A Long Time Ago

The old year sent on its way with a boot up the backside and the new one greeted with the wariness of one who has been had before, it is nevertheless a time when the past tends to creep into the consciousness.

This could be because no government offices are open to plague us, shops close for all of half an hour, the internet slows to a crawl while everyone tries out their latest iProd and the best that the television can offer is a hideous pastiche of Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels…false teeth figure largely, homosexuality has to be broadly signalled in a manner quite foreign to the original and novels that were masterworks of delicate observation have been perverted into Merchant and Ivory costumed slapstick.

Thus, there are some moments when thoughts of the past can creep in unobserved.

Christmas Day only became a holiday in Scotland in the late fifties…so the Christmas fever never really caught on with me. The birth of the Prince of Peace was just that…not an occasion to throw financial caution to the winds and splurge on a mountain of presents, decorations and food while averting the eyes from the bills due in January.
Not being too well in the run up to Christmas this year I was looking for diversion so turned on the T.V. and was presented with some woman decorating her house like a tart’s boudoir and an Italian themed Christmas party presented by another woman continually tossing her hair, pushing her bosom into the camera and licking her fingers while looking roguish. Must have been the tart for whom the other’s boudoir was designed.
Tchah! and Pah! Off with the box!

The arrival of Christmas card from a friend reminded me of our student days in London where we managed to miss the sexual revolution, LSD and anything even remotely swinging. It may well all have been happening, but not round our hall of residence it wasn’t.
I tried smoking a cigarette ( twice) and decided that wine was a lot more pleasurable, as evidenced by observing my tutor, having drink taken, attempting to descend the ascending escalator at Holborn tube station.
The student union bar…that place of suspiciously sticky carpet and dim lighting….falling into silence as the T.V. in the corner was turned on for the weekly emission of Noggin the Nog.

Later, visiting ex student friends, the same reverence would be shown for the Sunday afternoon post pub emissions of The Clangers…

Let all mortal flesh be silent.

The sailing club’s annual wrecking trip to the Norfolk Broads….usually wet and cold, encased in inflexible yellow oilskins which did nothing to enhance the wind reddened complexion, where the main aim was to reach Potter Heigham and get to the pub with the most remarkable collection of gins I have ever seen.
Getting back aboard could be interesting but at least you no longer cared that your bunk was a strange triangular shape which had you touching heads with the other occupant of your compartment while your frozen feet diverged to hit the bulkhead at the far end.
Potter Heigham’s other attraction was its medieval bridge. Not just for the bridge itself, but for the possibilities of mayhem that it offered.
If the water levels were high some of the high sided motor cruisers could not get under it. Some of the v necked pullovered skippers of said high sided motor cruisers would try anyway and get their craft firmly wedged under the arch, the strong current playing merry hell with their attempts to reverse as the men from the nearby boatyard gloomily launched their rescue craft.
Yachts had to lower their masts….the safe thing to do was to moor up alongside the bank, lower the mast and secure it before deploying the quants – long poles – casting off and attempting to line up on the bridge so as to go straight through.
Most sailing club skippers, raised on tales of Horatio Hornblower and Captain Morgan, would claim that it was easier and safer to line up on the bridge, lower sails and mast while under way and shoot it with the aid of the current. This took a crew with split second reactions who had not had drink taken the night before and usually ended in the men from the boatyard gloomily launching their rescue craft.
potter heigham bridge
The sailing club was just that…it sailed.
sailiong yachts norfolk broads
No engines, so you could spend a day tacking backwards and forwards in the face of a stiff breeze from the North Sea while high sided motor cruisers steered by gentlemen in v necked pullovers merrily passed you by, the wash of their boat knocking you back about another half an hour of tacking.
However, at some point in the trip one member would always manage to ram his bowsprit through the window of a cruiser rash enough to cross his bows – and with any luck it would prove to be the loo compartment with someone trapped within.

Warning…if you play this video apply the mute.

The Norfolk Broads might not have been swinging London…but it had its moments.

Back to London in term time we would frequent a Chinese restaurant off the East India Dock Road in Pennyfields…..I cannot remember if it was called Old Friends or New Friends but it was cheap (even on a student grant), offered good food – the first time I ate squid – and the pot of jasmine tea was continually refilled. I gather it is now called Noodles and is frequented by the sort of noodle who works in the Evil Empire of finance which has taken over Docklands and changed it from a place where the toil was honest into a lair of vampires sucking the blood from the world economy.
Tchah again!

Not far away in Coldharbour was a pub called The Gun.
the gun pub
Here on singing nights bearded young men armed with squeezeboxes and wearing aran sweaters would foregather to sing sea shanties…
aran sweaters
Most of which were culled from the pages of Stan Hugill’s masterwork ‘Shanties of the Seven Seas’ because if you had asked any of these bearded wonders to undertake a voyage on a Cape Horner to the flaming coast of Chile in the guano trade they would, in that unforgettable phrase used by journalists of ‘The News of The World’, have made an excuse and left.
cape horner

Mark you, they’d have been right.
‘They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters’ have always had a hard and dangerous life and it’s not one I’d have liked to have had to endure….

So as the Christmas cards go into their box, taking the past with them, it’s back to the present, to the calls for cups of tea, the noise of the cane cutting machine and the Costa Rican sun….with just one last blast from the past.

Another Weather Warning

sisley winter

As we sit back after Christmas Day wondering whether it had really been wise to use that recipe for sweet and sour turkey garnered from the internet we see pictures of the wild weather outside our windows….in our case high winds that nearly lifted the roof from the new house; in the case of Britain, snow making roads impassable, airports closed – and no ferries on the Dover to Calais route.
Continent isolated again.

A new year lies ahead of us, but amongst all the worries about Russia’s economy, the U.K. fiddling its economic figures and whether the labrador presented to President Hollande by some misguided French Canadians will fulfil the promise of its official photograph – where it shows the whites of its eyes in no uncertain manner – and provide yet another juicy way for a French President to die in office, there is one certainty.

We will have weather.

Just as well…whatever would the British find to talk about otherwise?
The U.K. fiddling its economic figures?

You might know the old rhyme about the months of the year:

January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow.
February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen lake again.
March brings breezes sharp and shrill,
Shakes the dancing daffodil.
April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.
May brings flocks of pretty lambs,
Skipping by their fleecy dams.
June brings tulips, lillies, roses,
Fills the children’s hands with posies.
Hot July brings cooling showers,
Apricots and gillyflowers.
August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.
Warm September brings the fruit,
Sportsmen then begin to shoot.
Brown October brings the pheasant,
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.
Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves go whirling past.
Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire and Christmas treat.

That version is not exactly how I remember it, but it’s as near as damnit.

This, however, is a much more accurate depiction of my memories of the weather in England in my youth:

I shall go out now and knock down a few coconuts to put in the fridge for a cold drink this evening.
Feel free to hurl whatever you wish…leftover sprouts or vituperation as the inclination takes you.

Nostalgie du Pays

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, after the success of the hard right parties in the European elections in France in May this year.

Even if you don’t normally watch videos, even if politics leave you cold, even if you don’t understand French, please take the time and have the patience to look at this – a man visibly moved by what is happening to his country.

 

Va, la France. Va, ma belle patrie. Allez les travailleurs, ressaisissez-vous, ne laissez pas que tout ça soit fait en votre nom. Ne permettez pas… Ne permettez pas que la France soit autre chose que ce qu’elle est dans le coeur du monde entier…

 

Forward, France, Onward , my beautiful country. Workers, organise; do not permit all this to be done in your name. Do not allow…Do not allow France to be any other than that which she is in the hearts of the whole world.

 

This came back to me in the wake of the murder of the young  Canadian soldier guarding the war memorial in Ottawa….we can know our country is not perfect, but we can love it despite – and sometimes because.

The corpse of that young man travelled the 310 miles of the Highway of Heroes – named as such when the dead from the war in Afghanistan were brought home  -with, it seems, every inch lined by people wishing to express solidarity with his family and solidarity with the values of the country in whose service he died.

Because the people of Canada have not reacted with hatred, but with sorrow, not by instigating witch hunts, but by expressing their love for a young man whose life was needlessly lost – and by setting up a trust find for his young son.

Practical, kindly, level headed people.

 

So why should this remind me of the words of a defeated French politician?

 

Because the love of country is a strange and unfathomable beast.

 

You can loathe  a system yet love the people who live under it….

You can live under oppression yet find relief in the memory of ancient freedom…

You can experience nostalgia for a way of life that once you knew, that you know to be gone, but whose memory lingers like the scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.
A scent which comes to you, softly, faintly, when you least expect it and rouses memories of times past.

Apollinaire in his ‘Cors de Chasse’ says that memories are like the calls of the hunting horn, dying away in the wind…but for me those calls bring the past vividly to life…while you live and remember, these things are real.

And the love of country seems to me to be to be a love of your memories…not the abstract ideals trumpeted by politicians who defile the very ideals of which they speak.

Much as I, a Scot, loathe ‘Flower of Scotland’, that dirge now sung on all national occasions…the lines ‘fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen’ conjure up for me my grandfather’s farm…the cattle in the byre, the sheep on the hill, someone cursing the reaper binder and all its works …and although I know that all that world has passed its memory still attaches me to Scotland.

I might know of the Declaration of Arbroath and all the tarradiddles about its real intention; the Wars of Independence, the Darien scheme which brought the country to its knees …but Scotland to me is my own small world when young; the neighbours – ‘canty and couthy and kindly, the best’…the soldiers of my father’s regiment, so kind to me when a child….my grandmother – the terror of the family – explaining to me that every stranger who knocked at the door was the Christ and was to be received with respect and assisted if in need…not that that prevented her from asking the Christ to chop a few logs…

I never really took to England…formed too early in Scotland, I suppose. Perhaps had I grown up in Edinburgh and gone to the right schools…but I had not.
I lived there, I worked there, but despite knowing a number of good kind people, overall life there confirmed my father’s view of the English.

The English? They’re like kippers. No guts and two faces…
Unfair, I know and untrue in private life, but all too evident in the public sphere.

I remember the miners’ strike in the Thatcher years…and how glad were the other union bosses that Scargill would not take the – by then – legally obligatory ballot for strike action…those yellow bellies sold out their own movement and now we have unemployment…people working zero hours contracts…and tax evaders ruling the roost.

I enjoyed the county shows…the magnificent animals and their proud owners…but no landscape held me, no one place anchored me.

But I came to England as an outsider..as a child…

When I moved to France it was as an adult, eyes wide open.

I had made the move as, at that point, property was much cheaper, as was the cost of living and I could still work by fax….without the commuting, without the hassle. Less money, more time.

I was lucky…the neighbours were decent, welcoming people…I made friends with them and, through the man who ran the library in the local town, met others of a more literary bent.
I began to get to know the place through their eyes….

And what a place it was!

I felt at home as I had not since childhood…there was a real inclusion in local life, an expectation that I would participate.
And participate I did, in the Maison Pour Tous – the local centre for activities for all, young or old – in the walking group, in the gardening club, and the Am Dram, playing Feydeau farces under the manic direction of the local dentist.
Unfortunately I wasn’t then eligible for the Old Age Pensioners meetings…a real den of iniquity under the guise of cards and knitting.

Walking the dogs in the evening I would be invited to join the game of boules in front of Jules’ farmhouse, or get hijacked by Papy into helping him fix the window of his little Renault van..Edith would pile us all into her ancient 2CV and we would visit Alice in the next hamlet, her garage full of the implements invented by her husband, who had been a surgical instrument maker…

These people let me into their world and gave me a great love for France – not the France of the caste of vain, incompetent buffoons who run the place, nor the France of the colour supplements where people sit at cafe terraces inhaling vehicle emisssions, nor yet the France of culture and architecture – but the France of ordinary people getting on with their lives as best they can and what those lives bring forth.

I love to keep in touch with it all…I can still see in my mind’s eye the woods at the back of my first house where the flowers of the sweet chestnut trees burst in yellow fireworks against the soft green foliage….I can still ‘hear’ the town band on its erratic way round the commune on July 13th.

Costa Rica has proved to be an amazingly happy place in which to have landed and has conquered me hook, line and sinker…

But, from time to time, I have nostalgie du pays.

Lilac Time

lilac-flower-2Night falls early here, so indoor things I would do in the daytime when in France I now leave until after dark….jam making, or, as last night, making spiced vinegar and peeling and salting onions for pickling.
And, just as when in the kitchen in France, I listen to BBC radio.

The iPlayer is a godsend, despite its new format which drives me up the wall as I want to know what the Book at Bedtime is before undertaking two processes to get to it only to find it is codswallop.
I shall never understand why people let IT specialists tinker with something that works well to turn it into a means of frustration to the user.

Despite the desperately unfunny comedies and the plodding trendy dramas there is much gold still to be mined on BBC radio and I turned up a little nugget last night which not only gave me pleasure in itself, but which turned back the years to when I was a child visiting my mother’s mother.

The programme was one called ‘My Kind of Country’, broadcast in 1968 by John Arlott, talking about his native county of Hampshire.

A brief description of the career of John Arlott would read: clerk in a mental institution, policeman, poet, wine lover and cricket commentator, but that list gives nothing of the reality of the man – a deeply liberal man in every sense of the word with a poet’s economy and exactitude of style and a warrior’s heart for a worthy cause.

His voice is unique…a southern English accent such as you no longer hear among the blare of the north and midlands favoured by broadcasters who think that only something north of Watford can tick the box marked ‘regional’.
If you are quick you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer…if not, here is a link to him talking about how he became a cricket commentator.

Just listening to him brought me into the world he was describing….peeling off the layers of the outliers of the county to come to what he considered its heart…then he recounted an interview with a shepherd who gave a rendering of that old song ‘Buttercup Joe’ and instantly I was back in the past, in a garden in Surrey, while another old boy sang the very same song.

My mother’s mother came from an Oxfordshire farming family…but there had been a tremendous bust up when she married her Australian husband and they had upped sticks and settled in Surrey in a quiet house on the outskirts of a town that was then half country.
By the time I knew that house it was well within the purlieus of the town – the only ‘country’ aspect remaining being the stables of the Co-op milk delivery horses some distance away.
I was taken to visit when we moved from Scotland to England and was usually, with my cousins, banished to the garden while the mother and daughters got down to gossip.
It was a garden divided between grass and flowers and a huge veg plot…but in spring, when it was warm enough to sit out, we used to gather round the creosoted cable bobbin that served as both table and chair in the shade of the lilacs, purple, mauve and white, behind the rabbit hutches.

The purple and mauve lilacs graced the house with their scent, but the white were never taken indoors. Bad luck.
My father thought it was by way of regarding them like the white hawthorn that you would pick when you went maying…but which should never cross the threshold…white was the colour of death…and was the colour of the mourning clothes worn by the queens of France.
There was also – as he pointed out when I was older – the sexual connotations of plucking the flower, the relief after the sexual drought…listen to Morley’s madrigal ‘Now is the Month of Maying’…where playing at ‘barley break’ means a sex romp. Eat your heart out ‘The Sun’.

But all this was hidden from us as we drank our R. White’s lemonade…
Goes off pop.
A penny on the bottle when you take it to the shop.

One of my mother’s sisters was married to a director of R.White – but I don’t remember any cut price bottles of dandelion and burdock or cream soda darkening our doorsteps.

So, engaged in cousinly wrangling, we were surprised to hear the creak of the hinges of the back gate, followed by the appearance of a total stranger.
An elderly man in a brown suit, the jacket buttoned high as in photographs from the Edwardian period, a face well tanned by the weather and the whole crowned by a brown bowler, or, as we used to call it, a billycock hat.
He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, but soon recovered himself.

I’d forgotten the gals was visiting.

The ‘gals’ being our mothers.

I’d just slipped out for a bit…you know how it is..’

Fascinated, we nodded as he seated himself on the bobbin. We knew how it was when the coven got together.

Yer grandad is still in the Rose and Crown…

We nodded again: this was par for the course.

But I thought I’d just take a few bottles home; the rounds was getting heavy.

We might not be too sure about rounds and heavy but the sense of unwelcome financial burden was clear to us.

He produced a bottle and crown cork opener and took possession of a glass, throwing the remains of the lemonade on the ground.

This, he said, is brown ale…take a sip.

We did. It was not what we were accustomed to…but we weren’t going to miss out.

He took a draught.

Now. I suppose you’ll be wondering who I am.

We nodded.

Well! I’m a cousin of your grandmother Ellen and I’m the dirty dish in the family!
But you don’t want to know about all thaat.

We did. Oh, how we did, but the rules of our upbringing forbade us to ask what a grown up said we should not know.

So while we’re out here and they’re in there – jerk of the head – I’ll sing you a song or two to pass the time.

He sang us Buttercup Joe…then The Fly be on the Turmut….

And was well launched on the next, which started promisingly with

Be I Berkshire,
Be I buggery,
I comes up from Wareham
Where the gals wears calico drawers
And we knows how to tear ’em

At which point the female posse emerged and put a stop to it all…I don’t know what happened to the old boy but we children were pushed inside and fed seed cake.

On the bus going home I asked my mother about our visitor..

She told me that his own parents had fallen on hard times and had farmed the children out to various relatives.
He had gone to her mother who was a superb plain cook, but, thanks to his circumstances, he was not used to cooked food but rather to the stale cakes sold off by the baker….
So every home cooked meal from roast to shepherd’s pie via pig’s fry on Saturday was greeted with a cry of

I doan’t waant none of thaat…..

Brown ale might have been the answer…..