DOC LEAVES, - the book.
Contents - Volume One
1. Intro and potpourri 1
2. A Kiss for Christmas – 3100 3
2a. Queen jokes – 340 9
3. My first baby-5270 12
4. Cat tabs/washing-1500 22
5. Roulette – 700 27
5a. Family quarrels – 280 29
6. Queen Anne bureau – 630 30
7. The desk clock – 2000 32
7a. How things’ve changed – 970 36
8. Bonny Walker – 1770 39
9. Wild animals – 1630 43
10. Dai Davies- 1000 48
11. Ernesto-230 50
12. Heavenly bugs-750 52
13. Cordoba mosque- 750 54
14. Yes, Headmaster – 880 56
15. Milton – 810 58
16. Into Africa – 1010 60
17. Crocodile/stick – 390 63
18. Blind lady – 1500 64
19. The Old Place – 1170 67
20. Whore and Bible – 800 70
21. We are what we eat – 2100 72
22. Magycke – 2660 76
23. Stolen afternoon – 1460 81
24. Gypsies – 5050 84
25. Born Welsh 93
26. Over my shoulder – 750 94
27. Mother’s torch – 600 96
28. Gran’s glass eye – 710 98
29. Lloyd George – 410 100
30. Hypnotherapy – 3300 101
31. Roman Scandals – 240 107
32. Jamaica jamboree – 2820 108
33. Crossing borders- 830 113
34. Ace,deuce,jack – 860 115
35. Bert’s ciggies – 1500 117
36. Archeology Dig – 780 120
37. Signs of fascism – 830 122
38. Milometer – 630 124
39. Daily visit – 310 127
40. The lost baby – 1300 128
41. Secret birthday party – 1240 130
42. In all directions – 120 133
43. Something in the Air – 4140 134
44. Phone machine -250 142
45. Put in my place – 480 143
46. Scuba – 2300 145
47. Survivors -1120 149
48. Swan Song – 1600 152
49. Fairy stories – 760 155
50. Conspiracies-750 157
51. Cross my palm- 940 159
52. Canal zone – 3340 162
53. Jocks and cat – 440 168
54. Vicky’s beans – 580 168
55. Ysenda – 630 171
56. Officers on train – 200 173
57. Rwanda Burundi – 1660 174
58. About your body – 140 177
59. Alcohol and me – 2240 178
60. All at sea – 1920 182
61. D-day – 970 186
62. Girl on train - 1960 189
63. Free condoms – 620 193
64. Happy men – 780 195
65. Good advice – 500 197
Doc Leaves,.. the book.
Being the collected memoirs, opinions, lies, tales and terrors of
Dr.Dick Richards MD
Doctor, soldier, author, mercenary and part-time hit man [Gold Medal, Ret'd].
First and foremost I thank my wife, Pixie [aka Pix], and my daughter Sue [aka Sooey], for the patient tolerance when I tried out my jokes, quips and written efforts. I got so much helpful criticism, a generous helping of ideas [some of which they never even knew about], and, despite all, loads of encouragement.
Of course there were also thousands of acquaintances and especially patients who unknowingly contributed, too. Additionally I collected ideas, phrases and occasionally lines from a million unremembered sources. I acknowledge the help. I acknowledge the theft. And I thank them one and all.
Especial thanks for my dear, dear Pix who has been the fountainhead of so much and for so many years and in so many ways.
Most of what I am is made of her.
In this book and its sequel, Doc Leaves, Part Two, the vast majority of the content is my own work. However, in such an anthology ideas, quotes and outside thoughts are sure to creep in. Whenever I have detected other sources I have mentioned them. There are sure to be others that remain uncredited. If anyone recognizes anything else and can tell me the source I will give that credit in later editions,.. if any.
An example of this ‘borrowing’ is very obvious in, for example, my collection of erotic short stories, The Love [and Sex] Book. The entire thing is available in e-form and can be found on my website [www.doc-leaves.com] but although the writing is mostly mine the ideas came from a team of other doctors and nurses who worked with me. Sadly, these are now all passed on and it therefore remains to me to see the work published.
I’m now getting on a bit so I really must get started on,.. and, this time, finishing this book. Hell, I’ve been writing it for over thirty years already.
As long ago as that I started keeping intermittent diaries, notes on matters and events then held to be worth it, and scattered fragments that blew into hand or mind,.. or both.
Now that the time has at last come round to make some orderly whole out of it all I really don't know where most of the bits came from, - largely from a few old shoe boxes under the spare room bed. They were found written on everything,.. envelopes, scraps of paper, beer mats and margins of pages liberated from better books than this one.
Lots of material is entirely my own. Much on the other hand is not original at all. There is therefore always the chance of loads of well-meaning and sometimes, unintentional theft and plagiarism as well as thoughts, jokes, ideas, facts, fibs, memories, wishful thinking, and, here and there, occasional sparks of originality. I know that here and there there are repeats,.. put those down to boustrophedon gone a bit wild. Altogether it’s a load of bits and pieces tacked together as a sort of patchwork quilt,.. but I thought the potpourri idea sounded better,.. more genteel, say.
If the book seems to jump about a lot from one thing to another it’s because life has been rather like that. I’ve had a couple of steady jobs in my time,.. for example, I practiced medicine for about twenty five years. But even in long stretches like that there were always other temptations popping up or bluntly intruding. I took almost a year off to work in the film industry in Hollywood, - mostly writing scripts. During that time we lived in our own place in Malibu. In England I spent many months expanding a country house, mostly with my own hands. I was a regular army officer for about five years. Interspersed with all this there were always little jobs turning up in my capacity as journalist,.. or mercenary,.. or in my other favourite episodes spent in what I’ll call ‘security work’ of which more later. Some of this was on behalf of government requirements but much of it was also as a freelance,.. at least until that and being a mercenary was foolishly made illegal for UK citizens. Most of this last category of employment is put down as being in ‘import/export’ - the standby claim of most spies.
Squeezed in here and there were also my personal interests,.. water-skiing, hunting, sailing, rugby, music, reading [and writing] poetry,.. oh yes, and girls, females, femunums and fillies of all colours, creeds, shapes, sizes,.. and inclinations. Also I’ve written over thirty books in my spare time,.. all of them published.
There have been regretful moments and other episodes when things went so bad I still keep them hidden away under the carpets of humiliation. I spent two years as an inmate in the California prison industry and became more familiar with the inside of Folsom, Chino and San Quentin than I wished.
All the way through I’ve heard people say things like ‘God made all men equal.’ Yet, in a lifetime spanning over eight decades, and counting, I have searched for but never found one single shred of evidence that supports this claim. God didn’t make men equal. If anyone did that it was Sam Colt. Anyway they’re not equal even to start with.
But now that the whole thing must all be pretty near all over I find myself with only three cruel blunders that still fill me with remorse and regret. The rest has been almost all varying degrees of good. Tomorrow always turned out to be better than yesterday. Somewhere along the way I contributed to the upbringing of two wonderful and much-loved children. And I hope I shall die still married to the most adored woman ever who has been my partner, my caretaker, my nurse and both guardian of and contributor to my sanity for over six decades. Oh yes,.. and despite wavering here and there, she has also been and is still my best friend.
It’s no wonder things feel good. I have eased through life with four massive advantages. I had,.. and continue to expand, a marvellous education. I have enjoyed the most magnificent health throughout. I was privileged to be born Welsh with all the fey magic that confers. And, also, despite both of us wandering here and there, I have been married all my life to the woman I love,.. my wife, Pixie,.. or Pix, for short.
I think I should have called this book something like ‘A wonderful life.’ But somehow ‘Doc Leaves’ hits the spot better. If readers get one hundredth part of the enjoyment I’ve had in writing it then it must all have been worthwhile.
Now I must think of something to do tomorrow.
Sandwich, Kent and Coral Bay, Cyprus
A Kiss for Christmas
Two days before Christmas.
It was snowing. Huge flakes were falling thickly, slowly, dropping silently onto the shoulders and heads of the London crowds intent on their late shopping.
Oxford Street was a tangled mass of people. The trees were pointed with stars of light. The reds and greens of the Yuletide windows glowed warm in welcome. The air was cold. Folk were hurrying, watching excited children, struggling with packages and baskets full of brightly wrapped secrets. As darkness had fallen the excitement had increased. Time was getting short. Time to hurry, to think about crowded trains or buses. Time to ponder emptying pockets and wallets. A thousand anxious worries and diversions,.. traffic, shopping lists, arrangements... hurry, hurry, hurry. Time was precious. Time was short.
Then the snow had begun to fall and in moments the whole atmosphere changed. The calm flakes soothed the shortening tempers. Umbrellas put up in haste were taken down again so that flakes could fall on coats and hair and on deliberately upturned faces. Eyes strained up to spot the white frozen feathers emerge from the darkness, enter the swathes of festive light and swirl down to meet the people. The magic that had been missing from the commercial congregation of the London thoroughfare suddenly returned. The pace slowed, children's eyes widened, people smiled, stranger at stranger. Some of the girls shook flakes out of their locks. Others walked on with new, white haloes around their bright faces.
That was how he thought she looked as she came into the food store. He couldn’t believe it. He just stood there with his small bag of purchases and gazed at her, spellbound. The same open, cheerful face. The chestnut hair, damp and curled, and outlined by the lights twinkling on the fresh, white cherry-blossom flakes that had just fallen on it. A thick green scarf was wound around her neck. She loosened it in the warmer air. She wore one glove and carried the other, as she always had. He saw her twitch her nose as ever when she came into a room,.. testing? He saw the familiar turn of her shoulders, the shrug, the glance around. Nothing had changed. He held back behind a stand of fruit not to be seen while he watched, the voyeur in him already vicariously relishing the lines of her outstanding shape.
He loved her. He loved her still. Even after all this time; he loved her absolutely desperately. He knew it in a moment. He loved her more than ever. Though he'd not seen her for twelve years. She was more lovely even than he remembered. How could he not love her?
Cautiously he followed her as she picked up the items on her grocery list, mostly small luxuries. Again those familiar gestures,.. the tiny frown when she couldn't find something or the label didn't please her. Two or three times she looked up and around her. He thought it was almost as if she sensed someone or something was watching and influencing her. Then he saw her thrust her list into one pocket and look up and down to see if she might have forgotten something. She was heading for the check-out counter. In a moment she would be gone. His heart jumped. If he was going to speak it would have to be soon.
He followed her to the desk and stood next in line behind her. Her hair, still covered with tiny, shining, melted droplets, was scarcely two feet from his face. He could feel her warmth, catch the scent of her hair.
She was transferring her checked purchases into a small string bag. A can slipped from her fingers, rolled, and was at the edge of the counter before she grabbed at it. A strong hand closed over hers startling her. The can was saved. But there was more. The broad masculine hand had shot out and grasped the can at the same time as her own hand. It trapped both. There was still more. For a moment she looked down at the hand,.. bronzed, sturdy, short fair hair across its back, the knuckles curled, tense and confident. Something reached in and touched her inside. All in an instant she felt the male to female contact, a flowing power, a sensation of command and obedience, of needing to comply.
Still the hand didn't let go. It made as if to lift the can and her hand too. She looked up at the tall figure beside he. Eyes met. Her hand tightened under his grip. A sharp intake of breath,.. the doubt, the disbelief. Then the certainty.
'You,..?' she managed to say, her wide eyes turned up towards him.
He nodded. 'Me.'
She was flustered, had no idea what to say. His presence, the surprise, the old thoughts, the shattered dreams, the dim memories, all came rushing into the front of her mind. She thought she was going to cry, out loud like a child.
Then he was helping her. His old masterful ways again. She recognised them all. Efficiently everything was placed in her bag. Her change was collected, acknowledged politely, put positively in her hand,.. the hand she opened so instinctively,.. so symbolically. Then he had her by the elbow, steering her, using his height and presence to ensure a way through the crowd. She let him take control, insist, lead, as she always had let him. The gap of years and events meant nothing. It all seemed so natural.
They were outside again. The snow was whirling,.. heavier,.. the pavements and the roads between the busy car tracks were white. Fairyland was taking over there in the thronging street, the grey and beige of stone and tarmac glistening, lights glinting on the frozen flakes from a thousand new directions. Her hair was covered with the fresh arrivals, her eyes shining, her entire face glowing and alive. He couldn't take his own eyes from her for a moment. He held her by the shoulders, simply looking at her. And she just stood, spellbound, looking up at him, eyes wide with wonder and happiness at seeing him. The old magic was still working. She felt herself shaking inside, her knees literally weak and wobbling, as the years peeled away.
'Where are you going?' he asked, still holding and looking, peering into her very heart.
She answered without thinking. 'My car is on the corner. I found a place,.. er,.. lucky.' She stammered, pointing.
'Let's have a drink and a chat,' he said and steered her into a side street. The noise level dropped. No cars swished by. Darker yet whiter, the fresh snow almost untouched. There was a pub, 'The Cockatoo.' It was closed. Across the street was 'The Hand and Glove.' Closed too. It was four in the afternoon.
'I know,' he said, still the boss-man. 'You go to the car. Give me a few ticks and I'll join you. Do you have time?'
She nodded. There was no way she could have disagreed anyway. He was just sweeping her along. No resistance. She was helpless.
'Wait for me!' he said. 'Don't go. Don't run!' He turned and disappeared. She watched his easy lope up the street and back towards the store.
No sooner was she in the car, her wet coat thrown into the back seat than he was there, the big, open grin peering in through the window. He eased in beside her, plonked two paper cups on the dashboard top and began opening the champagne bottle.
'The occasion calls for it,' he said. '"Seven million people in London and who do I get to meet? Cheers!'
They talked, excitedly at first, then slower. 'Are you often in London?'
'First time in two years,' he answered. 'I never seem to get out of California these days except to conferences.'
'I saw you on TV last year. You looked good.'
'Must have been my better profile.'
'You looked tired though. Success must be expensive.'
'I probably was tired.' He looked steadily at her. 'Tell me, how's your dear old Dad?'
'He's great. Getting younger.'
'And how are you?'
He shook his head, '0h no. Not you. Just the world around you.'
Then his hands were holding her head, tenderly, safely, as if it were a child's. The weakness was back in her knees. His eyes were so huge. Caring eyes. She felt empty, hollow, betrayed by her own chemistry.
'You're married,' he said. 'I heard.'
She nodded. 'Two kids. One ten, one seven. Monsters.'
'Who's your husband?'
'You wouldn't know him. He's a company accountant. Up here for a meeting. I'm picking him up in an hour for the drive home.'
'Love him a lot?'
The wide eyes again. A tear,.. or a melted snowdrop?
'He's a wonderful husband. Adores me,.. and the monsters. Wonderfully kind to us all.'
'That wasn't what I asked.'
'I wish I could love him the way he loves me.'
'That wasn't the question either.' Silence. She shook her head, briefly, just the once. Her eyes dropped.
'He looks after us all marvellously. We're everything to him.' She felt herself apologising. She felt disloyal. It was not like her to feel that way. There was no cause.
She inhaled deeply.
'What about you? Married?'
'Was. She died four years ago.'
'I didn't know. I'm sorry.'
'No need to be. It was a mercy. Thank God we had no kids.'
'Nothing. No-one special,'
She was talking, her face illuminated by the sweeping lights of passing cars. Tyres shushed past. Screen wipers cleared only small patches. No-one noticed the two old lovers in the dark, parked car. He was not listening. He just watched her face, the curving of her lips, the lambent movement of her eyes,.. always those great, deep, lovely eyes.
Suddenly her head was between his hands again. It was as if he held her heart. She still tried to talk on. But he clasped her harder, tighter, stilling her face. She tried to avert his gaze, dropping hers, but could not. She looked up at him again. He filled the car, his large, lean, tweeded body dwarfing her fragile smallness. She saw his strength. He saw the sadness in her eyes. The space between them narrowed. Her aroma was in his nose, she could scent his man-smell. The firm, compelling hold on her head calmed her like a fretful pony. Only her heart raced, fluttering inside her ribs like a scared canary. Even less space between them now. Sharing air, sharing breath. His lips hovered, then touched, feather light, dry on her own, then pulled back.
She saw his tongue moisten his lips. That familiar move again. She knew. It was coming. It would happen. She moistened her own lips, letting them rest damply together as he neared her again.
He kissed her gently, tenderly, chastely,.. almost a brother's kiss. A brother's kiss except that it lasted and lasted and went on lasting. No more a brother. No longer a friend. He was an old lover, her only real lover,.. ever.
She had longed for him so often, so long ago,.. so tearfully, so tragically. The vicious words, the misunderstanding, the cruel phrases, his shocked face with her nail marks, his hurt,.. her own horror. Then the slammed door,.. and the footsteps fading, going down the stairs and out into a silence that would last for years and years.
But now he was here in this small, steel cocoon. His calm lips against her. The years dropped away,.. he was with her, he was here, he was now. Everything else was outside, away from them, dark,.. another elsewhere, a different dimension.
She yielded slowly but without doubt. Her head went back,.. and back, still held, poised for his visiting mouth. His nose touched hers, the edge of one flaring nostril against her own. There was most of a day's growth of stubble on his top lip and on his chin. The thousands of tiny, stiff bristles needle-pointed her smooth skin, sharp, and sharpening her,.. stimulating. Four lips,.. two his lips, two her lips, pressing, leaning, testing.
For a moment she pulled back. Her mind was a tangle of old fears and new doubts. She shouldn't, should she? She never did,.. never had,.. not really. Except in her mind, that was. But then, what else was there? Mind was all,.. and in her mind it had happened. She had let it happen,.. made it happen,.. every single day of the long parted years.
Her eyes were full of different tears, joy and sorrow, longing and fulfilment, all mixed. She focused on his dear, dear face. Wide forehead and its greying curls, long straight nose, so big and ugly,.. lovely ugly. The tight, curved lips. Cheeks high, almost eastern, and the pointed chin where he used to have that tickly beard,.. that gave her such raptures when it came against her, her face, her breasts, her tummy,.. her soft thighs and their secret meeting place.
She closed her eyes and parted her lips. She did not see him come closer again but she felt the movement,.. the last pause before their lips were together again,.. open this time. She put her tongue out against his top lip and ran it side to side along its lower edge. Her very tongue-tip touched his teeth,.. sharp edges,.. a taste of champagne and his salt.
And with his lips, his tongue and his mind alone,.. and with her willing consent,.. he took her right there in the tiny, locked chrysalis.
His tongue met hers and she drew on him, pulling him into her mouth,.. drawing him into her centre, tasting him more richly, more fully, a dozen flavours. Her mouth was open, slack, searched by his intrusion. In her throat there was his air and she inhaled it, snatching it into her lungs as if to keep and hold it. She felt the fluids of his mouth flow into hers and hers responding. It was years since she had been so kissed... or since she had so kissed. She felt the old, dreamy weakness,.. the old wanting,.. the female emptiness longing to be filled.
And from his old knowledge of her ways he felt her succumb to her longing. Her mouth could not be more open,.. his for the taking. So he took. He explored it and savaged it, hungry for her,.. eating her open and pliant body. Devouring. From the corner of his eye he saw her hands come up, reaching for his shoulders, then around his neck, her fingers in his hair. How he remembered those hands. The things she did with them when she was excited, sexually inspired and frantic. The way she would grip one hand around him when he had just entered her, holding him tight yet keeping them apart for a tantalising moment,.. until she removed her hand and drew him deep within her in one smooth, engulfing movement. How he remembered.
He saw her chest swell and push towards him,.. her knees and thighs parting. She was his, open and welcoming, yielding,.. all woman,.. his woman,.. giving herself willingly and completely,.. his for the taking. It was all in the kiss,.. everything.
The kiss went on, neither of them wanting to break the contact,.. on and on,.. moment after lingering moment,.. until there was nothing left and they had to part to breath to gasp, to stand back from the wonder of this profane but beautiful, mouth upon mouth exchange of spirit and love.
Both their bodies had stirred low down beneath their heavy, winter-chill clothing. Animal magic had its way. Neither of them curbed anything. It would have been unfair, dishonest,.. a sacrilege. Yet as they parted she knew he had realised how much she was roused.
'I shouldn't have done that,' she said, her fingers touching to his face.
'You didn't. I did. Blame me, ' he answered.
'It's wrong. It's disloyal,' she faltered, distressed. 'I wouldn't be surprised if it's illegal.' She looked at him. 'Is it illegal?'
'Only if you enjoy it,' he smiled.
They nodded then both spoke together,.. 'It's illegal,' they agreed, and burst into the relief of the happy laughter of their old, old joke,
They talked and talked. The years have been kind,.. success,.. the money I make is not always worth the price I pay,.. your home,.. my son,.. his wife's dreadful death,.. her husband's company,.. old friends, some gone, some left behind.
The champagne level dropped in the bottle. The things they had to say began to run out. So did time.
'I'm flying out tonight,' he said suddenly.
She shook her head, a small almost painful gesture. Again the eyes,.. and a silence. Again his hands holding her head.
'I love you, ' he said. 'And I'm sorry.'
She nodded. 'I know. I love you too. Never stopped.' She looked away.
'God, how small it sounds. It's everything and it sounds like nothing,'
The snow had coated the windows, blotting out light and sound. They were isolated, surrounded by millions of people yet all alone together. There was no other world just for their few moments.
He poured the last drops into their cups.
'Don't tell me where to find you,' he said. 'I'd have to. I wouldn't be able to help it.' She understood. 'And you know where to find me,' he added. 'I couldn't hide if I wanted to.'
'Too famous.' He smiled and let the smile drop swiftly from his face.
'My Love,' he said softly, 'My dear, dear Love,.. remember only this. I've always been yours. I was, I am now, and right until the end. And if ever,.. if ever you have need of me...'
She was in his arms, sobbing helplessly, childlike, shaking. She had nowhere to turn for comfort. He held her for long, timeless minutes. He was back with her in their old home.
'We must leave,' he said.
He picked up the nearly empty cups and passed hers to her.
'It’s bottoms-up time. What shall we drink to?'
They raised their cups. 'To now,' she said.
'To now,' he said. 'And to maybe,..'
He brushed his lips to the tip of her nose. That old familiar feeling again.
Without another word he got out of the car, squeezing her hand on the wheel as a parting gesture. He stood quite still on the pavement, numbed by more than the chill, yet not moving.
The car started. The indicators blinked sleepily. She pulled out into the traffic stream, turned the corner and was gone. He didn't even wave. He just stood there, shivering. Then he pulled up his collar.
And all at once he realised that the snow had turned to rain.
Please note: We understand that in order to get permission to publish stories concerning the Sovereign and her properties one must first apply to the Lord Chamberlain,.. or at least to his office. Permission was therefore sought. [*]
The British have, over the centuries, done a typically British thing. Solely in order to save money, instead of giving their retiring or dutiful staff gifts of goods, land or money they skimp via a system known all over the world as the British Honours Scam. After years of dedicated service therefore my father retired on the standard modest pension but was also given a few meaningless letters to put after his name. To the best of my recollection he never used the letters but, at the time,.. and really because my mother would not dream of missing the chance, he did attend an investiture Buckingham Palace where a medal proclaiming the ‘honour’ was duly pinned to his lapel. The cost of a new outfit for my mother plus the hiring of morning suits for himself and we two sons plus all the paraphernalia of travel, limousine for transport and so on must have added up to a sum he could manage but which undoubtedly dented the annual available funds.
Anyway, despite my feelings on the entire penny-pinching charade we turned up along with hundreds of others on the big day. One of the ‘royals’ also turned up, did the sword dubbing of a new knight or two and then steadily worked down towards the gongs for District Collectors of dustbins and so on. Somewhere in amongst them Dad had his little moment.
About the only thing that impressed me about the whole thing was a magnificent variegated ivy that grew in an enormous sort of jardinière and trailing over the sides from its eight foot high perch. It was the best I’d ever seen,.. a beautifully marked specimen, well cared for and thriving in the well illuminated investiture room. Being a keen gardener I examined it with some care. It really was very impressive.
When the do was over we all trooped out of the palace into the familiar open area just inside the gates at the head of The Mall. There we paused for photographs and some excited chat. Then we joined up with the rest of the family and Dad took us all out for a splendid slap-up fish lunch at Wheeler’s.
It was as we sat in the restaurant that my mother drew attention to the ivy in the fine tall jardinière.
‘Did any of you notice it? she asked. ‘That wonderful ivy plant?’
Of course we had all noticed it and we had all been impressed.
‘I’d love one like it,’ Mother said. ‘I wonder if we could find out what variety it was,.. or what’s its name or something.’
I then delivered a line which has gone down in the family history. I reached towards the inside pocket of my morning suit and said ‘Perhaps you’d like a cutting of it for your very own?’
Mother looked at me aghast.
‘Oh you didn’t,’ she said, clearly shocked and shaking her head in disbelief. ‘You didn’t do such a thing.’
Of course she knew I had. I always snitch bits of plants that take my fancy. I drew the two three-inch long snippets from my pocket,.. at which point some other diners saw what was happening. They had changed so we had not realised that an hour before they too had been in the crowd with us. We agreed that if the ivy cuttings struck I promised I’d send them one.
They both did strike and I kept my promise.
Since then there has always been one or more ivy plants growing in one or other of the family homes,.. the place where we then lived,.. in my other home in Cyprus,.. in my home in Malibu when I was working in California,.. and, to this day on the sundeck of my Sixteenth Century home in Kent.
It thrives,.. and it still looks magnificent.
Her Majesty while in her early eighties was visiting a famous rest home for old ladies in the Home Counties. She was shown around and all the staff were introduced to her before she began meeting some of the residents face to face and having a little word with them.
She paused at the easy chair of one rather vacant looking old lady who had not seemed to be taking much notice of the fuss.
Her Majesty leaned down over her and said, softly, ‘Hello,.. do you know who I am?’
The old dab peered back at her hard for a few moments then said ‘No, I don’t,.. but just ask Matron,.. she knows us all.
The late President Reagan paid a state visit to London and as part of the festivities he and Her Majesty took part in a lavish display of pomp and circumstance in the form of a horse draw procession including along The Mall and with both of them in the splendid open 1902 State Landau and accompanied by troops of mounted guards in full regalia.
As they progressed, at one point one of the horses drawing the royal landau emitted a great, damp noisy belter of a fart. Her majesty smiled and said ‘Now, you see, Mr.President, there are some things that even the Queen of England can’t control.’
‘The President smiled back and replied ‘Think nothing of it Ma’am. In fact, if you hadn’t said anything I’d have thought it was the horse.’
PS: We got no reply and no permission was actually granted.
The First Baby
On the corner of the side street opposite Cardiff Royal Infirmary [C.R.I.] was the Welsh National School of Medicine obstetrics unit. It was known to all as ‘Glossop’ because it was comprised of the five or six large and rambling Victorian houses that were collectively known as Glossop Terrace. These had been combined into one higgledy-piggledy warren. There were several small ‘wards’ of about four beds each and an uncertain number of smaller ones. There were also visiting rooms, kitchen, dining room, staff quarters all poked in here and there in what seemed to outsiders to be a purely random fashion. It gave much the same impression to insiders, too. In the dingiest downstairs back regions of the entire shambles were two rooms, - small cupboards really, - marked Students One and Students Two. Each had two beds narrow and hard, - students working there were not expected to get much sleep, - a hand-basin and the all-important telephone.
At some stage or other, usually somewhere in their fifth year, each student was allocated a space in one of these ill-equipped cells. Resident there for as long as it took each student had to carry out about fifty deliveries. These were all conducted under the eagle eyes of experienced SRMs [State Registered Midwives]. When I was in residence there were also two doctors, - a senior house surgeon and a registrar in charge. The consultants only put in an appearance under conditions of extreme urgency or when conducting their teaching rounds.
In those days, - the early 1950s, by far the majority of babies were born at home or ‘on the district’ as it was called. The family doctor made the arrangements and a local midwife carried out the actual confinement. If there were grounds for any concern the better class mothers were delivered in a small maternity hospital, usually private. The working class families could afford no such luxuries and, if there was deemed cause that rendered them unsuitable for home delivery, they mostly got delivered in Glossop. Of course many homes in that category were most unsuitable for home obstetrics. The war was only recently over, housing was at a huge premium and incomes had dropped as the nation’s armaments industries geared down and laid off workers. To find a dozen people living in one small, terraced ‘2-up and 2-down’ a hundred years old was an everyday experience.
To gain extra experience keen students, - of which I was one, - also got to do additional deliveries on the district. I saw and conducted some remarkable things in those days. I wish I had a pound for every baby I delivered into yesterday’s copy of the Daily Worker, the Mirror or The Sporting Life. Conditions were often deplorable in the poorer areas. Many houses still had missing windows from bomb damage or sheets of cheap tarpaulin tacked down over holes in the roof. There would be kids everywhere, men and lads coming or going to and from work, - not always sober. A dog and a cat squabbling in the kitchen. The bath was used to keep the coal in. It was a luxury to find a saucepan clean enough to boil water in. Any number of times I would be delivering a lady who was lying on one side of the bed while her husband, still dirty from his shift in the foundry snored his head off on the other side.
Some mothers did their wonderful best even under these conditions. One might indicate a neglected looking lower drawer in which, wrapped in brown paper, would be a couple of new towels, cut down sheets, soap, flannel and baby powder and a soft, fleecy little nightie to grace the new arrival. I so admired these caring ladies, - as poor as church mice and with so few civilised facilities, perhaps several other children and oafs for husbands and teenage sons, that they could, nevertheless, prepare even these modest facilities for their new babies. What a struggle it must have been to achieve even that little personal triumph over their daunting conditions. Some of them were amongst the most loving and devoted folk I ever met. Others, worn down by the endless attrition had utterly given up. In my way I admired and loved them all. They made huge humanitarian impressions on me that have lasted a lifetime. I still thank them for the things they showed and taught me. I know that it’s all part of the great natural inclination of all mothers but I met so many Mums who brought something else, - something warm and loving and caring into lives that were otherwise dirty, foul and brutish. Blessings on them everyone, - and my thanks for the lessons learned that even into the darkest holes light and love can be brought to bear.
But I digress,..
I really want to write about my first baby. I lost count somewhere after the first few hundred how many babies I’ve delivered. But, as they say a woman always remembers her first lover, so I still remember my first baby.
Delivery, - or childbirth which is a far nicer name for it, is a simple enough process or so you’d think. Lambs and cows and rabbits and giraffes accomplish it all the time with little or no help at all. When you read stories in the tabloids of how little Johnny, aged four, delivered his own baby sister it’s really just because he just sat there while Old Mother Nature did what she does best. In fact there is an old and absolutely true piece of medical advice that ‘Most of the time the best place for an obstetrician’s hands is in his pockets.’
As students we learned our first lessons in conducting a delivery by using a mechanical model. This was intended to resemble a female pelvis and to emulate the various procedures that affect the eventual arrival of the newcomer into the world. Rubber sheeting replaced the muscles of the mother’s pelvis and a hardly lifelike doll and placenta would be so placed in it that the way the whole business happened could be simulated, watched and understood. It also had the facility that the doll could be positioned incorrectly, - as sometimes happens during a real delivery, - so the budding obstetrician could be taught what to do if things went wrong. At best the entire contraption and the idea behind it could be described as a dead loss.
One comical anecdote persists and is worth the repetition. It appears that on this particular occasion a student, facing a wrongly positioned doll-foetus did his best to show how he would handle the situation. Such a bungle did he make of everything that, when he’d finished and stood there sweating and red-faced with embarrassment, the examiner picked up the pair of obstetric forceps he had just so dreadfully misused.’ Now, he said, passing the heavy forceps to the student, ’Now,.. hit the father with these and you’ve killed the whole bloody family.’
Babies are usually born head first. This is the way the process has been evolved and, being such, it is the best system possible in the circumstances. No surprise there, - evolution has got everything I can think of right. It had a long time to try out other options and discard them. The whole idea of childbirth remains, however, a matter of compromise. The baby while still in the mother’s abdomen grows in a safe, warm and well-fed environment. Didn’t we know that that just couldn’t go on? The way out of the pelvis is pretty narrow,.. though there are some who contend that narrower yet would be OK for some purposes. It is usually males who express this opinion.
As the baby grows its head approaches the size when passing out through the birth canal means it will be subjected to a lot of pressures. This has its risks. Nature seeks to solve this source of possible problems in a number of ways. A point is reached when the mother’s available food supply becomes less and less adequate for the growth requirements. Oxygen availability is a another such problem. The mother can breathe for two but, like the food she passes on, the available oxygen has to pass through the placenta [afterbirth] and into the baby’s circulation. Increasing demand means curtailed supply. Perhaps ‘aware’ of these supply limitations the baby becomes more active. Many experienced mothers can tell the doctor better than he can find out for himself that she is going to produce and when.
All these influences, - and I have drastically over-simplified, - eventually combine to initiate the birthing mechanisms. Hormonal/chemical responses are now also triggered and, as physician one soon learned how to spot the signs that both mother and babe are ready to quit the status quo. Sooner or later the first muscle contractions that signal the start of what is aptly called ‘labour’ are felt.
Throughout the months of its sojourn in mother’s abdomen the growing baby lives in a sort of plastic bag, the amniotic sac, of fluid. Of course it’s not made of plastic but the resemblance is a fair one. This fluid bath greatly reduces the effect of bumps and blows sustained by the mother. It’s yet another ingenious protective mechanism.
The walls of the womb [uterus] are almost all comprised of involuntary muscle. When it contracts the mother also feels the need to tense her own voluntary muscles,.. the diaphragm and the abdomen wall. Put bluntly this intense contraction feels similar to the impulse felt during a forced defaecation, - but much more powerful. During the first few contractions which are often some twenty to thirty minutes apart the baby’s head is pushed down into the pelvis so that it rests on the muscle layer surrounding the opening [os] in the cervix of the uterus and the muscles of the pelvic floor. All are working together to push the little head downwards towards the only available natural exit route.
Slowly, slowly, under pressure, the os opens, dilating further and further under the waves of pressure from above. From the mother’s point of view her contractions become more frequent, more sustained, more exhausting and more painful. The focus of pressure at the opening is a bulging protrusion of the amniotic ‘plastic’ bag’ Extruding more with every contraction it can be easily felt by the obstetrician’s examining finger as it pushes through the opening and, in doing so, further forces the opening of the os to widen. At some stage or other, - and one seldom knows quite when, the sac ruptures under the strain, - the ‘waters have broken’ is the old-fashioned name still used today.
The baby’s head itself is now the presenting object. It can be felt as it squeezes its way through the gap and down into the vagina. There is one more major object for it still to encounter, - the vaginal sphincter. This is one of several circular muscles that surround the body orifices, - mouth, eyes, rectum and so on.
What is happening, in effect, is that Mother Nature is seeking to squeeze a little soft ‘tennis ball, - the baby’s head, of diameter about 3.5 inches, through a bony pelvic outlet of barely larger dimension. The timing is so perfect that the tiny ‘bones’ of the baby’s skull are still little more than plates of soft cartilage. They are flexible enough to be safely compressed and overlapped to respond to the changing pressures. The presenting part of the skull, - normally the back part [occiput] is nearly hemispherical in shape and is the best available compromise between the space needed for the brain and the constriction through which it must pass to gain freedom.
Towards the end of labour the rim of the os can no longer be felt by an examining finger. It has dilated from a diameter of two or three millimetres in the virgin state to over three inches and has drawn up to be somewhere out of sight around the baby’s head. The tiny head itself has passed through its opening and is now pressing down onto the vaginal sphincter and stretching it. This is, not surprisingly, the most highly sensitive part of the birth canal. As the baby’s head pushes its way out the muscle becomes pulled back over it. This is the most painful phase for the commonly tired and overwrought mother.
Throughout the latter few minutes the midwife has been exhorting the mother to push, - to bear down at the same time as the birth pain contractions arrive. Now that command ceases and the order becomes to stop pushing and just gasp in and out when the pains come. Understandably all the mother wants to do is get rid of this painful creature. But if she pushes too much this gives the muscle and skin of the area [the perineum] too little time to stretch. There is the risk of a tearing of the tissues instead. And here comes a very important option.
In a well conducted delivery, some minutes earlier a large hypodermic syringe with a wide bore needle will have been filled with local anaesthetic. If it is judged that the perineum looks as if it’s going to tear then, with the next contraction the syringe is swiftly used to infiltrate the endangered area. With the very next contraction one blade of a three-inch, blunt-nose surgical scissors is inserted flat between the stretched skin and the baby’s head that is causing the stretching. Turned, then, through ninety degrees, one well timed and positioned closing of the scissors at the peak of the next contraction is all that is needed. The skin severs neatly instead of tearing, freed of its constrictions the head comes out easily and the pains immediately cease. The relief on the mother’s face is one of the great rewards of being an obstetrician.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the local anaesthetic was not given to numb the stretched and painful peritoneum. Nor was it to prevent the pain of the scissors cut. The extreme pain of that moment is such that the mother never even feels the incision. It is lost in all the rest of the pain. So why give it? We shall soon see. [There is an old saying in obstetrics that if the wife had the first baby and the husband had the second,.. there would never be a third. I expect readers are already starting to understand why that is.]
At this point the baby’s head is now out in the fresh air. As often as not the rest of the wet, slippery little newcomer comes slurping out into the waiting hands. Occasionally this does not happen at once and the mother needs to give another one or two gentle pushes. Either way it’s time to wipe the baby’s eyes and make sure its nose and mouth are unobstructed. For in the next few seconds a huge and essential change takes place. The placenta becomes detached from the wall of the uterus and, together with the umbilical cord comes tumbling out without much more ado.
Until this moment the baby has been breathing by absorbing oxygen through the placenta. That source of supply has now ceased abruptly and totally,.. and forever. Baby must now start the process that will continue non-stop for the rest of its life. It must start to breathe the outside air. This is so obvious that it sounds simple. Yet it is vital.
As a rule baby coughs and snorts as it automatically clears the remaining amniotic fluid from its tubes. If it doesn’t do so a little help swiftly does the trick. Baby is picked up by the ankles, - by no means easy with all that blood and mucous everywhere, - and given a couple of sharp slaps on its bum. This extreme cause for indignation usually does the trick and the baby has a good cry. The new breathing pattern is established.
Now follows the reason why that local anaesthetic might prove useful. Whether the perineum tore under the strain or was deliberately cut to make extra room [episiotomy] it is now necessary to repair the area. This will involve inserting anything from one to six or eight sutures into the already bruised, battered and stretched tissues. No time need be wasted while an aesthetic is injected and given time to work. The stitching can be started at once and it won’t take many minutes before the mother can be washed and cleaned up, changed and made comfortable after all her efforts.
Careful work is essential at this stage as it is an operation upon the successful results of which the parents’ future sexual relationship may well depend or at least, be influenced. I preferred to use old fashioned catgut suture thread as the stitches are either absorbed later or simply fall out without the need to be taken out perhaps with some discomfort. Most people hate having stitches removed even more than having them put in. The overall aim is to render the perineum as near new as it was before and without any trapped nerve endings that might render it oversensitive to manipulation.
Needless to say the matter of the association with the sex life lends itself to some tension-reducing ribaldry. Hence the question ‘How soon after childbirth can sexual relations be resumed?’ The traditional answer is that that depends on whether the patient is in the ward or in a private room. A more relevant though less generally understood point might be that it depends on whether repair was necessary. My old chief’s advice was sage, - the result of decades of experience. ‘When about to repair the perineum first consider how many sutures you will insert,.. then add just one more.’ This last one he named ‘the anti-divorce suture.’ Well,.. I said he was experienced.
But I digress,..
So back to the story of my very first baby. As stories go it is nothing special but I tell it as it means so much to me and is of an event that was, and remains, a peak experience in my life.
Sharp at seven o’clock on a bitterly cold winter morning and before my routine work at the hospital began I reported to the secretary of Glossop. She gave me a printed sheet of rules and also a key to my sleeping cupboard. I was cautioned, - wagging finger and all, that it was forbidden to use the room telephone for personal outgoing calls.
I checked the allocations list. I had been listed for three imminent deliveries due that day. One had already been admitted, - her husband had dropped her in on his way to work. I went to the ward to meet her and introduce myself. ‘Mum’ had loads more previous experience than I had. She already had five children. The only reason for her having a hospital confinement was because our Head of Faculty was Professor Gilbert Strachan and he insisted on purely statistical grounds that after the fifth baby subsequent deliveries should be conducted in hospital. It was a good rule as, statistically, from then on complications became swiftly more frequent.
Mum was a charming lady. Her eldest son, I learned, was sixteen and I was a young looking twenty-one year old. She knew exactly how to deal with that age group. I examined her and filled in her admission papers. There was no reason to expect anything but an easy, - medically speaking that is, delivery. As she put it ‘The production line in there,’ she pointed to her bump,’ Seems to be in good running order.’
I popped in to see her twice during the day and found her chatting with staff and with other patients. It was still in those days when a patient, - be it out of error or a mere effort to please, called me ‘Doctor.’ She did, in front of everyone, and she was immediately on my list favourites. Nothing else happened all day but at about ten that evening when I unlocked my sleeping cupboard to prepare for bed I again visited her and the other two allocated cases who had come in during the day.
‘I think things might be about getting started,’ she said. ‘Hope we don’t have to wake you in the night.’ There was no sign on examination that she was right. But I learned that very night that the best thing for a doctor to do is often just to shut up and listen. The Professor always advised,.. ‘Gentlemen, listen to the patient, - she’s telling you the diagnosis.’ As usual both he, - and my patient, were absolutely right. I admit to considerable excitement as I went to bed.
Sure enough the phone rang at about two-thirty. I dressed as fast as I could and was in the delivery room in no time. ‘Sorry, Doctor,.. I told her to wait, - but you know how they are,’ said Mum. ‘Impatient to enter the Vale of Tears.’ The attending midwife passed me what I gradually came to realise is the backbone of the British Way of Birth, - a cup of hot, sweet tea. I can’t bear the stuff, - to me it tastes like a lot of dead leaves in hot water,- but I was too timid to refuse it.
‘She’s fully, and one-in-three with OK presentation,’ said the midwife. ‘Fully meant the os was fully dilated. ‘One-in-three- meant the contractions were coming at about three minutes intervals. ‘OK presentation’ meant that it was the back of the baby’s head that was in the correct position. It all meant that everything was going according to plan, - things were well advanced and delivery was on the point of happening. The nurse had not called me too early. I did a quick routine examination to confirm the data and I was satisfied that everything was going according to the book. To give her a little of the confidence I was by no means feeling I gave Mum’s hand a little squeeze. I think she misunderstood as she said ‘Don’t worry, Doctor, - it’ll be OK.’
I had learned early on about the value of an actual physical contact with a patient to calm fears and allay worries. To this day I don’t take a pulse by holding the wrist between finger and thumb as if it were something vaguely distasteful. I take the patient’s hand in mine as if in a handshake. Then I curl the fingers of the other hand around the wrist and feel for the pulse with the fingertips. I often do this even when I have no real need to take the pulse anyway. Sometimes I swear I can feel the effect it has. This time though it was the patient who was reassuring me.
Plunging my hands into a bowl of warm Dettol I uncovered Mum’s downstairs department. The perineum was well stretched and I could see the baby’s had pressing against it. I wondered if I’d need to cut. The midwife guessed what I was thinking. ‘It’ll hold,‘ she said. ‘It’s been through this enough times before.’ Much relieved I stopped eyeing the brutal looking scissors.
Now, at this stage of the delivery mostly all the attendant needs to do is put the heel of the hand over the occiput and hold it to make sure it doesn’t tilt any way but towards the stretched orifice. This is in order that the back of the head is still the presenting part. It is usually necessary to maintain the head in its correct position during the last half dozen or so contractions. That way the head completes the stretching process and, at last, emerges without doing any damage. ‘Stop pushing, Mum,’ I said, - as taught. ‘Just breath in and out quickly a few times until the pain is gone.’ That should buy a few more seconds for the stretching.
Not a bit of it. Before the words were scarce out of my mouth nature took a hand. This mum’s birth canal was as loose as a duffel coat sleeve. Also the mum was more than ready for the whole process to be over. The baby too was clearly in indecent haste to get born. I had no real say in anything to do with it. Aghast I just stood there as everything happened on its own. Out came baby’s head followed by what looked like a three yard long coil of umbilical cord,.. though really only about ten inches when I measured it,.. and a bug, soft squishy placenta and all in one hasty headlong rush. I had absolutely no say in things. There was Mum looking relieved, baby whining like a Dervish, blood and fluids everywhere. Only the midwife had a grimace. She picked up the mewling infant and went to wipe its eyes. ‘Say thank-you to the nice kind doctor,’ she said to the infant. ‘Thanks for whooshing you into the world at such a rate of knots I think you’ve forgotten your suitcase.’
She handed the babe to me to check its orifices and its vital signs. Everything was just fine. The assistant nurse, - it was her first baby too, I learned, - took the little morsel from me and wrapped a big towel around it. She then gave the bundle to Mum who immediately put the tiny mouth to her breast. ‘Ooh,.. that’s working,’ she said. ‘I can feel the contractions.’
It is a fact that by yet another remarkable natural phenomenon with which childbirth is surrounded, most babies, with their first few instinctive sucks, trigger reflex contractions in the wall of the now empty uterus that they had lived in for the past months. These are nowhere near as painful as those of a few minutes earlier. But they do help the uterine muscles to squeeze down into a smaller size thereby compressing the damaged blood vessels and reducing the loss of body fluids and blood from the raw area where the placenta had been attached. Ingenious!
‘Oh, Doctor,’ said Mum, still high on the euphoria of the moment, ‘You were wonderful. I’ll bet your mum will be proud of you when you tell her about us. Won’t she nurse?’ The midwife gave me the seen-it-all-before look that really said, though silently, ‘Mmm, not too bad for a beginner.’
I wiped my hands and reached for the report sheet to complete it. My watch said two-fifty four. I entered the data. Less than half an hour for the experience of a lifetime. Then disaster struck. I looked around at the other faces nonplussed. ‘Er,.. er,.. did anyone notice if it was a boy or a girl?’ I asked. Smiles all around, mostly at my obvious discomposure.
‘Oh, it’s a girl,’ said Mum. I just knew it was going to be a girl this time. Five boys in a row,.. and now they’ve got a sister. I’m going to get a star in my book today alright.’
I was so relieved. That got me off the hook. And everyone seemed to be pleased with whatever little it was that I had done.
‘We’re naming her Barbara, after my mother,’ said Mum. ‘Or Baxter if it was a boy. The boys and her Dad have been calling her Babs already. They were all so sure too.’ Pause. ‘Oh, I’m so thrilled.’ She tickled the wee mite under its chin. ‘So thrilled.’
I was too. I went back to my cupboard knowing exactly how it felt to walk on air. The buzz was simply enormous. But when I got into bed I just cried myself to sleep. It had all been so indescribably magical.
After my morning teaching rounds in the hospital I nipped back across to Glossop to see my new baby. She was still wrinkled and folded from her ordeal of the previous night but clean and pink and altogether wonderful. I adored her. ‘Would you like to hold her, Doctor?’ said Mum. Would I? I cradled her in my arms and said ‘Hello Little Babs,.. welcome to the world. What do you think of it all so far?’ I swear she opened her eyes and winked at me. And through all the hundreds of marvellous babies I’ve had since I’ve never forgotten the fabulous delight of that first lovely little lady. I hope Babs has had the life and the sort of thrills she gave me.
I remember you so well, Little Babs, - and although you were in my life for only two days you have been in my memory every day since.
Boy or Girl?
Now I’ll let you into a little secret. If there are any future obstetricians reading it could even be useful.
Some years later in my career I had a locum job in a small hospital for a few months while filling in a gap before the start date of another job. It was a private unit specialising in Caesarian deliveries. Generally speaking this is quite a simple surgical procedure and I did one about three times each week.
As long as the particular case is without complications,.. as is usual, - the routine is of the following rough pattern. After induction of anaesthesia an incision is made in the abdominal wall. This is normally made fairly low down as the scar is then more easily kept out of site and also because the aim is to gain access to the uterus without actually opening the abdominal cavity. This may sound daft but is, in fact, the way it’s done.
Once the surgeon has access to the uterus the first thing to do is to open the amniotic sac and deliver the baby’s head. For the next few moments the head is the only part of the baby visible to onlookers. At this point the surgeon needs to ‘sweep the membranes.’ In effect this means that using hand or fingers as appropriate the membranous wall of the sac is stripped away from the inner uterine wall. Normally that task is accomplished during the uterine muscle contractions of labour but, as labour is not happening, the task must be accomplished by the surgeon.
At this point I always used to relieve the inevitable tension in theatre by asking for opinions as to whether the baby was male or female. Needless to say this is always a major factor with any birth,.. somewhat diminished nowadays as so many already know the baby’s sex.
There would be some discussion between anaesthetist, nursing staff, the surgical assistant and, sometimes, a student or two. Bets would be placed. Then someone would ask,.. ‘OK, Sir,.. tell us. What do you think it will be?’
Behind my mask I would try to give my most enigmatic smile and make my pronouncement.
I was always right.
There would be smiles and laughs and always the question,.. ‘You always guess right, Sir. How do you do it.’ I used to claim it was just my personal magic and wisdom. I didn’t divulge the secret until I was in my last day or two.
How did I know? It was easy. When I inserted my hand to sweep the membranes I would just feel whether or not there was a small male appendage to be felt in the relevant zone.
It was as simple as that. But as a prestige earner it was a gem.
[Article published May, 2010]
Thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt cats were worshipped as gods; they have never quite forgotten this elevation. It’s also said that cats are smarter than dogs. No way can you get eight cats to pull a sledge through the snow. Having made those brief concessions to cat-lovers everywhere I return to the subject of these fascinating felines. A few months ago I thrilled the feline sector readership by explaining how to wash a cat safely and thoroughly,.. this, because it’s just not true that cats are clean animals. As any pathologist will tell you they are actually covered all over with dried cat spit,.. bacteria and all.
Anyway, such was the success of my first feline piece that I have been invited to contribute another item on cat care. This time I compare and contrast the two widely different methods to be used when giving either your cat or your dog a pill. A dog will trustingly assume you mean it well,.. a cat, despite all the love and pampering squandered on it will assume you intend mayhem.
To give your cat a pill:
To start with, prepare everything well in advance; you have a long a dangerous experience in front of you. Having cleared the decks for action pick up cat and tenderly cuddle it in the crook of your left arm as if holding a baby. Holding the pill between right thumb and forefinger, use middle finger gently to push down the lower jaw. As cat opens mouth pop pill into mouth and allow cat to close mouth and swallow. Easy.
Next, retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process. Retrieve cat from bedroom and throw soggy pill away. Take new pill from foil wrap, cradle cat in left arm holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.
Wrap clean cloth around bleeding forefinger. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of spare-room wardrobe. Call spouse from garden to help. Kneel on floor with cat wedged firmly between knees. Hold front and rear paws. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold head firmly with one hand while forcing wooden ruler into mouth Slide pill down ruler and rub cat's throat vigorously.
Retrieve cat from curtain rail and get another pill from foil wrap. Make note to buy new, unchewed ruler and to arrange repair of curtains. Carefully sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set to one side for gluing later.
Wrap cat in large towel and get spouse to lie on cat with head just visible from below armpit,.. that is, the cat’s head not the spouse’s. Put pill in end of drinking straw, force cat's mouth open with pencil and blow down drinking straw.
Check label to make sure pill contents not harmful to humans. Drink glass of water to take taste away. Apply dressing to spouse's forearm and remove blood from carpet using cold water only.
Retrieve cat from neighbour's garden shed. Get another pill. Place cat in cupboard and close door onto neck to leave only its head showing. Force mouth open with dessert spoon. Flick pill down throat with elastic band.
Go get screwdriver from garage and put cupboard door back on hinges. Apply cold compress
to cheek and check records for date of last tetanus jab. Throw your T-shirt away and fetch new one
from bedroom drawer. Ring fire brigade to retrieve cat from tree across the road. Apologise to neighbour who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat. Take last pill from foil wrap.
Tie cat's front paws to rear paws with garden wire and bind all tightly to leg of dining table. Find heavy duty pruning gloves from shed. Push pill into cat’s mouth followed by large piece of fillet steak. Hold head vertically and pour 2 pints of water down throat to wash pill down.
Get spouse to drive you to the casualty department and sit quietly while doctor stitches fingers and forearm and removes pill remnants from right eye. On way back call in at furniture shop to order new table.
Arrange for RSPCA to collect cat and ring local pet sanctuary to see if they have any dogs.
To give your dog a pill:
Wrap pill in bacon, ruffle dog’s ears and proffer pill. Mission accomplished.
Now who says cat’s are smarter?
How to Bath your Cat
There are those who love dogs and those who prefer cats. Few indeed are those who like, - or detest, both equally. Pet cats are kept in thousands. In England people will risk their lives for their dogs.
Conversely, in Cyprus where I sometimes live, every week I count about ten dead cats on the roads I use. Extrapolating from that there must be hundreds killed across the island every few days. When I suggested that we should be grateful for the appalling standard of Cypriot driving or the entire island would be three feet deep in cats I got more hate mail than when I once jokingly suggested that a man with a name like Adolf couldn’t be all bad.
Now, I hear, there is being planned yet another island-wide cull of superfluous cats and dogs. It’ll probably never happen. But I recall when, regularly, the local dogcatcher came around to control the feral cats and packs of wild dogs that freely roamed wide areas. It was not a pleasant spectacle but in all truth they really were a menace. Starving, noisy, mangy canine and feline thieves were tuppence a dozen. The catcher snared or trapped those he could and left poison for the rest. They were everywhere. There was no other way to control them.
It has long been obvious to me that you have more chance of converting someone’s religious or political beliefs than of changing them from dog lover to cat lover or vice versa. Personally, I like them both and have one of each, though dogs are my preference. To start with, the average dog is a nicer person than the average person. He’s also the only creature on earth that loves you more than himself. I have found, especially when dealing with children, that there’s no psychiatrist on earth as effective as having a puppy lick your chin. Whatever rubbish you talk your dog will cock his head and give the look that says ‘Wow. I’d never have thought of that.’ To err is human, - to forgive, canine.
What is more dogs come when they’re called. Cats just take a message and get back to you later. My dog is my companion. We shoot, walk, eat and sometimes even sleep together. I love her. My cat is utterly worthless. She’s never caught a mouse and even butterflies scare her witless. I love her just the same. My conclusion is that women and cats will always do as they please. Men and dogs may as well sit back and get used to that.
Anyway, your editor has asked me to include some useful advice,.. so here we explain how to bath the cat.
If you have an outdoor toilet use that. Clean the toilet bowl thoroughly. Put two teaspoons of shampoo in the water at the bottom. Raise lid and seat to their maximum height. Locate the cat and, while cuddling, murmur its favourite sycophantic lov-isms. Proceed smoothly to the bathroom. Now, in one smooth and continuous movement lower the cat into the toilet bowl and close both seat and lid quickly. [Note: You may need to stand on the lid to prevent cat’s escape]. Do not let any part of your body come near as claws will be seeking for any purchase they can find,.. and you’ll do nicely.
The cat will now self-agitate and create lots of cleansing suds. Ignore any noises from within the toilet. Strange as it may seem the cat is actually enjoying this. [Trust me].
Now flush the toilet three or four times. This creates a powerwash-and-rinse effect and I have found it most effective. Next comes the tricky bit. If you are still standing on the lid you will need a friend’s help at this point. Open the toilet door to its absolute limit. Whoever opens the door must hide behind the door. It is vitally essential, in Spades, that no-one and nothing is in the space between the toilet and the front door of the house.
Stand as far behind the toilet as space will allow and suddenly raise both seat and lid symultuneo,.. er,.. simutun,.. er,.. at the same time. The cat, now beautifully and spotlessly clean, will rocket out of the toilet and bolt into the fresh air where it will dry quickly in the sunshine. [Note: You may not see the cat again for some time].
Dr.Dick’s Roulette Method.
I have used this system in facilities all over the world. Usually I get to use it only once in any given place. As it always costs the house money they get smart to it pretty quickly.
1. The method is very simple.
2. The method is equally successful when played at casinos or in friendly games at home.
3. The method guarantees a winning sequence every single time,.. as long as it is played right through without a break.
4. If stakes are kept small,.. say £1 per point to start with, the player will quickly become adept. Then higher stakes can be gambled. Beginners are strongly advised to practice by using this safety plan.
5. The method should, where possible, be played on a 'No Limits' table; that is, a table where a stake may be made as high as the player wishes without any restrictions imposed by the house. Most good casinos have these.
6. It is essential to follow the precise Method and to follow through the entire sequence. Most sequences will take between five and fifteen plays. If the sequence is broken or altered success will be jeopardised. However, if it is followed exactly,... IT WILL ALWAYS WIN!
First the method itself,.. and then an imaginary example of an actual sequence being played.
THE METHOD: (in 10 Steps)
A. Remember (or write down) the five digit Numbers List:-
B. Draw yourself a simple Win/Lose score-card like the one below:-
WIN | LOSE
C. For the first bet select EITHER red or black. You will stay with that colour, whatever happens, right throughout the sequence.
D. Add the top and bottom digits of your Number List (1 + 1 = 2) and make your bet that number of pounds, (
£2). (Other units can be selected if preferred, for example, instead of one pound you can bet one hundred, - though this is best left until more expertise has been acquired).
E. If you win:- (a) Enter £2 in the Win column
(b) Cross off the top and bottom digits from your Numbers List.
If you lose:- (a) Enter £2 in the Loss column.
(b) Do NOT delete anything from the List
(c) Add the number lost (2), as a new digit, to the bottom of the List.
F. Make your next bet by again adding the top and bottom digits in the revised Numbers List and betting that number of pounds.
G. Carry out the same instructions for win or lose as in Step E.
H. Continue the series of bets always staking the sum that is the total of the top and bottom digits of the revised Numbers List on each occasion.
I. The sequence is completed when you have no digits left on the Numbers List.
J. At that point you will have won the number of pounds represented by adding the original five digits,.. in other words, ten pounds!
(i) Select red. First bet = 1 + 1 = 2,.. ( £2)
(ii) Say it is a win. (a) Insert 2 in win column
(b) Cross off top 1 and bottom 1. Your Numbers List is now 2 - 4 - 2.
(iii) Next bet is 2 + 2 = 4,.. ( £4)
(iv) Say it is a lose. (a) Enter 4 in loss column
(b) Add 4 to bottom of Numbers List. This is now 2 - 4 - 2 - 4.
(v) Next bet is 2 + 4 = 6,.. ( £6)
(vi) Say it is a win. (a) Insert 6 in win column
(b) Cross off top 2 and bottom 4 from Numbers List. This is now 2 4.
(vii) Next bet is 2 + 4 = 6,.. ( £6)
(viii)Say it is a win. (a) Insert 6 in win column.
(b) Cross off top and bottoms numbers from Numbers List. List is now eliminated and sequence is thereby completed.
(ix) Add total in Win column ( £14) and subtract that in Lose column ( £4).
(x) You have completed another winning sequence and are ten pounds in pocket!
It’s probably inevitable that even amongst the most affectionate of families differences of opinion are likely to occur and some of those can start to tower into seemingly insuperable rage.
I had some experience of this in my own family when I was growing up.
In the mining valleys of the Twenties and Thirties the people cared most about just getting by, which was not always easy,.. endemic exploitation and the consequent strikes being ever-ominous threats. Outside of that the miners and their families cared most about their gardens, chapel and singing and the local and national rugby teams. But there was one horrible feature, too. People, especially the womenfolk, could let a quarrel become a matter of such importance that it could overwhelm every other sensible emotion. Within my own family I saw trivial disagreements escalate to the state where someone could easily go twenty years without speaking to the person they loved most in the whole world.
On reflection I see now that although my father adored my mother, that adoration remained entirely one-sided as it was never reciprocated. Put bluntly they had only one quarrel in their forty years together. It was solely on my mother’s side,.. and it lasted forty years.
I, as an uninvolved observer, swiftly recognised this and other family quarrels for the obstinate, pig-headed absurdities they were.
There were occasions, later, when my son and my daughter and I would quarrel over some passing nonsense. I was aware of the blood tendency to that unsavoury characteristic and did my best to recognise and avoid it.
Furthermore, it never had much chance of lasting for long. I could always see in them the life and spirit and song of their mother whom I adored.
Queen Anne’s dead
Sometime in the mid-seventies I was waiting to meet Pix. She had been with an antique-loving friend and our meeting place was to be on London’s Portobello Road in Notting Hill, - then centre of the antique zone of the capital. It is extremely rare for Pix to be even one minute late, - her Dad was a naval officer, - and when the deadline had been passed by ten minutes I started looking in the nearest shop windows, almost all of which, to me, seemed to contain various scruffy looking forms of rubbish. I walked into one of the shops pretty much at random.
The place was vast,.. I’d seen smaller aircraft hangers. Everywhere were bits of neglected furniture, ornaments and glassware, flaking paint, dust and a pervasive aroma of long term neglect and decay. On one wall was hung a row of crucifixes and I was thereby reminded of the only antique shop joke I ever heard,…
There was an elderly Jewish entrepreneur whose routine it was to have a daily snoop around the antiques shops in the hope of finding something at a low price that he could then do up a bit and sell on for a higher one. An honourable enough style of commerce. On one such visit he spotted a rather ornate but well carved crucifix complete with the customary writhing Christ, crown of thorns, nails,.. the whole nine yards. Spotting its possibilities he buttonholed the proprietor, gestured up at the ornament and enquired how much it was. ‘Twenty five quid,’ replied the fellow.
The customer stroked his beard and gave the usual shrug. ‘Oy vey,’ he said, as such people sometimes do. ‘Oy vey,.. that’s too much.’ It was the proprietor’s turn to shrug. ‘Take it or leave it, Guv,’ he replied. The old chap muttered a bit and said, ‘It’s still too much for me,.. still., how much is it without the acrobat?’
Still, I digress again,…
As I wondered around the emporium there, pushed away into one corner I spotted a most beautifully made escritoire. One of its drawers looked to be in need of a little attention but it was otherwise prefect. A decent carpenter, - which I am, could work wonders on it. It was a little treasure just being used to support a pile of back copies of Film Fun and Beano. On top of all was a hideous Tiffany lookalike lamp, - that didn’t. It portrayed some unlikely looking siren lounging against an artificial rock and flashing one thigh from the folds of her artificial gown. I just knew I was on a good thing.
Not wanting to give away my interest I thought I could easily outdo the bloke who ran the place. When he came by I asked him if the lamp was genuine Tiffany. In the broadest of cockney accents he said, ‘Nah, mate, It’s just a piece of replica junk. He gestured around. ‘Like the rest of the stuff in this corner.’
I was thrilled. I was about to make a killing. What a show of kudos when I met up with Pix and her friend. I’d show ‘em.
The chap was turning to leave when, with my finest show of offhand nonchalance I ventured, ‘Er,.. that old desk thing underneath it,.. I reckon I could do that up a bit,.. how much do you want for it?’
He looked at me over the top of his dusty wire-frame specs. ‘Ooh. That one’s a Queen Anne, mate,.. five ‘undred guineas to you,.. for cash money.’
I was crushed. I swear I heard him snigger as I went out onto the street to resume my husband-in-waiting duties. I’ll bet he catches out conceited smart-alec nitwits like me every day of the week.
The Desk Clock
For perhaps the last forty years there has been a small and very beautifully made folding clock on my desk. The clock itself is of burnished silver and it is displayed from a purple velvet escutcheon,.. the whole thing folding into a compact cassette. It is of obvious taste and quality. Its engraving reads, simply, ‘For Dr.B.Richards.’ I have often been asked of its origin and whether there is a story behind it. There is,.. or, should I say, there are several rather intertwined stories. I have never told the stories before but now that I believe all the characters in it, apart from myself, are dead, I will.
During the Vietnam War between the Viet-Cong and USA there were several ‘wild’ units joining in on one side or the other. Most, but not all, were volunteers from one country or another,.. or several. At one point I was set the task of assembling a small group to go to a town in that country and bring out a certain professional gentleman. I put a team together and we arrived in the area on a day filled with hectic activity. The gent in question,.. a surgeon and adviser to the South Vietnamese government, was working in a French administered hospital some ten miles south from the ancient capital of Hue and near the city of Da Nang. We located him with no trouble and planned to leave with him next morning. There was no point wasting any time. The military in the area were reporting a lot of skirmishes over a wide area but not, we thought, anything that would bother our simple task. The doctor’s daughter, also a doctor, named Mai Lee needed to collect some belongings and some of her father’s books and papers. I was to pick her up very early and we would then join the rest of the party.
Mai Lee was exceedingly beautiful,.. possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Every man who saw her was as captivated as I was. Twenty four years old, tall, slim and willowy, she had long black hair, dark almond eyes and that tawny olive skin peculiar to her race. We were all a little bit in love with her. I was pleased, as team leader, to give myself the pleasure of collecting her from their hospital rooms. It was the last day of January, 1968!
That night the Tet offensive began. Contrary to widely held belief the Tet Offensive does not refer to a particular place. It is called that as it started on the night of the Vietnamese New Year which, I gathered, is known as Tet. At 05:00 hours when I was due to leave on the ten miles Jeep ride to meet Mai Lee we found ourselves on the edge of the battle zone, so swift had been the enemy advance. We were ordered by the American Officer Commanding, Bob Massana, to pull back another ten miles behind his cushion zone. Why it was called a cushion zone beats me as it was far from comfortable.
All morning groups of South Vietnamese troops regrouped and began moving north again past us and well stiffened with small US army units. Most were in some form of uniform. Some even wore steel helmets. Others had bandanas or strips of cloth worn Rambo-style around their heads. All were bristling with guns, grenades hanging on their webbing and each with two or three handily positioned fighting knives. As tough a bunch as I ever saw. I almost felt safe.
By mid-afternoon the area of my destination was classified as ‘probably mostly clear.’ I grabbed the chance to join a small column of jeeps belonging to an ad hoc group of French soldiers, - really no more than mercenaries left over from their own Indo-China wars in Cambodia and elsewhere. We had a trouble free trip through an area that had been briefly held by VC only that very morning. When we got to it we found the hospital was a shambles. What had been, the evening before, a neat, well-run unit had been mostly blown up by its passing predators. Everything had been looted. Bodies of both patients and staff were lying about in the yard and in what had been the two small wards. Most were dead,.. the unlucky ones not quite.
Together with my driver-escort, known as Misery [but real name Mike Brai, - a South African Boer], we searched the hospital for Mai Lee. We found her. We later learned that her injuries were received when she refused to tell where her father was. The VC thought he was hiding somewhere near.
Mai Lee had been cruelly and brutally treated. I choose not to describe what I saw. Suffice it to record that both her breasts had been severed, probably by bayonet slashes. Both her eye sockets were burned out by cigarettes and had only the shrivelled remains of eyeballs left in them. The pain must have been fearful. Mike and I carried her to our jeep. I filled her with as much morphine as I felt she could take and we set off back to the assembly point. It was rough going. She died when we were barely half way. It was a blessing, I suppose, though I didn’t quite see it that way at the time.
The French commandant, who had known her and her father, took charge of the body and promised to attend to its rights and burial. One more body made little difference. We flew back to Saigon where we re-joined the doctor and broke the dreadful news about his lovely daughter. He showed no emotion. He just reached out to shake my hand as he mumbled a thank-you. Then, overcome, he raised my hand to his mouth and kissed it for several long seconds. He explained that he wished to touch the very last hand that had touched Mai Lee alive. I never told him about the mutilations. I hope no-one else ever did.
Some sort of report must have gone through French channels, such as they were, concerning the entire business. I know that the doctor, - French speaking and who had qualified in France, stayed on in France for the rest of his short life. He was very well connected. I suspect, but do not know, that he had some part in the consequence which was that some months later I found myself given an award by the French Government. I still have the medal certificate which is amusing in that it mentions that the award is made ‘posthumously for confidential services rendered.’ Happily that report of my death was, and remains, premature.
Which all brings me back to the matter of my desk clock.
Several years later I had the part-time job of providing medical care for a British Army unit just outside Dover, in Kent. It was within my own practice area and I enjoyed the military contact and the work it involved. The CO at the time, Lt.Col. Allan Julius RE, has been a life-long friend and we are in close contact even now. One day a French-speaking lady and her son, Allain – aged about eight or nine, came to see me at my afternoon clinic in the camp. She needed to bring his injections up to date. Over the course of a few weeks I attended to the little chap’s needs. I could tell that she too, needed some medical care and I mentioned this to her. She explained that she had said nothing about herself as she was not sure she was entitled to UK medical services. I explained that that made no difference to me and that while I was in charge she would get whatever she needed.
Little Allain was a nice but rather quiet, almost withdrawn and reticent lad. I even thought he was a bit afraid of me. Gradually we got on better and I think he eventually got to like his ‘M’siuer le docteur.’ When I knew his mother better I mentioned the lad’s reticent attitude to her. Her story was a sad one.
She was half French and half Vietnamese. Her husband, a captain in the S.Vietnam army had been killed towards the end of the war leaving her without support and with the three months old Allain. Her husband had been involved with a UK-based charitable organisation and after his death the aid workers had somehow fixed passage for her to Germany where she married a British NCO. She had been roughly treated and then abandoned by her husband. When the husband’s unit was posted back to UK she and the lad had been offered temporary accommodation in one of the married quarters in Dover. Hence my involvement.
Her wretched story was touching indeed but her main concern was for her small son. Whereas she had French nationality Allain was in fact stateless and without papers. The legalities were complicated. Both the MOD and the Foreign Office had declined to help,.. no doubt being too busy arranging easy immigration by thousands of other alleged refugees who were pouring more or less unrestricted into the UK through a border as porous as a colander. I promised to see if there was anything I could do to help. I spoke to various old friends and past colleagues but no-one had any bright ideas until a previous acquaintance,.. British but an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, made a suggestion. He had remembered my French medal. He told me something that he said every Frenchman would know but few Brits. It appears that along with the ribbon, the medal and the pretty certificate goes a certain privilege. Any medal holder has the right to approach the President of France directly and not ‘through channels.’ I decided to try it. I wrote by registered mail directly to President Giscard d'Estaing via the French Embassy.
Within two weeks I had a reply from the Embassy in London. After that the story becomes tedious and seemingly endless. But the result was wonderful. Annielle’s French citizenship was confirmed and she was invited to go to France where citizenship would also be expedited for young Allain. Annielle’s gratitude was almost pitiful. I admit I found it embarrassingly effusive. Still, I like to think I had helped a little,.. as, perhaps and without knowing, had Mai Lee.
After that I heard no more until some years later. The years passed and many events happened including at one point the anonymous and by me unconnected arrival of the desk clock. When it reached me I was baffled about who might have sent such a delightful gift,.. in secret. Then I met up with my old legionnaire friend at a reunion, - the sort of event I hate and very seldom attend unless absolutely unavoidable. In our conversation we remembered and touched upon the Annielle incident. I wondered what had happened to her and Allain. My friend had few details but thought she had been employed as housekeeper by an elderly French doctor. Towards the end of his life they had been married and, when he died, she inherited considerable wealth and was independent for the first time in her life. The lad, it appeared, had proved academically very bright and was teaching at a French university somewhere.
It was only then that I connected the gift of the clock that had arrived so unexpectedly. I took it from my bureau and opened it for the first time in years. The clock had stopped. For the first time ever I removed it from its velvet surround in order to take it to our local watchmaker for attention. Beneath it in its case was a tiny square of parchment. On it was written ‘Merci, Docteur. ‘A’
And that’s the story of that little clock which now stands on my consulting room desk. Nice,.. isn’t it?
My, How Things’ve Changed
by Richard Dickenson
While talking to some youngsters I mentioned that my family was the first in my village to own a television set and that was to be in time for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1949. The nearest other was half a mile away. I was nineteen and I’d never before seen a television broadcast. It was black and white of course. We didn’t get colour until just before HM the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Our first TV was not one of these flat screen modern things with remote control. To switch it on you actually had to go right up to it and fiddle with its knobs. There was no need for a remote changer,.. there was only one channel. The set was a tiny ten-inch screen in a cupboard-sized wooden box and with a pull-down blind like a roll-top desk. Although we had a radio,.. which we called ‘the wireless,’ which we could listen to from 5am until midnight; television started at 6 pm and ended with playing the National Anthem at about ten.
The conversation started when we were clearing out some accumulated rubbish from an old shed. One of the boys picked up a bottle. Its crown cork top had half a dozen small holes punched through. What was it for, they asked. I remembered at once. My grandmother used it, filled with water, when she was ironing. She sprinkled the washing with it if she felt it was too dry. The kids were amazed. ‘Why not use a steam-iron?’ I told them that at that time,- about 1939, ‘Gran’ didn’t even have electricity in her mining valley home – let alone an electric iron. Only recently had she had gas and before that I remember her using a flatiron with burning charcoal in it or heated on the hob. They thought I was kidding.
We talked about my dislike for fast food and I told them that when I was a kid there was no such thing. ‘So where did you eat?’ they asked. ‘We always ate at home. At about six in the evening. When Dads got home from work Mothers would have ‘tea’ ready,.. a good cooked meal of bread, meat, three veg and water to drink.’ I explained that we all sat down together,.. at the table, and chatted through the meal. You got what there was and if you didn’t like it you were allowed to sit there until you did like it. Books were never allowed at the table. As kids we even had to ask permission to leave the table.
Then I told them that never until I was a newly qualified doctor did I have a telephone in my room. And that only took incoming calls. I was over thirty before there was a TV in my room. Our car,.. and there were only six in the village,.. had a headlight dipper that was a stud on the floor,.. and a cranking handle in the boot in case the engine wouldn’t start,.. which was no rare thing. Indicators were little pointing arms that popped out of the doorposts. It had no heater. We used hand signals through open windows however cold. I was never driven to school. It was a half-hour cycle ride on a bike that weighed over fifty pounds,.. and we did the journey there and back twice every day,.. and once more if there was rugby practice. The boys wore cycle clips to keep their trousers away from the oily drive chain.
Like most boys, from about eleven until fourteen I had a paper round. I got up at six every morning to do it whatever the weather and, in the summer, there was milking to be done even before that.
Then I told them that pizza wasn’t delivered. Indeed, no one had ever heard of such a thing,.. or of spaghetti,.. or kebabs. Mind you you could get a whopping slab of fresh cod cooked in batter and with as many chips as you could eat all wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper,.. and for three old pence. That’s less than 2p of today’s money. Takeaway had not been thought of. Milk and bread, however, was fresh on the doorstep by seven every morning. In the ‘pictures’ the stars kissed with their mouths closed. Profanity and violence were totally prohibited. On the other hand there was always a newsreel,.. and a cartoon,.. and you got a second ‘B’ movie thrown in free for every show.
‘However did you manage?’ they asked me, obviously perplexed. ‘Oh,.. things sound primitive, - but we played in the fields, went bird-nesting, climbed trees, collected firewood, made damns in the streams, learned to poach pheasants and trout and salmon. We gathered hazel nuts and blackberries,.. and bluebells for our Mums. We snared rabbits and we whistled at the girls. We wore hand-me-down clothing,.. and my school uniform was a mangled old tie, a cap and a scab on each knee. The men were mostly away at the war so we learned to plough with a pair of horses then scatter the seed from a shoulder sack. There were no tractors. We mowed hay with a horse drawn cutter or, if that wasn’t working with a scythe. We hauled corn by hand and horse. The days just weren’t long enough.
By today’s standards it sounds a bit hard. But it was a safe, happy childhood. We even found time to sow a few wild oats. Then we went to church every Sunday,.. mostly to pray for a crop failure.
And if you are that sort of age,.. how many of these do you remember. Liquorice, sherbet, sweet cigarettes, flash bulbs, clothes wringers, coal, peashooters, braces, bread-and-dripping,.. and a kettle singing on the hob all day.
The Tale of Bonny Walker
It was the Swinging Sixties. Carnaby Street and King’s Road, Chelsea were at the height of their glory. Smart men wore kipper ties. Girls wore remarkably little. Everywhere there was the dry, sweet smell of scorching marijuana. Flower power was happening and there was that heady but ultimately false feeling that peace just might be going to break out all over the word.
Alas, Darwin’s view of nature all too swiftly reasserted itself. Apples again dangled from Eden’s trees and serpents rustled again,.. even in the village bushes.
Bonny Walker was fourteen. Despite her age she was a sharp, streetwise, walking mantrap. The tightest jeans or the shortest mini, the skin-tight sprayed-on look of her blouse, the long blond hair, the liberally applied day-glo lipstick,.. this was exactly as nature intended her to be. No-one could fail to notice. No man would see her and be unaffected by that familiar, wanton, crawling sensation in the front of his trousers.
The Walker’s next door neighbours were the Martins. Maurice Martin was a quiet, homely chap. I liked him. His pride and joy was his garden and he grew very fine fuchsias. We chatted often. Unlike him, his wife, Bethany, was very reserved, almost withdrawn,.. a bit untidy and appearing to lack enthusiasm for anything much, - even life itself.
It later transpired that Martin had developed quite a thing for young Bonny. His attraction to the shapely young hoyden was something he shared with just about every breathing man in the district. It was a universal truth that cars passing the Walker’s house would noticeably slow down a little whenever Bonny was cutting the lawn or trimming the roadside hedge. Martin did, however, take things rather further as soon became common knowledge. In his bedroom, - he and Beth slept separately – and no surprise there – was at the corner of his house nearest to the house and garden of the neighbours. It would have been amazing if he had not, once or twice, caught sight of young Bonny when she was in the garden. She loved to sunbathe and, out of sight because of the trees and hedges she was none too careful with her attire. Sometimes she wore a tiny bikini, - at other times not. Sometimes she partly covered herself with a towel, - sometimes not.
Maurice began to spend more and more time in his bedroom. He fixed up a small desk and chair and, to make it more like an office he had an in tray and an out tray, a blotter pad and a pencil sharpener. He even had a telephone extension installed there, - a pretty racy idea in the early 60s. I saw the layout once or twice when I had cause to visit him medically. What I didn’t see was his growing collection of spyware. A pair of field glasses were followed by quite a powerful telescope and a camera with a telephoto lens. Maurice even did an evening class course in photographic processing in the local secondary school..
Perhaps it could all have been classed as a bit of more or less harmless Peeping Tom behaviour but like so many things that have a small beginning Maurice’s interest increased to become something more of an obsession. At some point, too, it emerged, Bonny had spotted the interest being taken in her from the upper story window. And she had played along, perhaps taking an impish delight in making Maurice’s efforts to snoop more and more rewarding. Then, inevitably, there came that fateful day.
Like most neighbours the Walkers and the Martins had a pretty good idea of each other’s routine lifestyle and comings and goings. On one lovely summer Saturday morning Mr. and Mrs. Walker had, as usual, gone into town shopping. Mrs. Martin likewise. They all knew how much of a routine that was. So did Maurice, - and so did Bonny. She was settled in the garden with her book and a glass of lemonade. Maurice was in the bedroom focussing his lenses.
Clearly some signal passed between them. The entire episode was picked over word by word by the lawyers later on. But whatever the truth or the lies the upshot was that a conversation was initiated between them. Maurice admitted to her that he had been watching and she admitted that she knew it. The conversation developed and Maurice told her that he had taken some pictures of her, - that they were a bit naughty, - and would she like to see some of them?
Bonny went down to the bonfire corner of the garden where there was sufficient of a gap in the hedge for her to slip through. Maurice took her to his garden shed, unearthed his albums and showed her some of his artwork. Far from being shocked or disgusted Bonny found it all rather exciting. Whether Maurice suggested it first or whether Bonny made the invitation was never clearly established but there then started a photography session during which Bonny posed provocatively on Maurice’s workbench. Although only fourteen it is by no means surprising that Bonny found herself influenced by the natural effects of her adolescent hormone bath. Maurice too was worked up to the level where he parted from the societal requirements of both law and common sense. He grabbed the chance to shoot off several rolls of film.
After that first occasion there were several more such meetings always when there was no risk of discovery. More pictures were taken and the two began to develop further feelings for each other. On one particular occasion, again on a Saturday morning, Maurice actually took one photograph, - a close-up, - of Bonny’s hand holding his erect penis. Of all examples of bad timing it was literally as he clicked the shutter that Mrs.Martin walked, unsuspecting and unexpected, into the workshop,.. and the shit hit the fan.
There were shouts, screams, tears and threats. Neighbours overheard and became involved as did the Walkers when they came home, - and as did the police.
Even now, years later, it is impossible to know for sure what really happened and when. I was never involved in the medical aspects of the case; my family and I had all been away on our annual summer trip to Greece when it all took place.
The resulting pictures were by no means offensive of themselves. It was the associated legalities that caused most of the trouble. Despite the efforts of the prosecution it was never established that there had been actual sexual relations,.. save maybe once,,.. and that once only a perhaps. Of course the law had been broken. In those days the mere approach of a penis to a vagina was usually interpreted as intercourse and, between an adult and an underage girl it was also rape. Sexual intimacy or not Maurice faced charges and there was no doubt he was guilty of something. Bonny left school. Her parents quarrelled, left the area and were divorced three years later. Mrs.Martin also moved away rather than face the ongoing horrors and shame.
During the trial, with the gutter press competing for every sauciest and most pruritic morsels divulged, every feature of the events was hauled into the view of the avid public. The nauseating effrontery of media claims for ‘the public’s right to know’ contrasted with the wish of all those involved,.. and the villagers, too, for the whole sordid thing to be over. Bonny was interviewed and questioned several times, both in court and out of it, and by everyone from lawyers to do-good groups and feminist vultures endlessly proclaiming the sheer vileness of men. Few knew the facts but everyone had an opinion.
Maurice went down for three years.
My personal feelings were, by comparison, irrelevant but I had them just the same. I was very taken with the way Bonny described her patently genuine feelings for Maurice,.. who, she pointed out, had never hurt her or harmed in any way. [Some psychologists disagreed with her]. I believe that in her inexperienced way she really loved him. In return it was clear that he adored her. It was all so much more than merely sensual. They had had a happy relationship that was in many ways fundamentally affectionate. Tenderness and warmth had been its main components. There are arguments that the child could have been emotionally scarred for life. Such fears are valid – though not inevitable. I doubt if she had been sexually ‘deflowered,’ - a nasty expression much used in court, though this had become a, if not the, main issue during the proceedings. Physical examination by three experts, - an unnerving experience for any teenager, - had been inconclusive.
Without suggesting that such relationships can be ultimately beneficial or are always damaging I find myself with doubts. If the involvement of others, the police, the law, the insulted feminists, the holy clergy and Uncle Tom Cobley and all had not been there to ‘protect’ her what were the chances of Bonny having suffered irremediable damage I don’t know. I do know that ‘the normal sequence of events’ brought sorrow, shame and damage to almost everyone else involved. I do wonder if the law is so sacred that it must take precedence over human lives and feelings.
I look back on my own seduction at the age of around thirteen and by a close family member. I can’t detect it as having had any but beneficial effects on me. Rather the reverse. And she felt the same about it. Yet it was undoubtedly an illegal business and a similar hash could have resulted if anyone had found out. As it was she and I rather relished the whole thing - we discussed it all in some detail thirty years later and were quite agreed about that.
I never saw any of the Martins or the Walkers after it was all over. But from a very odd source I did get some news many years later on. A retired police colleague from the west country sent me a local newspaper cutting. An elderly shopkeeper, a man in his seventies, had been drowned while successfully saving the lives of a father and daughter who had got into difficulties in the sea near his home. He had owned a photographic shop and business. His name was mentioned as Maurice Martin. Attached there was a press photograph of his wife and two teenage sons at the funeral. The lady was named as Mrs.Bonny Martin,… née Walker. There was no mistaking her.
Now there’s a happy ending.
Wild animals,.. in Crete?
It was around 1965. We were going on our very first holiday to Crete. I needed, in those days before I gave the task up as hopeless, to maintain a constant search for any small thing that might give me a chance to outdo,.. or even equal, the wife. It was then that I read, in the Times Literary Supplement, no less,.. so it must be true,.. that all you need for basic communication in any language is about two hundred words. A mere two hundred words. That, I felt, should be well within even my poor language capabilities.
So, I got a book and had my two hundred words more or less ready well before we set off. This time I would be less outclassed than usual. I should add that that is not easy as the wife speaks quite good Greek,.. also German, Spanish and Italian. And she’s thoroughly fluent in French. It can all be very trying.
After the first few days in Crete I found I was managing fairly well. There were even one or two guarded compliments. As long as I could start the conversation I was pretty much all right,.. ordering the beers, passing the time of day, exchanging greetings, ordering the beers, buying petrol,.. ordering the b,.. well, you catch the drift.
Anyway, there we were, driving along this beautiful, deserted beach in a lonely stretch on the south of the island. We looked at each other with one of those knowing looks that pass between couples in their third decade of marriage. We parked the car and wandered down a ragged path through the dunes where masses of sea lavender glowed purple in the bright sunshine.
The air was laden with the aroma of pines and wild thyme. The surf was crashing. The blue sea was crystal clear and there was a million miles of sunny, blue sky overhead. In front of us were acres of flat, spotless sand with not a soul in sight. It was Crete at its perfect best. We walked hand in hand, romantic really, even at ten in the morning.
Then we came across the tracks, - several sets of them.
There were two entirely different kinds, both made by the feet of some largish creatures. They were already much dried and were no longer distinct enough for recognition. We could not identify them at all. The wife wandered off as I stood there pondering the puzzle a little more.
Gradually I became aware of what I now know is a typical Cretan countryside sound. The clanging of half a dozen different toned bells sounding at random as they dangled from the necks of their grazing owners,.. a mixed herd or flock, whichever you like, I suppose, of sheep and goats. Coming slowly towards me along the water’s edge there were about fifty of them with a single shepherd leading them. It is a fact that although in our country the shepherd drives the flock, in Crete he leads them. The old man wore vraccas,.. the baggy, black trousers of the older folk. Over his shoulder he carried a leather water bottle and a sheepskin bag containing his few needs for the day.
There was no-one else in sight apart from the wife a hundred yards away now. What an opportunity. I had plenty of chance to watch the man approach and work out what to say to him,.. in Greek, of course.
‘Kali mera,’ I said. Good morning.
‘Kali mera, Kirios.’ There was the first flickering of a grin on his face.
‘Poli zeste,’ I observed. It’s very hot.
He shrugged bravely, obviously more used to the temperature than I was. ‘Etsi-ketsi,’ he replied. So-so.
From this point on, although written in English, our conversation took place entirely in Greek,.. if you call it a conversation, that is.
As things went along, there being no pressure on time, I found the going got easier. Indeed, I rather enjoyed it all. I pointed to his flock-herd.
‘Good,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Good.’
‘Good for eating,’ I added. ‘For klefitiko,’ mentioning my favourite local dish. He laughed and agreed. We were getting along famously. I branched out bravely.
‘Are they all your animals?’
‘No. Some are the beasts of my father-in-law.’
‘Aha,’ seemed to bring that little sally to a dead end.
‘He owns much land,’ said the man, sweeping his arms around and about. ‘All this here.’
‘Even the,.. er,.. the beach?’
‘Yes. This too.’
‘It’s OK for us to be here, is it?’
‘Of course. You are welcome.’ Another more or less dead end.
‘You live here?’ I asked.
‘Yes. In the village. There,’ he pointed towards a group of houses on the hill. ‘It is a good village.’
I agreed. A good village. I’d never been there but it would have seemed churlish not to concur just the same.
‘You are from England?’
I wondered how he could possibly have guessed.
‘Malister’ Yes. Teacher,.. er,.. daskalos. I am,.. I am,.. vacation,.. er,.. on vacation.’
‘Where do you live in England?’
‘In Kent.’ A blank response to this. ‘Near Canterbury. Can-ter-berry,.. near the university,.. er,.. professor, - university,..? You know? Near Dover. You know. White,.. er,.. white,.. er,’ I gestured towards the small rocky cliffs. ‘Er,.., white mountains.’
‘White,’ I said again. How to explain? ‘Er,.. white,.. snow,.. white mountains,.. like snow?’
He nodded politely but clearly did not understand.
Brainwave. I gestured for him to follow and led him over to the mysterious footprints.
I didn’t know the word for tracks.
‘Feet,’ I said. You know,.. animals’ feet,.. er,.. megalo,’ Big. He agreed.
‘Ochi arni,’ I said. Not sheep. This was certainly true.
‘Not sheep,’ he agreed and shook his head.
‘Ochi rifi’ Not goats. I’ve been,.. er,.. examining them,.. studying them carefully.’
He agreed again. Progress was slow. He wasn’t getting the message, I thought. I tried another direction.
‘Big animals,.. er,.. eat,.. danger.’
I could tell in a flash from the raised eyebrows that he was surprised.
‘Big dog?’ I asked.
‘Ochi,’ he said. No.
‘Animal,.. er,.. mountain,.. from mountain?’
He nodded his head this time. Clearly we were getting somewhere. He obviously agreed.
‘Animal like dog?’ I said. ‘ Er,.. big dog-animal. Teeth?’ I pointed to my mouth and made my hands into the shape of jaws opening and closing. ‘Bite,’ I said. ‘Animal,.. big,.. eat,.. like dog?’
He understood, - or so it seemed, and nodded his head.
‘Wolf,’ he said. I was startled. I knew there were wolves in Greece and Turkey, but I never knew there were any still in Crete.’
‘All wolf feet,.. these?’
‘Lion,’ he answered. ‘Mountain lion. Like big cat.’
I was astounded.
‘Panayiamo,’ I said, delightedly squeezing in one of my few Greek expletives. All the saints.
‘Dangerous,’ I said. ‘Eat,.. er,.. people. Children? Come to village. Eat babies? Take to mountains,.. take to mountains and eat?’
He came out with several phrases I couldn’t follow and nothing could bridge the gap. We tried a few more sentences with only sparse success.
Anyway, I felt I’d done enough really. Kept the old end up. Flown the flag a bit. Kept the natives happy. Left a good impression and all that. I let the chit-chat die out. The flock had drifted away a little. We parted on excellent terms and he started to move away, gathering his charges behind him. I watched, well pleased, as they moved off along the rocky shore cropping at everything that grew there.
When I next looked up I saw the old man, now some distance away, was in conversation with my wife. Her Greek being quite good, she was having a better time of things. I saw them look my way. The man pointed at me. I waved and he waved back. He then made a sweeping gesture with his arm towards the village and the mountains behind it. They spoke for some minutes. The next thing I saw him leading the animals up the bluff and onto the better pastures beyond. The incident was over and I thought nothing more if it.
It was an hour later when the matter cropped up again. We were in the car, all the windows open, heading around the coast once more towards Ayios Nikolaos.
She began in the over-polite way she always does when about to trounce me.
‘Saw you chatting with that old Greek shepherd.’
‘Yes. Nice old fellow. Very amiable.’
‘I thought so, too.’
‘We got on pretty well, actually. I was rather pleased with my command of Greek.’
‘Well, you sure impressed him.’
I’m sure I positively preened. So much so that I didn’t even suspect, let alone see, the trap.
‘I was showing him those tracks and asking his opinion, as a matter of fact.’
‘So he said. But, Darling,.. ‘ Here it came. I knew it. Darned woman has faultless timing. ‘But why did you spin him that yarn about the lion? He took it all seriously.’
‘Whaddya mean? What yarn? What lion?’
‘Well, he told me you were a professor from England here to study the animals. The tracks had interested you. Very impressed, he was. Said you knew they were caused by wolves and mountain lions that had been trying to steal babies from the villages near here and take them up to their dens above the snow-line to devour them. Why ever did you say such things? You really are a shocker.’
I’ve more or less given up Greek since then. And I’ve reconsidered that theory that two hundred words are enough for basic communication. It’s a monstrous lie. You need more than that,.. far more.
Oh, and we never did find out what made those damn tracks.
You would hardly be noticing the tiny village of Cwmrhyddin on the map at all. Yet it is a place as the tale tells. And it was there on the first day of January, 1900, that David ‘Dai’ Davies was born.
He worked in the mines all of his life. At first he was a simple collier working an eleven hour shift somewhere near to the end of the Kaiser’s War. He always counted himself lucky to be doing even that lousy job in an atmosphere laden with coal dust rather than being called up as just one more piece of infantry canon fodder in the trenches of Flanders. Throughout his late teens he attended evening classes run by the mineworkers union. Gradually he acquired the little qualifications and the experience that would take him off the actual coal face and into better paid and more responsible work. He became, in time, a packer, a winder and a tallyman before moving into the office as a clerk and, later, a foreman and Records Manager. Throughout his working life he built a reputation for his education, his good sense and his reliability. He was one of those rare but dedicated socialists who understood the value of discourse and compromise rather than the idiocy of confrontation and the strikes that crippled both miners and ordinary citizens.
In the late twenties he earned an MBE, - a very rare thing for a miner, - when there was a near disastrous mining rock-fall a mile underground. He was one of the unlucky thirty men trapped down there for four days. His influence in controlling the panic situation and instilling the patient calmness that preserved morale won him not only a medal but the gratitude of his fellows.
His thoroughness came over to me the day he came to sign on as a patient in my practice. He told me he had been to the town library and read up on all the doctors in the area. He then made a list of all the ones he would visit and ‘interview’ in order, until he found one he liked and who would accept him. For his own reasons he put me at the top of his list. We got on at once and as he was such a plausible fellow countryman I was pleased to welcome him aboard.
I too hailed from near the mining valleys and many a time after that we talked about common interests and shared memories. He told me of the early days when, half naked, he and the other youngsters would be set to cut coal from a seam perhaps only three feet thick and set so low on the coalface that they had to lie down on their sides and swing their pickaxes horizontally to hack out the coal. There was no protection at all from the dust and many died young with their lungs rotted to soggy, black sponges full of pus and tuberculosis bacteria. No wonder Dai could be counted on to stick up for the underdog. He’d been one.
It didn’t take long for the local townsfolk of Sandwich to spot the friendly and helpful sagacity of this wise old gent. Regularly I’d see him in the town just standing and chatting to someone and, increasingly, I heard people say that that Mr.Davies had given them some good ideas or some helpful advice.
This reputation of his also did a lot of good to my own young medical practice. When discussing medical matters, - as so many older folk are apt to do, - playing a kind of ‘symptom tennis’ as I termed it, - he would advertise for me by telling his audience what a marvellous doctor I was,.. ‘That Dr.Richards is wonderful,’ he’d say. ‘He gave me some new pills for my arthritis. I’ve not even taken one yet and I’m better already.’ Hidden in that little quip was the beneficial, if near subliminal, promotional idea.
I remember too the style of his wry humour that could so easily put you fairly and squarely in your place. Not at all surprisingly after the hard conditions of his working life in the cramped, filthy, wet mines he had a lot of trouble with his joints. He came in to surgery one day when one of his knees was being particularly tiresome. I knelt down in front of his chair, rolled up his trouser leg and rolled down his thick, mid-thigh length woolly socks,.. hand knitted by Mrs.Davies. After giving me a moment or two for palpating and moving the joint about he said ‘What do you think, Doctor,.. what’s the problem today?’. I offered him the usual smile and a shrug. ‘Dai, you know very well what it is. I’m afraid it’s old age.’
He gave me his biggest grin,.. and that was big,.. then he responded with ‘Nonsense, Doctor Bach.’ He slapped his other knee. ‘This one is exactly the same age to the day,.. and it’s as right as ninepence.’ Dai always won. Resistance was futile.
Sadly he didn’t make old bones. I remember the morning when his wife phoned to say he had died peacefully in his sleep during the night. She had not liked to disturb me at the time. ‘When it’s over it’s over,’ she said. Then she added, ‘He’s gone now, but I tell you Doctor Dick he had one of his great big smiles on when he went. I think he must have been just recognising an old friend as he passed over.’
I still miss Dai with his sparkling eyes, his basso profondo voice, the soft, deep, slow Welsh accent and the sheer zest of his sense of humour. When Shakespeare used the word ‘gentle’ he didn’t use in its modern sense of being soft and tender. To him gentle was meant as a mark of a kind of nobility, quality and status as in the original sense of a gentle-man. Dai went from being a low member of his society to become an admired man of experience and wisdom,.. a natural gent whom I include in Shakespeare’s St.Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V before Agincourt,..
‘Be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.’
Thanks for your sometime company, Dai. For me you were one of the great memorables.
Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Brrrrp - brrrrp.
Brrrrp - brrrrp.
'Oh, hello, Senor. It's Ernesto, the housekeeper at your country hacienda.'
'Yes, Ernesto. You got troubles?'
'Si, Senor. Your parrot is dead.'
'On, no. Not the pretty one that won all the prizes?'
'How did he die, Ernesto?'
'He ate some poison meat.'
'How did he get poisoned meat?'
'He found part of the dead horse and ate some of that.'
'What dead horse, Ernesto?'
'Your thoroughbred, Senor.'
'Damn. How did he die?'
'He got heart strain, Senor.’
‘How the hell did he get heart strain?’
Senor, he got it from pulling the water trucks.'
'He's not a pulling horse, Ernesto. Why did you need the water trucks pulled.'
'To put the fire out, Senor.'
'What fire? What burned, Ernesto?'
'Your house, Senor,.. the big hacienda.'
'Jeez! How did it catch fire?'
'A candle fell over, Senor, and caught fire to the curtains.'
'Why on earth did you need candles,.. the house has electricity.'
'Si, Senor, but the candles,.. they were for the memorial service.'
'What memorial service? Who's dead.'
'Senor,.. your wife.'
'My wife? What happened? How did she die?'
'Well, Senor she arrive unexpectedly one night. I thought she was an intruder and I hit her on the head with your Number Nine iron. An she died, Senor.'
There was a long pause.
And then another.
'Ernesto,.. if you're going to tell me you've broken that iron your fired.'
The Pope recently said, and I quote, ‘All God’s creatures go to Heaven.’ Now this chap seems a nice enough fellow but I have a question. How does he know the place even exists let alone that it is full of mosquitoes, Black Widow spiders and worms that burrow blinding holes into the eyes of new-born African babies and which, presumably, are included in the ‘all.’? And if he really does have a red telephone hot-line that so informs him why would he encourage the rest of us to go there with all those nasties about. Don’t you just despair at this kind of wishful thinking and its sparsity of logic? By this argument there must, by now, be an awful lot of these horrid creatures there presumably also enjoying eternal life. How such bizarre theories get dreamed up is anyone’s guess.
However, just for once let’s set aside baseless ideas and stick to fundamental facts. After the resounding Israeli success in the Sinai War a large group of the best Israeli archaeologists were sent into the area. They were well equipped and well provisioned. Their job was to investigate and find concrete evidence of the events following the Exodus, - the forty years of wanderings of ‘The Children.’ Such evidence, it was realised, would strongly support the age-old claims of Jewish history, God’s decrees and, by extension, political and divine support for the very existence of Israel A lot was at stake and no effort or expense was spared.
They found nothing. There was not a shred of useful evidence. Yet, according to the only source of data – the Good Book - some 600,000 warriors and families pottering about for forty years had left not the least trace of their presence. Similarly there is no evidence that Hebrew peoples spent some four hundred years in Egypt before the alleged exodus. Furthermore, nowhere except in the Book is there evidence of Abraham and his travels. The whole charade is shot full of holes. From the very start of this Biblical stuff we find that there are two versions of the Creation and they are strikingly different. Put simply, they can’t both be right.
Furthermore for example, in this period – say around 1900 to 2000 years BC the Bible mentions Philistines and Arameans. Yet these people did not appear in history until around 1200 BC. It also frequently mentions camels yet the camel was not domesticated until 1000BC at the earliest. What is more, and camels or not, at that time the entire area was part of Egypt. So, if the Hebrews had ‘escaped’ they would just have moved from Egypt into,… well, another bit of Egypt.
All in all then, there is no evidence of the claimed great battles and certainly the detailed history of ‘Palestine’ produces no evidence of any dramatic change of cultures in these centuries. In David’s time Jerusalem was a village. The great achievements of David and Solomon are recorded nowhere else but in that Book.
As for more modern events the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] tell very different stories of Jesus’ trial than does John’s version. John’s account appears the more plausible. But the point is that, yet again, both versions cannot be right,.. Pilate’s ‘reasonable’ conduct is very out of character for him and, overall, it is most doubtful if he and JC ever really met.
And to cap it all off, the way that Jesus and the synoptics promised the very early return of the living Jesus also never happened. Indeed, the synoptics and St.Paul [later] and even Jesus himself clearly got it all wrong.
The entire panoply of Judaeo-Christianity is a tissue of conjecture, fabrication and wish-think. If the Bible truly is the word of God then he was not very well informed as gods go even about the things he did himself.
Throughout all religions there is a tendency to over-complicate. So called theologians have seized upon one unproved ‘fact,.. that some kind of a god does exist. Based on that single unsupportable fib they have contrived an immense tangle of beliefs, doubts, variations and pure conjecture. Celestial temples, angels, archangels, mystical holies-of-holies. They’ve even dreamed up plans of what paradise looks like in terms of its architecture and saintly inhabitants.
Somehow I suspect we can all safely ignore the quoted papal words and anyone who goes there will be as much protected from insect pests as we are on earth.
9/11 and the Cordoba Mosque
A huge row seems to be bubbling up over plans for an Islamic Cultural Centre and the Cordoba Mosque two blocks from the Twin Towers site in New York. This is declared to be a symbol of the desire for tolerance over primitive, prejudiced thinking. So be it.
The vast sums needed for the project were raised largely from totalitarian regimes in the Middle East by the driving force behind the plan, - one Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Readers might find it informative to read the thoughts and past record of the Imam by googling him. Still, it does get our fuel tax money recycled into the New York building industry.
It might be remembered that there are plenty of examples of similar Islamic ideas. For instance the Ka’aba was built over a pagan sight dating from before Abraham. The original Cordoba Mosque, in Spain, was built over the Christian church of St.Vincent. In Jerusalem the Al Aqsa Mosque stands over the ancient Jewish Temple. In Istanbul the Ay.Sofia Mosque still stands on and is converted from the Sophia Basilica. In common with similar deeds in other creeds these clearly symbolised the triumph of Islam over other, more puny contenders. Somehow it’s hard to visualise them as genuinely intended as symbols of tolerance, co-operation or political correctness. But maybe I’m wrong.
Another thing causing a little disturbance of my normally tranquil disposition is the infamous inference that Mr.Obama has, in fact, flirted, if nothing more, with Islam and has followed his Kikuyu father, Hussein Obama into this inclination. Few indeed manage easily and permanently to break away cleanly from infant indoctrination. The majority carry their early brain washing to their graves. And Obama did attend a Moslem school in Indonesia for a couple of years, it’s said. Now, according to Islamic Law once a Moslem is a Moslem he is always a Moslem,.. for ever. Nothing can change that. A while back and perhaps a shade indiscreetly the then Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Gheit, was reliably reported as having related that Obama told him in confidence that he is still a Moslem. One recalls that when Gorbachev demolished the old Soviet Union there were many suggestions that he had acted thus in furtherance of his duties as a Western ‘sleeper’ for decades while awaiting his chance. For sure, if you accept that there is a Moslem in the White House many things start to look a shade different and anything becomes plausible.
In preparing material for this little piece my homework included scouring several information sources. I noticed one especially interesting thing. I found numerous Islamic writers and thinkers who are calling for reason and tolerance and even one or two who ‘regretted’ all terrorist activity. However, not one did I find who came out with a blunt condemnation of the 9/11 atrocity. Still, whether building the new Cordoba Mosque is an act of triumphant stealth or not and whether you accept the authorised version of the events of 9/11 it is an inescapable fact that the US constitution permits total freedom of religion everywhere. Surely that has to be right,.. doesn’t it?
Personally I believe that ninety nine per cent of Moslems are peace-loving individuals like myself,.. though many of them may not be altogether against the idea of Moslem ascendency. There is an unmistakeably appealing symbolism in the ‘Twin-Towers-down–Cordoba-Mosque-up’ idea. Nevertheless, with opinions as varied as they are the Cordoba concept seems likely to be viewed as clumsy, uncaring and not thoroughly thought through. I see its consequences less as a success of tolerance than as reduced understanding, and rancour.
If tolerance is really the Islamic motive then this could be easily tested. Opposite the new mosque, why not propose a branch of Victoria’s Secret complete with nude models in the window. Have an all night cheap-booze bar on another side. Next door perhaps the Jewish Boy’s Brigade could have a headquarters and, behind, what about a large pork-butcher with a barbecue pit selling inexpensive helpings of pork ribs,.. including at prayer times. Would the much vaunted Islamic tolerance then still thrive, one might ask?
Most folks know me as a gentle, thoughtful sort of chap. But if some tolerant and forgiving soul decided to build a memorial to Adolf Hitler in the grounds of Auschwitz even my placid nature might get a shade ruffled.
Strictly en passant I’d better admit I am a bit of a racist,.. because I truly believe anyone lucky enough to be born in Wales, where I come from, has every reason for lifelong pride,.. just like everyone else.
The headmaster of my Grammar School was Mr.Rhys T.Harry. He was a teacher of the old school, a strict but benign disciplinarian who always wore his academic gown during school hours. In his day he had played rugby for Wales and his ideas and coaching on the field of both rugby and cricket were always something to be heeded. He was a quiet man who spoke little and infrequently. Ramrod straight and always looking important and purposeful his was a quiet, calming influence. But when he spoke everyone instantly jumped to it. It was a natural superiority wielded without the least effort.
For the most part we always did our best to avoid him,.. he was authority and there was no point in flirting with disaster or incurring his displeasure.
To the pupils he was ‘Harry’ but to his face he was always called ‘Sir’ or ‘Headmaster.’ He ran a good, well-mannered school and there was seldom any friction. In short, everyone,.. pupils and staff alike, knew that he was the boss.
There was only one occasion when I saw him wield his power of authority.
It was in about 1942. The school stood directly in the flight path of German bombers coming over to bomb certain strategic targets. Prominent amongst these was the Northern Aluminium plant,.. a mere two miles away as the Heinkel flies, on the edge of Rogerstone, - the next village. There were, at that time, no air raid shelters in the school. The school was only two stories high and with plenty of wide open spaces around such a priority belonged elsewhere rather than in Bassaleg Grammar School. If and when the air raid warnings sounded during school hours we simply put our gas masks ready over our shoulders and carried on as we were,.. unless something untoward happened. One late spring afternoon it did.
The sirens sounded,.. that eerie, undulating wail that, in itself, had a way of being more frightening than the actual raids themselves. We heard the planes coming over very low,.. they were already on their bombing runs towards Rogerstone. Perhaps a minute later we heard the first explosions. Windows shook and doors rattled. After several sounds of detonations we heard the shrill whistles coming from downstairs. The head and the senior master were blowing the warning to take cover.
As there were no shelters the experts, when they visited the school, had decided that the safest areas were in two main stairwells. In each of these two flights of concrete steps could easily afford some protection to students crouching beneath them. In an orderly fashion classroom doors opened and long crocodiles of students, obeying their air-raid drill, walked swiftly towards the staircases. We’d all done it a hundred times so it was not difficult.
Suddenly and as if from nowhere there took place an event that, nowadays, everyone knows can happen but which, in those days, was a virtually unheard of phenomenon. A group of girls around the thirteen to fourteen years age group suddenly got the jitters. We learned later that someone had said something like,.. ’They’re going to kill us all,.. we’re all going to die.’ Others took up the cry and there began a great clamouring and screaming and wailing. It was a typical, pubescent mass hysterical attack,.. and it spread like a forest fire. In seconds there was a seething mass of yelling and crying girls all but trampling each other to get out,.. or wherever they thought they might go.
As a young lad I’d never known anything like it. I remember standing at the top of the stairs bewildered by the way kids I knew were howling and clamouring, clawing and squabbling with each other in an uncontrolled babble of struggling and squealing panic.
At that moment the headmaster appeared almost next to me. It was part of the routine drill that, at the last moment, he and a couple of other masters would walk swiftly past the classrooms and glance in to see everyone had left and gone to the staircases. He arrived as the riot was at its worst. His response was instant and dramatic.
At the top of his voice he snapped out ‘Stand still! STAND STILL,.. everybody,.. STANDSTILL where you are. Nobody move. DO-YOU-HEAR-ME?’
His word was imperial. In a trice every pupil froze, rooted to the spot. He glared at them all with one sweeping stare over the top of his half-glasses.
The noise stopped. The children were looking at each other bewildered at what had just happened,.. but utterly dominated and controlled by the head’s orders. ‘Now, take your places as you’ve practiced,’ he said quietly. ‘You know what to do.’
We all finished moving under the stair-covers and settled down. The hysteria had abated. Rather sheepishly the girls were looking at each around and gently hugging each other. My pal Tom Martin took out his mouthorgan and started to play ’We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.’ Gradually we all joined in until his music was drowned out by the all-clear sirens piping up.
It was a lesson worth learning. It was also a lesson in crowd control that I was able to use myself many years later.
But that’s another story
It is said, with considerable truth, that as you get older the policemen start to look younger and younger. I can vouch for this. It’s nothing to get worried about, though. The real time to get worried is when, as they do to me, Chief Constables start to look too young for the job.
London cops nowadays look scarcely out of High School,.. those who went there,.. but somehow I can imagine them getting easily tricked not only by hoods, thugs and conmen of all shapes and sizes but even by old ladies wanting to cross the road. [Oh yes, that does happen. I had an elderly lady patient once who so missed contact with the male of the species that every day she would take a morning stroll through the city. Each time she saw a policeman, or, if times were bad, even a Traffic Warden would suffice, she would go up to him, explain that she could not see or hear too well and ask if he could spare a moment to help her across the road. She enjoyed the feel of the guiding arm, of the law. Of course the cops soon got wise to her, - but went along with it anyway,.. which she also knew]
But I digress,.. it’s that sort of a book. The point is that there was a time when a London Bobby was a tough, kindly, gentle and shrewd guardian of the peace. They’d seen everything in their years on the beat. Little escaped them or fazed them.
However, I did, just the once, see a London cop stand dumbstruck, bewildered and speechless. The cause of this was an old friend of mine, one Berth Milton. Now Milton, as he liked to be called, was a brilliant photographer. In fact he made his fortune and made his name [and at the same time lost his reputation] by being the very first world-class photographer of pornography. This he raised to the fine art it can be. His pictures, though offensive to many, were quite magnificent. The magazine he launched, and which is still a leader in its field, was ‘Private’ and it was a major trend-setter in getting first Sweden, and then other countries to change their antiquated, oppressively Victorian obscenity laws. I am pleased to say that I featured, as a model, several times in his various shoots and published material.
There I go, - digressing again. Anyway, one magnificent, early spring morning Milton and I were strolling through St.James’s Park just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. The sun shone through the leafless trees and the park was carpeted with crocuses and other early bloomers.
As always he carried a couple of cameras over his shoulder. Suddenly he pointed. ‘Oh, look at that,’ he exclaimed. ‘What a picture.’ I turned to look. Knowing Milton, it just had to be a beautiful girl to produce such a reaction. But no. He was pointing at a bed of blue and yellow crocuses. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘It’s like a corner of the Swedish flag. I must get a picture.’ Milton was Swedish, so nothing odd about that.
He strode across the closely clipped lawn, reaching for his camera and glancing around for angles and light and so on.
‘Milt,’ I called. ‘Be careful. See the signpost.’ There were several signs around the area. They all said the same thing. ‘IT IS FORBIDDEN TO WALK ON THE GRASS’ and Milton was taking not the least notice.
He waved my protest aside as if it were of no consequence, - which is exactly how he would have regarded it. He crouched, crawled and knelt several times, his eyes glued to the viewfinder.
They appeared in moments and out of nowhere. Two London Bobbies. They stood beside me at the edge of the path and the older one called out to Milton.
‘Excuse me, Sir.’ Milton looked up and, returning to the real world, realised what he had done. He picked his way back towards us clearly intending to take little notice. The senior policeman decided otherwise.
‘You are walking on the grass, Sir. You are not allowed to do that. Do you see the notice?’
‘Er,.. yes,.. I see it. Yes,’ Milton replied in an exaggerated foreign accent.
‘Well, Sir, it says it is forbidden to walk on the grass, doesn’t it?’ With total aplomb Milton looked him back straight in the eye. ‘Ah, yes, officer,’ he said. ‘That’s right. It does. But I think it will be alright. You see, it doesn’t say it’s absolutely forbidden.’
He stepped onto the path and gestured to me to come along. ‘Good morning, Gentlemen,’ he said to the police, - walking away and returning his camera to its case at the same time. And he actually raised his hat to them.
I’ve never forgotten the nonplussed look on that cop’s face.
The year was 1967. The place was the carnage and bloodletting of centre-stage Biaffra. Everywhere there were mutilated infants and the corpses of raped women and little boys. Still lying where they had died, rotting bodies were squabbled over by hyenas at the camp perimeter. There were squadrons of disease carrying flies and mosquitoes. The infrastructure was gone. All civilised services and control were gone. The white influence was gone. The disciplines of three centuries of white rule were taking flight. Black Africa was reasserting itself in its new freedom. Once again, as in the past, tribe fought tribe with brutal ferocity and merciless indifference.
Our small aid post was on the edge of the high veldt. A lot of the time I spent sorting out those for whom there was some small chance that our meagre supplies and skills could help. I tried to separate them from those whose only future was the painless pre-death sleep of morphine. There was a fire-pit where we burned the amputated limbs which badly fused grenades or anti-personal mines had half severed. It was a scene of senseless and aimless horror. It was hot and humid. The whole place stank. There was a shortage of everything except bodies and decaying flesh.
They brought him in, half drunk, shouting and swearing, at about half past two one afternoon. One could recognise the would-be, macho, 'great-white-hunter' type at once. He cursed his two African 'boys' endlessly and twice struck out at one of them. He wore a bush hat and a tailored jacket. His ammunition clips and belt were stuffed with more rounds then a regiment could have used. He was overweight, blond haired, scarlet and florid from the sun and the booze. His build was flabby and pampered; not at all like the real hunter who tends to be lean, lithe and leathery.
The Casualty Sister made out a record sheet for him. I knew the name. He was the son of a family of minor nobility somewhere in Herefordshire. By pulling real strings and imagined rank, it was said, he had bribed some Congolese dignitary to issue him a license to hunt elephant. Rumour was that he had shot over a hundred in a few months, sharing the illegal ivory spoils with local chiefs. Now, on his way back from a boozy lunch with the High Commissioner, he had overturned his huge gas-guzzler into a ditch at fifty miles an hour. His left lower leg was badly lacerated..
I kept him chatting to distract the discomfort a little as I examined and probed his wounds.
‘What was the big hurry?’ I asked him.
‘Couldn't get away from the commissioner fellow fast enough - an idiot. He's a Welshman, y'know. I live just over the border from 'em. They're an inferior lot all of them.’
He did not know I was Welsh.
‘Worse than bloody Jews,’ he went on. ‘And they all want bloody shooting. Adolf had it right, eh?’
He did not know my grandmother was Jewish and that her brother had died on a cattle truck on his way to the Riga concentraion camp.
‘Bloody Commissioner is one of these mealy-mouthed liberals. Always trying to help those black bastards. He's a bit of a white nigger, - like most of these international aid workers. If you ask me the more the blacks kill each other off the better. A good war culls the herd a bit, eh Doc?’
He ranted on, drunk enough not to feel much of the pain. I tried to be as gentle as I could but it was a nasty business, chewed muscle, torn skin and the wound full of dust and gravel chips.
‘I'm not racist, mind you,’ he said. ‘I hate all bloody wogs equally.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Especially the half-breeds, - the Blackie-Whites.’
As I looked into his eyes with the ophthalmoscope I saw the sun glint on the spear tips of the Roman legions of Caligula. On his breath was the nauseating stench of Auschwitz. In his throat I heard the battle cry of Attila; between his teeth lay fleshy cannibal remains. My stethoscope on his chest heard the thundering hooves of Genghis Khan's cavalry. His ears, to my auriscope, echoed the tramp of jack-booted stormtroopers. I put my hand on his soft abdomen and felt the soggy liver of the addict and the drunk. When I pressed into it, his stomach gurgled like a cess-pit. Taking his blood pressure the mercury column pulsed like arms rising and falling in salute, - Sieg heil,... Sieg heil.
That was all over forty years ago now. I was not to know that a decade later, after killing many more elephants, he would go to jail for several years for financially embezzling his father and two business colleagues. Shortly after he came out, I recall, he murdered his wife and his own infant son in a drunken squabble. He then turned the gun on himself.
As I say, I was not to know all that. I just despised him. I went into the dispensary and faced temptation. On the shelves were many poisons,.. strychnine, lysol, arsenic, cyanide, belladonna. And subtler things, - an overdose of insulin, perhaps, leading to a natural-looking death in coma. Instead of the ten milligrams of morphine I came to get, what about ten thousand milligrams? No-one would ever know. There were hundreds of deaths every day, - the bodies burned at nightfall as a disease precaution. No-one would bother about one more. And anyway, no-one would question my word or my work in that dreadful place.
This creature was a candidate for extermination. He was a man who would be much improved by death.
I drew up the requisite ten milligrams of morphine and injected it together with the penicillin that would protect his wounds from infection. And I treated him to the best of my ability,.. exactly as I would have treated my own brother.
And I've never been sure why I did it, or whether it was the right thing.
The Crocodile and the Walking Stick
This is the remarkable story of self-control and the cool nerve of a brave, level-headed woman who came up trumps against a fierce predator with just a walking stick.
Remarkable as it is, I heard the story from an elderly patient who had injured her foot. The injury was trivial but as I knelt to apply a crepe bandage support I noticed an old, rather ragged scar over her ankle bone.
‘That looks as if it was a nasty one,’ I said.
‘Yes, I don’t suppose you’ll see many like it. It was caused by a crocodile when I lived in Australia.’
Crocodile wounds being, to me, pretty unusual things I encouraged her to go on with story.
‘It was about twenty years ago,’ she went on. ‘My husband and I had agreed to part,.. he just couldn’t break himself of the habit of cheating on me. We needed to discuss our plans for dividing up our property settlement and the kids and other divorce matters and we didn’t really want anyone to overhear us. So we had walked away from the home where we had lived and along a path towards the creek. I’d taken my cheap little five dollar walking stick that I’d bought in a charity shop as there was always a risk of snakes.
‘Anyway, suddenly we got the shock of our lives when a huge crocodile,.. about fifteen feet long, came rushing out of a swampy patch and charged right at us very fast.
‘I was scared stiff,.. who wouldn’t be? And I reckon that if I hadn’t had that walking stick I wouldn’t have been here today. It saved my bacon.’
‘So what exactly did you do? I mean, a little walking stick against a hungry crocodile doesn’t sound much,’ I suggested.
‘Well,’ she went on. ‘It was fairly simple really,.. and all over in a trice. Just one really hard whack right on my estranged husband's knee cap was all it took. He doubled over from the pain and the croc got him easily. I escaped by just walking away while they were busy. I did scratch my ankle pretty badly on some loose brush,.. but the amount I saved in lawyer’s fees was really incredible. And instead of sharing out everything I got the lot.’
I somehow rather like that tale.
Miss Gwyneth Hughes
In 1961, soon after I started my first, single-handed country practice, I felt it would be a wise thing to start working my way through the list of patients who lived in out of the way places and who seldom came to see the doctor or called him. Amongst country folk there are, or certainly were, many such. These were folk who were brought up with very little and who learned to stand alone and look out for themselves. Not for them the erosion of the Nanny Society. It does not occur to them to bother a doctor unless they are in serious need. Even then, like as not, they will go to see him, usually taking a small gift, rather than call him to visit them. Country folk tend to be, from the cradle, more self-reliant as well as more independent.
So it was that one sunny October morning I was looking for Brindle Cottage. It was the home of 83-year old Miss Gwyneth Hughes, a spinster who lived alone and apparently eked out a living, supplementing her pension with the marketing of jams, marmalades, pickles, chutneys and fruit preserves. So high was her reputation that few tables in the town were without one or more of her meticulously labelled jars. Her neat, copperplate handwriting was almost as familiar to me as if I had really known her.
As is usual in such circumstances, Brindle Cottage was undetectable from the road, or, rather, the overgrown lane that led to it. There was a tangle of brambles, bits of deadfall logs, muddy puddles and, everywhere, the flutter and twitter of busy birds. Birds always seem to know where they are safest.
The house was small, and, around it, its little garden looked to be only a couple of yards wide in places. Yet it was perfect,.. as if someone had transplanted it straight off the top of a chocolate box. Hollyhocks swayed, ten feet tall beside the door. Sweet Peas and Lavender bushes jostled around them, - past their best for the year but still carrying some late blooms. Geraniums were everywhere. On the bird table two Great Tits ignored me and got on with their breakfast.
Kneeling to one side, a trug of small plants beside her, was Miss Hughes. She had just completed the setting of two short rows of chives in what was clearly the miniature herb garden. I said ‘Good morning,’ and introduced myself. She struggled up from her knees.
‘Oh, Doctor,’ she said. ‘The birds heard someone coming up the lane. They always tell me when someone’s about.’ She came down the path to the gate and held out her hand. ‘Hope you don’t mind my grubby paw. I’ve been planting a few goodies for the winter.’ She gestured behind her,.. ‘Have I got my rows nice and straight?’ she asked. It was only then that I realised Miss Hughes was blind.
I looked at the herb garden. ‘Yes, dead straight,’ I assured her. ‘Like guardsmen on parade.’
She smiled a big, broad, sunny smile. ‘I like that,’ she said. ‘Like guardsmen. My Lawrence was a guardsman, you know.’ I had no idea who Lawrence even was. She paused for a moment. ‘The kettle’s on,’ she said. ‘I was just going to wet the tea, if you fancy a cup?’
Unerringly she slipped the catch on the gate and held it open for me. Equally precisely she went back along the path. I followed her through the open front door into an impeccably kept room beyond which I could see into the kitchen. The smell that drifted in from there was gorgeous.. She heard me draw in my breath. ‘Plum jam,’ she explained. ‘It’ll be ready by this evening. Now, Doctor, you just sit yourself down while I bring the tea, - then you can tell me why you’ve come.’ She sensed my movement. ‘No,’ she said.’ Don’t offer to help. I can manage very well.’
In what felt like just two minutes she was back with a tray, two steaming cups and a plate of ginger snaps.
‘I love ginger biscuits,’ she said. ‘But I have to dunk them now that most of my choppers have left me.’ Her blind eyes twinkled with good humour.
‘It’s true. You really do seem to manage extremely well,’ I said. ‘Considering.’
‘Considering I’m blind, you mean?’ she said. ‘Oh yes. Blindness is not the handicap most people think. I swear I see more than most who have eyes. If you have eyes,.. it seems so natural that folk forget actually to look with them. What’s more, I’ve lived here almost all my life. I know where everything is. My old Dad used to say ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’ It’s a good system.’
I thought of my cluttered office desk at home. I had to agree with her.
‘Besides, my hearing is still as sharp as an axe. Must be grateful for that. And what with that and being so busy I don’t have many problems.’
Again she paused in the way, I have noticed, old people often do as they reconsider their words. ‘And I’m never lonely,’ she added. ‘I chat all day long to the plants and the birds, you know. And to Lawrence, of course.’ Yet again she paused. ‘That’s my Lawrence, - there,’ she said, pointing up at the wall behind me.
I turned to see the big, ornate picture frame that hung there.
‘It’s such a long time ago now,’ she went on. ‘He used to work up at the Big House, - but it got bombed in the war. Not there any more. The second war that was, of course. Hitler’s war. Funny how they call it after him. Lawrence died in the first war, - the Kaiser’s war, - so he never knew anything about the second one.’
She passed the biscuit plate again. I could see she wanted to talk a little. I knew how much better and happier that can make people feel. Making people feel better being part of my chosen job in life, a few minutes spent just listening seemed an all-round good idea. I accepted another biscuit.
‘He was a guardsman, was Lawrence. Grenadier. Well over six foot in his socks he was and straight as a gun barrel. That picture of him smiling like that was taken on his last leave. I remember him saying to me that there would be one more attack and it would be all over. He’d be back and we’d be married and start to build our little corner of the new world when that horrid war to end wars was over.’
She shook her head. ‘He’d be shocked to see how things turned out, he would. And for once he was wrong, anyway,’ she said. ‘I can never quite say it right in the French,.. but Passion Dale is what it sounds like. A lot of them died there, I heard.’
I had nothing to say. In my time I too had heard the rapid rattle of the stuttering guns. I too had worked on the shredded arms and legs and emptied eye sockets of teen-age lads. I too had learned that there was no glory in war to compare with the horror of pain in bodies mutilated for life, - or drained of it.
‘Still,’ she said. ‘Maybe it was for the best. He’d have had an awful burden with me like this. I was taken blind only two years after the war ended.’
My God, I thought, - over half a century blind.
‘Mmm,’ she went on. ‘A lot to be thankful for.’ Then, as an afterthought she said, ‘And every morning when I get up, I look up at his picture there on the wall, and I see him smiling, and I say hello and I smile back, - and I sing him one of our old tunes,…’ She sat back in the armchair and in a frail but gentle voice came the old familiar words, - ‘Long ago and far away is that place called yesterday.’ That always makes him smile, just the same as he always did when I try to sing. I swear he hears and remembers. I expect that somewhere or other he’ll be smiling now just hearing me.’
Her unseeing eyes looked up above my head again.
‘What do you think, Doctor?’ she asked me. ‘Is he smiling now? Can you see him smile?’
I stood and turned to look again. The picture frame, all heavy and dark fretwork typical of those years, hung there motionless. There was still a picture in the frame. But where the sunshine had daily crept across the picture for all those years the image had long since faded and gone. It was just blank parchment now.
‘Is he smiling at us, Doctor?’ she asked again.
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘He must have heard you singing alright. He’s smiling, - just the same as always.’
What else could I have said?
The Old Place
Malibu is an unjustly famous area of California just a few miles north of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. You pass Pepperdine University, go on a bit further until you come to signs for ‘Heathercliffe’ and you are in ‘The Boo.’ I knew all these places well at one time,.. I lectured occasionally at the university science faculty and I lived in Malibu. There, the so-called ‘Colony’ is the swish area. It has homes of various movie stars, TV personalities and politicians. Immediately around me, as neighbours, lived a mafia capo, a crazy TV evangelist and an up-and-coming actress of somewhat exaggerated physical charms. We called them The Hood, The Mad and the Cuddly.
Away from the Nob Hill area a series of canyons cleave their way up into the hills. Within a mile or two the smart chalets and designer swimming pools give way to desolate, unproductive scrubland and sparse, mostly uncared-for forestation. It is dull, uninteresting and shabby. One of the shabbiest spots of all is a ramshackle, wooden building called, simply, ‘The Old Place.’ And that is what it is. It has no particular shape and looks what it also is, a once, and still near, derelict cluster of shacks leaning on each other for support. And with nailed-over gaps where timbers are missing from either weather, termites or mere age. I swear the only thing that keeps the place standing, - apart from pure habit, is the woodworms in the rafters linking arms to take the strain.
The Old Place, believe it or not, is a restaurant, though that stretches the meaning of the word far beyond its justifiable limits. It’s an eating place run by an aged couple. I’ll call them Jake and Ellie mainly because these are not their names. They got together when Jake came back from Hitler’s war with an ounce of silver, - a Purple Heart, on one side of his chest and an ounce of Nazi lead still in the other side. They were still very much together when I knew them. For half a century they had run their little shack and the more discerning people around have found it. There are no frills. There are no tablecloths or curtains. The cutlery is ex-army surplus. In winter there is a huge log fire fed from the copious amounts of deadfall lying around within a hundred yards of the rough clearing where the Old Place stands. The fire smokes. The door doesn’t fit. There’s no juke-box, - and if either owner doesn’t like the look of someone they bluntly tell him to shove off.
I got on well with Jake and with Ellie so I was OK. Kind, warm-hearted and tough folk, both. The only food they serve is meat and potatoes as Jake is firmly convinced that that combination is quite probably the world’s finest health food.
Looked at from the road the brief glimpse you’d get from a passing car is not encouraging. You had to know the place to love it. And you had to love the place to go there. I have never understood therefore, what there was about the Old Place on that one particular evening when it attracted three lady-men,.. three middle aged old queens who stopped their car, reversed to look again, parked, then just walked in and sat down.
Not one of them so much as glanced at me as I sat quietly in the corner finishing my supper, - a slab of best steak the size of a flagstone that overlapped my plate in every direction. Over at the bar I saw Ellie stiffen somewhat and her lip curled. One of the newcomers wore pale pink gabardine slacks and a white satin shirt with full, flouncy sleeves. His partner had a long green pashmina over a matching shirt and a huge Indian turquoise belt buckle. The third wore an eye patch. He also had enough tattooed pictures to rival the National Gallery and a heavyweight jungle of gold chains, crucifixes, scorpions, zodiac signs and assorted metallic hardware around his neck. I swear that when he died they wouldn’t bury him,.. they’d just melt him down. All three were totally ignored, - as all queers then were in the Old Place.
After a few minutes of rather shrill girl-talk the buckled beauty called over to Ellie.
‘Could we have some decaffeinated coffee over here, please.’
‘Coffee’s in the jug,’ snapped Ellie. ‘It’s free. Help yourself. But I don‘t know what defaecated means.’
‘I understand,’ said Buckles. ‘Could we see the wine list instead?’
‘No need,’ said Ellie. ‘It’s beer. Buds or Schlitz for fellers, Miller’s Lite for the girls.’ Jake grunted something to her. ‘Oh,’ she added. ‘There’s some full-strength Kentucky bourbon for chasers.’ She snorted. ‘Sorts the men out from the boys, you might say.’
There was a little chatter between the guests.
‘Do you by any chance have a little Bombay Sapphire?’ came the ventured suggestion.
‘Nope,’ said Ellie. It was clear to me that she had not the least idea what they were talking about. There was a little more chatter.
‘We’d like the Schlitz, please.’
‘OK,’ said Ellie. ‘Bottles or a pitcher?’ Guessing which they would choose she was already popping the Schlitz. After all, if they made the other choice she could always drink them herself.
A few minutes later Buckles called out again. ‘Do you have a menu, please.’
Jake, who was washing some glasses just growled, - didn’t even look up. I knew the signs. Ellie answered again. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It’s steak.’
‘Oh dear,’ came the response. ‘That wouldn’t do at all.’ The other two opened their eyes wide and rolled their eyeballs towards Heaven in supplication. ‘Perhaps, instead, I could see your vegetarian menu?’
‘Yeah,’ said Ellie. ‘Sure,.. it’s still steak.’
All three of them bridled petulantly. Green Pashmina was using a handkerchief to wipe the top of a beer bottle prior to raising it to the lips.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘That’s for the beers.’ He peeled off a five dollar bill and placed it on the table. ‘We’re out of here.’
They flounced distastefully across the room. Eye-patch squared his shoulders and moved towards the bar. Jake looked up, shook the drops off his hands and came towards the bar for a better look. Eyepatch looked daggers at him, saw his glare returned, changed whatever was in his mind and lowered his eyes.
‘Jake spoke for the first time. ‘Don’t let the front door hit you in the ass on the way out. ‘
Knowing him as I do I knew he was about to add a remark about what that might do to their sexually preferred zone. So did Ellie.
‘Like another beer, Doc, ‘ she yelled over to me to distract things, then added, ‘Leave it, Jake.’
Jake left it and went back to washing the glasses. I went on with the steak,.. I was half way through it by then and darned good it was.
The Whore and the Bible
The first verses of the New Testament are devoted to Matthew’s long series of begattings that list the genealogy of Jesus. I think most would agree that it is a rather dull section,.. little more, really, than a series of obscure names. That’s how I had always seen it anyway. Until, from a most unexpected source, came a very different concept.
It happened in Canterbury Cathedral over forty years ago. I was there because of my involvement in a planned musical event that was to take place there. Because of a mix-up in dates and times I got there when a Bible class was being held by a young priest. Around him was a group of some thirty people. Amongst them I recognised a patient of mine, a rather fine mezzo-soprano, whom, it later transpired, was also there because of a mistake over timing.
The gist of the lesson being taught concerned the relevance of the fact that there were three sets each of fourteen generations, that separated the original Abraham, via King David and the slavery in Babylon period, from Jesus himself. As the priest read the words, he paused at each name and said a few words about that particular person. I had to admit he had a way of making the subject interesting. One detail I was left with was that quite a few of the characters mentioned together with their associates and activities, left quite a bit to be desired in one way and another. Not least, Jezebel, for example, and one of the ladies mentioned who was a whore while another was probably sleeping with her father-in-law. Then there was Mary Magdalene the reputation of whom was scarcely exemplary.
I noticed that the mezzo was taking the lesson in with rapt interest. I had never before associated her with any religious dedication. Not that that was any reason for surprise,.. merely another fact that doctors store away concerning the background of their patients.
It was some three months later that she came to the consulting room one day over a routine medical matter. In the conversation we alluded to the chance meeting at the cathedral and the interest the episode had incurred in both of us. It was then that she surprised me.
‘I was very impressed by what that priest was saying,’ she said. ‘I felt there was a message there for me.’
‘Why so,’ I asked.
‘Well, you see, Doctor,.. and this is something even you don’t know about me. I was a prostitute for nearly six years.’
I admit I was surprised. Apart from her singing there was little enough about her that made her in any way stand out from the crowd.
‘I even enjoyed it,’ she said. ‘I felt that I was not only making people happy, but I was also enjoying the whole thing myself; and I was making a good living.’
I had nothing to say.
‘Then I met Derek,’ she said. ‘He knew about my past but it didn’t matter to him. He asked me to marry him and that was the end of that life and the beginning of a new one.’
She looked at me over the top of her glasses.’ You knew that I lost Derek, didn’t you,’ she asked.
I nodded. Derek, although I never actually knew him, had been killed in the late stages of the Korean war. Her son, Danny, now aged seven was the only child of that marriage.
‘When Danny gets older I’m going to tell him what I was, and how wonderful it was when his father made me a better woman and was so marvellous and adoring to our little one though he was too young ever to remember. It won’t be an easy thing for me to tell him, or for him to hear. But I want him to know the great way his father was. And that was part of it.’
‘And then, when I’m telling him, I shall tell him that, even in the family and the thoughts of the Lord Jesus, there was room for people like me, and that, despite all, Jesus never said a cruel word or made a cruel judgement about such women. Instead, there was always understanding and kindness and forgiveness and hope. If there was room in Jesus’ family for a prostitute,.. then there was room for one in his own Dad’s family. I think he will understand better if I tell him all that, too.’
I still had nothing to say. I’m sure she was right. And I do hope it all eventually turned out the way she had foreseen. Whatever else transpired, she had touched me to the bottom of my soul in a way that mere religion never could.
Are we what we eat?
I detest Brussels sprouts. In fact, apart from people who abuse women and children they are probably the only things in my life that I have ever been able actually to loathe and hate. But I surely detest Brussels sprouts, - passionately, fervently, remorselessly and to the very bottom of my soul. As a kid I would do anything and everything to avoid them. I quickly discovered that you can’t hide a sprout in a glass of milk. But I did develop other tricks like keeping an old paper bag in my pocket to receive them. I also routinely tucked them into the tops of my socks for subsequent disposal. My socks smelled dreadful.
Apart from sprouts I eat anything that doesn’t eat me. As a result I have eaten some very odd things. Ostrich meat and omelettes in South Africa, rattlesnake in Texas, some dreadful-looking, fat, sea-slug things in Hong Kong and even the occasional Big Mac. This is why I occasionally dread that that fellow might be right when he said we are what we eat.
Two morsels of past nutrition however, stand out in my memory, - one of them amusing, the other so shocking as to be almost unbelievably repugnant.
For a short while in the 1950s I was attached, as M.O., to a contingent of the Trucial Oman Scouts. Transport was mainly by camel, a remarkable species of beast all members of which took an immediate dislike to me and showed this frame of mind by displays of total obstinacy. A combination of this unfriendly disposition with, perhaps, a little deference to my professional status, meant that I was accorded the shared use of one of the three Landrovers possessed by the unit. It was in one of these that a young RASC lieutenant and I one day set out across the desert to visit a small detachment then posted at the Baranduh Oasis in the camp of a local sheik.
After the day’s journey it required to travel twenty five miles we arrived at the collection of nomad tents grouped in the sparse shade of some fifteen or twenty date palms that surrounded a small, open pool of water. We were truly treated like royalty. Rugs were spread, coffee was brought and tiny sweet cakes offered. Later, in my tent, I stood naked in a small copper bucket to shower while a gnarled and scarred old warrior poured brackish water over my head.
Then came the evening meal. In the sheik’s tent we lolled on carpets and thick, cylindrical cushions while wonderful and, to me, very strange dishes were offered. A hot broth smelling fragrantly of cinnamon was followed by cubes of fried, salted fish in lemon juice. The main course was lamb baked slowly in a mud-oven and served on a pile of saffron rice studded with, cloves, raisins and fresh cardamoms. At the very end came mint tea and trays of small round, chocolate balls, sweet on the tongue and crunchy to the teeth. I loved them. Most of these things I had never eaten before and all were delectable. The chocolate nuts however, were the best of all. My obvious weakness for them even attracted the notice of the sheik and occasioned some ribald jests that I could not understand. They all laughed out loud and the sheik insisted that a further bowlful be taken to my quarters to ease any risk of night starvation. I wolfed the lot.
I wondered if it would be polite for me to try and get some more to take away next morning. The lieutenant spoke fair Arabic and would either know or be able to find out.
We learned at breakfast that the sheik had left at sunrise and extended his wishes that we would return again soon to enjoy the hospitality of his tents, - that God is Great, - and that he wished his peace would be always with us. Breakfast was a very different repast. Eaten with the UK detachment it comprised army porridge, beans and fried eggs of shoe-leather flexibility. I mentioned the chocolate nuts to the lieutenant who burst out laughing again. What kind of nuts were they, I asked him. Oh, - he laughed again, - they’re not nuts. They’re the dried heads of locusts dipped in camel fat and cocoa powder.
I decided not to take any home after all.
The other culinary episode that sticks in my mind was far less entertaining. Many might prefer not to read it. Many others, having read, will wish they had not. I hold that preamble up as a warning.
One way and another I have met some vile people but no others of my acquaintance can anywhere near equal the officers of the North Korean regiment with whom, I was once unfortunate enough to spend two long days and two even longer nights. Associates of mine have assured me that worse men than these exist. In particular they name the Cambodian staff of the late and utterly unlamented Pol Pot. These men, they say, were capable of the same debased behaviour yet were commonly cultured men, educated at the Sorbonne, who could understand a Mozart symphony and who could quote Voltaire and recite Verlaine. They could, nevertheless, plan and execute, often personally and with relish and delight, programmes to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people.
Perhaps rightly they claim these were the worst people in living memory and who could make Attila the Hun and Reinhardt Heydrich look like cuddly toys. Be that as it may the officers of the, - as translated, People’s Communist Army Police [PCAP] of North Korea remain my own epitome of remorseless human villainy. This isolated episode should provide evidence enough.
At the time the Peace Commission representatives were meeting at Panmunjom. For all the progress they made I imagine they are meeting there still. I had no particular duties being merely one of a group of pawns in an idiotic charade of posturing that, I gathered, went on more or less continuously. Being there only for show and to make up numbers our orders were absolutely precise. On the first night we were to entertain the senior PCAP officers royally. Under no conditions were we to refer to politics, religion, wartime events or any other delicate subjects. In short, we were to go along with and agree to whatever they wanted. On the second night the Peecups, as they were called, would entertain us. The overall purpose of this eleemosynary disbursement of taxpayers’ funds remains, to this day, a mystery to me.
The first night was crushingly boring. We were sumptuously fed, as I recall, by the staff of the Australian contingent. After that the serious drinking began. Now, I have never been a teetotaller and I can remember at least three occasions [or, rather, my wife remembers them] when I have been so drunk that even while lying on the floor I still had to hold on unless I fell. Despite these rare displays of human frailty I have always preferred rather a small alcohol intake. A pre-prandial peg, - fine. But the idea of regularly guzzling enough alcohol to dull my brain, - the one organ capable of raising humans above the level of dumb animals is sheer lunacy. Why impair the functions of your most valuable possession? I have no intelligent answer to that question. Furthermore, when I am having a good time I want to know about it and to remember it later.
Anyway, our chaps, having been firmly required to remain sober, we left the running to our Korean ‘friends.’ They needed no more encouragement. Within an hour of the end of dinner they were all as drunk as could be. They drank until their back teeth were awash. I swear not one of them could have leaned forward without spilling it. They drank everything and mixed the lot,.. whisky, gin, brandy, rum, whichever bottle was nearest. All went down in gulps and in no particular order. Then the vomiting began. I decline to say more than that, when we left, the mess hall was a reeking tub of human puke mixed with other unspeakables where, unable or disinclined to seek the toilets, they had urinated against the walls and even where there were no walls at all.
If that sounds like a wonderful evening the second was immeasurably worse.
We were driven in Russian limousines to a cantonment about twenty five miles away. We arrived outside a very big sort of restaurant-cum-gaming-and-dancing palace hung with dozens of neon lights and Chinese lanterns. Inside, the place was crowded and noisy. Tinny music, hammering drums and shrill chatter was everywhere and very, very loud. Behind it all there was rather a pleasant aroma of food and other smells we could not isolate or identify. We were to become better informed very soon.
I sat with one other chap, a lieutenant-colonel from one of the home regiments, at a round table with four Peecups. First came Russian vodka frozen down to an oily consistency and, with it, strips of lightly peppered raw vegetables. I enjoyed them. Only then did I notice that the table was somewhat unusual. It was circular with comfortable space for six of us to sit at it but, in the centre was an oval hole some three or four inches across.
After a few minutes the one Korean who could speak some English announced ‘Now our great delicacy especially for our old enemies but new friends.’ He beamed around and proclaimed, flinging his arms wide, ‘ Monkey meat,.. and monkey brains.’ I saw the colonel wince, close his eyes and shudder. He quickly re-imposed discipline.
To be honest, although I’d never thought of eating monkey brains I had often eaten lambs brains either coddled on toast or firmed then fried in thin strips. Delicious, both. Certainly nothing to turn the nose up at. The idea may sound unlikely but the flavour is delectable. Scrumptious, in fact. Those Welsh lambs’ brains however, were a long way from what we were about to receive.
The Korean chap beckoned us to follow and we all picked our way between the tables into a large, shabby side-room. The unidentified smell was thereupon at once made identifiable. Animal droppings. There were tanks filled with fish, - far too crowded for them to swim and with several already floated to the top. There was a box of frogs, several cases of chickens and pigeons and two or three more full of rabbits. All, it was explained, would be killed and cooked on demand. ‘Very fresh,’ the Korean said with obvious pride.
To one side was a larger, roughly cubical cage perhaps four or five feet per side. It was packed with a writhing mass of live monkeys,.. mostly alive, that is. Looking at it I’d guess there were about sixty of the little things packed in like sardines with scarcely room to wriggle or breath and all of them squeaking, squealing and gibbering with fright. It was a horrid sight.
The Korean chap pointed to three of the larger monkeys that had, by strength, worked their way to the top of the cage. An elderly fellow in stained clothing slipped his arm into a sort of long leather gauntlet, inched open a small door and grasped the first selected creature around the neck. It tried to evade capture but had nowhere to go. With practiced ease he slipped the monkey’s neck into a one inch wide slot in a metal disc some six or eight inches wide. Once in position it looked as if the monkey was wearing a wide, metal collar, - which I suppose it was. Worse was to come,.. far worse.
Next the attendant took up a cone-shaped canvas bag. He thrust the monkey, fighting and screaming all the way up into the bag until its head appeared through a hole at the apex. The rest of the animal could struggle and writhe all it wished after that. It was helpless and harmless. Carrying the wrapped animal back across the restaurant the attendant ducked under our table and poked the creature’s head up through the hole in the centre. I peered underneath and saw that he had secured the plate up to the table by two long, metal pins located through holding rings on the under-surface of the table. The unfortunate monkey was wide-eyed with terror, its eyes rolling as it emitted teeth-chattering whimpers and shudders of fear. Diners at other tables had paused to watch. An awful realisation began to dawn on me.
The attendant disappeared to get monkeys for the other two tables. His place was taken by a waiter. As quick as a flash he whisked a sharp knife back across the monkey’s scalp from the bridge of its nose to the nape of its neck. He padded a thick cloth down onto it to stop the blood spurting from severed arteries. A moment later he removed the cloth and sliced again, this time from ear to ear. The scalp was sliced open into four quarters like a pie crust. The monkey was gibbering and shrieking with fright and pain. As I was at its back I was lucky enough not to be able to see its face.
From its place, hanging on his belt, the waiter took a specially designed tool. He used it to lever up each ‘leaf’ of the monkey’s scalp in turn. He grabbed each between finger and thumb and peeled it back from the apex. The bone of the skull-cap was exposed. The waiter then cracked one end of the tool into the front of the skull above the bridge of the nose and I heard the bone splinter. Then he twisted the tool and the bone cracked again as the skull-cap itself came away in one piece. This must have been an admired skill, for the watchers and bystanders all clapped.
The monkey’s brain, still in its inner membranes and still alive, was widely exposed. I had many times seen human brains exposed during neurosurgery and I recognised the pulsating blood vessels as a sure sign that the now silent monkey was still living. Several small, silver spoons were now placed on the table and the Peecaps fell to with alacrity. Each plunged his spoon into the grey tissue and scooped out a spoonful for himself and gobbled it up. At that point the monkey died.
[Just a passing thought. Nowadays, long retrospectively, I occasionally hear of animal rights activists in UK who have stolen from their graves the bodies of dearly loved old ladies in order to protest against drug development testing. I wonder if, with greater effect, these people could not turn their attentions to the infinitely greater horrors so selfishly perpetrated on other animals in other countries and without one tenth of any ultimate benefit to mankind].
If all that sounds vile and inhuman it was yet further outclassed by the evening’s later events. After dinner the dozen or so hideously drunk Korean officers led us across the garden to a secluded, separate building. Once inside we saw it was dimly lit like a whorehouse. Sitting around were about eight small girls and three or four young boys. My colleagues and I figured that with our hosts that drunk we could safely excuse ourselves on the grounds of waiting transport. We drank toasts to continued friendship and left. I later heard, from a Pakistani officer who stayed the full course, of the events that followed our departure. I do not care to report them but I understand that not all the occupants of that bordello-like room survived the unspeakable activities that took place.
Yes, I reserve my right to claim that those people were the most foul and vile I had, or have ever since, met. I hold this up as a warning of the kind of people they are and as a tocsin for any civilised people who, in the future, ever have cause to deal with them.
And I just hope and trust that we are not exactly what we eat.
Lots of people are intrigued by the very idea that magic might exist. Look at the number of people who half believe in their horoscopes,.. or who believe that once in a while someone actually walked on water,.. or that there was a Garden of Eden complete with a talking snake. Quite a few people even bother to read a bit about magic. They read of Alistair Crowley and the magic in The Tarot. They come across tempting morsels here and there amongst the thousands of pages of rubbish. Fewer yet actually go on to the extent of collecting what seem like genuine ideas and thoughts,.. perhaps even spells and similar experiments. Even fewer are the persistent ones who at some stage decide to try some of the fascinating things they’ve encountered,.. perhaps some experimental rituals or spells or incantations they’ve found out from old grimoires.
Having myself been through all this I have only one word of advice to anyone thinking of starting some real hands-on spells and magic.
Magic,.. or magycke, whatever it is called, is an unwholesome business. It is not all silly nonsense, - though most is. It is not just a bit of harmless fun. To tamper with it at all is to take the first step on a slippery and hazardous downward path. It is far, far harder to retrace even the first few faltering steps,.. and even if you do you may never again be quite as safe as you were before you took that first step.
I’ll tell you a story.
Not far from my old home town there is an unusually shaped hill known as Grey Hill [Mynydd Llwyd]. Just across the shallow valley stands its near twin Mynydd Alltir There are several similar hills quite near but only Grey Hill is so perfectly shaped a truncated spur. It stands up from the surrounding countryside for over eight hundred feet. On the west side the approach to the point is some 40 degrees but the far longer eastern slope is much less steep. Between them these two slopes give the hill its distinctive shape. Near the top of the hill and a short distance east of it lie the remains of an ancient stone circle about ten yards across and dating from about 4000 years ago. Most of the stones have either fallen or been toppled over to lie where they fell. Nearby there are also ancient cairns and several overgrown burial mounds. It is a mystifying place. For the most part the hill is clad in bracken all summer yet, oddly, it is said that little or no bracken grows within the circle. The local name given to the circle and the area around it is The Drws or, in English, The Portal. The older folk used to tell that long ago it got that name as it was believed to be a gateway into and from the nether regions; on the darkest wintry and moonless nights evil spirits emerged to dance around the circle,.. and chance visitors were never seen again after the Drws had closed once more. More old wives’ tales and nonsense, of course.
As usual with such distinctive natural features Grey Hill has accumulated quite a folklore of its own. There are the usual stories of strange sounds, of distant unworldly music, of lightning strikes that leave no trace and of sheep and, occasionally dogs, that have wandered near the circle and have never returned. Oddly enough goats seemed able to wander around the summit in safety,.. but nothing else. Locally it is regarded as one of the most haunted places around. Few indeed are the folk who would choose to wander up there in the dark.
I did. And ever since I’ve wished I hadn’t.
Now, at the range of over sixty years it is hard to recall the events precisely but it all took place on the very cold evening of Friday, 31.October 1952. I drove up the lane towards Wentwood and parked just four or five hundred yards from the peak of Grey Hill. The next night would be full moon and as the Friday was a near cloudless clear sky I could see quite well. I was also very familiar with the surroundings. It took no time at all to reach the little circle. All around the bracken was dying back for the year and I remember the typical smell it had at that stage. I had come to the circle to work magic.
My aim that night was to conjure the spirit Vau-Ael. This needed very little in the way of equipment apart from the complicated wording of the ritual. I can’t honestly say I believed anything would happen. In my scientific mind I did not,.. and to this day do not, believe that the supernatural exists. I believe that anything that exists or happens is entirely natural,.. though there may not, as yet, be fundamental knowledge to explain it. However I did have a certain sneaking feeling that I might get lucky and something interesting might happen.
Within the circle I drew out a roughly marked but carefully measured pentacle. It’s central circle was about six feet across,.. plenty of room for me to kneel within its protection. Following the instructions in a 1731 book on magic located in the dusty downstairs cupboards of the Cardiff City Library, at each of four points of the pentacle I placed four shallow dishes. These were actually glass Petri dishes borrowed from the hospital path lab. In each of them I placed one of the four basic elements,.. air, earth, water and fire,.. the latter a simple candle. I lit the candle and started on the usual slow but steady deep breathing. It was necessary not to over-breath,.. which is a common tendency for beginners, as this can cause mental confusion due to hyperoxia. I then began to recite the curious words that sounded like gibberish to me but which, under these conditions, were supposed to open a channel to the other dimensions or astral levels. At one minute intervals I then pronounced the call that was to attract Vau-ael and oblige him to manifest himself.
I’m not sure now what I expected to happen. Would there be heavy doors creaking and closing,.. or the sound of chains and strange footfalls? Probably there would be the traditional chilling of the air. Had this happened I might not have noticed it as it was darned cold anyway and I was well wrapped up. Perhaps too the movement of the grass would become obvious. Or the trees might move without the usual cause of the wind. There was no wind that night.
None of these things happened. My knees were getting stiff and, quite suddenly, I felt a strong desire to stand up and stretch them. I was on the point of doing so when I realised that that movement would be quite likely to make me move somewhat out of the protection of the pentacle. I had read all the repeated cautions not to do this,.. not to allow even a toe to extend beyond the safe perimeter. I therefore resisted the impulse to stand. The discomfort in my knees got steadily more severe. I was having to exert my will to stay kneeling and to resist what was becoming a very painful kneeling position. The pain was such that I just couldn’t believe it was natural. It was terrible,.. enough to make me gasp and bear down on it to tolerate it. I was glad there was no-one there as my efforts to say the words of the spell came out with a series of grunts. I persevered.
In my memory I must have spent two or three excruciating minutes tussling with the desire to move and ease the intense cramp-like pains. I think too that I had probably repeated the command lines twenty or more times. I was on the point of quitting.
It took just a few seconds to change but within those next few seconds the pain just faded away and was gone. My knees felt normal again and the desire to move left me. Over the same few seconds the light of the candle intensified. The candle didn’t look any different and its flame was still just the same but the light it was giving out made it easy for me to see the perimeter of the circle,.. which I had not been able to discern before, and some of the few small birch trees that I knew were about a hundred yards away to my left. I felt sure that none of this was due to me. Something was happening. I was surprised,.. and rather scared. The frightened feeling got worse.
So deeply alarming was this experience that I can remember it vividly to this day. The fear was deep inside me. I was not just scared,.. I was terrified. With hindsight I remember that I felt much the same as I was to experience many years later when I was in a situation when I thought I was about to drown. There was an inner feeling of desperate horror,.. a sensation that death was imminent,... that this was the end,.. of everything. Then the sound started.
It was a sort of high-pitched scream, not loud but penetrating. It put my teeth on edge. The shriek was almost human yet with a metallic whine rather like two heavy pieces of metal girder grinding,.. or lorry brakes screeching. I couldn’t localise the sounds, they seemed all around and not at ground level but somewhere just above the birch trees. The sounds were strange too. I’ve heard foxes and deer caught in traps. They can make a terrific din. But nothing like this. A barn owl makes a screech too but nowhere near as loud as this,.. and not from so many different directions at once. If such things exist I could believe this was some hobgoblin,.. some demon,.. something I did not want to know.
I could see quite well right across the circle and into the nearest trees. The trees were not moving but they were quite well outlined and there was nothing moving between them and me. The noises got louder and I had the feeling they were coming from more than one direction. They were starting to grate in my ears, not painfully but as if they were getting into my brain. The similarity to a dentist’s drill was obvious but there was no pain, not even the least discomfort. The noises got louder. I could have likened them to a group of heavy tanks rumbling, clattering and squeaking across tarmac roads,.. but much louder and all around and still at treetop height.
It was all very unnerving. It didn’t really register at the time that it could have been me and my insane amateur bungling that had caused all this but now it seems just possible that it was. The dreadful noises diminished quite quickly. They ended with a choking off sound and for a moment everything went wonderfully quiet. I felt relieved that the clamour had stopped but if anything the sudden quiet was worse. I could feel my hands shaking and the flesh on the back of my neck crawled. I was very alarmed. I never remember being really frightened before in my life but I was at that moment.
Then, behind me I distinctly heard the sound of someone clearing his throat,.. a deep, cough followed by two or three more. I whirled around. There was nothing to be seen. The throat clearing happened again, this time in the direction I had previously been facing. I turned again. There was nothing there either,.. just the edge of the stone circle and the trees some way beyond. Nothing moved. Everything was still. There was no more throat clearing. There was complete silence for several seconds before I clearly heard an intake of breath,.. loud, close to my ear,.. hardly human,.. more like the sound of a horse breathing but very, very near to me. I felt my head and torso shake,.. or perhaps it was more of a shudder,.. as if someone had briefly shaken me. It happened several times making my head jerk and sufficiently hard that I shuddered down as far as my waist. It didn’t hurt but I remember it was a very unpleasant sensation being shaken so heavily,.. and by nothing that was actually touching me.
This was sheer nightmare. I felt terribly lonely and dreadfully weak.
The candle went out. There was still not the slightest air movement,.. and the candle was not yet half way burned down. The only light was that from the moon, clear and still but showing everything. Far away I could see the moonlight on the waters of the Bristol Channel. There was nothing else. The loss of the candlelight didn’t seem to make any difference. I could see pretty well.
From nowhere as far as I could tell, all of a sudden there came a waft of a delicious aroma,.. it was as if somewhere close there was bubbling a big cauldron of goat soup. I couldn’t believe it, it was so real. It came flowing over me and was enough to make my mouth water. But that was altogether enough for me. I had reached the limits of my stupidity. I grabbed my bag which had nothing much in it anyway. To hell with my pentacle and its protection. All I wanted was to be somewhere else. I stood up and headed straight across the circle and away to the south where I had left the car as if all the devils in hell were at my heels. I wonder if those four Petri dishes are still there. I didn’t run or panic although that feeling was not far away. I just wanted to get away from the place and the whole silly escapade.
The last thing I remember was, as I stepped over one of the fallen stones and left the circle, that a huge lasting human-like sigh sounded,.. loud and very close,.. almost in my ear. It was a kind of groan just as if someone or something was sorry to see me go.
I can’t honestly be sure how much of the detail I now recall is precisely accurate. The events of that half hour left such a feeling that I have never once in the intervening years tried to write the story down and I have never told it to anyone but my wife,.. I have never felt close enough to anyone else to share the secret. I also can’t be sure how much is the recollection of an impressionable young man alone on a lonely mountainside and getting a bit out of his depth, though I do try to bring it all under the protective umbrella of my scientific knowledge.
How much of it really happened? How much is just related hysteria? There is no doubt that the whole thing was foolish,.. and dangerous. I have never since had the remotest wish to delve into those matters. Once was enough.
I still don’t believe in the supernatural. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Hamlet was right,.. there surely are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of,…
Since writing about Grey Hill both deliberate and chance meetings and contacts with other people who have connections with or experiences from Grey Hill have come my way from time to time. I have heard of several people who have set out to spend the night on or near the summit. Mostly there were no comments but several had felt it better to leave after their experiences. They seem not to have ventured there again. There were reports of different responses from ‘Felt very uneasy’ to ‘We felt we were being watched’ and ‘There was a sensation of not being alone – although we were.’
Another couple said that they had been there two or three times and even when walking through the thickets of small trees in broad daylight they’d had the sensation that they were being followed.
There is no way to quantify these described sensations and no way to discern anything that might have been real from what might have been imagination. I feel that an ‘open verdict’ is the best on offer.
Pat Berkshire and her husband had been our friends for many years. Pat was a moderately successful part-time writer. On one occasion I was collecting contributions for a modern writing anthology and I asked her if she’d like to offer me something. That is probably why she told me her story,.. she swore it was true,.. in the third person. After hearing it I wrote it down as nearly as I can remember. Not long enough afterwards she and her husband died in a dreadful and bloody road accident. Had she lived I think she would have written it better. Here I have done my best.
The Stolen Afternoon
Her birthday and their wedding anniversary fell in the same mid-November week. Not that there was anything very strange about that. They usually did.
It was 2003, their tenth anniversary, and she decided that they ought to snatch a week off and go somewhere for it. Time would be limited so it had to be not too far away, yet, with luck, somewhere that was still warm enough. A few years earlier they had driven through the Greek countryside around Volos,.. the Pelion. There was no chance to explore properly but it was so lovely and so quiet that they had vowed to return. That, she decided, would be the ideal spot. Dennis promised he would get on the web and find a suitable villa, hire-car and flight.
Was she dreaming, or was there just a trace of reluctance behind his enthusiasm? Nothing was said. She must have been dreaming. Anyway, she envisioned the warm sea, out-of-season deserted beaches, ripe fruit and mellow wine,.. Mmmm.
When they got there the little villa Dennis had hired was perfect. Cosy bedroom, spotless bathroom, a wide terrace with several citrus trees and the whole thing just two hundred yards from the tiny fishing harbour wall. It was not until she stood in the garden to look back at the villa that the penny dropped. She had been right. There had been just a trace of under-enthusiasm. The large, satellite dish antenna gave it all away. She had totally forgotten. It was the week of the world rugby series semi-finals in Australia. Not something that Dennis would miss willingly.
She chose to say nothing. The following day was perfect. A long swim in the still warm sea. Lunch at a little taverna with a squeaky door on the far edge of the harbour, - fresh cheese, huge juicy tomatoes and village bread to go with a local wine as strong as a bear hug. Furthermore there was always a certain prestige boost when you are aware that the gorgeous waiter, who really was named Costas, could not take his eyes off her long shapely legs under the table. Not bad at thirty-pushing-forty, she thought.
It was the next mid-day, - anniversary day itself, that the Dennis Plan became more apparent. Came mid-afternoon they were walking slowly back to the villa after lunch in the same place and perhaps a little too much of the same wine. At that point Dennis declared that he didn’t feel quite up to the mark. He thought that maybe it would be better if he stayed home and had the rest of the day quietly ‘reading,.. or something.’
Pat was hopping. On their anniversary too. She knew well enough what the ‘or something’ meant. Bloody rugby, - that’s what. How could he? She was still decidedly tipsy from lunch and swore, later, that she could not exactly remember what she said to the ailing Dennis. But without more ado she swept out of the villa slammed the door hard enough to register about 4 on the Richter scale, and flounced around the corner and into the village street.
She’d go for a walk,.. that seemed a good idea. But after a hundred yards she already knew her knees were not behaving well enough for her to be quite equal to it. As she strolled methodically around the harbour, who should she see but Costas sweeping the space around his tables. He smiled at her and waved.
‘Ow about a little sometheeng for the road?’ he asked. Why not? At least he found her attractive on her anniversary. Half an hour later they were well down another of those lethal bottles, she was teaching him to speak better Eenglish, and she couldn’t quite feel her mouth. Time flew. The afternoon sun was warm. Costas’ eyes were enormous, his smile and chuckle fascinating and his attention to her more and more flattering. It was time to tear herself away while she could still stand. She tried to explain that she must leave.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘But before you go a leetle of something very special from the Pelion.’ It was zhivania, a local spirit. Ice cold, straight from the freezer,.. thick as oil, and full of flavour and promise. She loved it.
She could not believe it was happening like this. Costas was kissing her hands and taking all kinds of liberties with his. And she liked it. Then the chairs were pushed back, they sauntered across the empty taverna, her head on his shoulder. His hair smelled of the sea and his body, gently perspiring, smelled of passion and wine.
They went up the stairs to his tiny bedroom. In no time at all she was on his soft bed and he had slipped her skirt down and away. She wore no bra. Then he was on top of her. He was pressing and insisting and she was yielding. She felt him bury his head beneath her mons. He put something in her hand. Something strong and hard ,.. and huge. She lay back and started to embark on lunar eternity. Somewhere a fisherman’s voice echoed across the harbour. Somewhere there were other voices. Somewhere there was a car door. But none of these things mattered. She abandoned herself to her breath-taking fate.
In a flash everything changed. The squeaky door downstairs squeaked. Costas shot off the bed and pulled her to her feet. ‘My wife,’ he said. ‘And my mother! They are back. You must hide.’ He slid open the door to the veranda and she stepped outside onto the low, flat roof that covered the taverna tables. The sliding door clicked shut and it was only then she realised she was clad in nothing but pretty diminutive panties and a rather silly grin.
She sobered swiftly and was glad that the sun was already well down and the dusk well advanced. There was no sign of anyone coming to her aid. There was a typically Greek babble of voices from downstairs. The two women and Costas were chattering together just two yards below her feet. After a few minutes they all went inside and she felt it was time to make an escape. From the far end of the roof it was no distance to the ground. She wriggled over the edge and dropped to the soft sand beneath. That was the easy bit.
Now she had to wend her way through the twilight street and back to the villa clad only in her flimsies and with her hands held across her upper contours. She saw but few others out at that moment but every one she did see, she just knew, would for ever more tell the story of the naked English woman hurrying through the evening village. She had never felt such embarrassment.
Once back at the villa there was the problem of how to get in without Denis seeing the sorry spectacle,.. and the tenuous explanations that would have to follow.
A stroke of genius. She remembered that in the garden she had left a blouse and a pair of shorts to dry. Fingers crossed that they were still there. She made her way around. They were. Relief. Then she noticed something very unexpected. A table had been laid on the terrace with candles and a bottle of wine in a cooler. Other candles were dotted around the garden itself,.. in the trees, beside pots and so on. Dennis had not forgotten the day’s real importance after all. Forgiveness and no small measure of remorse flooded over her. He had been organising all this while she was ,.. well, not doing anything,.. not really,.. not much anyway,.. as it happened,.. thanks only to pure bad timing..
Dennis came out with a tray of pre-supper snacks. She grabbed her dry things, slipped off her panties and pranced, naked as a boiled egg, into the brightly lit area around the table,.. and swinging her discarded clothing provocatively around her head.
‘Happy anniversary, Darling,’ she said, without so much as a blush. ‘Did you miss me?’
It was a wonderful evening.
‘In spite of having so little in common in our outside or separate lives Ikor and I, together, shared a lot of interests. We were both avid explorers, tree climbers, bird-nesters, and poachers. I knew the surrounding area like the back of my hand. He knew the ways of birds and animals,.. and folk. We had much to teach each other. I found his mind very simple and uninformed. But his country law was greater than mine by far. For a few years, once a year when we met we were able instantly to resume our relationship where it had broken off the year before. It would be as if there had been no gap.
Of all the good luck that came my way through knowing Ikor the greatest was getting to know his family and especially his sister, Alpina. During the month they always spent in the canal copse there were usually about a dozen of them. Some were so alike they were almost sure to be related. Others were not. There were very few young men,.. they were either in the armed forces like every other suitable person of military age or, there were the occasion young men who would arrive unexpectedly, who looked furtive and who did not stay long. Perhaps they were deserters. Perhaps they were on leave. They would just come, stay a few days then disappear again into the mists. One seldom saw them again.
The centre of what I thought of as the family were the elderly father figure, Romano. His name was pronounced Row-mun-oh with the emphasis on the first syllable. His presumed partner was always known as Ma. She was a much younger woman, fat and cheerful. In later years she reminded me of Ma Larkins in `The Darling Buds of May.`` And then there was Alpina,.. a tiny, dainty hoyden. She said she was twelve but she was an absolute liar, - to her there was no difference between truth and fiction. She could tell the most elaborate confections without hesitation then, when questioned, smile enigmatically as take not the least notice. She was the first wild spirit I`d ever known,.. and I have been secretly in love with her every day of my life since.’
This is the story of Alpina, - who entered my life through a side door, who was there and gone before I was scarcely adolescent, yet who was and remains a treasured image, - she was and is my very own Cynara.
Every year the Gypsies came. They camped in the Canal Copse, a thicket mostly of willow and alder about a mile away from our home and alongside Fourteen Locks - also called the Cefn Flight - a series of disused canal locks, one after the other, where the water level is raised one hundred and sixty feet in less than half a mile. It’s all part of the long disused Brecon and Monmouthshire Canal. The copse was too thick to be seen through so it was a well-hidden spot to camp in the dense growth where the police would be unlikely to disturb them and the local people just kept away from them and waited for them to leave again. The Gypsies were not popular as they were renowned for stealing and poaching. Even darker deeds like ratting dens and dog fights were alleged to take place from time to time though we village lads who knew everything about the area never saw any such thing.
The Gypsies always came at about the same time,.. early summer. One or two vans and their occupants would stay about three or four weeks. As kids we didn’t really understand the planning behind it all but, in fact, they and doubtless many, many other groups of travellers were doing the same thing all over the country. They were fattening up on the early crops.
Summertime meant that the living was getting to be easy after the long, wet, cold winter. The fields were full of new potatoes, early beetroot, carrots and there was still plenty left of last year’s greens. Rabbits were everywhere and it was always a time when there were plenty of silly chickens who chose to ‘lay out’ under hedges and in neglected corners. The streams were full of trout and crayfish and there was always the chance of a salmon or so and everywhere abundant poaching to be enjoyed.. All of this was staple fare for the Gypsies.
To us lads they were always fascinating. They wore clothes that were far older and more shabby even than my granddad wore in his garden. Their hair was curly and mostly damp and greasy and far, far longer than was permitted to us. Their finger nails were never clean, - as our had to be,- at least twice a day anyway. And they talked funny. It was English alright – most of the time, - and we could understand most of it. But they had lots of words we didn’t know or use and when they wanted to they could switch into some quite different words and sounds of communication.
I first remember them coming to the copse when I was about thirteen. It was during the middle of the war – say 1942 or 43-ish and one day, as I went on my usual ‘rounds’ of the fields I spotted smoke rising from the extensive thicket. Keeping what I thought of as quiet and inconspicuous I crept into the copse to see what was going on. I’d hardly gone ten yards when a voice said ‘I see you, Big Boy.’ Startled I glanced around and there, stock still and watching me was a lad of about my own age. He’d a big bundle of sticks under his arm and was collecting more deadfall to take back for the fire. ‘I’m Ikor,’ he said. ‘Who you?’
My mouth must have been hanging open at the sight of him. He was about my own height but of a narrower, sinewy build. His hair was black and his eyes too and he had a vague rather shifty way with him. But it was how he was dressed that I still remember most of that first meeting. He had huge boots - far too big for him – with no laces in them. And no socks - something that would never be permitted for us. His trousers were similarly huge and their cut off bottoms were frayed and hanging over his boots. The trousers were held up by a length of sisal string pulled tight around his waist. I’m sure at least three chaps of his size could have got into those trousers at the same time. On his top half he wore an old flannel shirt again far too big for him. Then, over that, was a sort of jacket that had no sleeves and which was held together with the same sort of string. He had an old and worn army bush-hat on his head,.. and he was smoking. Looking back I think that was the biggest shock of all to me. Of course we kids also smoked - mostly roll-your-owns made of collected fag ends and Rizla papers. But I’d never seen a child of my own age blatantly smoking where anyone else might see. Unthinkable! I was filled with admiration. He was clearly a fellow rebel.
In the event Ikor and I never really became friends though I saw him quite often as the tale will tell. There was too much of a gap between us not least intellectually for Ikor was what, in those days, we called ‘simple’ though, to the gypsies, he was described as ‘touched.’ There is a big cultural gap between those two attitudes. Despite the differences we got on quite well. He was able to teach me some of the gypsy techniques of poaching, - pheasants, hares, rabbits, trout, crayfish, salmon. These were all valuable skills during the severe rationing of the war years. In return I could show him where to look for bird’s nests and certain doors and locks that were not locked when no-one was around; also the nearest fields that had edible crops near ready for stealing. We played with the puppies, we made throwing arrows using string launchers for extra range. We helped each other climb the trees that were too hard for one lad on his own. Each time they came Ikor and I would pick up just where we’d left off last about eleven months earlier.
However, the best thing he ever did was to take me back to meet the rest of the traveller group and especially Alpina who, I think, was, at least partly, his sister. The head of the group was a man of about my father’s age, - late forties. Both he and Dad were just old enough to have missed being called up into the armed forces. His name was Romany [pron: Row-Mah-nee] and both he and his wife had short china-clay pipes in their mouths more or less all of the time. They slept in a magical - to me anyway - caravan that was typical of many that were still commonly seen in those days. It was straight sided with a bow top, pots and pans hanging on the outside and painted in a dozen different colours. There were wooden steps leading up to the stable-door at the rear while, in front, were heavy wooden shafts into which their massive, placid shire-horse, Bucephalus, could be harnessed when they were on the road.
From time to time other travellers would appear as if from nowhere, spend a few days with the group then disappear again just as mysteriously. Although they all spoke a kind of Somerset accented form of English, when strangers came and when I was around they spoke totally differently which to me was impenetrable. I suppose that was the point. On several occasions we lads felt sure these were Nazi spies on the run but we were too fond of the ‘gippos’ ever to do anything about it.
The members of the gipsy group were always busy. One or two would be out foraging for the pot. Another would be scouring pans down near the canal bank. There was firewood to be collected, wild flowers to be picked and tied into little posies to sell at the market or door-to-door. And when there was no other job they would be manufacturing their main source of income - wooden cloths pegs.
Ikor and his mother, known simply as Ma, would seek out the willow trees plenty of which grew in the damp ground of copse. Romany would then use his huge metal machete to cut branches an inch or so wide into sex-inch lengths. There were always empty food tins galore around the campsite. These were hung of twigs and tree branches each with a couple of stones in. Unless you knew where they were it would be hard to enter the camp area without making a warning sound. Romany had a heavy pair of metal sheers and, with these, he would cut a tin round and round into one inch strips of metal. Lengths of these straps were wrapped around the pieces of willow branch to look rather like the band around a good cigar. From a flat tobacco tin he would then take what he called a ‘teg’, - a fine half-inch pin. This was tapped through the metal band and into the centre of the heartwood. Finally he would smooth off the other end of the future peg and slice it from the tip up to the metal band. Dumped into a big cardboard box for a month or so the two halves of the peg would start to dry out and, in so doing, curl slightly away from each other to form the traditional wooden clothes-peg. These were what all housewives used to peg out the washing on Monday mornings.
Romany was a word class poacher, - a skill on which he largely lived. He was always reluctant to demonstrate his prowess however, though Ikor was more forthcoming. What I learned was mostly from him. There was one thing Romany was always willing to share, - his prowess as a chef. His omelettes were light, fluffy dreams sprinkled with herbs that were strange to me. We only knew about parsley, sage and thyme. Maybe too the freshness of the eggs had something to do with it, - they were always so fresh that the chickens hadn’t missed them yet. His all-in stew was another revelation perhaps because whatever else was to hand the main component was onions, - an aroma that could beckon me from half a mile away. There was also another ingredient that he called ‘eye.’ I later realised that this had been garlic, - a disgusting abomination utterly unknown to the mining valley women of the day. His name for it had clearly derived from its French name, ail.
There was one thing I several times ate with the family but have never eaten again since. It was hedgehog,- yes, hedgehog. He wouldn’t use the big ones, - ‘Too zauer,’ he’d say. But between half and full grown were fine. He used to wash them carefully and chop off the tiny sharp claws. Then, in a bucket, he’d make a thick slurry of mud and water, wrap the little beast in it, and set it aside to drip dry for a few hours. Once the evening fire was well ablaze he’d rake a small dip in the cinders and put the mudball into it. There it would stay for a couple of hours. When he reckoned it was ready – and he was always right, he’d roll the whole thing out of the fire and give it a hard whack or two with a poker. The baking shell would splinter away taking with it the prickles and leaving just the skin undamaged. It was so small you didn’t get much - perhaps but a mouthful, but I tell you now it was just wonderful, - more like chicken I would describe it yet in its way different and lingeringly toothsome.
All my life through I’ve wondered if I could recapture that delicious morsel. Yet, sadly, the only hedgehogs that ever came my way had already spent a day or two stuck on the wheel of a truck. Even I turned the other cheek at that. Then, suddenly, one evening about three years ago not one but two hedgehogs turned up in my geranium border. They were very cute and remarkably tame. I fed them some bread and milk in a saucer while I pondered how best to deal with them. They came, night after night, for about a week. And night after night I fed them. By the end of the week I had grown so fond of them that I could never have brought myself to eat them. I did find though that they were very fond of a little breakfast cereal mixed into their milk,.. especially Alpen.
Which also brings me around to the greatest and most memorable feature of my yearly acquaintance with the gypsies, - Alpina, that fair-haired daughter of the isles, - as I once called her.
No-one of the group seemed to know exactly how old Alpi – as I called her – was. The lady she called Ma thought she was ‘About twelve, I think’ and, if her mother didn’t know that implied two things – first that the lady was not her blood mother and, furthermore, that if she didn’t know chances were that nobody knew. I was thirteen or fourteen and the fact that I actually knew my birthday exactly was source of some amusement to them. For all that I was able to spot no signs of pubescence in her. Not that that made the least difference.
There was an immediate and, I believe, mutual, bonding between us. She more or less took me over and undoubtedly controlled our relationship. It was always she who decided what we would do and where we would go on any particular day. I knew she had her chores to do but whenever I could get there such things were secondary. She was always free if I was. It was a breathless rush of a month that first time after we met. I think it must have lasted some three or four weeks but it was a lifelong peak experience for me.
Despite my tender adolescence I was not by any means sexually unaware. A year or more before I had been seduced by Kathleen, - Auntie Kath, as the family called her. She was my father’s half-sister and used to spend time with us to look after the place and we boys with it if the folks were having a holiday or were away on other commitments. I’ll tell that story another time. I had also been involved in several sexual escapades with Pat, the teenage village girl who was our more-or-less regular domestic. She too occasionally slept over for the night when the parents were away. When she did it was always her bath-night and I was invited. Such episodes as these were curiously superficial. I had no real conceptions of the ramifications of even such brief sexual events. All I remember was the thrill of them being so naughty and so secret. This and their extreme enjoyment was about all that mattered.
Alpi and I had no such physical relationship at that time. She was a hoyden and a Tomboy right through. She enjoyed all the boy things. She played marbles like a boy. She went bird-nesting like a boy. She climbed trees like a boy. In fact it was when we were trying to climb a big horse chestnut tree that stood quite near that I first enjoyed a frisson of excitement with her. To try to reach the lowest of its dipped branches I braced myself against its main trunk. She climbed, barefoot, onto my shoulders and reached up. She balanced as I gripped her ankles and inched away from the tree towards the branch. Slowly, slowly we edged our way until she said she could grab it. At that point I risked looking up,.. only to receive a considerable shock. I could see everything up there,.. and she wasn’t wearing any knickers. I was dumfounded. None of the girls I knew had ever been seen not wearing any knickers. Later on I asked her,.. full of delicate courtesy, me,.. why she didn’t wear any knickers. She looked at me rather puzzled and said, simply, ‘I haven’t got any.’ That was impossible and unthinkable to me but perfectly natural to her. Such was the gulf between us. Suffice it to say however that after that I never missed a chance to get her onto my shoulders or into any other position that promised another glimpse of the promised land.
There is no way to guess what, if anything, might have happened after that but our little relationship was about to be affected by forces beyond our control. Two or three days later I learned from Alpi that it was time for the gipsies to move to a place which five years earlier I had known quite well. It was time for them to go to the gathering held annually on Epsom Downs with other traveller families for the Derby Day meets and then their great summer fair. By the week-end when I next had time off from school and I hurried down to the canal bank they were gone. Just the doused remnants of their fire remained. It was almost a year before I would again see that tell-tale wisp of smoke drifting up from the copse. And I missed her dreadfully all year, but told no-one.
The day I next saw the smoke was one of great excitement. I had spotted smoke from our own back room early in the morning. We couldn’t actually see the canal thicket from there but any smoke from that area would drift into our view. There was never fire there for any other reason. It had to mean that the gipsies were back. My feet hardly touched the ground all day and after a hurried tea and badly skimped homework hour I was on my way across the fields.
When Alpi saw me her mouth opened wide in amazement. ‘You are a man now,’ she said as she came rushing towards me. Since I had last seen her I had inherited my very first pair of long trousers. I was pretty proud of them although they were hand-me-downs from my older cousin, Irvine, whom I hated. I had also grown rather rapidly. I don’t think it had dawned on me what a difference those trousers made but Alpi was clearly terribly impressed. She hurtled towards me, threw her arms around me and hugged me tight. ‘I knew you’d come,’ she said. ‘I just knew it,.. and here you are.’ She turned her head. ‘Ma,’ she called.’ Brian is here,.. look.’
Ma appeared from the old painted wagon and showered me with a welcome that would have shamed a visiting prince or two. We had fresh bread and Ma’s homemade cheese. Then Bucephalus walked us around on his back,.. in return for an occasional crumb of bread. I didn’t know or understand it, of course, but I was utterly and helplessly in love. There was something very lovely and very innocent about it all. I began to feel all the things a young lad feels when such primitive emotions are first stimulated and he has not the slightest idea how to cope with them or what to do about them. In my mind the ecstasy had no words.
Our little month flew by again just like last time. I was doing exams for my School Certificate and that got in the way of everything. But every available moment I was off like a shot from a gun.
It really was a love thing that had gripped us that wonderful month. We spent most of our time together just walking and talking or sitting on a log or a pile of bracken and talking,.. and holding hands. It’s hard to imagine what we could have found to talk about so much. I had been doing some poetry for English Lit., - I thought it was rather horrid, soppy stuff but to my surprise Alpi thought it was wonderful when I repeated the lines to her. ‘She walks in beauty like the night’ drew gasps of delight and recognition. ‘Yes, ‘ I remember her saying, ‘ the night is beautiful. I often peep out and look up at the stars.’ And again, ‘When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’ She was able to identify with things like that far more easily than I could. And when I recited lines from Romeo and Juliette she saw at once things that had absolutely passed me by,.. and she cried at the sadness of the story of a little girl just like her. She was a much more natural creature. To her the moon and stars and winds were friends she met every day. They were her companions and she was tender and affectionate towards them. I learned so much from her,.. and so fast.
There was an overflow race just a few yards from the canal bank,.. what the canal boatmen had once called a spill weir. If there was a lot of rain,.. as often is the case in Wales where our main export is water,.. and which we call liquid sunshine. It’s job was to allow water to flow from the upper locks to the lower. It was a stone-lined culvert some thirty yards long and so steep that the water rushed down it with considerable force. It was a regular ‘dare’ for us lads to risk leaping across it when it was at full flow. I explained all this to Alpi and without a moment’s hesitation she leapt straight across. I was impressed and must have shown it for she immediately leapt back over to my side again to show me it was no fluke. Not to be outdone I leapt across too and, looking back, said ’OK. Let’s go.’
A third time she leapt. But this time she misjudged with her following foot and an instant later she was carried still shouting down the chute. I tried to grab at her but it was hopeless. I missed her, slipped and followed her helter-skelter to the bottom. We were shocked and wet and a little bruised but the bottom and sides of the race were well covered with slippery algae which smoothed our way down from the top level to the bottom to land on top of each other in the barely knee-deep canal lock. Shaken but scarcely stirred.
It had been a bumpy ride and a bit of a cold arrival but there was no more to it than that. We were soaked to the skin and we had to peel off our wet clothing. We tugged handfuls of grass to dry ourselves off a bit. But it was a very warm day and we spread our clothes out to dry and lay down on the springy turf. It was nothing unusual for us to do that if we’d been in for a dip. The water was too shallow to swim in but very clean and fine for a splash about.
Inevitably, being naked, there was a certain impish pleasure in the rather naughtiness of it all. We shouldn’t have been jumping over the race, we shouldn’t have been so silly, we shouldn’t have got wet and dirty,.. and we shouldn’t really be lying naked in the grass. But suddenly there was something else. Something quite different was happening. She afterwards explained that she’d never known anything like it before. And I certainly had not.
There was a fresh cast member on our little stage. There was a new sense of something else, something important. We looked at each other and I remember noticing that Alpi had no breasts yet. Neither had she any pubic hair though I had a wisp or two that had appeared in recent months. She was pure white all over except from about her calves down where she was as brown as a walnut. I remember saying it looked as if she was wearing socks.
We just lay there for a while a bit overcome by this intruding presence of something else. It was as if we were no longer alone. Gradually we were getting warmer and I was aware of her looking at me and examining me all over. I was doing the same but more shamefacedly. Unlike me she was not shy at all. She made no attempt to hide herself when she saw where my eyes were centred. She put her hands on my hips then on my shoulders then around my neck. There was scarce any sexual nuance to all this. It was more of a voyage of discovery. She pressed my nipples and giggled when they hardened. ‘Mine do that, too,’ she said and put my hand on one of them. I squeezed and it sprang to life hardening into a pink rosebud three times the original size.. She squeaked and giggled again then, quite brazenly touched my penis.
That was what did it for me,.. and to me. Sensations like those that went with middle-of-the-night manipulations became very strong. Masturbation was pretty near to a criminal act in those days and was never mentioned except by allusion and accompanied by severe looks, admonishments and dire warnings.
This was something entirely different. This came with a dry mouth and a choking sensation in the throat. She looked at me, very straight, then she kissed the tip of me very lightly and she shivered. I tried to lie across her partly to keep her warm and partly so she would not see what was happening to me.
And there we lay hardly daring to move but both feeling these unknown, new sensations, - sort of inner shakings and yet vibrant and with a straining intensity of their own. I felt her grab my head and hold it tight. I was trying to prop myself up over her as I thought I was too heavy. We just lay and shook and gasped with not the least understanding of what was happening yet swept along without doing anything but lie there completely swamped by the rushing feelings and impulses.
I was as innocent as a new laid egg. I’d never felt anything like it. With Pat and Kath it had been a mixture of wicked curiosity and wonderful sensations egged on by another person who was in complete charge. Now there was wonder and amazement but not a trace of these feelings that now swept me along with a pressure of their own.
I don’t remember thinking at all. It was just a rushing forward and soul-shaking tumult. For moments, - or hours, was it, I just lay heavily on her. I had hardened like never before. I shuddered and was transported away and up and through,.. wherever. I felt my muscles contracting and relaxing, my arms gripping her, my head pressed alongside hers, my eyes clenched shut and my spine convulsing. She was shaking, her eyes shut and her head trembling. It was my first orgasm and it was all kinds of an ecstatic mixture of thrill and shock and scared helplessness.
When it was finished I realised Alpi was still holding my head and shaking as much as I was. ‘What was that,’ she asked me. ’What happened to us?’ I had no idea. I just knew it had been beyond wonderful.
She was quivering like a scared puppy and almost whimpering. Again I tried to cover her and warm her as she shook like an aspen leaf and sobbed a little trying to catch her breath. I took most of my weight on my elbows again and looked at her. A tear or two had streaked her cheeks and were still wet on her skin.
I’m sure I had never penetrated her. I didn’t know how to. I think my penis just stuck down between her thighs. I’m sure she never parted them. She didn’t know how either.
It had been an astonishing few moments and its memory is, to this day, as fresh in my mind as ever. I had walked in the paradise gardens. I had tasted of the apple. And Eve was still warm beneath me. How clean was my valley, then. There was no evil, no serpent, no poised hand of retribution. Everything was fine and good and wholesome,.. and wonderful.
I put my face in her hair. She smelled like a fresh-baked loaf. We were clasped together and it felt as if it would be that way forever.
Sadly our relationship was never quite the same after that. The ignorance and the innocence had left and been replaced. We met each other perhaps three or four more times always when the gipsies came in early summer. We enjoyed ourselves and each other’s company. But the breathlessness was gone. We had learned to be careful and cautious. Fear had entered the frame. With our developing sense, my education and her maturing ways there was no way to relive that early careless rapture. The war ended. Times changed. And in 1948, the last time we met, I was ready to leave for medical school. Our tiny part of paradise had been lost from everything save memory.
I don’t know if the travellers still came and went after that. My days of field rambling were over. I was deeply into the wonders of science and medicine,.. my new mistresses. I hope Alpi took away as wonderful thoughts, hopes and memories as I did. For then,.. and a little bit for always, she had been my girl.
I sometimes look back, - as old men do – and wonder how many other hearts of other men and in other places she filled with her spontaneous, elfin magic. And I wonder too, how many of these other hearts she thrilled, inspired, tantalised, rewarded,.. then left forever a little bit broken as mine was.
And I still remember,.. every day,.. the delights and the privileges of my time spent with the raggle taggle gipsies.
Thank you Alpi,.. after all these years, for everything and forever. You marked my life with its brightest asterisk.
To be born Welsh is to born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth but with music in your heart and poetry in your soul.
The Old Straight Track still runs ever westward into Wales where there are still secret places, - places where the grey Welsh winds still howl down from the hunting grounds of the Old Kings and the raking rains carry poetry into the very names of the places they fall upon,.. Cwm Brenin, Llaethnant, Maesydd,.. where miners trudged, singing their way homeward past the standing stones, the Druid-drowsy woods and the great ruined castles standing like the cracked sugar lumps of history; where the last bright jewels of the crown of Llewellyn the Great, the Once and Future King, are hidden on the misted hillsides and where the blood of our people, the Cymru, still secretly yearns for freedom at last from the newcomer, Anglo-Saxon tyranny; where the past is brittle with relics and men are always ready to test themselves against the emptiness of an untenanted cross. This indeed is Wales,.. Gwlad y Gan,.. the Land of Song,.. the Land of My Fathers,.. the Land of Something Else,.. and I do not believe that, in Last Days, any but the Cymru will speak for this corner of the Earth.
Over my shoulder
The Old Trout said she was going to the bank. Last thing before she left she popped her head around my study door.
‘Keep an eye on the weather, will you,’ she said. ‘I’ve left some washing on the patio line. Bring it in if it looks like rain, would you?’
I finished the letters I’d been writing and decided to pop around to the Post Office right away with them before it rained. By some remarkable miracle of providence I remembered to look out of the window. It definitely looked like rain.
I couldn’t find the washing basket so I stripped the clothesline and threw the slightly damp items over my shoulder,.. towels, smalls, two teacloths, various socks and a few handkerchiefs. I took them into the kitchen, left them on the kitchen table and went off to the Post Office.
Now, when a village doctor goes on a hundred yards walk to the post office and a second hundred coming back it can easily take half an hour. He meets so many people who want to exchange a word or two. I also had a spot of my own shopping to do.
It was almost an hour before I got back to the house. By the time I got there I was a little puzzled. Old Mrs.Parsons had stopped me briefly outside her favourite sweet shop. But she only spoke for a moment then ended the conversation and moved on. Not like her at all. Will Billings was much the same. A quick greeting as he if he was about to launch into an update of his current multi-therapy,.. then a funny look and he was gone, mumbling something to himself. Jock Walker was worst of all,.. just paused, looked me in the eye and gave me a big wink. ‘Life’s good, eh, Doc’ was all he said. These were not the only people whose behaviour pattern appeared different from usual. Additionally there were several strangers who looked at me in rather an old-fashioned way.
The explanation did not dawn on me until the Old Trout came back in. She took one look at me and said, ‘What on earth are you doing with those?’
I glanced in the mirror. Over my shoulder was draped a flimsy morsel of black, frothy, lacy stuff,.. a garment that I was more familiar with in other circumstances and covering a different part of the anatomy.
There was a somewhat similar occasion worth adding on here. As on the other occasion Pix came into my consulting room to say she was going to the bank and could she do anything for me while she was there. She was wearing one of my very favourite full skirted blue frocks with a pretty white blouse. As so often she looked wonderful. There was nothing I needed doing so off she popped.
She’d not been ten minutes gone when I realised I’d forgotten something she could have helped with. I put my papers into a file cover and followed her the hundred yards or so to the bank all intent on giving her a surprise. She was the only customer there and she was at the main desk actually speaking to the manager, Brian, a good family friend of ours.
Never one to miss such an opportunity I crept quietly up behind her, slipped my arms around her waist and up a little to give her wobbly bits an affectionate squeeze. There was an unexpectedly frigid response and I saw Brian’s eyes flash a warning a split second too late. She turned around and to my horror and shame it was not Pix. I had fondled a total stranger who just happened to be wearing blue skirt and white top.
Brian saved my bacon. He quickly explained that I was the village doctor, his personal friend, and that my wife had left the bank only a couple of minutes before and clearly the doctor was trapped by mistaken identity.
I don’t remember when, either before or since, I’ve ever been so shamed and embarrassed. I have a deep dislike of men who take advantage and try to be inappropriately familiar with ladies. I felt as if I had gone scarlet right down to my toenails. I stammered out my apologies to the stranger.
There thereupon came a happy ending. The lady smiled sweetly and said she quite understood. No offence had been taken.
’In fact,’ she said. ‘It was all over too soon.’
What follows I have tried to write as if from the woman’s angle,.. having seen the matters described happen to my own wife.
When, finally, do children become accountable for their own actions? Is there a wonderful moment when parents can at last become detached spectators in the lives of their children, heave a sigh, part of regret part of relief, and shrug, ‘It's their life,’ and feel nothing more?
When I was in my late twenties, I stood in a hospital corridor waiting for doctors to put a few stitches in my son's head. My mother was there. I asked the nurse in charge, ’When do you suppose it's alright to stop worrying?’ The nurse said, ‘When they get out of the accident ward.’
My mother just smiled faintly and said nothing.
When I was in my thirties, I sat on a squeaky, little chair in a classroom and heard how one of my children talked incessantly, disrupted the class, and was headed for a career making license plates. As if to read my mind, as I left the head master shook my hand and said, ‘Don't worry, they all go through this stage; give it a year or so and then you can sit back, relax and enjoy them.’ When I got home I told my wife and mother about the episode.
My mother just smiled faintly and said nothing.
When I was in my forties, I spent a lifetime every Saturday evening when the kids were out somewhere just waiting for the phone to ring, the car to come home, the front door to open.
A friend said, ‘They're trying to find themselves. Don't worry, - in a few years, you can stop fussing. They'll be adults.’
My mother just smiled faintly and said nothing.
By the time I was 50, I was sick and tired of being such a vulnerable Mum. I was still worrying over my children, but there was a new wrinkle,.. now they were of such an age that there was no longer anything I could do about it.
My mother just smiled faintly and said nothing.
I continued to anguish over the kids' failures, their sad love affairs, their miseries. I was tormented by their frustrations and absorbed in their disappointments.
My friends said things like, ‘Don't worry. When the kids get married you can stop worrying and lead your own life, - at last. I wanted to believe that, but I was haunted by my mother's warm smile and the way I would sometimes catch her looking at me. Occasionally she would say something like ‘You look tired. Are you all right?’
Can it be, I wondered, that parents are sentenced to a lifetime of worry? Is it their inner realisation that security and safety do not really exist in nature,.. that they are only man's inventions,.. and hopes? Is concern for one another, and for children especially, handed down like a torch to blaze the trail of human frailties and the fears of the unknown? Is concern a curse or is it a virtue that elevates us to the highest form of life?
One of my children became quite irritable with me just recently. When I picked up the phone to answer her call she said, ’Mum,.. wherever have you been? I've been calling you for three days, and no one answered. I was worried about you.’
I smiled my own little, warm smile,.. I’m sure it was just the kind I remembered seeing so often on my mother’s face.
Whatever it was,.. the torch had been passed.
Gran’s Glass Eye
Harry Llewellyn had a very, very,.. extremely, old grandmother. I should think she must have been sixty at the very least. He called her Gran. So did I. So did everyone else in the village. She was a nice lady. She always had a cup of cool, sweet water from the well in an earthenware jug in her pantry. And she always had a wad of her own bread, cut thick as a plank and heavy with best beef dripping, when we lads were hungry. There is no food quite as good as bread and dripping, with cool, well water when you are a really hungry thirteen year old.
But the most fascinating thing about Gran, - indeed, the only thing about Gran for me, and for the entire time I knew her, was,.. her glass eye. Her glass eye didn’t move. It just stared at you as unblinking as an inkwell’s unseeing eye on a school desktop.
I never listened to anything she said. I was always too involved with looking at that odd eye. Half of her face just didn’t look at you. The eye just went wandering all round the place as if it had nothing to lean on. It was odd, really,.. as if half of her wasn’t listening. It was like a real eye, fresh and glistening in the sunlight yet cold and wet looking and you felt sure it would be slimy as a wet plum
My father once said he believed that, when she was younger, she used to use the eye to look for work. But with my father you could never tell whether or not he was joking.
Anyway, we heard that some remarkable person named Glaucoma had ‘taken the eye.’ How, we puzzled,.. and swapped theories, had he got it out,.. prised it out, perhaps with the handle of a teaspoon,.. or, wide-eyes at this idea,.. with his thumb like Cesare Borgia did to some poor slave in that film we should never have got in to see. Wow!
We all wished she would take it out so we could peep into whatever aching void lay behind it. We used to suck those big sweets, Gobstoppers, we called them, that changed colour every few minutes. We used to keep taking them out to see if they were the colour Gran’s eye was assumed to be.
Once, delivering her some chicken soup from my own Gran, when she was poorly, Harry and I found her asleep. We stood by her bed hoping she’d wake. We knew the eye was in a little white jar on the bedside table and it would be wonderful if she opened the empty eye and we could see the socket it fitted into. And what a thrill it would be to be able to help push it in for her.
We wondered did it make a sort of plopping sound when she took it out? If someone sucked it,.. could they make it pop out, like you could a sheep’s eye up on Bleddyn’s Farm when they were killing some lambs for Easter?
Actually, I used to have bad dreams about that eye. In my dreams I used to wonder if anyone could steal one of my own eyes. I remember waking, more than once, and shouting out,.. ‘Is it still there,.. my eye? Is it alright?’
It was an altogether remarkable thing, Gran’s eye. It couldn’t wink or smile or follow objects about the place. Yet it had a volition all its own. I imagined you could hold it in your hand and make it look wherever you pointed it,.. like when grown-ups said they had eyes in the back of their heads. What it might be able to see if you inched it round a corner, or through a keyhole. Raptures of adolescent boy-thoughts were aroused and freed of all restraint by thoughts like that. What bliss it was to be young,.. and ignorant.
For years I wondered what happened to the eye when she died. Did she leave it to someone. Or did the undertaker have to return it somewhere? I thought they probably buried it with her. If not, where did it go? Where is it now? And does it still wobble about?
David Lloyd George
The parochial nature of old Wales was shown up in the story told to me when I was a young student, by a friend of my father,.. a man who, in his own younger days, had been a prominent journalist. It appears that in about 1946, just after the war he was sent by his paper to the village in North Wales from which had come one of the most famous Welshmen of all time,.. David Lloyd George,.. lawyer, author, politician, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Prime Minister, International Statesman and holder of the Order of Merit. He thought a good angle would be to find one or two of the very oldest inhabitants and ask what they could remember of the great man who had so recently died.
He was directed to Old Megan who lived alone in Beddfelin, a tiny little house down by the water mill. She agreed to tell him what she knew.
'Oh yes, I knew him alright,' she said, and using the old Welsh version of the name. ' In fact I knew Daffydd quite well. He was a nice little boy,.. really. We were in the same class in school though he was a good bit older than me. Rather short and a bit frail, he was, but ever so handsome. And he was always talking about the way the country should be run and what we all ought to do about it. A bit politically minded, he was.'
The journalist encouraged her talk as he made notes.
'So,' he said. 'What can you tell me about him personally?'
'Oh, not much,' she answered. 'He was a bit of a lad for the girls. He was almost engaged to Gwenllian Evans for a while but nothing come of it. He got a job delivering the Western Mail for old Mervyn the News for a while. And he got in a bit of a scrape with the minister up at Sardis Chapel for hanging around after the service. Looking for Gwenllian he was, I suppose,.. or anyone else in a petticoat from what I remember.'
'And what happened after that?' the journalist asked.
'Oh, after that nothing much,' Old Megan said. 'Soon after he finished with Gwenllian he went off to college and left the village,.. and he was never heard of again.'
I add, just for the fun of it,.. and because it is true, that my father really did know Lloyd George.
For many years an active part of my practice involved hypnotherapy. I found it not only a most useful aspect of treatment for so many cases but also it was a technique in which I was deeply interested. I had learned the basic techniques while still a junior student. Later, when I was qualified, I attended several courses, practiced the techniques and studied the theories until I came to be regarded as quite a prominent practitioner in the UK. I gave numerous lectures and demonstrations and I wrote many, many articles for both professional and lay publications.
I used to enjoy the demonstrations in particular and became quite well known,.. and astonishingly well paid, for my appearances. In fact for some years it became a prominent feature of my work. I wrote a book about the techniques of using hypnosis which is still updated and revised every eighteen months. Worldwide it has sold over 50,000 copies. In it I explain how to use the techniques for simple therapies and, especially how to use the techniques of auto-hypnosis,.. or self-hypnosis, for achieving numerous personal benefits like controlling anxieties, combating tendencies to over-eat and gain weight and how to stop smoking. [Available in eBook form from www.doc-leaves.com]. The book also explains the various tricks of the trade in doing public performances.
For example, at a big seminar held for prominent UK press journalists in St,Paul de Vence, I hypnotised the Vice-Chancellor of a British red-brick university and instructed him to stand out in front of the audience and actually direct non-existent traffic right there in the lecture hall and all this while the lecture and demonstration, to which he remained completely oblivious, continued all around him. I gave another demonstration at Sydmonton the country home of Andrew Lloyd Webber. In the grounds of his lovely house standing, as it does, just below Watership Down there was a deconsecrated old church which had been converted to a small theatre complete with every possible electronic enhancement. It was a very happy weekend if a bit chaotic in terms of timing. I even enjoyed the pleasure of having the delightful Sarah Brightman, - Andrew’s wife at that time, cook me and some of the other guests omelettes and toast at various inconvenient hours and without a murmur of complaint. There, to the strains of Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1, I had the charming wife of a then top musical star sitting and inhaling the aroma of the beautiful bunch of roses I had given her,.. or so she thought. In fact what she was clutching so affectionately was a bunch of flowerless dead stems and fern stalks that I had plucked from the nearby hedgerow half an hour before. Making people believe the seat of their chairs was getting too hot to sit on or ordering someone that when they heard a particular piece of music they would stand up and shout ‘Fire –fire – don’t panic’ or, again, causing discord by telling a participant that someone else was stealing his chair,.. these were all popular and humorous displays of the strange but very real effects of hypnosis.
Of course not everyone will do these silly tricks. You have to pick out the very susceptible ones,.. the so-called ‘somnambules,’ at an early stage. This is not difficult. You simply attempt a mass hypnosis of the entire crowd. So superficial is this thinly spread influence that most do not succumb to it. But about half a dozen or so in any hundred members of the audience will become hypnotised. These are the easy ones and you select them for your further tricks and displays.
At first I found this all a great pleasure. But gradually the superficial magic diminished. It was so easy to influence people that one tended to get a ‘power image’ of oneself. This is in many ways similar to the personal highs experienced by evangelists and the like. They promise things like the involvement of some imaginary spirit or godhead and when their hypnotised subjects start to respond they themselves start to believe the gibberish they are talking. Of course there are not really any spirits or gods or any other ‘supernatural’ entities being invoked. The point is that they and their victims do believe it, - and therein lies a route to power. All power does corrupt. This is written as a word of warning to those who sense the start of that delusion of power that the practice of hypnosis can engender. I gradually came to regard the entire thing as unwholesome so I discontinued the demonstrations,.. though I always knew that if times got tough I could easily make a living by using these techniques,.. one way or another.
Medically speaking hypnosis has much to recommend it. Its weak spot is that it tends to take a good deal of time and that is not always in abundant supply. On the other hand it is very safe in experienced hands and it involves no drugs, needles or surgery. In fact it is almost entirely non-invasive. Furthermore it works.
To give just a couple of examples:-
It is a terribly stressful thing,.. to me, anyway, to watch a little child of perhaps six or seven in the self-worsening grip of a severe asthmatic attack. The frightened, tearful sobbing, wheezing and gasping is heartbreaking to watch. Nowadays we have drugs which, in mere moments, have, in most cases, the ability to stop the attack very swiftly. Fifty years ago it was not so easy. I taught my little asthmatics how to make their wheezes go away when they pressed their thumbs against mine as I sat on or kneeled beside their beds. They knew, - partly because I had told them and partly because many of them would have undergone the experience, - that using that thumb-pressing would make the shortage of breath go away. It was nothing more than a conditioned response using post-hypnotic suggestion but many times I saw it work wonders. I can tell you there is little in all of medicine that I ever found quite to equal the thrill of watching some little mite calm down and become soothed as the awful struggle for breath abated and the tears could stop.
One of many quite dramatic cases and related in some detail will help show how effective hypnotherapy can prove. Yvonne was daughter of two old patients of mine living in the village. When this episode happened she was in about her middle to late twenties. She was teaching in a prominent public school in Ireland but if she ever had any medical problems she used to hold on to them until she came home for holidays and could talk to me about them. I don’t think I had actually treated her since she had her polio booster the old fashioned way,.. yes, drops administered on a lump of sugar,.. at about fifteen years old.
I heard the bad news from her father. Driving home for the Christmas holidays she been passing through a small village in Ireland when, by avoiding a near collision her car had gone off the road and into a stream. She was never in any serious danger as the water was only three feet deep but the shock affected her psychologically. For two or three days she was in hospital under sedation while the shock symptoms were expected to diminish and leave her unaffected. Things didn‘t go that way at all. Although she recovered from the shock and a couple of bruises she was emotionally demolished. She was moved from Ireland to a highly prestigious UK hospital where every possible test was done and various possible therapies considered. Nothing worked. In the mid-summer she came to stay with her parents. She could hardly speak, she was not sleeping and she couldn’t work or do anything much but sit about all day. Both parents came to see me and asked if I would accept her as a private patient,.. not actually to do anything but just to be her doctor in case there was some need or other. I agreed of course and, as was my routine with new patients a day or two later I went to call on her.
I found her grateful, glad to see me and pleasant to talk to. Also, on examination, as far as I could see she was in every physical way entirely normal. Over the next couple of days I thought a lot about the case. Assuming, as seemed entirely reasonable, all the tests done had excluded any physical abnormality, then the problem simply had to be emotional. If you have totally excluded the possible then, however unlikely, the impossible must be the case. These symptoms had arrived during the course of the few moments Yvonne had spent in her car in the stream. I could think of no other explanation. If it could all happen in mere moments it seemed hardly likely to be something of deep and permanent nature. I claim no great flash of wisdom in coming to that conclusion. It appeared to be to be quite logical. I also claim no great skill in what happened afterwards.
I suggested to Yvonne and her folks that I’d like to talk to her very quietly and just we two on our own. I particularly did not mention hypnotherapy as at that time so many people had an almost knee-jerk antipathy to it. We started by just talking generally about things. Then I said I’d like to go through the entire episode in very fine detail. Without her knowing what I was doing I used a technique then called misdirected attention and, with no surprise to me at all, she slipped easily and gently into a hypnotic state. I gradually deepened this until I felt she was ready. I then regressed her to the time of the accident and methodically took her in detail through everything she could recall of the event,.. which was most of it. Every few sentences I paused and reminded her that, until that moment that we had reached, she was safe and normal and could speak and behave normally. Stressing this during the narrative took about fifteen minutes but at the end she was realising that at no time had there been any reason to feel fear, or to be in danger, or to lose any of her normal rational faculties. To end I told her, via post-hypnotic suggestion, that she now no longer needed the unnatural symptoms she had been experiencing and that, consequently, she was free of them and would have no more trouble. Again, it was all simple logic. I let her rest for two or three minutes then ended the hypnotic state and reminded her that she was now back to normal in every way.
And so she was. From that moment on the old normal and capable Yvonne was exactly as she had been before,.. entirely symptom-free. A year or two later the family left the area. I used to hear from them now and again but, to the best of my knowledge, she never had any more trouble. I repeat that there was no magic, no reason for the effusive gratitude I received and no more need for self-congratulation than if I had successfully treated a little girl with a sore throat. Hypnosis only looks like magic. In truth it isn’t. It’s just a therapeutic tool like any other.
However, not all hypnotherapy cases are as easy and as impressive as that one was. Indeed there were times when I felt a bit out of my depth. Grounds for anxiety were few but they did happen.
Chris Stevens was just such a case. His real name was Christophe Stephanowski. His father had been an RAF fighter ace serving in UK with the Polish forces during the war. When the war was over Chris was about five years old. As part of the generous way, what was then called Great Britain,.. and with some good cause,.. this country treated its friends and ex-servicemen in those days, his father was permitted to bring his wife and child to this country and, if they chose, become British citizens. While he was a patient of mine he and his partner, an old friend of his who had also come over from Poland, ran a small but successful wholesale fruit and veg business just a mile or two out of the village. He was a hard-working, busy chap and was never ill so it came as a surprise when he rang to book one of my longer evening appointments.
His problem was that since his parents had died a couple of years earlier he had been getting nightmares and nights disturbed by violent dreams.
‘I feel like a kid, Doctor, he explained. ‘I never had dreams and stuff like this when I was little. If there were any bad times during my first years in Poland I don’t seem to have remembered them,.. not that I’m aware of anyway.’ T
He looked me straight in the eye. ‘I feel like a bit of a ninny really,’ he said. ‘You know,.. a grown man getting nightmares and stuff. Hell, before I know it I’ll probably start wetting the bed. Do you think it’s possible I could be getting bad dreams from things I don’t even remember?’
I took some time to explain to him that yes, that was certainly possible. I detailed the way in which the human brain can remember almost everything that ever happened to it and that such memories could be stored away and never experienced or even thought about again until years later. To all intents and purposes they would have been forgotten yet, there they still were, tucked away in some dark corner of the storerooms of the mind.
At my suggestion Chris returned to the waiting room and patiently looked at old magazines while I dealt with my two other remaining cases of the evening. When I called him back in I told him we were going to go in detail through every thing he could remember of his war-time childhood. It was very little to go on,.. mostly just vague recollections and even these he thought might be more the result of photographs he had seen and tales he’s heard repeated rather than memories of the real things themselves. I felt sure the answer to the problem, nevertheless, was likely to be found lurking somewhere. If it were strong enough to have these effects it just had to be there somewhere however deeply buried.
I suggested to him that we might try regressions under hypnosis and see if that would turn up anything. At first he treated the idea as if I was joking but after I told him how useful and how effective the technique was he was all for having a try. He went into hypnosis quite easily and, once he was there, I deepened the level three or four times. I then started to probe him for what he could remember of any bad things that had happened to him in recent years. He answered all my questions in a typically dull rather monotonous way. There was very little beyond a collision between two or his delivery trucks,.. and a rather sad love affair that had ended a few years before. He was a still single man.
Five years at a time we regressed back though his lifetime going gradually back from the present and asking about such things as adolescent girl-friends, standards of education, his sporting successes,.. and failures. There were no incidents that seemed of any consequence at all. I felt we had to be getting closer. And then it happened.
At my suggestion we took the next step, - back to when he was about five years old. Surely, there, I thought, there must be some long forgotten thing.
He didn’t answer my question. I re-phrased it. ‘Go back now, Chris,.. even further, to when you were about five,.. a little boy. Remember where you are. Remember the people you were with. Try to remember some horrid thing or some bad event,.. try hard now Chris. Push away the curtains of your memory. You do have memories of everything in your mind somewhere. Think of them. Remember them, Chris. Remember them,.. and tell me about them.’
Chris didn’t answer. I repeated everything much the same just slightly differently. Nothing. He just sat there, eyes closed, breathing gently and as if he were patiently waiting. I was baffled. We had been chatting away quite happily for perhaps ten minutes and now he wouldn’t talk to me at all. I let a little time pass and tried him again. Nothing. Another pause and another try. Still nothing. I couldn’t think what I had done to offend him. There was nothing. But, try as I might, he just would not respond.
It is not a rare thing for patients to sort of dry up during a session. It is no cause for alarm. The right thing to do is simply to sit back and wait patiently. Gradually the patient drifts out of hypnosis and moves into a normal sleep from which, after a few minutes, they wake up as if nothing had happened.
By this time, Chris having been my last patient, I was getting ready for my dinner. I had already passed the time when I would be expected home. This was a bad time to have a sleeping patients to wait for. Enough was enough, I thought. I told him I was going to wake him up,.. just a routine end-of hypnosis procedure. ‘…. And when I say open you eyes, you’ll be entirely back to normal,.. eyes open,.. wide awake,.. and normal in every way.’ I repeated the words to him. He didn’t respond at all. He just sat there still and quiet.
I was not at all concerned. There was no cause for concern. Patients don’t stay in hypnosis forever,.. in spite of all the lurid stories of them becoming zombies,.. or dying in hypnosis and such stuff and nonsense. But it was very inconvenient for all that. Suddenly I had a brainwave. I went in to another room and made a short phone call.
When I cam back a few minutes later Chris was still sitting there. He was still hypnotised and showed no response to the way I had left him and returned.
‘Christophe,’ I said. And then again rather more sharply. ‘Christophe!’ He opened his eyes, blinked and looked at me. ‘Christophe,.. oboodge-zee,.. oboodge-zee’ He blinked again and I snapped my fingers two or three times in front of his face. For a moment he looked a little fuzzy then his eyes focussed and he looked straight at me. ‘Oh,.. Doctor,.. I think I must have sort of dozed off for a moment. Sorry.’
And it was all as easy as that. Until shortly after his fifth birthday Chris,.. Christophe as he then was,.. knew and spoke no English. When I regressed him to five years old he became, in his mind five years old again. And he spoke no English at that time. He had stopped answering me as he simply did not understand the question. I spoke no Polish but when I phoned Chris’ partner a moment before and asked him the Polish words for ‘wake-up’ he taught me roughly how to say the words that with luck would mean something to the patient. To me the expression sounded like ‘oboodge-zee.’ To the five year old Chris that was the order to wake-up.
If ever one needs confirmation of how real hypnosis is as an altered state then cases like that must surely stand out as pretty convincing.
The daughter of Emperor Caesar Augustus was the lady Julia. She was exceedingly beautiful but had a reputation as one of the most scandalous hoydens in Rome,.. her services were in demand all over town. Indeed, when it came to The Lays of Ancient Rome the entire work of Macaulay’s might reasonably have been dedicated to her,.. as well as probably inspired by her.
Her father too, in his younger days had been famous for the excesses of his immorality. When he got old however he became much more curmudgeonly and frowned upon the very activities in the young which had so appealed to him in his own youth. When Julia appeared at an enormous festival dinner in what could only be described as an extremely revealing attire he was far from pleased. Next morning when he saw her walking through his palace he commented on the difference between last night and this morning’s much more suitable dress. Julia’s famous reply was,.. ‘Last evening I dressed to please my husband. This morning I am dressed to please my father.’
Julia, like her father before her was notably promiscuous. However, she was married to Marcus Agrippa, wealthy friend of her father and Rome’s most famous architect as well as military commander. Perhaps surprisingly, despite her notorious shenanigans all her children bore him a conspicuous and unmistakable resemblance. There was never any doubt as to who might have been their father. When her friends asked her how on earth she managed that when just about every handsome and wealthy man in Rome had enjoyed her bedroom favours she replied,.. ‘A wise captain does not allow his passengers aboard until the cargo is safely in the hold.’
The Great Jamaica Jamboree
In the mid-seventies I was involved in a lot of journalism, TV work and script-writing. I was also a regular, - or irregular, contributor to most of the well-known medical publications like Doctor, Pulse, World Medicine, The British Journal of Sexual Medicine.. and even the British Medical Journal, the prestige organ, so to speak, of the illustrious British Medical Association. It had become the custom of that association to hold an annual conference and, to add to the excitement, every other year the big event was held in some rather exotic overseas venue,.. usually in one of the few remaining British colonies. Despite the way doctors were constantly clamouring for a rise in pay many seemed able to find the odd few bob needed to fly to Hong Kong or Jamaica for a week or so’s jolly.
There was also another attraction. In an attempt to look good the UK medical authorities of the NHS paid extra cash to doctors who attended lectures and courses of further education. The lectures and workshops of the annual trips counted towards gathering these little bribes. It was a popular, exploited and widely abused source of extra loot. On these BMA trips many a lecturer addressed quite large groups of dozing doctors as they zizzed away the effects of the dirt cheap, duty-free saki or Appleton Special 99% proof rum copiously mixed with juices of fruits literally picked from neighbouring trees.
I was lucky enough to land a job as correspondent to cover two such ‘Overseas Medical Conferences’ - the Hong Kong one and the one in Jamaica. To me both were memorable but for very different reasons.
The first trip was to Hong Kong as ‘special’ medical correspondent for an American news chain. It was mostly fairly dull stuff, - lectures and demonstrations with occasional discussion periods. But in the small print at the bottom of one of the daily event sheets was an item that caught my eye as a source of good copy. It read ‘Demonstration and explanation of acupuncture.’
In the 1970s most people had probably heard of this pretty far out thing called acupuncture but outside of a few areas with a high Asiatic population there were few practitioners, - and I never met one who was both white and British. So, although the event was scheduled for 08:00 I turned up, - one of only half a dozen or so to bother and two of whom were other journalists.
We were taken by bus to a small hospital set in a densely populated area about a mile away. There we were introduced to a patient of about fifty who was about to undergo surgery for chronic stomach ulcers. This op, - usually called a gastrectomy, involves opening the abdomen, placing clamps, one across the ‘bag’ of the stomach and another near the opening of the stomach into the duodenum, - the main spot where, due largely to acid coming from the stomach, ulcers tend to form, then cutting out the area between the two. [To be precise the name of the op was a ‘posterior transverse isoperistaltic retrocolic gastrojejunostomy !’]. The man had only limited English but it was enough for us to talk about his symptoms and history. He was then wheeled into a preparation room and gowned ready for his operation. At that point, if no earlier, he would be expected to receive a combination of sedative with a drug that reduces salivation and causes a dry mouth. This is called a pre-med. We were told that he not had and would not be having any such medication as there was no need for it.
There was a small but well placed observation room from which students could watch the theatre through a plate glass window. Recognising us the patient waved to us. His gown was folded up to about mid-thigh and the acupuncturist twirled a triangular needle into the patient’s skin about three inches below his kneecap. After perhaps six revolutions of the needle between his index finger and thumb he then slid the needle about an inch and a half through the skin and deep into the muscle beneath it. He left it there and did the same thing with two more needles and with three more needles similarly positioned just below the other kneecap. Six in all. There was then a pause of twenty one minutes, - I timed it, while we spectators were served tea. The pause, we learned, was to afford time for the needles to have whatever effect they were supposed to have.
The surgeon, his assistant and his personal theatre sister then entered the room. They were already gloved and gowned. The surgeon spoke briefly to the patient as the others draped him in sterile covers. Then, without more ado, the surgeon held out his hand and his sister professionally and firmly slapped a scalpel handle into it. Just as in a western operating theatre he glanced at his staff who all nodded to show they were ready. He turned his attention to the wide expanse of skin in front of him and boldly incised about a four-inch cut over the right rectus abdominis muscle to gain access through what we call a right paramedian incision.
We spectators gasped. But the patient showed no response. He just lay there without moving. In one corner of the theatre we could see a modern looking anaesthetic machine. It was not switched on. Unless there had been some sleight of hand of which we were unaware we were watching a middle aged man having his abdomen opened without the benefit of anaesthesia as we knew it. It was unthinkable that this could happen. The operation lasted rather less than about an hour during which time the patient hardly moved except once or twice to stretch his arms and legs.
Back at the lecture room later we were given a long and interesting lecture on the body ‘meridians’ which, run up and down the body connecting different areas yet which, according to the western concepts of anatomy, are not actually there let alone connected to anything at all. I had done a fair amount of surgery and I was quite a good anatomist yet these meridians were something I had never seen or heard about before. As far as I was aware they simply did not exist,.. yet here they were apparently being used. Altogether remarkable.
On the same trip there occurred another small episode that gave me room for thought. There was a half hour lecture concerning the modern [western] management of throat infections in children. It was a time when new antibiotics were constantly bring introduced and the statistics of various regimes were being presented. There ensued much discussion concerning the pros and cons of different combinations, the place for concomitant use of more traditional routines like antiseptic gargles, keeping the child’s temperature down and so on.
Eventually one elderly Chinese physician indicated his wish to ask a question. He spoke in the most perfect English. I quote fairly accurately from my notes made at the time.
‘If I have understood correctly, - if you have, say, six individually different children with a sore throat, irrespective of their background, their size, shape, residence, familial connections and history, birth signs or Feng influences, basically and despite all these many variations, you actually treat them all in exactly the same way with the same dose of the same chemical,.. and that’s it?’ He looked up to invite an answer.
The lecturer, a well known ENT consultant replied simply, ‘Yes.’ The Chinese physician was clearly baffled by this. For a few moments he slowly shook his head from side to side in disbelief. Then he made his one word reply,.. ‘Remarkable. Thank you.’ And he sat down.
In subsequent conversations I learned that before starting on treatment a Chinese physician would spend plenty of time talking to and examining the patient and the multitude of possible variations in his health, physique, history and general background. It was a time consuming process,.. no room there for the five minute consultation allowed under the modern NHS routines. Only after that would he feel capable of embarking on a particular therapeutic regime.
For myself I have no particular inclination towards or against what was once called Alternative Medicine, - though now more often referred to as Complimentary Medicine. I knew quite a lot about anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pharmaceutics. I’ve done a lot of surgery. I’m a good hypnotherapist and I’ve treated thousands of patients with, I think, reasonable success. I know little about acupuncture or homoeopathy, iridology, Reiki, crystal therapy, the use of pendulums, reflexology or Feng Shui.
Throughout my professional life my guiding principles have been just two in number. One is said to stem from the great Father of Medicine himself, Hippocrates,.. ‘primum non nocere’ … ‘First, do no [further] harm.’
Outside of that if my patient can be helped by collecting dried herbs at full moon then burning them while dancing around with feathers then I’m willing to try it. There is little to be gained from blind addiction to ageing rules. Consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind. If there’s one attitude and expression I loathe it is ‘My mind is made up, kindly do not confuse me with facts.’
My second BMA working holiday was to Jamaica. I was lucky enough to travel as correspondent to cover the entire Jamaica vacation, - all expenses paid, for one of the leading pharmaceutical companies for whom I had been writing at the time. The offer was the best I’d ever had in the media up to then and involved film, TV and radio coverage and an open expense account. The offer even included a trip for Pix to accompany me as my secretary and assistant. It was no sinecure. So successful was the event that I landed several other subsequent options and also found the door open to as many lecturing offers, TV and radio appearances as could be fitted into the curriculum of a busy country GP.
There were several very worthwhile lectures during the week. No expense had been spared in selecting top speakers from all over the world. The organisers were to be very much complimented. Joking aside, I learned more of the modern, up-to-date medicine of the time during that trip than ever before or since. Full marks to the BMA for that. Each day I wrote up my material, Pix typed it and I was able to file my copy to Head Office on time.
It was while mixing with the communications people there that I learned a couple of useful publicity tricks. First, have someone deliver a message to the public address operators to announce over their speakers system something like,.. ‘Would Dr.Dick Richards please call his New York office asap.’ There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Similarly, send a cable, - or perhaps, nowadays, have someone call and leave a confidential message like, ‘Dr.Richards, - the Americans are sticking at one and a half million; can I say yes?’ Confidential messages are always the first to leak and get the widest spread.
I was reminded of the advice of Mrs.Rathbone, - abandoned wife of the actor Basil Rathbone. This lady knew more about theatre than most and I was lucky enough to come under her tuition during my amateur dramatics years. She gave out no end of useful pearls of theatrical wisdom,.. in fact I came to believe that much of her ex-husband’s repertoire derived from her experience, wisdom and advice. One was for the moment when you are about to appear front-of-curtain,.. perhaps to deliver an intro or even a message. There was always a bit of a hubbub going on as the audience waited for something to start happening. This invariably took a few moments to subside and could cost your entrance some consequent loss of impact. ‘Always let them know in advance that you are coming,’ she advised. ‘When you are ready curl your trailing hand well around the edge of the curtain, grasp it, then pause. The more observant people in front will notice this and their attracted attention will be contagious. Then, when you do sweep back the curtain, do it with a flourish. You will already have most of the audience’s attention.’
Another of her ideas was one I used many times. It was a brilliant morsel concerning what to do if you have just done a scene you really thought was pretty good and deserving of applause. It is a fact that audiences often wish to applaud but everyone is timid about being the first to clap. I learned the trick that as I exited the scene, as soon as I was out of sight I’d clap loudly two or three times myself. The audience would thereupon immediately join in and follow with their own applause.
But I digress,..
The final evening of the Jamaica Jamboree was to be a semi-informal dinner and ball generously funded, - with government assistance, - by the Jamaican Medical Association. Everyone,.. guests and hosts, gathered in the open-air for drinks at seven o’clock to be followed by a buffet dinner at eight all on the most magical moonlight evening. The usual back-scratching speeches began only a little late and, one by one, it seemed that every BMA member had a turn at the welcoming, complimenting and advertising. The talks went on and on. The blood sugar of the guests sank lower and lower. Bladders became full. The circulating alcohol levels rose.
Eight o’clock came and went and nine o’clock was approaching but the speechifying went endlessly on. Eventually, as the clocks ticked laboriously slowly on past 9:30, dozens of waiters, - all starched white jackets below black bow-ties and faces, began to erect trestle tables and to set out glasses, crockery and cutlery. At last, we all thought, - at long bloody last, it was almost time for grub. But no. The local Medical officer of Health had yet to speak. And he did, - at some length. He was all but finished when there was a special announcement. In honour of this illustrious occasion the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Health themselves had decided to attend and were on their way to join the party. For half an hour the famished hordes waited then gratefully greeted the bigwigs as they exited their be-flagged limousines.
Then came another unexpected but wonderful treat. Both the DPM and the M of H would each like to say a few words. Groans were heard from every quarter. It took until well past 10:30 before there was final desultory clapping and the supper could commence. Waiters bearing huge plates and salvers shoulder high emerged as from nowhere.
The entire following event was carefully hushed up afterwards and there was little or no coverage in the UK media. But there then ensued one of the most horrendous and disgraceful exhibitions I ever saw. Forgetting all courtesy, manners and decorum some five hundred ravenous doctors, - GPs, consultants, medical school professors, - the lot, and their wives, simply fell upon the plates of food. Sometimes they didn’t even wait for the trays to be put down onto tables. They were grabbed at in mid-air. There was no orderly queueing, no neatly filling of plates, no arranging of seating. It was every man for himself, women too, and the devil take the hindmost. They rushed, grabbed, stuffed and guzzled. Beautifully laid out delicacies were seized in bare hands and crammed into mouths. It became a frantic and uncontrolled shambles. The only difference between the scene and that of pigs at the trough at feeding time was the presence of lawns in place of the excrement of pig-sties. It was a hideous and degrading spectacle to see the hoi polloi of the UK medical profession behaving like Auschwitz inmates, throwing all manners and courtesies to the winds as they descended on the tables and voraciously gobbled up everything and utterly disgraced themselves and the reputation of both profession and nation in ten greedy minutes.
All around, the Jamaicans,.. doctors and waiters alike stood back in shock, aghast as this shameful scene unfolded before them. The bolting and glutting displayed a deeply humiliating spectacle. I believe that none of the hosts would ever again have much respect either for British doctors or for Britain itself. Both were totally and publicly shamed.
I understand that ever since that episode everything to do with the entire event,.. the Great Jamaica Jamboree, has been deliberately deleted from or played down in official records. And so it should have been.
Don’t believe any others reports on the incident that downplay the entire shocking performance. It happened just as I have described it. I know. Because I was there.
Now, let me just check if I’ve got all this right.
If you cross the border into the Cyprus buffer zone you get arrested. If you cross into the ‘Turkish north’ illegally you get arrested,.. unless you are a Greek Cypriot and you go near a flagpole in which case you can get dead. If you cross illegally into Iran you’ll be imprisoned for spying. If you illegally cross the Cuban border you’ll be indefinitely ‘detained’ in political prison. If you illegally enter Saudi Arabia you can get your hands chopped off. If you illegally cross the N.Korean border you get twelve years hard labour. If you illegally cross the Chinese border you’ll probably never be heard of again. If you illegally cross by boat from Africa to Italy they send you right back the same day,.. some hopes.
But,.. if you illegally cross the UK border they look after you, give you legal aid, find you a nice house while they sort out the paperwork. They mislay the files and, instead, find you a job, give you a state welfare payout, subsidise your rent, give you free education, training and health care. They then lose all interest in you so you become another ‘lost’ permanent resident.
Do correct me if I have got that all wrong. But I hear loads of other people asking the same questions. And wherever I go I hear talk of emigration. Ordinary decent folk have grown sick of being pushed around by politically correct dreamers and islamofacists. They’re sick of being the only people in the UK that are ever called racists.
Of course we mustn’t forget that we’ve also done lots of philanthropic things. Especially like fighting serious wars for people who don’t really want us there,.. Iraq [twice] and Afghanistan all within a decade or so and none of which we could really afford in money or lives. We did this to earn the gratitude and friendship of all those nice people whose lives we interfered with,.. uninvited. That’s why they all now love us so much. Never mind. The fashionable left feels UK can well afford to spend more loot on game-playing quangos and supplying disposable nappies to all bedridden, one-eyed, Moroccan lesbian refugees than it spends on the NHS.
Brits were also sick of watching that previous Chancellor handing over their money to fail in sorting out the banking crisis that he didn't comprehend anyway. They’re sick of the wars on drugs and on drink and on smoking and fox hunting and the carbon footprint. Sick of cops paid to prosecute drivers for noshing a sandwich at the wheel or putting the wrong refuse in their wheelybins.
They see families ruined, lawless streets, Downs syndrome kids with A Levels, feral humans committing atrocities, a powerless judicial system, overflowing prisons,.. MPs who’ve stood by tut-tutting while British subjects have been beaten, insulted, robbed and expelled from their homes by that ignorant savage Robert Mugabe, so that his black, impoverished citizens could desecrate their property out of sheer spite. They see the coddling of the poor, the unemployed, the feckless, the worthless, the unemployable and illegal immigrants. And now they hear the new socialist party führer proclaim that they’re on the road back to power. Yet the only ones voting for that sorry lot of failures who have treated us all like something they stepped in will be those just listed. They can stick their golliwog-banning-conkers-forbidding-how-very-dare-you clap-trap where they stuck our freedoms of speech and religion and security.
Here’s my suggestion. Let’s withdraw our troops from all over the world and station them on our own borders. No-one will be allowed to creep through holes in the fence. Asylum will be available to very few indeed. No-one from a terrorist nation will be allowed in even overnight. If they don't like it where they live let them stay there and change things and not come to hide in our territory. Illegals will get no dithering about in courts. 90 ‘tolerance’ days in which to sort out their affairs and they’re on their way home,.. free of charge. And those who have dodged the column for years will be rounded up and deported immediately. They're illegal for pity’s sake. And to the resident ‘illegals’ one statement,.. This is Britain, - we do things differently here,.. get used to it or get out.’
And then we’re going to start undoing the damage lately wrought on our country and its hard working, honest, decent citizens who didn’t vote for and don’t deserve any of this. Our streets belong to users not to hordes of bronze-age thinkers kneeling down to babble prayers. Our rights of free speech took centuries to achieve and if that offends someone they have the right to speak back not just to whine because they are offended. The religion bit of our freedom of religion means little to me,.. I’m not superstitious,.. but the freedom bit matters a lot.
Ace, Deuce Jack
‘An absolutely, mathematically certain way to win the game.’
Guarantee: If you follow this technique you WILL win over any series of games above about eight or ten. As each game takes mere seconds, this is no difficult task. Indeed, buying this technique may well turn out to be the most profitable fiver you ever spent.
Rather remarkably the game of Ace, Deuce, Jack is little known outside of the United States. It is fairly well known in some areas there. So, we recommend that if there is a gent with an American accent in your group, then that might be the time to play a different game. This game has, at times, been very popular at fairs and side—shows. There, the card—sharp, who always looked scruffy and a bit of a loser, would gather a group around him and offer them a wager that they seemed certain to win. But they didn’t. He won. And this is how he did it.
THE METHOD,.. and it couldn’t be easier. (Its like pinching sweets off a baby). In fact, it’s (almost) indecent to take the money. By the way, it is not essential to use the ace, deuce and jack. In fact any three cards will do equally as well. But they give the name of the game a nice sound,.. so why not.
NOTE: You MUST make it clear at the start that you and your opponents are entering a series of (say) ten or more hands of the game. The more they will agree to the better,.. for you.
Here’s what you do:—
1. First you make an astonishing sounding offer. You will deal, if they wish you to, but, if not,.. you will play actually without even touching the cards. That means you can’t cheat. They don’t realise that you don’t need to cheat. You’ll win anyway.
(NOTE: to make such an offer can make some people suspicious, So it might be in your better interest simply to take your turn.
2. The dealer now double-cuts or deals the deck into three piles. It does not matter whether they are of similar size or not.
3. Everyone makes a bet into the kitty. (If there are only two of you it becomes a straight bet between you. You will still win, it just takes a little longer; furthermore, as you will only win from one person the winnings are correspondingly smaller. Hence our earlier remark about the more the merrier. It feels nicer to win a kitty than a mere small bet).
4. Now here comes the crunch! As the challenger, you make the bet that if any of the three bottom cards of each pile includes an ace, a deuce, or a jack,.. of any suit,... then you will win and they pay you. If, on the other hand, the aces, deuces and jacks are all absent, then you lose and pay up.
Anyone seeing the game for the first time,.. and who does not have considerable mathematical expertise, will say the obvious,.. “This guy is betting on three cards of any of the four suits. That means he can win on just twelve cards, while I win on the other forty. That is an obviously good, three or four to one bet. I’m bound to win.”
SUCKER! The truth is he is bound to lose. He may win a hand, or two or three or even four,., but over a decent series HE WILL ALWAYS LOSE.
In fact the odds are in the region of ten wins for him to eleven wins for you. Once again that means the more people that play and the more hands you play, the faster will your winnings from each person accumulate that 11 to 10 advantage.
That is only one pound in a tenner. But, we ask you, ... Where else can you make a steady ten per cent profit,.. every few minutes,.. for as long as you can make them play?
Good luck,.. although with this game you don’t need it.
It all works according to a formula. The harsh reality is that in any 52—card deck the number of possible three—card combinations is
(52 x 51 x 50) = 132600
---------------- ---------- = 22,100
(3 x 2 x 1) = 6
If the aces, deuces and jacks are excluded, of the forty remaining cards, the number of possible three—card combinations is
(40 x 39 x 38) = 59280
------------------ -----=-- = 9,880
(3 x 2 x 1) = 6
Thus, there are (22,100 — 9,880) = 12,220 ways in which an ace, deuce or jack can appear,.. and YOU can win. And there are only 9,880 ways HE can win. Those are odds of better than ten per cent. And they are crippling odds by a gambler’s judgement.
The whole thing is that the sucker never quite gets over the idea that, after all, only twelve cards in the entire deck favour you. With bets of even money (and you may well get even better) the game quickly degenerates into bankruptcy for your opponents.
I imagine that by now more or less everyone knows that grand old joke about the carpet layer. But I am going to tell it again because it is good enough to be worth it. I shall then try to cap it with my own similarly based tale.
Bert Jones was the village handyman. He could do or fix almost anything. And that was back in the days when we did fix things. Most of our domestic items were designed and built to last much of a lifetime. When anything went wrong with them they were repaired not thrown away and replaced with newer rubbish. The consumer society was blissfully decades in the future.
Bert had invented a few things in his earlier years. Either they didn’t really work or he lacked the acumen to popularise them. Either way he settled down instead to life as the best repairman and handyman for miles around. He was never out of work. He’d clean windows, plant a tree, sweep the chimney, paint the window frame, put up a shelf or mend the mangle. It was all the same to him.
On one particular day he turned up at Mrs.Evans’ house to lay her new fitted carpet. All morning he measured, cut, trimmed and tacked everything to his satisfaction and until the new carpet was all but finished. Eventually he straightened his back for the first time in two or three hours, stood up and surveyed the job so far as he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. Suddenly there came upon him two unpleasant shocks. First was that his cigarettes were not in his pocket. That was a puzzled. Where could they possibly be? His eyes were sweeping across the neatly laid carpet when the second shock arrived. Three quarters of the way to the far wall was a small but obvious bulge. Oh my God!
Bert went out to his old pick-up truck for another packet of cigarettes. The whole problem needed thorough thinking through and he estimated that to be at least a two cigarette job. Lighting up he stood looking at the carpet as he smoked and thought. To remove the bulge it would be necessary to re-lift a large area of the superbly fitted carpet. It would never go back down with quite the same accuracy and perfection he had achieved the first time. He could think of only one alternative option.
Taking his broad-headed mallet he knelt beside the bulge and, working from the centre out he gradually tapped and pushed and tapped and pushed the crushed remnants until they more or less disappeared. Then he took a handful of small headed nails and tapped a dozen or more through the area and into the underlying floorboards. He carefully buried the nailheads in the carpet pile and stood back to look again. If you hadn’t known it was ever there the bulge would never be noticed. Bert treated himself to a well-deserved moment of satisfaction.
At that very moment Mrs.Evans came into the lounge carrying a tray with a large mug of tea and a few biscuits.
‘I reckon you’ve earned these, Mr.Jones,’ she said. ‘Oh yes,.. and here are your cigarettes - you left them in the kitchen when you came through.’
Bert hoped his look of horror wouldn’t show.
‘By the way, Mr.Jones,’ she went on. ‘While you’re clearing up do keep an eye open for Phyllis, - Megan’s little hamster. She’s a real shocker for disappearing and hiding under things.’
The Panjats were an Anglo-Indian family living in a nearby village. Panjat himself was a good man of about twenty eight, - a hard worker to whom his family was everything. His wife, Doris, was a good deal older, - ‘well on the far side of forty’ as she put it. She had come from an upper middle class family and was well-educated with a Master’s in economics and history. I often wondered what had attracted her to Panjat who was no oil painting and was well below her in terms of intellect and intelligence. She anticipated my question one time when we were talking and she told me, using her name for him, - ‘Panny is wonderful with the kids. And he’s hung like a stallion. Yet he’ll fuck like a rabbit every night and as often as I want. I love it. Never get enough.’ As his doctor I was able to confirm the stallion bit. He was far larger than most of his fellow countrymen.
Doris’ happy state of affairs was, perhaps, borne out by their flock of children. I’m none too sure how many there were at any given time and to me they were all the same, - beautiful little ragamuffins, boys and girls alike, and all with the most devastating dark eyes that seem to be a feature of so many Anglo-Indians,.. or ‘blacky-whites’ as Doris called them. They never seemed aware of their differences from the other village folk. They were just a delightful family of happy scruffbags and I loved them all.
I seldom got called to Panny’s house. None of them ever seemed to be ill and Doris was a very sensible woman. When I did go there it was always a matter of picking ones way through the nips and carefully stepping over the groundlings that were too small to walk. Also one had to miss several kittens, a rabbit or two and, of course, Rufus, their enormous St.Bernard dog who really needed an entire room to himself.
So it was the day I got called to confirm that Shahnee, - their six-year old really did have Chicken Pox and could not go to school. She had it alright and I went to some lengths to reassure her that she was, nevertheless, no threat to her pet chicken. All their chickens were pets and it was nothing for one or two of them to be seen scratching about and looking for their liking in the big kitchen.
As usual I did all the things with the smaller kids, like playing ‘round-and-round the garden’ on their grubby palms and like making sixpenny bits disappear only to reappear from their mouths or from behind their ears. They were a happy lot and I always enjoyed my rare trips to the Panjats.
I had more or less completed my repertoire and was getting ready to leave when little Dinya, aged about five, asked one of the questions doctors hate most. It begins, ‘While you are here, Doctor,..’ This time it was ‘While you are here Doctor would you look at Eric? He’s not a bit well.’
‘Of course I would,’ said I. ‘Which one of you is Eric?’
‘Eric is my baby hamster,’ said Dinya.’I’ll bring him.’
Half a minute later Dinya came back cradling the ailing Eric.
What could I do? I was caught. With some show I put my stethoscope in my ears and made to apply its business end to Eric’s tiny torso. There must have been a dozen faces all wide-eyed and open mouthed as I performed the magic movements,.. including Doris, Pany himself and even Rufus. They were all agog.
Eric however did not seem to appreciate being the star attraction. Hamsters are really nocturnal of habit and he, quite clearly, had not taken kindly to being roused at mid-morning. Entirely ignoring this rare chance of fame he sank his pearly incisors into my thumb, - I swear almost to the bone. There was a loud ‘Ouch,’ from me and a combined gasp of shock-horror from my audience as I snatched back my haemorrhaging digit,.. with Eric still firmly attached but wearing the most baleful expression that I ever expect to see on the face of a hamster. He looked more like my Grandfather’s ferret.
To jettison the spiteful and ungrateful little bastard I flicked my hand into the air with some violence. The effort worked. The astonished Eric lost his toothy grip and, as a result, went flying through the air in a series of neatly executed cartwheels. A dozen pairs of eyes followed him as he gyrated towards the ceiling then back down. Everyone was simply frozen into inaction. Or everyone except one I should say. For the normally placid Rufus timed things perfectly. He watched and waited then, as Eric passed him he made the only swift move I ever saw him execute. His mouth opened wide, his massive head jerked and he had neatly caught the whirling Eric. There was just one massive closing of jaws and just one gulp,.. and Eric was gone leaving a well-satisfied look on Rufus’ face as he licked his lips.
From that day on I have never again tried to auscultate any other hamster, - or indeed any other kind of animal pet. In show-business they say you should never appear with kids or animals. They’ll always upstage you.
They are right.
The archeology dig
The story behind the attached letter is that there was a fellow in my home town of Newport, Gwent, named Scott Williams. He was clearly a shade different from most,.. one might even say a bit loopy. He used to dig things out of his backyard and send the stuff he found to the British Museum, labelling them with efforts at scientific names and insisting that they are actual archaeological finds.
Anyway,.. here's the response from the museum. It is a superb example of tolerant yet patronising courtesy,.. and uses the most admirable English.
Russell Square, London
Dear Mr. Williams,
Thank you so much for your latest submission to the institute, labelled as
‘93211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. ?? Hominid skull.’
We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we have reluctantly found ourselves forced to disagree with your theory that it represents conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in the Caerleon region of Newport two million years ago.
Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a device known as a Barbie Doll, of the variety – or sub-species - that one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be ‘Malibu Barbie.’
It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to the eventual contradiction of your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to its rather more modern origin:
1. The material is of moulded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically more often of fossilized bone.
2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimetres, substantially below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.
3. The dentition pattern evident on the damage that the skull appears to have sustained is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams you speculate roamed the Welsh wetlands during that geological period.
This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your association with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us summarise by saying that:
A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on at some unspecified time in the past.
B. Clams do not have teeth.
It is thus with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon-dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal operation, and partly due to carbon-dating's notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon-dating is consequently likely to produce wildly inaccurate results.
Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name Australopithecus spiff-arino. Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomic naming, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might actually be Latin.
However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a Hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the numerous specimens you have previously submitted to the institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the prolific archeological site you have discovered in your Newport back yard.
We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital as you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to afford it official recognition. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the trans-positating fillifitation of non-ferrous metals in a structural matrix that comprises the well-preserved and excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered and sent us as well as your individual take on the deceptive appearance of the object itself which so closely resembles a rusty 9-mm B & Q automotive crescent wrench that few workers less assiduous than yourself might have missed it.
Yours in Science,
Signs of Fascism
Some nuisance things may occasionally, nevertheless, be deemed inevitable,.. I suppose,.. though even then and for the most part I can easily sustain the feeling of the hair on the back of my neck beginning to tickle.
For example, increasing government control of the population and private behaviour by the massive use of public cameras to spy on citizens. Think, too, of the massive scale now current whereby substantial numbers of people who might be better employed elsewhere are being paid to snoop through wheelybins especially those of people whose names are to be found on certain confidential lists. The nosey snooping and the infringement of personal liberty at enormous expense in this way is no small matter. Equally worrying is any form of increasing government control over private behaviour,.. like the orchestrated steady erosion of the right of free speech, which we are now experiencing. But may these insidious pressures become something worse than that?
Fascist states - unlike democratic nations - have most of the symptoms listed below but even in non-fascist, ‘free’ countries their appearance may reveal serious trends and warning signs. To what degree then, do they already exist in some places,.. like wherever you happen to live?
First, is it possible that your Prime Minister or President would lie to the public? Or, is it possible he might, just occasionally, ignore part or all of the laws passed by the elected government? Such events start off being rare but get more and more common until rule-by-decree can become the norm as the senior officer assumes the automatic right to ignore any laws should he deem this beneficial to the national security.
There comes a steady increase in government monitoring of letters, emails, phone calls and bank accounts. Personal or national freedoms like privacy and free speech come under growing pressure until erstwhile ‘freedoms’, many of which took centuries to achieve, gradually fade away and disappear.
Fraudulent election results are announced or actual elections are held under supervision or without total voting confidentiality. Searches of factories, offices and personal residences start to happen and, to the surprise and horror of victims, the searches may well be carried out without warning and without any form of search warrant being issued. Unprovoked stop-and-search powers for vehicles and individuals are granted to police, the military, and to Revenue Officers. Sudden appearances of road-blocks become familiar.
Elections to public office take place behind closed doors. [It is on open record that already certain EU parliament administrators in Brussels have been elected in secret ballots]. Secret courts are the next step.
Some aspects of elected government find themselves under pressure from the country’s largest corporations or massive ‘global’ businesses.
Police or military may step outside of the law,.. for example by using illegal pressure or torture on prisoners or mere ‘suspects’ who have not received the benefit of due legal process. Courts start to support presidential use of unconstitutional powers. The media becomes supportive of, or shows deference to, the government in reporting police state activities. There will be concomitant massive spying on citizens, especially those involved in political dissent. Beware, too, if a government freely uses words like democracy, freedom and international peace while engaging in acts that do not appear quite in line with such words.
Do any governments you know of create watch-lists, stop-lists or no-fly lists? Do government agencies or officials appear exempt from some portions of the law or the constitution? Does the government want to put a national ID card procedure into operation,.. for protection-of-the-public reasons, of course?
Prisons fill up with growing numbers of citizens incarcerated for a growing number of increasingly trivial offences, for example by being too freely outspoken.
Security bubbles surround government leaders' public appearances. Audiences may be pre-selected. Signs of protest are broken up or kept at a safe distance. Dissent is characterised as disloyal and unpatriotic by government and media.
At some stage,.. and probably on some hyped-up pretext, the citizenry will be disarmed and punishments for arms possession become draconian. Mercenary/military forces are freely used for foreign and domestic ‘peace-keeping’ procedures.
Legal actions against officialdom find it difficult to bring cases into court. Prison without trial and arrests without charges happen. There will be transfer of powers from legislatures to the executive.
It becomes difficult to borrow books concerning controversial subjects from the libraries. There will be a takeover of functions formerly considered essential especially in local responsibilities like health services and public education. There may be assassinations of popular public figures. The leader claims a right to make war whenever he decides. He eventually sets himself up as the sole moral authority for the entire country, using his personal beliefs as the basis on which to declare what is 'good' and what is 'evil.'
Of course,.. where we live
None of these thing will happen e’er long,..
No, we’re safe from these extemporanea,..
And freedom’s a state that can never go wrong,..
And I am the King of Romania!
Occasionally some of my non-medical activities placed me in contact with characters best described as 'different' from the normal or average chap you might meet on the High Street. I'm not criticising them,.. having always felt, myself, that normal or average were not states to be aspired too but, rather, to be scrupulously avoided.
Nevertheless some of them were distinctly criminal folk and others of them more than somewhat connected with grey or shady areas of the law and the economy. One such was Bert Martyn who ran a second hand car business, mostly as a legitimate front to other even less appealing activities, somewhere in the Home Counties. [Exactly whose home being deliberately omitted from this yarn].
I was sitting in his office one morning discussing the sort of things that such persons usually discuss,.. the weather, the price of fish, and so on. There came a knock at the door and, unannounced, in walked,.. or rather crept, a small, foxy man with a long, grubby mac and a furtive look on his sharp face. I knew him of old, Jamie Taylor. Jamie ran his own little one-man business,.. as what the trade calls a pavement car salesman. His game was to buy a clapped out old bucket of bolts for about fifty quid first thing in the morning, give it a spruce up and then park it in a busy area. He hoped to sell it for an easy hundred, in cash of course and by lunch time, to a passer by. He was clutching a tattered poly bag with something heavy in it.
'Morning, Bert,' he said, and nodded briefly to me.
'Bert, I was wondering if you could do me a bit of a favour?'
'Mmmm?' Bert was suspicious and wisely cautious.
'Well, I got this car on the market. Nice little runner she is too,.. and I've got a likely buyer. But the mileage is causing me a bit of grief.'
He unfolded the bag and fished out a rather battered and rusty looking milometer. He tenderly placed it on Bert's desk. Bert's eyes scarcely flickered.
'Jamie, you know it's not legal to disconnect one of those.'
'I know, Bert. I know. But,.. see,.. I was hoping you'd just clock it for me.' By this he meant using a power drill to turn the reading back by some thousands of miles. He would then replace it and convince the buyer it showed a genuine mileage. It was always worth an extra few pounds.
'Jamie,' said Bert. 'You know that's against the law. How many times have I warned you?'
'I know Bert. And you're right. You are right. I know that. But just this once, Jamie? It would be a big favour. I can't do it meself, Bert. These things are buggers to open, - 'cept for an expert like you. Whaddya say, eh? For an old friend?'
How could Bert refuse, I wondered. He didn't.
'Alright, Jamie. Leave it here and pick it up tomorrow. It'll cost you a fiver.'
'Thanks, Bert. I knew you’d help. You're a real gent,' he said,.. and, like flash, before Bert could change his mind, Jamie was gone.
As we resumed our interrupted conversation Bert started twirling a screwdriver and taking the back plate off the dilapidated old instrument. He worked around its edges with the lever on his Swiss Army knife and suddenly the back came away as easily as could be. Bert peered into the works and suddenly let out a great belly-laugh of mirth. He was literally shaking.
'Just look at this,' he said, handing the milometer over to me.
There, on a little strip of sticky label on the inside of the housing someone had scrawled,..
'Wot? Not this one again!'
The Daily Visit
Clem Thomas came in to see me for a refill of his routine diabetic prescription. Despite being eighty four years old he was sharp and sprightly. And he was early for his appointment.
‘You’re on the dot today,’ I commented.
‘Yes. I have to collect my car from its service before I go to see Durie.’
Durie, his wife, had suffered a steadily worsening of that darkening wilderness that is Alzheimer’s for three or four years before she had to be admitted to residential care. That was two years earlier and she had been there ever since.
‘It wouldn’t do for me to be late,’ he went on. He set his old pork-pie hat on at a rakish angle. ‘She might think I was off with some flighty widow or other.’
I grinned. We were old friends and we both knew that Durie’s memory was totally gone. Whatever her blank old eyes saw, if anything, she showed no sign of even a glimmer of recognition. She just lay still, calm and silent, day after day, gazing out of her bedside window. I always called in on her when I was visiting the home, a couple of times a month. There was never the least response though she had known me well.
I gave Clem his prescription. ‘Don’t be late then,’ I said. He stood up to leave.
I was seeing him to the door. ‘You still go to see her every day, then Clem?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes, Doctor.’
‘Even though she doesn’t know you’re there,.. doesn’t even know you?’
‘Oh yes,.. that doesn’t matter one little bit to me.’ He paused. ‘You see, Doctor,.. I still know her.’
Clem and Durie are both long gone now. Yet somehow that little moment, whenever I think of it, still has the ability to bring tears to my eyes.
The Lost Baby
Petra Lewis was just twenty years old when she first came to me. She was pregnant. She had been married for about five months to a smart, young chap who was doing well in a local manufacturing company. Both the man and the company were on the way up.
The way Petra saw the pregnancy was as a total disaster. There was no way, she assured me, that the bloody baby could be allowed to interfere with her ambitious plans. She never wanted to be pregnant in the first place, she explained, but she’d made a mistake with her contraceptive pills. Furthermore, she went on, the hectic way in which they conducted their eyebrow-raising nocturnal activities meant that one simple mistake could be, and had proved, disastrous,.. especially as it was over a weekend.
Her reason then, for coming to the doctor, was not to start her antenatal care but to seek an abortion as soon as it could be arranged. Now, I had to admit that oral contraceptives were far harder to use and far less reliable then than is the case today, - though, even now, ‘accidents’, which only some of them are, still occur all too often. Nevertheless, in those allegedly less enlightened days, as I explained to her, abortion was absolutely illegal unless under very special circumstances.
‘But you must know how to do things like that,’ she pouted. ‘You’re a doctor.’
Telling her that no amount of know-how could make it legal brought forth a torrent of sulphurous language more familiar from today’s youth than it was back then.
‘If you won’t help me, someone will. There’s always old ladies wanting to earn a fiver.’ She flounced off and I did not see her again for a very long time.
I learned later that she had tried both of my colleagues and two other medical practitioners in the next town. They all turned her down too. They also, apparently, were subjected to bursts of skilled invective.
Some three months later a consultant gynaecologist from our local hospital phoned to ask about a girl he thought was a patient of mine, - Petra Lewis. He had just operated on a lady by this name who had been admitted as a surgical emergency. He had operated for what had been diagnosed as a septic abortion. He had removed the macerated remains of the pregnancy and also a three inch length of rubber tubing with a bent needle attached to it. He had decided there was little point in informing the police but wanted to know if I would take over her care when she was discharged. I agreed to do so, but, in the event, she never came to see me.
Although I did not learn of it until later I imagine it was about this time that disaster struck Petra Lewis. She fell victim to that merciless group of symptoms we now recognise as post-partum depressive syndrome. This happens even to happy mothers who have had good pregnancies, and have a lovely baby and a supportive husband at home. How much worse it can be when your husband, horrified at what had been done without his knowledge or consent and to a baby he had not even known existed. He, left Petra, home and job to start a new life elsewhere.
This was Petra Lewis’ plight. It had yet another, cruel, additional feature. She underwent the misery of deep remorse. She regretted what she had done. She was demolished by the sheer finality of her actions, - that there was nothing she could now do. She had had her hidden infant murdered. It was stone cold dead, for ever and after the most humiliating interference by a loathsome man in a dingy house, - an interference by no means restricted to ending her pregnancy. Liberties had also been taken that she dared not resist in case he changed his mind about helping her. She remembered his gloating as he had done and made her do exactly what he wanted. What was more she had had to pay highly, - in cash as well, and in advance.
Petra, despite her brash exterior and her hard image, was not made of stern stuff. Inside she was soft and weak. What had happened was more than enough to have a profound effect.
I was not involved in any way with her care. But my name was still on her medical card so, from time to time, I received reports from various places. She was seen at various doctors’ offices, casualty departments, psychiatric units and police stations.
What it came down to was that she broke down completely. She became a mental wreck. Much of the time she could barely fend for herself. For years she remained just short of being bad enough to be sectioned. She seldom drew her sick benefit. She had no fixed home. She wandered from place to place and one can only guess at how she found the wherewithall to support even her vagrant and haphazard existence. Apparently she was still attractive enough to command a certain small fee for occasional services rendered.
What she was doing, we later learned, - the thing that was motivating her confused and anguished mind, was conducting her endless search for her lost baby. And she searched everywhere. She looked for that baby all over the place. That was what brought her into contact, and, indeed, conflict, with so many authorities. For one long period she was methodically looking in all the domestic dustbins all around the outskirts of Bristol. Another time I heard she was delving in the rubble of a demolished block of flats in Wolverhampton. Another time it was a company refuse tip, - a vast landfill outside Glasgow. On yet another occasion she was nearer home, first rummaging a jumble sale in a vicarage garden in Maidstone then wallowing waist deep and naked in the activated sludge of the Tonbridge sewage farm. That time, when she was taken into custody, the mental health officer had wrapped her in his car blanket and his sailing oilskins yet still, he said, the stench nearly overwhelmed him.
Of course Petra never found her baby though she searched on and on. She never gave up. Over a period of twenty years there is not even a wild estimate of the places she had been, the things she had seen and done, the countless miles she had covered, - usually on foot. During the years she had named and renamed the lost little one over and over again. I heard of Peter, David and Lawrence, - and Maisy and Daisy. It had had every age from near birth to middle teens. None of what her isolated mind thought it knew was the truth. It just seemed that she had to go on searching and seeking, - going over new ground or, once again, over old ground that she had forgotten.
Eventually she was forcibly taken into state care. They took her to a big house somewhere out in the suburbs where they had white walls and bars on the windows.
The day she got there, they told me, she found herself trapped and she started to scream. She screamed and hollered and kicked people, walls and her own legs. After a day or two her screaming died down, perhaps as even she became aware of the futility of it all and that her search would never be resumed. Instead of the screaming she started a soft, insistent crying. Without a stop, she cried for the next five and a half years. She even sobbed and whimpered in her sleep. Then she died. And that is the end of her sad story.
I wonder if there is a moral there,.. somewhere?
The Secret Birthday Party
One of the greatest benefits of being fairly seriously wealthy, decided Pete Bartlemas, was that you had no particular need to worry about the cost of things. Thus it was that, when the caterers gave him their quote for the birthday party, he was able to tell them to go right ahead.
He left most of the details,.. the food, the drinks, the staff, to the caterers. Like most men he was no good at that sort of thing anyway. There was only one overall proviso. Under no conditions whatsoever was his wife, Elizabeth, to learn of the forthcoming event. Under no conditions was she to be told or asked anything. As the party was to celebrate her 50th birthday and, almost coinciding, their 28th Wedding Anniversary, the whole point was that it should be kept a secret from her. Everyone loves a secret so everyone connected entered the planning with huge enthusiasm and sealed lips.
Months beforehand, Pete had had his secretary write to the enormous guest list he and his daughter had secretly compiled.. Most were pleased to accept the invitation. As they did, one by one they were all sworn to secrecy. They were told how and exactly when to arrive and how they could remain unseen. They were reminded too that in between then and now they were to act as if nothing was happening. Secrecy was vital.
As the day approached and things started coming to a head Pete made all kinds of little arrangements to keep the secret. The party was to be at their home. He had two of Elizabeth’s friends arrange to take her out to tea and bridge that day. They would keep her busy and only return her home a little after seven in the evening when the guests were already there. The guests, of course, would be hiding out of sight as she came through the door. So would be the group of jazz musicians. So would be the hired staff and the superb spread of foods and drinks. Then, as she stepped in through the door lights would blaze, music would sound and to the sound of cheers and congratulations Elizabeth would be overwhelmed.
Everything went like clockwork. Elizabeth fell for the afternoon tea story and off she went. No sooner did one of the friends call on her mobile that they were safely many miles away than Pete gave the signal. From every direction came delivery trucks. From every direction appeared men to move carpets, women to lay out food, men to position tables. Florists with jardinières and vases full of flowers jostled with technicians fixing up loudspeakers.. Musicians were setting up their portable sound stage. Electricians installed extra floodlighting in the garden. Paths were swept, ornaments dusted, glassware polished and tray after tray of canapés, savoury morsels and finger-foods were daintily fussed over. Finally, from the trees to one side of the patio was hung a broad, hand-painted banner that read, simply ‘Happy 50th Elizabeth. We love you.’
In retrospect, later, it seemed to Pete little short of miraculous that at five-thirty his home was a bedlam of confusions yet, at six forty five, when the first guests started to arrive everything was calm and ready for them.
Everything went like clockwork. A succession of cars and taxis pulled up outside and their occupants trooped in, excited and chattering. All were herded out onto the patios and moved back out of sight. The timing was perfect too. Within twenty minutes a hundred friends, old and new, from all over the place had arrived and been hidden. At ten minutes after seven the phone rang and one of Elizabeth’s bridge pals reported that she was on her way home with two of the others and would be there in just a few minutes. Perfection, thought Pete.
Little did he know.
Elizabeth’s friend’s car stopped at the front gate and the three ladies walked up the path together. As they came in Pete just happened to be passing the front door. He and one friend exchanged a glance. All was well, it told him. Elizabeth had absolutely not a clue of what was about to happen, - an evening she would remember for the rest of her life.
As she stepped into the hall, saw Pete and went to say hello, she looked down at the wide marble step.
‘Where’s my rug gone?’ she asked.
Pete only just realised that the rug was missing. Someone must have thought it vulnerable and moved it without telling him. ‘Er,..’ he said. ‘Er, it was me. I spilled some fruit juice. It’s out in the kitchen for a good soaking.’ He glanced at the friend and rolled his eyes upwards.
‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘Come on in, all of you, I’ve got something much more interesting to show you.’
Elizabeth was about to protest or make further comment but, at that moment Pete gave the signal and the band struck up ‘Happy Birthday.’ Friends appeared from everywhere, drinks were pushed into Elizabeth’s hands and she was swept out into the decorated patio to meet the dozens of party-goers who had come to help her celebrate.
She was completely astonished. Nothing had been further from her mind. Suddenly, to come home from a rather dull afternoon’s bridge and find everyone she could remember here to celebrate was something that had never occurred to her in her wildest dreams.
Pete watched the whole scene with satisfaction. The hours sped swiftly by. There were jokes, cracks, witticisms and would-be witticisms. There was music and dancing. There was food and chatter and singing and everything that could possibly make the party go with a swing. And go it did. The whole thing was a roaring success,.. everyone said so.
There was only one thing,.. Pete thought once or twice,.. it must be his imagination,.. but there was something about Elizabeth and her attitude towards him that seemed a little off-beat. Nothing particular. Just an odd look now and again. There was something cool in her glance. Something not quite warm in her words. Must be the excitement, he concluded. She was obviously having a wonderful time.
It was not until the last guest had left that things took a decided turn for the worse. No sooner was the door closed than Elizabeth burst into tears.
‘How could you?’ she said. ‘How could you,.. oh, I hate you.’
Pete stood there at the bottom of the stairs utterly aghast as Elizabeth dashed up the stairs, disappeared into their bedroom and slammed the door hard enough to shake the glassware. He heard the key turn in the lock. Kip on the study couch again, he thought.
Elizabeth didn’t speak to him until four days had passed and then it was only to tell him the cat had been sick on his computer keyboard.
The truth didn’t come out until several weeks later when things had more or less settled back down to normal. Pete never really understood what he had done wrong. Women were odd creatures at the best of times. He’d arranged a wonderful surprise party for her,.. planned and executed everything for her and gone to no end of hassle and expense. And yet she was obviously as mad at him as all the banging bells of hell.
How was poor old Pete to know she’d told her friends that she was 43?
In all directions
Years ago we were on a motoring holiday in France. As we were leaving a small, picturesque town somewhere quite high up in the mountains of the Massif Centrale we were looking for a road that would eventually lead us to the Autoroute du Sud some twenty miles away.
At the edge of town was a single roundabout with only two exits. Just at that moment four or five other vehicles were also approaching behind us. Had it not been for that we would have stopped and photographed the phenomenon.
The first exit was clearly marked ‘Toutes Directions.’ The second exit was equally prominently signposted ‘Autres Directions.’
We’re are still puzzling that one out some forty years later.
Something in the air
The first time I was ever in an aeroplane was when I was about nine years old. It was the most remarkable good luck. At that time we lived in a London suburb and my Uncle Roy and my father took my brother and myself to see the race course at Epsom which was not far away. The following week was Derby week and at that time of year many of the Romany People,.. in those days we called them Gypsies, used to gather there for a sort of festival of their own.
While we were walking on the very track there was a sudden roar of engines and every eye turned skywards. Flying overhead were two biplanes,.. I later learned they were Gloster Gladiators,.. one going quite slowly was covered with black oil and its engine was coughing and spluttering. The other aircraft flew very low along the track and we could all see its pilot making hand and arm movements that clearly meant get out of the way. We all scattered towards the railings.
Moments later the plane that was in trouble came down and landed right there on the track in front of us. The pilot switched off the engine and rapidly leaped out of the open cockpit, onto the wing and down onto the ground. He then ran fifty yards away to get away from any possible fire or explosion. Neither fire nor explosion happened.
The other plane had circled and now came in and landed a short distance from the other. It was quite the most exciting thing I had ever seen happen.
The two pilots walked together towards the railings where the rest of us were gathered. The one from the damaged aircraft was plastered with oil. It had even leaked into his goggles. It was in his hair, over his face and in his eyes. He had nothing but what he stood up in.
To everyone’s amusement at that moment a little boy walked boldly over to the oily pilot, took out his handkerchief, and offered it to the pilot. The man seemed most grateful, took the handkerchief and immediately wiped his eyes and nose clear. The handkerchief was ruined. I know,.. because that little boy was me. As I explained later, all I thought of was doing my good deed for the day. I was a keen member of the Cubs.
The clean pilot,.. that is how I remember them - the clean pilot and the dirty pilot – went off to make telephone calls. Several other bystanders, seeing my generous gesture, now also offered handkerchiefs and the flier looked almost respectable.
He came over to me and handed back my useless hankie. Then he said. ‘Would you like to be a pilot one day?’ Apparently I launched into a long explanation of why my answer was yes. He then said, ‘You’d better jump up and see what it’s like inside then.’ Seeing my father nod, he lifted me up onto the wing, climbed up behind me and then lifted me into the cockpit,.. of the clean airplane. The earlier models, then used for training, had open cockpits,.. the sliding hatch covers were only added on later, combat models.
To me it was as if I had been invited into Aladdin’s Cave.
My memories of the evening are jumbled after that as so much seemed to be happening. But looking back, I’m sure that was one of the events that encouraged me in my already early and near-disastrous habit of taking silly risks and doing daft things.
The very next time I was in an aeroplane was in 1946, almost ten years later. A war had come and gone by then. Lots of ex-RAF fliers were back in civvy street, many of them out of work. A group of them had bought a light aircraft and were making some kind of a living flying holiday makers for trips around the bay of one or other of the many small but beautiful holiday beaches of South Wales. My grandfather,.. who had never been in a plane, told my mother he was going to take me up with him for a trip. I recall there was an awful scene right there on the beach as my mother did not agree. Pa had his way however,.. after much experience he had developed his own way of dealing with fractious women,.. he just totally ignored them.
Anyway, we had our ten fabulous minutes and topped it off with a high tea of fish and chips in newspaper,.. something else of which my mother disapproved.
It was another ten years before I again got in a plane. This time it was a battered old tub that was flying service personnel from the UK to various overseas postings. It took all day to fly to Luqa in Malta and then another day to fly on to RAF Fayid in the Canal Zone. British forces were, at that time, gradually evacuating the zone and pulling back to the new Middle East HQ being built in Cyprus. If ever I had a stroke of luck it was in being posted to that lovely island,.. which has remained a second home to all my family ever since. I became MO to a rather pukka Field Gunnery regiment of the Royal Artillery. To a lad from a small Welsh village it was every kind of a change. What is more it was during ‘the troubles’ that preceded the independence of the island as it became free of British rule to assume status as the Republic of Cyprus. Because of the terrorism of the EOKA campaign the island was under martial law. A wonderful state of affairs for an adventurous young officer.
In those days a Gunners Field Regiment consisted of some six hundred men manning, using and training to use eighteen 25-pounder guns. In Cyprus there was no open war so heavy guns had little to do. As a result, while continuing intense gunnery training in case of sudden need in other troubled parts of the globe, the regiment was mostly occupied with IS duties,.. Internal Security.
I suspect that it was this tour of duty that necessitated the arrival of a temporary Commanding Officer while ours was in UK on a three months refresher course. The new guy was plainly nuts. Looking back, only the fact that I was new at the job and didn’t yet know how things worked in the army stopped me having him medically certified.
One of the regiment’s proudest possessions was a two-seater light aircraft. The purpose of this was to act as an Air-OP,.. a flying observation facility whereby the crew could see where the shells from the regiment’s guns were landing and radio down the appropriate adjustments required. I imagine it all worked very well except that in Cyprus there was only firing of live ammunition for the two weeks-per-year Practice Camp. The rest of the time the aircraft was just parked at the edge of the parade ground.
Perhaps he visualised a day of such need,.. or maybe it was just a whim, but on one particular day the Acting CO issued an order that all officers would receive flying instruction. That extra word ‘all’ meant that the Education Corps officer, the PTI [Gymnastics] captain and even the doctor was under orders to learn.
It didn’t really help that our only qualified pilot was also pretty much of a nut case. What is more he hated the idea that instead of his only duty being to have a nice leisurely flight around the island once or twice a week he would now have to disturb his life by training some thirty officers in the rigours of handling our Air-OP. I was allocated to one particular Thursday about two weeks before my forthcoming marriage. To say that my mind was not on the job nor my wishes either was a masterpiece of understatement.
Nevertheless on the relevant day, just half an hour after the end of sick-parade I presented myself to Capt. Donald Foreland,.. my tutor. Most of the morning was spent first trying to get the radio to work and, after that, in learning how to use it. The only air traffic control was forty miles away and that was stretching things a bit for whatever sort of waves the contraption used. By lunchtime however, Don considered that I had mastered things sufficiently for us to risk all, to say nothing of life and limb as well, in a trip to the clouds. It was mostly on that memorable afternoon that I learned several of the axiomatic points mentioned in my handy hints list at the end of this section.
Our runway was a roughly cleared stretch of dried mud alongside the camp. Don took us off and up to about three thousand feet. That was according to the altimeter. But just then Don said ‘Doc,.. don’t take any notice of the altimeter,.. hasn’t worked for years.’ My word, but that was comforting.
We flew in circles [not of the ever-decreasing type] while he repeatedly ran me through radio procedure several times. I began to get the idea that its radio was about the only thing in that old bucket of bolts that did work properly,.. despite being more or less and most of the time unable to get anyone to reply.
After that it was my turn to take the controls. My first impression was how extraordinarily simple the whole things was. As long as I kept the revs up and didn’t let the airspeed drop until it triggered the stall-warning hooter it seemed very easy. I’m sure that given time I could have managed it.
For about an hour we practised ‘circles and bumps’,.. landing, taking off, climbing and circling the camp and then landing again. I didn’t count how often I did that,..but I suppose about twenty. I stress how easy it as in an aircraft not more than half filled with avgas, a lightweight instructor and a warm, windless afternoon to do it all in. Nothing to it. Then the bombshell.
I landed for the umpteenth time and I looked back over my shoulder to see what Don would say. To my surprise he was getting out of the rear cockpit. In his hand he clutched the ignition master-key which had been in his cockpit throughout. He threw the key to me in the front seat and said ‘OK, Doc,.. you’re ready. Take her for a couple of bumps and we’ll see how we go, eh?’
It all seemed so natural that I prodded the key into my empty slot, fired the engine and took off. It was only as the ground began falling away astern that the realisation hit me. I was airborne and I was alone. I never really understood the meaning of the word ‘alone’ until that moment. The nearest thing to it was that day when my surgical chief back at the hospital had walked into the operating theatre where we were all ready for him to start work and he said ‘OK, Richards,.. you do this one. I’ll stand and watch. Don’t take too long. I’m on the first tee in half an hour.’ I remember the dry mouth and hands that I felt sure everyone could see shaking. It was a mixture of pride, confidence, determination and shitless panic as the theatre sister smiled and handed me the scalpel.
Strange though it seems now I did three near perfect take-offs and landings. When I finally got down the trepidation had passed and Don was scribbling on his millboard. He tore off a sheet.
‘You passed, Doc. Best in the regiment so far. Here’s the paperwork. Now let’s get some tea and muffins.’
I had solo-ed,.. one of the only things you can do just once in a lifetime,.. like losing your virginity,.. thank Heavens. The euphoria and sheer exhilaration was such that, in my heart I was already thinking of applying for transfer to an airborne unit. Happily, good sense,.. and my wife-to-be talked me back onto the ground and I never made any such move.
Little did I dream in those quiet, happy days that the next time,.. indeed the next few times, I was in charge of an aircraft actually in the air it would be far less safe and far less happy.
Behind the officers’ mess of my first regiment the mess staff kept a few dozen chickens. These were mostly kept for their eggs but it was not rare for one or two to end up in the pot. Indeed, it was me who actually taught the staff how to kill and pluck a chicken,.. a skill I had learned as a lad from my grandparents.
After dinner one evening, when the food had been cleared and the single officers,.. of whom at that time I was one,.. were reading or playing cards as the gins and whiskies did their job, the rather maudlin chat focussed on the question of whether or not our chickens could fly if they really needed to, but were too damn lazy to try. The subject caught the attention of more and more semi-sozzled contributors. Eventually the stage was reached when bets were placed on the matter.
Now the problem was how to find out the truth and thus enable the bets to be settled. Being the MO I was regarded as a neutral officer unaffected by the rivalry between the staff of our three gunnery batteries. The job, like many others, fell to me.
I suggested an idea to Don Foreland,.. the air OP pilot mentioned a little earlier. Always mad enough for a challenge Don and I decided that in full view of those interested enough to watch, we would take a chicken up a little way then sling it overboard and see what was the result.
The mess sergeant pointed out the next couple of chickens that were due to become stew next day. Their feet were tied, thus rendering them helpless,.. chickens so manacled become totally dull and motionless and make no effort to escape.
Though in no fit state to walk, let alone fly, Don and I stripped the cover off the plane and checked the fuel tank. I had left my headphones in the medical centre and, still carrying the trussed chickens, I stopped by there to collect them,.. all much to the amusement of the duty staff.
Then, into the plane and with a roar and a wobble or two we were at about a thousand feet. At that point, Don, yelled from the rear cockpit ‘This is it, Doc,.. pop ‘em over.’ I took the cords off their feet,.. just to ensure fair play really, and over they went.
Just in case there are any forgiving folk still reading of this ignoble form of entertainment I’ll tell you the answer to the obvious question. No,.. chickens can’t fly,.. at least only downwards.
There is a sad sequel to this story. When we got down all we could find was a few feathers and suspicious stains beneath our flight path,.. but no sign of the actual chickens themselves.
The next evening however, I learned that a delicious odour of chicken broth had been noticed in the area around my medical centre.
It’s an ill wind what don’t blow someone some good.
About half way through my basic training in the RAMC it was announced that suitable officers were being recruited to form a new Airborne Field Ambulance. If selected this would mean several months of rigorous training,.. which would surely be good for me. There was also the option of an overseas posting probably to a zone where a field ambulance would be likely to be required. That attracted me immensely. Finally, the whole escapade attracted a considerable increase in salary. That was the most appealing feature of all. I was too young and dim to realise that this was a matter of blood money. You got extra pay for the considerably increased risks of a sad and possibly life-shortening occupation. I applied and, after a series of interviews, physical tests and medical checks I was accepted. I managed to conceal the fact that about three years earlier I had sustained an injury playing rugby that involved avulsing the tip of a small bone in my left foot. It had all healed well and seldom now did I even feel it or think about it.
Parachute training is a very intense business. There were days.,.. no weeks, of route marches, combat training and every kind of excruciating and humiliating form of training that even the most sadistic of Colour Sergeants could devise. We learned how to climb walls and, worse, having climbed them to jump off them again but, this time carrying the one hundred pounds of kit we would eventually be jumping with. It was all only a little way short of lunacy the only compensation for which - apart from the aforesaid loot, was a pair of wings and a little parachute emblem to wear one’s battledress. I soon learned that well over eighty per cent of trainees would either chicken or be otherwise rusticated during the training.
Halfway through the sixth and final month of training came the longed-for and dreaded,.. in roughly equal proportions, occasion know jocularly as Jump Week. This involved two or three days of dropping, in full kit, from a sort of crane and onto a field. Once in the crane your chute was spread above you and the release lever was pulled. You floated down for about forty feet just to give you practice at landing. That was easy. The worst bit being keeping your jump bags clear of your feet for landing.
Next came a couple of days of ‘tethered drops.’ This was the first serious test of both skill and nerve. We had a big barrage balloon looking thing that was tethered on a retractable wire. It hung almost six hundred feet in the air above the field. The trainees assembled and climbed into a huge wicker-basket that held the jumpmaster and about fifteen men.
As we gathered in the early light there was much joshing and back-slapping plus unsavoury jokes and exchanges of the kind of phrases that were designed to scare everyone totally skinny. With shouts, laughs and other assorted jocularity we clambered aboard, the jumpmaster gave the signal and the balloon began to rise taking the basket and we idiots with it.
It was an experience I remember vividly how, as the ground dropped away beneath us all the joking and ribbing gradually died. Faces grew tense and drawn. A couple of our group were literally green about the gills and were obliged to puke over the edge of the basket. The higher we climbed the less was the talk and chatter.
You have no idea until then how far below you the ground is as you approach the six hundred feet destination.
For obvious reason the jumpmaster wasted no time. He swung the gate of the basket open, locked it in position and yelled ‘Hook-up.’ At this we all put our harness hooks onto the bar that crossed the basket a little above head height. Each hook had a webbing strap attached to it and this, as you jumped, tugged the chute pack open and allowed the escaping chute to ‘flower’ or open as it caught the air. You hoped. And that was it. No more waiting. The boss yelled GO and slapped the back of the first man as he launched himself on the road to hell so far below. The rest followed swiftly as the weeks of training rendered response to the go-command almost instinctive.
It was well known for men to freeze at the last moment. They never got a second chance. They were posted back to their parent units that same night,.. so easy can freezing become an epidemic in an group of trainees.
No-one from my group froze. We all jumped and a couple of minutes later we were collapsing our chutes, collecting and adjusting our kit and checking that we were all still in more or less one piece. Then the euphoria gripped us again. Back slapping, congratulating., shrill laughter and the like as we all realised that we’d done it,.. we had passed perhaps the biggest hurdle of our lives,.. so far.
My luck was not good. I had landed awkwardly and the MO on the ground spotted at once that I was in trouble. He ordered me to report to the medical centre. There, he checked me carefully, strapped the ankle and warned me that if I had any more trouble I would be rusticated.
I managed the next day’s first three tethered drops fairly well, then, perhaps I was a little truculent and careless, - I no longer remember, but the next time, as I hit the ground my ankle turned and I was down on my knees.
And that was the end for me. The MO looked across and said,. ‘Sorry Doc,.. you’re out.’
And so I was. There was no appeal. No more training. No wings for my battledress and never again the chance to jump out of an aeroplane with only fifty square yards of nylon between me and death at a hundred miles an hour. I never jumped again.
And I went back to a sprog lieutenant’s pay.
My limited but interesting occasions when I have had charge of an aircraft in the air have enabled me to offer certain Rules of the Air and Flying in it that might prove of value to other unqualified fliers.
Common Sense is all it takes to fly an airplane as long as you stick by a few basic rules.
1. Every take-off is optional. Every landing is mandatory.
2. If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull the stick back, they get smaller. That is, unless you keep pulling the stick all the way back, then they suddenly get bigger again.
3. Flying isn't dangerous. Crashing is what's dangerous.
4. It's always better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
5. The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.
6. The propeller is just a big fan in front of the plane used to keep the pilot cool. When it stops, you can actually watch him start sweating.
7. When in doubt, maintain your altitude. No one has ever collided with the sky.
8. A ‘good’ landing is one from which you can walk away. A 'great' landing is one after which they can use the plane again.
9. Learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make all of them yourself.
10. You know you've landed with the wheels up if it takes full power to taxi to the ramp.
11. The probability of survival is inversely proportional to the angle of arrival. Large angle of arrival, small probability of survival and vice versa.
12. A three-point landing means all three together,.. not one – two – three.
13. Stay out of clouds. The silver you see may not be the lining but another airplane coming in the opposite direction.
14. Always try to keep the number of landings you make equal to the number of take-offs you've made.
15. There are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
16. You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.
17. Helicopters can't fly; they're just so ugly the earth repels them.
18. If all you can see out of the window is ground that's going round and round and all you can hear is commotion coming from the passenger compartment, things are not at all as they should be.
19. In the ongoing battle between objects made of aluminium going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground going zero miles per hour, the ground has yet to lose a bout.
20. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, the experience usually comes from bad judgement.
21. It's always a good idea to keep the pointy end going forward as much as possible.
22. Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed.
23. Remember, gravity is not just a good idea. It's the law. And it's not subject to appeal.
24. The three most useless things to a pilot are the altitude above you, the runway behind you and a 10th of a second ago.
And, finally, one little reminder:-
There are a lot more aeroplanes in the sea than there are ships flying in the sky.
The automated telephone response system
Hello,... and thank you for calling the Psychiatric Patients Hotline,.. here to serve you
today, tomorrow and every day.
Please follow the instructions carefully as we route your call.
If you are an obsessive-compulsive keep pressing 1 repeatedly.
If you are a dependent personality ask someone else to press 2 for you.
If you have multiple personality problems press 3, 4, 5, and 6.
If you are paranoid, remember,.. we know who you are, what you want and
where you live. Please stay on the line while we trace your call further.
If you are delusional, press 7 and your call will be diverted to the mother ship.
If you are schizophrenic listen quietly and a little inner voice will tell you which
number to press.
If you are dyslexic, press 9696969696969696.
If you have a nervous disorder please fidget with the * and hash keys until a
rep. comes on the line.
If you have amnesia press 8 and state your name, address, phone number, date of
birth, insurance number and mother's maiden name in that order.
If you have short-term memory loss press 9.
If you have short-term memory loss press 9
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If you are manic-depressive calm down,.. it doesn't matter which number you
press as no-one will answer anyway.
If you have a low self-esteem assessment, please hang up. Everybody here is too
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Put in my place
She was a rara avis,.. an absolutely sweet and pretty old lady well into her Eighties but bright, sprightly and with alert flashing eyes. I liked her very much. In fact I used to wonder,.. if she was like that at eighty five what must she have been like at thirty five.
Anyway, on this particular day I was showing her how to apply a crepe bandage to help support her worsening varicose veins. At her age and with four pregnancies behind her the chance of ulceration meant a steady struggle to prevent deterioration.
What are you like at walking, Mrs.Houghton? I asked her.
‘Oh pretty good for an old ‘un,’ she replied. ‘If the weather’s good I walk down Riverbank most days. And I can still manage to do the majority of my own shopping. Mustn’t grumble.’
‘Indeed not,’ I agreed. ‘Now tell me,.. do you have the foot of your bed propped up,.. like we talked about.’
‘Yes, I do. I quite like it. And in the morning my ankles are nowhere near so swollen as they were.’
‘And what about the pillow under your knees? Still using that?’
Yes, Doctor,’ she said. ‘I use the spare pillow to kneel down and say my prayers, then, when I’ve finished I push the pillow into the bed before I jump in.’
‘And you do that every night?’
‘Yes,.. er, do you mean about the pillow or about the prayers?’
‘Both, ‘ I said.
‘We-e-ell, I occasionally forget the pillow,.. but I never forget my prayers. It’s the one time that God and I get to have a bit of peace together for a little chat.’
She looked up at me. ‘Do you say your prayers, Doctor?’ she asked suddenly.
I shook my head.
‘No, I don’t,’ I told her. ’Not since I was a little boy. In those days prayers were a nightly order.’
‘But you don’t say them now you are grown up?’
‘No, I don’t. I,.. er,..in fact I,.. er,..’
‘You should try,’ she said. ‘It’ll do you no end of good.’
‘Ah,.. but you see,.. in fact,.. I don’t believe in God.’
I thought she might be a bit shocked,.. but not a bit of it.
‘Why, Doctor,’ she said. ‘That does not matter the least tiny little bit. What matters is that God believes in you. And you can be sure he does. What you think doesn’t change that at all. Try saying your prayers again. You’ll soon see.’
I never took her up on her suggestion. I had never been a believer and, as time went by, too many things had happened that, to me, were dissuasive. But her faith was unshakeable. And while I would not like to be like that myself it was refreshing to find someone whose experiences in life had engendered such conviction.
Scuba is for fishes
There’s a saying from some part of the world that I can’t remember which says, ‘Three times drunk – three times drowned.’ I’m not sure how it should be interpreted but, if it means a man who gets three times drunk also gets three times drowned, then I’m in with a contester’s chance,.. though never [so far] quite actually and permanently drowned.
In different parts of the world the terms skin-diving and scuba seem to be used more or less interchangeably. They are, however, fundamentally different. The word scuba is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, - the combination of a cylinder or two of breathable gas with a supply system that enables the diver to swim well beneath the surface for considerable periods at a time. The skin diver relies on over-breathing in order to build up his blood oxygen levels and create the carbon dioxide ‘debt’ that will enable him to go perhaps as much as a hundred feet down and return to the surface when he needs more air.
At the age of about nineteen my bosom pal, Keith Harries, and I were both keen skin divers. We longed to use scuba but in 1949 such things were not on wide sale and were, anyway, far beyond the pockets of a couple of students. [University grants, in those days, paid your lecture fees and a meagre living allowance. This I always credit for being the reason that so few of us indulged in the modern cult for ungoverned alcohol consumption and serious smoking. Today’s students will learn, much later, - and when it is largely too late, what dreadful and permanent damage they are doing to their brains and livers].
So it was that Keith and I built our own first scuba. The webbing harness was cut and stitched by hand from lengths of army surplus supplies. There was no such thing as a safety quick-release assembly. Our cylinder was a nineteen-inch, solid-drawn ex-RAF cylinder salvaged surreptitiously from a derelict and crumbling old wartime De Havilland Mosquito. The demand valve, - an essential that must always work properly and every time if life-support is to be maintained, - was fashioned out of an old Calor-gas valve with a four-inch diameter one-way valve consisting of a circlet cut out of a sometime lorry tyre inner-tube with Mother’s kitchen scissors. We collected old lead pipe and sheeting, melted it, and cast it into counter-buoyancy weights in a tray of wet sand. A webbing belt held them around the waist.
It needs no wild flights of imagination to guess that, when finished, it was a primitive lash-up and was downright dangerous. But, to us, what mattered was that, miraculously, it worked,.. at least some of the time.
Keith was a keen swimmer as was I and we were both members of the club at Maindee in Newport, Gwent. We got permission to trial the contraption after-hours and after numerous tests, failures and adjustments we used it on and off for years. Five years later when I had qualified and joined the army for my two years of National Service it was agreed that I should inherit the ageing device. I was posted to Cyprus and I have photographs of myself using it to dive off the then fabulous and unspoiled Famagusta Beach,.. with Pix plus revolver mounting guard.
That first scuba eventually saw about two more years of regular service before it was BLR’d, - classified as Beyond Local Repair. I was by then medical officer of a terrorism-torn area of the island. Work and the restrictions imposed because of the EOKA campaign meant there was little time for dangerous games. There was already more than enough danger in the air for everyone. Thus it was that I never again went scuba diving,.. until some years later.
In about 1965 Pix and I drove our Dormobile across Europe and down through Italy to spend a holiday in Sicily. It was there, on the beach just outside the lovely town of Taormina that I next donned a scuba outfit. Times had much changed by then. In Germany they were making twin-cylinder kits that could be refilled from ordinary air using a small but tough little compressor running off a car engine. I saw the system being used by a German holiday-maker, an engineer named Horst, who was also staying there in his Volkswagen camper a few yards away. He was finding difficulty handling everything alone and his wife was one of these overweight, ineffectual, hausfrau souls who was no help to him at all. We struck up an acquaintance. We would work together and, in return, I got to enjoy a dive or two each day.
An integral part of the two-cylinder system of those days was that each cylinder lasted about fifteen minutes. A warning signal then told that the cylinder was entering its final three minutes of ‘extra safety time.’ If the diver chose to continue his dive he reached around to the small of his back and pulled the ring-and-chain that opened the fresh cylinder. After one particular recharging session I climbed into the kit and Horst helped me adjust the buckles and weights and so on. The rule is that one should never dive alone but, as I had been doing that for years I did go down alone,.. we both did every day. That was the first mistake.
It was early evening as I headed at a depth of about five fathoms out into the bay and alongside the rocky side of the cliff that enclosed it on the right. There were loads of fish, sea anemones , sea-weed fans, octopus holes to keep me interested. I had no hook so I could not try catching an octopus,.. which, cooked in Pix’s own style, was often our aperitif with the evening cocktail. On I went, gradually deepening to stay near the bottom and fascinated by the unusual sub-aqua scenery, wild life and rock formations. I must have been at about fifteen fathoms. I still had decent visibility as the water was very clear. Out of the corner of my mask I saw a group of fish worrying at something on the sandy bottom. As I finned towards them they vacated the area.
Examining the subject of their interest I found a group of cuttlefish in the sand and I disturbed them to watch their escape techniques of clouds of ink and remarkably fast rearward movements through the clouds. For a few minutes I played and then turned to return towards where I thought the rocks were. I peered all around but could no longer see them. Yet another reminder of how quickly you can lose your bearings when fixed landmarks are absent. I had to surface to check my direction. I knew that I should depressurise briefly before surfacing but as I needed a mere glance and an immediate return to the bottom I didn’t bother. That was my second mistake.
I surfaced, took my bearings and went back to the bottom. It had been some time since I had previously done much diving but, all at once, I could feel the ‘heady’ sensation and a desire to blink my eyes that, to me, were my personal signs of too rapid pressure changes. I knew the feeling would go off in a moment or two. It was as I reached the bottom again that I felt the first cylinder ‘going soft.’ A cylinder supplies air at a selected pressure but you can quickly tell you are almost out as it becomes necessary to make a deliberate effort to inhale. At that point, perhaps a couple of dozen more breaths and the cylinder is ‘dead.’ I realised that I must have missed the three minutes warning. No problem. I reached around for the ring to change cylinders. There it was. No problem. I hooked one finger into the ring and pulled it down. Problem! The ring didn’t move. I yanked it again. Nothing. And again. Still nothing. Big problem!
Feeling the rapidly softening cylinder literally giving out on me I gave the ring several more powerful yanks. Nothing happened. It dawned on me at once what had happened. When Horst filled the cylinders and fitted me out ready to dive he had forgotten either to check both cylinders were full or that the changeover valve was set to the first, not the second, cylinder. A very big mistake.
The outlook situation was very bleak. I had, with luck, no more than a dozen breaths left. The ‘positive buoyancy’ of the tanks was more or less non-existent. The kit weighed around forty pounds,.. more than I could support in water. I was some eighty feet down, a shade woolly from the pressure change I’d just done and strapped into the twin-cylinder harness. In all probability I was about to drown.
I fumbled with the harness fastenings, - with which I was none too familiar. They seemed to be the hardest fastenings I’d ever known. Blood was starting to thump in my ears. I had the oddest impulse that I might be able to take out the mouthpiece and breath water. Nonsense. I realised that but I remember the temptation was terribly strong. Then I remembered that Pix was sitting there, back on the beach with Horst and his seriously fat wife. The kit was holding me down. It wouldn’t come loose. I tugged at it. The air stopped altogether. There was no more. I knew I was going to die. I wanted to wave to Pix. Stupid. My head and ears buzzed. I couldn’t see Pix,.. of course not. I was confused and near helpless. I remember feeling that all I wanted to do was stop struggling and lie there. It was a matter of moments. Shit!
I can hardly believe I did it. I didn’t really know what I was doing but in a moment the harness slipped off my shoulders. I was free. I braced both feet on the sand of the sea bed, flexed my legs and kicked off upwards with all the strength I had left. To hell with de-pressurising now. It was thirty yards to safety,.. straight up.
There is no recollection of that trip to the surface but the next thing was that I was gasping and gulping air through the water splashing down from my hair and face. I coughed and spluttered and choked. The relief was beyond my powers to describe. I was alive. I was on the surface. I was exhausted but I was safe,.. or comparatively so. Then it dawned on me that I was now faced with another problem. Horst’s equipment was on the bottom and a light evening breeze was chopping up the waves against the nearby rocks where a swell was already causing small wavelets to thump into the ten thousand jagged spikes and corners. It was not really safe for a lone swimmer to approach. A misjudgement could be painful to say the very least. I timed my approach and my luck must have turned. I did not misjudge. Watching the waves and carefully timing them I went onshore with one of them at just the right moment. I had no difficulty grasping a rock and pulling myself clear of the water. Thankfully, I rested there for a few minutes. I was getting cold either from fatigue or slight shock.
Feeling a bit better I timed things again and plunged into the incoming waves. Two strokes and I estimated that I was over the abandoned kit. I carefully fixed in my mind exactly where I was and triangulating on the shore lights. I made sure I would be able to remember how to find the spot again. Then I struck out for the beach.
By that time Horst would have known that I was long overdue. Even if both cylinders had been full he knew my air supply must have long-since run out. I could imagine him anxious and worried and hardly knowing what to do for the best. As the beach came into sight in the gathering gloom I could see him there, calmly looking out to sea. He was going to be a very relieved and happy man when I emerged from the darkening sea.
Suddenly he spotted me and ran into the wavelets towards me. I could imagine his reaction,.. ‘Thank God you’re here.’
Not a bit of it. He looked at me and practically shrieked,.. ‘Wo sind meine zylinder?’ [Where are my cylinders?] It was immediately clear that he was only concerned for his damned cylinders and not the least about me.
Despite the gathering gloom we pushed off in a small rowing boat, one of several that were for hire on the beach. As we went out to the spot I told him what had happened, - that the setting had been wrong and the cylinder empty. He said nothing. No defence. No protestations. No regrets,.. nothing. All I got was a few guttural grunts.
In a few minutes we reached the spot. I could recognise it at once,.. I probably still could to this day! Again my luck held. With just a mask and a big pair of flippers I could easily dive down on the kit. I grasped a loop of the webbing and was back on the surface in a flash. Horst lifted everything into the boat and we rowed back.
Once on the sand and with Pix’s help we washed and carried everything up to his camper. I then went for a hot shower, a bite to eat and an exhausted sleep.
When we woke next morning Horst and wife and Volkswagen were gone. They must have moved out as we slept. I never saw or heard of them again.
The original version of the material in this piece was written in 1987 and first appeared in the California Institute of Corrections Newspaper,.. the Christmas edition. Since then, in one form or another it has appeared many times,.. even on a cheap teacloth and with various changes and additions. Here is the 2005 version.
The dull old century we were born in has now been over long enough for us to feel grateful. The fuss has died down. The media have finished their silly bonanza. And as we watch the hulk foundering into the depths of time in the distance, those of us born before say 1940, can enjoy a certain smug satisfaction.
For we are the survivors. In spite of the colossal odds, the dangers, the pressures,.. at the very least we made it. We survived the Hungry Twenties, the Threatening Thirties, the Frugal Forties, the Promising Fifties, those wonderful Swingin' Sixties, the Backlash Seventies, the Boring Eighties and the Grindingly Boring Nineties,.. and Noughties.
The changes we've seen have been greater and more profound than in any previous half-century in the history of mankind. Why, when we appeared they had only just invented Aero and Crunchy and Smarties. Nowadays most of the things we use were invented long after we were.
We were born before television, before penicillin, before polio shots or open-heart surgery,.. before frozen foods, TV dinners, photocopying, plastic, contact lenses, Frisbee discs, Rubik cubes,.. the pill. Dammit,.. our shirts even had tails and we wore them inside our trousers. We parted our hair.
We were before radar, lasers, credit cards, nuclear explosions, disposable everythings, gerbils, microwave, personal computers and ball-point pens; before pantyhose, the ozone layer, rubber plants, dishwashers, spin-dryers, electric blankets, air-conditioning, cars with heaters in them, drip-dry-non-iron clothes,.. and long before man walked on the moon.
We got married first and then lived together. How quaint can you be, I ask you?
In our time closets were for clothes or water not for 'coming out of.' Transplants were the spring lettuces, bunnies were small rabbits and Rabbits were not small Volkswagens.
Meaningful relations meant getting along well with uncles and cousins,.. and kissing Aunt Alice who had a wart on her chin. Fast food was what you ate during Lent. We knew about Olsen and Johnson not Masters and Johnson.
On the Empire the sun never set,.. even if only because even God couldn't trust an Englishman in the dark. We had a lousy war to contend with. For ten years we had no bananas and precious little of anything else. But we experienced the comradeship and sheer, indomitable spirit of Beleagured Britain. We saw the 'isms',.. fascism, nazism, socialism, communism come,.. and since we have had the satisfaction of seeing them go.
Cops weren't fuzz or plods, they were Bobbies; they were strict and tough but they were on our side,.. and they were above suspicion. Doctors, teachers, and solicitors were respected too, and people on the wireless spoke properly. We were before gay rights, life-support systems, cloning, computer dating and parallel careers. We were before group therapy, the greenhouse effect, being 'into' things, punk and the ecology. We never heard of FM, UDI, or IUD or CDs,.. and LSD meant money. We never heard of tape decks, electronic typewriters, artificial hearts, word processors, calories, slim-line, spaghetti or yoghourt. And as for fellows wearing earrings,.. well,.. really!
Time- sharing meant togetherness not holiday homes; a chip was a fragment of wood; a stud was something on your collar and going all the way meant staying on the bus to the end of the line. Hardware meant hardware and software wasn't even a word.
When we were kids 'Made in Japan' meant junk. Today's junk,.. pizzas, McDonalds, and instant coffee were blissful years in the future. So were the never-never-land fears of Kennedy Klan's twenty-four years plan of American Catholicism or the befuddled dreams of the Bush Clan and its proposed New Order. Oil was less than a pound a barrel,.. and that pound was worth four dollars.
We still remember the days when the doctor called at your house if you were ill. He gave you nasty tasting stuff and you got better in two days flat. Of course you usually didn't need a doctor because there were things like Carters Little Liver Pills, Bile Beans, Beecham's Pills, Owbridge's, Parrish's Food, Liquafruta, Minadex and Radio Malt. Remember Sen-Sen and humbugs, and cachous, and Black Pete? Remember Don Bradman, Harold Larwood, Fred Perry and Susanne Langlan? Remember Tommy Farr and Joe Louis? What about Nestle's 5 Boys chocolate, Bull's Eyes, gobstoppers, Keir Hardy, Kaiser Bill, Jeepers-Creepers, monkey nuts and sherbert. Remember the WWI wounded in their bright blue serge suits?
We had Threepenny and Sixpenny stores where you could actually buy things for 3d and 6d. Wall's Icecream Trikes said 'Stop Me and Buy One' and sold you three-cornered ice-creams a finger-stretch long for a ha'penny. For a whole penny you could have bought a morning paper or made a phone call, posted a letter or two postcards, ridden on the bus or bought a bottle of pop. You could buy a new car for £150 but few could afford one,.. a pity that as petrol was just thrupence a gallon.
Smoking cigarettes was safe and fashionable; grass was what the lawn was made of; weed meant intruders in the onion patch; coke was a fizzy drink, a fix was a job for a handyman, crack was a smart remark and joints were for Sunday lunch. Pot was what you cooked in, uppers and downers were Grandpa's choppers, rock music was Grandma's lullaby, and aids were what generals and prime ministers had.
Not for us jazz in the crypt, Torremolinos, pollution or package tours. Nylon meant nothing, nor did apartheid, the Red Brigade, Bader-Meinhof, Khmer Rouge, or Mrs.Hairy Whitemouse. Nobody 'bent over backwards' to 'keep a low profile' at 'this point in time.' A hang-up was a nail in the wall. There were no pop stars or concerts, or mini- or maxi- anythings, no additives, no defoliants, no Napalm,.. and they really did write songs like that any more,.. all the time, in fact.
Oh, Yesterday, .. leave me alone!
Although we had no Permissive Society we were certainly not before the difference between the sexes was discovered. We were long before sex changes though. We made do with what we had. And we, of course, were the last generation that was so dumb as to think you needed a husband to have a baby.
No wonder we oldies are all so confused now. And no wonder there is such a generation gap,.. for which all thanks and praises be,.. would 'twere yet wider.
But we are here. We made it this far. We did survive. And even if we sound a little smug about it, I ask you, what better reason could there be to celebrate?
I didn’t actually see the event that started this absolutely true story, a story that took place just half a mile from my home. I could only piece things together later on from the various bits of data available. But it must have gone something like this,…
The two swans circled the darkening marsh between the stream and the bare, winter woodland twice before deciding to land then picking their spot to do so. They had left things rather late. I knew that as I had been there with Bess, my gun dog, until almost dark when, empty handed, I shouldered my gun and turned for home. It was bitterly cold and there was only just enough light to see my way. There were no swans there then.
These great birds often visited the marshes, breaking their long journey to somewhere or other. These were probably two regulars. I may well have seen them before. One pair of swans looks much like another. The usual thing was for them to stay a day or two and feed up on the abundant wild life in the drainage streams that criss-crossed the waterlogged area. Then they would be off again. I imagine that that was what this pair had in mind as they dropped down from the chill air. But it was not to be. As they lost height and came in to land the larger one, the cob, would have come in first as if to check that everything was safe for his smaller mate. For him it was. For his mate, a graceful pen in about her fourth year, it was a good deal less so. Perhaps momentarily diverted by a car light on the road a few hundred yards away,.. or perhaps it was the cold and her hunger,.. no doubt she was troubled, too, by the failing light. But whatever it was she must have misjudged the string of telephone wires that stretched across one corner of the open ground in front of the trees. They were very near the tree line and must have been virtually invisible even to her sharp vision.
One of her huge, widespread wings clipped the wire and her swift downward glide drew the wing along the wire for several yards severing feathers, skin and, ultimately, bone too. Under the immense pressure the tensed bones snapped and this superb flying machine ran out of power, stalled and hit the ground hard enough to smear breast and flank feathers onto the freezing ground. Her long neck, too, was pulled back and savagely twisted in the fall. She was cruelly wounded and stunned though not dead. She lay where she had grounded,.. and she never left that spot again.
I noticed her next morning and told Bess to crouch and wait so as not to frighten her too much. With both eyes she watched me as I approached her but she made no attempt to move. I bent down beside her. I found the broken wing at once. With care it would mend. Not so her neck. It lay like a length of thick rope floating limp in a stream. It was beyond all hope. In my heart I knew then that she was doomed.
As I knelt there considering what to do I heard a sudden commotion to my right and behind me. One glance was enough to explain. With a great whooshing of wings flapped in fury I saw the cob covering the ground between us all too fast for my liking. An angry cob is a formidable opponent. The bird had been fishing in the stream and the bank had, for a while, hidden me from his view. But now that he knew I was there he was all out to attack.
Now, a swan is no match for a man but I knew that if he attacked me mere defensive actions on my behalf would probably involve hurting him. He had problems enough and I did not want to add to them. I scampered across the twenty yards or so into the tree line where I knew he could not follow as the brush would hamper his outstretched wings. As soon as I was out of sight he lost all interest in me.
As I crouched, hidden, and, as far as he was concerned, probably forgotten, over the next hour I watched the big male make several trips back to the stream. He’d dabble about for a few minutes then laboriously clamber up the bank and back across to the female with a morsel of something in his beak. Each time he placed the food next to the drooped head of his partner. Once or twice she opened her own beak as she tried to eat. She did not succeed. Eventually the big bird nestled down next to her. He huddled up alongside her as if trying to keep her warm. I noticed, as he fluffed out his feathers against the cold, that he had chosen to lie on the windward side of his injured mate. It was the best protection against the wind that he could offer.
The decision I had to make was whether or not to give her a coup de grace. Had she been in obvious pain that is what I would have done. As it was I decided to leave things until later in the day. Twice during the next few hours I drove along the lane from which I could look down onto the marsh. On one occasion he was still huddled beside her. The other time he was again approaching her with something in his beak.
As dusk was gathering I went back down on foot. The cob was just visible in the stream, hunting again. I quickly crossed over and knelt down. A little pile of frog bits, mud crustaceans and a few wintry looking shoots lay right next to her limp head. I do not think she had touched them. Her eyes were closed. She was quite dead and was already stiffening in the near-freezing temperature. I wondered if she had sung, as she died, nestled into her mate’s warm down.
I crept quietly back into the tree line and waited until the cob came back from the stream. This time he actually used his broad bill to prod gently at her head and body to see if she would move. Then, as if determined not to give up he once more huddled down alongside to keep her warm.
Next morning, early, I woke with a start. It was not yet light. I realised what had wakened me. In my sleep I must have thought of the danger those swans were in. Foxes were regular hunters just there and a hungry pair of them would not hesitate to attack. I put a stout sack in the back of the Landrover to dispose of the body. There was just a glimmer of light as I crept through the trees to the edge of the marsh. I was about to see one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.
The air was raw cold and the cob was still there curled around the dead body. Even as I peered through I saw him stir. He stood up stretched his neck and then his wings before giving them a few huge flaps to loosen his joints. I saw him look down at the lifeless carcass and he began prodding more and more insistently. He pushed his beak at her head, her neck and her body on both sides, gently but firmly. Then he stood back as if in thought. I wondered if the awful reality had dawned on him. Again he made his way around her, two or three times, pausing every few steps to push at her body.
All at once he straightened up and began walking directly away from her and from me where I crouched, watching. He was about a hundred yards away from her when he stopped and turned. I swear that, even in that poor light, I saw him look back at her for a moment. Then, suddenly, he was moving, - running as fast towards her as he could. He stretched out his massive wings and flapped them, - once, - twice, - six times perhaps, as he gathered speed. His webbed feet were scarcely touching the ground as he approached her, but running and bounding he gained momentum until, when just ten yards away, he was airborne and his wings were clawing for height and speed. He banked sharply before the trees and almost over my head where I was hiding and circled for greater elevation. I heard the great, unnerving howl of his wings as they cut the cold air beating slowly but with the full extent of his power.
He flew in two wide circles around the frozen mass of feathers. I could see his neck, outstretched, turn repeatedly so he could look down at the spot. At last he swooped low over her one last time as if to bid goodbye to this lifetime partner and then, with his wings sighing great gasps of farewell he started back onto his long, and, this time, lonely journey. For a while at least, he would have to make loneliness a companion. It was a moment of great beauty and great tenderness. Then, in mere seconds, he was disappearing into the murky and misty air. Another moment and he was gone.
I never knowingly saw him again. But that day I learned, from him, a great lesson.
‘Just for once,’ said our Highly Esteemed Editor, ‘Leave the politics and the chauvinism and write something ‘summery’ that even children will enjoy.’ So, here, today, are two harmless little fairy stories,.. each with a useful moral.
Once upon a time, far, far away and long, long ago there lived a penniless young man called Tristram. Despite the name he didn’t work for a television company or anything as splendid as that. He was a simple village peasant lad who earned an honest living slaving in the fields and planting mangold wurzels and other useless and unspeakable root crops that most people have never heard of or wanted to eat,.. this, mostly, because they are grown for animals.
But never mind that. Tristram grew very good ones. Sometimes his mangolds were visibly rather bigger than his available wurzels but that doesn’t really matter in this story.
Now, Tristram was head over heels in love with the most beautiful girl in the place. Her name was Mercedes-Chardonnay ‘iggins, and her father had made a lot of money being a scrap dealer and second hand car salesman.
Tristram was ever so in love,.. and he could hardly sleep or eat his food,.. even when it was not mangold wurzels but was more interesting things like bread and dripping with boiled gruts for tea. It was pretty terrible for him because everyone agreed that, nice guy though he was, he hadn’t got the chance of a pork pie in a synagogue of winning the hand of the fair Mercedes.
Nevertheless, he decided to risk all on one impassioned plea for the focus of his dreams. That afternoon as she walked past his field of early mangold wurzels in her new Jimmy Choo shoes and her feather fascinator he approached her, cap in hand, and asked her to marry him,.. ‘For,’ said he, ‘I have saved over three hundred pound and don’t I grow the best mangold wurzels in the county?’
She turned him down flat so, broken-hearted, he invested his three hundred pounds in Poseidon shares when they were at twenty two pence each. [Well, I told you it was a long time ago]. He also sold his little mangold wurzel field and rented another much bigger one. His efforts were rewarded so he devoted his time to making huge piles of negotiable loot. He soon owned a Rolls-Royce so big that when it stopped his Ferrari got out. He had a nice detached villa with swimming pool in Coral Bay and a co-operative new girl friend whenever he wanted one. He had no noisy kids about the place and didn’t have to go to PTA meetings. He used to go out with his mates any time he felt like it, or he would trip off fishing or golfing or to the rugby match upon the least whim. He ate what he wanted when he wanted it, drank what he liked, holidayed frequently and all over the world,.. and he grew very, very rich.
And he lived happily ever after.
And another story,..
Once upon a time,.. etc. etc.,.. you catch the drift,.. there was a beautiful princess named Cilistor who, one day, found a lonely frog croaking around in the palace fishpond. When she picked him up she was amazed to hear him speak.
‘I,’ he said, ‘Am really a dashing young prince trapped by an evil spell in this froggy body. If you kiss me I will turn back into a prince. Then we will get married and you will have my children,.. all princes. You will clean my castle, attend to the laundry, darn my socks, cook my meals and most wonderful of all, - be nice to the Dowager Queen, my mother, whom I especially adore.’
Somehow the story sounded familiar to the princesss [she wasn’t the brightest candle in the church, you’ll have guessed] and she found the strange words intriguing. She gazed into the huge bulging, wet eyes and without hesitating she leaned forward to kiss the frog. At that very moment she heard her maidservant calling to her from the palace and she paused.
She looked again at the frog, stroked its pulsing chin and thought of all he had said.
Then she shook her pretty head, said, ‘No-o-o,.. I don’t think so,’ and, so saying, chucked the slimy little bugger back into the pond.’
Another happy ending, you see,.. and it reminds me of something I’ve often pondered,.. how many frogs does a girl have to kiss before she really gets a prince?
Who killed Cock Robin?
Were the NASA moon landings faked? Is Elvis still alive? Did they clone Hitler? Is there really a Jewish plot surreptitiously to take over the world? Did M.I.5 effectively bring about Harold Wilson’s fall into powerless penury? Is there a secret group of fifty or so mega-rich men who manipulate all planetary affairs? Are the Roswell aliens still imprisoned in experimental laboratories? Are crop circles the work of extra-terrestrials?
Probably,.. and I carefully insert that word probably,.. not. But that does not mean all suspicions of conspiracies or even deliberate state-conducted illegalities should be scorned.
Politically, or otherwise motivated,.. some might say ‘necessitated’,.. killings are more commonplace than some of us probably imagine. It’s not just in Mafia-managed Miami or thug-controlled Chicago that people are ‘accidented’ or ‘heart attacked’ with astounding frequency. Mind you, it’s not always actual killing that is needed. A spot of cheap bribery can sometimes do the trick. Many a time it is only necessary to suggest to the perpetrator that he probably wants his little granddaughter to keep on coming home safely from school. Promising that a troublesome tax investigation could be easily dropped might work. So might the threat to divulge antisocial activities,.. embezzlement, homosexuality, playing away in other men’s bedrooms for example. All have had their little successes.
Contract killers are occasionally employed even in covert-but-official episodes. The snag is that they entail using the services of strangers who, by their very nature, may get drunk or talk for money. Other methods are usually better. A man is kidnapped into a white van and wrapped in blankets so he is restrained without rope marks. He is then popped into a deep freeze in the back of the van and driven around overnight. Next morning, very dead but adequately re-thermalised, he is deposited in a lonely but not unlikely spot to be discovered within a few days. Suspicions there might be but hard evidence is far less likely. The coroner’s verdict will probably be that it was death by heart attack. Another common trick is for a team, usually of three, to hit a man in a crowded street. One operative puts a spring-loaded syringe into the back of the victim’s thigh as the other two accidentally jostle him. The killer leaves the scene instantly and passes the weapon on to a waiting disposal assistant who also fades away swiftly. With luck the other helpers can also make off in the confusion when the ailing victim collapses and the usual confused melee starts.
In spite of the official denials, if you thought Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned accidentally I think you’d be wrong. If you think Chairman Mao died peacefully of natural causes in his virgin-populated bed, - likewise. If you think usurper-President Sani Abacha of Nigeria really did die of a self-administered overdose of Viagra, - likewise again. And so on. The list of suspects who might have undergone state-assisted departure from the scene goes on and endlessly on. Makarios? Idi Amin ? Strong-man Hafez Assad of Syria. Hariri of Lebanon? Russian General Lebed? Numerous other less famous and familiar names, too, seem to have come suddenly upon unexpected, dubious and certainly premature ill-fortune.
One Pope died strangely, in his sleep. One of his bankers was found [but did not necessarily also die] hanging under a London bridge. Another Pope survived his assassination attempt. Ghandi didn’t, neither did Indira Ghandi,.. nor Benazir Bhutto. President Kennedy died from a bullet that ballistics clearly show almost certainly did not come from Lee Harvey Oswald’s vantage point, - and a remarkable proportion of the actual witnesses have since become untraceable or, oddly enough, have been taken suddenly dead. Take pot luck at another few names,.. Arafat, Dr..David Kelly, Milosevic, Princess Diana,.. and one even hears rumours about Ariel Sharon and about the curious coincidences surrounding the Twin Towers disaster..
Arafat had become a loose canon and was jeopardising the new contenders for Middle East power and oil money. General Lebed was a serious contender for the Russian presidency. The crew of his aircraft had been ordered to fly him,.. yet were disciplined and imprisoned after the crash that killed him. They have since apparently disappeared. Milosevic was proving too costly, - and it was even starting to look as if he might win his case. And did anyone really seriously think that certain people would ever choose that the presumed future king of England should have an illegitimate, Moslem, half-caste, step-brother?
Cross my Palm
Ever wished you were one of those people who could predict the future? Ever wanted to gaze into a teacup of leafy dregs or at an upturned palm or some Tarot cards and perceive what’s to come? What an incredible talent,.. a gift maybe,.. something mystically conferred at birth from ‘the Other Side’... to be able to know a person’s life, past and especially future, by such simple means.
It really is astonishing how the fairground gypsy can peer into a glass orb and tell you about yourself,.. then embark [for a price, of course] upon the guiding principles that will steer you safely through life avoiding its many possible pitfalls. But then, priests do and have been doing that since forever so why shouldn’t the other odd charlatan, hoaxer and trickster have a cut of the cake, too? There seems to be an inexhaustible appetite for this kind of drivel. For that’s all it is. No-one can see into the future. To start with it hasn’t happened yet and may well not. Or it may happen but differently. And even more certainly no-one can predict what is going to happen to you.
I say all this although I was, under a nom de plume, the writer of an astrology column for a widely read magazine for over seven years. I was always impressed by the weekly mailbag in which letters thanking me for the accuracy of my predictions and the value of my advice were abundant. And I knew nothing at all about the stuff. It was just platitudes and assorted drivel. Hell, each month I even had to look up which dates were actually Virgo or Capricorn.
Several times too, for charity, I have donned the headscarf and earrings and sat in my tent at the fete complete with crystal ball and shroud and told fortunes for a quid a time.
The fact is that, there being no truth in any of it, absolutely anyone with a little preparation and a well practiced technique can do just the same.
I’ll show how easy it all is. But first let me explain how it comes about that the human mind can be kidded into beliefs that all these things are possible. It starts from a basic characteristic of our species. We are all inclined to be conceited. It’s wired in. It’s part of the ego. The oldest, fattest, ugliest harridan sees herself, on a good day, as a little less old, fat and ugly than others see her. We all have an inborn tendency to natural optimism. In short, we think rather better of ourselves than might actually be justified. As just two of many examples it’s been repeatedly confirmed that over 90% of people think they have an above average sense of humour. What is more, around 80% of us are of the opinion that we are better drivers than most. These, quite clearly, are both statistical and mathematical impossibilities.
There are good evolutionary reasons behind all this. In a nutshell these standard delusions confer upon us a degree of confidence and a correspondingly enhanced belief in our own success and happiness. Let’s call it beneficial egotism, for that is what it is,.. and that is all it is.
The skilled fortune-teller needs only to work on these instincts to get where he’s going. The only real skill has nothing to do with his ‘mystical powers’ and everything to do with his smooth and manipulative patter.
When you consult a total stranger who ‘has the magic’ you will first be subjected to gently probing questions and seemingly correct and rather flattering statements. ‘I see the letter S.’ [S is the commonest letter in the language]. The ‘psychic’ is searching and chatting you up,.. he’s exploiting your natural egocentricity.
For example,.. ‘Well now,.. the very first thing I can feel about you is that you have a strong ability towards being psychic yourself. You’ve probably noticed it in the past,.. the way you instinctively seem to guess right about people and what they are doing and thinking. No surprise there,.. if you think back you have probably been doing it all your life without realising it. And here’s another thing, you are naturally intuitive. You have a knack of being able to communicate to people things about themselves. You don’t hurt their feelings. You have a keen imagination. You are creative and easily able to discern things other people miss. You’re clearly a very caring person. And although your image is one of being pretty laid back, inside you are really very sensitive. You have surely noticed the way you can,...... ‘‘ And so on and on and on. You are being groomed. Your ego is being stroked. You are eating out of someone’s hand,.. a hand that is feeding you utter crap. After that it’s child’s play. In no time you are telling him little fragments of your personal self that he can mix up, rephrase then offer back to you as if it were revelation. It’s childishly simple.
I put it to you,.. it’s remarkable, isn’t it, that brains that invented the World Wide Web can believe that some people can see into the future. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that the human mind which has put a probe on Mars and removed blinding cataracts can still half believe that magic exists. It’s astounding, isn’t it, that intellects that understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can also believe that souls leave the body and return, that fellows walk on water and that reincarnation happens?
Perhaps, indeed, that is the biggest miracle of them all.
Get Your Knees Brown
In September of 1955 I was posted, as a sprog officer [a newcomer who still wore his shorts ‘dead reg’ which means one hand breadth above the kneecap,.. whose hand and whose knee not being any too particularly specified] to the Canal Zone,.. the Suez Canal that is. In those days that description meant the British held area around the canal in Ismailia, Egypt. The Egyptian terrorist campaign to eject the hated Brits had more or less succeeded and, as a result of financial weakness and the incipient crumbling of the erstwhile British Empire the Canal Zone was being de-manned as all service personnel were being pulled back to the new headquarters of Middle East Land Forces [M.E.L.F.] in Cyprus.
As it happens I flew out to the Zone,.. via a one-night stopover in Luqa, Malta – appropriately known as Filthy Luqa – with two other chaps. One was John Izbecki who went on to become a prominent journalist and author. The other was a chap from the same RAMC intake as me, - Herbie Longmore. Herbie was posted away soon after we arrived but no-one seemed to have a job for me. The nearest hospital was British Military Hospital [B.M.H.] Fayid, - a decomposing and barely half-manned collection of buildings near the banks of the Bitter Lakes. Most of the staff and nearly all of the patients had already left for Cyprus. The only medical work was the occasional casualty, a few lads with gastro-enteritis [Gippy Tummy] and the odd sunburn or two. Every other night I was Orderly Officer [O.O.]. That was a joke as I had had no military training and had not the least idea how to be an officer let alone look or behave like an orderly one. My only duty involved inspecting and mounting the guard, visiting them once during the night to check they were not asleep,.. which they often were, - then standing them down again at daybreak. Then I had to write and deliver my report which was the same every day, - ‘Nil to report. Incident free.’
After about a week of crushing boredom, swimming in the lake or sipping lime-and-lemonade at the officers club I learned that a few miles away there was another medical unit. It too was awaiting transit to Cyprus but seemed to have been more or less forgotten. Its patients were nearly all middle-to-long-stay cases who were in need of prolonged rehabilitation after injury or surgery and so on. Little was needed of a medical nature but it was a lot more appealing way to spend time than O.O. Guard Duty. I borrowed a jeep and drove over. The duty officer in charge was a passed over RAMC major – than which there is no more dismal and hopeless individual. To him a new face was a welcome change and he immediately agreed to take me on strength as a supernumerary officer. I moved in later that same day. Once again the work load was trivial after being one of only two House Surgeons at a busy hospital in Wales. Also we had an excellent gym which was actually air-conditioned - a facility as rare as chicken’s teeth in those days. I spent a good deal of time there. And it was while I was in that C.Z. Rehab.Unit that I met one of the most remarkable and memorable men I have ever known in the full and fascinating life that Kismet seemed to have planned for me.
I was sitting one morning enjoying NAAFI-break by consuming a rather good Egyptian coffee on the Officer’s Mess verandah when this curious fellow wandered up to the main gate of our compound just a hundred yards away. He was immediately impressive for a number of reasons.
To start with he was naked to the waist. No surprise there as it was mid-summer and, although most of the natives - the fellahin, wore full length jellaba and kefeya, this chap wore only the typical Indian dress of a length of white material wrapped around his waist, hips and groin. On his head was wound a turban and on his feet plain leather sandals. He carried a staff but did not use it for support., and under his arm was a rolled up grass mat.
It was his bearing that made the most impact. Unlike the slovenly and indolent fellahin this man stood up ramrod straight. His eyes fixed on mine from the distance and, even at that range they were squinting directly at me and into the sun. He spoke to the guard, L/Cpl.Taffy Evans RAMC and gestured towards me. I was puzzled. Evans looked across a me and pointed at the newcomer. ‘E wants to speak to you, Sir. Ok to let ‘im in?’ I nodded. As the man had nothing to search but the rolled mat under his arm Evans waved him through. The man walked straight across the maidan and stood in front of the veranda rail immediately below where I was sitting. His eyes swept over me. He inclined his head in a respectful gesture as if to acknowledge our different status. ‘Good morning, Doc Sahib,’ he said in perfect high quality English. ‘I am Guru.’
Now, nowadays the word guru and the various Indian gurus that have come and gone are familiar to us. We know that guru simply means teacher,.. or guide. We have - mostly self-styled - health gurus, fashion gurus, style gurus and even cookery gurus. But that was the first time I ever heard the word. Until much later on, in fact, I actually thought Guru was his real name. However, teacher and guide this man certainly was. During our conversation he asked if he might be permitted to help our patients regain use of limbs, strengthen weak areas, retrain damaged muscles and so on. ‘You will find me most useful, Sahib,’ he said. In return he asked nothing but two bowls of rice a day and a place in the shade to put his mat. Apart from that he ate nothing but fruit and a few esculent roots. He turned out to be a very good bargain in many different ways and for many of us.
Within days Guru more or less took over our ‘physio’ facility. Never once did he irritate our own physios - he just had the knack of helping from the sidelines and being useful and kind. Encouragement here, a helping hand there,.. thoughtful, gentle and endlessly patient. Everyone took to him. He had an air of calm efficiency, understanding and guidance and courtesy. Never once was there and trace of friction. Staff and patients swiftly accepted him and he became helper, advisor and friend to one and all.
Guru could do the most remarkable things with his body. As thin as a lathe though he was he was immensely strong. His grip was like iron yet his almost emaciated limbs and joints could be put into positions that were quite impossible for we fit youngsters. His flexibility was astounding. He would show the patients what his old body could do then assure them that they could do the same with just a little effort and patience. And the patients came to believe him. I think that that was his real trick. He made the lads believe him and, through him, in themselves. He promised them they could do it and they trusted him. In no time his success was obvious to all.
On one particular day a very senior WOI and a staff sergeant came into camp and asked to see him. The WO [Warrant Officer] was the camp PTI [Physical Training Instructor] and the sergeant was coach of the Fayid Cantonment Rugby Team. Both had come to ask if he would help train up other chaps - not patients but fit healthy soldiers. He was delighted to accept the task.
I remember the first time he met up with the rugger addicts. We had no rugby field - grass doesn’t grow well in the Canal Zone. But we had a fairly wide stretch of flat, dusty ground with just one goal post at the end. Rugby games could not be played there of course but it was alright for training. On this day we all went out onto the pitch and someone handed Guru a ball. He examined it carefully and put it down on the ground in front of him.
‘If I remember from seeing this game played when I was in college,.. we have to kick the ball over the bar and between the posts,’ he asked. ‘It does not look difficult.’
Guru picked up the ball again and looked at it. Three times he looked from the ball to the goalpost and back. Then, in one sudden movement he dropped the ball onto his left foot and kicked it straight between the uprights. Twenty men just stood there with their mouths hanging open. I was one of them.
Looking a little ruefully after the ball Guru said ‘Unfortunately I am not able to run. When I was a baby my body was deliberately damaged so that I could never become a soldier.’ I was later to learn the horror of that story too.
Over the three months I spent there before my eventual posting to Cyprus came up I spent many hours talking to as well as working with Guru. He came from a very high caste family in Patiala in the southern Punjab. The sect into which he was born was strongly matriarchal. In fact it was his own mother who, as leader of their group, had had him mutilated to prevent any militaristic tendencies he might show resulting in him becoming a warrior. He had been too young to understand or to remember the pain but he had, in later life, seen the operation carried out on others. There had been an old amah in his mother’s household who was a recognised expert. On his back at about the level of the third to fourth lumbar disc was a small and long healed scar. The amah used a flat needle to pierce the skin and reach the soft cartilage that would one day form one of his vertebrae. Reaching the chosen spot she would twist portions of the future bone out of position and leave the spinal nerve of the area vulnerable to pressure,.. for life. ‘It was a barbaric thing to do’ he said. ‘But I understand the way my mother thought. I had five older brothers. All were soldiers,.. and all died young. I was the only surviving son and the family depended on me to continue our name. Perhaps it was worth it, - there is no way to tell for sure.’
During his twenties guru had studied law in Cambridge. Then he went home to marry and father a family. He practiced as a lawyer in Amritsar for almost twenty years. But once he was happy that the family were all provided for he went, for five more years, to the Hemis Monastery in Kashmir where he studied Buddhism and Yoga. Now, he said, he was travelling, studying, meditating, teaching and doing good in the hope that one day he might approach Nirvana.
In overall, if nominal, command of all remaining medical services there was a RAMC half-colonel eking out the weeks before his retirement. He was seldom sober and was, consequently, no real trouble to anyone. But, drunk or sober, he was a quarrelsome fellow loved by no-one. Several times he was unnecessarily short with Guru. He had served in the Indian Army and had no respect for Indian personnel irrespective of their qualities. One day he actually told Guru that he thought all this Hinduism [sic] was nonsense and that he’d never believe most of the claptrap he had been told. Quietly and patiently Guru asked him if he would like to see a demonstration of his abilities and techniques. As a result, a few days later, we gathered to watch a most astonishing display.
Under the requirements of his chosen order Guru was allowed only seven possessions,.. his turban, his loin-cloth, two sandals, a staff, a wooden bowl from which to eat his rice or with which to collect alms,.. and his sleeping mat. It was this mat that on that day he spread on the bare ground near the very spot where he had first spoken to me some weeks earlier. He then proceeded to twist his body into what looked almost impossible knots and contortions. He stood on one leg with his foot flat on the ground,.. then raised onto its toes and held the position for maybe half a minute. Then there were gasps as he sort of jerked his entire body up a little until he was balanced on just the tip of his big toe rather as might a ballerina when ‘on points.’
After that he stooped and placed both hands flat on the ground with his fingers spread. Slowly he raised his feet from the ground, unfolded his trunk and, balancing perfectly, he raised his weight until only his spread fingertips were supporting him. His feet pointed towards the sky. That was impressive enough but he then raised his right hand from the ground and balanced on the left only for a few seconds before, curling his ring and index fingers. He appeared to just hang in the air with only three fingers to the ground. To a round of applause as he lowered himself back onto the ground he smiled and said ‘It’s easier than it looks,.. I don’t weigh much.’
Guru then asked for and was provided with a glass of milk. He placed it on the ground between his feet, crouched down over it and dangled his penis into the glass. As fast as if he were drinking it he drew the milk up into his bladder, stood up and urinated it back out onto the ground. There were many wide eyes in the crowd, not least my own as, to me, this demonstrated the wilful control of muscles mostly regarded as involuntary,.. which I had always though impossible. Of course there was a different explanation which he later imparted to me. He did not use his bladder muscles to draw up the milk. He did it by fixing his abdominal muscles then contracting them so that they created a negative pressure throughout his pelvis and abdomen. It was this that caused the milk to flow up into his body. The way out was by the usual route.
‘What about the Indian rope trick, Guru?’ called one voice,.. quickly echoed by several others. Guru smiled and nodded. A rope was brought. It was about the thickness of a thumb. ‘I cannot climb the rope,’ Guru said. ‘My injured spine does not allow that. But see this.’
He took hold of one end of the rope between the thumb and index finger of his right hand and, drawing it up through the loosely clenched fist of his other hand he pulled it up into the vertical until the entire perhaps ten-feet long rope stood on end with its lower end touch the ground. He stepped back from it and left it standing there. After perhaps twenty seconds it collapsed again without being touched.
It was at that point that I was called away to deal with a new case just being admitted. I therefore did not see and cannot confirm the next story. But I talked to several of those who had seen it and I do not doubt their words. Guru did two most astonishing ‘tricks.’ First, he had a plank some ten feet long placed across two small piles of bricks,.. about a foot off the ground. He stepped onto the centre of the plank and just stood there and closed his eyes. He was so light in weight that he hardly caused the plank to sag. However, as they all watched and without Guru making any kind of movement they saw the plank begin to dip in the centre. He just stood there motionless and simply willed his weight to increase. Slowly the plank dipped more and more in the centre where he was standing. After two or three minutes its centre was touching the ground and he stepped off the plank and back onto the sand. The plank immediately sprang back up into its original position.
I comment here that such an event is, according to the laws of physics, completely impossible. I firmly believe that things that can’t happen don’t happen,.. and that things that do happen are not miracles. Nevertheless I can offer no explanation for what happened,.. or was believed to have happened.
Finally, for his last trick Guru again placed his mat near where we had first met and lay on it, motionless. Then, after a period described as ‘a few seconds’ or ‘half a minute or so,.. I suppose’ he and the mat lifted into the air a few inches,.. then up,.. and up and up until they were at about the level of the veranda rail,.. say at eye-level. The RSM was able to pass his cane beneath the mat to ensure there was no secret support hidden from view.
Guru was treated with much respect after his performance. However, party tricks, impressive though they were, were, to me, less impressive than his results with patients,.. and, philosophically on me. You would expect a good physio to help injured and restricted limbs and gradually restore strength and function. All this our own physios and Guru did. But Guru had an undoubted extra ability to restore confidence, to foster will power and to teach lads to be, in several ways, better than before,.. perhaps even better than they’d been before their trauma,.. and perhaps, better people than they would ever have been had they not met him. I know that was true for me.
Later on Guru and I discussed his performance two or three times. I explained to him that I could quite understand the contortions and even the bladder-and-milk display – but, from my considerable familiarity with Newtonian Physics I did not consider it possible for a rope to stand on end or for humans to levitate. He would smile and say things like ‘There is still much to learn, Doc Sahib,.. for both of us.’ To this day I don’t know whether in some way we were all ‘seeing things’ or whether he really did them But the impressions created by them and by this remarkable man have been with me all my life since. Above all he impressed on me the need to keep an open mind. Furthermore there were certain of his sayings that not only impressed me at the time but have remained as influential factors.
A month later my posting to Cyprus came through and, of course, I never saw Guru again. But some of his words have stuck in my mind. One was,.. ‘Be sure that you do not own your possessions, - it is they that own you.’
Another was what I later learned was an ancient Buddhist teaching. ‘Although you may feel you have triggered an event, that event also required the influence of many others acting, perhaps in small ways, to enable your trigger to function. In other words, nothing is ever totally your fault.’
And finally, after we had had a long and fascinating conversation about the way fate seems always to have a certain part in our lives,.. or luck, or chance, or whatever you choose to call it. It’s what the Arabs mean when they say,.. ‘It is written,..’
Guru held both my hands in his and, as if he were giving me a paternal blessing - which perhaps he was - he looked hard into my eyes and said ‘Doc, Sahib – for some men nothing is written. You will write for yourself.’
I hope he is going to be right.
Goodbye Guru,.. friend and teacher.
Right next to a camp where I was once MO was a smaller camp occupied by a detachment of the Highland Light Infantry. They were very tough men. When they were in action they were unequalled,.. hard, brave and even, at a pinch, accepting of discipline.
When they were unoccupied,.. when there was a lull in outside events,.. they could be very different. I recall one terrible night when, bored out of their minds, a group of them had drawn lots to see who would get the job of slinging a live hand grenade into the officers’ mess. But that’s another, well covered up, story.
I recall one horrid incident that portrays this seldom seen aspect of their nature. Like most army camps the area housing the Scotsmen was liberally populated by stray cats. They were a thundering nuisance, most of them feral and inclined to be vicious. One in particular had been making a pest of itself hanging around scavenging near the cookhouse door. Once the lads set their hearts on it that vagrant moggy never had a chance. Later I heard the story related by one of the participants,.. it went like this.
‘Well now, we caught the nasty wee thing and wrapped him in a blanket so he couldna escape or scram and bite everyone. Then we put a funnel in his mouth a poured a cup of petrol down him. There was not much fight left in him after that and when we took the blanket off he shot away like all the devils of hell were after him.
‘There being no trees around the camp he went straight for that tall radio mast that stands at the corner of the maidan. You never saw an animal change direction at such speed. One moment he was tearing along the ground and the next moment he was shooting up that antenna and every bit as fast. It was a treat to watch. Trouble was, as he got higher and higher he also got slower and slower. After a few more feet he was just clawing at the pole and hanging on like grim death. He couldna make it for long though. Gradually his efforts got weaker and weaker until he could no longer climb. He just hung there motionless for a few long seconds then he sort of let go and fell to the ground with a thump,.. and just lay there without moving.’
Gripped by the story we listeners all chorused the same question,.. ‘Dead?’
The raconteur cleared his throat and shook his head.
‘Noo,’ he said. ‘He just ran oot of petrol!!’
She was a Canadian lady staying in the town for a while ‘Just because I like it,’ she said. She wouldn’t tell me her age, claiming that was her secret even from her doctors. From various morsels of conversation and from her routine medical examination I put her at about 40. She was attractive, sharp, witty, clean and well, if quietly, dressed. She smoked a little and made no secret of the fact that she looked forward to her G & T in the evenings. She must have been fairly well off as she rented rather a nice house near the town centre. We never met socially.
Three times in the two years she was my patient she came to consult me – each time to check if she was pregnant. Each time she was. After each confirmation she would disappear for a couple of weeks. And each time, when she returned, she was no longer pregnant. Several times I probed for the explanation in case it was clinically relevant. She would tell me nothing.
Gradually little bits of tittle-tattle and scuttlebutt would reach my ears,.. that happens to doctors in small villages; we get to know the otherwise well-kept secrets of so many things. Assembling the fragments that came my way it became clear that Vickie’s main pastime lay in her bedroom activities. A number of well-known good-lookers and philanderers appeared to have enjoyed her company from time to time,.. or sometimes from time to several times. There were also other occasions when she would disappear for a week or two and return with a nice all-over suntan and a look like that of a cat who had been at the cream.
There came one Friday evening when she limped in to my consulting room grimacing with pain. She had turned her ankle and it was puffy and tender. I thought it was just a bad sprain but it was especially tender over the lateral malleolus at the bottom tip of the right fibula. A small fracture there could not be ruled out.
‘We’ll get that x-rayed tomorrow,’ I suggested.
‘Yes,.. OK,’ she replied. ‘But how? I don’t drive, you know. I’ll have to fix a taxi.’
I had an idea. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’m on casualty duty tomorrow morning in Ramsgate. If you can be up in time I’ll pop around at about eight o’clock and knock you up. I’ll give you a lift.’
‘That would certainly give me a lift, Doc,’ she said, and dissolved into giggles. I was puzzled.
‘What’s so funny?’
It was only then that I learned from her that the expression ‘Knock you up’ has a totally different and unrelated meaning to citizens from the other side of the Atlantic.
My turn for embarrassment. But a few months later there was an even funnier episode. Vickie came into the room looking a bit on the droopy side.
‘G’morning,.. what have you done now?’ I asked her. She sort of shrugged and looked a bit resigned to whatever I was sure to say.
‘I’ve done it again, Doc.’
‘I’m pregnant again.’
‘Oh,.. Vickie.’ I shook my head part in hope part in disbelief. ‘Who dunnit this time?’
She looked me straight in the eye and with just a wisp of a smile on her face she said,.. ‘Doc,.. when you eat a plate of beans how do you know which one made you fart?’
If for nothing else I shall always remember Vickie for that prize remark.
New Year Blues
Life could be such a puzzle to Ysenda Motley-Greenham. [In an effort to be different she had changed the pronunciation of her name to sound like ‘wise-n’duh’]. But now after Christmas she was seriously overweight again and visibly starting to age,.. well fifty one was not any woman’s idea of her actual best age, now was it? That was what started the puzzle. How best to combat the whole tiresome process?
Inside she felt like Liz Hurley but the outward appearance obstinately remained more like a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Sydney Greenstreet., - now there’s a nasty thought.
There was always Shankarianist Meditation to fall back on of course, but she’d tried that twice and it didn’t work well for her,.. though Trish had sworn by it and lost four kilos,.. the bitch! Then there was the new Tibetan Feng-Shui master Bhang deng Bangh, who ran that gorgeous Zen Temple in Islington and whose picture had been in the Sunday Telegraph. But Islington was such a beast of a place to get to. What was more its Italian manager had totally ignored her the last time and had clearly been more intent on flexing his chest hair at a pair of witless young hoydens you wouldn’t have thought could afford to even visit the place. And what daft advice he’d offered. Six glasses of wine over dinner was a possibility,.. but I mean,.. six glasses of water a day was downright impossible.
She’d also thought about swallowing more of the Potentiated Volcanic Mineral powder. The only thing wrong with that, apart from that she didn’t lose any weight, was that it made her teeth go a sort of dull, grey shade so that when she opened her mouth she looked like a mercury thermometer.
This ‘Detox for Life’ stuff was excellent in theory but was probably not designed for someone like her who had a lifelong addiction for Marlboroughs, Sapphire Gin and Chocolate Bath Olivers. Then there were the hours each day she had to spend glued to that damned mobile. Why, things had got so bad last week that when she couldn’t find its damned charger she had found it easier to drive out to Marco Pierre White’s place for lunch with the mobile jammed into the car cigar-lighter.
The cucumber and avocado face mask had not helped either. Neither had that Prairie Egg-and-Seaweed gel with the Positron-pH balanced milieu nor the exfoliation exposure by the Radionic Herbal Lotion. Three hours later her thick make-up had been cracking all-too-realistically, into the usual lines around her mouth. The Wholistic Cellulite Wrap had felt like a straight-jacket and the Lymphatic Drainage Massage had taken three hours and left her feeling as if she had been three rounds with a bruising bag,.. all over; added to which the wretched little Thai girl who had done it had talked the whole time about how hard it was for wretched little Thai girls to gain enough weight to become attractive to European men..
So now the crux of the entire puzzle was whether to go for a rebalancing of her electro-magnetic ego-zones with Chakra Meridian Crystals or to opt for an Iridology-with-Pilates workout and a more Colour-and-Aroma Therapy orientated approach. [Snag was, she could never get the damned crystals to vibrate in sympathy with her Inner Scan-Balance Hypophiseal Solution]. She’d also bought a box of Green Tea and Kinetic Id Psycho-Fragrance candles on the way home and had spent almost an hour getting her Feng-Shui bed into the right angle and slope for Transdermal Vitamin Infusion with added Toxin Extrusion under her new Isotopic Synergism Photonic lamp.
Of course, if all else failed she might have to resort to some exercise, or, horror-of-horrors, actually go on a reducing diet. God, what a frightful bore it all was.
Officers on a train
Have you ever noticed how a group of people can all see or experience the same series of events,.. yet come to entirely different conclusions? I’ll explain what I mean.
During the latter days of World War Two there was a train going from Southampton to Plymouth in England. In one compartment sat an elderly lady, a gorgeous young blond, an American officer and a British officer.
Suddenly the train went into a tunnel and all the lights went out. [They often did in those difficult days]. Undercover of darkness there was the sound of a loud, succulent kiss followed by the sound of a sharp slap being administered. As the train emerged from the tunnel and the passengers could see again it was clear that the American officer was still rubbing his cheek which was rapidly reddening from the blow.
The old lady thought, ‘What a nice young girl. The American officer tries to kiss her and she slaps his face.’
The blond thought, ‘How strange that that American officer should try to kiss the old lady instead of me. Still he deserved to get his face slapped for it.’
The American officer thought, ‘Damn that British officer’s luck. He kisses the blond and I get my face slapped for it.’
And the British officer thought, ‘I’m a smart chap. Kiss the back of my hand and slap an American officer around the face,.. and I get away with it.’
See what I mean?
Right and Wrong in Rwanda
I have seen some terrible things. Most doctors have. The sight of a body cavity riddled with fatal cancerous growths, the mangled results, - blood, brains and bodily excrements, of drunken driving pile-ups, tragic stillborn babies. I once saw three British soldiers with a rope over a tree trying to hang a man they had taken prisoner. In Cyprus in the fifties I saw the body of a pregnant British lady, her eight months gravid belly shredded by nine-millimetre bullets sprayed by an EOKA thug,.. a so-called ‘brave freedom fighter.’ I saw some appalling things while, for a few fearfully long days, I was part of a medical liaison team observing the American campaign around the city of Hue in Viet-Nam just after the Tet offensive. But nothing came near to preparing me for the things I saw in Rwanda-Burundi in the early nineties.
One must understand that this was no ordinary civil war. This was a kind of Darwinism at full speed ahead. There was little or no fighting for political power or for territory or for wealth. The aim of the war was what has now become known by the almost clinical euphemism of ethnic cleansing. This is genocide. The efforts by one people or faction to exterminate members of another. We saw the Nazis set out to annihilate the Jews. We have since seen it in Greek-Turkish confrontations, between Israelis and Arabs and between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats. But in 1991, between the two main tribes, the fiendish levels it reached in Burundi were something the like of which I never expect to see again,.. and if I do it will be too soon. For this was a godless confusion of deliberate, wanton slaughter of any living things belonging to the other side,.. men, women, children, babies, dogs and domestic animals. There was no vestige of civilisation. There was no logic. There was no sanity. There was just the headlong atavistic impulse to destroy all rivals. The two tribes, the Tutsi and the Hutu, had been rivals for longer than anyone knew or cared. They wished for nothing better than to wallow in the bloodbath that would be instrumental in the killing of their enemies. Nothing was forbidden. There was no law in that country at that time,.. and there was no god.
It was there that I saw half a dozen children of around three or four years old nailed to a wall by knives spiked through their forearms, between the radius and ulna bones, then on into the woodwork. They had been there two or three days and their gas-bloated bellies were huge or already burst open to shower rotting entrails onto the floor where a tumult of flies gorged themselves. It was there I saw living infants thrown from one soldier to another on the points of their bayonets. I saw three old men lying dead and beheaded with their faces rammed between their own buttocks. I saw women who had been raped and little girls, too, before being slashed and mutilated to their deaths. Other women had long machetes drawn across the mouth, severing the circular oral sphincter muscle and carried right back to the level of the back teeth. Others had had ears, breasts and genitals sliced off and thrown to dogs. The whole thing is still a nightmare to me so vivid is some of it in my middle-of-the-night memories.
But one incident above all comes back over and over again. Perhaps it was not the most brutally or sensationally horrific, but it was the events that surrounded it that gave it its own poignant meaning.
My small unit, part of the advanced party for a planned and so-called peace-keeping, humanitarian aid project, was moving forward to a place where we had been told there was a hospital. This does not mean a hospital in the western sense. It means a jumble of dilapidated huts where a few stalwarts and perhaps a nun or two did what they could to fight back the horrors of the disease and hunger raddled village folk. They seldom had any beds or tablets or dressings. At best there was brackish water and a few threadbare towels. There was still sporadic firing about half a mile ahead. Bodies were everywhere, plenty of them several days dead and reeking accordingly. There were fires, wounded people, crying and screaming. There was the stench of ammunition, fire and death. The whole ghastly spectacle was taking place behind god’s back, that’s for sure. We were surrounded by infantry, our safe-conduct force, - a makeshift group made up mostly of black irregulars, armed to the teeth but with no officers, a few white mercenaries and one half demented NCO,.. a corporal, who called himself ‘The General.’ They advanced with us non-combatants ostensibly to protect us if we drew indiscriminate fire,.. which most of it was. Occasionally one or other of them would spray a burst of automatic fire into the semi-jungle in front or to the side of us.
Then the most soul-shaking thing of my life happened. From some shrubs, about thirty yards in front there walked a small boy, perhaps six years old. He was naked. He was crying. And he was coming straight towards me. I had heard the stories of how they would strap a live grenade under a kid’s armpit and hidden by his clothing. No danger of that here. He had no clothing. There was quite a large wound, already dried up on the upper part of one thigh. I could see, too, that one ear had been ripped half away and fragments of it were hanging loose and moving as he came forward.
But what was concerning the little mite was his hands. All his fingers had been severed. As he came towards me he was holding up his hands with the gory stumps spread out and sobbing his tiny heart out. Of course, he was doomed. There was no such thing here as care and protection for him. There was no chance, even if he found food or water, that he could get it to his mouth. All that faced him was certain death from any one of a number of possible causes. It was pure chance what got him first,.. bullets, thirst, starvation, infection,.. or wild animals and feral cats and dogs that preyed on anything likely to provide a hasty meal.
This tiny, tragic morsel of humanity was a sight to break the heart of anyone who had a heart. I don’t know why he singled me out. Probably chance, too. But he came directly towards me with his mutilated stumps offered to me as if to implore some sort of help. One could only imagine the pain he must have been in, to say nothing of the mental torment of whatever he had recently seen and experienced. There was nothing any doctor in the world would have done other than to feel the mixture of nausea and compassion that came over me.
I took one step towards him and, as I did, the news cameraman who was with us shouldered me aside and crouched down in front of him. I thought he was reaching for his water bottle,.. but no. He was unhitching a smaller camera from his belt. He shot off several seconds of film, pulling in onto the battered face and hands. The babe tottered towards him sensing the hope of help.
Then the bastard got up, hurried past the child and started to film a group of people who we could see gathered under a few trees a hundred yards away. I don’t think I had ever seen such a callous and self-centred act. The cameraman had what he came for,.. as he told me later. His guiding principle was that that was what he was paid to do and he did not get involved with his professional material. As a kind of explanation he said he felt it was vital to bring this kind of horror to the notice of the outside world. That was what he did, and that was the only way he could do this kind of work. In a way I understood.
The moment had passed. The man has taken his pictures. The platoon had moved on. The trembling infant has disappeared from my sight but, behind me, I could still hear his bitter sobs.
Then there was another burst of fire, - a second, and a third.. Nothing unusual. So what made it sound different? The sobbing had stopped. That was what was different. There was no more sound from the tormented child.
I turned to see what was happening. Then the General’s voice rang out. ‘Keep moving, ‘ he said. ‘Hostiles in view at three o’clock.’ Automatically I looked right and prepared to hit the dirt. There was no-one there. I glanced back again.
The baby was down, motionless on the ground. The fresh wounds were oozing. The carcass was still,.. and the soldiers were moving past him as if he was not there. Just one more dead kid. Two of the soldiers were putting fresh clips onto their Kalashnikovs. I wondered which and indeed, how many had fired.
The child’s problem had at least been solved. His pain was gone. His transfixed look of baffled horror was no more. Another statistic lay where he had fallen.
I was almost overcome with the appalling dread of what humans could do. No animal would be capable of such needless cruelty. For animals are not cruel. They are only animals.
Only animals? Let me say, these creatures in human form were more animal than any wild thing I had ever seen.
We moved on into the brush, away from the scene. But that little toddler, so like unto my own, has lived in my head every day since. He was so little in his days,.. and so huge in my eternity.
Some remarkable things you may not know about your body
It takes your food about seven seconds to get from your mouth to your stomach.
One human hair can support 3 kg (6.6 lb).
The average man's erect penis is three times the length of his thumb.
Human thighbones are stronger than concrete.
A woman's heart beats faster than a man's.
There are about one trillion bacteria on each of your feet.
Women blink twice as often as men.
The average person's skin weighs twice as much as the brain.
Your body uses over two hundred muscles to balance itself when you are standing still.
If saliva cannot dissolve something, you cannot taste it.
Women read faster than men and, if reading this, will be finished about now.
Men are still busy checking their thumbs,.. and so on.
“A preachment, Dear Brethren, you’re about to receive on Nicotine, John Barleycorn, and the Temptations of Eve.” [Quote]. Actually this contribution is mostly about alcohol; the other things are mentioned here, there and elsewhere.
I’ve never been much good as a boozer. In my home there was a bottle of nauseatingly sweet cooking sherry and a half bottle of Courvoisier, - strictly for medicinal purposes only. [My kid brother, Jeff, probably owes his life to it, - but that’s another story that comes elsewhere in the book]. Another reason I never developed much of a taste for alcohol is that when I first became slightly interested,.. in about 1946, - beer cost fourpence a pint and that, out of my bob-a-week pocket money was out of the question. A bad experience on the first occasion I ever got drunk was also a potent contributor to my low consumption rate later on. It happened like this.
It was towards the end of the war, - Hitler’s War, that is, that I went on a memorable errand. My grandmother’s village, Ynysddu - [Black Island,.. on account of its tiny island in the River Sirhowy, which, like the river itself was black with coal-dust from the colliery washings all around], - was very small, but, on the Top Road where ‘Gran’ lived there were four shops. One was an empty has-been. Two brothers, the Dando Brothers, kept a draper’s and a hardware store next door to each other. The fourth shop was a Post office that opened occasionally and unpredictably, - probably when the Postman was more or less sober for a change. Any lucky lad in the street could be called in and paid thru’pence to deliver any telegram that had arrived. During the war telegrams were seldom something to be looked forward to but all were treated very seriously.
I got lucky, - very lucky, when a telegram arrived to be delivered to a hilltop farm, about three miles away in Mynyddislwyn, - Islwyn’s Mountain Farm. It was a laborious trek but it drew a delivery payment of a whole shilling, - for me that was the equivalent of a week’s income.
Pocketing the buff envelope in one pocket and the shilling in the other one – the one that didn’t have a hole in it, I set off up the graig, past Twyn-Gwyn [White Hill] Baptist Chapel, - complete with a real baptising pool, - then up past the reservoir [pronounced ‘reservoy’] and on up onto the mostly barren mountain summit. About two hours later, hot, hungry, tired and thirsty I reached the farm and, after stopping for an obligatory few minutes to play with the collies in the yard I handed the missive to the farmer’s wife.
I realised that the news was good because after reading it for a few moments, - it was in English, - she grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me on my right ear. ‘Eistedd lawr,’ she said, - sit down, - and I’ll bring you a teisen, - a cake. To tell the truth I’d have preferred a chunk of her home-made bread and cheese, but a big, crumbly cake dipped in honey it was. Alongside it, on the kitchen table, she put a huge pot of cider, - also their own brew. I downed both without a thought and was quickly back on my way home.
It was that cider that did it. It was as strong as a knock on the head. I was a few hundred yards down the path from the farm when, feeling very odd indeed, - for I had no previous experience, - I sat down on the bank because it seemed to be the only thing I was equal to achieving. I recall trying to sing a song though what I found to sing about I can’t imagine. I also recall looking up at a pair of soaring skylarks into whose lonely patch I was, no doubt, intruding.
And there it was that, later that afternoon, they found me,.. fast asleep and sprawled on the bank with my feet in the soggy mud and water in the ditch alongside the bank and oblivious to the world. I felt dreadful for days afterwards,.. waves of nausea, dry mouth, no inclination to play or even read. It was a terrible feeling and I was ashamed not so much because of the boozing but because it had so easliy rendered me utterly vanquished.
After that it was some twelve years before I got drunk again. This time it was more or less my own fault.
I had been married about three months and, happily, my lovely bride was an understanding and tolerant lady,.. well, up to a point,.. and of most things. She also had two brothers of her own which helped. I was medical officer of a substantial sized army camp [Karaolos] housing two regiments and several support units a couple of miles north of Famagusta in Cyprus. We had pretty good medical facilities there to cope with the needs of the around two thousand men of 51 Brigade who were encamped there as well as around four hundred scattered Married Quarters where soldiers with families lived. It was during the days of the EOKA terrorist campaign and everything was under Martial Law and Active Service conditions. With such an official status many rules, regulations and general discipline tend always to be what we might call relaxed. As a result, and quite unofficially, I operated a system whereby any unit that had no doctor and needed one soon learned that they were always welcome to what my medical centre had to offer.
The Royal Navy had a small group of minesweepers based in Fama-Gee [as it was called]. They patrolled the waters around the island to intercept any small vessels or purported fishing kaiques trying to ferry weapons, explosives or infiltrators from the Greek mainland to the terrorist units operating more or less everywhere. These boats were fuelled from an RFA, a Royal Fleet Auxillary oil-tanker that always lay about a mile or so offshore. At that time it was the RFA Brown Ranger. To show their appreciation for medical services rendered the ever-hospitable naval officers were always offering us trips and boating experiences that would otherwise never have come the way of a load of reluctant landlubbers.
One particular evening the wardroom officers invited several of our officers aboard Brown Ranger for the evening. I was the only invitee who was actually off duty so, alone, at about six in the evening I stepped onto the tanker’s lighter on the Famagusta Harbour Quay No.1. There was what the sailors called ‘a short chop’ running which is their way of describing what I consider sea-sickness conditions. Still it was something less than a mile to the huge vessel lying out in the bay. I still remember the horror of having to climb aboard from the lighter in a rising and falling swell and up a swaying rope ladder. I swear it was half a mile up.
I was treated wonderfully. Drinks were plied, family photographs shared, medical matters discussed. I was shown all round the boat and its advanced technology of fuel handling and radiocommunications. At that time the ‘confidential echelons’ of the UK services used all kinds of hidden spying facilities. I found the whole trip fascinating and very informative in view of my own early but growing connections with such matters. The only snag was that I was starving hungry. Increasingly my mind was on calories rather than Hertzian waves.
Eventually we all ended up in the wardroom and the serious business began. It was an eye-opener. I was introduced to the naval specialty a ‘Horse’s Neck’ which tastes like a tumblerful of brandy with a dessertspoonful of Dry Ginger mixed in,.. but feels stronger. No-one seemed to know why it was so named. All the while I was getting more and more hungry and fell to wondering when some sign of supper or dinner,.. which, did not matter,.. or even a lightly boiled egg might appear. Nothing came. No dinner gongs were sounded. No flavoursome aromas drifted my way. Food was simply not mentioned but the drinking went on and on. Even if I had had only the two or three Horses’ Necks it would have been impolite to refuse I would have been smashed. But they were nice. As it turned out I have no idea how many I had.
After what must have been a couple of hours their Duty officer came into the room and said ‘Doc, unless you fancy staying the night I think we’d better get you back onshore, - there’s quite a chop coming up.’
‘Quite a chop!’ The understatement of the year. It was like a typhoon,.. on a stick and gift-wrapped.The lighter alongside was rising and falling several feet with the waves. The crew pulled her in tight and at the moment they chose they all shouted ‘Jump!’ I jumped,.. being no chicken and as I jumped the lighter seemed to drop twenty feet further down. Then, as I landed it was rapidly on its way back up. I put it all down to their lousy timing. Looking back I must have got onboard OK for, no sooner did I scramble up from my grazed hands and knees than we were heading back towards FamaG. Getting from the harbour to home,.. a mere few hundred yards was and remains a foggy nightmare.
I let myself in to our little apartment and was lucky the dog didn’t bite me as an un- recognisable intruder. I was starving,.. undernourished and probably harbouring incipient avitaminosis were the truth known. I was also headaching, nauseated, tottering, soaked and bedraggled from the spray and the bilgewater,.. and I was gloriously, hilariously and profanely drunk out of my mind. I never felt so happy,.. or so ill.
I shuffled to the bedroom door and opened it. I was aware of seeing Pix in bed creased with laughter at me trying to enter the room but bouncing off first one side of the door frame, into the other and back.
It later appeared that she was totally amused, - I told you she was tolerant, and she got me undressed and into bed. Next morning I realised why the Navy drinks Horses’ Neck for I had not the least trace of a hangover,.. just a sense of unreality that saw me through the next couple of days of blissful amnesia.
Unsurprisingly it was to be another fourteen years or so before my next and last drunken night,.. so far.
In about 1970 Pix and I went on a fortnight holiday to Tunisia,.. to a town called Hammamet. I wanted to recce the south of the country for an idea I was working on. I was also completing a book. With both intentions in mind we visited the remnants of what had been the old WW2 Mannheim Line near the Tunisia-Libyan border. The basic plan was to write and rest for the first week then do the rubbernecking in the second week. The first week was mostly successful. The next, less so.
The Tunisian authorities had imposed a first rate order upon their tourism developers. Unlike so many countries,.. Spain, Italy, Jugoslavia and Cyprus where, in pursuit of the fast buck, huge ugly clone-hotels eight or ten stories tall were built on the beaches thereby utterly ruining them. The Tunisian rule was that building was forbidden within two hundred metres of the sea and then, could be as tall as the palm trees surrounding but no taller. Their hotels were therefore quite delightful.
On the first night of the second week we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a beer or two. Then a waiter came over with a drinks trolley. ‘On the house,’ he said. ’Our Tunisian speciality, - Boukka.’ He poured out two thimbles of a colourless, rather thick liquid. ‘Down your hatch,’ he cried, - which we did. It was scrumptious, - a sort of very sweet liquer distilled from figs. We both liked it and down-the-hatched several shots more of the harmless-tasting libation. And then several more.
I don’t know how long it took us to get drunk but it feels to have been a very long time later that we eventually staggered back to our bungalow. It was a very long way. About fifty yards I’d guess, and that can be a very long way. Of the two of us I was in marginally better shape. I got the door open and we shed our clothes ready for bed. At that point there began rolling great waves of nausea that could be felt right across the room. They quickly and totally wrote Pix off. Half in and half out of her nighty she subsided onto the bathroom’s cool, marble floor, hung her pretty head over the khazi [loo] and succumbed to the insistence of her cruelly assaulted gastric mucosa. I took a photograph,.. hard to believe but I did,.. we have it still. It would bring a lump to your throat to see how ill she was. I put down the camera and joined her on the opposite side of the bowl. And there we spent the next hour or so.
Never again! I remember thinking,.. and, honestly, I’ve kept my word ever since,.. well, more or less.
All at sea
The little town – or large village, depending on how you classify, of Sandwich was once the most important of the Cinque Ports, - the ports that carried most of the channel and continental traffic. It stood in a calm bay protected from the north and east by the massive Isle of Thanet. Between Thanet and the mainland coast of Kent was a busy seaway, the Wantsume Channel. Boats could enter from either end and, half way along the Wantsume was a bay lined with quays, jetties, moorings and the growing town of Sandwich. It was so important a port that even in Roman times they built Richborough Castle to protect it and the Wantsume. The solid, fifteen feet thick walls of the castle were built in 43 AD on the site of the earliest landing and are still a major tourist attraction.
Sandwich thrived and grew for centuries in its sheltered bay. Then, somewhere in the 1400s the sea level began to drop. Sandbars started to form making navigation more and more difficult for sea-going traffic that relied totally on sail and wind. Visiting monarchs ordered huge efforts to divert the gathering of the sands and maintain the flow of commerce.
All efforts failed. Thanet became attached to the mainland and the once wide expanse of Sandwich Haven was reduced to a modest river, the Stour. That river still flows past the seaward side of Sandwich. Nowadays townsfolk and tourists alike sit under the rows of willows of the bankside and watch the pleasure boats ply up and down the tidal river. Although the sea is now over four miles away by water both sides of the river offer safe moorings for a hundred or more small craft from 100-footers down to one-man dinghies. Being a family of water babies we kept our family boats on those moorings for about forty years.
And that is where this story begins.
We bought our first boat, - a home made two-seater in 1961. She was well built by a skilled craftsman mostly out of spare parts. She had an old, marinised Ford 100E inboard engine that had been cannibalized from an aged Ford Popular that had seen its best, and last, days. At a pinch she could manage about twenty knots but she was solid, uncomplaining and reliable. We named her Knee Deep. We also realised she had a previously unsuspected facility. The very first time Pix took the controls we proceeded upstream from the town quay. The river there very much just meanders through the fields and some of the bends are rather sharp and sudden. Rounding one long bend at some fifteen knots Pix misjudged things a shade. We headed straight for the shallow bank, - fortunately it was at high water. The raised bow glanced off the mud of the low bank and Knee Deep ploughed her way across a recently mowed field. Now, most boats can manage fairly well on water but not many of them can cross fifty yards of a grass field. Knee Deep could.
Knee Deep was a huge hit with the family but, as only a two-seater, it was very cramped when the children were aboard. I consequently built a boat shed in my garden and there the old Knee Deep metamorphosed from a cramped two-seater into a cramped four-seater. Out came the Ford engine, its space being converted into a back seat for the kids. I built a cradle onto the strengthened transom to carry a rather beaten up old 40hp Mercury outboard.
The balance and the varying hydraulic effects of sea, tide and river current on Knee Deep,.. and no surprise there,.. were not very good. Hard chine inboards are not really the right shape for becoming fast runabouts but, nevertheless, all four of us learned to water-ski behind her in the slow-moving muddy waters of the Stour. And that learning curve yielded its own share of yarns, events, accidents and episodes best forgotten. Still, we were all bitten by the bug and, a year later, Knee Deep was replaced by a brand new Glastron 14-footer with a 65 hp Merc on the back. She went ‘like shit from a goose’ as Ken Kerridge, the old harbourmaster chose to observe.
In the summer of 1964 I had been in serious training, with a friend, to do a joint swim of the Channel for charity purposes. After all, we figured, living so close to the Channel we might as well put it to some use. However, I was changing practices and, at the same time had enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn to start reading law. That combination of circumstances together with running a busy single-handed medical practice meant there just wasn’t enough time for the serious training required by channel swimmers. So when my companion’s marriage also started to break up the entire idea foundered. We needed a substitute. To be the first to water-ski the channel was it.
The channel, had been skied before but by skiers and boats starting from buoys moored as close as possible to the beach and ending at similar markers on the other side. But no-one had walked down the beach on one side, skied across and landed directly on the French sand to finish. We decided to be the first.
Now, skiers do not face quite the same problems as channel swimmers. To start with they are little affected by tides and currents as they just skim over the top of these. Also they are – or should be - within visual contact with the destination throughout. Skiers do need appropriate weather conditions and suitable sandy start and finish points. The nearest such place on the British side is the beach at St.Margaret’s Bay between Deal and Dover. The compass bearing from there to the extensive beaches east of Cap Griz Nez is some 30 to 35‘ east of southerly. It should have been an easy bit of navigation,.. at least according to the AA road map of the year which we used for the purpose. The only snag was that the boat had no compass. What’s more, when we practiced with a hand-held compass it jumped about so much it was useless as a navigational instrument. We improvised in best Boy Scouts fashion. I wore and used my waterproof Rolex. As any Boy Scout knows you point the hour hand at the sun then divide the angle between that and the noon position to get a more or less north-south line. [I’m not quite sure whether you then have to take away the number you first thought of]. It was not the easiest thing to achieve accuracy and there was also the need to convey slight adjustments to the driver as required. Still, we were going to be on visual throughout so at about mid-morning on 04.Sep.1964 we launched the boat off the sand at St.Margeret’s.
There was a light breeze and a hazy but well visible sun disc. I slipped on the skis while standing in water almost up to my knees. Pix circled and dropped the ski rope handle within my reach. I lay back onto the water as she straightened up. I watched her take up the slack and, as the rope started to come taught I braced and shouted ‘GO!’ I hoped the bystanders and our cameraman were impressed with the clean and successful pull-out. I certainly was,.. and it didn’t always happen like especially when there were spectators. Anyway the engine screamed for gas, the prop thrashed the surface for grip, the bow came up and for one hesitant moment we held our breath. Then I was up, the bow dropped back into its speed angle of tilt and Pix waved OK. We were off and heading past the harbour wall to the cheers of some passing tourists and our helpers. My Rolex said it was 11:05 hours.
The sea surface to start was what we call a short chop,.. short, shallow wavelets and with no actual flat patches. There was only a slight surface wind but it was in the south west which meant it was blowing almost straight up the channel and across our projected route. We were less than a mile or so on our way when the waves became something to be considered. We could manage about sixteen to eighteen knots which was enough for skiing,.. just. But it was a matter of reaching a crest then flopping down into the following trough before the next rise approached. It was not too difficult but it involved much more physical effort than just standing on the skis and being towed skimming across the surface. Pix too found that she had constantly to adjust throttle and rudder in much the same way as I was compensating. We pressed on.
In mid-channel conditions were rather better but then deteriorated again as we crossed the main southbound shipping channel. Twice we crossed the wake of large cargo boats. People on the bridge wing of one of them even waved,.. perhaps a farewell thinking that no-one might ever see us again.
The accuracy of my lash-up navigation system worked. As we negotiated the three miles or so near the French coast I could see from left to right as far as the eye could see the huge length of sandy French coastline. Approaching closer I could see people walking along the beach. It was obviously a suitable place to make landfall. I signalled Pix to do a circle so that at one point I was running parallel with the shoreline and as close as I dared for the twenty inches that the boat drew when at speed. Then, cutting to a sharp left angle I pulled away from the boat at maximum warp and let go as Pix turned away. At full speed – probably about forty knots - I let go of the towrope and sped across the last hundred yards and straight for the beach. Again our luck held. I lost speed and eventually stopped and sank. I was still standing on the skis and the water was all but up to my knees. I stepped out of the bindings, picked up the skis and walked the last twenty yards up onto the sand. My watch said 12:26 hours.
A chap and his lady companion were walking their dog. Several other people were quite close and stopped to watch.
‘Bonjour, M’sieu,’ said I. ‘Ou etes nous?’ [Where are we?]. Despite my limited French and appalling accent he understood.
‘Wissant,’ he said. ‘C’est le plage de Wissant.’ [This is Wissant Beach].
‘France?’ I asked,.. and he looked at me rather puzzled and nodded. ‘Oui, - d’accord.’ [Yes, of course].
I felt I owed him some sort of an explanation. I pointed to Pix and the boat idling just offshore. ‘Ma femme,’ said I. ‘Nous avons ski nautique,.. de Douvre,.. a ici.’ [We’ve water skied from Dover to here.]
He looked at me again. ‘Par ski-nautique?’ [On water-skis?]
‘Oui,’ said I.
‘De Douvre d’Angleterre?’
Without a smile or any other facial expression beyond bafflement he just slowly shook his head back and forth. Then he shrugged and shook his fingertips in that typically French gesture of disbelief.
‘Les Anglais! Je ne les comprendrerai jamais,.. jamais.’
I picked up the skis, carried them out to the boat and got in. Then, waving back to the French couple we headed back the way we had come.
Success. We’d done it,.. and we were the first.
On D-Day, 1944
The first time I visited the Normandy invasion beaches my main impressions were twofold. I looked at the three hundred yards of sand between the sea and the high dunes of ‘Omaha’ and I looked at the hillocks and dunes that marked its landward limit and I wondered how in the name of pity anyone could have survived that attack on June 6th, 1944. For the entire beach was thoroughly enfiladed. From dozens of batteries of well dug in machine-guns on the edges of the dunes came the rapid rattle and staccato chatter of guns that broke legs, lacerated flesh and pulped the chests and heads of thousands as they battled ashore and across that hundred miles of sand,.. for that’s how far it must have seemed.. Those guns could rake and rake the pinned down Allied troops who were totally without cover. The cold, wet, sick and scared soldiers were trying to cross a terrifying, open killing ground. For the Germans it must have been easier than shooting fish in a barrel. That was the first thought.
Second, after that horrifying appraisal of the first hours of the invasion I walked up to the American garden of remembrance. It is meticulously maintained. You walk up a slight incline and as you climb, suddenly, the graveyard itself appears over the crest of the rise. It is a shock, I can tell you. Lines of thousands of crosses stretch across the close-clipped greensward and run for hundreds of yards in every direction. I felt a dreadful heart-sink and a stone-like weight of sorrow and utter misery as the first tears oozed up out of my very soul, I swear. I had never experienced such an oppressive despondency. Here were buried many of the estimated ten thousand young lads who came to Europe to fight for freedom and came not home again. None of the words we hear can anywhere near equal the downright horror of such a sight.
Too easily we forget the way America stood by Europe and, having put an end to Nazism stemmed the threatened communist takeover of our continent for the next half century. By my word they did us a great and selfless good.
I re-visited the American, British and Canadian beaches several times in later years. In many ways it was similar to visiting the trenches and mined areas of the Western Front of the Great War. It is always a renewal of the nausea of that first horror when an old soldier feels the loss of so many of his kind and bows his head in shame for his part in the way the peace was lost after the war was won.
Then, many years later there came a chance to visit Normandy again for a very different reason. Two British artists had hit on the idea of organising a ‘happening’ to be called ‘The Fallen’ to commemorate World Peace Day in late September, 2013. And where better to commemorate peace than on one of those now quiet holiday beaches? I think about fifty people originally went there for the event. I was not one of them. By coincidence though, for I had not heard about the event, I was on a sketching and writing holiday in Normandy and I heard about the whole thing by accident. I overheard things from a group of children over breakfast in my hotel. I gathered that they were heading off to a particular beach for a special reason. It was not to be at the Omaha Beach but at the site of a mainly British attack area some distance away. When I got to the beach, which was near Arromanches, it was to find some hundreds of other volunteers who, like myself, had just turned up and joined in. There were Brits, French, holiday-makers from various countries. There were kids from nearby schools. There were local residents and there were passers-by.
As the tide went out we collected cut-out, life-size stencils representing fallen soldiers. Placed flat on the sand the cut-out part could be raked by small tools or bare hands so that when the stencils were lifted the outlines of the men were left in the sand. By the time the tide had gone right out, and around and among the rusting remnants of the famous Mulberry Harbours, thousands of figures lay randomly and symbolically to mark a spot where a man had died.
In its way it was symbolic not just of the horrors of D-Day but of the enormous numbers of soldiers who, at some time or other in history, have fallen in battles the reasons for which have now ceased to be important if they are even remembered at all. I felt this and far more as we scratched those corpse-like replicas into the soft smooth sand.
The silhouettes lay there, drying in the sunshine throughout the long summer day. Many of us just sat there thinking and remembering,.. and in my case working on a poem of which I still feel a certain sense of horror-based awareness. Then, in the evening, the tide turned and once again the fallen figures were washed over by the salt water of the Channel. By about ten o’clock the last of the shapes were disappearing and, as darkness fell, it was as if they had never been. Much like, perhaps, the empty places each one had left in a home somewhere on that one dreadful morning.
Shockingly little was made of the event in the disgracefully reticent-to-the-point-of-cowardly British media though you can find pictures of the event on the internet. [Just type in ‘2013 AND Arromanches’].
So I would like to remind anyone who comes across and reads this never never to take their freedom for granted,.. for freedom is never free.
The Girl on the Train
It had been the holiday of a lifetime. No sooner had she received her degree notification, - a double first, than Jenny’s parents had given her a new credit card. When she saw how much credit was on it her eyes popped open. It was all hers to spend on the holiday she deserved, they told her, - come back when it’s all spent. She had a super job waiting for her at the end of the summer, so no worries there. She and Robert, her ‘item’ of the last six months had parted amicably at the end of term. So no worries there either. No problems. No commitments. No worries. Free as air for the whole of July and August,.. for the first time in years.
She’d done France, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. Now she was on her way home by train up through Italy. As she sat in the crowded compartment somewhere between Naples and Rome she went over her finances in her mind. She had certainly cut things pretty fine. Too fine really. She had her go-anywhere rail ticket right through to Dover and enough euros to buy two hefty sandwiches, - one each in about Rome and Milan, she reckoned. Home was only ten miles from the Channel and with luck she could just make it before serious avitaminosis and malnutrition set in. Not all that bad, she decided. She was broke as an old bicycle but only one day from her own soft, clean bed. She lolled in the heat of the crowded week-end train and half dozed as the dry Italian countryside rushed past.
‘Mi scusi, Signorina,’ she heard in the distance. ‘Signorina?’ She opened her eyes to see the short, fat conductor standing over her. She blinked, gathering her wits. ‘Biglietti, Signorina,’ he said again. Her ticket was in the front pocket of her bag, down beside her feet. She bent to get it. Not there. Damn, - where had she put it? She checked the back pocket and the two side pockets. Not there either. It had to be in the front pocket. The front pocket again. She must have missed it. Still not there. Highly embarrassed by now, she felt in both her shirt pockets, - the pockets of her jeans, - everywhere. No sign of the ticket.
Damn! Where could she have put it? Everyone was watching, not just the conductor. Perhaps they’d seen it all before. Cheapskate Brits trying to get away with it. In her dreadful Italian she tried to explain that she truly did have a ticket, - somewhere. The conductor’s English was better. Very easily he explained that she gave him no option but to charge her again and add an on-the-spot fine. Of course, he told her,.. if she preferred she could be escorted to the Carabinieri office on Rome’s Termini station and explain there. Jenny was on the verge of helpless tears.
It was at that moment that her Good Fairy intervened. The man sitting opposite came to her rescue. He was a tall slim man, - middle forties, she thought,.. almost her father’s age. He wore a smart grey suit and well polished shoes. His voice was soft but very firm when he spoke to the conductor. Jenny only got the gist of it but she realised he was talking the uniformed ticket collector out of his grumpy mood. Eventually the man rolled his eyes and, tossing his head with indignation, began to move up the rest of the train. Everyone returned to reading or chatting or looking out of the window. The excitement was over.
The man leaned forward and held out his hand. ‘Manolo,’ he said. ‘Manolo Possini, but my friends know me as Mano.’ His accented English was perfect. Jenny took his hand and introduced herself. Laughingly he told her he had persuaded the conductor that she was obviously genuine and obviously distressed. A real lady in distress, he assured her, was the way to any male Italian heart, - including his own. The conductor had agreed to do no more than insist she get off at the next station and buy a ticket.
They chatted for half an hour or so. Jenny learned that Mano was 42 years old. He ran a modest but successful office supplies business of his own. He lived in Naples but kept a small convenience apartment in Rome. He travelled a lot. He was well-educated and had a sharp sense of humour. In no time Jenny relaxed again in his company until they pulled into Rome station.
‘First,’ he said, ‘I shall help you with your bags. Then we shall have coffee. Then we shall see about your arrangements.’
Jenny rather enjoyed allowing herself to be swept along by his easy charm and his confident ways. He even took her arm and steered her through the crowds along the platform and the station concourse.
‘Let’s not go to the station buffet,’ he said. ’There’s a nice little café just across the square. He took her arm again. ‘Come along, - I’ll show you. You’ll like it, I promise.’
Jenny did like it. It was a tiny little family restaurant, - quiet and spotless despite the throngs outside. Mano was clearly known there. Time passed as they talked about Italy, about his work, about his travels to England and places he knew there. They talked too, about where she had been on her recent tour through Europe and North Africa. The evening came on and the shadows lengthened.
Suddenly the big lady who ran the restaurant was there speaking full speed to Mano. He smiled and translated. ‘I told Mamma here, what had happened to you. She says you look as if you could do with a good meal before you travel further. She has fresh home-made pasta and osso bucco to follow if you’d like that?’ He saw her look doubtful. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘My treat.’
Jenny realised she was starving. And anyway it would have seemed rude to decline. Mamma bustled off to the kitchen and a moment later her husband appeared at the table with a bottle of Chianti Ruffino. After a word of assent from Mano he poured and even joined them in a first glass, - a toast to ‘la bella signorina Inglese.’
The food was wonderful and the second bottle of wine helped it on its easy way. Mamma was back at the table with coffee and two large glasses of grappa. Mano translated again as she spoke. It was long since dark outside. ‘Mamma says you must be crazy to think about travelling tonight with all the doubtful characters on the night trains. She says I should offer to put you up for the night.’ He looked a little hesitant. ‘I should tell you,’ he said. ‘It’s very close and it’s very small, - but it’s also very nice. Of course you’d have your own little room, - but the bathroom we must share. You have my full Italian welcome,.. benvenuto.’
Jenny could think of no serious reason for a churlish denial. These people were obviously well known to each other, and they really had been overwhelmingly friendly and helpful. These were lovely people. They were so kind. She was well fed and rather woozy. And anyway, it made good sense to do as Mamma said.
They drank the coffee, - and the grappa, and in no time Mano picked up her bag and squired her through the traffic. His apartment was delightful, - very neat, very masculine, quiet and with a safe feel about it. Jenny was glad she was there. Over another large grappa each they sat on his sofa and talked some more.
She never quite remembered when, but some time in the next two hours Jenny realised that Mano was an experienced lover. As they undressed she saw, by the light of the electric fire, - and with a measure of dismay, that ‘down there’ he was quite a small man. More the prawn and two new potatoes than the customary Italian packed lunches,.. the salami and dumplings she’d heard about. Nowhere near as big as Robert had been. She had always found that a good big one was better than a good little one, - but with Mano that didn’t seem to matter. He was very skilled and very experienced. Jenny realised that she was putty in his hands, - and had been ever since they met. During the evening she peaked more times than she could ever remember doing before. Mano was clearly someone who could work wonders with even limited resources. This was a man to be cherished. As she drifted down into sleep she wondered if he and she might,.. just might,…
It was after ten o’clock the next morning when Jenny woke. The apartment was empty. Beside a bed was propped a note. ‘Mia Cara, I must go to a meeting. Back for lunch at noon. Please do not leave me, - Manolito.’
Jenny was torn. What to do? Whatever, she decided, she absolutely must call home and tell them of the delay. She wandered around the flat looking for a phone. She found it in the tiny office where Mano’s books and papers were strewn. And there, right on the corner of the desk next to it, lay his comb, his lighter, some loose change and,.. Jenny’s heart skipped a beat. There, a little crumpled but none the worse for wear, was her missing train ticket.
The bastard. The utter bastard! He’d tricked her and cheated her and now he was hoping to come back for some more of the same.
Some chance, she decided. She washed quickly, bundled her stuff into her bag and was out on the pavement in fifteen minutes. It was not far to the station. She just about remembered the way. And every inch of it she called him every foul word she could lay her tongue to. Mind you, she thought, it hadn’t been all bad. He’d given her grounds for thought, and a nightlong feast of wishful dreaming,.. as well as some wonderful sack time.
Almost an hour later, just as her train was pulling out, Mano couldn’t stand it any longer. He made his excuses and left his meeting early. He just couldn’t wait. He started hurrying back to the apartment. On the way he stopped to buy a huge bunch of flowers. His heart sang. His stomach was full of butterflies. All the way back he practiced what he would say and how to say it. Of course, he must first confess about the ticket. Something deep inside told him that this was it, - really it. That under no conditions must he let this lovely girl slip through his fingers. So warm. So generous. So intelligent. So beautiful. So,.. perfect. After a lifetime of bachelorhood he knew this was it at last. He’d tell her everything. He’d ask forgiveness. He’d beg her to let him travel to England with her. He’d woo her every moment and every mile of the way. And when they were there he would first speak to her father as was proper,.. and then, with everyone watching, he would go down on his knees and say it,.. ‘Jenny, mia Cara,.. before all these people and friends and your family, I, Manolo Possini beg you on my bended knees to be my bride and to let me love you for all time.’ So romantica. He would win her. He would. He just knew it. If only,.. if only,..
With his heart racing he slipped his latchkey into the door, opened it and called her name,.. ‘Jenny!,.. sono io. I ‘ave something to tell you.’
Millicent Friel was a handsome and shapely single lady in her late fifties who lived in the village. She had been a patient of my practice for years but I seldom saw her as she was a fit, healthy person with little need for medical advice. I was therefore somewhat surprised when she turned up for an evening appointment. Apart from urgent items I tried to keep evening consultation periods for those cases that needed more time for discussion and so on.
‘I hope I won’t keep you long, Doctor,.. I do so hate wasting your time.’
‘That’s OK,.. what can I do to help?’
‘Well I saw in the press that it is now permitted for doctors to prescribe condoms to patients free of charge. Is that really right?’
‘Yes it is,.. for appropriate cases anyway. Don’t tell me you are an appropriate case.’
‘Well, no,.. not really.’ She dithered a bit and hesitated.
‘Millie, - there’s obviously something bothering you. Now don’t be shy,.. just come on, out with it.’
‘Well,.. I really do need to get hold of some condoms.’
‘There’s more to it than just that isn’t there?’ I suggested. ‘Millie, I hate to say it but you are past the age when the use of a condom would be needed,.. for the usual purpose anyway. Why not go ahead with whatever it is without a condom?’
‘There’s more to it than that, Doctor. As I say I need some condoms but I don’t have the nerve to go in and buy them. I’d be far too shy,.. and far too worried about people getting to know. You know how it is in a small town.’
I understood. This was a place where if a girl lost her virginity in the afternoon someone would be sure to return to her mother by teatime.
‘I just thought,’ she went on. ‘I thought that if I had a prescription they’d think it was for some medical purpose. What do you think?’
‘Well now, Millie,.. that’s a hard one. I can’t see any medical reason to issue you with condoms. You put me in a difficult position. What do you need them for anyway?’
She coloured a little.
‘It’s not for what you might be thinking I can promise you that. You see I like to swim a lot. That’s how I keep so healthy. When the weather is good I have a really long swim a couple of times a week. I go from the top end of Sandwich Bay right across the bay to the quay of Ramsgate Harbour. That’s over two miles.’
‘And what are the condoms for? To keep you afloat?’
‘No,.. you see,.. I like to have rest when I get there to get ready for the return lap. I just love a cigarette while I’m, sitting there,.. but there’s no way I could carry any ciggies in my bathers. Unless, that is, I put one together with a couple of matches into a condom and tied a knot in it,.. you know like men do,.. or should, when they’ve used one.
‘Well, Millie,.. I don’t think I could give you a health service prescription just for you to smoke yourself half to death on the contents of a condom. Tell you what. I’ll get you some army issue ones. They’re much stronger,.. and for such a sensible purpose I think we could stretch a point. How does that sound?’
My idea worked well,.. and to the best of my knowledge Millie went on with her regular swims until a few years later when she met and married a retired army officer and they moved away from the area.
And no,.. I didn’t ask her.
Why men are so damn happy?
Male and female ways just don’t coincide. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion, after all this time, that men and women are different. [I tend to grasp things pretty quickly, you’ll have noticed]. Not just different biologically but different fundamentally. I’m not even sure they belong to the same species. This is underlined by the way women all have the same opinion of men. It doesn’t matter if she’s a high-end organically grown woman sashaying along with her backbits wobbling like a chipmunk chewing a hazelnut,.. or if she can suck an orange through a tennis racquet. It doesn’t matter if she’s overwhelming with a voice three sizes too big and an octave too high. No such trivia are relevant. At heart every woman holds the same opinion,.. namely, that a man should be a man,.. which is to say, strong and childish. None of this heartfelt disdain matters a tinker’s cuss to men. We’re eternally optimistic, satisfied and easy to please. We just drift through life like a slow blizzard,.. oblivious to worries and criticisms. And so we should. Just look how many things there are in everyday life to render us endlessly happy.
For example. We start off with a certain name. It doesn’t matter how many times we change partners or get married, that name stays the same. No problem. And we never have to make wedding plans. Sooner or later someone will decide to marry us and that’s that. The wedding plans will then all just automatically happen. No effort. And another thing about weddings. A fashionable wedding dress,.. a gown, is it called?,.. can cost around five grand. For us,.. hiring a tuxedo or morning suit comes in at a hundred or so. Mind you, there is buying a marriage licence to consider,.. and that’s said to be the most expensive known way of getting a woman for nothing.
Then there are matters of male Haute Cuisine the basic principle of which maintains that there is not much that can’t conveniently come out of a frying pan or fit between two thick slices of fresh bread, - or both. To real men the world’s finest health food is a slab of meat and a pile of potatoes.
Other male happiness sources? Well, to start with the garage is all yours. And motor mechanics tell you the more-or-less truth. You automatically know about tax discs, tyres, mileage and how to open and start a car that has its keys locked inside. You can open your own jars.
Men are blissfully blind to wrinkles in their clothing. Furthermore their underwear costs a fiver for a three pack in M & S. A man can wear shorts whatever kind of legs he’s got. He can ‘do’ his nails with his pocket-knife. The world is his urinal.
A man needs only three items on his bathroom shelf. He possesses one wallet and one pair of good shoes for all important occasions,.. three pairs of shoes equip him for the entirety of life. New shoes don’t cut or blister his feet.
Men only have to shave their chins and lips,.. and, unlike the female of the species, they have total freedom of choice as to whether or not to grow a moustache. The same hairstyle lasts for decades.
Phone conversations last thirty seconds unless about women or rugby. Men never have to stop and think which way to turn a nut on a bolt. They can play with toys all their lives. It’s well understood and accepted that from time to time men need to be compensated by several pints of alcoholic consolation. Likewise when they wake up in a strange bed that they should never really have gone to sleep in. Women who do that are called sluts,.. men are just said to be cock-happy.
Men can’t get pregnant.
Chocolate is just another snack, not a reason for middle-of-the-night remorse. A man can wear a white T-shirt to the water park,.. or even no shirt. He never has to drive to a different gas station because the loo at that one is just too yucky. Facial wrinkles add character. People don’t stare at his chest when talking to him. A week’s holiday needs one smallish suitcase. If someone forgets to invite him somewhere he can still be a friend. However late or stoned he comes home his dog is his understanding friend.
Men need only one mood for all the time. And, best of all, a man can buy all his Christmas presents for a family of twenty five in an hour on Christmas Eve. And he’ll never know if they’re unappreciated.
The list goes on and on.
I have an old friend, Nicos Protopapas who lives near me in Cyprus. He is a man of many parts. In the past he was a citrus grower who lost everything during the Turkish invasion of 1974. He was a teacher, a pharmacist and held numerous prestige jobs as representative of his people, their culture and their search for justice. When he retired he qualified as a welder,.. then as a plumber and then an electrician. At well over seventy he tragically lost his life-long wife and partner, Eleni. He thereupon set out to get familiar with a new ‘adopted girl-friend,’ a computer. He is now learning to play chess in the hope of eventually trouncing her.
In the interim, completely unsatisfied with the narrowing perimeters dictated by increasing years he next set out to write a book relating some of his collection of anecdotal stories. The book is called Nicos’ Whispers, and in it he distils his general advice on life. He wrote the book in English which was not one of his mother tongues. Quite an achievement in itself. But, somewhat revised for language by me, [and with his permission] the advice itself merits passing on.
A brain is like a field. To remain productive it must be continually cultivated and have nutrients added.
When there are pains in your body try to ignore them,.. after a while they will ignore you.
There are times in life when you are penniless. There are other times when you have more money than you need. In general it was better when I had more.
And, finally, one precious piece of advice for all men.
Faced with a small disagreement with Eleni over a certain item Nicos asked his father-in-law for advice. It would be a good thing for all married men to keep his reply in mind.
Nico,’ said his father-in-law. ‘I can’t really advise you on this particular issue but I can give you a valuable piece of general advice that applies in most circumstances. It is that if your wife ever tells you she wants you to jump down a well the best thing you can do is to get on your knees, hope and pray that the well will not be too deep and the water in it will be warm. For be sure that sooner or later you will jump down that well.’
Thank you, Nicos, for the words and the wisdom,.. and for the friendship.
And while on the subject of advice there are a few random fragments that I have collected on the way through and which just might be worth passing on.
First, when people ask you for advice they are really, more likely, asking your approval for what they have already more or less decided to do.
If at first you don’t succeed,.. maybe failure is your thing.
If at first you don’t succeed why not try doing it the way your mother told you in the first place?
A myth is a religion in which no-one any longer believes.
If you talk to God, that’s prayer. If God talks to you, that’s paranoia.
Some years ago two people whom I had known for ages decided to get married. Both had lost earlier much-loved partners and felt that this was a way to limit the loneliness that had hit them both. I am pleased to relate that their new marriage has proved very successful,.. and still goes on.
They decided that, after their wedding, there would be a big celebratory party at which a chosen few of their friends were asked to contribute something on a suggested theme.
I was very pleased to be asked to be a contributor. I was, however, not by any means as pleased when the subject on which I was to contribute was to be that of advice. I have never felt that was anything of a forte and it came as a surprise to learn that some others thought otherwise.
The following is a transcription of a recording made at the time.
I've been asked to speak at this party on the lessons life has taught me - and I promise that there will be no priestly platitudes or offensive chauvinism or bad language. My hostess has insisted on this restriction. So,.. there goes my usual repertoire,.. in shreds for a start. The trouble with this sort of thing is that it puts one in the position of a bald-headed man selling hair restorer - 'He's a fine one to talk', people will jeer. But that's only because they can't see the scars on my soul where I've paid the price for not following my own rules. So,.. what have I learned the hard way that I now feel I ought to pass on? In no particular order I'd like to recommend the following:
First, never start to believe your own publicity.
Never go back to places where you've been happy. They don't keep.
Don't waste time feeding hay to a dead horse. I've squandered much life substance in keeping up relationships that have become a burden way beyond proper obligation, going through the motions of observing codes or customs or rules I had no confidence in just because people said I ought to. And when someone says 'you ought to', be sure they mean something more fundamental like ‘You ought to be more like me.’
You've a right to change your mind. I also wasted years in tortuous explanations and elaborate self-justifications when three simple words would have sufficed, 'No, thank you', or, if it had to be put in writing, one sentence rather than pages of reasons that got more involved and less convincing as they went along. To change one's mind is not only a basic right; it's also a sufficient explanation. Remember though, that this phenomenon is not always what it seems. Frequently I find that I have not so much changed my mind as that my mind has changed me. There is a difference.
Many of my worst mistakes have occurred either because I didn't compromise enough – when pride prevented me from saying those liberating words, 'I'm sorry,.. I was wrong', or else because I compromised too much and discovered too late that the compromise itself was costing me more than the things I was compromising about. And without exception, whenever I've compromised myself, I've paid dearly for it.
It is comfortably tempting to live life at half-cock. If you really want something then, within the limits of morality, really go for it; or else decide it's not for you, and become comfortable about that. But it is utterly draining of emotional energy to live by half measures and be committed to doing something your heart isn't in or declaring yourself a non-runner and then fretting about it.
And now, to matters of age. Grasp the essential realisation that being old is not a disease. Neither is it something to be feared of itself. The unwelcome consequences that come with it are varied and progressive but the compensations, the features that develop, more than make up for the difficulties at least for a long time. This is a new period,.. a rare opportunity for many, a chance for reflection and self-discovery. Many of the pressures have eased. The testosterone poisoning abates. The essence of competition assumes a different proportion. Similarly, one’s life assumes different priorities. This can mean that we sometimes grow away from the people that frequented our past. It is not that we don’t like them any more. It is that we no longer have the same things in common that made us friends or acquaintances. This may seem a sad and depressing circumstance. But that is not what it is. It is simply part of life’s natural sequence of events and stages. Something to be welcomed rather than resisted.
Understandably,.. for that is what they have, young people tend to see old age through the lens of their own age and era. Old folk may well live alone but most of us are very far from lonely. A life well lived is brim full of memories and experiences. This is sustaining and comfortably supporting. There is time to read, and think and remember. Both to regret and to rejoice.
The fear of loneliness is a concept of the younger generation. By no means does it inevitably comprise an essential component of age.
Be positive about as many things as you can and for as long as you can. And when one of them,. Or someone is past, don’t cry because it’s over. Rather rejoice because it happened.
Finally, and above all, cultivate a proper self-esteem. That's not egotism, but recognition of personal dignity. Curiously, though it seems to reverse the order of priorities as they are so often taught, self-esteem is the essential. I've never known anyone who could base an adequate concept of life on the foundation of a diminished view of self. And as for loving our neighbour - any love you offer is a poor thing if it comes from a personality riddled with self-disparagement.
And that's it, my friends,.. my dear, dear friends,.. a lifetime of guidance in a single page.
Oh, and just one last thing,.. never buy hair restorer from a bald man.
Prisoners Rule,.. OK?
As an early example of so called Political Correctness the California Prison System was re-designated as The California Institute of Corrections. This was because some dreamer in the government had decided that places known as prisons had a lower chance of success in re-training and rehabilitating hardened criminals than a place that hinted that ‘correction’ was a possibility likely to be better achieved under the new official title.
Of course it didn’t work. But the lower security parts of the system did provide a superb training ground for future crooks, criminals and ne’er-do-wells than had ever been available before.
Mostly while I was writing film scripts for the movie industry and partly out of boredom from that kind of work I also tried to keep my hand in by doing some part-time work in the hospital in the Chino jail near San Bernadino on and off for almost two years during the late 1980s. This is the story of one series of events that happened there.
I reckon I must be coming up the back straight by now.
We hear lots of talk and promises about what happens next,.… at the finishing line, if you like. But boil it all right down to the bottom of the pot and there is no concrete evidence of anything afterwards. Every idea comes with a mixture of wishful thinking, unfounded beliefs and hearsay. Odds are then that it simply ends here, not with a bang but with a final, rather subdued ‘Phew.’
But how we played,.. and how we lived. And what a ride it all was.
Cheerio, and thanks to all who contributed. I’ve enormously enjoyed the ride.
Thorns in the Flesh
by Dick Richards
Several things have proved puzzling and even irritating this past few weeks. In no particular order they include the way the Brexit referendum majority decision to leave the EU has been opposed, attacked and very nearly thwarted by traitors to the very name of democracy,.. yet, in some curious way, they claim, that while doing it they are actually supporting democracy. Work that one out if you can.
Even for those lacking any strong feelings either way about Brexit there must surely be enormous doubts about anything or anyone who takes any action against the sanctity of the democratic decision of the British people. Worst of all was the new Jenny-come-lately Lib-dem leader’s declaration that even if there were another democratic vote and even if that once again returned a ‘leave’ decision then, willy nilly, she and her LibDems would still oppose it.
Second source of near disbelief was the way that the music of the Last Night of the Proms, 2019 was tainted by the erstwhile straight-and-honest BBC [RIP] deliberately issuing some thousands of blue, EU flags to be waved during the traditional closing scenes of this singularly British occasion. But then the Beeb has long deserved much scorn for its jettisoning of impartiality and its snuggling up to the gently left wing which most of the staff see as their spiritual home.
And that was not the only thing about the ending of the Proms season. My third source of irritation took place on the same occasion when a huge - even by the standards of sopranos – opera singer with a sugary grin and after an unspectacular rendering of that other essentially British tradition, Rule Britannia, chose to make a personal statement. This ‘singer with a nose ring‘ [her own words], was allowed to wave a rainbow flag in support of some gay pride promotion.
Leaving aside those with feelings so strong that the very idea was unwelcome, the organisers either overlooked or deliberately disregarded the fact that there are many,.. perhaps even a majority of ordinary British citizens, who were made uneasy by the brash display rather than enchanted by it.
But I think the greatest affront to my sense of indignation was the front-page picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury stretched out on some suitable spot, belly down and in hands-to-forehead pose while he personally apologized for the Amritsar massacre. Now that appalling event took place over thirty years before the fellow was born so one can only imagine the gasps of relief and appreciation ensuing from his audience. He was publicly doing the sackcloth-and-ashes bit over something he hadn’t done and to people not one of whom was involved either. So easy to say sorry for something you had no part in. The histrionics, publicity-seeking and utter failure of the display were quite pathetic.
Now I admit to having but slight regard for anyone’s imaginary friends and virtually none for this diminutive little fellow either in his purple robes or in that dreadful yellow mitre and fancy, jeweled and matching cloak get-up. [Thinks: One imagines his Master, in his kindness, must tolerantly smile at the effrontery of the effort while disdaining the motive]. His ceremonial fancy-dress garb, his skinny shoulders sloping under the weight of the costume jewelry, suggest that he might actually be enjoying the charade. Across the professional mind must flicker the thought that he gained some masochistic buzz from the voluntary abasement.
If so there are lots more opportunities. Why not visit Kenya and squirm for the MauMau victims of colonial oppression. Or to the Iberian Peninsula to apologise for the mayhem at the Lines of Torres Vedras. Then he might traipse off to Israel to wimper for the child-killing Scud missiles fired out of Gaza. Or to Scotland on behalf of the Locherbie dead. Or to Bekaa Valley to make amends for the intrusion of Geoffrey Waite. There’s a near endless list to keep his biochemistry running at full pelt.
Better still, as, before God found him, he was an employee of a French oil company busily polluting the planet’s remaining atmosphere, it might be time just to quit, go home and minister unto the shrinking echelons of old ladies [of both sexes] who still count as his flock.
And finally in this list of irritating woes was the ungentlemanly, to say nothing of non-traditional and possibly even traitorous way in which Cameron divulged matters emanating from his privileged meetings with Her Majesty. There is one huge consolation though, isn’t there? The creep has, one trusts, doomed forever his chances of an elevation of status.
Not that he would have deserved anything higher than an MBE anyway!