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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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In 1999, after a decade skiing in Austria, Italy and France, my wife and I decided to switch from Europe to the United States for our winter sports “fix”. We chose the beautiful resort of Heavenly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe – and had skied there ever since.

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Aside from the size of the skiing area (it is the fifth largest on the North American continent), it had the added bonus of being only a three hour drive to San Francisco. Our skiing holidays therefore became a twin break affair – up to a week in Tahoe, followed by a week or more in the City by the Bay.  On some occasions we even threw in Las Vegas, San Diego or Los Angeles.

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Over the course of those two decades we had discussed the possibility of skiing elsewhere. We had always wanted to visit Vancouver in British Columbia, which again could be combined with a trip to San Francisco, so Banff and Whistler became strong candidates. We also researched Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado.

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But every time it came to the final decision, we stuck with Heavenly for a number of reasons – the scenic beauty, snowfall records, size and accessibility of skiing area and the proximity to the Californian coast. We usually stayed on or very close to Stateline, the physical border between California and Nevada, where playing in the casinos (admittedly only the penny slots) became an integral part of our apres-ski experience.

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But this year we finally took the plunge and abandoned Heavenly for Whistler, not least because it had become prohibitive to stay for any length of time in San Francisco (which we would still visit in the autumn). The decision had been made easier by the recent relocation of English friends, who had originally emigrated from North Kent in 2007, from Ontario to British Columbia. If we were to visit them, which we were keen to do, it made sense to find a ski resort in the “neighbourhood”.

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We didn’t make this decision lightly. We knew virtually every inch of the Heavenly ski area and were very comfortable with the environment, whereas Whistler, the largest resort on the continent by some margin, was an unknown quantity. Both the village and terrain were completely unfamiliar to us. Furthermore, the weather forecast for our week’s stay was discouraging, including a fair amount of rain, our least favourite skiing conditions.

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So it was with a degree of trepidation that we stepped off the Skylinx shuttle bus after an overnight stop in Vancouver on the third day of April and settled in our Airbnb on the edge of the village centre.  We had already determined that we would use the first day to acclimatise ourselves with the place, collect our pre-ordered lift passes, skis and boots and stock our apartment with provisions from the local grocery.

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We had purchased a four day lift pass to span the six days we were staying in the resort. So it was the second of those days before we queued up at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola shortly before 10 o’clock on Friday morning.

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Unfortunately, the weather lived up to the forecast – cloudy and misty with alternate rain and snow showers. As a result, we did not venture too far from the area at the top of the mountain on that first day. Poor visibility, unfamiliarity with the terrain and first day nerves contributed to my falling twice on the first run, though after an early morning tantrum, things improved before the persistent wet snow drove us back down the mountain.

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The day took a turn for the better when we wandered into the araxi restaurant for ten Reid Island oysters, prepared by Nigel, and a cool glass of Okanagan Pinos Gris. Technically, this was a happy Hour deal, though the resulting bill argued otherwise.

As much as we loved eating out, the cost of doing so had increasingly forced us to eat in our apartment on recent trips. But on this occasion, we had an excellent meal at the Beacon Pub and Eatery in the village square.

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With three days left on our lift pass, we had to make a decision as to which days to ski. Our final two days in Whistler had consistently promised the best weather, so we were committed to those. The forecast for both Saturday and Sunday was horrible, with the latter day marginally better. Our original plan of two days on, one off and then two days on needed revision, leaving us skiing for the final three days straight.

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Our judgement was vindicated as, even in the village, it rained all day. It did not, however,  deter us strolling around all afternoon, hopping in and out of the attractive coffee houses and gift shops.

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Although, in part due to the inclement weather, we had been unadventurous on our first two days on the mountain, we did not want to leave Whistler without taking the awesome and, some might claim, frightening, PEAK 2 PEAK gondola, which had been invisible on our first few days, over to the Blackcomb skiing area.

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After a few runs around the top of Whistler, we took the tram on our outward journey between the two largest lift terminals in the world. Although we were not deterred by the prospect of travelling in one of the glass-bottomed cabins, we eschewed the wait and took the first available one.

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At this point, I could bore you with lengthy statistics about the PEAK  2 PEAK Gondola, but I will confine it to a few:

  • the “longest unsupported span between two cable car towers” 3.024 kilometres (1.88 miles);
  • the “highest cable car above ground” 436 metres (1430.45 feet); and
  • completes the longest continuous lift system in the world.

Inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland, at its highest point, it soars 5,280 vertical feet from the valley bottom.

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After lunch in the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of the Whistler Village Gondola on the first two days, we ate at the Rendezvous restaurant alongside the top of the Blackcomb Gondola on the last two, whilst exploring several trails around the peak.

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Once more, the weather forecast had lived up to expectations, and the conditions on Monday and Tuesday, especially Tuesday, were benign with sunshine replacing the periodic precipitation that had blighted our first couple of days. My skiing improved proportionately, though I still wasn’t wholly comfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Skiing is an expensive pursuit, and I think it is not unreasonable to claim that we might not have had the full value for our outlay, certainly during the first two days when we were still acclimatising ourselves to the vast terrain under wet, gloomy skies. But by Tuesday afternoon, with a deep blue sky and warm sun beaming down upon us, life was good.

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So what was our overall verdict? We liked the village of Whistler – it had a lively, friendly atmosphere and boasted some good bars and restaurants. It was likely to be even more boisterous over the coming weekend as preparations were underway for the hosting of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. We were a little disappointed, however, that its relatively low elevation meant that it rarely saw snow on the ground.

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It was clear too that the village was extremely proud of its performance as host to the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics Games, with impressive monuments dotted around town and on the mountain.

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And we would certainly ski there again – there are still large parts of the terrain we have still to explore – provided the weather plays ball!

But we missed Heavenly – the lake views, the familiar trails, the mountain restaurants, even the casino bars and the drive up from San Francisco.

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The major lesson we learnt, however, from this adventure was that we had to get fit before skiing in future – irrespective of whether we were in Heavenly, Whistler or Avoriaz or La Thuile in Europe. Although we never caught our breath as we had often done in the much higher resort of Heavenly, we ached more each morning and found it generally more tiring than it had been before. Age may have been a factor, but weight was a greater one. In the past, we had always spent the first couple of months of a new year aiming to lose weight and get relatively fit. We hadn’t this year – and it showed.

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Ageing and aching are an unavoidable fact of life, but at least we can do our best to minimise their impact if we shed a stone or two and exercise more in those crucial months before we set foot on the slopes again.

 

 

 

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For all the people, the noise and the heat,
And some might claim, the smell,
La Serenissima never fails to enchant
In all her fading, crumbling majesty.

At dawn’s emerging light, vaporetti and traghetti
Compete for space on crowded Canal Grande,
Past the bustling barges of bass and bream
Destined for slabs on Mercato di Rialto.

After a lukewarm doppio espresso
And fistful of olive e uovo tramezzini,
Most fragile and delicate of sandwiches,
I resolve to lose myself and escape the
Oppressive throng slouching towards me.

Narrow, dark calli and sotoportegi
Open into vast, vivacious campi
Where scruffy children chase footballs,
Dreaming they are Messi or Ronaldo,
Or if their fathers coached them well,
Paolo Rossi or Roberto Baggio.

Intervals of sweet, intense silence,
Splintered only by hurried footsteps,
Or the plash of a gondolieri’s oar,
Pervade the squares and alleyways
Of Castello and Canareggio.

Down a deserted, soundless rio,
Far from the countless, careless hordes
Spewed from colossal cruise ships
Docked at Baciano Della Stazione Marritima,
A charming pizzeria calls to me from
Beneath a washing line of “smalls” hung high.

At midnight the bands at Florian and Quadri
Are muffled by the mighty, mournful toll
Of the Campanile di San Marco;
And English tourists recluctantly drink up
Their gin and tonics and squint
Incredulously at the final bill.

Mia cara Venezia, tu sei troppo bella
Ti amero sempre.

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Harbour Morning
High tide, low spirits,
Sun splits the glowering clouds,
Grave beauty unveiled.

 

(Steep Street) Coffee House
Young mothers converge,
Coffee, cakes, conversation
Drown creative talk.

 

Radnor Park Lake
Dawn birdlife clamours,
Noon anglers cast silent floats
Night, serene moon shines.

 

Sunny Sands
Gulls shriek across the sky,
Dogs bark and prance in the surf,
Stoic mermaid stares.

 

Checkpoint George (Lane)
Tourists face loafers,
Chocolate or bacon sandwich,
So close but worlds apart.

 

Old High Street Morning
Dalla Corte steams
Boot heels on sodden cobbles
Curved hill comes to life

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“Always got his head in a book, hasn’t he?”

“Doesn’t he play with other boys
Like normal children?”

“He comes out with some very long words
For someone his age”.

Common complaints from his early years,
Still spoke today by puzzled adult peers.

As dusk descends on the car-less, cobbled street,
He doesn’t heed the steadily falling rain
Driving him in from games of marbles, cricket
And flicking fag cards down the darkening lane;
He’s immersed in yarns of a boy named William,
A girl called Alice and a bear of little brain.

Intrepid tales of a Little White Bull,
A three part novel written at age eight,
Inspired by a song by Tommy Steele,
Leaves proud parents in a blissful state.

It earns a mention in the local press,
A child genius the gushing paper quips;
Before it goes the way of most success,
Wrapped up in paper folding fish and chips.

And now, through adult recklessness,
It’s lost like many of those TV shows
Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy,
Hoppity and Four Feather Falls,
The boy watched while eating crumpets
Toasted with fork on open fire that glows

Two years on he stands upon the platform
Of Greatstone’s railway station green,
Waiting for Typhoon or for Southern Maid
Or if he’s lucky, maybe Doctor Syn!
Bottle green cardigan knitted by Mum,
Plastic shoes and pudding basin hair,
Shorts excrutiatingly tight,
He hugs a guide book, pen and favourite bear.

So many hundreds, thousands, read since then,
Most kept, but some to charity shops have flown;
So many bookshelves creaking from the weight
Attest to how the love affair has grown.

The man remains seduced by books’ allure,
Enchanted by their feel and smell and view;
And though his taste has mellowed since,
His friends include that crazy girl and Pooh!

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(10 am, Steep Street Coffee House)
Only two people,
It’s ninety degrees out there,
I’m an OAP
And I don’t need the money.

I really can’t be arsed;
I think I’ll just order
Another pot of Earl Grey.

(checking phone)
Please let there be a new message
Saying they can’t make it.
I do wish their car would break down,
Or they can’t find the bottom of the Old High Street
Where we are scheduled to meet.
Or – wash my mouth – one of them is taken ill.

Damn……no messages.

What’s wrong with me?
I whinge and whine
About people not turning up,
And then when I get bookings
I can’t be bothered!

But wait a minute.

I’m a pro,
I can’t let them down.

And it’s time,
I can’t get out of this.

Right…..deep breaths,
Big smile.
Let’s do this.

Sigh.

(Three hours later, back in Steep Street Coffee House, knackered and sunburnt)

Well, that was great!
What a nice couple,
Showed a real interest,
Even laughed at my lame jokes.

So what do I do now?

Well, that’s obvious,
A beer and a toasted sandwich.

But then what?
The day is still young.
Go home, flake out
And watch some crap tv?

Or stumble into a bar
For another beer?

Wander round the harbour?
Oh no, I’ve just done that.

Promote the next tour?
No it’s too soon.

Throw myself off the East Head?
Now that would be reckless.

Jump around in Chummy’s fountain?
No, I might get arrested for that.

No, what I need to do is another tour.

Now.

I wonder if I can find another couple.

No, I can’t be arsed.

Beer it is then.

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Today I read that you had died.
Saw it by chance, in black and white;
After a short illness, it said,
Surrounded by loved ones, at night.

First news of you in fifty years,
No photographs nor word of yours
Had I received in all that time,
Discarded then, beloved no more.

Now I’ll never know the answers
To questions I have asked for years;
Could we have built a life together,
Endured, then blossomed through the tears?

Do you recall that dress you wore,
Long, black, sleek, shimmering and smart,
You shone a smile across the room
That burned and melted this boy’s heart?

Do you recall that Sunday lunch,
Thin pretext for our swelling love,
Before you led my hand upstairs
And laid me on your goatskin rug?

Where I first tasted a woman’s flesh,
Caressed with slow and tender touch;
As your new son slept in the hall,
We basked within each other’s clutch.

Four weeks we laid in that warm bed,
Rising to feed and change your child
When passion eased and left us spent,
We lay with him and smiled, and smiled.

Do you recall the plans we made,
To leave together, your young son too,
And live in blissful poverty,
On student grant, somehow make do.

But then they said that we were wrong,
That you were ill and I too young,
That we should never meet again
Or I would pay for what I’d done.

Do you recall that still we met
Three times on my planned visits home,
When we sat on our favourite bench,
And snatched kisses from too sweet gloom?

Do you recall thinking of me,
While raising kids and making good,
At social settings with my parents
With talk of me prohibited?

Through sloping fields, by muddy river,
Along the ancient cobbled street,
Courtyards, cafes and Cathedral,
For forty years I yearned to meet.

To see once more your lovely smile,
Across unheeding crowd you’d send,
But that can never happen now,
A second and more wretched end.

Today I read that you had died.
Saw it by chance, in black and white;
After a short illness, it said,
Surrounded by loved ones, at night.

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