Monday, June 29, 2015

CHALK AND CHEESE


A light sprinkle of snow was falling on a January afternoon when I entered the officers’ mess for the first time. Inside, a man in uniform sat alone, as close as he could get to the black iron stove. He was reading a newspaper, and there was a tumbler of Scotch on the table beside him.

 At first he didn’t see me in the doorway, but then he looked up, eased himself out of his armchair, and came toward me smiling, his arm outstretched.

“You’ll be one of our new boys. Good to see you. I’m Richard Lindsay.”

We shook hands, and I introduced myself. He was a tall, elegant man, with a bronzed, aristocratic face, and his voice was pure BBC. I’d done my homework, and had read about Lindsay who, a few years earlier, had single-handedly halted a column of German Tiger tanks on a street at Nijmegen. He’d run ahead of his men, dodging a barrage of automatic fire, and wedged a grenade in the tracks of the leading tank, blowing them apart. For this and other exploits at the battle of Arnhem, he’d been awarded the Military Cross. I noted the MC’s distinctive blue on white stripe among the medal ribbons on his tunic.

            “They’ve put you in my company, Delta. You’ve only got a one-man reception committee, young man, but don’t take it personally.” He smiled again.“The whole damn unit’s been on leave ever since we came home from Hong Kong last month, but they’ll all be back tonight.”        Lindsay was a major in his late thirties. I was a few months short of twenty-one, and a subaltern. After years of training I was a second lieutenant joining my first infantry regiment. Subalterns, newly commissioned career officers straight from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, were jokingly known as the lowest form of Army life. Eager and smooth-cheeked, not yet tanned by the sun that was already setting on the British Empire, with our new uniforms innocent of medals, we stood out as the virgin soldiers we were among the leathery faces of the regiment’s post-World War II battle-tried veterans.

            Lindsay offered me a chair by the stove, the top of which, behind a safety rail, glowed red-hot. He reached for a small brass bell on the table and rang it, and a white-jacketed steward appeared in the doorway.

            “Rogers,” Lindsay said to the mess barman, “This is Mr. Edwards, and he’s just joined us.” He turned to me. “What would you like to drink?”

            I wasn’t used to drinking in the afternoon, and I’d hardly ever tasted whiskeya. “A beer would be fine, sir.” I said.

            The barman returned with a tankard of bitter on a tray and, I noted, another whiskey for Lindsay, who raised his glass to me.

            “Welcome to the regiment, Edwards. It’s a pity you’re seeing us for the first time in this bloody awful place, but we’ll be in decent quarters in Northern Ireland in a few weeks. You’ll soon settle down there.”

            It was indeed an awful place. Fresh from several years in Hong Kong, the Regiment was temporarily based in this condemned Royal Navy air station on a flat, snow-swept plain near the Lancashire town of Ormskirk, a few miles from Liverpool. Our parade ground was the camp’s abandoned airstrip, and the buildings were rusting Quonset huts. Normally, an officers’ mess resembles a London gentleman’s club, decorated with oil portraits of long-dead generals, engravings of battle scenes, and priceless antique silver. But our mess in this temporary base had the air of a long-neglected airport lounge, with boxy chairs arranged round the stove.

            In the hour that followed I warmed quickly to my first company commander. He seemed shrewd, witty and warm-hearted. He spoke modestly of his war experience, talking more about his wife and children and his days at Oxford where, when the war broke out in 1939, he’d just graduated with a degree in PPE -- politics, philosophy and economics. He inquired with what seemed to be genuine interest about my family and home, my school days and years of army training. I couldn’t help noticing that, without being asked, the barman seemed to bring Lindsay a fresh drink as soon as his glass was empty. But he remained lucid, though maybe a little more voluble.

Back in the mess that evening, more officers, returning from leave, had drifted into the room. By then, Lindsay, like the others, was dressed in the off-duty rig of the day, a regimental blazer, Tattersall check shirt with the green-and red-striped regimental tie, fawn cavalry twill trousers, and suede desert boots. Among the new arrivals were five other subalterns who, like me, were still in uniform. Four were career soldiers from Sandhurst, and the fifth was a newly commissioned National Serviceman, drafted into the service for eighteen months like the rest of his generation at that time. We newcomers were introduced with playful banter to everyone who entered, and made welcome. Naturally enough, we gravitated to our own little group of newcomers for much of the evening. Chris Stapleton, who’d been a friend of mine at the academy, and who’d arrived a day or two earlier, spoke to me in a quiet aside.

            “See this chap Lindsay?”

            “Yes,” I said. “He’s my new company commander. I met him this afternoon. What about him?”

            “Everyone’s waiting to see how he gets on with Fred Creech, the new colonel. Seems Creech was in the ranks, a non-commissioned officer of some sort near the end of the War when Lindsay was a captain. Seems they just couldn’t get on for some reason. Hated each other’s guts. Creech had been commissioned in the field, and he’s been away in a staff job for the past few years. When they were both captains in Aden or somewhere they had some kind of brawl, and they haven’t spoken to each other since.”

            “How do you know this?” I asked.

            “A couple of platoon commanders from Delta Company took me out on a pub-crawl last night, and they told me. Apparently some of Creech’s former mates in the sergeants’ mess are laying bets on how long they’ll manage to serve together this time without some sort of dust-up.”

            “Why don’t they get on?” I asked.

            “Well, it’s probably a class thing. They say Creech is a good soldier, but a crude bugger. Rough as guts. Drinks a lot and uses dirty language. Gutsy as hell, of course, and got himself a Military Medal in Normandy.  Dick Lindsay comes from money. Big, county family, Eton, Oxford and all that. They’re as different as chalk is from cheese.”

            Just before dinner, Colonel Creech arrived in the mess, followed by his second-in-command and the adjutant, Mike Watson. Those who were seated stood up when he entered, and everyone turned toward the door. Creech filled the doorway, a burly man, tall, maybe forty, with a Rugby front row forward’s shoulders and a bent, boxer’s nose that, with his brush-cut red hair, made him look the fighter he was. Watson led him round the room introducing him. Only a few of the more senior men, including the rifle company commanders, majors, seemed to have met Creech. He paused with them first, and I couldn’t help noticing, as must everyone else, that while he chatted and joked with two of them, but said nothing at all to Lindsay.

            When he reached me, Creech shook my hand warmly. “Pleased to meet you, laddie. I knew your cousin, Dennis Edwards. Served with ‘im in Europe. Fuckin’ good officer. If you’re ‘alf as good as ‘im you’ll do all right.”  He gave me a playful poke in the ribs that made me step back a pace.    

            Dinner was informal on that Sunday night. Everyone sat where they chose except the new subalterns, who were allotted seats next to a veteran major.

             After the meal, Chris Stapleton came over to me. “We’re going to look around the town. Someone’s going to organize a car. Want to come?”

            Ormskirk seemed a depressing place. Its narrow streets were under an inch of gray snow, and every other building seemed to be a pub. Since officers were discouraged from frequenting bars used by the troops, we toured the marginally classier places that called themselves hotels, where a pint of bitter cost a few pennies more.  We talked with the affable locals and played a game of darts and, shortly before ten the barmaid called for last orders.  She pulled us a final pint for the road, and signaled the closure of the bar by throwing a wet cloth over the beer handles, and turning out some of the lights.

            We gathered in the street outside. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone said.

            “Tell you what, then,” Chris said. “The bar will still be open at the mess.  Let’s go home and have a beer and a game of snooker.”

            It was pleasantly warm back in the mess. When we trooped through the lounge to the billiards room, the colonel, Mike Watson, Dick Lindsay and two or three other senior officers were talking animatedly around the stove.       

             It was around eleven when I first heard a raised, angry voice through the open door. Creech’s voice. The four of us stopped playing and listened. Watson was saying to his superiors, “Enough of this. Now cut it out, both of you!”

            Stapleton and I stood in the doorway. The veterans around the stove were too engrossed to notice us there. Creech rose unsteadily to his feet, grasping the black iron rail around the stove, and with his back to us, leaned down and pressed his face close to Lindsay, shouting something unintelligible that sounded belligerent.

            But I did hear Lindsay’s reply. “Come outside and repeat that, you mean-minded oaf.”

            The two men lumbered out of the room, leaving the others silent in their chairs. One of the majors turned to Watson, “Mike, you’d better go out and keep an eye on those two.”

            Watson, a captain, followed them out into the dark. A minute or two later, dumfounded by how this day had turned out, we agreed this was the right moment to leave. We’d expected that joining our regiment would be a proud climax to the years of training. I happened to be the first to go through the door as we filed through it into the cold air outside.

As I led the way onto the icy steps outside the mess, I witnessed a violent sequence that has been etched into my memory for the past sixty-five years. Lindsay, crouched in a defensive stance in front of Creech, suddenly straightened up and, with a grunt like a tennis champion making a punishing serve, put all his weight behind a massive blow to the side of his commanding officer’s head.  Momentarily, Creech lost his balance, slipped, and fell heavily on the ice. No one moved for a few seconds. Creech made a vain attempt to scramble to his feet, and I remember this big, ungainly man, suddenly sober, saying in an unexpectedly pained, aggrieved voice “You’ve broken my leg!”

            Lindsay said nothing. He stood, swaying a little, his arms now at his sides, looking down at Creech while adjutant Mike Watson took charge. We should probably have left Creech where he was until an ambulance arrived but, eager to keep the incident out of sight, Watson recruited my help in hauling the colonel back into the mess, and called the battalion’s medical officer.

            A while later, when an ambulance had taken Creech to the local hospital, Watson, one of the majors who was Creech’s second-in-command and I met back in the mess alone. By then Lindsay was under escort in his quarters with the regulation two officers of equal rank, and had been charged with striking a superior officer.

            Watson turned to me. “You and I will have to give evidence, Edwards. We’re the only people who actually saw him do it.”

            “What’ll happen to Major Lindsay?” I asked.

            “He’ll be court-marshaled and cashiered,” Watson said. “It’ll be an open and shut case, no doubt about it.”

I had some sleepless nights after that evening. Under oath, I gave a truthful account of what I’d witnessed. Lindsay’s self-destructive act had taken only a few impetuous seconds, and it took me fewer than five minutes at the initial summary of evidence, and later at the court marshal in Liverpool, to tell the story that, together with Watson’s evidence, brought Lindsay’s distinguished career to an abrupt end.

Lindsay looked me in the eye as I stepped down from the witness stand, but there was no hint of malice or reproach.

* * *

           

Ten years later, bored with the emptiness of peacetime life in the Army, I’d left the service as a captain, and was moving up the ladder in the London office of an Australian public relations firm. I’d begun to realize that, while I was strong enough on leadership and administration, I needed to know more about managing money.  As a first step, I signed up for a course in economics.

            I was sitting a few rows from the front of the auditorium on the first night of the course when the lecturer entered, a professor from the University of London. He held up his hand to quieten his audience, and began by defining an economist as ‘someone who doesn’t have enough personality to become an accountant,’ which relaxed the audience and made them smile.

 “Let me introduce myself, he said. “My name’s Dick Lindsay.”   

The wit and warmth were still there, but he was much thinner; even gaunt, and looked more than a decade older. He took a few minutes to recognize me, and when he did he paused momentarily, smiled and raised his hand in recognition without losing the pace of his presentation.

But I found it hard to concentrate, wondering what we could possibly say to each other when we spoke later, as we inevitably would. It was a reasonable concern. I was, after all, an unwilling, unwitting catalyst in his dishonorable discharge.

I needn’t have been anxious. During a brief coffee break Lindsay came over and shook my hand warmly.

            “I’d heard you left the service,” he said. “How’s life treating you?”

            “Pretty good,” I said, “and you?”

            “It was hard at first.” Lindsay said, “But a lot tougher for Angela and the kids. Families get the sticky end of the spoon when something like that happens.”

            He put his hand on my shoulder. “You know, I always hoped we’d run into each other again. Where are you going when this is over?”

            I shrugged. “Nowhere special.”

            “Then let’s have a drink later. I know a place not far from here.”

            The rest of Lindsay’s lecture went well. He was entertaining and authoritative, and the class quickly warmed to him. This was clearly something at which he excelled, and which he enjoyed.

           

The wine bar, in the Strand just off Trafalgar Square, was almost deserted.

            “What can I get you?” I asked.

            “Just a dry ginger for me,” he said. “But you go ahead.”

            When I returned from the bar with our drinks there was an awkward pause.

“There’s . . . there’s something I want to say --” I said.

 But he stopped me. “I know what you’re going to say. Listen, you did what you had to do. You were under oath, and had no choice. I’d have done the same thing. Actually, I’ve got something to tell you. It’s I who want to thank you.”

“Thank me. Why?”

            “Don’t you see? You’re the person who changed my life. The truth is that, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was in a nose-dive. I’d had a good war – if there is such a thing. I’d been decorated. But after the war there was nothing left for me. I was drinking too much, and Angela hated being an army wife. In a year or two my girls would have been off to a boarding school while Angela and I trailed from one dreary overseas posting to the next. Long before now I’d have been divorced, and a lonely drunk. So, thank you.”

Was there any point in laboring this?

We clinked glasses.

 

            Dick Lindsay died a decade or two ago at his home in Staffordshire. He was 83.  A month or so later I received a parcel in the mail, with a hand-written note from his wife:

 

“Dear Nigel: Dick died on Thursday 27th August. He always told me he wanted you to have this. I know you’ll take good  care of it.

 With best wishes, Angela Lindsay.”

 

Inside was a small dark blue leather-bound book. At first I thought it was a bible, but it was a day-by-day guide published by Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled ‘One Day At A Time.’

 

         On the flysheet Lindsay had written a note:

           

             “To Nigel Edwards:

I want you to have this little book. It’s something to live by, and has helped me live the rest of my life. Read it. It will dissuade you from dwelling on past errors and regrets, and help you visualize the future as no more than a series of new days, each offering fresh opportunities for self-realization and growth.

 

Remember this. Today is just a small, manageable segment of time during which your difficulties don’t have to overwhelm you. Knowing this will lift the heavy weight of the past from your heart and mind, and show you how to face the uncertainties of the future.

 

Affectionately,

 

Richard Lindsay.”

 

                     End                                 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

ELITE ENCOUNTERS

I can’t claim to have spent a lifetime hobnobbing with the rich and famous, but I have run into a few celebrities along the way. The oddest thing about the first of these notables, the Nicholsons, was that though I spent some pleasant afternoons with them as a boy of ten, I never realized who and what they were. And, of course, I couldn’t possibly have known how public their lives would later become.

They lived in an elegant house called Sissinghurst Castle, which is now famous for having one of the most beautiful private gardens in the British Isles. I knew that, under the name of Vita Sackville-West, Mrs. Nicholson wrote the gardening column in the London Sunday Times, but had no idea what her husband did for a living. From their life-style it was certainly clear that, as their gardeners on the estate might have put it, they “weren’t wanting for a few quid.”

Mrs. Nicholson looked just what she was, a wealthy woman whose passion – well, it was the only one we knew of at the time – was evident in the flowers printed or embroidered on her expensive, voluminous dresses. Had we guessed, we might have supposed Mr. Nicholson to be an eminent surgeon, or maybe a judge.

The Nicholsons used to invite boys from our boarding school to join them and their house-guests for tea on Sunday afternoons. We thought these were sumptuous affairs. In the summer we’d gather on their flagstoned terrace, overhung with climbing roses and wisteria. In winter we’d sit in their cavernous drawing room behind drawn damask curtains, warmed by crackling apple and cherry wood logs in a baronial fireplace. Tea would begin with dainty anchovy paste or egg sandwiches, from which the crusts had been pared. Then there’d be tiered cake-stands loaded with rock buns and little sugared cakes in bright pastel colors, decorated on top with candied peel and angelica. Finally, while Mrs. Nicholson herself poured the tea from a big Chinese teapot, a maid in a lace cap and apron cut and served slices from cakes. There was seed cake, madeira cake, and fruit cake as heavy as lead with currants, sultanas and raisins. In a time of wartime shortages and strict rationing -- in 1941 -- this was a schoolboy’s dream.

It was some years afterward that Mr. Nicholson was dubbed Sir Harold Nicholson, for his services to literature, as an eminent biographer, and a member of the literary circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Decades later came the public revelation of the fact that Vita was the long-time lover of Virginia Woolf, and that it was she who inspired Woolf’s book Orlando. Virginia wrote of the affair in her letters and diaries published in the 70s and 80s. Was Virginia among the guests at those long ago tea parties? For it was some time in that year that, after finishing her book Between the Acts, she drowned herself in the river Ouse in Sussex, our neighboring county. I suppose I’ll never know.



And then there was ‘Tom.’ I was in my late-twenties and newly married when my in-laws took me and my wife to a cocktail party a few minutes’ walk from their own posh Kensington flat. The host was the Keeper of The Privy Purse, who can best be described as the man who doles out the Queen’s pocket money. His drawing room was abuzz with distinguished people. There were members of Parliament and the House of Lords, who’d made the fairly short taxi-ride from Westminster for a few pink gins before sneaking back to vote on the day’s motions. Their wives and other women guests, freshly coiffed and manicured, looked as though they lived permanently in glass cases. Even their immaculate, diffident children seemed already convinced that it was better to be seen than heard.

At one point during the party, Bess, my mother-in-law, took me by the elbow, and steered me through the noisy throng. “You really must meet Tom,” she said. “You’ll find him fascinating.” Tom turned out to be a tallish man with straight black hair parted in the middle. He had what I, who couldn’t at that point have pointed accurately to a single U.S. city on a map, thought was the accent of a well-bred American such as, let’s say, the late, loved Alistair Cooke, who sounded to us in his BBC broadcasts a little more American than British.

I didn’t find ‘Tom’ fascinating. He looked like a senior civil servant, and spoke precisely in a quiet voice, but everyone around him seemed to be riveted, and craned to hear him above the babble in the room. I don’t remember the topic of conversation, but it was probably something un-enthralling, such as Britain’s new M1 motorway, or the latest pictures from Luna 3, showing the dark side of the moon -- none of the things that absorbed me at the time, books, music and poetry. He seemed lackluster, even boring, whoever he was.

A minute or so later, Bess appeared beside me, and even she seemed in awe of this dreary man.

“Who is he?” I whispered.

“Oh,” she said, “didn’t I tell you? It’s T.S. Eliot.”



Somewhere between that brief encounter with Eliot and the much earlier meetings with the Nicholsons, I was freshly commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment in Northern Ireland when the colonel summoned me to his office.

“John,” he said, “I’ve got an interesting job for you. As you know, the Duke of Gloucester’s coming to present us with regimental colors (ceremonial flags) in a couple of weeks, and I want you to be his supernumerary ADC.”

I thanked my CO with a mix of awe and delight for what he clearly thought to be an honor. ADC’s are aides-de-camp who, for a year or two, act as secretary cum general factotum or gofer for a high-ranking royal or military figure. No special qualifications are necessary for this impressive-sounding job, which is most often to do with making sure that their man’s staff car arrives and departs at exactly the right time, or dashing out to a store because the field-marshal or general has forgotten to buy his wife a birthday present. Sometimes one of the duties might be looking after his dog, or horses, or both.

For me this was a short-term post while the Duke was visiting Belfast, which was just as well, because it turned out to be a dull, even stultifying assignment. His Royal Highness was a heavy, Teutonic man, as was most every monarch and prince in the House of Hanover back to King George I. He revealed little sense of humor, and rarely spoke to anybody, even to the Duchess, his charming, graceful wife.

For most of the time the Duke looked out the window, read newspapers and drank alarming amounts of single malt Scotch whiskey, and my most critical function was making sure there was always a bottle of Glenmorangie near at hand.

But the actual parade and ceremony were an experience of a lifetime for any young officer. The colors were two finely embroidered silken banners on gold staffs, one with the Union Jack, and the other with the names of battles and victories in which our regiment had fought. They replaced standards that have since hung for more than sixty years over the nave of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, beside their faded predecessors, which date back to 1760, when the regiment was founded.

One night, after dinner, one of the Duke’s entourage asked me to take a staff car to the railroad station in Belfast to meet the Countess of Antrim, who was coming by train to attend the ceremony. Standing on the platform that night I conjured up an image of the countess in my mind’s eye. Maybe she’d be like Marlene Dietrich, or even Ava Gardner, in an alluring costume, with a poodle on a long leash, smoking a cigarette in a long ivory holder. But the countess turned out to be more like my Auntie Kate. She was a little stout, and dressed in powder blue from her fussy hat to her flat sensible shoes that looked for all the world like bedroom slippers. And she was crying as she shuffled along the platform.

The old lady was inconsolable. It turned out that, while waiting at Antrim station for the train to Belfast, she’d been chatting with her chauffeur, and had boarded the train leaving ‘some very important things’ in a paper shopping bag under the bench on the platform. And she was desperate to get them back.

Nobody answered my hasty telephone call to the station in Antrim. The last train had left, and the stationmaster had gone home to bed. There was nothing for it but to drive there. We sat together in the back of the staff car and, as we careered through a moonlit landscape of peat bogs and stony villages, the countess, encouraged by the expectation of recovering her important things, became quite animated and cheerful. She told me that her castle was soon to have electricity installed, and that tomorrow, before the parade, she planned a shopping spree to buy lamps in a Belfast department store.

The station was, indeed, closed for the night, but I managed to scramble over the iron fence, and there, in the moonlight under a bench, was the paper shopping bag on which were printed the words ‘Finnnigan’s Fine Fish.’

Waiting in the car, the Countess of Antrim chuckled with pleasure as I passed the bag through the open car window. As we drove home she happily assembled the bag’s contents on her lap. In it were jewels such as I’ve never seen outside the Tower of London, including a sapphire and diamond tiara, a pearl necklace and the biggest brooch I ever saw, twinkling with gems. “You’re a dear boy,” she said, “A dear, dear boy.” And she gave my knee a motherly pat.

Until she died quite a few years later, wherever the regiment was in the world, she sent me a card at Christmas, care of my regimental depot.

I’ll bet Ava Gardner wouldn’t have done that.

ooOoo






Saturday, April 4, 2015

. . . NOT FOR SISSIES

     You may have read this piece before, but bear with me. I published it a few years ago but, I’m 84th this month, and somehow that makes it even more poignant.        

I’m an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. You wouldn’t look at me twice at me in the street, and if you needed to ask a passer-by for directions, you surely wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d pick someone who looked more approachable and genial, or more user-friendly, as they say these days.
     It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age – okay, let’s be honest, advanced age -- has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
     Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m kind to babies and small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
     They say that growing old’s not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
     Time happened, that’s what. Okay, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I (yes, there are still some) have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?
     My wonderful wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license.
     “Why didn’t you smile?” she says. “I was smiling,” I tell her.
     I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My late mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and inanimate things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value; instead, search for the beauty within.
     She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like façade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I  published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his hired car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
     King Duncan, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Go on, smile at him, it might be me.

oo0oo






Saturday, March 14, 2015

BANANA SPLIT

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.


But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.


The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.


What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.


Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.


Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.


One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.


What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.


While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.


It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.


When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.


Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.


Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.






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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

LAZY SAINT

Lazy Saint

1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story.  He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence, a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.  
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.

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