Archive for November, 2011

When I started this blog eleven months ago one of my key aims was to use it to develop and even showcase my writing.  And I am quite pleased that I have not only been able to do that on a regular basis – with the exception of the summer months for partly understandable reasons – but that I also retain the motivation to build on that in the future.

But I had also hoped to use it for what would appear to be its more customary function – to comment on events and issues in both the private and public spheres.  I am less satisfied with my achievement in that area.

The difficulty I have had has been in balancing the two objectives.  What has happened is that everything I have written, serious and trivial, has been placed on the blog to maintain a steady flow of posts rather than because it naturally belonged there.  There have been a handful of slight pieces but the average post has been nearly 700 words, a figure that I had neither intended nor could have sustained on a two to three times a week basis (the recommended frequency for posting) – other than over a short, concentrated period, as was the case with the travel diary I wrote for the U.S. West Coast trip back in March / April.

My struggle has, in part, been attributable to a disinclination to post anything that does not, at least to my mind, meet a minimum standard of literary quality. To put it more crudely, I don’t just want to put out any old crap.  Whether I have succeeded in that aim is, of course, for my readers to judge.

I don’t see myself resolving this dilemma someday soon, though I’ll keep trying. I have one or two serious writing projects in mind for the New Year, and material from those will only figure on the blog  occasionally for the purposes of showcasing my work. The challenge will then be to keep the flow of interesting posts coming regularly, though that might result in a reduction in both the number of words and literary merit.

This not to suggest for one moment that the average blog does not contain literary merit. There are many brilliantly written blogs out there, a handful of which I subscribe to myself.

So, despite the greater concentration on “proper” writing  in the future, extracts from which will appear periodically on the blog, I will aim to post as least as often, though they may be shorter, slighter pieces than I have found myself churning out in the past.

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“Care for a glass of ginger wine, Eddie?”, my grandfather would ask his son-in-law on our pre-Christmas visit to his house.

This was the cue for all the colour in my father’s face to be drained from it whilst he summoned up a festive smile and accepted the heartfelt, annual offer.  Whereas his family “liked a drink”, my mother’s side were teetotal (she virtually gave up alcohol herself after my christening party – that must either have been a great night, or it had suddenly dawned upon her that she would need to keep a clear head in bringing me up).  Apart from enjoying the traditional Christmas Day meal, on the table at 12 noon sharp just like any other day, my grandparents honoured Christmas in their customary restrained and homely manner.

My dad was essentially a beer drinker, but could be persuaded to partake of a gin and tonic or a glass of wine, (or, frankly, anything) if it was offered to him. Ginger wine, however, was not a  drink worthy to celebrate the Yuletide with in his mind. His misery was compounded by the fact that only he and his brother-in-law were ever afforded the doubtful privilege of being permitted to let the stuff pass their lips.  Consequently, the same bottle must have lasted a decade or more.  In fact, I don’t recall it ever being replaced (they were small measures).  Perhaps it was grandad’s pointed annual reminder to his son-in-laws to treat his daughters well, or else they would be answerable to him by being forced to endure a second glass.

My grandparents’ sobriety was all the more remarkable given that, for the last forty years of their lives, they lived next door to the neighbourhood pub.  It had both a public and saloon bar, as well as a “jug and bottle” (off-licence to anyone under the age of forty in this country and, for my continental and transatlantic readers, a separate room where people could buy drinks to take home without having to enter the pub). It was a raucous but friendly establishment.

I often wondered how they managed to sleep in the bedroom adjacent to it, especially at closing time when revellers spilled out onto the street, lingering long and loud before shambling home.  I suppose it helped that my “(Big) Nan”, as opposed to my father’s mother who was, you guessed it, “Little Nan” (the distinction was immediately evident on meeting), was stone deaf, though she always refuted the accusation (after her doting husband had both pulled faces and shouted at her for five minutes).

My grandfather – funny how I never called him “Big Grandad” when he was around eight inches taller than my father’s father – had worked and brought his family of two daughters and one son up in a London fire station during the Blitz and, as a result, I was in awe of him.  Chain smoking filterless “Senior Service” cigarettes, warming his backside against an open fire, pouring tea from his cup into the saucer before drinking it and constantly smoothing back his full head of bristling black hair, even at the age of eighty, he appeared even cooler in my young eyes (“old” people were cool then).

The manner in which he cherished his wife of sixty years (and fianceé of another seven) bespoke a deep love, although it made conversation with visitors redundant as the volume on the tiny black and white television set had to be turned up to maximum, especially when Double Your Money, Take Your Pick or Sunday Night at the London Palladium were on.

But back to the ginger wine, Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine to be precise. Made to the original (1740) secret recipe that includes raisins and pure Australian ground ginger, it was an especially popular drink in the sixties when this story is set.  But I think it is best drunk with something else, preferably with a spirit or in a cocktail. Whisky Mac, a blend of whisky and Stone’s, was an order I heard many times whilst hovering on the shadowy doorsteps of pubs and clubs at that time. Given that it is a fortified wine and, therefore, quite alcoholic, it is a powerful and acquired taste when drunk neat – which is how it was served to my father.

Though it must have taken him at least forty eight hours to recover from such a chore, he did only have to endure it once a year. And there was always the pub next door to escape to.

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It is November 21st and the preparations for Christmas are in full swing. Supermarket special offers vie with insurance companies for predominance in TV commercials.  Small children walking to nursery with their mothers can be heard singing “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” under their breath, though just loud enough to act, they think, as a subtle reminder to Mum.  The cable TV channel Movies 24, renamed Christmas 24 for the duration, is showing festive films throughout the day and night – with a two hour break between 6am and 8am for………….teleshopping! Christmas trees are also beginning to peer from behind curtains.

Much as I enjoy Christmas I have always tried to keep it at arms’ length, at least until the second week in December.  But the date upon which I am sucked into its tentacles has got earlier and earlier. I suppose Halloween now acts as the catalyst for a full scale assault on the holiday season, though the retail world, more desperate than ever to eke every penny out of customers grudgingly trying to resist such attempts, has been playing Christmas carols, Dean Martin, The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, not to mention that infernal Slade song, since mid-October.

So here I am – still a week of November to go and I am already wrapped up in Christmas (unlike the presents I haven’t even started to buy).

Unless we are devout Christians, and I certainly do not claim to be one, I suspect that our perceptions of the occasion vary over our lives.

My childhood Christmas mornings were spent opening the bulging sack of presents that my father, whom, out of loyalty, I had never exposed until now for his obvious mugging and impersonation of Santa, had lain at the bottom of my bed at between 1.30 and 2.00am (how do I know that when I was so obviously asleep at the time?).  At least I had the decency not to disturb my parents before 5am with the revelation of its contents.

After visiting several friends for drinks, we would walk to my paternal grandparents’ house for the traditional Christmas dinner, surrounded by assorted cousins, aunts and uncles, followed by party games, a “good old sing-song” and an elaborate tea comprising such Dickensian delicacies as pork pie and piccalilli.  Once the organisation of such a large event had become too much for them, their children rotated responsibility for accommodating fifteen, sometimes more, celebrants for three nights.  The women and children slept in the beds upstairs and the men sank onto any available floor space downstairs, where the evening’s drinking would be rounded off by the annual world farting championship (which a certain uncle won every year).  Joining the menfolk in this charming ritual became a rite of passage for the boys in the family.

Since leaving University thirty five years ago, the holiday season has, with the exceptions of one New Year in New York and a couple of years where bad weather grounded us, entailed a near six hundred mile round trip between the two events to ensure that both my and my girlfriend’s / wife’s parents were neither offended nor disappointed.  Inevitably, therefore, Christmases and New Years have taken on a familiar and staid pattern.  “Christmas is really for the kids” may be a cliché, but the presence of each succeeding generation of children does enliven the occasion and bring back warm memories of one’s own childhood.

But, in recent years, I have developed a growing affection for Christmas.  For a long time it was an enjoyable if routine experience, which the travelling did little to mollify.  Especially since my disenchantment with football, around which my Christmas diary had revolved, took hold, the lead up to the holiday season has become one long round of social events.

This year alone, I have already booked to see Cinderella, the first pantomime in the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and English folk singer, Kate Rusby’s Christmas Concert at the Barbican Centre in London.  Both of these have become essential annual events.  In addition, we are attending the Christmas Evening Special at Hever Castle and Rochester’s annual Dickensian Christmas and linked German style Christmas market.  We may also be part of the congregation at the Rochester Cathedral Carol Service.  Several Christmas meals are also planned, and there will be the inevitable procession of  shopping excursions, including a visit to the new Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, close to the Olympic Stadium.

And then there’s the Christmas CDs which have been stuffed away in my wardrobe for the past eleven months.  They will need a dusting before my favourite songs are reloaded once again on my iPod to enable me to create the playlists that act as the soundtrack to the “big day”.

The DVD collection will also get an airing with assorted versions of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street being essential viewing.  Purporting to have a literary disposition, it might be expected that I would cite It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas movie, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – Bad Santa and Elf take pride of place in my collection!

Which brings me to a question that preoccupies me a lot these days – whether my shifting interests and attitudes on this subject, or any other for that matter, are, in any respect, attributable to the ageing process or not.  I have no idea what the answer is. My political views, musical tastes and sporting allegiances remain broadly the same as when I was younger, although they have been subject to some fine shading with the passage of time.  I dare say this phenomenon has attracted scientists who will have theories for it.  Perhaps it will, one day, be the subject of another blog post.

The connection to the Christian dimension of Christmas is a particularly interesting one.  Although I was brought up as a Church of England Christian, and was presented with a bible for 100% attendance at Sunday School when I was nine, any faith that my parents might have gently encouraged me to adopt, has long disappeared.  And I have never been one, unlike my father, to bellow out a carol or hymn – in fact I was only selected for the school choir and placed in the front row because I was a champion mimer.  But, long after those days in primary school when I would sit cross-legged singing (my talent for miming had not been discovered yet) Away in a Manger and Rocking, I remain genuinely touched by the music in particular.  It has the same emotional impact upon me as listening to a reading of the 400 year old King James version of the Bible. I am sure that I am far from alone in harbouring such contradictions.  

So I’m looking forward to Christmas – the social and theatrical events, my father round for dinner and, yes, the travelling to the in-laws for New Year.

But I will not be able to suppress an irritated groan when I hear that damned Slade record for the first time.

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Kindle, Sony, BeBook, Elonex, iRiver and now Kobo –  the march of the e-reader is becoming louder and more intimidating, like Hitler’s stormtroopers goose stepping across the heart of Europe.  Is the end of the printed word nigh? Or can I stem the tide by building a barricade with my extensive book collection?

Don’t get me wrong – I embrace technology as willingly as the next man or woman – I wouldn’t be blindly cobbling something together every few days for this blog if I didn’t.  I love my iPod, laptop and mobile, and participate in several social networking sites.

And I can see the immense advantage of having an e-reader.  I could carry my entire library around in my back pocket, available to dip into at any time and anywhere.  Depending upon my mood, I could skip from a novel to travel diaries to poetry to sporting memoirs at a few touches of a screen.

Neither would I have to agonise for weeks before going on holiday, deciding which two books I should take, and then leaving at least one of them behind because I knew I was planning to buy several whilst I was away, placing potentially intolerable pressure on my wife’s miraculous capacity to bring our cases in within a milligram of our luggage allowance.

And think of the space the absence of so many books would open up in the house – decluttering at a stroke, though we might need to buy some new furniture!  There’s the small matter too of the environmental damage that the continued production of paper based books could cause.

Then there’s the actual e-reader itself.  Slim, lightweight, compact, long battery life, easy touch, low cost downloads, no glare screen, high contrast E ink display – the list of its attractive features goes on. What is there not to like about it?

And the biggest irony of possessing one?  I would almost certainly read more, more often and more widely, an essential requirement for a writer.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in defence of books it is the sensual and emotional elements that carry the day for me. Their look, feel, texture and, in the case of old books, smell are central to the reading experience.  The turning of the page, the safe depositing of the bookmark, the sight of a well stocked bookcase (doubling as a nice piece of furniture)  – all of these have a richness that cannot remotely be replicated by their upstart rival.

Many books that we possess may have started their life as gifts or be associated with an event or period in our lives that carries resonance. Downloads, even as presents, cannot invite the same emotional investment.

Books don’t break – they may get a little dog-eared but, again, that’s part of their charm.  They don’t run out of batteries or risk short circuiting and losing their entire content.  E-books, at least at the moment, can neither display illustrations nor adequately present large works of reference. And, as someone commented on another website, “how do you get an author to sign an e-book?”.

Bookshops, and even libraries, may be in decline but browsing their shelves remains, one of the most relaxing, and at the same time, stimulating of retail experiences, though I acknowledge that their purpose for many today might be to direct them to their next downloads rather than paper purchases.

P.G. Wodehouse claimed that “as life goes on, don’t you find that all you need is about two real friends, a regular supply of books, and a Peke (Pekinese)?”  I’m not so sure about the third, but I don’t think he’s far wrong otherwise.

A final thought – perhaps the answer is compromise.  Buy an e-reader purely to use on holidays where the baggage weight is an issue, but continue to read the printed word at all other times.

I fear the menacing thud of those jackboots is getting closer.

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A clear, crisp November morning in Northern France has given way to a chill pall of fog and drizzle.  A young, slim French mother guides her three, maybe four, year old daughter around a muddy field full of stone and flowers.  They hold hands, but, occasionally, the small girl cannot contain her curiosity and runs to a rosebush that catches her eye.

This is no family Sunday morning stroll, however.  It is Remembrance Day and they are walking among the 2,681 burials of the men from the UK and Commonwealth, slain during the Great War of nearly a century ago.  A large white memorial, which forms the entrance point for the cemetery, commemorates on its walls 34,785 forces of the UK, South Africa and New Zealand, with no known grave, who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and August 1918, many of whom killed in the Battle of Arras during April and May 1917.

The Arras Memorial and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery is the first world war battlefield that I have visited, despite passing dozens over the years and, each time, blithely proclaiming that “we must visit” some one day.  Well, that day has arrived.  But, even then, this two mile pilgrimage from the centre of Arras on a morning more suited to the month of November than any others have been so far this year, was not planned.  The weekend away with friends had been booked four months ago and the timing determined purely on our respective availabilities.  It is only in recent days that I have felt drawn towards the location at which Siegfried Sassoon placed Harry and Jack in his poem called The General, of which more later.

Aside from the nationalities I have already referred to, there is a separate plot for 17 Germans. That might be understandable, but then there is one, Max Klemt, who died on 15th February 1917 (his age is not known), who is placed in the middle of row upon row of the British fallen.  There are so many unanswered questions and forgotten stories in this place.

Each stone provides the information, where known, about the name, rank, regiment and date of death of the individual.  The most telling fact, however, is age.  Whilst there are a number of men who died in their thirties, even forties, the large majority were untimely ripped from the world between the ages of 18 and 25.  I am moved especially by one group of stones, placed closer together than any others in the cemetery, that hold the graves of five privates in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, none of whom lived past 24.  Another comrade, equally mysteriously, stands a little apart from the others. They must have been as close friends in life as they are physically close in death.

I scour the walls of the memorial for sight of my family name in vain.  I have no reason to believe that I would have come across it, and am thankful in a sense that I have not – I would hope to have prepared myself first.  But then again I am desperately disappointed.  This place plays havoc with your emotions.

Although I am haunted by the names and especially ages of those laid out before me in neat rows in this sodden field that tests the impermeability of my new boots, Harry and Jack in that Sassoon poem seem more real, and their fate captures my overriding emotion, not of worthless grief, though that is strong enough, but of anger and contempt for the politicians and officers that bullied and hoodwinked such men to their early deaths:

“Good morning, good morning” the General said

when we met last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

I suddenly remember the mother and daughter and look around for them.  But they have slipped away.  I ponder what their story might have been.  Were they, perhaps, the descendants of a teenage “tommy” and a local girl? I cannot think what other reason might have brought them to this grim, dank scene this morning. I hope that they have returned to a warm, welcoming home, an ordinary, everyday event that we take for granted but which was snatched from those young men with whom we have shared this space over the past hour.

But I have stayed here, at least for today, long enough.  Having had no breakfast, the call of lunch is insistent.  And we have a 70 mile drive back to the shuttle terminal this afternoon before returning to our lives of comfort and plenty.

Already, my thoughts turn to my next visit to one of the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. We will certainly not pass one by so casually in the future.

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Chester is a pretty city, along with Bath, York and Edinburgh, one of my favourite UK destinations. It has a rich history (it was the Roman city of Deva), fine architecture, especially the unique and magnificent Rows, many cultural attractions and excellent shopping.  It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that our trip last August Bank Holiday was our first to the city for fifteen years.

We had stayed overnight in Sutton Coldfield en route to my wife’s parents in Lancaster for the weekend – just as well as a combination of traffic congestion at the Dartford Crossing and on the M25, major, long standing roadworks on the M1 and intermittent driving rain throughout meant it took us nearly five hours from Maidstone in Kent.  We decided to stop somewhere for lunch on the Friday and plumped for Chester as we had not been there for so long.

Janet stated that she would like a jacket potato.  So we embarked upon the hunt for a decent, independent cafe where we could sit outside in the bright if lukewarm sun and watch the good citizens of Chester go about their Friday lunchtime business. This ought not to have been a difficult quest, though the city centre was understandably very busy.  Eventually, we found an establishment that appeared to fit the bill perfectly with a one available table outside, ideal for both serious people watching and modest sun bathing.

I ordered a prawn salad baguette and Janet asked for a tuna mayonnaise jacket potato, both to be washed down with coffee.  The proprietor taking the order was extremely pleasant and efficient (yes, we are still in the UK at this point), and our order was promptly taken.  I returned to join Janet in our prime position outside only to find her gathering up her bags and hurrying back into the cafe itself.  Possessing higher than the average level of acuity, I promptly deduced that the sudden swarm of wasps and flies encircling our evacuated erstwhile table may have been a contributory factor in her flight.

So we settled at a table towards the back of the cafe, conveniently adjacent for gentlemen (I use the word advisedly) of a certain age, to the washrooms.  After around ten minutes our sumptuous repast was delivered to our table.  Being very hungry at this point I was not overly disappointed at either the size or texture of my baguette.  However, it was a different story for Janet.  She had been granted custody of probably the smallest jacket potato either of us had ever seen.  She likened it instantly and accurately to a new potato, one that would not have looked out of place peeking coyly from a rocket salad.

Ordinarily, this would have been the cue for me to bestride my white charger and rush to the damsel’s distress – in other words assume the role of a militant consumer and take the matter up with the proprietor, citing my thirty years of experience in customer service.  However, Janet was too hungry to wait any longer for a (more substantial) substitute and decided, on this occasion, to let it pass.  By the way, my prawn baguette was delicious, but please don’t tell Janet as it will only reopen old wounds for her.

This may, however, and forgive me for perpetrating a gross gender stereotype, if one borne of no little experience, have been partly because any additional minute spent in the cafe would have been a minute less in looking for shoes and jewellery (we did, after all, only have two hours on the parking meter).

Before we were able to do so, Janet’s humour was not assuaged as we left the cafe only to discover that the outlet next door was a branch of the decidedly downmarket Spud-U-Like chain, and their jacket potatoes were enormous.  And half the price.

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When my wife first suggested that we celebrate our second anniversary in Barcelona, a city I had wanted to visit for some time, my thoughts immediately turned to whether the city’s premier football team would be at home on the Sunday evening (we were due to arrive in mid afternoon). And the initial signs were promising – FC Barcelona were hosting Real Mallorca on Sunday in the Camp Nou stadium.

So far, so good, although an initial scan of the seating plan indicated that, unsurprisingly, there were very few of the near 99,000 seats available, and those that were, tended to be single seats in the upper tiers.  Having resigned myself to sitting adjacent to the flight path of incoming planes, I noticed that there was still a chance, less than a month before the game, that it might be rescheduled to Saturday evening when we would be at Gatwick Airport. Apparently, this is common practice in Spain, presumably dictated to by the broadcasters.

So an anxious wait ensued, until a fortnight before we were due to go, it was confirmed that the game was being brought forward to Saturday.  To add insult to injury, with a performance described as “phenomenal”, the home side won 5-0 with the incomparable Lionel Messi “ending his goal drought” (three games!) by scoring a hat trick – and the official attendance was “only” 80,153, nearly 20,000 below capacity!  The Argentinian World Player of the Year repeated the feat three days later, on our last evening in the city, as Barca won 4-0 away to 2011 Czech League winners, Viktoria Plzen, in the UEFA Champions League.

At least we had the consolation of having booked tickets for the stadium tour, the “Camp Nou Experience”, on our last morning.  Now, the largely uncovered Camp Nou was completed in 1957 and does not possess, at least when empty, the beauty of many of the new and redeveloped stadia elsewhere in Europe.  In fact, Janet, not unreasonably, described it as “tired”.  But, with nearly 100,000 spectators on a balmy Champions League evening, there can be few venues to beat either the spectacle or atmosphere.

But the self-guided tour is excellent, including opportunities to visit pitch side as well as sit in some of the best seats in the house.  The changing rooms, press box, shop, multi-media centre and museum are equally impressive, and I could not imagine that there could be so many trophies in one place on the planet!  You can even hold the European Cup aloft and have your photo taken with your favourite player (superimposed of course) – if at a premium price.

We stayed at a new hotel in the adjoining city of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a mere fifteen minute ride on the efficient metro to Plaça de Catalunya in the heart of the city. We were blessed with mild, dry weather for our three night stay, though heavy colds sapped our energy and restricted our sightseeing.

With this in mind, and in view of our unfamiliarity with Barcelona, we spent the first day, our anniversary, sat atop an official sightseeing bus.  Or rather two – one exploring the west of the city and the other the east.  Amounting to more than four hours and covering every major attraction in the greater city, this was outstanding value at €23 each.

We still managed to fit in some of the more celebrated sights.  On the first evening we joined the strolling throngs on the length of La Rambla from Plaςa de Catalunya to the Mirador de Colom alongside the port.  Touristy – yes, but fun and atmospheric nonetheless.  We even ate passable tapas at one of the restaurants en route.  Our anniversary meal – seafood paella – was taken at Costa Gallega on the fashionable shopping street of Passeig de Gràcia whilst, on the final evening, we had halibut and turbot respectively at an attractive restaurant at Port Vell.

I had not come to honour Lionel Messi alone (which, in retrospect, is just as well), but also to witness some of the astonishing Art Nouveau works of Antoni Gaudí, the architect / artist synonymous with Barcelona. Large queues outside the Basilica de la  Sagrada Família and La Pedrera limited us to only exploring the interior of La Casa Battló, which was fantastical and enriching enough.  The reality of the exteriors of the other works also surpassed the photographs and films I had seen in the past.  Those other works, along with Park Güell, will certainly form the centrepiece of our next trip to the Catalan capital – along with a live game at Camp Nou of course.

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