My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories
|Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018|
The Deepest Cut
Reflection 1969/Penned 2014
|“This will hurt.” He spoke lightly, but clearly meant what he said.|
“I mean it will hurt, and hurt a lot.”
“Tony, I know.”
“Are you prepared for all that pain?”
I grunted. “As prepared as I will ever be.”
I have never been shy and retiring, never had any doubts about my own ability. Some folks would describe this as arrogance, and I probably would not disagree. For ten years as a Police Officer and six as a commissioned officer in the Air Force, I cannot remember a situation where I had been afraid. While in the Met in the 1950’s and 60’s, I had been involved in many violent incidents. I had been stabbed with a knife, weilded by one giving his name as Napoleon Bonaparte, a man totally away with the fairies. Mad or not, you still bleed. I have had two broken fingers, blackened eyes and severely traumatised testicles.
I was involved in many of the CND inspired marches, which often tripped over into violence. On one such occasion while awaiting transport back home at 2.00am, having been on duty for twenty-two hours, my colleagues and I were verbally assailed by a young lady of about eighteen. “Fascist bastards,” she screamed.
Our sergeant looked at her. “Fuck off, love.”
“OK,” she replied mildly and duly did so. A very British tale and one only possible in the Swinging Sixties. Today in our ugly, warped PC world, both she and the sergeant would have been nicked. On no occasion did I ever feel that I was unable to deal with matters, I never felt afraid.
But this was different. This was a situation I wasn’t sure that I could handle.
Tony spoke gently. “Better get him in, then.”
I nodded dumbly. “OK.”
Once, after the bloody clashes outside South Africa House in the wake of Sharpeville, I had composed a small, not very good poem. I cannot remember it all now, but part of it went like this: “Here I stood, upon these steps, my comrade’s blood still wet on my shirt, too stupid to be afraid.”
Now I was a father, and my stupidity did not protect me. My son Rory was six and we were stationed in Penang in Malaysia. He had always had a sensitive skin and had developed ‘monsoon blisters.’ At this stage, as I spoke to Flt Lt Tony Helmans, RAAF doctor, my six year old had thirty-three of these vile swellings on his small body. Western medicine’s accepted wisdom was to lance them and squeeze out the clear fluid they contained. My job was to restrain my son and comfort him to the best of my ability while he was sliced open in thirty-three places. I was rigid with fear, but it had to be done.
We got to seven or eight and I broke, my son screaming and writhing, tears rolling down his face. “That’s enough, Tony. Stop there.”
The doctor started to protest but saw my face. I think he was grateful to put down the knife, doctors have feelings too. I took the still sobbing, bandaged little boy home. I was, and am still, vulnerable where my kids are involved, as I was to discover a year later when my two-year-old daughter was kidnapped. My wife blamed me for the situation. Her logic was unanswerable. “You brought us to this God forsaken place, it’s your fault.”
Our Amah, Choy was more practical. “Bloody Australian doctors know nothing. I give you name of good Chinese doctor, master.”
What was there to lose? The same day we went over to the island and saw Dr Fat. “No problem,” he said. “Take this ointment.”
“We rub it on the blisters?”
“No!” He was emphatic. “You put a little up his nose every night.”
My wife and I looked at each other. But we did what Dr Fat said. Within three weeks the blisters had gone, never to return. Thank God. I didn’t have the courage to face the knife again.
Home A Loan
|In 1975 I was thirty seven years of age and living with my wife, Margaret, who was thirty five and our two children, Rory, twelve, and Jenny, who was seven. We lived in Melbourne, after spells in Newcastle and Sydney in New South Wales and two years in Malaysia. Rory had been born in London and Jenny in Sydney.|
We were in our tenth year as ten pound migrants and by all measures, were pretty successful and well integrated. I was the Security Manager at General Motors Holden’s, a car plant employing around 8,000 people. Our house, which we were buying, was new when we moved in early in 1972. I was well paid and was given a new company car of my choice, every six months. I had previously spent a year in the Victorian Police and six years in the RAAF.
I couldn’t say that that I was unhappy, but was aware that I wasn’t all that happy either. Margaret hated Australia, had loathed the Police, detested the Air Force and wasn’t that enamoured of GMH either. We decided to return to Britain ‘to see if we liked it’. We missed our families, the British people and the proximity of Europe. Travelling from Sydney to Perth was the equivalent of the journey from London to Moscow. The first trip was entirely in one country, the second covered a dozen or so. We were also uncomfortable that our kids might grow up in Oz, and it would be impossible to move, if we left it too late.
We sold our home and prepared to leave. For a reason I can no longer recall, our ship’s voyage was cancelled. We bottled out; there was no other way to express it. Fortunately I had not given my notice, or told anyone, so we bought another house and settled down again.
The fault lines did not close; they widened, and after twelve months we decided to go for it, this time for real.
One day, driving home from work and listening to the news, I heard an item about the British economy and the view that Mr Healey was making a pig’s ear of things. Revaluation of the pound, or was it devaluation, made me think. We would clear $A 30,000 on the sale of the house, and I was anxious to buy as many pounds as I could with that money. I realised that if the UK recovered, we would lose a lot of money on the exchange.
I went to my bank manager, at the State Savings Bank of Victoria, where the mortgage was held.
“Yes, sir”. Or was it “G’day, mate”.
“I’d like to borrow $ 30, 000, please.”
“Well, you know that I will clear that amount when I sell the house and I want to make sure I don’t lose out if the UK recovers.”
He was aghast. “We don’t lend money to speculate against the currency.”
“What about lending it to build up a credit rating in Britain?”
“Yeah, we might do that, but it will still need to be cleared by the Reserve Bank before you can send the cash to England.”
I had previously, through my brother, opened an HSBC account in Llanwrst in North Wales. I wrote to the manager, a Mr Williams, hoping he could read between the lines as to my predicament. The only folks in North Wales not called Mr Williams are called Mrs Williams.
He was great and I quickly received a letter which was sent to the Reserve Bank, Australia’s version of the Bank of England. All the while the British Government was negoiating with the IMF for the loan of a few bob to bide them over the hard times. I was very worried; I had a loan of thirty big ones from my bank on which I was paying 11% interest.
On a Friday morning I had a phone call from the Sate Savings Bank, and I shot into Melbourne. The Reserve Bank had given their approval to transfer the money. It was getting near to closing time when I was faced with the bank clerk who would send my cash to UK. “It’s getting a bit late, mate; shall we leave it to Monday?”
“No,” I protested, “Let’s do it now.”
He was still reluctant. “There is a charge, you know.”
I reached for my wallet and the deed was done. The sweat was still wet on my brow when I left the bank and the door was locked behind me.
On the Saturday, it was announced that the IMF had agreed to lend Britain billions of pounds. The pound immediately strengthened. On the Friday I paid $1.23 for my sterling. On Monday it would have cost $1.57 for each pound. In gross terms, I received in the region of £24,400 on Friday, instead of the £19,100 that was the price on Monday. Remember this was in 1975, and the value can be gauged by our subsequent purchase of a four bed roomed house in St Johns, Woking, for £23,000.
As the great Duke might have said, “It was a damm close run thing.” As an added and unexpected bonus, the loan which was costing me 11% was invested in HSBC at 14%. For a long time I could not believe I had pulled it off. I was fearful that a heavy police hand would grip my collar very firmly.
This was the best loan I have ever had.
Bora Da To You Too
Reflection 1977/Penned 2015
|It was a bizarre and frightening time; I was a stranger in my own country, a country that I scarcely knew. We had been away for nearly thirteen years, ten’ish in Australia, and two’ish in Malaysia. The Britain of 1977 had, or so it seemed to me, changed totally from that of 1965, which I had left. Harold Wilson had given way to Ted Heath and then to Jim Callaghan. England had won the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966 and then lost it four years later. The debacle of 1974 is best ignored. What was a P45? Where could I find my National Insurance number? What had happened to shillings and pence?|
The music had changed, and I didn’t seem to know any of the stars of the day. I wasn’t even sure that I knew what disco was, and when I found out, I was sorry I had bothered. There was a deep pool of common knowledge of which I was ignorant, on all those matters which had happened in our missing twelve plus years. People’s voices were unfamiliar and I had difficulty with the accents, especially in North Wales, where we had rented a house from my brother’s mother in law.
I was out of a job, but looking, and my children were at school in Welsh Wales where they were taught Welsh, a language less useful as Serbo-Croat. My wife, who had spent most of the missing years nagging me for a return to Britain, was now actively complaining about our new life, and nagging vigorously for a return to Oz. I needed a job, a car and a house of our own, but first and foremost, I needed a job, a proper job. On my father’s advice, I signed on the dole, and they were willing, but I had no expectation they would find me a job. My expectations were met; they didn’t find me a job.
About three months into our return, matters were at their lowest. There was still no job, just plenty of interviews, bafflement from the children who couldn’t understand their playmates, even when they spoke English, and a campaign from my wife which was dragging me down. She spent her time complaining about Wales and the Welsh, the weather, the rented house, but mostly about me. She threatened suicide, waving a knife in front of her throat, or mine. On reflection, she was right about the weather; it was always cold and never seemed to stop raining. Although I had signed on, and faithfully trudged the two miles into Llanrwst each Wednesday to repeat the ritual, I had received not a penny, and we were eating into our capital.
It was then I discovered Daffyd Hughes’ bookshop, and it became a small corner of peace in the midst of the typhoon swirling around my head and threatening to engulf me. I don’t know where my wife was, and I suppose the children were at school. I was in Llandudno trying to persuade a suspicious Halifax Building Society manager to lend me, an unemployed, non-customer, enough money to buy a house in Surrey. I wandered around the shops, and in Maddock Street, away from the big shops and Principal Street, I found a small, cowed looking bookshop. There were several large racks in the street into which a dog-eared jumble of paperbacks had been tossed. They were marked at 20p each.
I pushed open the door, and above my head a bell tinkled, sounding like a sweet shop of the early 1950’s. A man of about sixty, with thinning white hair was standing behind the counter at the far end of the shop, reading a book. He looked over his glasses and said “Bora da”, before resuming his reading. I mumbled a “Bora da” in return. It was one of the few Welsh expressions I had learned, and it meant ‘Hello’.
The shop was more a rabbit warren than a shop, with seven or eight rooms of different sizes on three floors. Books were everywhere, on shelves, on tables, on the stairs, on windowsills and growing, it seemed, out of the floor. There had, at one time, been some attempt at labelling and categorising the contents of the warren, but the system had simply been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. I expected cobwebs and dust and was not disappointed. I spent an interesting half-hour browsing, without finding anything I really wanted and was preparing to leave when the white haired one looked up again and said something in Welsh. I supposed it was Welsh, although it could just as easily been Inuit.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Welsh.”
“Anything in particular you are looking for?” he enquired in English in a not unpleasant accent.
“Do you have any cricket books?”
Daffyd, for such he was, came from behind the counter and pointed out half a dozen or so fairly undistinguished items, which I politely flicked through. He watched me. “Are you interested in Wisdens?”
Well, is the Pope a Catholic? Wisden’s Cricketer’s Almanac was first published in 1864 and covers, in great detail, the previous year’s cricket throughout the world. My parents had given me my first copy, that of 1954, and I had faithfully bought every subsequent issue.
“Yes,” I replied, trying not to be too enthusiastic.
He went upstairs and returned with a small cardboard box, blowing away the spiders’ webs and dust of many years. The familiar yellow books nestled there like a clutch of golden eggs. There were fifteen in all, from 1938 to 1953, and missing only 1942. They slotted in perfectly with my own collection, starting, as I said, in 1954.
“How much?” I gulped.
“Three pounds each” he said quizzically.
I could hardly get my agreement out in time. I didn’t have the funds, but my, by now, friend, Daffyd Hughes, agreed to keep them for me and I could pick them up as I had the money. This unique purchase provided the basis for my collection, which is now complete. The books for which I paid £45 in 1977 are now catalogued, in 2004 at £1865, and when I got round to buying the missing 1942 copy, not from Mr Hughes, it cost me £225.
I did get a job, we did buy a house, my employers gave me a car and the kids went back to speaking English. My wife and I divorced in 1988. I still go back to North Wales, perhaps three or four times a year. For many years I enjoyed my ritual exchange in Welsh with Daffyd. In addition to ‘Bora da’, I learned how to say, thank you. Dioch an var. Daffyd always offered to buy back my Wisdens at double the price I paid, and as part of the ritual, I pretended to consider his offer, before reluctantly refusing.
Mr Hughes died four or five years ago of a heart attack, undoubtedly contributed to by his cigarette smoking, and my visits are less frequent now. His little shop was my haven at a time when I needed it.
Dioch an var, Daffyd.
So You’d Like A Job?
|“Why do you want this job?”|
I looked at the speaker and something exploded in my head. Why do you think I want the job, you stupid pillock? Because I am sodding well unemployed. Because I want to feed my kids, put clothes on their backs, buy a house and a car and live a normal bloody life. That’s why.
I said none of that, of course. “I think it would be a challenge and I feel my skills set and experience are suitable.”
Skills set? Where in God’s name did you find that one? I don’t believe you have just said that, Matier? This interview wasn’t going too well. It had all started back in January 1977 when I returned from twelve years in Australia. I had signed on the dole, went where they sent me, answered job ads in the Daily Telegraph and spent lots of time in the Llanrwst Library.
I listed the top 100 companies in the UK and wrote to them with my CV. Looking back now, I cringe when I look at that CV; it was truly dreadful. Still I got about ninety replies and seven or eight interviews. And so, on this bright spring afternoon, I presented myself at the Reception desk at Shell UK in the Strand. I was met by a young man of about twenty two, blonde haired and eyes of baby blue.
“Hello, I’m Justin, from ER,” he simpered and shook hands in that limp wristed way that still makes my skin crawl. He took me to a fifth floor meeting room. “Mr Trintrell, from our Security Department will be here in a moment.”
I looked up in alarm. “John Trintrell?”
“Yes, do you know him?”
I smiled, “Yes we met a few years ago, in FEAF.” Inwardly I groaned.
Justin frowned, giving his face a childish aspect. “FEAF?”
“Far East Air Force.”
“Oh, I understand.” Clearly he did not, but I was disinclined to elaborate.
One week after my arrival in Penang as Station Security Officer for RAAF Butterworth, John, and his cowboys from HQ in Singapore, had raided my station at night and planted about two dozen little stickers on the tail planes of my Mirage fighters. The stickers were succinct: This aircraft has been blown up. The following morning, I had to sit squirming through John’s briefing of my Station Commander.
Subsequently, I met John a couple of times at Provost Officers’ conferences in Singapore, and again in 1970 when he was required to act as guide on my visit to the RAF Police Training School at Saffron Walden. I think he was pretty brassed off, as I was, by this time, a flight lieutenant, a rank achieved after four years. John was the same rank after twenty-five years.
The interview was not going well. “I see you are living in North Wales.”
Bloody observant of you, John. “Yes, I am.”
“Will you miss it when you move?”
Oh yes, you dipstick, I will be devastated at not seeing the mountains, the millions of sheep and everything dripping with rain. Be careful, John is a Taffy, no sense of irony, and no sense of humour.
“You have to make sacrifices for the job,” I replied honestly, thinking mainly of this interview. We weren’t going anywhere and finally it was over. Justin skipped off and John, who had never once given the slightest hint that he had ever met me, leaned across and hissed, his black eyes full of malice, “You’ll never get a job this way, boyo.”
Deeply depressed, I wandered along the Strand to Embankment tube station to go home. My depression lasted a week or so until I had an interview at Mobil.
Here I was met by Trevor Johnstone from ER. Trevor was also homosexual. Perhaps it was a job requirement. Despite not sharing the same enthusiasms, we are still friends. I was interviewed by Trevor and a Peter Hullan, a Dubliner and ex major in the Royal Military Police. I kept my anti Catholic views to myself and got the job.
After collecting my first bunch of business cards, I penned a little note to John Trintrell
Thanks for seeing me recently. I thought you would like my business card. You will see that I have responsibility for all of our facilities in the UK and Irish Republic, not just the one building, as with Shell. Incidentally, my salary is £1000 a year more that Shell was offering, boyo.”
Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold.
Stop That At Once
Reflection 1980/Penned 2008
|“Stop that at once!”|
“Don’t shout at me.”
‘Oh God,’ I thought, ‘this is going to be worse than I expected.’ I leaned across and switched off the engine. “I was not shouting, I was speaking loudly. If I had been shouting, I would have said, ‘STOP THAT AT ONCE.’”
The whole thing had started badly. She had turned up with gloves, in mid summer.
“What are those?”
“I can see they’re gloves. What are they for?”
“They’re driving gloves, darling,” she spoke as if explaining something complicated to a not over bright two year old. To illustrate the point, she turned over her brown leather gloves to reveal no fingers or backs to them.
“They are a fashion item, nothing to do with driving.”
“But you have gloves in the car.” She pointed to a pair sticking out of the side of the car door.
“True,” I admitted, “but they are to keep my little hands warm in winter, and you can see they still have backs in them. Keep the gloves if you feel better in them.” Perhaps there should be a law against a man trying to teach his wife to drive.
“You were still shouting at me.”
Now for younger listeners, this is an old but still very successful game to play. To deviate from an unwinnable discussion, one party creates an entirely fraudulent discussion or argument, an elephant trap, into which the other party can fall. Our discussion had nothing to do with shouting or not shouting but with Madame’s propensity to slip the car into drive and to cause an accident. Having no defence to this, the false argument was created.
It still happens to day. Mr Blair took the United Kingdom to war in Iraq on the basis of that country having weapons of mass destruction. Some people at the time said this was based on an untruth, some said Blair lied. So, when the unfortunate David Kelly died, it was a personal and family tragedy, and not a matter of national or international crisis. By the lies and half lies and obstructions at the Hutton enquiry, his death became the story, and not the failure after months to find the slightest trace of WMD.
But back to the Capri. The discussion could have escalated into the screaming, slagging off stage, to be followed by sulking and then the ultimate WMD, tears.
“Fine, have it your own way. Please do not fiddle with anything until I ask you to? OK?”
No, reply, but then non-verbal communication sometimes speaks louder than words.
“Now, we will just run through all that again, and then you can drive. Please name the instruments for me.”
“Look, I’ve done all that. I just want to drive.”
“All right, let’s settle for just one. What does the clutch do?”
“It disengages the engine.”
“Excellent, which one is it?”
“The one in the middle.”
“You remember, ABC, accelerator, brake and clutch. So you wouldn’t have been correct whether you started from left or right.”
She scowled. “All right. Why can’t I learn on a car with no gears?”
“Because the only one I know is a milk float. All cars have gears, some are changed automatically by the car’s speed, where you don’t need a clutch, and others you have to change yourself. Like this one. Also getting your test on a manual car allows you to drive automatics, but not the other way round.”
We ran through the car’s bodily functions again and, offering a prayer for forgiveness, I said. “OK, we are all set.”
The first two or three times the Capri stuttered to a halt, and then we were away.
“Now what do your engine revs tell you?”
“The noise of the engine.”
“I’m going too fast?”
“Not quite, you need to change into second gear. Remember what I told you; clutch down, that’s right, the one on the left, move the gear lever, and let the clutch slowly up, pressing on the accelerator at the same time. Not bad, not at all bad. We will turn left at the next turning. Slow down, slower, signal left, no left. That’s it and round we go.”
She grinned nervously. “How am I doing?”
“You’re doing OK. Pull into the car park at the football ground, and we can practice a few turns.”
For a first lesson she did brilliantly, and after three months I said. “That’s it. Nothing more I can do. Go and get a couple of lessons at a driving school and take your test.”
By this time the gloves were long gone and she had become a competent, safe and potentially very good driver, despite, not because of, my teaching.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t like it. I won’t drive again.”
And she never did.
Act of Vandalism
Reflection 1985/Penned 2005
|I drummed my fingers irritably on the steering wheel. The car windows were open, but it was hot for May, and the fuel fumes of the other vehicles queuing made matters worse. I spoke to my wife; “Can you see how far we have to go?”|
She leaned out of the window. “About four hundred yards.”
“What’s the matter with the bastards?” I growled, but I had already noticed that the drivers and passengers in the West German registered cars were looking resigned. This was obviously par for the course.
In the back of the car my colleague, Mike, was arguing in increasingly irritable tones with his wife Ann. I had heard enough, and this marital bickering was causing me to become even more angry. I slipped a cassette into the player and soon Neil Diamond was, albeit unconsciously, trying to pour some oil on Peter and Angela’s troubled waters. He didn’t succeed until track three when Diamond’s gravely voice was joined by the spine chilling sound of Barbra Streisand in “You don’t bring me flowers.” That shut them up, but alas, not for long.
It took about forty minutes to reach the head of the queue where a grim faced, silent guard took our four passports. I couldn’t tell if he was East German or Russian, soldier or policeman. He wandered around the car and, in his own time, returned. “English?” he demanded.
This was one sharp operator. One large Rover 2300, complete with a GB plate on the back, next to the Union Flag, four British passports, proper black ones, before the days of the antiseptic EU rubbish, and this is all he can manage.
“British” I replied. The other three might be, but I wasn’t English. I tried a couple of jolly remarks in German, which he ignored. He placed the passports in a small box which was on an ancient conveyor belt, and this contraption creaked noisily up alongside the line of cars waiting ahead.
“Say nothing,” my wife advised.
I contented myself with a “Danke schoen” to the unsmiling one, and added ‘Welcome to the DDR’ under my breath. It was twenty minutes before we were reunited with our passports, with Mike and Ann in the back trying to out volume Neil Diamond. It had seemed a good idea to go on to West Berlin after our conference in Hamburg. Now, with steam coming from my ears, I wasn’t so sure.
And worse followed. My very early form of car phone caused great excitement, this in pre mobile days. After an animated discussion with half a dozen officials, I was allowed to import this piece of equipment into the People’s Republic, at a cost of sixteen DM. Incidentally, three days later, I was charged the same amount to export it OUT of East Germany.
With great relief, finally we got onto the autobahn, an event which temporarily shut up the two children in the back of the car.
West Berlin was a delight, a fragile island of free speech and free association living nervously in the middle of an oppressive Communist sea, which threatened to overwhelm it. There was music, and light, and dancing and shops, but most of all people, who were all anxious to talk to us, as if to preserve their constantly threatened links with the west. We wandered back from dinner at about eleven in an alcoholic haze of well being. It was then I noticed it, at the end of the street in which we had our hotel. The Wall. It was higher than I had imagined, perhaps eight or nine feet and was covered in graffiti. I had seen photos, of course, but here next to it, the Wall seemed to have an evil presence, which dampened my spirits.
The vividly multi-coloured graffiti seemed to cover every inch of the wall; some crude, some poignant, some unintelligible and some political. There were sad little messages grieving a death or the loss through separation of a loved one. The piece which impressed me most was “Deutschland ist grosser als die Bundesrepublik.” Germany is bigger than the Federal Republic.
In the next two days, as we pursued our tourist ways, the same evil presence brooded over the entire city. It was a matter of honour to visit Checkpoint Charlie, and to be reassured by the familiar sight of Redcaps, of the RMP. We did go over to the East on a guided tour, and listened to the Party propaganda spilling out of our hatchet faced woman guide. The streets over there were wide, flanked by miles of red bunting, but were devoid of people and goods for sale in the shops. It was a graveyard.
At one point, despairing of being served at our approved refreshment stop, we wandered into a park and, drawn inexorably by the delicious smell of frying onions, tried to buy four wurst from a stall. After constant refusals, and frustrated attempts to speak in German, the salesman hissed in English. “Go away, go away. I am not allowed to serve Westerners. I will be arrested.”
Coming back into the West from our tour of East Berlin we saw for the first time the other side of the wall. It was pristine. There was no graffiti. If East Berlin was a cemetery, this wall was a tombstone. It would have been impossible to draw anything, as no one could get closer than around seventy yards of the dammed thing. It was protected by barbed wire, concrete blocks, mines, armed Vopos and dogs. This obscene thing had been built not to prevent people coming in, but to stop people getting out. It was an act of vandalism to drive this stake through the heart of a great city.
On our way back to the BRD, and still inside the DDR, we stopped at a motorway service area where, astonishingly, we found a duty free shop. It sold everything anyone could possibly wish to buy. You could use credit cards, and almost every currency under the sun, except the East German mark. The only people who could not go duty free shopping were East Germans.
The acts of vandalism did not stop with the Wall. The State and the Socialist system were the true acts of vandalism, the Wall merely a symptom. As Talleyrand once remarked of one of Napoleon’s actions, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
Nothing lasts forever. Mike and Ann divorced in 1986, my wife and I in March 1990, just four months after the German people had torn down this obscene Wall.
1987 Reflection/Penned 2007
|I think it was Sinead O’Connor who sang, ‘You take my breath away.’ Even if it wasn’t the strange Sinead, it is a fine song, which often moves me. Several times in my life I have had my breath taken away. The last few balls of the second Test in 2005 before England beat Australia; the agonising micro seconds as Jonny Wilkinson’s drop kick hung in the Sydney night sky before England won the World Rugby Cup were two such incidents. The first time I put my arm around a live tiger, the first time I saw a tiger in the Indian forest and the first time I saw Sinatra in concert, were all occasions that took my breath away. |
People generated the most memorable moments; the birth of my children and the first time I made love with Jeanne were unique. Thinking about it, each time I looked at her face in the next five years it seems she had the same effect.
Nature is also capable of producing the same feeling. In September 1987 I was in Las Vegas for a conference and on a day off, my German colleague, Hans Kleitt, and I decided on a sightseeing trip. We had a short but fascinating flight, followed by an even shorter bus ride.
The bus stopped in a large car park and our driver, a gentle, softly spoken man in his sixties, held open the door for us. “Go to the top of the hill, gentlemen and I will pick you up in two hours.”
We trudged up the hill, Hans towering six inches above me. Later in our relationship, as his frame filled, he acquired the nickname ‘Helmut Kohl.’ At the top of the car park the hill flattened out and we followed a red gravelled path to a silver metal fence. The view from here simply took my breath away and that state seemed to last for several minutes. There, spread out before us. was a magic vista, the Grand Canyon.
I had seen pictures of this marvel of the modern world, but here, looking out over this huge, millions of years old gorge, the physicality of the place reached out and overwhelmed me. The other side of the Canyon was perhaps two miles away and on either side it narrowed to a half or a third of that. It was perhaps a mile deep to where the brown ribbon of the Colorado River dribbled along impassively.
The sides of the gorge were a hundred shades of brown, black, gray and red and the rocks were layered horizontally down, down before being lost in the shadows at the bottom. The other side of the Canyon was bathed in a warm autumn sunshine, turning the reds and browns into a reflective gold.
The rocks formed moonscape formations like castles, and battlements, rising and falling. Here and there little patches of vegetation clung precariously to the sides of the canyon and larger groups of trees stood defiantly on flatter outcrops of sandy rock. Almost unseen, trailing along at the bottom, next to the slim brown river, the occasional path wound its serpentine, contour following way.
Away to our left a little party of tourists were at the start of a long walk on a narrow path which would eventually bring them to the bottom. Further down another group were on mules, heading the same way.
I thought about the staggering majesty and beauty of nature and compared it to the all too often shabbiness of man. Las Vegas was an unapologetically tawdry town, an oasis of bad taste set in the middle of a desert. The buildings were either stark concrete towers or neo classical affronts to the senses. Small chapels, offering 24-hour wedding services, lived cheek by unshaven jowl alongside the hotels and casinos. Prostitutes advertised in little newspapers, conveniently placed all over town. Ugly neon advertisements narrowed my eyes almost everywhere.
Not all was bad; I did get to see Sammy Davis Jr and the delicious Crystal Gayle. However, the abiding memory would be of empty eyed, slack mouthed, blue rinsed matrons, mechanically jerking the handle of the poker machines.
But here, on the South Rim of Grand Canyon, even Las Vegas could be forgiven. In a thousand years the gambling city may have slipped back into the desert from whence it came, but the Canyon would remain.
Nowhere To Go
|It was not a good time. No, that’s wrong. It was a very bad time. At that moment, however, I believed it was the worst time in my life. Life would, in due course, have a hearty chuckle, kick me sharply in the teeth, and demonstrate that things could get a whole lot worse. But just then, back then, they were bad enough to be going on with, thank you.|
As I packed the car the cat from next door came along and stopped to watch events. “What do you want?” I snarled. The cat was pretty cool about it, looked dismissively at me, flicked her ears and walked away, tail high in the air. “Where are you going, puss?” The cat went through a hedge into a garden and I lost sight of her. “Never mind the bloody cat, you dipstick, where are you going?” I had nowhere to go.
I turned back to the car, my mind a kaleidoscope of conflicting, painful emotions. It wasn’t as if we’d been married; it was worse than that, I was still in love with the lady. I checked the car, noting sadly the black plastic bin liners crowded together on the back seat, like some weird soul group on their way to a gig. “I think that’s everything.” I checked the house again, tears filling my eyes and rolling unchecked down my cheeks. This was not how it was meant to turn out. In the kitchen I washed and dried a coffee mug and automatically repositioned the two pine stools I had assembled so carefully, when, a year ago.
The wallpaper in the lounge had curled up a little near the radiator. I fetched the Prit and glued it back again. We had papered the room together before the previous Christmas, desperate to finish before her parents arrived. I didn’t go into the bedroom, simply shut the door. I didn’t see it at the time, but it was a deeply symbolic action. This was the second time in two years I had packed up and left a house and woman, carrying black bin liners. The first time it was my house and my wife, but our marriage had run its course, destroyed in the end by mutual indifference. This time it was not over for me, and so this was worse, much worse.
I locked the front door and put the keys through the letterbox. I hoped there were no neighbours watching. No net curtains twitched and even the next door car was now nowhere to be seen. The car started immediately and purred quietly, as if anxious not to intrude. Goodbye Leatherhead, hello Epsom
I was fifty, divorced with an ex wife who hated me, a son who hated me and now an ex lover who hated me. My former wife had the house, the furniture and most of my money. So much so that I couldn’t afford a mortgage, or a holiday. On the other hand, I had inherited all the photograph albums.
“Where are you going?” Physically only as far as Epsom, but in life terms, I had no idea. I was lost, going nowhere. The one bedroom flat in Epsom was everything a one bed roomed flat was supposed to be. Very little. All the neighbours were either young couples out at work, or old ladies hiding behind the nets. I still had my job, thank God and the BMW, but no sense of purpose or direction. I hated that bloody flat, hated it with an intensity of feeling.
Things went downhill from there. Eating was done in pubs, Pizza Hut or McDonalds’s. Drinking was done everywhere. Whiskey became by best friend and worst enemy. Did I want to live like this? No. Could I do anything about it? It sure as hell looked like I couldn’t.
I went to the doctor. “You’re depressed.” Christ, it takes five years at University to diagnose that? He prescribed Prosac. “I can’t sleep.” Temazapan.
What a lethal mixture, Prosac, Temazapan and Famous Grouse. It nearly killed me; it certainly turned me into a zombie. There were times when I thought of ending it all, but they were impostors, such thoughts. I knew I didn’t have the balls for that. Eventually the tablets were flushed down the toilet and the whiskey finished and not replenished. I had eighteen months of this half-life. At Christmas 1990 I met Jeanne. Almost at once I realised that I knew where I was going and the certainty lasted for five years. Then life, as it has a habit of doing, decided to replay the past again.
|It was bitingly cold. The wind whipped in off the angry Atlantic and funnelled itself down High Street Royan like the glacial ice of a failed love affair. It was the cold that decided me. I couldn’t stand outside the immoblier all day, and it looked warm inside, and as important, customerless. I went in.|
“Parlez vous Anglais, madame.”
There was an apologetic inclining of the head, and a polite, but distinctly negative smile. “Un peu, monsieur.”
I knew what that meant, it meant ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and little else. I sighed. Oh well, I am in their country, I should speak their language.
The lady was called Brigitte, which recalled memories of the first woman I fell in love with, the delicious BB, before she went crazy, and started castrating donkeys with garden shears. This Brigitte was about sixty, fat and not a challenger for Miss World. Very much like BB at present, but without the shears.
About twenty minutes later, my courage reinforced by a successful discussion, en Jeanne, with Brigitte, I tried again in an other Agency. Here too was a lady, aged about twenty seven, fair of face, and figure, with entrancing brown eyes. This vision, it later transpired, was called Nathalie. To my question as to her ability to speak the language of Shakespeare, she replied brightly, “Yes, I speak English very well.” One of the more endearing qualities of the French is that they are untroubled by false modesty. An other attractive quality, at least for an Anglo-Saxon male, is to hear a Frenchwoman speaking English.
Nathalie introduced me to Stefan, a pleasant young man, who, he told me, had two children, who had quatre and six ans. It was arranged for me to visit several properties on the following morning, and although I had a fair grasp of what Stefan was telling me, I welcomed Nathalie’s offer of coming along also to act as ‘traductrice.’ Never look a gift traductrice in the mouth.
As I ventured once more into the street, I was warmed by this little encounter. Two thoughts struck me. Firstly, my father, long dead, God rest his soul, would not have understood why his son would have wanted a second house in France, or anywhere else for that matter. Nor would he have understood why I drove a Jaguar. The second blinding revelation was about Nathalie. Without her, or her sisters going back as far as Eve, man would still be living in caves, and beating up helpless animals.
My father was a simple man, in all the best sense of the word. He was a nationalist, a republican and a devout Catholic, and he could not understand why his eldest son was a loyalist, a monarchist, and a lapsed Catholic who looked more to his Huguenot past than to his Catholic present. His son, worse to relate, had accepted the Queen’s commission in her armed forces of repression. My Dad and I shared little, and we learned to accept that situation, and love each other just the same. We did share one abiding passion however, and for this I will always be grateful. We were one-eyed Manchester United supporters, as I am to this day. The last words he spoke to me before he died in St Peters Chertsey were to ask if United had won. Thank God they had, and I hope this eased his passing, but I would have lied if necessary.
He could never see the sense in buying a house when he could rent one. I never saw the sense in renting if I could buy. It is sometimes said that a house is the most expensive move you can undertake. Wrong! A wife is the most expensive thing a man can attempt.
Houses are not simply places where one lives, any more than cars are simply a means of transport. If that statement was untrue, we would all live in council flats overlooking Hackney Marshes, and drive Smart cars. A house, like a car, is also a statement about a person’s perceived place in life, and of his or her ambitions and prejudices. I don’t need a second home in France, in which I can spend the summers of my declining years, and in which I can see my children and hear the laughter of my grandchildren. I don’t need it, but insh’Allah, I shall have it.
So who is right, my Dad or me? He lived his life in a rented house, and drove a Vauxhall Viva. I will, insh’Allah, have an apartment in Epsom, a house in France and hopefully, I will drive a Jag until I pop my clogs. Dad also stayed married to the same woman until her death killed him too, while I am divorced. I couldn’t say he was wrong.
Are you listening, Dad? So, w ho is right? Incidentally, if you are listening, the Reds are doing OK, and we won the Treble in ’99. You’d have been as proud as hell.
Saturday 17th November 2001
|Left hotel at 0900 after a good night’s sleep and an excellent American breakfast. It makes a pleasant change to eat something other than Indian food. Juice, scrambled eggs, Cornflakes, tea and toast.|
Started train journey at 1035, on time, the only time we were on time for nearly a day. There were porters in red robes with metal armbands with their number on it, very old British Raj. The journey went on all day, and we arrived in Delhi at 2030, which was 10 hours to cover 310 kms, or an average speed of 31kmh. That is about 19 mph.
We stopped just about everywhere, and this was an express. People milling around everywhere on the platforms of the stations we stopped at. Some had European dress, some dhotis, tucked up between their legs. Some had sandals, or normal shoes or barefoot. There were also long linen trousers with long jackets hanging to the knees. Many had a sort of cloth slung round their shoulders, others had a cloth wrapped around their heads. Others still had a turban, and some carried umbrellas
Every time the train stopped at a station it was besieged by a small army of vendors, selling water, sweets, fruit, nuts, bananas, tea and hot food. Soma had twisted cane baskets with metal trays on top. There were tiled water stands on the platforms, pumping out water. The towns and villages in the background were seen beyond the station. Seldom did they run to more than one story, occasionally two. Sophomoric atmosphere in the overheated train. We were in an air-conditioned carriage, but it seemed to make no difference. The fans whirred uselessly around, circulating hot air. Most people slept, and we all dozed from time to time. We were in first class, so no more complaints about Connex south east.
The toilets were indescribable, like mediaeval torture instruments. Grey pipes running everywhere. No toilet bowl, simply a hole in the ground, eastern style. Very smelly. The floor was running with water
The Dehra Dun Express covered 310 kms in 10 hours. That is 196 miles, 19.6 mph.
Delhi railway station was crowded and noisy with large black rats running all over the tracks. Announcements made over P/A in English and Hindi. Figures for people who speak Hindi vary between 20 and 40%. Once again much confusion on the platforms with loads of people in different dress styles all over the place. Vendors again selling a wide variety of items, but no newspapers on sale at the paper stall. Heavily laden hand carts being pushed around the platform. As trains pulled into or pulled out of stations, passengers would rush onto the tracks to jump on board, apparently oblivious of life and limb.
We had a first class sleeper, from Delhi, in what was a six berth cabin. Nidish was down the carriage a way. The others in our berth were Indians, one a man, or woman, couldn’t tell which, who was losing the pigmentation in his/her skin. The bed above me was occupied by a man and his wife. It was close, noisy, with people snoring or coughing all night, and not easy to get to sleep, although I managed a couple of hours.
Sunday 18th November 2001
Arrived at Sawai Madhpur pretty well on schedule at about 0515. From Delhi we covered 362 kms or 224 miles in 7 hours at about 32 mph. This is the Mumbai (Bombay) express. Glad to get off train.