London: Hamming it up in…Ham

My ankle now healing I am now more mobile if not entirely comfortable, and more or less beyond the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate) period – at least the ICE bit, not that I could follow that neat little anagram on my travels in France; I’d have needed a lackey to fetch me cold packs or to carry me around in a sedan chair!

So it made me smile when I met up with my oldest and dearest friend Monica last week and saw she was also sporting a bandage around her ankle. She has a bit of a history with ankles – I once pushed her around the Royal Academy in a wheelchair – and this time she’s broken a bone and so her foot is (as one of my nieces would say) well puffy. Puts mine in the shade in fact. Suffice it to say, however, that we were as one moving at the same non-brisk pace, every now and then having a stork-like rest on one foot.

We started our day out at Petersham Nurseries near Richmond in London, an upmarket (shorthand for pricey), artsy, vintage-y nursery surrounded by grassy meadows along the Thames. We had lots to talk about over our artisan tea in the café, the walls framed by cascades of fuchsia-coloured bougainvillea in full bloom.

From there it was a short hop to Ham House, a Jacobean mansion gifted to courtier William Murray by Charles I. Educated with the King, Murray was a ‘whipping boy’ and took the lashings for any of the king’s behavioural transgressions – it was meant to serve by example. Talk about a scapegoat. The least the King could do, later in life, was to make Murray one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber and reward him with a sumptuous mansion!

Before visiting the house, we had lunch in the Orangery café situated in the walled kitchen garden, a riot of colour and lushness with purple lavender borders contrasting with the orange nasturtiums and yellow sunflowers. Ham House was considered one of the grandest in Stuart England, and is now hailed as ‘the most complete survival of 17th century fashion and power’. Not only that, it’s reputed to be one of the most haunted too. I was disappointed not to see an aristocratic spectre or even an ectoplasmic footman!

Ascending the intricately carved wooden staircase you come to a series of rooms including the Long Gallery lined with aristocratic portraits including one by Van Dyck of Charles I, a library with a screen made of a double-sided map dated 1743 in which Australia and New Zealand are drawn as one landmass, and my favourite, The Green Cabinet Room, with walls covered in green damask and hung with small paintings and miniatures, one of Elizabeth I dated 1590. Another portrait of note was of Erasmus (school of Holbein) with an intricate frame carved by Grinling Gibbons.

Monica and her husband Jonathan (we met at university) live nearby, and to my delight, Jonathan joined us unexpectedly. By 3.30 pm a volunteer guide started to close the blinds and to shut up the house to protect the paintings – interestingly, the Green Chamber was designed with a curtain rail and protective silk curtains, now restored by the National Trust. Like kids running away from the Bogey Man, we rushed to stay one step ahead.  That was all we needed to revert to our long-standing default of hamming it up – silly faces, voices and giggling – as we sped-read the information cards in each room, here a Japanese lacquer cabinet, there an exquisite monogrammed parquetry floor, here a leather stamped wall, there a bedchamber decorated in honour of Charles I’s wife, Catherine of Braganza. By the time we got below stairs to the servants’ quarters – complete with the Duchess’s bathing room with its round wooden bathtub – we were off the hook. Phew. That’s what I love about old friends; you simply pick up where you left off.

Our final stop was The Still, perfumed with dried lavender and other herbs, the shelves lined with ointments for gout containing pig fat and a bottle of dew harvested in spring this year. In bygone eras, May dew was considered a cure-all and beauty treatment for women, and for men, washing their hands in dew was said to strengthen their skills in knots, locks and net-mending.

I looked up the origin of the word hamming it up as I thought it might be Shakespearean but my research indicates that it means “overacting inferior performer,” dates from America, circa 1882,  and refers to ham fat used to remove stage make-up. Who knew!

But I did get a double Shakespeare fix, once in the British Library, repository of the Shakespeare’s First Folio dated 1623, and then at an open- air production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regents Park with my sister and brother-in-law. Booking an al fresco event in England is always a gamble but we hit the heatwave week, perfect for a sumptuous picnic accompanied by a fine English rosé wine, and then watching the play with the setting sun as a backdrop. What a treat to see mischievous Puck, Titania in her fairy bower and the elves on a stage fringed with reeds and surrounded by oak trees. And one of my favourite lines spoken by Helen to Demetrius (who scorns her): “And even for that do I love you the more. I am your spaniel.” Seems spaniels have a long history of being faithful and adoring!

Today my niece and I are off to see a wartime comedy by Terrence Rattigan at Richmond’s Orange Theatre, a theatre in the round. Heatwave permitting, we also plan to do a guided tour of Sandycombe Lodge, one of the houses designed and built by J. M.W. Turner in Twickenham, amid the Thames-side landscape that inspired him.  My long-cherished plan of making the most of my self-awarded time-out in the European summer is going to plan!

Adventures of a solo traveller: crossing Paris on one foot

I’m 50-something and have never been in ambulance – until last week that is.  And while I was no flashing light casualty – thank Goodness – it was a new adventure.  After five blissful days of reading, swimming and walking (oh yes, and eating very well) with my brother and his wife in Provence, I was on day two of a side trip to Avignon. And, for once, I hadn’t planned anything in advance but knew I wanted to make the most of the Festival.  The Avignon Festival is a huge two-week theatre festival originally founded in 1947. Running alongside the official ‘In’ Festival is the ‘Off’ Festival, offering hundreds of shows across theatre, dance, visual arts and music in multiple venues across the city.

Palais des Papes, Avignon

I was coming out of a performance of Molière’s L’Ecole des Femmes – in French no less – when I tripped on a step, caught my foot and wrenched my ankle back. Who knew it could be so excruciatingly painful, making me nauseous and dizzy? I tried not to f ‘n’ blind too loudly as I drew quite a crowd and the Red Cross volunteers came zipping over on their bikes.

Tearing those ligaments was more painful than breaking my wrist so I was very happy to discover that I hadn’t broken any bones when I was X-rayed in hospital. And on the plus side I’d basically got a free bone density test. Having spent all night in the Emergency Department of a French hospital with a family member last year, I knew what to expect: a long wait, some interesting characters – this time a woman delivering a three-hour monologue – and staff stretched to the limit. I felt hugely grateful to be otherwise well and able-bodied and not stuck in hospital in a war zone. And my sympathies were with the staff who were wearing T-shirts advertising they were on strike, no doubt for much-needed improved pay and conditions.

I was hungry when I got back in the taxi at 9.30 p.m. that night – lunch had been a bit of fruit and a biscuit on the run after doing a tour of the Palais des Papes.  One drawback to my Airbnb accommodation, just outside the city walls, was that it didn’t have a kitchen and was not well served by cafés and shops. I limped along until I found a shop with inviting pictures of avocados and tomatoes in the window, but when I got inside there were only dried goods, carbonated drinks, laundry powder, toiletries and ice creams. Channelling my inner Girl Scout, I bought a tin of tuna and four ice lollies in lieu of a bag of frozen peas to ice my ankle. It had to be that or the chicken nuggets. The only thing about ice lollies is that they melt quite quickly especially when stuck down one’s sock. Never mind, I put the remaining two in the mini bar fridge for the morning.

I lay awake with a throbbing foot that first night worrying how I would manage the train journey – in 31 hours’ time – from Avignon to Paris and Paris to London, what with my luggage, the long platforms and crossing Paris. I decided to start the day by icing my foot only to find the ice lollies had dissolved to a sticky orange puddle in the very un-cold fridge. Do minibar fridges ever work?!

Getting to the pharmacy was a bit laboured – while it seemed miles with a swollen and bruised foot, it wasn’t far enough to warrant a taxi or Uber. I stocked with an ankle support, arnica pills, painkillers and une canne anglaise (how interesting that crutches are called English canes!), the idea being that, when travelling, I could use one crutch to take the weight off my bad foot leaving one hand free to wheel my case. At least that’s what the travel insurance suggested when I had called at 3 a.m. to register my claim.

Then rather than sit in my room and fuss and fret, I asked my Airbnb host to give me a lift to the busy Place des Corps Saints as it would give me a choice of cafes and three theatres. And what a perfect place to hang out! Buzzing with life, people and performers plugging their shows either with flyers or bursts of song, trumpet notes, dances or outrageous costumes, it was one long spectacle. I treated myself to a hearty lunch (the highlight being the lavender-infused goats cheese panna cotta) in one café and then moved to a 1950s style bar for a cup of tea. That afternoon I went to see (foot conveniently propped up) an hour-long Offenbach ‘opera bouffe’– the Ile de Tulipan – a one-act comic operetta with some great duets that explores idea of gender, gender muddles and even the idea of same sex marriage. After a spell in another café, a pack of ice on my foot, I managed to get myself to one more show right around the corner from my accommodation. Il Nouvo Barbiere was full of farce, acrobatics and fun performed by some zany Italians – set, as the name suggests, in a barber shop. Perfect.

I didn’t manage to pre-book assisted travel for my return journey to London but, channelling my friend and erstwhile colleague Heather Ellis (see previous blog: https://wp.me/p3IScw-t0) who travelled solo by motorbike across Africa and the Silk Road, I decided to trust it would all work out, canne anglaise at the ready. And sure enough, the girl next to me on the platform in Avignon had only a small rucksack and offered to help with my case all the way through Paris and to Eurostar as she was also travelling through to the Gare du Nord.  What an angel. I was exhausted and sore on arrival in London but happy to have arrived back in one piece ready for a big family reunion weekend.  Avignon had worked out­ just a bit differently than envisaged: I’d seen some of the sites, had some interesting chats, seen five shows – each one un bon spectacle indeed – and had a free ride to hospital.

A room to call my own: Paris

The truth is, people, that staying with family and friends for weeks at a time – while full of blessings, love, connection, reminiscing, giggles and wonderfulness- ­­­­doesn’t afford the same restorative and mind-clearing opportunities that, say, a walking holiday in the Tuscan hills or a week by the beach might. And only ex-pats who trot back and forth to their country of origin get it; others think we are moaning Minnies! But visiting lots of people you don’t see on a regular basis involves a deep dive into lots of lives with all their ups, downs, highs, lows and challenges. Sometimes I find myself lying awake at night reflecting on all these various lives; it can be a bit enmeshing and involving and I sometimes find it hard to detach myself.

Enough of my preamble. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed having a base I could call my own for a few days in a tiny (and I mean tiny) one-room apartment in Vincennes in Paris, an eastern suburb just outside the Paris peripherique. From the outside it didn’t look that promising and my heart sank as I climbed the wooden staircase, plaster peeling off the walls, to the dark broom cupboard where I retrieved the key from the key safe. But, once inside, it was exactly as advertised; stylish, well equipped, comfortable and cosy with very clever use of the space and storage. The only thing it lacked was a fan, which given the intense heatwave, would have made sleep easier! On the upside, the severe canicule (heatwave) meant that the Forfait Anti-Pollution ticket on public transport made travel very cheap. And it was good to see a Government-backed scheme encouraging people to leave their cars at home.

Wandering out my first evening I took in my surroundings: a crêperie, a dressmaker’s/alteration place, a spirituality centre advertising a talk on life after death, a café, a plumber’s, a nail salon, a couple of independent grocer’s, some small dogs on leashes being dragged out for walks in the blistering heat, and even the railway sidings planted up with shrubs and flowers, the tall hollyhocks reminding me of an English border. What I love about Paris is that everywhere you look there’s something interesting; whether it’s a bright red geranium on a wrought-iron balcony, the ornate buildings – decorated with here a Roman head, there a lion or a swag of flowers, the characteristic round attic windows and the flatiron buildings.

The first night I enjoyed a delectable dinner in a local brasserie, the hot mousseline de poisson (fish terrine) something I have never eaten in England or Australia but, then again, I am not a frequenter of French restaurants.

Unable to eat all three courses, I chose fruit salad for pudding and took it back to my garret for breakfast. That morning I indulged in a bit of very gentle tourism, before meeting a friend for lunch,  and visited the Musée Nissim Camondo, a small but exquisite house museum overlooking the Parc Monceau. The house, modelled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, was built in 1911 by Count de Camondo, a member of a wealthy Jewish banking family, to house his collection of eighteenth-century art and furniture and objects from the reign of Louis X1V.

Some of my favourite pieces were the Gobelin and Aubusson carpets and tapestries, a marquetry desk made of over ten different woods, a roll-top desk inlaid with porcelain plaques (one of only ten in the world), the dining room laid up with a silver service presented by Catherine the Great to her lover, and the display of Sèvres porcelain, the Buffon collection, decorated with exotic birds dating from the late 1700s. The Camondo story, though, is a tragic one, the collection, which Moïse bequeathed as a museum on his death, is all that survives of the family. His son Nissim died in action in the first World War and his daughter Beatrice and her two children died in Auschwitz.

On Saturday night I headed to a birthday barbeque my niece, Georgie, and her husband, Manu,  were hosting in their garden in the green and leafy, once communist suburb, of Fontenay-sous-Bois. We oldies – my sister, her husband and I – enjoyed chatting to the youngsters but the pièce de resistance had to the the three-tiered cake – Victoria sandwich with fresh raspberries – that my sister had brought over from London on the Eurostar! The same beloved sister that met me for breakfast at Kings Cross Station at 7 a.m. the Sunday in May I flew in from Perth.  She’s a champ.On Sunday morning we headed off to the more ethnic 20th arrondissement to the Bellevilloise, an art nouveau cultural centre, once a cooperative – hence the warehouse-y feel – founded in 1877 also housing a café and restaurant. We were there for Georgie’s 30th birthday jazz brunch and we feasted like kings on the all-you-can-eat buffet. Even though weary from the night before and full of food, I insisted that we made a detour to the nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, resting place of so many notable people and surely a perfect place for the spiritualists’ talk on life after death?

I dragged the family around with me, determined to the last – I’m like that – it’s an annoying perfectionist streak – tofind the tomb of at least one famous person.

My sister and I in Pere Lachaise

We did eventually find Oscar Wilde’s, although it didn’t really live up to the hype!  And for some years it’s been enclosed behind protective glass to prevent Wilde fans defiling it with lipstick-mouthed kisses. Ah well, at least we ticked it off! The most fascinating thing about Père Lachaise is that when it was first built in 1804, it was considered too far from the city and not well used so the administrators decided to attract more custom by moving the remains of some famous names starting with Molière and La Fontaine. Clearly a successful marketing strategy!

Not Oscar’s but another tomb that caught my eye

As I write this I am on the train – the wonderful TGV – heading towards Provence (tall cypresses that remind me of Van Gogh landscape visible in the distance). Provence means it’s time to pause, time to hang up my tools and let my mind go fallow. No more blogs for a bit – maybe I’ll even do a digital detox!

Wandering down Memory Lane

It’s been a week of reminiscing – meeting up with two university friends after a gap of 32 years and visiting Oxford, my home from 1997 to 2002.  The amazing thing about meeting Victoria and Charlotte (la otra Carlotta – we all read modern languages at Bristol) was that we just picked up where we left off. And, yes, we’ve all aged but, conversely, we all looked exactly the same. What had changed was our choice of food and drink. Prosecco wasn’t the drink du jour back then, fancy grains like quinoa hadn’t come to the West and spiralized didn’t exist as a verb and certainly not when teamed with vegetables!

I received the warmest of welcomes from my friends Hilary and John in Oxford. Freshly picked roses and a selection of hand creams by my bed, a kettle and a supply of herb teas in my room along with a stack of interesting books including Rose Tremain’s memoir, Rosie. How I love my creature comforts! Drinks and nibbles in their stylish garden followed by a delightful dinner was the perfect prelude to a good sleep.  Breakfast the next morning was beautifully laid-up with gluten-free cereal and bread, sliced mango and pomegranate and a pot of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. Luxury.

On Saturday morning Central Oxford was heaving with shoppers, tourists, students, day-trippers, school kids, buskers and performers – you name it. I met Juliette – I worked with her husband Giles at the Wildlife Trust and she and I used to sing in the same choir – and we wandered, chatting ceaselessly, through Christchurch Meadows where traditional England was in full swing: green striped lawns; punts gliding by; students in full regalia hurling themselves into the Isis to celebrate the end of exams; a cricket match in progress and cows grazing. We crossed over Magdalen Bridge and walked up a good stretch of East Oxford’s Cowley Road, known for its more Boho and multi-ethnic scene, to a park where Giles was DJ-ing between bands. I wish I had had more time to hang out at the Florence Park Festival and tap into the earthy, folksy, eco-friendly, funky vibe. I caught a bit of music over some polenta chips before bussing back to Central Oxford to give myself a little break before the next chat fest.

Another delightful dinner with friends Tom and Annemarie that evening, this time in Kidlington. And in a belated celebration of the summer solstice we sat outside after dinner overlooking a scruffy field, a donkey sanctuary (I also spotted a fox slope by), warmed by a crackling fire with the occasional bat flying over.

On Sunday I caught up with two girlfriends, Anne and Michele, and in the afternoon we all went for a walk through the fields (one of the things I miss most about living in Australia) starting in the village of Stonesfield and ending in Coombe. The walk so carefully planned by Anne ticked every box and more: green fields with red kites wheeling overhead; hedgerows dotted with fragrant elderflower and dog rose; a gently flowing river; country cottages adorned with blowsy climbing roses (lots of these); AND the ruins a 4th Century AD Roman villa in North Leigh, once one of the largest in Britain.

And the highlight: a section of a surviving Mosaic floor complete with patterns of leaves, knots, stylised pots and a swastika or ‘Greek Key’ pattern possibly serving as a maze to ward off evil spirits. The colours of the stone tesserae have faded, but it’s easy to imagine the original blues and reds and the wealthy Romans lounging around on couches, enjoying the underfloor heating.

I could have done with underfloor heating in my Oxford terrace, a rather hotchpotch house full of quirks and wonky angles, and not nearly as light and airy as my house in Australia. The energy always felt a bit stagnant – not helped by rivers of condensation that poured down the north-facing front window in winter. I recall an alternative health practitioner – Dr J – who I consulted in my digestive disaster days attributing my health imbalances to geopathic stress! Something to do with  underground nuclear testing since the Second World War causing splits in the earth’s crust. He said it was often present in people with syndromes and illnesses that failed to respond to other treatments, and who were living in damp or mouldy houses, plagued by wasps, bees or ants.  That was my house to a tee including invasions by wasps and bees nesting in the attic in summer.

Driven by an overwhelming urge to visit my old house – lifting the lid on the past is seductive and is maybe a subconscious desire to take stock of the present – I knocked on the door on Sunday afternoon. Sadly, I had just missed the current owner but I managed to peek through the window and saw that she’s put in a new kitchen and got rid of the cat-scratched carpets and replaced them with polished boards. I caught up with the neighbours on each side, both still living in Islip Rd, and found out my house has also had a loft conversion.  One can only hope that the makeover has driven out any geopathic radiation and ushered in feelgood vibes!

My house is/was the first on the left

Returning to my mother’s house talked out and ready for a rest – it gets very intense jumping into so many people’s different lives and absorbing and integrating information – I went to make a cup of tea after lunch only to find the kitchen windowsills teaming with ants. Geopathic Stress?! Probably not, I’d put it down to Climate Change and the strange weather and humidity. I am off to Paris this weekend where the temperatures are going to be in the late 30s, quite a change from today’s cloudy 19 degrees!

 

 

 

 

 

Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

Have you ever thought about the history of scarecrows? I hadn’t but the 12th annual Ranskill and Torworth Scarecrow Festival – a village fundraiser close to where my mother lives in Nottinghamshire – prompted me to do some research. The Egyptians were the first to make wooden scarecrows in the likeness of deities to deter the birds from eating grain. In medieval Britain children would walk through the fields throwing stones at birds raiding the crops but when the Black Plague decimated the population in 1348, there weren’t enough people to work in the fields so they made scarecrows out of straw with turnips or gourds for heads.

I always think of that song in Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (still one of my favourite musicals of all time) Stone the Crows, the one that comes after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream:

Well, stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said, they did

And who remembers Worzel Gummidge, the TV series from the 70s and 80s, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd with John Pertwee aka Dr Who as Worzel, the scarecrow? I’ve just read that the BBC is filming a new adaption to be screened later in the year. There’s something very lovable about a scarecrow who comes to life and befriends children, getting up to tricks and mischief.

I didn’t count the scarecrows lining the roads around the two villages but there must have been a good fifty or more covering topics ranging from humour to history, cartoon characters, fiction, fantasy and fairy tale. Mum and I hopped on Wilfreda Beehive, a 1965 London Routemaster Bus, to view the exhibits in style.

Some of my favourites included three Spitting Image-style politicians: Theresa May, Jean Claude Juncker and Jeremy Corbyn, a policeman holding a hairdryer as a speed detector and a robed figure sitting on a chair entitled Mindfulness. Positioned atop trees and hedges along the route were knights on horseback, astronauts and children’s favourites such as Peppa Pig. A lot of fun.

But there was more: amid the stalls selling hand-crafted bags and natural skincare products there was a dog show and competition with categories including Gundogs, Working Dogs and Hounds, Pedigree, Pastoral and Toy, Good Looking Boy/Girl and Most Appealing Eyes. Drawn to the spaniels, I met several Bertie lookalikes. They were, in fact, sprockers – a mix of cocker and spring spaniel. Bertie is the result (one of ten) of an accidental mating between a field spaniel and a cocker spaniel. What does make him? A focker, a flocker? The mind boggles. That same day I accompanied Mum to St Peter’s Church in nearby Clayworth, home to theTraquair Murals by renowned Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Anna Traquair (1852-1936). I reckon Mum goes more for the social connection than any deep-rooted faith. The somewhat happy clappy vicar – it was Pentecost Sunday (reminding me of our/Australia’s Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison) – challenged us to reflect whether we were ready for God’s Kingdom on earth. The lady in the front pew assented with a vigorous YES and clapped her hands in the penultimate hymn. Mum, meanwhile, whispered all too loudly, that the service was going on way too long and she hoped there wouldn’t be yet another hymn. There was. I enjoyed a bit of time out to reflect, count my blessings (excuse the pun) and admire the fabulous murals.

Not to be defeated by the rain, we also visited Retford’s local museum housed in a handsome Georgian mansion. A mix of various private collections – china, glass etc – and displays of bygone eras, I enjoyed the Second World War Kitchen, the cabinet full of lotions, potions and medicines such as Dr MacLean’s Stomach Powder and the Victorian schoolroom. Although once a thriving market town (granted its first charter by Henry III in 1246) and then a coal-producing centre connected by a network of canals, it’s gone rather downhill and is now full of shops such as Primark and Poundstretcher.

There’ve been some afternoon naps – I’ve bagged what was Dad’s reclining chair and plugged in a little hot pad in an attempt to create a sun lounger experience. I’ve done lots of cooking and, to Mum’s delight, tried recipes that I have collected over the years with only one culinary flop so far. And all this against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit debacle: no deal, a revised deal, a postponed deadline, proroguing Parliament, a General Election, scrapping Brexit or remaining. It’s chaos. And the way the Conservative party leader selection process is going, it looks like the UK and the US will each will be ruled by blond blusterers with bad haircuts. I met a lady on the train to London who was on the Conservative Executive Committee under Thatcher and was injured in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. She knows Boris and insists that the buffoonery is all an act and that he is a shrewd player. Let’s hope she’s right!

Trump, of course, basked in the attention, pomp and ceremony surrounding his State Visit to the UK (labelling anti-Trump protests as fake news) to mark the extraordinarily emotional 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Britain being Britain, he was highly criticised for his sartorial faux-pas with the vest of his white-tie outfit way too long under the jacket. Then there was the errant h in his spelling of the Prince of Whales and his vicious verbal attack on the Mayor of London. By contrast, the Queen so dignified and chipper and doing her bit for that so-called special relationship between the two countries.

 

From the Dreamliner to the Dales

I decided to change things a bit this year and booked Qantas Flight QF9, the Dreamliner, flying non-stop from Perth to London. I loved it and am a convert! The door to door journey from one continent to another shifted my perception of the distance, reducing it to more of a hop than a long haul. And what joy to avoid the hassle of a stopover and getting off the plane – often at an antisocial hour when sleep beckons most – and shuffling back through security, belt off, laptop out, liquids in plastic bags.

Boarding at 3.15 p.m. in Melbourne, I enjoyed a celebratory whisky and light lunch on the way to Perth and read the papers cover to cover.  Getting out at Perth airport is a breeze and there’s an open-air lounge where you can re-oxygenate and even hear birds flocking.

The next 17 hours flew by – literally. A couple of hours’ reading and then dinner before settling down for the night. I am always frazzled by the time I get on a long-haul flight, job or no job, which makes me nicely tired. I slept on and off – am I the only one to get a stiff neck?! – and didn’t check my watch until we were six hours away from London – nearly there then, I thought to myself. A bit more snoozing then I foot-tapped to a video of a Coldplay concert filmed in Sao Paolo before the plane landed in London.

Cut to a few days later when I got whacked with a bit of delayed jet lag and wanted to crawl back to bed as soon as I got up. Instead I spent nearly all day cancelling a long-planned trip to Wales with Mum (just too far, too complex and too exhausting at Mum’s stage of life and for me as the driver) and booking an alternative, more local, trip to the Yorkshire Dales. Endless conferring with my brother who lives in Yorkshire, viewing accommodation on Booking.com at crazily slow internet speeds, and phone calls to see if we could get rooms next door to each other etc. We decided on two locations: one night in the spa town of Harrogate and then three nights in a more rural location in Nidderdale.

We went through more chopping and changing, booking and cancelling – but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that we booked into a Premier Inn in Harrogate, one of those impersonal, functional places that lacks soul. Dinner – charred to a cinder chicken and chorizo skewers and gloopy, rubber cheese lasagne for Mum – was inedible. Perhaps as subconscious karmic revenge, I managed to set the toaster on fire the next morning with my gluten-free bread! Thankfully, we had been to Harrogate institution Betty’s Tearoom for lunch and enjoyed a succulent and tasty kedgeree. And somehow – without a Sat Nav or detailed map, I had managed (with a few wrong turns) to negotiate the one-way system and found my way to a dress shop I had read about that specialises in 1950s dresses. Purchasing the dress of my dreams – a full swing dress complete with net petticoat and turquoise silk jacket to match was one the trip highlights! And we managed to get Mum to Marks & Spencer, hard-to-find parking meter, slippery wet pavements, brollies and shopping bags notwithstanding.

Mum at Betty’s

There were a few lowlights too. Arriving at our second destination, a country pub in the small village of Wath – accessed by a tiny humpback bridge reminding me of the Three Billy Goats Gruff song – we both sensed the place had a strange vibe. There was no reception but we located someone in the kitchens and she led us through a labyrinth of ramps, steps, swing doors and passages to our rooms. Red Flag number one: this place was not Mum friendly! While our rooms looked comfortable with their four-poster beds and chest-of-drawers, the old-style bathrooms only had showers over the bath. I had requested and been re-assured there was a walk-in shower for Mum. They apologised for stuffing up the booking and we agreed to move on.

We made a few calls to other places only to get a ‘no room at the inn’ response. Rather than panic, I resolved to trust that we would find somewhere and we drove over the moors to the popular village of Grassington, where we secured two rooms at a nice country hotel overlooking the square. Mum’s room was small and full of hard edges – tea tray, wooden bedposts – and an unpredictable shower that propelled me into overprotective mode. We drove each other mad at times! However, by 5 p.m. we had made a pot of Earl Grey in our room and enjoyed an energy-boosting complementary mini chocolate brownie. Dinner – wild halibut – was excellent too even if Mum’s hearing aids magnified the other diners’ voices and the clatter of crockery…

Rested and refreshed by the next morning, we woke up to sunshine – at last – and had a memorable day. We drove through narrow, twisty lanes bordered by green, green fields, ancient churches and moss-clad stone walls to Parcevall Hall.

The oldest part of the hall dates back to 1600 but the garden was created by Sir William Milner, a refined gentleman of Arts and Crafts sensibility and strong religious faith, in 1927. A series of stone terraces, beds brimming with summer pinks and purples bordered by immaculately cut yew hedges looked over out the vast expanse of Wharfedale and beyond. We sat in the Chapel Garden and listened to the soundtrack of birdsong and bleating lambs. Glorious.

Lunch afterwards in Appletreewick’s historic Craven Arms pub, full of fascinating memorabilia and collectibles – from old miners’ lamps to postcards of the Queen and a sample 1910 menu – rounded off a wonderful morning.

Our last day was a bit of a wash-out as the rain came down inducing a feeling of Cabin Fever. We got accommodation in Skipton at one of the only places with vacancies on a Friday night, a canal-side 1980s hotel with lots of exposed brick and endless fire doors. Dinner in the conservatory overlooking the canal gave rise to a few giggles: the wine waiter confessed to not knowing about, or even liking, wine, and the waitress described the salmon as coming with avioli – I think she meant aioli – and ‘loadsa other stooof” in her thick Yorkshire accent. The food when it came wasn’t bad at all, and we loved watching the ducks, swans and occasional barge passing by.  Nevertheless, when we got home at lunchtime on Saturday, it was a case of home sweet home!

The Republic of Words 3 of 3: Writing, dogs and the meaning of life

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book about writing and the relationship between animals and humans, was another perfect fit for me. It’s a novel but I thought it was a true story as it reads like a memoir and is, I discovered, the most autobiographical of Nunez’s book to date. It is a simple story but one that is multi-layered and full of literary allusions with an animal as the central character. It’s about a woman in New York – the narrator – who reluctantly inherits a dog – a Great Dane – when its owner, her friend, a womanising professor who has been married three times, commits suicide. Nunez, like the female narrator, both teaches and writes.  She has no social media accounts and leads a quiet life: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.” She is an ‘old school’ writer who views the craft as a vocation and was surprised to find herself in the limelight as the winner of the 2018 National Book Award.

Nunez/the narrator has a dig at the proliferation of writers and quotes the deceased friend as agreeing with Garrison Keillor: “When everyone’s a writer, no one is,” a sentiment Nunez traces back to the pre-digital era: French critic Sainte-Beuve said in 1839: “To write and have something published is less and less special. Why not me too? everyone asks.” What would have Sainte-Beauve have made of self-publishing and blogging?

Anyone who has tried to write a book and bumped up against the self-doubt, angst and feeling of being a fraud will take comfort from learning that John Updike always felt he had got away with something when he saw his books in a store. For Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen the act of writing helped to ease pain and sorrow, whereas Philip Roth found writing frustrating and humiliating. And how surprising to learn that prolific writer Georges Simenon described writing as a vocation of unhappiness.  The most pertinent quote for me was from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you were forbidden to write, would you die?”

I certainly don’t feel compelled to use my time out from work to write a novel, memoir or best seller – not at the moment anyway. For now, I am content to blog for the love of writing and to maintain the practice of crafting words. Although I do rather love the image of tapping away at a  book n a house by the beach with my dog at my feet…

The friend in the story refers not only to the deceased professor but to the Great Dane Apollo.  This is no saccharine story of puppy love, however. At first an unwelcome burden, the dog is a wise old soul who gradually becomes central to the narrator’s life – she even reads to him (something a holistic vet suggested I do to calm my dog Bertie!) – and manages to persuade her landlord to let her keep him in her tiny New York apartment. Much of the book is about the relationship between humans and animals: “They may know us better than we know them.” I also loved this: “I like that Aborigines say dogs make people human.” The Friend also references famous people who have owned dogs such as J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) editor of BBC magazine The Listener. While he took a rather unhealthy interest in his dog’s heats and bodily functions (there’s a chapter in his book My Dog Tulip called Liquids and Solids), he spoke of his relationship with Tulip as a 15-year marriage, the happiest of his life. In similar vein the narrator in The Friend quotes a passer-by as saying: “Better a dog for a husband, than a husband who’s a dog.” Hear, hear, I say!

Although a fictionalised life lesson, I also enjoyed The Why Café by John Strelecky, partly because I read it in German – Das Café am Rande der Welt ­­– and tapped back into the language, and partly because it never harms to ponder the meaning of life! The narrative construct is that a stressed advertising executive runs out of petrol and finds himself in a café in the middle of nowhere. On the menu are three questions:

Why are you here?
Do you fear death?
Are you fulfilled?

Through conversations with the café owner, waitress and a patron, the book encourages readers to challenge their thinking. Are we being true to ourselves or doing what others wish us to do? Are we slogging away to earn money to amass belongings that we think will makes us feel happy? Are we keeping madly busy because we haven’t found our purpose or our calling? Are we waiting till retirement to do what we love? Do we swim with the tide or against it? What is our life purpose?

I sometimes wonder if writing is my calling or just something I love to do. Maybe dogs are my calling – or animals. Or maybe it’s writing funding applications to support animal welfare and conservation! I certainly find great solace in nature and love being away from screens and devices, chatter, noise and distraction. Walking out across the fields in Nottinghamshire yesterday, bright red poppies dotting the landscape and foamy cream hawthorn blooms bordering the path, I stood and ‘chatted’ with a cow, who stopped his meditational chewing and turned to look at me, its eyes full of knowingness. Mindful moments like those remind me how wondrous it is to be alive. And, for all the self-help and psychobabble, we don’t need to have all the answers. Another brilliant quote from The Friend by Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… live in the question.”

 

 

The Republic of Words 2 of 3: Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis

The second book in my Republic of Words series is Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis. If I were to sum up what this book is about in one word, it would be Trust. Capital intended. As a book about venturing into an unknown and uncertain future, I took great comfort from it. It strengthened my post-work resolve to let go of needing answers about what next and to simply wait and see.

You may be familiar with books that illustrate a spiritual path through story-telling. I remember reading The Celestine Prophecy back in the ’90s and I also read Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, but I have to admit I’m not really a fan of spiritual teachings delivered via fiction. And that’s what I loved about Timeliness on the Silk Road, it’s the author’s lived experience of a solo motorbike journey along the 4000-km Silk Route from Europe through Russia and Central Asia to South East Asia. Told with extraordinary courage and honesty – it’s visceral, raw and unashamed not to mention compelling.

But this is no ordinary traveller’s tale. Following a solo motorbike trip across Africa in 1993, Heather is diagnosed with HIV.  The book starts in 1994 when she is working as a motorcycle courier in London and receives the devastating news of her diagnosis. Overcoming periods of doubt and despair, she is determined to embark on this her last journey – she is given five years to live – and to trust in the same universal energy that guided and protected her in Africa (I highly recommend her previous book, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa). She says: ” I felt all those chance encounters and coincidences that came my way, often to save me in the nick of time, were more than just good luck. Maybe, just maybe, I would be saved again.”

Setting off from London on a grey November day on her trusty steed, her TT600, Heather lets go of any need to control how her journey pans out. And I admire that greatly! Packing for my trip to the UK recently – admittedly a longish trip involving many different people and events, not to mention the vagaries of the British weather – I tackled it, as I always do, like a military campaign leaving nothing to chance and planning for all eventualities. My hand luggage alone is carefully considered – from the  compression socks, eye mask and neck pillow to a small vial of oregano oil to ward off germs, some peppermint oil to pep me up the other end, some de-clogging aspirin and a homeopathic jet lag remedy, organic (no less) mouthwash, snacks, reading material and other lotions and potions to make me more comfortable. Had I travelled in Edwardian times, I would have probably had a suite of trunks. Packing lightly is not my forte.

Pernickety packing

There’s little room for creature comforts when all your luggage has to fit on a motorbike but Heather does take a stock of medication to treat Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in the event she contracts the life-threatening lung infection. And she does have to use it quite early on in her trip. Small wonder that she has death musings in Delphi, Greece, or that a fellow worker in a café in Istanbul notes: “I feel you carry a big problem, and it weights heavy on you, but I know you are strong. Allah is with you.” Call it Allah or benevolent universal energy, Heather’s trust is challenged at times and her health starts to decline towards the end of the trip, but she never gives up. And the irony is that, away from the trappings of the modern world and living day to day, she doesn’t have access to the internet, where she’d have learnt about advances in HIV treatment.

Timeless on the Silk Road is a geographic and spiritual journey against a backdrop of majestic mountains, nomadic pastures and ancient cities. I was fascinated to learn more about the ‘Stans, countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: from the lost city of Merv in Turkmenistan, built on the site of a large oasis around 3000 BC but destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221; Baku in Azerbaijan, the Paris of the region built on oil money; to the Chuysky Trakt, one of the world’s ten most scenic roads in the vast Altai Mountains between Mongolia and Russia.

Heather is an extraordinarily resilient woman and gets into some narrow scrapes fending off testosterone- and vodka-fuelled men in Georgia, sleeping (unknowingly) atop deadly spiders in Turkmenistan, coming close to being shot by a Tajik border guard, almost running out of food in Kazakhstan and playing cat and mouse with Chinese Government officials. And yet, miraculously, something always turns up – whether it’s the Turkish sheepdogs protecting her tent, the warm and generous hospitality of nomadic people’s in Krygyzstan and Siberia, meeting a kindly long-distance truck driver from Wales or three Russian horsemen in the Altai. At times, it reads like a modern-day fable tale punctuated by moments when time seems suspended – hence the title – such as when she witnesses a mesmerising sunset over the Caspian Sea from the bows of a rusted ferry. Inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a book that will prompt you to question your own journey through life. You can purchase this and Heather’s previous book Ubuntu via Amazon or in Australia from Readings bookshops. For author-signed copies (including postage) please go to Heather’s website at: https://www.heather-ellis.com/.

The Republic of Words 1 of 3: Pie and Mash down the Roman Road

“How’s retirement?” “How’s the lady of leisure?” friends asked when I left a busy job at the end of March to take time-out to pause, refresh and reflect. Not surprisingly, it took a while to come off the million-miles-an-hour adrenal whirl, and I struggled to carve out leisure time amid catching up on everything I had neglected in favour of work. Every time I tried to create some lazy space something or somebody would butt in.  Relaxing and letting go takes practice!

Swimming against the tide – jumping out of work at my stage of life  – has its challenges. But whenever, I fidget and fret, wondering how, why, what, what if and what next, I’ve been experimenting with embracing whatever emerges. Instead of being goal-driven and pushing ahead with an agenda, I am seeing what happens if I open up to receiving life, wisdom and guidance in whatever forms it takes. My biggest treat when I let go of the to-do list is sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and reading with Bertie nestled beside me. T

In a recent radio interview journalist Louis Theroux  described he environment he grew up in as a  Republic of Words. I’ve decided to borrow that – books are my current credo, my anchor, my therapy, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. And each book I have read so far has resonated or contained some kind of message.

The first book, Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 Years of life in one East End Market, tapped into my English heritage – in much the same way as an exhibition entitled: Royal Portraits: from the Tudors to the Windsors –  and my fascination with history and the cultural, social and political movements that have shaped my country of origin and who I am.

The Roman Road is the oldest trading route in Britain and, around 1900, stalls extended for a mile. The  book follows the lives of key families who lived, ate, worked, married and had kids in East End. The pie makers, tram drivers, eel dealers, printers, barrow-makers, Billingsgate porters, dockers, costermongers, the lady who looked after the public toilets, Sylvia Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter,  leader of the Suffragette movement) and the notorious Kray Twins.

by Melanie McGrath

G.Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Rd in Bow is another fixture  – the business has been in the same family for nearly 100 years.  I lived in London for nine years in the late ’80s and early ’90s but have to confess I’ve never eaten pie (minced beef), mash and liquor (which is a mix of flour, water and parsley). The Romans first introduced meat in a pastry envelope to Britain and they got it from the Greeks who probably got it from the Egyptians! That same global thread is mirrored in the waves of migrants who have populated the East End. And what a rich mix from Protestant Huguenot weavers in the 17th Century to the migrants from Ireland, Italy and Portugal, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and then in the late 19th Century Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms. By the 1950s the Jamaicans were coming in, and in the 70s it was the turn of the Bangladeshis. Research suggests that sub-Saharan Africans, who were sold as slaves to planters and colonial officials in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been living in London from the 12th Century.

The other migrants are the eels of stewed and jellied fame, whose complex lifestyle sees them travel across the Atlantic Ocean before they reach the coasts of Europe as young eels, from where they head up rivers and streams and, as mature eels, migrate over 3000-miles back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The author Melanie McGrath has done extensive research both of people and place, and I learnt that eels have been eaten since Anglo Saxon times. As well as being the food of the poor, they have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. One Aldgate eel dealer used to cry out: “Everyone’s a baby.”

Talking of babies, there’s mention of Nonnatus House, which, of course, features in Call the Midwife, a TV series based on the memoirs of a lay midwife who lived and worked with the nuns in Poplar, more than 60 years ago.

This book paints a picture of a strong community, based in hard work and resilience.  The East End was very badly hit in the Second World War – most of the 1.2 million homes lost in the Blitz of 1941 were here. The author describes the area around Kelly’s pie shop in 1945 as resembling “a bad set of dentures; discoloured, smelly and uneven, full of gaping holes.”. As the rubble and slums were cleared, however, and new high-rise developments came in, the easy access to the market, the dance halls, social clubs, dog tracks, pubs and lidos disappeared.

For all the mod cons including indoor bathrooms, the new tower blocks lack the community spirit of the streets where grandmothers sat out on their stoops, peeling vegetables and chatting, and children played hopscotch. And the high rises are no good when the electrics fail. When Rita Willets goes into labour in 1964, she’s living on the 14th floor, the lift doesn’t work and her husband can’t reach the runs at Nonnatus house by phone. In the olden days, the street grapevine would have summoned someone to help. Someone like Marian Old, who worked at the Bryant & May match factory and, although too young to take part, recalled the first all-female strike of 1888 when women campaigned for better pay and conditions. Before conditions improved, women fell victim to ‘phossy jaw’, phosphorus poisoning that resulted in fluorescent vomit and jawbones disintegrating. Men and women alike did it hard in those days; Martha supplemented her wages with egg box-making, midwifery and pickling onions.

Another of my favourite characters is Ron Moss who grew up on Fish Island, now redeveloped as part of the Olympic Park, then a river backwater. Known as the Artful Dodger, he came from a poor family and lived by his wits quickly learning to leaf (Cockney rhyming slang for thief: tea leaf = thief). He forages for food, snares rabbits, steals swans’ eggs and fish from the river and on market days along the Roman he pinches sausages and other food, which he hides in his long-pocketed coat.

Then there’s Marian Old who cleans the toilets and loves her work. She is her own boss and sings while she mops and cleans. She has cups of teas with her regulars and keeps up with all the gossip, even giving sartorial advice as women and girls try on garments they have bought in the market. “She’s grown accustomed to handing out everything from fashion to family to romance advice with the sheets of crispy, disinfectant-smelling Izal paper.” The East End is well known as the home of London’s Rag Trade. Interestingly, the children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel references the manufacture of clothing: Pop is a cockney term for pawn, a weasel both slang for the yarn-winding machine and part of ‘weasel and stoat’, cockney rhyming slang for coat. Incidentally, my father referred to champagne as weasel – as in popping corks!

Redevelopment since the Second World War has changed the social fabric of the East End considerably – Bryant & May’s was converted into one of London’s first gated communities of apartments in the ’80s, and, more recently, areas such as Docklands and the Isle of Dogs have become home to glittering tower blocks, with some areas yuppified and others hippified (think smashed avo and artisan coffee instead of pie and mash). And, yet, the old East End survives in patches; Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Road is still going strong albeit catering to contemporary palettes (chicken and leek pie and vegetarian options) and under renovation.

The author explains the pull of pie and place for customers all over the world searching “for a taste of the past that still lives vividly inside them, or that they may hardly recall or only know from older relatives but to which they nevertheless feel viscerally connected.” That neatly describes how I feel about England – which is why I so loved this book.  Much as I love my life in Australia, you can’t take the Brit out the girl – there’s an essence of Englishness that sits in my DNA. I am heading back to Britain soon and a trip to the East End is definitely on my list.

Lest we forget and the legacy of a black cello

Sitting at a favourite beachside café recently, I spotted among the display of black and white photos one featuring a group of World War 1 soldiers on the beach.  According to the caption they were on leave or recovering from injury – there was a Rehabilitation Hospital in nearby Hampton. How they must have savoured escaping the squalor and carnage of the trenches.Although films and books such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong have informed my knowledge of the Great War – the war that was to put an end to all wars – I never studied it formally in school. Even if I had, the focus would have been on the battles, movements of troops around the various fronts, logistics and numbers rather than the human stories.

A friend of mine curated an an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum called Love and Sorrow, documenting the wartime experience of eight service personnel and their families. The exhibition was on for two years but, as it turned out, I got to see it the week before it closed – just before the Centenary of World War 1 in November last year.The exhibition started with the propaganda posters and parades extolling the virtues of courage, patriotism and duty. But following the trajectory of the eight characters and their families through photos, scrapbooks, letters, diaries and other personal effects, it soon became a story of separation, loss, trauma, mental and emotional disfigurement.

One mother, on hearing her son was missing in action, was catapulted into premature senility, another sent her husband their new baby’s booties only to have them sent back – redirected – in the same envelope. How chilling it must have been to read the words: Return to Sender.  One of the most confronting sections was ‘Men with Broken Faces’ – before the advent of sophisticated technology and plastic surgery, facial reconstruction methods were cumbersome and crude. One man who underwent surgery never went out in public without wearing a scarf over his mouth, his self-esteem and confidence as shattered as his jawbone.

One of the more positive stories concerned Lil Mackenzie, an enormously plucky nurse who cared for patients in France and Italy close to the front-lines. She was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for her outstanding public service. On returning to Australia, Lil and her sisters set up a care home in Boronia, Melbourne, and many of her patients were veterans. She lived to 90 but suffered bouts of depression after the war; no one came back from WW1 without some form of physical or mental scarring.

The statistics were sobering too: over 60,000 Australians died in the war and thousands more went on to die of war injuries out of a population of only five million people. The stories of the eight characters got under my skin, and their sacrifice and suffering lent context and poignancy to a Centenary of Armistice 2018 service that I attended at Green Point overlooking the Bay in Brighton. As the Last Post sounded before the one-minute silence, I thought of all those who had set out with ideas of glory and heroism and either lost their lives or returned broken, tearing families, friends and communities apart.Soon after, I spotted Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings) film They Shall Not Grow Old, which was on limited release in Australia.  This extraordinary film co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and The Imperial War Museum in London in association with the BBC used original footage from the trenches (stored in the Imperial War Museum’s archives) and used modern day technology to deliver it to us in colour.  Using oral histories from surviving British veterans as the soundtrack and actors voicing beyond-the-grave dialogue based on forensic lip-reading of the silent footage, this film is a tour de force and offers a visceral snapshot of life in the trenches and on the frontline. The oral histories were recorded by the Imperial War Museum in the 1960s around the 50th Anniversary of WW1, the first time the human element of the war was captured.

What struck me was the no-nonsense approach of the soldiers who approached the war as a job they had to get done whatever it took. Resilient, hard-working, committed and uncomplaining they got on with it. Watching footage of them enlisting (many lied about their age to qualify and none had an ounce of spare flesh– no fast food in those days), it was clear that they had to take whatever boots, shirts and uniforms they were given, irrespective of the fit. And they only had one change of shirt. Quite apart from the bombing, bloodshed and loss of life, life in the trenches was gruelling; from dysentery to rats, lice, the stench of rotting bodies, foot rot, frostbite, lack of sleep and the general filth and all-pervasive mud. And, yet, such camaraderie and mutual concern among the soldiers as well as an ability to make the most of any down time –playing cards, laughing, joking, telling stories and, of course, smoking. Lots of that back then.

My immersion in all things WW1 prompted me to ask an uncle about our own family’s involvement. My great-grandfather and two great uncles served in the war but, amazingly, they all survived; how I wish I had known enough to ask them questions while they were still alive.

However, my uncle did share a wonderful story of a musical legacy. In the 1890s a Belgian family came to live in England and in 1904 the father gave his musically-gifted son a black cello. So talented was the boy that he played for Queen Victoria. But in 1914 with the advent of the war, he packed the cello away and went to the front to fight for the British army. Senior officers heard that that the boy was a virtuoso player and gave him ten days leave to return to the UK to get his cello so that he could play for the troops. The cello got damaged along the way but was glued together and survived the war as did the man, who went on to teach cello at the famous independent school, Eton. Cut to 12 November 2018 and a contemporary pupil played part of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on the very same black cello as part of a Centenary Remembrance Service for the 1570 Old Etonians who were killed in World War. If that cello could talk, I wonder what stories it would have to tell.