flatlands of East Anglia, to control flooding and drain fields. Hermanus may have come from there, who knows?
Once in Blakeney we fitted into a routine started last August when a small window opened in the run up to the Second Wave. Lots of sunshine then but sadly not this time. Wells-next-the-Sea was pleasingly spruced up and the wonderful walk along the Beach Road dyke onto the beach and around the headland onto that wide, white, empty, sandy beach to Holkham and back through the woods, despite some drizzle, was a delight.
The usual pattern of streaming, walking, reading, cooking and other delightful domestic pursuits make it difficult to say more as we approach the final lockdown date. These past eighteen months have certainly encouraged introspection, don’t you find? I have started writing little stories based on amusing events and thought I’d end with one here as I approach the 35th anniversary of my first visit to Positano in July 1986. Have a little look why don’t you, and tell me what you think? It’s completely free and the usual multiple choice exams will soon be coming up and I would expect you all to have researched well and be au fait with everything on The Green! I am thinking of adding oral tests as well, to give a more three dimensional picture and to make it easier for you to tick the correct boxes and pass the exams!
We’re green on The Green it would seem. The second May Bank Holiday brought children and grandchildren Staycationing briefly; how lovely it was and with perfect sunny weather bringing relief from the tedium of lockdown.
Frances Macmillan has been our postmistress for thirty years. Now she has closed her little shop with its huge selection of sweets in jars along the shelves behind the counter, the bread, the newspapers and milk so handily available for those emergencies, not to mention other vital victuals, to retire and leave us. Only the red pillar box will remain as a reminder of our sub-post office, though for how long we know not.
And into our Tea-on-the-Green to celebrate our new freedoms, to thank Frances and revel in the weather, who should appear among us on her 20,000 mile walk around the British Isles but Karen Penny, on her way up the Stour from Harwich to Manningtree. Incredible journey raising awareness and money for Alzheimer’s Research; £85,000 of the £100,000 goal reached and still the whole east coast to go to get back to John O’Groats. It fair made our heads spin. If anyone would care to donate click on the link :
I’ve called this entry Red, Amber or Green? because the 21st of June, midsummer, is the date for the masks to be whisked off and normality resumed – it is presumed. Lingering doubts round the Delta variant may change the traffic lights and we are holding our collective breath while Bojo and The Clowns juggle their political acts and the scientists urge caution.
In the meantime its full speed ahead on duet- quartet- and sestet-dinners at home and abroad in Thorpness, Wivenhoe, Brondesbury Park, Thurston – not forgetting Snape for a picnic, a walk, and some Scriabin, Britten and Schoenberg, John Wilson conducting The Royal Academy of Music Strings; and in “Orlando’s Garden”, Brightlingsea, where rain stopped play and we were moved to All Saints Church and Orlando Jopling’s talented String Quartet and Singers took us through Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Purcell and even a twiddle or two of Porter & Hammerstein!
Friend and neighbour Sarah – glimpsed here at tea – has donated a fantastic booklet from her rapidly dwindling library (as she prepares to leave us and move north – so sad), Geoff Gostling’s Shotley Peninsula Walks. I have a ‘thing’ about doubling back or backtracking on walks or hikes. Circles or loops are my walking ideal and this booklet is fantastic as it highlights all the circular walks near us, across the Stour in Suffolk on the Shotley Peninsula. So there’s lots there to investigate in our rapidly warming summer.
The Shotley Peninsula is beautiful. It’s the thin strip of land separating the Orwell & Stour Rivers with Manningtree at the head of the Stour and Ipswich at the top of the Orwell – the rivers meet at Harwich and Felixstowe.
Low-lying and high-ceilinged, there is much history here. It is reputed that Anne Boleyn’s heart is buried at St. Mary’s Ewarton near Shotley.
The landscape is a darkening green, the Bluebells and May have made way for the Poppies, Buttercups, the smell of mowing, barley and wheat, rapeseed and grasses
At St. Mary’s Shotley, if you tiptoe respectfully through the cemetery, down the steep slope you come upon thirteen German graves, including ein unbekannter Deutscher Soldat. They are the graves of some of the earliest casualties of the Great War of 1914-18, of 13 sailors of the Kaiserliche Marine.
The tragic events unfolded on August 5th 1914, the day after the outbreak of War. HMS Amphion was off Harwich when a German minelayer was spotted. The Royal Navy ship gave chase and sank the minelayer, but took on board 46 survivors. However, in the early hours of August 6th HMS Amphion itself hit one of the mines with the loss of at least 131 personnel. Other ships took off survivors but the hapless Amphion then struck another mine and sank. Some of the burials are here at Shotley.
Across the river in Harwich on another day, we walked family Julie, Zac and Fin through the old town where Henry VIII started the navy in 1543, where the Mayflower was built and launched and captained via Plymouth to America by Christopher Jones whose house still stands opposite our favourite pub, The Alma, in King Street; they’d asked to see it and we walked the pier, through the wilderness where the Redoubt and Beacon Hill Batteries, built in 1657 as reinforcement against the Dutch and French, are overgrown by brambles, cow parsley and wild flowers, the stark, broken concrete of later reinforcements facing out onto the brown North Sea, stubbing our toes.
We found this plaque not realising that the Kindertransport first landed here; thousands of innocent, Jewish children escaping the horrors of Hitler’s Europe, before travelling on toward Liverpool Street Station and unknown futures without their mothers, their fathers, their Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents and tortured elders.
THE BUNGEE JUMPERS – A SILLY RED HERRING, FRIENDS :
I don’t know why this story has suddenly popped into my mind. It comes out of nowhere and is entirely irrelevant to traffic lights, lockdowns or clowning prime ministers but ten years ago I went to New Zealand to visit my brother and say hello to my oldest friend in the world, Helena. She and I grew up in Pinelands, Cape Town where we were next-door-neighbours. At two I was playing in her sandpit together with her brother Janek and we have been friends ever since.
Helena lives in Masterton and when I stayed with her, she took me away for the weekend to her retreat at Oreti Village in Pukawa on Lake Taupo.
On one of the days we drove round to Taupo town and among other things visited the Spa Thermal Park where there is the famous Bungee Jumping Platform started by A.J. Hackett as the first commercial venture of its kind in the world.
The landscape round about is beautiful. The views from the platform high above the Waikato River just below the Haku Falls are breath-taking.
Into this chasm people pay good money to jump with an elastic band tied around their ankles.
“Do you want to have a go?” Helena said, sipping some coffee.
“Are you crazy? Never in a month of Sundays would I do that,” I replied, peering into the depths.
The place was deserted. Just two German tourists, a young couple, obviously recently married, gazing in trepidation at the gushing river below. A young New Zealander was supervising the jump.
She was already strapped up and ready to go but was having serious second thoughts.
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Take as much time to decide as you like,” said the New Zealander, “no one is forcing you and no one would ever push you!”
“Komm schon Hannah,” the young husband, lets call him Karl, started to coax her, “es its sicher. Haben Sie keine Angst. Alles, was Sie tun müssen, ist aussteigen.”
“Karl! Stress mich nicht. Kann ich das Geld nicht zurückbekommen?” Stop pressuring me, can’t I get the money back etc etc, she wailed, our Hannah!
“Schau Schatz, ich geh dir gleich hinterher und dann haben wir es geschafft! Komm schon, wir können nicht den ganzen Tag dauern!” He’ll follow her, he promises, and they can’t waste time etc etc, he wheedled, our Karl.
“Du versprichst mir?” You promise?
Helena and I were riveted. Would she jump? It was like watching a thriller, never sure of the outcome. Might he even push her? No, we thought, the New Zealander would never allow that.
Suddenly she jumped.
There were two types of jump: one where the elasticated cord was adjusted to allow the jumper a ducking in the water before spronging up and down dripping wet or another measured to extend just short of the water then spronging dryly up and down.
Hannah had elected the dry jump. She gradually slowed down and was then gently lowered into the arms of two boatmen who uncoupled her , set her upright and rowed her to the shore where a Landrover was waiting to drive her round the hill back to the top to witness Karl’s efforts.
The elasticated rope was being wound up and the supervisor turned to Karl, “Do you want to get ready then?” he asked.
“Nein, I vill…vait fur mein friend…..”
“He’s scared. He’s not going to do it, is he?” said Helena.
The Landy appeared round the corner and an elated Hannah ran onto the platform, “Es is fantastisch! Ich hatte noch nie in meinem Leben solche Angst, aber jetzt habe ich es geschafft!”
Such elation from our Hannah, such a sense of achievement, “Warum sind Sie noch nicht bereit, an der Reihe zu sein?” Why are you not getting ready?
“Nein. Ich will es nicht und ich habe jetzt keine Zeit. Ich denke, wir sollten gehen.” Our Karl bottled out and Hannah was livid, betrayed. The little drama unfolded before us while we sipped our coffee.
“Aber du hast es versprochen. Du hast gesagt, wenn ich springe, würdest du springen. Wie erbärmlich du bist, was für ein Feigling!”
You promised. You are a coward. Why did you put me through this?
A full-scale domestic row blew up.
We finished our coffee and left the Bungee Jumpers to their broken vows.
The daffodils have given way to the bluebells which, in turning, are giving way to the buttercups, dandelions and Queen Anne’s Lace.
Friends, it is glorious.
Every year I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Spring and the push towards Summer. The English countryside bursts with growth. The grasses, the wheat, the barley, the oats and even the garish rape – all are a rapture in this landscape of ours.
We have lived in Mistley for twenty years and thought we’d covered, in that time, pretty much all the walks and sights in this East Anglian lowland of muds and estuaries – but yesterday for the first time, we discovered Dodnash Woods and Valley and were astonished that it has taken us so long to go there. Of course we’d heard of it for years and been urged to visit it but never have – until yesterday.
There was in the 11th Century, an Augustine Monastery in this little valley we are told; there is a block of stone remaining attesting to this, with a railing around it to protect it from the sheep; but no notes. It is believed to have been founded in 1128 by Baldwin de Toeni and was in use until Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall in 1525. Whether Henry VIII destroyed it along with so many others no-one seems to know though it is a rather water-meadow’d little valley and could not have been a comfortably dry place to live!
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1884-1889
“Yes yes yes – we are longing to travel about and will defo. try and see you sometime,” said one of you, Friends, “and eating & drinking goes without saying of course.” But I do know what you mean about rather repetitive chats. In fact we find that lapses into complete silence are not uncommon – and rather alarming, for those of us who used once never to stop talking!
This is an owl which Mabel, one of our fast growing Pixies-of-the-Green popped through the door. Soon we will not be able to call them Pixies, time flies by, and their adorable eccentricities, their divine innocences will fade away. (Too sentimental? Cloying? I hope not! They are very special.)
Reflecting on the effects of the pandemic on our sanity, I have realised that a degree of infantilisation has crept into our lives. The list of nicknames we use has grown ever longer and short cut methods of communication get ever shorter. Passing through kissing-gates is a good example. We learned about them over eighteen months ago from Friend L—–, on a long hike up the Gipping valley from Ipswich to Stowmarket.
I knew they were called kissing gates of course but not how you traditionally traverse them: the first person passes through the gate, turns round, bangs the gate shut and kisses the second person who passes through the gate, bangs it shut and so on until all are through. Terrible bad luck she told us, not to complete this little tradition at each gate. It then took us twice as long to get to Stowmarket because on that route there are hundreds of these gates. An eighteen miler in eight hours with a lot of kissing!
This tradition during the pandemic and our gradual infantilisation, along with holding hands, has been revived on our walks as an expression of tenderness at a tough time and seems not to have frightened the cows or any passers-by who may or may not have caught us in the clinch!
L—– introduced us to another thing that neither of us had heard of, not for our use naturally, the SheWee. A sensible device though I was shocked to find that in parts of the Islamic world these devices have become vital in maintaining a woman’s dignity where Sharia in its extreme form forbids a woman to crouch for natural purposes. Since many hundreds of thousand of women work the fields, in fundamentalist theocracies, this device has a practical and, almost, life-saving purpose.
You learn something new every day.
The 17th May brought Friend L…….(another L) , our first visitor for nearly a year, to stay for two nights. It felt extraordinary I must say. We have become institutionalised by the lockdown I think? Don’t you feel? We have to start learning how to be with friends again. How to socialise. Conversations dry up don’t you find, in the absence of anything new to say? In the past ten days since then, we’ve celebrated a birthday in a pub, had another visitor, Friend M……, to stay, are expecting family to join us at the May Bank Holiday weekend coming, played oodles of bridge online, been impressed with Kate Winslet’s Mare of Easttown, riveted by Dominic Cummings’ appearance in Parliament rubbishing Bojo the Clown and some of his minions, notably Matt Hancock. It’s almost as exciting as a BBC Boxset!
June’s calendar is full.
Julie’s House. Love it or hate it!
We are grappling with the notion of Amber? Does anyone have a view on Amber and its actual meaning? Do we Come or Go, Talking of Michelangelo? Do we make up our own rules or not? I ask because unless the Bojo Clowns don’t make it clear, we cannot get our travel deposits back or know whether or not to travel at all. Apparently neither do the airlines nor, really, the government!
Happy Birthday, Mali!
Mind you, a visit to Minsk might not be appropriate at the present time – my travel insurance doesn’t cover state-sponsored terror or the consequences of mid-air kidnappings by Migs!
And so, forward Friends to the sunny uplands, we hope, of midsummer and an amber Solstice. Away with the rain and cold weather : do you remember the Flanders & Swan weather chart song?
Farmers fear unkindly May,Frost by night and hail by day;June just rains and never stops,30 days and spoils the crops!