Last week on Thursday the 22nd September I was to have met my brother, David, in London. We were to fly to Los Angeles to connect with a Princess cruise across the Pacific to New Zealand to visit our other brother, Michael and his family, not seen for seven years.
This was a journey I would have shared with you, dear Friends, as I always do. It was long in the planning and much anticipated by us both.
But last week on that same day, Brother David died and a new and very sad journey has been undertaken to KwaZulu-Natal instead. He was 65.
Tony and I flew out to Durban last Sunday the 25th coinciding with the arrival of Brother Michael and Janine after a gruelling 38 hour flight from Auckland.
It has been a great shock to us all.
You think that in life you know someone well, especially a brother, but in death you find out how little you really do.
David was a private man; he was a bachelor who, though he wanted so badly to share his life, never found anyone to do so. He was lonely and to a certain extent a recluse and our family shared in wishing him happiness and fulfilment but were saddened that this never happened.
During this horrible week dealing with the bureaucracy of illness and death, we have uncovered some of the life of our brother we never knew. He seemed to have few friends; we agonised over what to do to celebrate his life? Would we have a wake? If so, who would come? His Will indicated the simplest of funerals, no services, no church and no medical prolongations that would lend indignity and pain to what turned out to be a horrible end, gasping for air after a long struggle with emphysema.
He chose cremation and the Funeral Company, Doves, performed this rite, slotting in a “viewing” at 12.30pm last Tuesday the 27th., in the absence of a chapel service.
It was ghastly.
Even accessing the Doves facility on the east side of the Greyville race- and golf-course had a grotesque, Kafkaesque quality. Everything in South Africa is behind bars, electric fences, coded entry pads; nailed down against theft, vandalism, corruption and death. We drew up outside the facility before an iron gate barring entrance to the dedicated car park on the roof. It took a phone-call and a visit to the front desk to get this opened remotely before would could park – the only two cars on site. The gate slid shut, effectively imprisoning us. It was impossible to gain entry to the premises through the small, revolving gate without biometric recognition, a thumb print, and eventually a phone call had to be placed to central office in Johannesburg who in turn alerted the front desk in Durban as to our predicament.
Someone came and let us in to what I can only describe as a broken down, empty factory, reminiscent of SingSing. We were eventually ushered into the “viewing” room, a small, bare, unadorned, scruffy space in corporation colours where David was perched on a plinth in a cheap, deal coffin.
I have never witnessed an open coffin before and I never want to again. I do not know why we agreed this awful procedure. He was ice-cold, not defrosted, the coffin still perspiring. Sister Sally said that at least he looked more peaceful than when she had last seen him struggling for air, ashen faced, thin, exhausted, pipes protruding, and had whispered in her ear, “Please put my shoes on and take me home”.
We were ushered out and returned through the complicated security to our cars and let out through the sliding gate to the humid heat of a dirty Durban street.
Then an extraordinary coincidence occurred. My niece, Caitlin, messaged Michael from New Zealand. A friend had texted her from Durban to say that she had seen in an Instagram that Tina’s Hotel were arranging a farewell get-together for David that very evening. We knew nothing of this at all and this underlined the disconnect between the various parts in David’s life.
Tina’s is a small hotel in Kloof where David or ‘Doc’ as we have always known him, always came for drinks. It was his watering place. We’d known he went there but had no idea how often, for how many years or how many friends he had there.
We went along to what turned out to be a most moving and revelatory wake. About thirty people, none of whom we knew, attended; the manager of the bar, Rachel, was a sweet person who knew Doc well. She gave a spontaneous eulogy. She explained that for years David would attend at Tina’s, he had a reserved stool at the bar, his own beer mug and shot glass kept behind the bar, a heater specially installed on the wall behind, for he felt the cold; he would sit there quietly on his own, pen in hand, with the newspaper, the crossword or sudoku on the go. Windhoek was his tipple and he always ended the visit with a shot of Zambucco. Everyone liked him. She described him as a gentle man and a gentleman, with a sense of humour and a kindliness. Everyone there agreed with these sentiments. They agreed he was a private, sensitive man who had let on that he had been much bullied by life, that he had loathed boarding school where his physical disability had been much mocked, that he had extraordinary knowledge about many things.
We knew none of this. The evident respect and affection in which he was held was very moving indeed. That he had loathed his time at Michaelhouse was news to us though we knew that his disability had always figured largely in his life, forming much of his personality.
His disability precluded much of the obligatory sporting activities at school but he was an enthusiastic member of the Michaelhouse Venture Club which arranged weekend expeditions to the Drakensberg and other places in the Natal Midlands and was run and often led by his Housemaster, whom he liked very much, Hugo Leggatt. Longer more complex expeditions were mounted during school holidays and Doc very much enjoyed these too. He grew to love the Midlands and the Midland Meander was one of his favourite routes when his breathing difficulties forced him to rely on his car. When we started clearing his home we discovered that his new BMW bought exactly two years ago had clocked up 93,000 kilometres during the pandemic – many of these on solo trips visiting and revisiting the wilder, higher places in KwaZuluNatal.
He loved travel. Cruising worked well for him because of his health issues. He visited, usually alone, many places in Europe, often along rivers, and seemed happy with his own company although I joined him enthusiastically on a successful cruise round the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal – which excited and impressed us both very much – up the west coast of Mexico, Baja and San Diego. We very much enjoyed each other’s company and loved the whole experience; it was good to be so close.
It was a similar plan we hatched together now, though this time to New Zealand, to visit family, which was aborted the day before he died.
Doc caught polio from his Godfather at his Christening six weeks after his birth. He had a pronounced limp and a weakened left side, had always had balance issues and could fall easily. This lead to many scrapes. Mum was a physiotherapist and worked on Doc during his childhood so that at least he never had to wear callipers. But the scars from this disease had a lasting effect.
The staff at Tina’s all came up to speak with us and all his friends too. Here at least was a genuine wake filled with affection which by sheer luck and a message from New Zealand we stumbled across and found a side to our brother we hardly knew and could celebrate.
We decided that there would be no further service and that we’d scatter his ashes when they were “ready for collection” at a site to be chosen.
In the meantime it has been a week of packing up a life, rationalising belongings, visiting lawyers, making claims to insurance companies. Uncovering little projects Doc was working on, discovering other characters in the great drama that is Life. We have laughed too and reminisced well. There have been many tears for this was a life cut short and Doc was very much loved by us all.
Today we scattered his ashes.
When our family moved to Natal from Cape Town in 1957 and Doc was only four months old, my father found a beautiful house in Kloof on the edge of the escarpment with views to the south east towards Durban. Our parents made a garden out of the large tropical grounds and outside the wall planted six London Plane trees, saplings, carefully transferred from the nursery to the garden in the little Fiat Topolino they owned, with its canvas roof down.
These beautiful trees have flourished and grown tall in the sixty five years since then and it was along this shaded line that we sprinkled Doc’s ashes today. He loved our home there where he felt happiest and safest – at 53 Peace Road, Kloof.
Dear Friends this has been our latest journey then. So unexpected and unwanted. Many of you did not know Doc but many did and I thank you for you all for your kind thoughts and condolences at this sad time.
This is a new era. The Queen has died, a madman is running Russia and in England we have a nutty Prime Minister with idiotic policies presiding over a broken down Britain. The seas are rising and everywhere there is anger and protest, cruelty and greed.
And My Brother David has died. I am glad on two counts, that he did not die on our cruise and that he does not need to see any more of the mess that the world is in.
Tony and I are returning to Blighty this week on separate days.
Thank you all for listening.
Dearest Brother Doc, Rest In Peace. With love from your boeties Peed & Miggy and Sister Sal.
We have taken a house in Briantspuddle near Dorchester for a week for a family reunion. The house on The Green in Mistley is too small for ten of us so for all of us to be together this arrangement was thought best. And so it has proved. It’s the first time the Canadian and the English families have been together for a long time and how delightful it is to have them all round us in this beautiful part of the world.
Tony and I came down last week (14 July) the night before we were all due to converge here at Cornerstone Cottage, so that we could do a gigantic shop and get into the house to set things up the following day. This entailed an unexpected visit to of all places, Poundbury, Prince Charles’ venture into town planning just outside Dorchester; a somewhat Disneyesque sort of Georgian theme park,
where we put up at the Duchess of Cornwall Hotel. Neither of us are quite sure what to make of it. The project is not complete nor has there been time for any sort of patina of age or character yet to develop but Legoland did spring to mind. It was comfortable and served its purpose as across the square was a Waitrose (of course) where we filled a few trolleys with supplies in the morning.
The “heat dome” is upon us. Soaring temperatures that may not impress friends in South Africa, Australia or North America but in the low 40Cs are exceptional here. Fortunately we are a short distance from the pebbly and sandy beaches of the Jurassic Coast at Swanage and Lulworth, where a lot of time has been spent in the cool water.
I haven’t been here since 1986 when I came down to do a few scenes in the BBC’s TV movie THE HAPPY VALLEY, for Ross Devenish who was directing. The budget did not include exotic Kenyan locations and Swanage was used for the Kenyan coast.
The stay there afforded a visit to Corfe Castle which we introduced to the grandchildren yesterday; impressive place and the village is beautiful. We went to Worth Matravers for pasties and cider at The Square & Compass, a 17th century pub famed for its music nights and a jump off point for the walk to Dancing Ledge which we set out for after lunch.
I’m afraid I never made it in the heat though it
was only half an hour away, and Tony and I turned back and waited in the shade for the young to discover the ledge and clamber down to the water. Oh dear……age thou art shamed!
Durdle Door is another beautiful part of this coast just along from Lulworth Cove; another fairly steep haul down from the carpark but with the prize of Man o’ War Beach and its clear cool waters making it worth the climb. By now temperatures have dropped and a cool sea mist billowing in has changed the recent scorching weather.
One of the grandchildren, Jabe, is not with us. He’s driven to Portugal with his team and set up in a villa in Foz do Arelho about an hour north of Lisbon, for a month, and we are driving there to join him for a week via the Portsmouth and Bilbao ferry.
Today we say goodbye to our Canadians. They’re off to a wedding in a field near Exeter and we are driving via Allum Green in the New Forest for lunch with friend Jane B and then on to Portsmouth for our sailing to Bilbao.
But first of all a quick visit to Clouds Hill the isolated brick and tile cottage once the peaceful retreat of T. E. Lawrence.
That was then; this is now, today, Friday the 5th August and we are in San Sebastian on our way north from Portugal and home via The Netherlands.
The Brittany Ferries Salamanca brought us to Bilbao. Hull No. W0269, built in the China Merchants Jinling Shipyard (Weihai) Co. Ltd., and launched in 2021. Do they make everything, I wonder?
It didn’t feel new and it was chokka with screaming children on the first day of holidays after a pandemically long break. Interestingly the 7pm sailing from Portsmouth takes two nights to Bilbao so the effect was a rather noisy, mini-cruise. Unlike the afternoon sailings from Plymouth or Portsmouth which take eighteen hours over one night.
Pictures from Dover made us feel lucky until we realised that it is only the idiocy of Brexit that causes the queues, insisting on the perusal and stamping, by our Foreign Office, of every single passport, and in Spain exactly the same procedures delayed us in Bilbao where once upon a lovely time we were waved through.
Don’t start me going. I feel Rantz-in-my-Pantz itching! And soon we will be Trussed up by more idiocy in the form of Lizzy and her Looney-Toon plans.
But Bilbao thank heavens was a far cry from all that undignified clowning as we finally set off through the glorious Picos up to the searing heat of the Spanish plateau heading down past Burgos, Valladolid, Salamanca, across the border into Portugal for our first stop in Viseu where we put up in a rather grand Pousada, converted from an 18th century hospital, now an hotel.
Pousada’s are the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradores which we have always found excellent in every respect. The difference between the two is that the Spanish Government are the ultimate owners of the Paradores while in Portugal the Pestana Group own the 44 historic conversions across the country along with their other, modern hotels.
It was 41°C there.
So, straight into the swimming pool we went, then lying exhausted in the shade, finally retreating to the air-conditioned sanctuary of our room.
Friends, they are not exaggerating. The heat is terrible and as we have driven across Portugal we have seen the tragic evidence of vast swathes of countryside reduced to cinders.
Be that as it may the drive down to join the family in Foz do Arelho was beautiful as we descended from the plateau down to the coast where temperatures plunged to a manageable 24°C and some cloud cover.
The Lagoon mouth at Foz do Arehlo
What a lovely week. Grandson Jabe has taken a villa – very modern and wheel chair friendly – for a month. There are plenty of rooms with views across the lagoon, a large garden and a pool. He’s fitted friends and family into weekly slots, meticulously worked out and very welcoming.
From here apart from relaxing we have explored the surroundings with visits to the market in Caldas da Rainha, where there was an excellent little museum in the Parque Dom Carlos I, the Museu Jose Malhoa, containing a fascinating mix of sculptures and paintings in a beautiful building on the lake.
Another excursion took us down to Cascais also a beautiful place though our main purpose there was to visit the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, purpose built to house part of her oeuvre and works by Eduardo Souto de Moura.
Much argument ensued among grandchildren about the paintings – too childish, primitive; nursery school daubs and the room dedicated to her protest against the cruelty of female genital mutilation appalled them. I don’t think they were hanging her best works, more probably her most controversial ones. Personally I prefer her more painterly, accessible pieces.
We managed, some of us, to get onto one of the small, coved beaches but the water here is no less cold than anywhere else along this Atlantic coast, the searing heat offsetting the shock entry!
Casa das Histórias Paula Rego
Back via Sintra to Foz do Arelho where the lagoon is calmer and warmer, a sand bar at the entrance protecting it from the crashing, dark blue coldness of the Atlantic.
São Martinho do Porto is another nearby attraction. Here there is an almost completely closed, large bay edged with sand dunes. It is all thoughtfully laid out with board walks extending almost the whole way round.
Óbidos was nearby too. A fine example of a walled town dating from the 13th Century though occupancy there dates back to the Romans and beyond. It’s one of the best sites in the Lisbon area to visit. From the high towers there are spectacular views all around.
Time to leave and head north.
Next stop Porto – after a night in the Pousada da Ria Aviero on the way. Built in the 60’s on stilts above the water on the Torreira Peninsula facing east across the lagoon, we couldn’t get closer if we tried. Sitting enjoying preprandial G’s & T’s, we watched for nearly an hour as shoals of Whitebait jumped in and out of the water – presumable evading other, bigger fish in the pond.
There is a small car ferry that connects the peninsula with the town of Aviero across the mouth of the lagoon. We decided to lunch there on our way north to Porto and were delighted by this Portuguese Venice with its canals, colourful houses and boats.
Now – Porto.
Three nights there at the eccentrically pretentious, over-designed and aptly named Torel Avantgarde Hotel on the Rua da Restauração. Facing south across the Douro with spectacular views and well situated for the old town, this hotel amused us with its contrasting pretensions but excellent service. We felt rather out of place – mutton dressed as lamb almost – as beautiful, rich, thirty-somethings, robe et bagages à la mode, filled the pool deck and the bar areas. No-one there had a Sainsbury’s shopping bag filled with Cotton-trader T-shirts and shorts!The entire hotel was painted in Farrow and Ball Vardo. A beautiful colour but in our completely under-lit room, rendering us blind, unable easily to read our books and requiring us to feel our way to the loo and using iPhone torches to find things – especially in the mini-safe – not practical in any way.
View from the deck of the Torel Avantgarde Hotel. But we loved it. It was so very over-the-top!
Porto is beautiful.
The obligatory (at our creakier age) Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour oriented us well neither having been here before. Though why I can’t imagine. It satisfies in every way. I mean the city not the hop-on-hop-off, though both did well.
Livraria Lello – The Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World
The Douro and its steep sided banks dominates the town. Spectacular bridges span the canyon, for trams, pedestrians, cars and all. Funicular railways and cable cars help keep heart failure at bay. These days we make sure we always start at the top of everything, moving ever downward in our quest to ease over-heated, arthritic and, in my case, over-weight bodies. This strategy is vital in Porto, largely pedestrianised and very steep: like Madeira, Lisbon, San Francisco or, even Tamboerskloof!
There is so much here. Where to start? The food? Never a failed meal the entire time in Portugal. Lots of fish and seafood; probably our best evening was O Fado a restaurant serving traditional dishes with the added cachet of Fado performed beautifully by three musicians and two singers. The Portuguese guitar is one of my favourite instruments and always succeeds in making my hair stand up and a tear gather in the eye. Never understand a single word but it sounds so glorious!
Then there is the architecture, the river, the history; the brilliant Palácio da Bolsa, the old Chamber of Commerce Building and Stock Exchange built over 60 years completed only in 1910 though it functioned from 1850. The decorative detail is astonishing particularly in the so called Arab Room.
< View from the Palácio da Bolsa
The Stock Exchange floor
It took a while to get in so we sat outside the old Mercado Ferreira Borges with some beer and toasties. The city we were told is bursting at the seams. That we managed to get a room is a miracle; queues everywhere; reserve to eat out or stay with kerbside kitchens.
“My dear………the people!“
Mercado Ferreira Borges
Rather quaintly there are still two of the originally old tramlines running, numbers 1 and 18, which we used a few times as part of our heart attack strategy though it was nice to see that they are not only tourist attractions and used by locals too.
Below the Palácio da Bolsa is the old Gothic church of Saint Francis with baroque interiors, saved when the attached monastery was burned down in one or other civil war.
We decided before we set out to return to Mistley across Spain, through France and up to The Netherlands, to Otterloo, for the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Park De Hoge Veluwe and thence to Hoek for the ferry. Quite a drive, starting with the Douro River Valley to Zamora, a beautiful landscape despite the dry heat, the river edged with steep vineyards and quaint towns. We’ve toyed with cruising this but think that the road trip is better and a fraction of the price! Besides which you can get further up the river by car than by boat.
Palacio de los Condes de Alba y Aliste now a Parador
Zamora is on the Douro just inside the Spanish border. We are back to scorching heat, discouraging much exploration, while the pool in the garden of the Parador De Zamora beckoned – once the Palacio de los Condes de Alba y Aliste built in the 15th century on the site of an old Roman citadel.
Northward the next day to San Sebastian for two nights at the perfectly placed Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, slap bang on La Concha and a few hundred metres from the Old Town. When we were here last year for Tony’s 70th birthday and the Festival screening of Terence Davies’ Benediction, we so loved this city that we wanted to come back.
Friend Helen B was here in May and alerted us to the fabulous San Telmo Museum which we somehow missed last year. The permanent collection there is housed in the cloisters and church and emphasise Basque history. But it is the monumental Eleven Scenes of San Telmo in the Sert Canvases that grab most of the attention. Simply astonishing and very moving, they rather drowned out the special exhibition of the sculptures of Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida placed in the modern annexe of this wonderful place.
The San Telmo Museum
Ever northward. Cap Ferret next.
Thank you friends Laura T. and Sherri & David S-Mc for the heads up here! Two nights among the Pines that cover the dunes of this peninsula best explored by bike.
It’s very flat so we thought this a good place to revisit long lost skills, neither of us having straddled the seat of a bicycle since we visited Key West 30 years ago!
Similar terrain so we thought it a safe bet. So ashamed at our total ineptitude that we clumsily mounted the bikes out of sight of the hotel to wobble our way to La Maison du
Bassin where we were able to book a table for dinner – our dearest wish being to sample the famous huîtres, oysters or hooters of Arcachon Bay – before wobbling to the Plage de l’Horizon, Tony falling off at one point, nearly breaking a toe. The peninsula closes Arcachon off from the Atlantic and it is here in this bay that the famous oysters are found. We had a lot of them: all different, all sizes and all delicious.
Plage de l’Horizon
And we discovered, just round the corner from La Maison du Bassin, right on the beach, Chai Bertrand whose purpose is only to feed you oysters and shellfish.
Just for a night. A good thing too since our room at Le Grand Hôtel de Tours, next to the handsome railway station, was on the fifth floor, a garret, albeit well appointed but so hot as to be virtually uninhabitable as the management had neglected to switch on the aircon. We retreated forthwith and let the machine do its best, only returning at the end of the evening by which time things had improved.
Tours is another lovely town. I love the bombast of 19th century French architecture. So extravagant. We explored the old town, G’s & T’s in the Place Plumereau, a superb dinner at the Restaurant La Deuvalière on the, under the circumstances, aptly named Rue de la Monnaie and experienced shock at the level of the Loire which to all intents and purposes seemed to have ceased flowing.
The Town Hall & Railway Station in Tours
Ever northward the next morning via the dreaded Paris Périphérique where we almost succeeded in getting ourselves wiped out when we got stuck on a traffic island, to Ghent. Why is that everything has to go through Paris? The SatNav makes out that this will always be the fastest route yet it never is. The traffic was terrible and the slip road onto the A1 was closed without warning. The Peripherique lived up to its name as we went round in circles in increasing danger of a coronary!
But we finally arrived in Ghent, another beautiful city reminiscent of Bruges, with its canals, stopping at the Monasterium PoortAckere a few hundred metres from the historic centre: “Unfussy rooms in a humble hotel set in a former 13th-century monastery with meeting space”. Very peaceful.
A short two hour drive to our next, and penultimate stop, before the ferry at Hoek was in Otterloo where we met friend Maudje B-B for the express purpose of visiting the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Park De Hoge Veluwe.
This is without doubt one of the finest museums we have seen. It contains among many other things, the second largest collection of van Goch’s works in the world. It is set in this extensive national park and, horror-of-horrors, you are encouraged to traverse the park by bike, the museum itself being in the centre, hidden among the trees.
Maudje came from Amsterdam to stay the night and meet us for this event. Our hotel was literally a few hundred metres from the entrance where after we’d checked out, we parked up and ventured forth to the free bicycle park. They are traditional Dutch bikes, no gears and back pedal brakes. This time it was me who crashed, twice, despite the absence of other traffic of any kind. Grazed, bloody knees and feeling like a complete moron, I did manage to finish the circuit, visit the hunting lodge and finally arrive at the actual museum in vaguely one piece!
It was worth it. What a treat. We recommend it, friends, bikes and all. Put it on your list.
Just a ninety minute drive to Hoek from Otterloo.
For the night ferry to Harwich.
And home to Mistley in the morning.
30 days and 2,950 miles (4,747 kilometres sounds better!)
To-day is the 19th August and we have been home exactly a week.
Who needs Netflix these days with such a wide range of entertainment available, at home and abroad, on the news platforms of the world. Every taste is catered for: farce, tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy and sheer absurdity. And all for free! No subscription necessary. The Westminster bubble has burst and out has plopped The Clown and His Shudder leaving chaos and laughter in his wake. That and a lot of other awfulness that makes my feet itchy and the sand seem a good place to keep my older, balding head!
But Wow! June has been quite a month. Last week I turned 70 and entered my 8th Decade, dear Friends. Some of you have got there already; some of you have entered your 9th Decade and I bet you all can’t believe it? I certainly cannot and still view the world as if through the eyes of a sixteen year old. That has been quite exciting enough without the lunacies of the world to amaze and depress!
I suppose June started really at the end of May with a short visit to The Hay Festival to see Damon Galgut being interviewed and talking with Elizabeth Day, one of the best I’ve seen him give. His winning book, The Promise has been an enormous success and he has been much in demand for interviews and promotional book launches, but he never seems to repeat himself.
We were with friends Geoffrey and Francisco, staying in Hereford for the weekend, back to a pre-pandemic tradition when attending the Festival but also went to listen to husband & wife duo Maki Sekiya and Ilya Chetverikov playing works for two pianos by Debussy, Stravinsky and Rachmaninov at St. Mary’s church in a lunchtime concert there.
So. June. Yes. Two highlights. Turin and Glasgow at the beginning and the end.
Turin for two reasons. We’ve neither of us been before and the chance to see and hear Jonathan Coe performing at the annual Jazz Festival there made a visit irresistible. Music he wrote, though he says he neither reads nor writes it, was taken up by the arranger and conductor of the Artchipel Orchestra, Ferdinando Farao who leads this Italian big band, popular in Italy.
We also attended an event at the Fondazione Circolo dei Lettori where, through a brilliant interpreter, Jonathan revealed his two passions for literature and music, explaining along the way to Italian author Giuseppe Culicchia interviewing him, how it was that he had landed up playing a version of his own music with a Jazz Band in Turin in the first place!
Aprè Concert pizzas in the Piazza Carlo Alberto next to the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano
What a beautiful city. Bearing in mind the utter chaos prevailing on some of our airlines and in our airports we decided to go by train which turned out to be a wise and restful decision. With an easy change in Paris we were whisked across a sun drenched France, through the Vanoise National Park to Turin. Even a delay outside Lyon seemed painless when in such comfortable seats and with a view of such green fields, well fed cows and snow-dusted mountains. Bucolic is a good word and if the view got boring the excellent on-board WiFi and/or a good book easily passed the time.
Now that dotage stares us in the face, we have started to avail ourselves of the Hop-On-Hop-Off buses that are endemic wherever tourists round the world gather. We used to disdain these as Disneyesque rides designed for cheap packaged holidays and visitors who do not have the time or energy to explore alone and on foot, by far the best way, of course, to discover a city. Well we have finally caved in on this front and found that actually you do get to experience a useful overview of a place without having a heart attack, and a sense of direction which enables further exploration.
So off we set.
It was very hot so perhaps the top deck was not the best place from which to see this elegant city in its lovely setting along the Po and under the western Alpine Arch. But it served its purpose and we got back onto our pegs and stumbled into a wealth of culture, excellent cuisine, handsome architecture – largely in the city centre – from our base at the Victoria Hotel which boasted among other things, a wonderful, cool underground spa: a blessing at the end of a hot day, I can tell you.
The surprising Museo Egizio came highly recommended. I say surprising because it seemed an unlikely place to find such an enormous and beautifully displayed, easily accessible collection of Egyptian antiquities – until the explanation of their presence there was made plain: all in English. In fact all the museums were dual medium except, understandably, the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano where I wished I spoke Italian so as to follow the fascinating story of the reorganisation not just of Italy but really the whole of post-revolutionary Europe.
Turin is of course the car manufacturing capital of Italy. The Centro Storico Fiat, itself a magnificent Art Nouveau construction, houses the whole history of FIAT but, rats, was closed – a victim of the pandemic, hopefully only temporarily because I could have spent days in there!
Not to be thwarted though, I set off to walk the four miles along the river, through parks and past fountains, to the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile which turned out to be a spectacular collection of every kind of mode of transport from beyond the Romans, housed in an equally spectacular post-modern building.
I was like a child in a toy shop and was carried back to my childhood when I stumbled on a Fiat Topolino, first produced in 1937, one of which my mother drove, albeit a 1954 model, back in Durban when we had recently settled there from Cape Town in 1957. It had a tiny 500cc engine and I vividly remember that in order to breast the steep hill out of our hotel, my brother and I and particularly Betty, our nanny, who was a large lady, had to clamber out and walk to the top else the Topolino would simply have stalled or, worse, stripped its clutch!
And here before my eyes was the exact model.
The National Museum of Cinema is housed in the Mole Antonelliana believed to be the tallest unreinforced brick building in the world (built without a steel girder skeleton). It is certainly the tallest museum!
Originally intended as a Synagogue when it was built in 1889, financed by the Jewish community, it was never used as such and housed various civic projects until its current use began in 2000.
It’s a staggering place. Brilliantly designed. I could easily have spent far longer in it. I love looking at every detail but there is simply never enough time.
They were running a special exhibition of the works and times of the Director Dario Argento, “Master of the Thrill” and the “Master of Horror”, which took an entire floor of this extensive museum.
On with the motley!
Three days in Turin and not a wasted second. Time for convivial lunches and dinners with friends and plenty of “fizzy makes me dizzy”. The food there is excellent – and the company too!
What to do?
And so to the end of June – the 30th to be precise.
Google lists 295 important events having occurred on this day in history. I like to think there are 296 though, as of course it is my birthday.
I’m in excellent company:
The Night of the Long Knives in 1934. The failed coup attempt by cocaine growers in Bolivia in 1984 and the birthdays of such illuminati as Lena Horne and Walter Ulbricht to name but a few.
At 10 I served a dozen Hubbly-Bubblys and a square, richly iced & decorated birthday sponge with twelve selected friends at boarding school in Pietermaritzburg; at 20 I drank far too many gins and tonics at The Pig & Whistle while at University in Cape Town; at 30 I was at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing playing John Wesley in A Touch of Spring; at 40 I was about to undergo surgery in The London Clinic; at 50 I was playing in Regent’s Park; at 60 I was taken to St. Petersburg. So – obviously at 70 it had to be Capriccio at the Staatsoper in Vienna, overnighting at the Sacher?
No such luck. Couldn’t get in there. Couldn’t get a ticket either so we went to Glasgow instead – with friend Helen – to visit the newly refurbed Burrell Collection, look in at the Huntarian Museum, seat of much Mackintosh, and naturally, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. Not to mention the Riverside Transport Museum and, over at a sadly de-industrialised Govan, the Fairfield Heritage, celebrating the astonishing history of the great shipyards of the Clyde.
All fascinating, especially the magnificent Burrell Collection in its purpose-built home in Pollock Country Park. Years ago I filmed in that building. I was making a commercial for the about–to-be-privatised Scottish Electricity Board who I think may have been early sponsors. So I spent two days in there. It is so light; there is so much glass and it looks out into the woods and parkland which you feel you could almost touch; I saw my first red squirrel there and peering deeper into the trees, there were deer too.
With slim, chic friend H, well into my third trimester carrying quads!
Three great days with these visits interspersed with excellent dining at Unalome, Graeme Cheevers’ wonderful restaurant, now with one Michelin Star; a great evening at The Ubiquitous Chip with friends Rose & Rob and some good Italian nosh at Sarti’s before jumping on the Caledonian Sleeper to return to London.
Graeme Cheevers outside his Unalome.
A few more pictures to help you all with the new Pedrordle Game I am launching. Fairly straight forward multiple choice questions – this time available online and with no time limit. Remember: black ballpoints only.
Of course a lot of other things happened in June but many of them will induce a rant so I’ll pass over them. Some excellent theatre, notably David Hare’s offering this year, Straight Line Crazy at the Bridge Theatre. We thought Ralph Fiennes as the Town Planning-Expressway-Building Robert Moses, took a while to warm up with a rather wobbly American accent but later became powerful and rather moving.
I thought if he’d had gesticulated a degree less and explored two or three degrees of stillness more he’d have been even more powerful. Danny Webb was brilliant as Governor Al Smith – an award-winning performance.
We’ve enjoyed Operation Mincemeat , I’m Your Man and The Outfit but not in the cinema. I don’t know why this is. We’ve been slow to get out of Covidly habits I suppose, and tear ourselves away from the TV screen. These things are so readily available there now and at a fraction of the price. The new Borgen, The Lincoln Lawyer and The Holiday have amused us too – among others.
Other jubilations? Her Majesty’s 70th was celebrated around the nation. Whatever one may think of Royalty, Queen Elizabeth II certainly shows up the current tawdriness at Westminster – Hats off to her I say. I think even Republicans say it too. I often wonder what she must really think of some of her ministers and the state of her nation generally.
Our arrival in Cape Town was spoiled by the non-arrival of Tony’s luggage, which BA neglected to load at Heathrow where there was chaos. About a hundred other passengers were similarly affected – so, chaos in Cape Town too with bewilderment at the lost luggage office; nobody knowing what BA’s intentions were.
It took two full days to catch up with us with Tony in borrowed clothes. We were getting ready for a retail therapy session on Easter Monday at the V & A Waterfront but in the end two dusty bags were delivered to the house first at 2.00am when no-one heard the doorbell and then on Easter Sunday afternoon.
All my luggage was intact, popping onto the carousel in a neat group. It has always been a cause of wonderment to us that though we check our baggage together, in all our travels over nearly forty years, it has never once popped up together. Go figure!
Lovely to see friends again here after so long and sadness that we have not seen everyone.
We have been royally treated at Kirstenbosch – thank you Conradies; and with a wonderful lunch out at Marina da Gama – thank you Ross and Charles; and Jane F. and Jenny R. and Sarah C. and Chris and Liz W. So sorry Jane A. could not make it.
We loved Muratie and Delheim on the wine route, which unaccountably we’d never before visited, and such a fine day too – thank you Jane F, again, we’ll not forget Sneaky in a hurry.
Jane. F with Tony and ‘Sneaky’ our Sommelier and guide at Muratie
And thank you Damon, Riaz and Tabassum for sharing your home with us in Greenpoint, for the cooking lessons and immaculate and tasty currys. I have taken you advice and bought a Wusthof knife!
In complete contrast to the awful news of floods in Durban, the weather here has been warm and sunny with barely any wind, almost too hot for April in the Cape though we are certainly not complaining.
I was born in Cape Town, in Rondebosch, and went to University here.
I started my acting career here.
I left for London on a one way ticket forty-two years ago to escape Apartheid and its conscript army which obliged me and many others to parallel a civilian life with a military one, posted twice to the Angola border, to D-Formations and riot control in Durban, to monthly shooting parades, guard duties at obsolete vehicle depots and oil storage installations.
I hated it and emigrated with relief.
But I have always come back. Friendships and Family are precious.
The landscape works on your soul.
On the many visits I have always felt a connection here, an attachment; gone out of the way to explore old ground, familiar landscapes; felt comforted by the familiarity, the memories, the sense of being home. The hard thing about this visit for both of usis that we no longer feel any sense of immediate connection, which has coloured everything.
This time there is a detachment, there is no curiosity, no desire to revisit old haunts that we no longer care and with these feelings an intense sadness, which has underlined our time in what is perplexingly the most beautiful country.
In Cape Town, surely one of the most lovely of cities, lying under that iconic mountain, we found evidence of the tragic path this Kleptocracy is treading. The hours of load shedding, the tent cities of homeless, the squalor of the city, the burnt out parliament cocking a thumb at democracy, open talk by many of failed states, of decaying infrastructures, of corruption and outright robbery and a people utterly failed by their greedy leaders.
The rail network has collapsed; in November 200 kilometres, yes 200 kilometres, of track and about as much overhead wiring was ripped up and stolen. The railways cannot function, cannot repair the network fast enough and those called in to investigate are usually the perpetrators. All the public services are failing and the money for their maintenance gone into the pockets of corrupt politicians. Where will it end?
The obsession with security, the endless barbed wire, electric fencing and big bunches of keys to lock and unlock almost everything it seemed, the fear of violence which can come and go in seconds, randomly, and leave a wake of irreparable physical and emotional damage.
On our last day in Cape Town we picked up a car and with dire warnings from many friends about potholes and fake road blocks, we set off for Arniston driving the coast road through Gordon’s Bay, Rooi-Els, Hangklip to Onrus for a wonderful lunch with Tessa and Ben.
Thank you so much both. How lovely to see you and what a beautiful, panoramic drive it was, the blue of False Bay on our right hand and the rearing mountains on our left, the Hottentots Holland, the Overberg and that rolling stretch of farmland across to Bredasdorp down to Arniston on the Cape Agulhas with always the Langeberg to the north. A landscape of fynbos and farms, the cold green of the Agulhas current, the crash of white surf on bleached beaches, the high blue heavens and vast multi-patterned cloud formations grip the soul and choke the heart.
From Arniston the drive is easy, the traffic light and not a pothole in sight!
The roads are perfect – past Swellendam, through Riversdale, by-passing Mossel Bay, The Garden Route opening before us and now the Indian Ocean on our right showing a warmer blue, to Wilderness for the warm embrace of Hugo and Helen in their lovely home right on the lagoon. Thank you friends. Lots of stories and never enough time.
In Okavango three years ago on an afternoon drive searching for game, Tony lost his Panama, blown somewhere into the savannah, never to be seen again except perhaps, hopefully, on the head of a prancing baboon. Now in Wilderness we have heard of Patti Zway who, can you believe, is an importer of genuine Panama hats.
We find her and her collection and Tony now has a new one for our onward journey to Knysna and a brief brunch with friend Caro down at the Heads, the sun shining and the lagoon still, reflecting the hills and forests around.
Still no potholes, the N2, modern and smooth, runs eastward, swinging by Plettenbergbay, Gqeberha – aka Port Elizabeth or, even, PE – to Port Alfred on the Kowie River where we de-camp for three generous nights with Judge Kathy S. and friend Carol, aka Mrs Hayman, who has joined us from East London. Much discussion ensued; the environs were toured and remembered, for this is 1820 Settler country; the beaches visited, a sunny day spent in the Judge’s motorboat on the Kowie river, lined by rocky kloofs covered in Euphorbia. High blue skies and tall, billowy white clouds lent a deceptive peace to a troubled land.
Then onward to East London via Bathurst where we found the Toposcope, site of the scattering of Tony’s Father’s ashes many years ago – such a long way from home – as were all those settlers in times gone by.
Still no potholes, Friends! We by-passed a dusty, chaotic and unattractive East London, crossing the Buffalo, Nahoon and Gonubie rivers through a lush landscape, to find Carol H. in her lovely new home tucked under the dunes, 300 metres from the beach at Sunrise-on-Sea, part of the East London Coast Nature Reserve and the southern most end of The Wild Coast which we walked back in 2007.
HERE’S THE SCAM!
Northward, staying on the N2, still no potholes, crossing the Kei river, we arrive at the first set of traffic lights, late-morning in Mthatha, once the capital of the erstwhile Transkei, that infamous invention of Dr Verwoerd and his madcap band – and here everything went pear-shaped!
The SatNav showed that there was some kind of traffic upset jamming the exit, on the other side of the town onto the road to Port St. Johns where we are headed for one night.
Tony is driving.
The hundreds of taxis, all obeying different rules have produced a dusty, milling chaos and we are inching towards a set of lights.
Tony sees in the rear-view mirror an official looking man carrying a walkie-talkie and a cell phone coming along the line of vehicles. He is bending to talk to the drivers.
He reaches Tony and asks where we are going.
“Port St. Johns.”
“There is a bad traffic jam and you have to detour through a special road to get through. This is a private toll road and you need a card like this one.” He briefly brandishes a card with a bar code on it. “It costs R70.”
We are uncertain about this.
“Can you sell us one of these cards?”
“No – you must go to a special place to get it and you must follow that car, they will show you the way.”
How stupid could we be? Here is the anatomy of a scam.
But the uniform looks genuine.
The SatNav shows that there is indeed a jam of some sort on the other side of town.
£70 seems a small sum of money.
We do not obey.
We inch up to the lights. There is chaos.
Two men in a white car have swung round to the left, blocking the traffic, indicating they want to turn across us and go left.
There is much shouting.
We think they want us to yield and let them through.
We indicate for them to pass in front of us but they keep waving, gesticulating and shouting. The mini buses are hooting.
There is dust. Chaos.
It dawns on us that they want us to follow them.
We don’t. Tony pulls ahead and drives straight on as indicated by the SatNav.
We inch forward to the next set of lights.
The official with the walkie-talkie catches up with us and tells us that we need one of these cards.
We ignore him and follow the traffic round through various lights, through crowds of people, markets and mess.
Eventually we reach a corner where we must turn left. On our right there is a petrol station and a SparShop. It is on the corner of Madeira and Victoria Streets. We are boxed in by traffic and our officials have once more found us and caught up with us.
“You will be fined if you do not get this card and you will not reach the Port St.Johns road. You can park here and come and buy a ticket here.”
It seems that is what we must do.
The SatNav is burbling away; there are swarms of people; we are conscious of being the only whites in the whole place: two older men, one wearing a conspicuous pink shirt and driving what is clearly a rental.
It is frightening. The scenarios are playing in our minds.
Tony gets out of the car, goes with the man round the corner onto the petrol station forecourt and the entrance to the SparShop.
I cannot see him.
A minute later he reappears.
“They don’t take cash. Have you got a card handy?”
We are by now very uncertain of our situation.
But in these Covidly days and in high crime areas cash is often not accepted.
I hand Tony my EasyFX Card, which is one of those cards you load with money when travelling, to get better exchange rates in any currency and pay no charges.
He knows the PIN.
He is gone quite a few minutes.
Suddenly there is an impatient knocking at the passenger window.
“Your friend does not know how this card is working. You must come.”
I get out of the car and follow this new man round the corner where things have suddenly got stressful and there is arguing. The temperature is rising.
“The card is stuck in this ATM and won’t come out…….”
“You must push that button with ‘International’ on it,” the man is now right on top of us and there is loud explaining going on, “it is an International card. Tell your friend to push the international button, put the PIN in and the card will come out.”
We do this and it doesn’t.
Only now are we certain this is a scam. What to do? We need the card back.
We are shouting at each other. I demand to know what has happened to our card.
“Have you another card?”
And here is the stupidest thing of all!
“Yes I do.”
“You must put that in, put in the PIN and then cancel the transaction and both the cards will come out.” He snatches my second and only other card out of my hand, shoves it into the machine and shouts for me to put the PIN in. He is leaning over us both. I try to conceal the PIN but to my horror it does not come up as four **** but shows the actual numbers.
The card does not come out after we press the cancel button.
I go ballistic. Tony goes ballistic.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing here…….you fucking scammers…..you are scammers. I am phoning the police…….and our bank…….”
“Do not worry. You will get your cards back. We are not scammers.”
A small crowd has gathered in the background.
“Come with us and we need to talk to the supervisor. He will get your cards out of the machine……..”
“No, we will not budge from here. Tell the supervisor he must come here now.”
I call up the emergency number for our Lloyds Joint Mastercard.
The connection is poor. The SatNav on the phone is still telling us to turn right. There is yelling, dust, traffic and suddenly we are frightened and alone and white. It is in just such situations, often, that here is when the guns/knives/machetes get taken out and you are dead.
I finally get through to Lloyds. In the melee and panic I cannot remember all the many security questions or their answers and “No, I can’t remember Aunt Barbara’s birthdate…..please can you just block the card……”
“I’m afraid you must go through all the security questions before…….”
“Please take the next turning to the right……” The SatNav chips in.
“For goodness sake we are in a mugging situation here…..just take the number please…..”
“No it is not…….”
“Take the next turning to the right…….”
Tony meanwhile has succeeded in getting one of the cards out of the machine, which is almost snatched out of his hand but there is no sign of the other card which we think came out first and was somehow palmed.
“Tone, please speak to this man in England he is not being helpful…….”
“Please turn right at the next exit……….” Why does the SatNav not shut up?
Music is now playing somewhere. The stress and noise is overwhelming.
“Hello…..hello are you there….I’m Tony Peake the lead name on this joint account……..”
Suddenly two men come round the corner shouting, “Here is your card, you see, we said you can get them back…….”
“Please turn right at the next exit…..” The SatNav again!
“Hello….hello…..yes, Tony Peake…..they have given our card back….we think it has been cloned….just block everything……hello…….”
“Has he gone?”
“The call’s dropped, we’ve been cut off.”
We are alone now and the event is over.
An old man shuffled by, “That is a very bad machine. Do not use that machine. It never gives you money.”
We are both in shock.
And feel very foolish.
And it dawns on us that this whole horrible moment could easily have been far, far worse. We could easily be dead.
They say bad things happen in threes. We have two more to go.
Round the corner we get back into the car, which in the haste of the moment I’d left unlocked, the windows open. Thank god, no-one had noticed else there’d have been more tears.
We slowly made our way through the weekend traffic jam to the Port St. Johns road which we discover is new and has no potholes but there is another jam. There is a motorcyclist in FedEx uniform lying dead in the road; he has just been clipped by a speeding car; his motorcycle is a wreck. A few people mill around but there seems to be no feeling of tragic urgency. Just indifference. Lethargy.
We inch by, the road clears and I pick up speed, it’s my turn to drive. A mile or so further along there is what looks like a brown rock in the road, which I have just enough time to steer over.
It’s not a rock, it’s a dead dog and I have miscalculated. There is a sickening wrenching sound and something tears away the underside of the car. In the rear-view mirror I see the dog rolling out from under the car and immediately there is a vibrating, clattering sound.
On inspection part of the exhaust casing has been torn off but the car works and we decide to carry on to Port St. Johns, to some WiFi, to a phone connection, to EasyFX and Lloyds and, now, to Avis as well.
On arrival in Port St.Johns we both wondered why we bothered to put this stop into our itinerary. Perhaps it was because neither of us had ever been there or perhaps it’s because its part of the spectacular Wild Coast, its lovely river and the enormous kloofs it flows through to the sea; but otherwise it is a dump.
I have already had a text from EasyFX telling me that two attempts at withdrawing 49,999.00 Rands (about £2,700.00) have been made and blocked; but the scammer’s tried several lower amounts which have succeeded and the whole account cleared – about £350.
Attempts at phoning them fail. It is the weekend, the connection is bad and I could only email them.
Tony had better luck with Lloyds and he re-established contact with them to block the account from which they had succeeded in withdrawing round £7,000.00. Lloyds have said this will eventually be restored.
Our Data and Cell phone usage soars. Later we discover these calls and attendant access to websites on G4 have cost round £300!
With Avis we had little luck. The nearest office was in Mthatha, which was closed as it was a weekend. They want to know where we are going next. To Pietermaritzburg I say, a six hour drive away via Lusikisiki, Flagstaff and Kokstad along roads so indescribably badly maintained that we feared the car would literally be shaken to pieces and the tyres shredded.
The next day was a Sunday and the Avis office in Pietermaritzburg is at Oribi Airport, open only between 1.00 and 8.00pm.
We clattered our way there the next day across the Transkei and got to the airport at 2.00pm to find the Avis desk unattended.
Potholes. So far only between Lusikisiki and Kokstad, from there to Pietermaritzburg a few but not too bad. It seems the main routes are being cared for. The Hertz man told us the Avis man didn’t bother pitching up if there were no scheduled drop-offs or pick-ups.
I phoned the central office in Johannesburg who has arranged a car swop, which at the time of writing, can only be three days hence.
It has not been a pleasant weekend and we have both been shaken by the experience and the realisation that things could have been far, far worse.
With huge relief we collapse into the arms of friends in Pietermaritzburg for the next venture!
Next with friends Bobbi, Kippie, Vonnie and Mike; Lorenza and Michael C. not to mention Sarah vd M., we venture to Lotheni in the Drakensberg, along appalling roads, to Symes Cottage for three nights in a new landscape no less inspiring and peaceful than any before: clear blue heavens and unpolluted starlight; grassland and streams; baboons, monkeys, eland, jackal are around. Gaslight and oil lamps; candles and matches – why are they so difficult to strike? LPG fridges and freezers, the lingering smell of paraffin, good food and wine and such wonderful company: thank you dear friends.
Then it’s time to replace the broken Toyota with a Suzuki ‘Desire’, and head for the family in Durban. A great reunion; it’s been several years since we have embraced and we are set for two more adventures to replace the cancelled repositioning cruise that was to have returned us to Europe via Suez, a sudden and unexplained end to the grand idea of three weeks at sea. MSC cite only “operational difficulties” and return our money.
But another Jane, Jane B., has in the meantime flown out to discover her roots and was to have joined us as part of a group of nine returnees who in the past months have dropped out one by one, usually because of Covid, so that we are now a party of three.
Good eating and drinking, great companionship and above all some of the best game viewing ever. We’d stayed once before in the Phinda Forest Lodge and had been spellbound by that, but did not see as many animals then. Now we were wowed by leopard, lion, elephant, rhino., cheetah, warthog, hippo., crocs., baboons, monkeys, every antelope you can imagine, birds of every kind in “seven distinct habitats, a magnificent tapestry of woodland, grassland, wetland and forest, interspersed with mountain ranges, rivers, marshes and pans. Home to 1 000 hectares (2471 acres) of Africa’s remaining rare dry sand forest, the reserve is situated in close proximity to the unspoiled beaches and spectacular coral reefs of the Indian Ocean, offering an unmatched combination of bush and beach adventures…….”
You get the drift?
We didn’t want to leave but of course there are endings to all things and now Jane B., nursing a terrible cold but bravely missing nothing for this her 80th birthday treat, we set off together on our last adventure, back to the Drakensberg, this time to Champagne Castle, for the last four nights of our stay.
Champagne Castle Hotel was where as children we were often taken, usually in the middle of winter, in the July school holidays, dry and sunny but cold too then with sometimes snow on the mountains. There are a lot of memories here, most of them good. The last time we were here was in 2006 when we brought my mother for a week. It was Tony’s first visit and we never saw the mountains at all nor did we walk. It was February and it rained the whole week, with clouds covering the mountain. Mother fell and cracked her skull and we played endless games of Scrabble with an Afrikaans language set that had no ‘c’s but lots of ‘y’s and plenty of ‘k’s!
This time it was glorious and a cure for Jane B.’s nasty cold which, thank heavens, was never Covid.
Down from the Underberg through Winterton, Loskop and Estcourt to the N3 toll road, no potholes but terrifying drivers, down onto the Midland Meander past Mooi River and Nottingham Road to Rawdons for tea, then a short visit to my old school Michaelhouse in Balgowan, onto the dusty Curry’s Post Road to Howick stopping for lunch at Halliwell’s.
On to Hilton for last farewells with friends there; down Town Hill by-passing Pietermaritzburg, crushed almost by vast undisciplined container lorries and more scary traffic, slowed by jams in an early dusk and the heart-stopping drive through Camperdown, Inchanga, up under Botha’s Hill to Kloof in time for showers, gins and out to Lupa for the Last Supper with family, Jane B. feeling much better.
We three flew out from Durban with Emirates via Dubai, to Gatwick and courtesy cars to take us home.
It’s been fantastic. Much in South Africa shocked and saddened us but much else was beautiful and friendships endure. We are sad we did not see everyone, did not get to Johannesburg but it’s not possible to do everything – und vee vill be beck!
A day after we returned Durban was struck again by more floods and massive rain storms.
Two years ago almost to the day, we returned from Madeira and came down almost immediately with Covid. It was not a pleasant experience and we were quite ill.
Last week we came back from Madeira, having meticulously observed all the local masking and testing rules, three jabs behind us, only for Tony to test COVID+Omicron BA.2 and spend his first week back in bed while I have tested Negative.
There can only be two places he caught it: on the flight from Madeira or in Heathrow. Take your pick; and this time round so very many of you, dear Friends, have come down with this version – albeit rather more mildly and perhaps less threateningly than the 2020 version.
But Friends, as Tony reached the sunny uplands of negativity I plunged into the dark valley of positivity – a full ten days afterwards!
Upshot – none of our plans to visit friends, to go to the theatre and generally segue back into the scene, came to fruition.
We only made Cabaret with its new cast of the excellent Fra Fee, Amy Lennox and Vivien Parry – Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley having walked off with all the Oliviers the night before – to carry on with this brilliant production. We allowed ourselves the full experience: the little tables crowding the small stage with their lights , their telephones, their gins and champagne cocktails; and of course the three course meal served in stainless steel tiffin boxes reminiscent of the lunchboxes of The Lunchbox.
The Playhouse Theatre has been completely turned upside down with a stage in the round where the proscenium used to be and tiered seating in what was once the wings and backstage. It’s very effective and the show itself so poignant, moving and, with what’s going on in the world today, the rise of fascism once again, the cruel evil of the war in the Ukraine, inflation, environmental crises, extremely relevant. It was worth the mortgage we took out to see it and the relationship developed between the five main characters, The Emcee, Sally Bowles, Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz and Clifford Bradshaw were all intensely well played, Vivien Parry and Elliot Levy as Schneider & Schultz particularly so.
Go, Friends, if you can.
Otherwise there is little to tell you. We are still in the season of vouchers. Untraveled plans to visit family & friends in South Africa not seen for years are being unrolled and we are now on a countdown to run the gauntlet tomorrow, to Cape Town, via strikes, pandemic-induced staff shortages, airport chaos, VeriFly Apps that sometimes don’t work and the usual stress of travel in these strange days.
The Ukraine hangs over us all. It beggars belief that Europe is once again plunged into a war so cruel, so unnecessary. We appear to have learned absolutely nothing from our history.
And the lies that are told. By our leaders.
This is a short rant! We all know who the liars are though we have yet to behold the consequences of their lies.
This is not a good time dear Friends. No it is not.
Parkinson’s Law, the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion, can be applied to our stay here in Madeira. With two months in hand there is no hurry to do anything. Put off today what you can do tomorrow suits us well and we tend to wait for the weather to prick our consciences and coax us out of the apartment.
The weather is changeable. There have been quite a lot of rainy, windy and cloudy days, not cold, hovering round 20ºC, interspersed with sunny, hotter days when really there is no excuse not to venture forth onto a Levada which, after all, is one of the reasons we are here.
It’s lovely. Home from home. Our apartment is on the sea at Ponta da Cruz in the São Martinho district at the end of the hotel strip that stretches west along the south coast from Funchal. The big balcony faces south and we get the sun all day with spectacular views over the sea.
We are away from the winter gales and cold; the shabby, dishonest mess that England is in at present and the incessant unhappy news. Thank goodness.
It’s good to be back though Covid and the arrival at 70 seems to have slowed us down a little. The snap, crackle and pop of blister pill-packs accompany the breakfast organ recital of aches and pains : flat feet, lumbago, arthritic knees, backs and hips, sciatica and breathlessness!
We are now almost exactly halfway through our stay with a further month stretching ahead as I write.
This is another Tarry Tours odyssey and Richard is with us of course and we have been joined by family too. We are all agreed that “up” is bad, “along” is good and “down” inevitable. Of course neither “up” nor “down” can be avoided and there is a lot of both in Madeira. Fortunately the miraculous Levadas afford miles of “along” as they follow the windy contours of the mountains, impossibly precipitous, perilous and exciting; the views are breath taking; depending on how high we are, the weather can change. It is an island of microclimates at different altitudes, the fauna and flora changes, too, through these altitudes. Family Belinda & Philip are not included in these reservations – they strode up and down the mountains shaming us with their fitness and barely puffing.
Flat is music to our ears!
The engineering here is incredible. Before, even, Portugal’s entry to the EU, the work here to make the island accessible is nothing short of phenomenal. The Levadas alone are a miracle. Clinging to the rocky cliffs and conducting water along impossible mini-canals perched thousands of feet above the tight valleys where vertigo is always present, passing through hewn tunnels, under cascading waterfalls and always with breath-taking views across valleys down to sunlit seas under cloudy skies.
Back in the 90’s it was realised that to develop tourism here, the most important export, it would be necessary to make the island far more open and more easily explored.
At least 150 tunnels have been hewn through the granite to create a quite astonishing network of vias rapidas around and through the island making journeys that once took eight hours possible to complete in under an hour. The airport alone makes one gasp: a vast concrete platform on stilts stretches out, over the sea, towards the north-east at Camacha to receive and dispatch planes, the motorway winding underneath it towards Machico and passengers praying that all will be well at this tenth most dangerous airport on Earth!
And it’s high too. One of our walks was up to Pico Ruivo at 1,861 metres (6,106 feet) the highest mountain in all Portugal; we chose carefully, watching our Weather Apps because you’d not want to be up there in the wrong weather, particularly at this time of year. A few Februaries ago there was deep snow up here while down on the south coast you could be lolling in a lido and swimming in the sea.
The climb is short, only 5.5 kilometres, but steep; lots of stops for breaths and taking in the views on the way up and quite a speedy return down as the clouds closed in and we were enveloped in mist. “Down” is much faster even though the knees, methinks, do protest a lot!
We have clocked up fair distances along these miraculous little canals; often as much as 15 kilometres, never less than eight. Short distances from habitation can find you in wild, lonely but beautiful valleys; empty and quiet but for the buzzing of bees and twittering of birds, redolent of scents of mimosa, laurel and eucalyptus .
For a few days we hired a car. It extends your range more easily. Interesting driving here, I can tell you. The hairpin bends, the gradients – like the South Col – are demanding of driving skills. I was glad of automatic gears and power braking. Some of the roads are so narrow you pray you’ll not meet any oncoming traffic, especially a bus.
We have used buses and taxis and BOLT. Uber no longer operate. BOLT is a similar service but has far fewer cars, only about forty-five, the allowable limit, which means that the waiting time can be quite long especially if you are in an inaccessible part of the island. Uber said they couldn’t provide a decent service with so few cars and so pulled out of Madeira. I think the yellow cabs were quite relieved.
Home from Home it really is: we are a team of one sous- and two –chefs. There is an abundance of excellent food all over the island and right next door to us. Pingo Doce is the big supermarket chain, along with Continente and are stocked with everything. Their selection of fresh fish, shellfish and seafood generally, their fresh meat and vegetables are excellent and there is no excuse for us not to cook up a storm at home and produce fine food for ourselves.
And it’s cheap. I can’t believe how it’s possible that, bearing in mind practically everything must be shipped in, the costs are so low by comparison with, say, the Co-op in Manningtree or Waitrose and Tesco in Colchester – at home. Wines, beers and spirits are all priced lower with wine almost as cheap as fizzy drinks! A reasonable, quaffable white for example can come in at as low as €2.50. Gins, Aperols, Camparis, Vodkas are all lower than at home.
It’s true the fresh vegetable selection is not as wide as, say, Waitrose. Almost everything is available but just not at the same time. You always know when a shipment has arrived from the mainland when there is suddenly a huge abundance of, say, broccoli one day and beans and carrots another! Fresh herbs do not come all at once either but if you wait a day or two, they will.
Madeira has been declared a special economic zone and this could mean that product is not taxed as much and is therefore cheaper at the end point. I am not an economist but I would guess this might have something to do with the lower prices.
So – we tend to eat in and treat ourselves to meals out around once a week, being fairly strict about where we go. There are a plethora of generic, “International” restaurants with higher prices and unsurprising menus so we try to find places that specialise in local cuisine, Madeira style. Lots of Seafood of course but also pork, beef, lamb and rabbit. These are all things we have easily found in Pingo Doce too.
A lot of food is grown here on the literally thousands of impossibly steep terraces that hang on the cliffs, painstakingly built largely by manual labour over the hundreds of years that these islands have been occupied. Bananas of course; apples, grapes and market garden vegetables too – even strawberries. At different levels and matching the microclimate, cacti grow in amongst the fynbos or maquis making parts of Madeira remind us of Corsica or the Cape.
We like Fado. Not everyone’s cup of tea but its dramatic mournfulness has a certain appeal. Sabor a Fado is our favourite, in the Old Town, and we have visited several times. The food there is traditional too: plenty of seafood especially Lapas (Limpets) and Espada (Black Swordfish, available in few places in the world), Castanhetas and of course plenty of Tuna. The Espetada Madeirense , cubes of beef that are hung from skewers, well seasoned with garlic, course salt and laurel is good too. Bolo do Caco, a local bread is excellent, specially when filled with garlic butter as a starter, though you put anything into it really. Picado or Picadinho, small cubes of meat fried and seasoned in garlic and pepper with olives is brought on a platter to be shared. Good with a beer in the sunshine at lunch.
Fado’s not the only music we’ve listened to here. There are some good concerts too held in various places not least the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Diaz, a miniature 19th Century opera house where we were introduced to the Russian pianist Yuri Bogdanov who played a wonderful programme of Bach, Chopin and Schumann on his first visit to Madeira.
There are no beaches here to speak of. Swimming is in tidal pools off the rocks. This is basically an enormous volcanic mountain reaching from the depths of the sea to the pinnacle of Pico Ruivo at over 6,000 feet. A few resorts have created beaches out of imported sand but mostly the coast is lined with Lidos letting into tidal pools but always with a swimming pool too. Most hotels have swimming pools of course and some are connected to their own, private Lidos.
We have had a few days hot enough to bask in these lidos and swim off the rocks. The water is ‘refreshing’ to say the least! We are also content to loll about on our balcony which is a suntrap with views, books and ‘devices’ to hand.
Ponta do Cruz : our block overlooking the Lido seen here. There are many of these lidos all around Madeira.
There is a fantastic photography museum in Funchal, Atelier Vicente, which we visited one rainy day. It’s in a rather beautiful old building in the centre of town and was filled with fascinating photographs of the islanders, the island and old black & white views emphasising just how rugged and impenetrable it was before the massive investment in road, tunnel and viaduct building took place.
Before the astonishing airport was contructed, the only way here was by sea.
The English connection here has been a long one. Portugal is our oldest ally and Madeira was a stopping place for a lot of shipping bound for South Africa. The Union Castle Line stopped here and I was intrigued to find a photograph of the Pretoria Castle anchored in the bay.
My mother and father met on the Pretoria Castle, she returning from Scotland after her training at the Edinburgh Infirmary and he on his way back to Kuwait round the Cape to visit his parents, my grandparents, there. They’d moved to George, along the Garden Route, from England, to retire.
There were pictures of seaplanes too and the first air services here in the 1930’s, were from Southampton twice a week.
And now Vladimir Putin has rather wrecked things. The invasion of the Ukraine is a terrible piece of news. Is the world as we know it changing before our eyes? How ironic that the last time we were here, Covid was the bad news. We returned to London and almost immediately caught the virus and the world has not been the same, really, since then. Now, two weeks before we return this time, once again, it seems, the world will have changed even more.
It is a sad day. My blog seems rather irrelevant under the circumstances. I don’t much feel like continuing now, dear Friends, but thank you for getting this far and being with us on what has been a very lovely two months.
Much love to you all – lets pray we are not on the brink of World War III.
“There’s a lot of history there,” the receptionist at the Indigo Hotel in Durham told us, “ parts of Harry Potter were filmed in the Cathedral, you know. You’ll enjoy it!”
Not quite the comment we had in mind for our first visit to this beautiful cathedral. We were on our way to join friends for a few days at Cragside near Rothbury in Northumberland.
Durham Cathedral is one of those places that you always mean to visit and when you do, you wonder why it’s taken so long to get round to. It is simply magnificent. How many times have trains to and from Edinburgh paused there with the cathedral dominating the skyline and beckoning us for too long ignored?
“Durham was amongst the first locations in Britain to be awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status. Today Canterbury also has it but they are the only two. Durham got it because it’s the only place in Britain where Norman architecture still exists as it was first built. In other words it never went Gothic.”
So we were told by a trusty guide.
“There were just over 20 building projects ordered by William the Conqueror when he arrived. All bar Durham were built with flat wooden roofs. You can see the type in the Galilee Chapel. [Annexed to the west end of the cathedral] The area around Jarrow was the ‘silicon valley’ of the Saxon world. They we’re building stone churches while others were using wood and thatch, got stained glass from Italy, and a Precentor from Rome to teach the Irish monks how to sing the liturgy. So, not far fetched for them to experiment with a vaulted ribbed roof. It was the first ever in Europe, and crucially predated St Denis, in Paris by 50 years. As a result, it never needed repair, nearly always the pretext for going Gothic. Just an interesting note, We refer to the architecture that followed Romanesque, as Gothic. The medieval masons referred to it as Opus Francigenum – French Work. It was only in the 17th Century they began to use the term Gothic.”
The Galilee Chapel is beautiful. Bede is buried there and it shows clear evidence of the influence of the Mezquita in Córdoba – replicated in the Norman style.
The Nave with its gigantic pillars is inspiring in its proportions and simplicity and we look forward to another more detailed visit with Friend Cathy who knows the building inside out.
We met Cathy and Friend Natalie for lunch at the Potted Lobster, under the loom of Bamburgh Castle, home of the Armstrong family, whose Estate at Cragside, Rothbury we stayed on for three days and were on our way to visit. Never mind the weather!
Cragside Manor was the home of William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong, founder of the Armstrong Whitworth armaments firm. An industrialist, scientist, philanthropist and inventor of the hydrolic crane and the Armstrong gun. Armstrong also displayed his inventiveness in the domestic sphere, making Cragside the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. The estate was technologically advanced; the architect of the house, Richard Norman Shaw, wrote that it was equipped with “wonderful hydraulic machines that do all sorts of things”. In the grounds, Armstrong built dams and lakes to power a sawmill, a water-powered laundry, early versions of a dishwasher and a dumb waiter, a hydraulic lift and a hydroelectric rotisserie.
Storm Arwen put the kybosh on a thorough investigation and Omicron too. It swept through Scotland and Northumberland in November doing terrible damage. That and Omicron closed much of the Estate and the Manorhouse was also closed. There was a lot of damage evident.
The house reminds me of Citizen Kane and Xanadu or Hearst’s San Simeon. Cragside lours down on the Coquet Valley, peering through the tall conifers; quite creepy in some ways, a little fairy tale-like, magical almost and it was a great disappointment no to look inside though some of the enormous estate was open to wander through.
It was sunny but cold. The house on the Estate, Park Cottage, took some warming up once we’d moved into it; but was enormous and very comfortable – our base for three nights.
To Kielder Water National Park the next day, an overcast chilly one, to enjoy the rugged grandeur of the park where walking was once again hindered by huge fallen conifers, blocked pathways and closure signs. A bleak but beautiful part of England – even in winter, specially in winter I should say. Nothing open here in the way of pubs or eateries, just not enough passing trade. Emptiness and peace.
On the last morning we parted at the gates, Cathy and Natalie for Thirsk and Tony and I for the five hours to Mistley in time to pack up for Madeira. Thank you Friends for a special break. We want to return in the summer to do Durham Cathedral properly and Cragside’s interior, formal gardens – the Rhododendrons should be out in June.
And here we are at Ponto da Cruz in Funchal, wintering until the middle of March.
I’ve been trying to use my blog as a sort of diary, to keep up with things, in an effort not to forget; to be able to page back and remind myself of the journeys and times we have shared together. I started this website almost two years ago to keep in touch with Friends during the pandemic when we were closed down.
I’ve also tried to edit some of our other journeys into stories that would remind us and perhaps intrigue you and here is my first effort. It’s a letter to my Mother & Father written in 1999 after we had completed a fascinating journey to Egypt which turned out to be the first of many journeys in the 21st Century. Please do have a look if you’d like – there will of course be the usual multiple choice exam in due course and tests for the Pedro-of-the-Green League Tables. And, as usual, you will be able to complete them online! No stationery or pencils needed of any kind.
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.”