Tiger Fiction Stories 07

My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories
Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018

A Cat’s Life

2017

The day started well.  Just for starters, I woke up.
It was 7.45, which was about par for the course for me these days.  I turned over, but knew that sleep would not be returning this morning.
I awoke again and the alarm clock this time said 7.58.  I mumbled “Bugger” and reached for the radio.  It was digital and small and, as a result, very handy and it went with me around the house in its day’s work.  However, it always started in the bedroom.  I just caught the weather forecast on Radio Four. 
In summary, it should be warm and sunny nearly everywhere.
It was John Humphreys and Nick Robinson on with the news stories.  I like John but can take him or leave him where Nick Robinson is concerned. I am happy for him that he seems to be recovering from his throat cancer.
I partially listened to John interviewing Michael Heseltine who had just been sacked from his various jobs by Mrs May.  I had met him once at Istanbul airport while we were in a long queue of people waiting for a visa.  He struck me then as a man who was up his, well let’s say, he had an overvalued opinion of himself.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, Michael.
I got up to make a cup of tea and returned to bed.  I heard the sports news which comes on about 8.30 and is my normal signal to get out of bed.  I stood in the kitchen and noted that the Mini Cooper was still parked outside. Thanks for that, Lord.  It was not a Jag, but it was mine.  I pondered my plans for this promising day, turning over in my head the various jobs I could and should put my attention to.  There was a loud and furious hammering on the door and an agitated ringing of the doorbell.  It was Helena; how did I know it must be; it was her style.
“Can I borrow your cat carrier, please and quickly?
“Is something wrong with one of your cats?”
“No, it’s not mine.  There is a black and white cat which hangs around the bins and I think it has been in an accident.”
“OK, I’ll get the carrier and then I’ll come and help you when I get some shoes on.”
And so, dressed in shirt and shorts, I joined Helena by the communal bin store.  Also present and on duty was a lady neighbour of Helena, Janet and a big chap whom I did not know called Tom, another neighbour.
The cat in question could just be seen behind the building which housed the bin store.  It was hiding in the undergrowth behind the building next to the perimeter fence.  As Tom approached it retreated more and more into the shrubbery,
I went to the other end of the building to prevent the cat’s escape while Tom advanced with Helena to his rear with the cat carrier.  Janet stood behind me making soothing noises meant I presume for the cat and not for me.
Puss was barely seen at this point but was a large black and white animal who looked petrified.  Its fur was matted and dirty and there was what seemed to be a large cut on its head. The cat’s capture took about twenty minutes as it shuffled backwards each time Tom got closer.  Eventually with Janet and I a physical barrier it allowed Tom to grab hold and place the unhappy creature gently in the carrier.  This I took from Tom and moved backwards tearing the skin on my naked legs from the numerous wicked brambles. Eventually all four of us gathered on the hard standing outside the bin store and examined the cat. It was a tom. Apart from the cuts on his face, his left rear leg was damaged, perhaps broken and it was clearly in pain.
At this point Tom revealed that he was a zoologist by profession and worked at Chessington World of Adventures. This explained perhaps his careful and gentle examination of the cat. Tom took the injured Puss away and a couple of days later he reported back.  The cat had by this time, in the absence of a collar or chip, been named Buster by the vet.  He had one broken leg, a dislocated pelvis and various cuts and bruises, all consistent with being hit by a car.  Buster was in hospital for a week and in the lack of any obvious owner was released into the care of Tom.
The latest reports indicate a slow but apparently satisfactory return to good health.  Buster now lives with Tom and his girlfriend as a house cat.  He has, apparently, feline HIV and is not allowed out.  Tom’s lady friend has approved the new arrangements but has renamed Buster as Jasper.  No I don’t know either.
The cuts on my leg did not turn out to be fatal, but thanks for asking. The day, which started well, dipped somewhat in the middle but eventually ended with a warm human, or animal, feeling.

On The Beach

2018

Sometime in 1960 I saw a film, which, although I did not realize it at the time, was to change my life. The film had been released late in 1959 and was based on a novel by Nevil Shute.  It was called ‘On the Beach’ and dealt with the world after a Nuclear Holocaust. 
The film came from a book by Nevil Shute who was a successful novelist in the 1950’s and he had been a Royal Naval officer in the Second World War who settled, post-war, in Australia. On the Beach featured in its cast: Gregory Peck, a very fine actor, Ava Gardner, the former Mrs Frank Sinatra, once the most beautiful woman in the world, Fred Astaire, without Ginger and Anthony Perkins, later to achieve fame in Physco.
The story was about a world after a nuclear war, when Australia was the last habitable part of the earth, for the time being.  In the sixties, films and books about the earth after nuclear destruction were very popular, in the same way that human life was later threatened by Aids, bird flu, the decline of the bumble bee and Brexit.  We survived all of these things.
The thing that changed my life was the depiction of life on Australian beaches.  Yes, I declared to myself, I’d like a slice of that. A process started in the cinema which would lead to my becoming a ten pound Pom some five years later.  I was a resident of Australia from 1965 until 1977.  At that time it was common for newcomers to be asked ‘What do you think of Australia?’  I don’t know if they still do that.  Ava Gardner, soon after getting off the plane, was asked this question and she replied, rather sharply, ‘I couldn’t think of a better place to make a film about the end of the world.’  Boom boom!!
Later, in the 1980’s in Kensington, in London, my wife and I saw Ava, her beauty gone, shuffling along, lost in a world of dementia.
Prior to our living in Australia, my experiences with beaches had not been totally blissful.  Mum and Dad had tried, in the post war years, to take their brood away for a week’s holiday every year, normally to the ‘seaside.’  These holidays were always in Ireland, both Northern Ireland and what was then called the Irish Free State, before they grew up.  We must have gone in the sea because I remember wearing horrible knitted swim trunks, which filled with sand and fell to your knees if you were not careful.  Swimming in the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean or Strangford Lough has little to commend it.
The overriding memories of these holidays was travelling by train with huge anticipation as the smoke billowed and we all used spittle wetted  handkerchiefs to remove soot from our eyes.
When I was about sixteen, on my new Raleigh bicycle, with drop handlebars and three speed gears, I rode with my mates to Bangor, a pleasant County Down resort about 20 miles from Belfast.  It was a hot day and we were steaming when we arrived on the beach.  We stripped immediately and plunged into an inviting blue sea.  We plunged out just as quickly.  I have never felt so cold and I was certain my chances of ever being a father had gone forever.  It was the last time I have ventured into waters around the Emerald Isle.
Not long after getting married my wife and I had our first holiday in a chalet in a holiday camp on the Isle of Wight.  The beach was fine and I managed to get sunstroke.  My visions of lying on my sickbed having my brow stroked did not eventuate as my wife, an East London girl went off to Alum Bay to collect sand and left me to reflect on life.
My memories are of Johnny Mathis singing ‘A Certain smile’ which came, I think, from a film of a book by Francoise Sagan and starred Lesley Caron.  There was also a a chart topping instrumental by Percy Faith called ‘A Summer Place’.  Does anyone remember any of that or am I befuddled?
Living in Australia and for two years in Malaysia, introduced me to many beaches and I loved it.  Well, most of the time.  My three year old daughter, Jenny, was kidnapped while walking on the beach with her nanny, the worst time of my life.  She was missing for only around five hours before the Police found her.  She was unharmed, Thank God. I don’t think my wife ever recovered from that and she has held me responsible ever since.
Working, as I did, in many parts of the world, I became friends with beaches in many places from the magnificent strands along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to the splendours of Mozambique.  I found shells on the beach in Eritrea.  These were not the former homes of sea creatures but shells of an explosive nature, some spent, some not.  Well, to be fair, the reason I was there was to gauge the shape of my Company after the war with Ethiopia.
I owned a house in France for five years from 2001.  It was in Royan and about a mile from la Plage du conch, with half a dozen plages within driving distance.  Happy days.  Happy days brought to an end by my daughter getting divorced, forcing Daddy to sell la maison Francaise.
At this point I have a confession to make.  I still love the beach but I very rarely go in the sea.  Being a bit of a pussy cat, I prefer the tranquil water in the hotel pool.  As far as I am concerned, at my advanced age, the beach is perfect for lying on a sun bed and watching the beautiful young ladies strolling around.  It is also a perfect place to stand up, stretch and walk 100 yards, or less to buy a beer or a glass of wine and then watch the girls strolling around. By the way, I have long since binned the knitted woollen swimming trunks.

The Coming of Twilight

2007

She had been christened Agnes, but was often called Patsy by her husband.  I don’t know why, but it was Patsy as often as it was Agnes.  Agnes was of average height, but seemed to grow smaller as she grew older, and was dwarfed by her two adult sons.  She was thin, almost to the point of being skinny, and was seen as a bit angular and bony.  She had pale blue eyes and her grey hair was kept short and frequently ‘permed’ as was the fashion of the day.
She had married, at the age of 23, a couple of years before the War and had four children, one born before the War, two during and one after peace had returned.  Like so many of her generation, life had never been easy, and money often difficult to find.  As a result, she had worked as a waitress most of her life, an occupation which had not much benefited her legs.  Having once waited on the pre war Arsenal team, she became a lifelong supporter.  Pat, her husband, was a Manchester United man, but they never came to blows about football.  Nor anything else to the best of my knowledge.
Agnes was the smart one in the marriage and ran most aspects of her life with Pat.  This easy going, simple man was content to hand over his wages to his wife, and receive his pocket money for the week.  It worked and this determined lady, with positive views of her own on many subjects, was married for almost fifty years.  Agnes enjoyed a whiskey and her cigarettes; Pat was tee total and a pipe smoker.  Their four children all liked a drink but eventually all became non smokers.
Sometime in the early 1980’s Agnes started to forget things, little things mostly at the start, like the names of people and places or where she had put her keys.  This was attributed to getting older and was regarded as harmless and amusingly eccentric.  Eventually, unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, the occasional swirling mists of forgetfulness were overwhelmed as a great fog of disorder and confusion filled her troubled mind.
The proud and dignified woman, who had raised her family to successful adulthood, became someone who could no longer hold meaningful discussion with that family.  She lived in a twilight world that others could not enter and from which she emerged less and less often.  On one occasion while walking in the garden of her older son, she said, “People think I’m mad, you know, but I am just ill.”
Even in this alternative existence, she was capable of causing little cameos of comedy.  Walking around her daughter’s house she remarked, “This isn’t a very good hotel.”  Her daughter replied, “This is not a hotel, Mum.”  This produced the classic reply, “You’re telling me.”
There was a black side to her condition as when she accused her husband, aged 77 of having an affair.  Pat, already in pain was hurt by this, even knowing, as he did, his wife’s condition.  In her ramblings she talked about a child who had died in 1942.  None of the children had any previous knowledge of this event.
At last Agnes no longer recognised anyone, not even Pat.  It is a cliché to say that death was a happy release.  It was preceded by a stroke and the cause of death was pneumonia.  A happy release indeed for this dignified lady.  Agnes died in October 1985.
She was my mother.

Forests of the Night

2007

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Take your mind off things, I told myself.  Keep occupied until you need to be at the Airport.  2200 at JC Smuts International seemed a long way off.  Sunday morning in Johannesburg, and there was only one place to be; the open-air market at Rosebank.  The market was a swirling kaleidoscope of sounds, colours, smells, good and bad and people.  Such people, black, white, brown and all shades in between.  Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu and God knows what else.
I am an old Africa hand, loving and hating in equal measure, but this country, South Africa, had captured my heart.  I loved her and I was leaving her after six months to return to my family.  It was then, as I pushed through the bustle that I saw him.  He was sitting quietly, motionless, his coat torn, stained and shabby.  But the face, a face of incredible sadness, a face that had seen much of life and had not liked it.  A face that expected nothing better in the future.  The face had only one eye, deep-set in the impassive head.  That eye held my gaze for long seconds.  What was he doing here?  Where had he come from?  What happened to his missing eye?
I turned away with difficulty to continue through the market, but felt compelled to look back.  That single eye was still staring into mine.  I knew I would have to come back, I just knew.  I hoped he would be gone with his sad downturned mouth and single staring eye.  It was two hours later when I returned.  I hadn’t needed to come back this way; there were other exits from the market.  He was still there.  As far as I could tell, he hadn’t moved.  I spoke to the smallholder and pointed at the sad one-eyed figure.
“How much is the toy tiger?”
“Three hundred rand, man.”
Three hundred rand!  Lordy, that’s a bit much for a tatty old tig.  “That’s quite expensive.”
“No, not for a Steif; it’s quite cheap.”
I picked up the sad tiger and felt his ears.  No buttons and no holes where the buttons should have been.  No Steif this one.  I turned him over.  No label either.
“He’s very scruffy and battered.”
“No, man, he’s been well loved.”  This guy recognised a mug when he met one.
I left with the one eyed tiger and missing three hundred rand.  I named him Tarzan, and added him to my collection.  I now have forty-eight tigers and eighteen Tiggers, of various sizes and material.  Nearly all have names, all beginning with the letter ‘T’.  What do you call a group of tigers? Not a ‘pride’ surely; that’s for their inferior cousins.  What about a ‘majesty of tigers’?
I am, you see, a hoarder.  I hate throwing anything away.  You never know, it may come in useful one day.  I have stamps from all over the world, although now I only actively collect Germany.  I have the first stamp I ever put in an album, when I was six or seven
I have hundreds of matchboxes in a big basket.  I own three or four hundred LPs, a similar number of singles, including 78s.  Nearly all the music I have now duplicated on CDs, but do I discard the vinyl? 
I inherited about forty photograph albums from my divorce, which was a very fair one.  My ex-wife got all the money; I got all the photos.
I try, from time to time, to cull these collections.  After a couple of days fighting with the books, I give three to Oxfam, three!  From over a thousand!  .  I tried with the tigers to cut down their numbers.  I had two white ones whom I gave to a little six-year-old girl who lived nearby.  She returned them after a few days.  “They say they are lonely, Brian, and miss their friends.”
I haven’t even mentioned the dozens, perhaps hundreds of souvenirs I have picked up on my travels.  I have carved animals, paperweights, matrouskas, worry beads, musket balls, pieces of shrapnel, a French First World War infantry helmet, paintings, wall plates, a piece of volcanic rock, etc etc.
When I fall off my perch, someone is going to have a hell of a job to sort it all out.  That will be the price they will have to pay for having a hoarder as a father.

The Fountains of Sorrow

26th May 2008

It was a subdued morning, grey and windless.  The day was reflected in our mood.  Perhaps we had all drunk too much and laughed too loudly the previous evening.  Whatever the reason, we ate an unenthusiastic breakfast quietly.  We filed into our coach and rumbled over the cobbles into the unending Spanish countryside.  A video was playing on the coach’s system, but most people seemed to watch abstractly, their minds in some other place.
About halfway into our one hour journey it started to rain, a soft gentle rain from a weeping, mournful sky.
It was October 1997, nearing the end of a tour of the battlefields of the Peninsula and we arrived around ten at Fuentes de Onoro.  Here between 3rd and 5th May 1811 the British and their Portuguese allies under Wellington had fought a savage battle against the French commanded by Marshal Massena.
Fuentes had been a small village in the Duke’s time, and was apparently unchanged since that time.  We left the coach on the outskirts of the village and walked down a sloping hill for about six hundred yards.  The roads for the most part were no more than tracks, with beaten mud as their surfaces.  These surfaces were slippery with rain, reflecting dully in the sad morning light.  The buildings were single story, stone built creations, with high wide wooden doors.  The rear of each building was also stone, glistening grey and rising to around ten feet.
Why would anyone want to fight over this place, let alone such commanders as Wellington and Massena?
In May 1811, Wellington has pushed the French back into Spain and laid siege to the Portuguese fortress of Almeida.  At that time, before the age of roads, there were only two ways into Portugal from Spain along which an army, and especially artillery, could travel.  These two routes were controlled by the French, at Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and at Badajos in the south.  To progress the war, the Duke had to take at least one of these fortresses.  His forces were camped at Almeida and Massena was taking 48,000 men to relieve his compatriots.  The road led directly through Fuentes de Onoro, which had no other claim to fame.
We explored the drab church on the outskirts of Fuentes, its lacklustre spire the highest point in the village.  This was the extent to which the Allies were driven back by the savage advances of the numerically superior French, bullet holes in the church walls marking their temporary success.  We walked in silent rain through the narrow street, more tracks than streets, with grass growing on the sides of the rutted tracks of the carts.
In these narrow paths, no wider than a man’s outstretched arms, thousands of brave men had fought and died.  Five minutes through the village took us to the River Dos Casas and its Roman bridge.  The river was a stumbling stream, half a dozen inches deep.  The Roman bridge was a low crossing of what appeared to be slabs of slate, three feet wide.  In May 1811 these turgid waters had run red with blood as the village changed hands half a dozen times.
In this place had fought many famous regiments, the Foot Guards, the Coldstreamers, the fierce men of the Connaughts, the King’s German Legion, the 95th Rifles, the Royal Americans and the brave Portuguese riflemen.  The French were equally brave, if less successful.  In this place some 1500 Allied and 2100 French soldiers had died.
After the battle, Wellington wrote to the British Government, asking for funds to repair the village, remarking, ‘It has been the scene of a recent battle and has not been much improved by the event.’  Sadly, there is no record as to whether such funds were forthcoming.
We walked back through the sad dripping streets to our coach, still overwhelmed by the sadness of this place.  During our time there we had not seen one other person, other than our own group, a village bowed down by its memories.
Fuentes de Onoro means Fountains of Honour.  Sorrow is more appropriate.

The Lost Decade

6th July 2008

On Thursday 3rd July 2008, I celebrated, to misuse the word, my 70th birthday.  Three score years and ten had elapsed since I first appeared on the scene, yelling and screaming I have no doubt, to the uncertain delights of a pre-war Belfast.  I felt no surprise on the big day; after all, I had been anticipating the event for a long time, nearly seventy years in fact.  Nor did I feel elation, or sorrow.  It was a day, like the day before and the day after.  As Neil Diamond sings ‘Another day that time forgot.’
My former wife was petrified by the prospect of getting older.  In vain did I suggest that the alternative was not remaining young, but dying.  It made no difference.  I can think of many former friends and colleagues who would have welcomed the opportunity to have a 70th birthday.  In the Police there was Billy Nicholson, aged 21 when he came off his motorbike at 5 am in Nottinghamshire.  Robert Lasker, near the end of his thirty years service, had a heart attack in Scotland Yard.  Scott Mackenzie died last year at 68 after a long and painfully wasting illness.
In the RAAF, Grady O’Loughlin, who played left back to my right back for the station team.  His Mirage fell into the Pacific Ocean, as did Wg Cdr James Brummond’s.  James was a member of the station Philatelic Club, of which I was President.  Then there was Plt Off Bill Goddard, whose Sabre crashed in flames on the city of Newcastle in NSW.  So, I had fared better than these.  Why?  God alone knows.
So, I have now completed seven decades and am embarking on a eighth, all beginning and ending in the figure 8.  Will I be here in 2018?  Who knows, but at least I can look back to the other seven with mixed feelings.
In 1948 the invincible Australians, led by the legendry Don Bradman, were in England. One day in August I came in from playing in the street, where we all played, to hear loud applause on the radio.  The radio, or wireless, as we called it in those days, was almost new.  We had recently had ‘the electric’ installed and Dad had replaced the old accumulator set with this new bells and whistles outfit.  “What’s happening?” I asked.  “Bradman has just come in to play his last innings in Test cricket,” the pater advised.  Well, young as I was, even I had heard of the Don, and I settled beside my pipe smoking father to listen.  The Australian god was out second ball, without scoring. 
“He’s not very good,” I remarked as I headed back into the street.  In time, I would learn and ask God for forgiveness for my ill chosen comment.  I have hated the bowler, Eric Hollies of Warwickshire for the rest of my life.  In 1948 I was young and stupid, but at least I was too young to realise that I was stupid.
1958 found me in London, as a policeman with one year’s experience, still dripping wet behind the ears.  I would marry, in much the same condition, later the same year.  I was still young and still a bit stupid.  Well, naïve may have been a better description.
In 1968 I was serving in the RAAF in Sydney as a flying officer and a year away from being posted to Penang in Malaysia.  My daughter, Jenny, had been born a month before my 30th, to join her five year old brother, Rory.  I thought that I knew it all.
By 1978 I was back in England, with the family, and working for Mobil Oil.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would be my last permanent job, and would last for twenty three years.  I saw Sinatra in concert for the second time, and Neil Diamond for the first.  A couple of weeks ago I saw Diamond for perhaps the seventh time; he is better than ever.  In 1978 I was ambitious, unsettled and beginning to realise that I did not know it all.
I became fifty in 1988.  It was a momentous year for many reasons.  My patch was the UK and Ireland.  I became divorced and my daughter got married, for the first time.  I also wrote the first of my five novels, each one as successful as the others.  I was, in some ways, even more unsettled in my personal life but totally confident in my business life.  I thought that I knew it all, and probably bloody well did.
It may be usual to say that when I was sixty, in 1998, I became aware of my own mortality, but I have, in truth, been so aware since I was thirty.  Professionally, I was probably at the top of my game, with security responsibilities for Mobil’s operations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union.  I was as familiar with Kinshasa as I was with Moscow or Almaty, the latter two being infinitely preferable to the former.  I was respected in my job and not only among Mobil people.  I was a recognised as an old ‘Africa hand’, accustomed to talking to Government Ministers and Chiefs of Police in some pretty awful places.  Big deal.
And so here I am at seventy.  In the last decade I have been made redundant, thank you Jesus, and have worked freelance for myself.  I have lived and worked for six months in South Africa, a time of blessed memory.  My work has taken me to Beirut and Petra, to Algiers and the bandit country of Northern Nigeria.  I have owned and sold a house in France, and during those five years spent perhaps fifteen months dans la belle France.  I have hugged a tiger, the lovely Tessa, and after trekking for five days at 11,000 feet in the Himalayas, met her wilder cousin face to face.
My daughter and son have both divorced.  In her case, it was a messy painful business, during the course of which she lost her home and her business, before becoming bankrupt.  My former wife, after many years of ignoring my existence, decided to send Christmas and birthday cards, and we have even met on three or four occasions.
I bought the third, and probably the last of my three Jaguars; a four litre convertible XJS.  The big cat was a mere kitten when we met, with 27,000 miles on her whiskers.  She is now an adult pussy cat and we have travelled a further 105,000 miles in the last eight years.
I have followed my hobby of exploring battlefields and have been to South Africa, United States, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and to my favourite, Waterloo in Belgium.
I have holidayed in Australia, India, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Turkey and God knows where else.  I have been on two cruises, one to the West Indies, the other to Greenland and the Artic.
Ten years ago, Tony Blair was telling us that ‘Things can only get better’.  Ten years on, Liar Blair, he of the illegal Iraq war, is history.  His successor, Bottler Brown is a charisma bypassed, bumbling, incoherent incompetent.  And this is better, boys?
No surprise then, in light of the previous observation, to reveal that I have stood for public office three times since 2003, as a Conservative candidate, twice for Epsom and once for Surrey Council.  I got two silvers and a bronze.
I have traced my family back for nearly two hundred years.
The Government of Australia, in its wisdom, awarded me the Australian Defence Medal and the Australian Service Medal with South East Asia clasp, some thirty years after I left the RAAF.  I suppose that belated recognition is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
In summary, this has not been a bad, or unsuccessful tally for a decade.
And yet, and yet, what has the last decade really brought me?  To be truthfully and painfully honest, mostly an overwhelming sense of loss, lost happiness and lost chances.  I have lived these ten long, lost years without Jeanne, who was the love of my life.  When I think about it, and I do, she is still the love of my life and, as best I can call it, she always will be.  Ten years ago, the loss was a sharp, constant pain which now and then subsided into a dull ache.  Now it has reduced to simply a dull ache with occasional kidney stone like pain, a pain that clichéd platitudes about fish in the sea and buses along in a minute, did not relieve.  I grew tired of being told ‘I understand’ by people who clearly did not.  You have had to be in that place to understand.  It is like childless people talking about having children.  If you haven’t been there, you haven’t a clue.
If it was possible, I would exchange all the experience and success of the last, lost decade to be with her now.

One Hundred and Eighteen

2008

It was raining; a slow, grey disinterested rain; a rain without passion.  The windscreen wipers lazily swept the screen.  “It’s near here somewhere.”
“Yeeees.”  My sister’s reply was more to reassure her than to show agreement with me.  “It’s all changed; I can’t recognise a thing.”
“No,” I muttered.  “Me neither.”
Suddenly she pointed to the right.  “There, it’s the turning opposite the church; that hasn’t changed.”
I signalled I was turning left and slowed the Jaguar.  “I think you’re right.  Damm it, it’s no entry.  When did that happen?”  I raised my left hand in apology to the driver behind me and cancelled the signal.  A hundred yards further on, I did turn left, left again and then right.  We had arrived.  When had I last been here?  1970 was the only visit I remembered.  My parents had moved sometime in the seventies, probably when I was in Australia.  Donnybrook Street; my home for the first eighteen years of my life.  I had never felt nostalgic about it before, but now, with my mother and father long dead, I did, suddenly and unexpectedly.
It was a longish street, with 146 terraced houses, built in the late Victorian period.  The street sloped slightly downwards from the main Belfast to Lisburn Road.  It was intersected by a cross street about halfway along.  Bertie and Noel White had lived in a house on the corner.  The main road had always been called ‘the top’ and halfway down was ‘the half’.  Simple really.
We arrived outside 118 and parked the car.  We looked at our old home in silence.  It looked drab and shabby, but more than that, it seemed so tiny.  A small wall enclosed a postage stamp of a front garden, in which nothing grew.
“There used to be metal railings there you know.”
“What happened to them?”
“They took them away during the War.”
“Why?”
“To make Spitfires, they said.”
Siobhan nodded.  “Of course.”
I had been born in this house, and my two sisters and brother had also first seen the light of day here.  It was a ‘two up, two down’ house, which my father had skilfully extended by opening up the roof space, installing  a bathroom and roofing over the back yard, turning it into a huge kitchen.  He had made a glass house at the end of the yard, growing successfully tomatoes, and less successfully, tobacco.  He nearly poisoned himself with the latter.
“Do you think we should knock?”  She looked at me.
I wasn’t so sure, but we did.  I think we were both relieved that there was no reply.  Our memories were under sufficient attack as it was.
We began naming the folks who had lived in the houses alongside 118.
“Kevin and Patsy in 120.”  That was easy; they had been our cousins.  Kevin died in 1974 and Patsy now lived in Western Australia.
“Rosie and Robin in 122.”
“Yes,” I said.  We would meet them the following day.
The street was in a working class suburb and had been largely Protestant.  To Catholics in Ireland in those days, anyone not Catholic was Protestant.  Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists; it didn’t matter; all were Protestant.  And that hadn’t mattered either, both Siobhan and I agreed.  On Orangeman’s Day we had trooped up to the top of the street to watch the Parade.  We cheered and waved our Union Jacks like all the others.  We went to the street parties for D Day, VE Day and the Coronation.  There was never any trouble that I could remember.  It wasn’t till I got to a Catholic Grammar School that I met prejudice.
We walked the length of the street.  At the top there had been a chippie and the shoemakers.  Both gone.  There had been a small grocer’s at the half; Tommy Clarke’s.  It had a rough earthen floor and had sacks of potatoes and vegetable everywhere.  My Dad used to send me to buy a gas mantel, as we had no electricity until 1947.  It cost fourpence and once I opened the little carton to examine the fragile thing and broke it.  Papa wasn’t pleased.  On another occasion I went to have the accumulator battery recharged.  That cost half a crown.  Serious money.  I dropped the dammed thing.
“Do you remember the air raid shelters?” I asked Siobhan.
“No.”
“They were right here, on the roadway.”  I never recall going into one during the Blitz, but after 1945 they served as pirate ships, dens and on the outside, football goals and cricket stumps.
We reminisced.  Stanley lived there.  Anne over the back.  Ah, Anne; my first love.  I used to go out of my way just to catch a glimpse of her.  Sheila was in 98.  Will Rickaby was at 126 and Shannon and Eloise at 136.  Their father had buggered off somewhere.  Eloise was beautiful, but rumoured to have been on the game.  Shannon was queer.  I didn’t use ‘gay’ in those days; I still don’t.
Memories were crowding in on me.  “Come on, sis, time we joined the real world again.”          

Looking for Me: An Unfinished Story

2008

 It was a shock; not the sort of shock which follows sudden death or divorce, but a shock nevertheless.  No, nothing quite so dramatic, but it affected me and was to have further effects on my life in later years.  I examined the paper more closely.  The handwriting was quite good and easy enough to read.  My father’s birth certificate lay on the table in front of me.  The name was clearly shown, ‘Patrick James McTeer,” born Lisburn.  All the other details, date and place of birth and parents’ names were correct.  No doubts then, this was my Dad and we had different surnames.  My birth certificate said ‘Matier’, in 1938, and his said ‘McTeer’ in 1907.  Somewhere between the two dates, the name was changed.  Why?
My father died in 1987, two years after my mother.  At the time, he was the last of his family to go, so there was no one to whom I could turn for advice on the events in his life.  On sorting through his papers I came across another ‘short’ version of the birth certificate, dated 1977, on which the Registrar had noted ‘name now recorded as Matier’.  This was for passport purposes.  At that time the dimly remembered words of my Aunt Edna came back to me.  She had been a somewhat cynical Lancashire Protestant, who regarded religious wriggling in Ireland with an amused eye.  “Your Grandfather was a Protestant and changed his religion and his name to marry your grandmother.  Your Dad changed it back after your Grandad died.”  This was to take me down a very long road, and, as I was to find out eventually, in the wrong direction.
Well, good for him, I thought.  However, at the time I was married, with two children to rear, feed and educate.  Additionally, my personal life was subsiding in a swamp of marital difficulties.  So, it was 2005 before I was able to consider the situation fully.  For nearly twenty years I had had a picture of myself, and my possible Huguenot roots.  I did a lot of research on the Internet and found some excellent web sites. These were primarily devoted to studies of the Huguenots and genealogy in general.  I found a number of references to Matiers, the earliest being the birth of Hugh in 1780.  Hugh married Elizabeth Bateman.  I hope they were happy.  I also found that the name Matier was almost certainly centred in Ulster, and specifically in the two counties of Antrim and Down, and in the city of Belfast.  At last, however, I began looking in the place where I should have looked in the beginning, Public Records.
Northern Ireland, although part of the United Kingdom, has always been different.  Prior to the Partition of Ireland in 1922, all Public Records had been held in the Four Courts in Dublin.  The building was destroyed in the Irish Civil War along with some 90% of the paper records it housed.  It was without much hope that I turned to the Records Archives in Belfast.  I was wrong to doubt.  They were, and are, magnificent.  After some toing and froing, I found my Grandfather’s death certificate.  He died from cancer of the lower jaw in 1930, aged 44.  The poor man.  His name was neither Matier nor McTeer, but MATEER.  What I had held to be true for twenty years was proven wrong in an instance.
I had three names now with which to juggle.  In the next nine months I became something like a forensic scientist, or jigsaw addict.  I kept finding little scraps of evidence, or jigsaw pieces.  These I would examine, looking at them from every angle and trying to fit them into the overall picture.  After following a red herring for so long, I was anxious not to go astray again.  I checked the birth certificates of my uncle and two aunts.  I found two, both born as MATEER in 1909 and 1917.  My uncle, Gerry, had been a professional footballer and one of his clubs, Blackburn Rovers. was very helpful with details of his career.  In 1932 he was using the MATIER version of the surname. What happened between 1917 and 1932?
Then I had a breakthrough.  My Aunt Annie, always called Cissie, had a child outside marriage in 1929 when she was nineteen.  His surname was recorded as MATIER.  This was not a spelling error as from then on the name was used by everyone.  Well, that isn’t quite true.  My Grandad died in 1930 and his name was recorded as MATEER. I checked the Court records from 1923 to 1938, but the change was never formalised legally.  As far as I know, there is nothing stopping Katie Melua calling herself, let’s say, Jane Baker.
Last month I visited Northern Ireland for a week and became a nuisance to the Government Records Office and the Public Records Office.  I tramped cemeteries where the long grass was soaking wet with overnight dew, but I could find no headstones for my family, even when church records said they were buried there. We were not a rich family, and couldn’t afford headstones.  Uncharitably I thought that at least my brother and two sisters had raised a memorial to our parents.  I recognise that this is probably an unChristian thought.
Why had the change occurred?  Who made the decision for all the family to accept?  I don’t know.  I believe that my Grandmother, Kate, who was a devout Catholic, decided that the present spelling was somewhat more Catholic than MATEER, which she perceived as Protestant.  After all, the father of Cissie’s little boy had been Protestant.  His parents insisted on marriage in one of their churches.  Gran insisted it must be Catholic.  There was no marriage.
The ironic fact is that my research shows that both versions of the name are probably Protestant and probably descended from the brave Huguenots who settled in Lisburn in the late 17th century.  My own Catholicism was only one generation old and the roots too shallow to survive.
The story is not finished.  I will keep looking for my roots, ties of blood and not faith.

Going, Going, Gone

2009

It was cold on the hillside as the wind fluttered and twisted the tunics of the soldiers of the 6th Legion.  Flavius Maximus watched as his officers gathered around him, some still bearing wounds from their battles of the previous day.  He held up his right hand, palm outwards, and the hubbub of conversation ceased.
“Brothers,” he began. “Brothers, we are gathered here to honour our comrades who have died in the cause of Rome.  Please join me in saluting them.”
They stood, heads bowed, clenched right fists against their chests in salute.  After about a minute, Flavius straightened and again raised his right hand.  “Enough.  We now proceed with the business of the day.  We will auction the personal possessions of our dead brothers.  We begin with Sixtus Pula, centurion in the sixth Legion.”
He spoke warmly about the dead man and his bravery as a soldier and a leader. The auction was carried out of his possessions, his cloak, sword and personal possessions.  The monies raised would be sent to the dead man’s widow in Rome.  The auction lasted half the morning till all the dead officers had been remembered and the Legion’s Paymaster was given the duty of ensuring that the proceeds were sent safely back to Rome.
“Now,” said Flavius, turning his attention to the pathetic group of defeated Britons, shackled together, “We move these scum to market in Londinium and see what they fetch at auction,”
The auctioning of the possessions of the fallen in battle would continue right up to Wellington’s time. Some of the wives of soldiers who followed in the army of camp followers may remarry once or twice in the course of a campaign as their men were killed.
Slavery, sadly, goes on to the present time in different parts of the world, particularly in Africa.
“Are you asleep?”  The question came from my wife who ensured I was not sleeping by shaking my shoulder.
“No, just dreaming.”  Sleeping or dreaming made little difference, I was now awake, and two thousand years on from my reverie.
“Have you finished?” I enquired of her.
“Yes, the Welsh dresser is all I want.”
We were in Woking at an antiques auction.  There was nothing I wanted but Margaret had a good eye for various bits and pieces.  My job was to drive, pay, and get her and her purchases home safely.  On this occasion she was unsuccessful, finally accepting defeat when the bidding went beyond her budget.
I had had some doubts about squeezing the dresser into my Ford Capri, so I was relieved she had accepted the inevitable.  She was very disappointed and my comments about the thrill of the chase were probably no consolation. Her comments that she had come second made me reconsider her grasp of the concept.
I have been divorced for many years now and with the ending of my marriage went my interest in auctions.  They became alive again when my local stamp club and Philatelic supplier became involved in running auctions.  I didn’t go to many, but did take the catalogue and made postal bids. In the club auction I became a runner, the person who distributes the lots to the successful bidder.
Noting my interest, a year or two ago, the stamp dealer, Paul Warren, asked me if I wanted to play a more active role in his auction.  It was unpaid work, but you got a discount on any purchases you made.
I have been going for a while now and enjoy it hugely.
My job was simple.  There is a huge amount of auction material to be transported from the stamp shop to the auction hall.  This we call humping, an inelegant term for inelegant work. Once at the venue it must be distributed around two big rooms in a precise fashion so that the bidders can easily find and study their potential purchases.
At the auction the customers make their bids, and, in due course, pay for their bids.  They then come to my room where I check their payment receipts, and give them their purchases.  Finally we are reduced to a few diehards left behind as we reach the final few lots which can total up to 1200 lots,  The monies taken can reach £14,000 plus, so it can be a busy old day particularly when you consider it is all about grownups, mostly men, chasing little bits of paper. The day is not finished when the auction ends as all remaining items need to be re-humped back on the van and returned to the shop. Also the hall must be returned to the state in which we had found it.
The typical day at the auction starts around 8am and never finishes before 5pm.  I sleep well on auction night.

And the Winner Is ……..

2010

Between 2002 and 2007, I owned a house in Western France, and spent perhaps a quarter of each year living there.  I love France and even quite like the French, but the English language is my mother tongue and the one I prefer.  Accordingly, I installed two radios dans la maison.  The first was tuned to a French easy listening station, where half the music played was in English, the maximum output allowed by French law.  The second was firmly fixed on BBC Radio Four.  It was the only BBC station I could receive clearly, but it was the only one I wanted.
The primary reason was to commune with Aggers, Blowers, CMJ and the other strange creatures who inhabit the often surreal world of Test Match Special, a required summer ‘fix’ for all cricket addicts, such as myself.
I had been an aficionado of Radio Four in the 1981 to 1991 period, when, as Mobil’s UK security manager, I spent many hours on the highways and byways of our noble land.  Between ’91 and 2000, I struggled to pick up the World Service, mostly in dreadful African stations.  Now I became reacquainted with old friends; Today; the World at One; The Archers, Front row; PM and so on.  I cheerfully admit to switching off the Morning Service and Woman’s Hour, which has, in my humble masculine view, become a sexist, feminist rant. 
Desert Island Discs was an unexpected pleasure.  I listened to the castaways’, frequently eclectic, choice of eight discs, and often thought, “What a load of tosh”.  But that is, quite clearly, the whole essence of music.  It expresses itself in diverse ways to different persons at different times.  Learning to appreciate music is like learning to eat and drink; our tastes expand, develop and mature with the years.
The first record I bought was ‘Learnin’ the blues’ by a certain Mr Sinatra, as a 45 single, recorded 13th March 1955.  He has been a major influence on my life ever since.  I had often listened to Frank on AFN, a crackling island of joy in a BBC ocean of mediocrity.  My first album was Songs for Swinging Lovers, and to this day, I know the lyrics and nuance of every song.
At about the same time I went to see The Blackboard Jungle with Glenn Ford, an under rated and almost forgotten actor.  Over the opening credits Bill Haley played Rock Around the Clock.  It was electrifying and made the hair on my neck stand up.  Hound Dog, Don’t be Cruel and Heartbreak Hotel wove the Presley magic for a while, but not like Frank.  Today I have only half a dozen songs by Elvis, but all 1450 odd tracks laid down by Francis.
I joined the Police in 1956 and for the next two years was immersed in a kaleidoscope of new experiences.  I played bass, badly and briefly, in a skiffle group and saw Kismet at the Stoll theatre.  I listened in awe to Jack Teagarden and lower down the food chain, Chris Barber at the Royal Festival Hall.  I met Chris in Epsom in 2007 and reminded him of the 1957 concert.  I had bought a CD and he signed it, ‘Thanks for coming to see us in 1957’.  When I got married in November 1958, I had Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto number 1, in B flat minor played on the organ.
And so, by the time I was twenty, the overture was finished and the great tide of music swept forward, occasionally drifting into little creeks and coves, but generally being faithful to pop.  Along the way, I refined, subconsciously, what I require from music; intelligent lyrics which spoke to me, and they were there in abundance.  Not only in the words of the great lyricists of the past, but in contemporary song writers.  There was John Denver with his moving ‘Leaving on a jet plane’, something I did many times, and the timeless ‘Annie’s Song’, written for his wife.  John’s unhappy life and premature death add poignancy to his music.
Neil Diamond, thankfully still with us, has written dozens, perhaps hundreds of intelligent lyrics.  ‘I am, I said’, ‘Hello again’, ‘September Morn’, ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘You don’t bring me Flowers’, were all written by him.  The latter, memorably recorded with the breath takingly excellent Barbara Streisand, must have trebled the bunches of flowers bought in the late 1970’s.  It is my belief that song writers are the poets of our time.
As I got older, I found the tide of my tastes flowing increasingly towards classical music.  I am no expert, but as with wine, I know what I like.  I think the classics speak to my imagination and popular music to my emotions.  In between the two, somewhere lies musical theatre.  The uplifting themes in Les Miserables will always remind me on being with Kathy in New York and walking back from Broadway to our hotel about three feet above the ground.
At the time of choice for number one, it boils down to where I was, who I was with and my feelings then, and more importantly, my feelings now.  The words sung by Roberta Flack in ‘The first time ever I saw your face’; ‘I thought the sun rose in your eyes and the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave to the dark and empty skies, my love.’  They didn’t merely touch me, they overwhelmed me.
‘Lady in Red’, ‘Have I told you lately that I love you’, ‘You were wonderful tonight’, are all contenders.
However, my favourite piece of music speaks to me of Jeanne, who was, is and always will be the love of my life.  She came from Savoie in Eastern France, high up in the Alps, and has Italian and French blood.  And so, the winner is, the exquisite Katherine Jenkins and ‘I will always love you’, in Italian.

Saint Valentine’s Day

2010

There are 24 hours in a day, which is 1440 minutes, and there are, well, an awful lot of seconds.  In addition there are 365 days in each year, except for leap years, when there is an extra day.  This extra day came about in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII decided that old Julius Caesar had been rotten at maths, and had miscalculated his calendar by 11 minutes and 14 seconds a year.  So the Pope removed 10 days from the calendar; and, as a result, the 5th to 15th of October 1582 never happened. 
Now the Catholic countries accepted the scrapping of the Julian and introduction of the Gregorian calendar at once, after all the jolly old Pope was infallible, wasn’t he?  However, the Protestant countries said, perhaps naturally, hang on a minute.  They obviously suspected some kind of Catholic plot.  They hung on for some 170 years, in the case of Great Britain, and in Orthodox Greece, until 1923, before accepting Pope Gregory’s sensible reform.
All right, I hear you cry, but what has all this to do with St Valentine, or the Big Vee, as he is known in heaven.  Well, quite a lot, surprisingly.  The original St Valentine was a priest in Rome who tried to help the persecuted Christians, and was clubbed to death for his efforts.  This happened in 270 AD and his feast day is celebrated on 14tFebruary.  So, the big Vee started off the custom of giving presents?  Well no, not exactly.  You see, there was an annual Roman festival called the Lupercalia, which went back to celebrating the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, and this involved people giving each other little presents.  This was held on 15th February, and when Rome became Christian, it was a simple matter to transfer a pagan festival to being a Christian one, and joining it to good old St Valentine, whose feast day was the previous day.  There were also some links with the start of the mating season for birds, the feathered variety, but we have no need to explore that.
It is a strange business, this having ‘days’ for this that and the other.  There are some obvious ‘days’ which are celebrated in most parts of the world, like Christmas Day and New Years Day, even if prior to 1923 the Greeks celebrated the latter ten days later, or earlier than everyone else.  Like Julius C, I was never any good at maths either.
We also have the various British national days, St George, St Patrick, St David and St Andrew.  The only one who really ‘belonged’, was St David.  St Andrew never got closer to Scotland than Israel, St Pat was a Taffy, and St George, despite being the patron saint of England for nearly 800 years, probably came from Turkey or Egypt.  So there is not much there to connect with the big Vee.
There are other days, of course, like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, best remembered, lads, and in the Catholic parts of Europe, the name day.  That is the feast day of the saint after whom you are named.  I guess that the Darrens, Waynes, Sharons and Traceys miss out there, unless you know of a St Sharon.  In a number of Commonwealth countries, including Australia, they celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, but whether it is her actual or official birthday, I can never remember.  In South Africa, prior to 1994, they celebrated Dingaan’s Day, or the Battle of Blood River which had been fought on 16th December 1838 and in which the Boers beat the Zulu’s by an innings and six hundred runs.  Mr Mandela changed that to Reconciliation Day.  Nice touch, Nelson.
And that reminds me, why should politically correct left wing councils choose Nelson Mandela Day, rather than Trafalgar Day, when our own Nelson could be remembered?  Probably the reason is that Horatio was just a British hero.  And what is wrong with 18th June, Waterloo Day, when the Iron Duke beat the man who had caused the deaths of two and a half million Frenchman in fifteen years.  That was only the French dead, it’s not counting the British, Austrians, Spanish, Portuguese, Russians, Prussians etc.  You get the idea.  I suppose we do celebrate in some way the defeat of Bonaparte’s 20th Century doppelganger, Adolf Hitler, with VE Day, VJ Day and D-Day.
And what about St Crispin’s Day?    “And gentlemen of England now abed will think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheaply while any speaks that fought with us upon St Crispin’s Day.” Henry the Fifth by the Immortal Bard.
So what am I getting at?  Simply that there are many other days more worthy of note and of celebration than St Valentine’s Day, but the big Vee gets the vote, along with Mother’s Day, because it has now become connected with love.  Love has always been big with the marketing men, because boys and girls, men and women will spend money in its name.  Nowadays, it has become customary to give cards on St Valentine’s Day, and small presents such as chocolates, perfumes, Jaguars and Mercedes Benz’s.  Growing up as a lad, a million years ago, one was supposed to send the Valentine card anonymously, but with sufficient clues that your heart’s desire could guess who was the sender.  Now you can buy cards which say, ‘To my wife’, or ‘To my boyfriend’.
So what, if anything, does it all mean?  Well, probably quite a lot.  Even to a failed old cynic like me, ‘love’ is still the thing that matters most in the world, and hopefully always will, even if its manifestations are sometimes a bit tacky.  I would leave you with the words and music of Richard Rogers, and Larry Hart.
I watched and heard the delicious Kim Novak sing this in Pal Joey.  Sinatra had a great voice, but Kim had better legs, and eyes to drown in.
So, if you have someone you think about on St Valentine’s Day, make sure that every day is Valentine’s Day.
My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable,
Yet you’re my favourite work of art.
Is your figure less than Greek,
Is your mouth a little weak,
When you open it to speak
Are you smart.
But don’t change a hair for me,
Not if you care for me
Stay, little Valentine, stay,
Each day is Valentine’s day.

Talking with a Stranger

2011

Living on one’s own, as I do, has advantages and disadvantages; the major disadvantage is the lack of companionship, to say nothing of something even more vital, love.
On the other hand, there is an absence of aggravation which can arise, and in my case did arise, in a failed relationship.  I am also aware that women, well one woman, can be pretty special and I have never stopped missing my one special lady.  Women, as a gender, are not always as wonderful as they may imagine, but they are, on balance, worth the trouble.
When I was in a relationship, I went shopping with my better half, content most of the time to push the trolley and pay at the checkout.  Since that option closed for me, I developed my own system.  This is to walk along every aisle and pick up what I think I need.  Yeah, yeah, I know, it isn’t fool proof, but I get by.
My once every month or so, ‘big shop’, has gone from Sainsbury, through Asda, Tesco and has settled on Waitrose.  It was because of John Lewis and Waitrose that I ended up speaking to a stranger the other day for about fifteen minutes on the shop floor near the wine and spirits section.
Mr Waitrose, in his wisdom, issues a little green loyalty card, and from time to time gives away shopping vouchers to attract the customers.  I acquired several of these recently and so it was on 30th July I found myself strolling around the supermarket with the offer of spending £50 and getting £10 off.  Well, I thought, a tenner should buy me a decent bottle of something dry, chilled and alcoholic. It is also important to know that the voucher expired the following day.
Not being totally stupid, well not totally, I had carried out some research before leaving home and had confirmed that I was low on whiskey, gin and Bacardi.  With this in mind I picked up a bottle of Bushmills whiskey.  Bushmills is manufactured at Bushmills, a small village in Country Antrim in Northern Ireland. The Bushmills distillery is the oldest in the world having started in 1608.  I no longer buy Scotch as I am content to keep my financial support away from people who wish to break up the United Kingdom, like the evil Scottish witch of the North and her mates.
As I turned away, I was bumped by a trolley.  The pusher of the trolley said ‘sorry’ as I also did.  I was reminded of a song recorded many years ago by Frank Sinatra called ‘Polka dots and moonbeams.’  It went ‘A country dance was being held in a garden.  I felt a bump and heard an ‘oh, beg your pardon’. Suddenly I saw polka dots and moonbeams, all around a pug nosed dream.’
I turned and saw no polka dots or moonbeams, nor sadly, any pug nosed dream, but a man of about my own age.  More, he spoke with an Ulster accent.
“Are you from Northern Ireland” I asked,
“Yes” he said, “Are you?”
The conversation took on a familiar pattern.  What part? I asked. ‘Belfast’ was the reply.
Belfast was my home town and even after many years it is still dear to my heart.
We moved our trolleys to a less customer threatening place.
We discussed the city of our youth in the hazy distant days before the Troubles started and discovered we had a great deal in common.  We had both managed to rearrange our lives to remove the prejudices and aggravations of our narrow religious upbringing.  Both of us had beer reared as Catholics in Protestant areas of the city and both had had non Catholics in our families.
I stuck out my hand “I’m Ben.”
He held out his hand, “David.”
“I went to St Malachy’s”  I said
David laughed and nodded.  “I was at St Mary’s.”
“They were nearly all priests at my school, the teachers, I mean.”
David nodded again.  “Yes, mine too.”
“Bloody Fascists” I said.
David nodded for the third time.  “Evil, wicked bastards” was his verdict.
I told him about my having failed my Christmas and Easter Irish language exams and getting six belts on each hand for my efforts.  The headmaster, Father Mc something or other had said, “This is your Heritage, you should be proud to learn.”  My reply was perhaps not as diplomatic as it should have been.  “It’s a waste of time Father.  I don’t know anyone who speaks Irish and in any case it is not a requirement for joining the Royal Air Force.”
David summed it all up.  ”You didn’t get caned for failing the exams.  You were punished for impertinence.”
He was right.  He understood the position exactly.
Our little meeting lasted for about fifteen minutes.  We shook hands and went on our way.
In that time, Waitrose, Epsom and Surrey had all disappeared and I was back in Belfast in the 1950s.  I had been pleased to leave the bloody place, but just occasionally glad to return, albeit briefly. I was strangely uplifted by my short meeting with a stranger.

The Collector…

17th December 2012

Collecting is a hobby, but very often it becomes an obsession. I am not sure if my collecting has made me into an obsessive. Yet. Most of my collecting is what might be described as normal; stamp collecting and books.
I cannot at this distance remember when l started to collect stamps, but sometime in the post war years, as many small boys, but fewer small girls did. The hobby has now pretty well gone out of fashion with younger folks My local stamp club has thirty members, all but three are male and everyone is over fifty.
Sir Rowland Hill, whose idea it was to have a prepaid postage label could not have foreseen the success of his idea. Nor, in fact, could he, in 1840, have seen the technological advances which will eventually overwhelm the humble postage stamp.
Cricket has been my passion for about sixty year, and in 1953 l was given my first cricket book, a report on the Ashes series played that year. I still have that book and a year later l acquired my first Wisden. I now have them all since 1864.
Least usual, but not seriously abnormal, l collect souvineers of war. Ghoulish? Maybe. I have a French Army helmet from the First World War and a British shell casing from the same conflict. I found, on the battlefields, used musket balls from Waterloo in 1815 and Maya in 1813. I was assured that they were British, as British balls are bigger than French balls.
A little less mainstream, but still unlikely  to cause distress in maidenly bossoms is my collection of countries visited. Present score is about 135 out of around 200 nations and states. No cheating here, the United Kingdom counts only as one country. On the other hand, Berlin, visited first in 1985 counts as two, East and West being at that time seperate administrations.
I have never been to Yugoslavia, as it once was, but have subsequently counted Croatia and Slovenia as two countries.
So what about the West Bank? Palestinian State, or part of Jordan, or Israel? i must work that out one day.
The next and last confession of collecting demonstrates a rather sad side to the Matier character. It is the number of ladies l have dated. I guess in my middle years l did many of the things l missed doing in my teens and twenties. My wife, now ex wife, was my first real girlfriend. When we married l was twenty and she was eighteen. Seen with the wisdom of hindsight, that was probably a mistake, although it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I lived with Shelley for a year, a tempestuous and stormy year. we had l realised, a problem. We were both in love with the same person; Shelley. Ava, a Polish lady followed for a while and that ended also, without, as far as l know, recrimination on either side.
Then l met Jeanne, obviously a French lady and l loved for the first time in my life. we lived together from 1991 – 1996, and l have never got over our break up. There is, after all, no law which says that love has to be requited. the year after we split was desolate and destructive fulled by alcohol, Prosac and Temaxipan.
In 1998, l suppose, l began using dating agencies and taking out ladies from work. Illi, was a beautiful Berber girl, and Sarah was a nurse who liked dogs and mucking out horses. I liked neither dogs or horses. There were two other French ladies, one of which starting smoking in my Jag. Adieu, Madame et finis!
I dated a South African lady whose hang up with her ex husband was such that she papered over his face in the photo album, but she soon binned me when he then binned his girlfriend. Fine, no problem. However she refused to let her 12 year old Son use the ticket l had for him to see the Australians at Lords. Unforgivable!
After that there were four other ladies until 2006. I had known pretty well from the start of this futile collection that what l was seeking did not lie in the present or the future. It was in the past and was long past. In 2006 l finally grew up and decided to play with the cards l had been dealt. Apart from anything else, it was so bloody tiring.

Songs For Aging Lovers

2012

Well, now, school is nearly over for another year, and it’s time for us kiddies to go rushing off into the wild blue yonder, or to Wheatsheaf Close, whichever is the further.  As a final treat, Teech has allowed us to give free rein to our expressive selves, to scribe as we please.  It was suggested, no suggested may be too strong a word, hinted that we may wish to achieve something funny.  Well, maybe my Ying and Yang are out of kilter, or perhaps it is simply the wrong time of the month, but when I put pen to computer, I wasn’t feeling all that funny.  Funny, as in ‘comic’, ‘humorous’, or ‘droll’, as opposed to weird or strange.  I was also reminded, gently, that we have had enough history lessons.
So, I thought that I would take a slow ramble down a musical path.  Music is, and has been for many years, important to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I like jazz and classical music.  I can listen to Handel, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Ravel and Wagner with the best of them.  Wagner does worry me a bit, as I believe he was Hitler’s favourite composer.  I am comfortable with folk and country.  In my distant youth I played a tea chest bass in a skiffle group.  Lonnie Donegan I wasn’t.  I admit it, my tastes, while generally catholic, are mostly plebeian.
I was perhaps fifteen or sixteen when I got a prized present, a Dansette record player.  My parents had a huge steel needled gramophone, which seemed only to have Joseph Locke and Roy Fox records to scratch.  Big old 78’s were the order of the day.  My first purchase was a 45-rpm single by Tommy Steele, ‘Singing the blues’.  My second was similarly but not identically titled, but worlds away in style.  It was Frank Sinatra’s ‘Learning the Blues’.  I was lost, and still am.
Francis Albert Sinatra may have been, on occasion, a very bad man.  He may have had Mafia friends, and he was a notorious womaniser.  But he was a sufficiently talented actor to win an Oscar, and he was supreme as an interpreter of a love song.  I was sixteen, shying discovering the wonders of girls, and with many of my generation, I grew up and fell in love to FS.  Frank was recently voted as the Voice of the 20th Century.  I would not disagree.
Now, I do have a patriotic shiver down my spine when I hear Land of Hope and Glory, and I join in with that, and with the National Anthem, even if I am a tad sketchy on all the words.  I get all misty eyed too over the March Past of the Royal Air Force, which was also my march, one of the many items borrowed by the Australians at the start of the Second World War, and still in use in 1972.  Maybe it is still used today.  Eric and I will hum it for you over lunch.
So here commences the stroll, in no particular order.  An early memory was watching the start of The Blackboard Jungle and being totally riveted by Rock around the clock by Bill Haley.  Astounding stuff which made my hair stand on end.  Many years later, I got onto an aircraft in Brussels, and stood transfixed as Jennifer Rush assaulted my senses and sensibilities with The Power of love.
Perhaps the most beautiful love song I have experienced is the sad and poignant I can’t make you love me, hauntingly expressed by Bonnie Raitt.  I hadn’t known until recently that the late John Raitt, star of the Pyjama Game in the fifties was Bonnie’s father.
The most moving musical memories are connected with people.  Danny Boy is a song from my homeland, Ulster, which my parents would sing.  Well, mum did, in a high sweet voice; Dad mumbled down in his boots somewhere.  It is about a father singing to his son, who is going off to the war.  Many singers do not seem to understand this, in my view, and sing it as a love song between a man and a woman.  Despite that, the late, much missed Eva Cassidy gives a chilling rendition.    Her Over the Rainbow may even be superior to Judy Garland’s.
Sadly I can think of no songs with which I connect my ex wife.  She was right to divorce me.  I thought I loved Kathy in the late eighties, a bright comet which blazed across the skies for a year, before burning out without trace.  Lady in red used to reduce me to tears.  It still does sometime.  Chris de Burgh also produced a very beautiful daughter.
Jeanne was, is and always will be the love of my life.  Her comet burned for five years and left indelible scars on my being.  Roberta Flack’s The first time ever I saw your face sums up what I felt; still feel.  A little sixties rock tune, Sweets for my sweet, was translated into French as Biche oh ma Biche.  Biche is a doe, a female deer, and a much-used name of endearment for children or ladies you love.  It was also my pet name for Jeanne.
All my choices so far, except one, have been American.  So let’s hear it for the warm voice of Matt Monro, who, alas, died too early.  On days like these has the lines ‘singing songs and drinking wine while your eyes played games with mine’.  This was in the film The Italian Job, the older, better version.  Perhaps we have all been there, and can remember with mixed joy and regret.
To return to Frank for a moment, between 1935 and 1993 the man put down some 1400 tracks but I will mention only two more.  In 1957 he recorded Lonely Town which came from the stage and film musical, On the Town.  The theme is familiar.  You can be very much alone in a large city, if you have no one who cares.  For me, it is perhaps the most perfect of all his many records.  The second song is The game is over, composed by John Denver.   Recorded in 1972 just before Sinatra’s short-lived retirement, the song was not released until 1996.  It is about the failure of a relationship with Sinatra accompanied only by a guitar.  Spine tingling!
I have not mentioned Neil Diamond, whom I discovered in the 1970’s.  His Hello again is very moving, and The Story of my life, written as a tribute to his dead father, is also poignant.  Neil writes most of his own material.
So, I have come to the end of my musical stroll.  Had I explored all the side roads and tangents we could be here until Michaelmas.  My father had little time for my choice in music.  Inevitably perhaps, I think most of today’s offerings are forgettable and disposable.  As Sinatra once sang, ‘when I hear lonely singers making noise, not melody, then you will be my music, you will be my song.’ For those who were, and for the last sixteen years Jeanne has been, you are my music.  You are my song.

The Herald of Spring

24th May 2013

To me, the first sign that spring is approaching is coloured yellow. No, it is not the daffodil, though one can be excused for such thinking. It is the Wisden’s Cricketer’s Almanack, splendid in its yellow dust jacket.
This year is  is the 150th anniversary of the first Wisden. the first edition was in 1864.
I suppose that it can be argued that the 150th anniversary is not until next year, and there is validity in that position. However the 2013 edition is the 150th year in which the book has been published.
So what is Wisden and what does it do? The Almanack is an annual publication and one which records all serious cricket played anywhere in the world in the previous twelve months. The 1864 edition had 112 pages while that of the 2013 edition runs to 1584. In 1864 the price was one shilling and today it is £50.00.
John Wisden played cricket for Sussex in the years leading up to 1863 when he retired. He was a successful player in those pre Test Match days, taking, on one occasion, all ten wickets in an innings, for the North versus the South in 1850. In the near 170 years that the first class game has been played this has only happened on 80 occasions. He was also involved, in 1859, in taking the first team from England on an overseas tour, to the United States and Canada.
Wisden was born in 1826 in Brighton. On his retirement, Wisden set up a sports outfitters in London’s Leicester Square, selling football equipment as well as cricket items. Finding himself still needing funds to support his family, he instituted the Almanack to record the previous season’s games.
The first edition included non cricketing information as lighting up times, the rules of lawn bowls, the winners of the boat race and the horse racing classics, plus the quarters of the moon.
To my parent’s surprise, their first born son grew up loving cricket and played every Saturday during the season. The same first born was sacked from his second job for declining to do overtime on a Saturday on which he had been selected for a game, and more importantly, had given his word.
In 1953, after some 20 years, England beat Australia in an Ashes series and my Christmas present that year from my parents was a copy of John Arlott’s ‘Test Match Diary’. For my birthday the following year they gave me a 1954 Wisden, priced twelve shllings and sixpence. It was the start. I have bought every Wisden since and also began the search for all other copies, neither an easy or cheap process.
Eventually l managed to get my collection back to 1896 with original copies, many of them rebound from the old cloth covers. The most l ever paid for past copies was £225 for the rare 1942 and £175 for 1918. Because of the other distractions at the time, only 3000 copies were printed in 1942.
Wisden’s were able to see a market when it presented itself, and realised that many people were anxious to buy back copies of the book, more people, in fact than there were second hand copies available. They therefore about 20 years ago, offered facsimile copies of the first fifteen editions at £40 each.
In this way, l have been able to collect all the copies l was missing. This was a cheaper option as a full original set would have cost me in the region of £20,000, more if the provenance could be traced to someone famous, like the sainted John Arlott or Jonners.
John Wisden died from cancer in 1884 at the age of 57, but his name is known throughout the cricketing world. Not bad for a builder’s Son from Brighton.

The Toy Fair

2014

Jonathon is a friend and has been since the early 1990’s.  He lives up the road a bit In number 18 and I live in flats opposite number 58.
Jonathon is only 59 but has ME, a disease, I think, of the nervous system.  It is sometimes called the tiredness disease.  No, I don’t know what ME stands for either.
It must be ten years now since Jonathon retired from HSBC on a medical pension.  Thank God he rarely seems to be too affected by his condition and keeps himself occupied with varied interests and ‘work related projects.’  These include selling books and if you go to a book fair in Surrey, you could easily bump into Jonathon.  However, with what seems to be the inexorable advance of the digital age, he is widening his activities.
I have often helped him with his book fairs, mainly as a humper and someone to watch the store when he wanders off.
Recently he said, ‘Fancy coming to a toy fair?’
‘’Well,’ I thought, ‘that might be different.’’
‘Yes, all right,’ I said.
So, on a bright morning in November, we landed up at Sandown Park Racecourse.  It was a bit too bloody early for me at 7.15 but there you go.
There were a great many cars all jostling for the best parking spot and we were lucky enough to get within a cricket pitch length of the doors through which we began unloading at 7.30.  At 8 AM the punters began to arrive.
Jonathon was selling model kits, mostly aircraft, but a few ships and cars as well.  There were many stands of varying sizes, totalling somewhere between 100 and 150.  There was also a great deal of noise and bustle of people.
After we had the stand organised, we took it in turn to wander off, for a coffee or to visit the gents.
I had before arriving had the impression that this was for children, but the little people were in very short order.  This was a fair for adults, not ankle snappers.  It would have been wrong to call it an adult toy fair as that summon up all kinds of unpleasant images.
There were model trains, some with the most accurately modelled rolling stock.  Some dealers, perhaps better called exhibitors, sat in the middle of their allocated space and sent trains circling around the tables while they changed points and signals electrically.
Some vendors, like Jonathon, sold model kits, many of them thirty or forty years old, and never opened.  I remembered my own days as a modeller and hanging aircraft from the ceiling in my bedroom.  My mother was very patient only occasionally reminding me to dust them
Model ships, some splendidly arraigned with blossoming white sails were here and there.  These monsters were up to six feet in length.
Model soldiers, complete with tanks and artillery, fought historic wars.
Dolls and teddy bears smiled or grinned enticingly at the customers.
There were ancient copies of the Dandy and the Beano, to say nothing of the Eagle, Hotspur and Rover.  Dan Dare is still an iconic figure apparently.
We got away about 3.30 in the afternoon, Jonathon happy with his day’s taking of over £300.  As the boy, I had been unable to discuss the finer points of the 1/72 scale Junkers 52 from Airfix, but I had enjoyed myself.
Something did strike me at this toy fair.  Children, as defined by age, formed perhaps 1% of the visitors and women maybe 5%.  The remaining 94% were all men and of those, almost all were over 60 years of age. 
What did I buy?  I paid a couple of quid for a DVD of the 1960’s film, The Night of the Generals.

Journeys Through Time and Space

2015

There are around seven billion people in the world and for the huge majority of those people, 17th March is just another day; a day between the 16th and the 18th March.  For people born in Ireland or of Irish descent, it is, of course, St Patrick’s Day.  Dear old St Patrick is celebrated on both sides of the border.  After all he was a Christian, not a Catholic or a Protestant.  His day is a Public Holiday in both the Republic and in Ulster.
In the County Down town of Downpatrick the alleged tomb of the saint is in the churchyard of St Patrick’s Cathedral, a Protestant church.  My suggestion to dig the old boy up and do some DNA testing was coolly received.
St Patrick, according to the myth, was a post Roman Briton, living probably in North Wales, when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates.  After a period tending sheep, dear old Paddy escaped and returned home.  However, in a fit of Christian sacrifice, he returned to Ireland to civilise the savages.
Among his many achievements was to drive all the snakes out of Ireland.  Lots of people in Ireland believe this stuff which is peddled by the nuns and priests who choose to ignore the scientific evidence that the slippery little buggers never got there in the first place.
The 17th March is special to me for another reason; it was my father’s birthday.  After a succession of Samuels and Jameses, my father was christened, yes, you guessed it, William.  No I lie; he was, of course, Patrick.
I left Ulster in 1956 to join the Met Police.  I had never been out of the province before, but I had a vision.  That was a vision apart from joining the boys in blue. I wanted to visit Lord’s Cricket Ground, my personal Mecca at a time when I had never heard of Mecca.
After my initial interview, I took a bus to St John’s Wood and stepped into the sacred ground.
I watched Middlesex play Kent.  There were twenty two players involved but the two I remember were the sainted Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, DFC.  Denis got 102 and Bill 68.  It was a magic day and it was something I will never forget.  I have been returning to the ground normally twice a year ever since.   The ground is named after its founder, Thomas Lord, a Yorkshire man and has nothing to do with the Aristocracy.
As I grew older and wandered around the world earning a living, I became an awkward bugger, developing all kinds of weird and wonderful interests.  One was conservation of endangered species, especially the conservation of that most magnificent creature, the tiger.
In 2001 I went to India to go trekking in the Himalayas to raise money for tigers in the wild.  It was an unforgettable experience, the bustle of life on India’s streets contrasting with the stillness and beauty in the mountains.  We saw loads of animals and birds and one tiger, for about two minutes.  This was in the Rantambore Tiger Reserve. 
“What” people demand of me, “Two minutes of tiger in five days in the park?  That was not worth all the effort, was it?”
Well yes, it was.  It was a breathtaking sight of majesty, freely roaming as its forebears have done for 100,000 years.
It was an almost out of body situation as I looked deep into those eyes.  From a distance, I hasten to add.
We had ten days in India; five spent trekking in the lower reaches of the mountains at about 10,000 feet.  One night we had made our camp at about 7,000 feet, on a grassy plateau, erected a huge fire and made a meal.  Later we sat around the fire, singing songs and drinking whiskey, before burrowing into our sleeping bags.  It was cold, the grass shiny with frost in the moonlight.  Getting out of the sleeping bag at three in the morning to have a pee was an act of great foolishness.  Not getting out of bed was even more foolish.
In the morning we began a long hard slog up to 10,000 feet and the high pastures we saw intermittently though the oak and spruce, dappling the path.
The climb put the most enormous strain on the calves and thighs and when we got to the top, we simply collapsed, lay on the ground and slept.  I have no idea how long I was asleep, but when I awoke, the sun was hot on my face and my companions were all still sleeping.
I wandered around, taking photographs of the grown up mountains away to the north, peaks covered in snow.  I wandered into a clump of threes and that was where I found it; a cricket bat.  It was a homemade bat, carved out of the bough of a tree, but it was a cricket bat all right.  It had been worked perhaps by a spoke shave so it had a flat face, curved back and shoulders.
Nidish, our guide wandered over.  “It was made by shepherds,” he told me.  “In summer they bring their flocks up here to graze, and play cricket to relax.”
This was a source of wonder to me.  The British Empire, much maligned by the Political left, like the BBC, gave cricket to shepherds at 10,000 feet.  I decided to liberate the bat and for the next fourteen years it lived a happy life in my dining room.
As I get older I realise, like we all do, that we will not live forever.  I know my children have no knowledge of or interest in cricket so I could see my little bat ending on a bonfire somewhere.  It is too good for that.
I wrote to Lords, offering them the bat for the Museum with the, hopefully, interesting little provenance.
They accepted, saying it would feature in a special exhibition on Indian cricket later this year.
On St Patrick’s Day 2015, I trooped up to Lords, making the so familiar walk from the St John’s Wood Underground Station down the Wellington Road to the famous old ground.  I was treated royally and given a tour of those places not open to the public, like the Long Room and the England dressing room.
Two journeys were completed that day, which would have been my Dad’s 108th birthday.  Fifty nine years after my first nervous visit, I stood on the England balcony and looked out over the ground.  My little bat, rescued from the Himalayas, rested 12,000 miles away from where it had started, safe at Lords.

The Garden Fence

2015

Well, to be perfectly frank, I have to say that, although it started out as a fence, the fence I want to discuss quickly became a wall.  Conversely, the garden was not always there either, but commenced as some 155 kilometres of streets and people’s houses.  I am speaking, of course, of the Berlin Wall; ‘die Mauer’.
On 13th August 1961 members of the ‘People’s Police’, the Vopos, began laying rolls of barbed wire around the Russian zone of Berlin.  The Deutsches Democratik Republik, the DDR, known as East Germany to the West, became effectively cut off from its western neighbour, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the BRD, or West Germany.  East and West Berlin became separate entities.
Why did this happen?  To find an answer we must go back to the Second World War.  During the Allied conferences in the last two years of the War, in Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, it was agreed that only a German unconditional surrender would be acceptable to the US, Britain and the Soviet Union.
It was further agreed that when surrender occurred, Germany would be divided into four zones, American, British, Soviet and French.  Berlin would also be split into four sectors.  The two Germanys were created in 1949, a capitalist democracy in the west and a Soviet dominated communist republic in the east.
The DDR did not prosper, unlike its neighbour, the BRD.  By the late 1950’s the east was leaking people. Some 145,000 people left in 1959 to the west including 91,000 through Berlin.  In the following year, the numbers rose to 200,000 emigrating, with 150,000 using West Berlin as their conduit.
By 1961 the DDR government was determined to stop this crippling haemorrhage.  They laid their barbed wire as a prelude to a wall, which eventually grew to a height of about 12 feet.  Stretching back eastwards, there developed a ‘No man’s land’ about 100 yards wide.
Further wire fences were constructed in this zone which was also patrolled by armed guards and German shepherd guard dogs on running leashes.  Arc lights illuminated the area in the hours of darkness.
The crossing points between east and west were reduced to a handful of which the most famous was Checkpoint Charlie which is now a major tourist attraction.  The city’s underground railway system, the S Bahn was cut and barriers were even constructed in and across rivers and waterways.
This system lasted for 28 years, and brought visits of support to West Berlin from US Presidents Kennedy, Johnston and Ronald Reagan.
West Berlin became an island of capitalism in a huge Communist sea.
Over the years, potential escapers were killed as they tried to flee.  It is difficult to calculate exactly how many people died because the East Germans did not release statistics on the matter.  However, it is known for certain that 86 people died and some estimates are up to 240.  Naturally, these deaths caused worldwide condemnation but the East Germans and their Soviet masters were unmoved.  As Josef Stalin once remarked, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
In 1985 I attended a conference in Hamburg with my wife and another British couple.  With business out of the way, we drove across the DDR to visit West Berlin, where we stayed for two or three days.  It was a salutary experience, and one which was, on occasion, plain scary.
We did, of course, visit East Berlin.  Well, you had to really, having come so far.  It was a sterile dull and humourless place.  Our visit was managed, controlled is a better word, every inch of the way, by a hatchet faced female party apparatchik.  We visited museums and memorials against fascism.
On our break, we stopped for a beer and a snack at a hotel.  A policeman stood outside the toilet and inspected it after each person had used it.  In a park next to the hotel, the aroma of grilled sausages drew us close.  I tried to buy four bratwurst for our little party.  I had been selected because of my reasonable German language skills.  The man hissed at me out of the side of his mouth that he was not allowed to sell sausages to Westerners.  “Good God”, whispered my shocked wife when I translated.
We visited the Wall and from a raised platform we viewed the dead no man’s land.  The western side of the Wall was smothered in Graffiti.  The most memorable to me was “Deutschland is grosser als Die Bundes republik.” Germany is bigger, or more, than the Federal Republic.
West Berlin was an island of light and laughter and music in a dead Communist sea.  The laughter was high and edgy as the inhabitants stared the Russian bear in the eye.  They knew that the American, British and French forces in the city were incapable of stopping that bear if he decided to occupy their city.
Later in the 1980’s it became obvious that Communism had failed and with its failure the DDR was on a very slippery slope.  Increasingly, its citizens demanded freedom; freedom to oppose, freedom to demonstrate and freedom to travel.  Up to 300,000 people attended a church prayer service in the square outside the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, which was a barely concealed cover for an anti government rally.  The police did nothing and the Army stayed in barracks.  The end was nigh, as Private Fraser might have said in Dad’s Army, and the East German government was doomed.
On the ninth of November 1989, in front of the world’s television cameras, the East Berliners poured through the Wall into the arms of their brothers and sisters in West Berlin.  The people in the People’s Republic had spoken, spoken decisively and they reinforced their words by tearing apart the hated wall.
Not a shot was fired.  Lt Col Harald Jager, the officer commanding the border police later stated bitterly.  “When they started to press forward to go through the barriers, I phoned my bosses for orders.  The bastards wouldn’t answer their bloody phones.”
The Wall was demolished and its pieces sold at auction.  On 3rd October 1990, East and West Germany were reunified, forty five years after being divided.
In 2009 I had a five day holiday in Berlin.  It is a vibrant, beautiful city with an almost tangible feel of excitement about it.   My imagination informs me that you can feel and taste this in the air.  One section of the Wall remains, perhaps 100 metres long, acting as a memorial to the people who died there.  The surrounding area has become a garden, a further memorial to tyranny.

Second Choice Is Not Always Second Best

 2016

I realised that I was probably glowering into my Cappuccino.  In the happy bunny stakes I did not believe I was in the gold medal position. To add to my minor depression I was in a place that was probably one of my five least favourite places in the world; LHR; London Heathrow airport. Even without the third runway, whether it goes over or under the M25, Heathrow is a crowded, hurried and unfriendly location.  Nevertheless!!
Then, perhaps under the influence of the coffee, I brightened somewhat.  Well, I was in Terminal Five, proudly proclaimed as ‘The home of British Airways.’  Well, maybe it was.  I had never been in this terminal before:  Terminals one to four certainly, but never five. I was going on holiday so it was surely a moment for rejoicing.  Wasn’t it? All right then, it was a happy occasion.
Perhaps so, except it was a month late and not to where I had previously booked.   Prague to Berlin via five days on the River Elbe was something I had been eagerly anticipating for a year.  Yes, for a year until five days before the off. It had been cancelled because of low water levels on the Elbe.  The pain had been sweetened somewhat by the refunding of my money in full and, as a conciliatory gesture by Viking River Cruises of seven days on the Danube, water levels co operating, at half price.
Thus consoled and with a final check for wallet, passport and backpack, I climbed aboard BA 784 or whatever.    It was a smooth flight to Munich, with a clear sharp glass of Pinot Grigio to soothe my nerves.  It was subsequently necessary for me to ponder why Munich, when there was a perfectly serviceable airport at Nuremburg where the river cruise would start.  Machts nichts, as the Germans might say.  However after two hours in a cab along the German ‘autobanen’ the question returned.  I like the Germans and I love Germany, in many places a beautiful country.  However two hours on the autobahn, with a Czech driver who’s German was about as fluent as my Czech, was exhausting.
The cruise was splendid, as was the Danube or Donau, as the magnificent river is called by Deutschlanders. There were, sadly, water level problems also on the Danube which led to several shore excursions being amended or cancelled.  Fortunately, these did not affect me.  However, for many of those passengers who had booked to go to Saltsburg to see where Julie Andrews had trilled in the Sound of Music, it was hugely disappointing. The weather was mild, dry and often sunny except for rain in Budapest and a very chilly last morning.  The crew came from a dozen countries in Europe, from Germany eastwards. The language of the ship was English, the currency the Euro.
As far as I could ascertain, all of the passengers were users of English as their mother tongue.  There were about 130 passengers, of whom eight were British, three Canadian and just about everyone else American. This led to much banter in the days leading up to the Presidential election.  I like Americans, perhaps as a result of working for US Corporations for nearly thirty years.  I find them warm, friendly and agreeable even if sometimes naive.  Almost exclusively they supported Donald Trump and harboured a visceral hatred of Hilary Clinton.
As it has turned out they were right.  A few days after the cruise ended, the Donald was elected in a pretty conclusive way by his fellow citizens.  First we had Brexit, and now this.  That strange sight you see is the pollsters with egg all over their faces.
Most of the Viking Fjord’s sailing was done during the night which left the daylight hours available for shore excursions.  I spent half a day in Nuremburg with visits to the famous court in the Palace of Justice where the 1945/46 trials of the leading Nazi leaders took place.  As our visit was on a Sunday, the actual courtroom was open to visitors.  Fascinating!  As l had once experienced in Jerusalem I felt like I was walking with history in that city’s narrow cobbled streets.  The cabal of thugs who once sat in this courtroom bore no connection with Jesus but they had lived and faced justice in my own lifetime. Nuremburg jail where they were secured is just next door, but as a working jail, we could not visit
We also went to the famous rally grounds where Hitler encouraged his troops and loyal civilians.  The non military people, the civilians, who attended, paid for the privilege, travelling from all over Germany. In addition to their travel costs, they paid the present day equivalent of 30 Euros for entrance.
 The following day I went to Munich; my first visit there for forty years.  It was not an over popular venue for my fellow passengers as only three people, including me, were in a sixty seater coach.  There was, therefore, plenty of room to move around, although we maintained a tight little group at the front of the bus with our guide and driver, an off duty police officer. Munich was fascinating with a stop at the BMW museum. I much admired the display of German owned, British built Minis.
My two fellow travellers were Ben and Gay, an American couple.  They were great company as was our guide, a huge Bavarian with superb English and knowledge of history whose name I have forgotten. Somehow, after lunch, we three tourists got separated from our guide, and spent an hour lost in Munich and going around in ever decreasing circles.  Tips to young travellers:  take the guide’s mobile number.
The rest of the week passed quickly with stops at Pannau, Krems, Vienna and Budapest.  I found Vienna a bit boring and ducked out of a performance at the Opera House and an afternoon learning to make apfel strudel.
Pannau was a great little town in Bavaria, with the ship’s docking point about 800 yards from the city centre.  It was also the proud possessor of a medieval castle on the northern bank, with stunning vistas over the river.
Budapest was a different matter and I fell in love with the place especially the Castle area and the splendid Fisherman’s Bastion, with its magnificent views of the river.  Budapest was once two cities, Buda and Pest.  As one city it is worth a visit.
It was possible to eat onboard almost 24 hours a day and the cuisine was excellent, although a little rich for my palette.  I tried very hard not to eat too much, and I think I succeeded despite tea, coffee and biscuits being on tap all day.
The crème de la crème was probably that the crew who could not do enough for their passengers. I fell in love with Programme Manager Suzi, an Audrey Hepburn lookalike from Transylvania.  She did not have large incisor teeth although she claimed to know people who did.
I made many friends among the Americans on board and was amused by their interstate rivalries.  There was much exchanging of email addresses and promises to maintain contact. I made especial friendships with Erwin and Susan from Texas and their daughter Nikki, recovering from a broken heart.  Ramona and her newly married husband, Lon, were also good mates.  Ramona accused her beloved of talking like the British with his ‘bloody’ this and ‘bloody’ that.  As Lon was about six foot seven, and tipped the scales at 320 pounds, I never felt like correcting a word he said.  He was also a member of the NRA and had a licence to carry a concealed handgun. He had a cheery smile and a hearty laugh, so I suppose that was all right then.
My friends from Munich, Ben and Gay regaled others with our unwanted adventures being lost in Munich.  Gay had also mistakenly said she had previouslybeen in Germany when she was 73 rather than in 1973.  She was not allowed to forget.
I take some credit for educating the Americans in their language skills, my major victory being convincing them that there is no letter ‘w’ in the word Jaguar. On my way home on a packed BA 869 I concluded that second choice is not always second best.
This was my cruise last year, in 2016.  I liked it so much I am going on the Rhine this year in about two weeks time but that’s another story.

Chris Barber and Me!

2017

I wanted to call this piece “Me and Chris Barber” but decided instead that might sound a tad egotistical.  Anyway, who the hell is Chris Barber?
Growing up in Britain after the Second World War was, viewed from this distance, a frequently grim and sometimes dispiriting experience, perhaps only from this distance.  The War had been grim, even for children, like myself, who knew no better than their lives lived between 1939 and 1945.  Even then, the knowledge that the War could kill you did not really sink in until the danger had passed.
Food rationing had lasted for some items until 1952 from memory.  That memory was heightened by another memory, being physically ill after ‘sweets’ came off the ration and the kids stuffed themselves.
The 1950’s saw an opening up of life in Britain and my own life. I discovered girls, and as with many young men, my life was changed forever. I enjoyed music and pop music in particular caught hold of me.  The era saw a revival in the popularity of traditional jazz.  Unlike pre war days a lot of home grown talent emerged. 
One was a young man called Chris Barber who formed a group around a trumpeter called Ken Colyer. Ken had lived dangerously before signing up with Chris.  As a merchant seaman he had jumped ship in the USA and lived illegally in New Orleans for several months playing jazz with the local black groups. He was subsequently deported.
Some 30 line ups later I went to the Epsom Playhouse where I paid my money to see the 31st line up.  At the Playhouse at 8pm, an old, stooped and balding man staggered, shuffled is a better description, on to the stage.  His tuxedo hung limply on his shoulders and his trousers appeared unpressed.  I was shocked at his appearance but even more shocked at his speech which was confused and difficult to hear and understand.
Chris introduced the nine other members of the group, all men.  They covered the drums, bass, banjo, the clarinet, trumpet and trombone.  It was a typical jazz line up with some extra help on the brass and woodwinds.
My mind went back to my first concert at the Royal festival Hall in 1957.  I was accompanied by Anne, a girl from my home town and we were entranced by the clean tones of Chris’s band.  He had Pat Halcox on trumpet and Monty Sunshine on clarinet.  Monty was later to have a huge hit with Petite Fleur.  Lonnie Donegan had recently left the band beginning the washing machine circle of musicians leaving and joining, or rejoining the group.
Additionally, the Band’s vocalist was one Ottilie Patterson, a lady from Northern Ireland and held by many to be the best jazz vocalist in the British Isles.  She and Chris were married at one stage but it didn’t last.
As I grew up, and grew older, not always the same thing, my loyalties strayed to the likes of Sinatra and Neil Diamond and later still Eva Cassidy and Katherine Jenkins.  However I never quite forgot my roots in the exciting days of the early fifties.  While living in Woking I caught up with Chris and his fellow ‘Musos’ like Kenny Ball, Humph and Acker Bilk.  To me these folks were real musicians and not just kids who could afford a guitar.
The last time I saw Chris and the boys before the gig a couple of weeks ago was at the Epsom Playhouse.  The long time trumpet player, Pat Halcox, was still playing.  Sadly this was not the case this time as Pat passed away recently.  The doubts that assailed me at Chris Barber’s appearance dissipated within a few seconds; his playing was sweet and pure and hugely evocative of another era and another me.
In two hours at the Playhouse I was taken back to the Royal Festival Hall in 1957 when a nineteen year old policeman from Belfast went to the theatre with a girl on his arm,  The world was a beckoning vista to be seized and explored. The world did not always play ball, but I didn’t know that at the time.  At the Playhouse in February 2017 I was able, for a short time, able to see again through a 19 year old’s eyes.

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