Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carnival in Kalothos

Every inch of Humphrey J. Somerville’s height and girth shouted Big Business as he stepped out of the taxi onto the hot, sunny sidewalk, immaculate in a white suit and broad-brimmed hat. Passers-by nudged each other, seeing him there, an unfamiliar sight with his sunglasses and two-tone shoes, a freshly lit cigar, and his pigskin brief case, die-stamped in gold with his initials, H.J.S.
            Mr. Somerville paid the driver with his customary twenty-five per cent tip, and strolled down Papastratis Street toward the harbor. The street was almost empty, but across the town wafted sounds of music and people singing, while above him rows of flags and streamers hung from the windows of the brightly painted houses and stores. It was Carnival Day in Kalothos.
            “Morning, mister!”
            A small boy, his head shorn like a brush, grinned toothily over a gaudily painted icebox on wheels.
            “Good morning, boy,” Mr. Somerville said.
            “You like nice boddle cola, mister?”
            Mr. Somerville looked at the boy, and the boy looked back at Mr. Somerville.
            “Not today, boy.”
            Boy grinned, even wider. “Okay, mister. Tomorrow maybe, eh?”
            Mr. Somerville passed on.
            The harbor was deserted. Blue red and yellow boats floated on the clear water, with colored bunting festooned from their masts. How pleasant it would be, he thought, to take a quick dip in the sea before resuming his travels. He peered over the seaward side of the rocky wall.
            He could undress there, and swim in his underwear. Not a soul would see him. He had no towel, but the hot sun would dry him and his boxer shorts in minutes. He smiled to himself. What a splendid idea! He undressed quickly behind the wall, peering over it cautiously to make sure he was unobserved, and folded each garment neatly on a clean rock.
            A few minutes later, a large white figure loomed on the rocks, a classic male Aphrodite, in striped underwear, gazing into the blue Mediterranean. First, Mr. Somerville put in his big toe and then the rest of himself gently into the water. He was no stylist, but his ample figure gave him the greater advantage of buoyancy, and he wallowed happily out into the harbor.
            He emerged, cheerful, but a little out of breath, and lay on a rock in the sun for a while. What was the time? He reached toward the pile of clothes for his solid gold watch.  But . . .  he sat up with a jerk, his eyes agog. There was no watch! Nor, which was worse in a sense, were there any clothes, and all his other belongings were miles away at the airport.
            Then, across the harbor came the sound of people enjoying themselves. They played instruments, sang, jigged and bobbed in a noisy, colorful procession down the steep stone steps from the town to the harbor square. Some were dressed in national costume, some as skirted Greek soldiers, others as cowboys and spacemen.
            For Mr. Somerville to miss the meeting in Dubai might strike a fatal blow for international trade. For a moment, considerations of pride fought a losing battle with finance. An astute business mind like his was used to making quick decisions, and it made one now. Mr. Somerville waded back into the sea, wrenching great armfuls of seaweed from the rocks.
            The procession circled the harbor twice, and then moved off up the steep, winding steps to the town. Among the soldiers and cowboys and astronauts a new figure had taken its place. A hideous, green sea monster jigged and bobbed with the best of them.
            Mr. Somerville peered frantically from under a heap of seaweed, searching for a taxi. Every so often he shouted, “Taxi!” at the top of his voice, and the crowd on the pavement cheered him on and waved flags in his face. It seemed he was the highlight of the parade.
            The procession stopped suddenly, and everyone bumped into each other. Mr. Somerville stared anxiously through his dripping green wig. They were in front of the post office. On the top step stood a group of notable citizens of Kalothos, and in the middle a large, jovial man with big whiskers held up his hand. Silence fell on the crowd. The man with whiskers spoke, wind-milling the air with his arms. It was all Greek to Mr. Somerville, as indeed it was to everyone else.
            Individuals from the crowd were being led to the front by laughing policemen, and Mr. Somerville was alarmed to discover that he was one of them. As they hustled him forward, the crowd cheered even louder, tossing their hats into the air.
            He stood in front with four or five others. To his left was a gypsy girl, to his right, a sailor. There was a hush. The group, a committee of some sort, was in a huddle, its members talking excitedly with their hands. Finally they all nodded, and the man with whiskers stood up, beaming from ear to ear. In his hand, as he came down the steps, he held a gold laurel wreath. Mr. Somerville trembled, but he had no need. The big man was presenting the wreath to somebody else. Now the judge was in front of him with another, silver wreath. The crowd went mad with joy as he placed it on Mr. Somerville’s green-bedecked head, and handed him a fist full of drachma.
            So he had won second prize, and doubtless the money for his taxi back to the airport, including his customary twenty-five per cent tip. Still buried under his disguise he stared round wildly for a space through which to dash for a cab. As though by a miracle, the surge suddenly parted and through it, down the narrow street, he saw the hood of a big yellow car with a taxi number plate and the driver in his shirtsleeves, asleep at the wheel.
            Mr. Somerville ran, an involuntary pied piper, pursued by a crowd of excited children blowing whistles and waving flags, and hurled himself into the back seat of the cab, croaking his destination to the astonished driver. As the taxi jerked forward and nosed back up the hill, he glanced at the post office clock. If there was not the least delay, he would still catch his plane with minutes to spare.
            And then it was that Mr. Somerville saw the winner of the first prize, who was grinning toothily under an overlarge white, broad-brimmed hat, round which lay a gold laurel wreath. He wore a white suit, which was hugely too big for him, and was pushing a gaudily painted ice box on wheels. On the ice box among the bottles, was a pigskin briefcase.
            Mr. Somerville looked from Boy to the post office clock, and back to Boy again.
            “Drive on!” He said.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Brits and Yanks

I met my first American when I was about ten years old, growing up in my native England. It was quite a few more years before another one passed my way, and I was in my twenties when I met more than a couple of them together. Now, of course, living in New York, I’m surrounded by them. In fact, I actually live with one.
It’s probably hard for an American to accept that, to the average stay-at-home Britisher, an American is just another brand of foreigner, little different from a Moroccan or a Madagascan. They look just as foreign, they speak a quite different language, and they have a very, very different culture. George Bernard Shaw  -- note how we say that, Bernurd (not Bernard) Shaw -- wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote of  “two nations divided by a common language.”
The British have a complicated view of Americans. On one hand, they have huge respect for their attitude to democracy and freedom; they’re grateful to “The Yanks” for saving their butts in two world wars; they have a healthy respect for their innovativeness and technological genius, and most of them appreciate the changes the Americans have wrought in almost every aspect of public entertainment  -- especially movies, TV and jazz. And of course there’s a healthy regard for their contribution to pretty much everything else in life that you can think of – space science, medicine, and the convenience (if not the delights) of fast food.
But it has to be said that, probably because they’re envious of Americans in so many ways, the British have one or two negative attitudes, too. Many of them look on Americans as over-indulged. They think they’re over-weight, over-paid, over-medicated, and over psycho-analyzed. I say envy is the cause of these views because the British are traditionally pitifully lower paid, and tend to live much more spartan lives.  They’ve always been jealous of what they see as the average American’s material standard of living, believing after watching countless sitcoms and movies, that all 300 million+ Americans live in spacious homes with walk-in closets and walk-in refrigerators, driving Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They also see America as over-opinionated and over-assertive on the world stage. Though they wouldn’t admit it, this, too, is almost certainly because they envy America’s replacement of the British and their empire as the leading world power.
This envy goes back a long way, but reached the British man-in-the-street in a real and understandable way during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of US sailors, soldiers and airman arrived in Britain at a time when the country was desperately short of almost all of life’s necessities.  The average GI earned several times more than his British counterpart, so he had much, much more to spend in the village pub and dance hall. His gabardine uniform was far smarter and form-flattering than the British Tommy’s baggy, ill-fitting serge ‘battle-dress.’ It’s not surprising that the GI’s, with their romantic, movie-star accents and boxes of nylon stockings under their arms, made wall-flowers of the local boys.  For much the same reasons British officers, too, found themselves playing second fiddle to their allied comrades.
The first American I ever met was a shy, self-effacing boy of my age called Lou Taylor at my posh boarding school in England in the 1940s. He was the son of a diplomat. Tall for his age, he had a slight stammer, and his hair fell over his eyes giving him the look of a myopic sheep dog. Lou, who suddenly arrived in the middle of a school semester, soon earned the nickname of ‘Long Island Lou.’ Lou was a likeable lad, but even he was a victim of envy. He had more toy soldiers, guns and tanks and other enviable ‘stuff,’ and more food in his tuck-box than any of us during stringent wartime rationing. It was Lou who gave us our first taste of bubble-gum, home-made brownies and Hershey bars. It was Lou whose parents came down from London to the school in the country most weekends in a chauffeur-driven car, while our parents’ cars were on wooden blocks in the garage at home because no gasoline was allowed for private use. We never saw our parents from one end of term to the other.  So for no fault of his, this quiet American in miniature was a victim of exactly the same envies as his uncles in uniform.
        But for all this talk of envy and resentment, it has to be said that both peoples tend to view the other with considerable affection. The Brits, stuffy and repressed, love the Yanks’ openness and lack of inhibition. Although they may not admit it, they’re moved by images of the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centre (er . . . Center). They get a buzz out of old John Wayne movies, and the wide open spaces of the West. They don’t know there are ugly strip malls in Phoenix and El Paso, and ghettos in Washington DC. They used to look on Alastair Cook with almost Old Testament reverence. And when their chill wet British winter sweeps in, it’s to Florida that they flock.
        As for the Americans, they’d be lost without Downton Abbey and almost every Masterpiece Theater presentation, with its plum-in-the-mouth lords and ladies, and tea parties with bone china and sterling silver teapots in the fussy drawing-rooms of ancestral mansions. They don’t know that an English muffin’s really a crumpet, or that you should let tea infuse for at least five minutes and always, always put the milk in the cup first. American tourists never see the dark, satanic mills and streets in London’s East End and the wind-blown, rain-drenched north. To them, every Londoner lives within earshot of Big Ben, and Sherlock Holmes still hunts down villains in an everlasting mist on the Yorkshire moors. And did the Americans weep any less than the Limeys when Diana died, or stand in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace and cheer when Kate married Prince William or when Prince Harry marries Megan Markle? 
         People on both sides of the Atlantic used to refer to the “special relationship” between America and Britain. They still do, but nowadays you’ll hear cynics decrying it. Things have changed, they say, and America’s future peers are emerging in Asia and South America, specifically China, India and, later, Brazil. But the special relationship has nothing to do with GDP, imports and exports or economics. It developed not only historically and emotionally, strengthened by that shared language, but also by victorious alliances in two world wars, and two centuries of mutually beneficial cultural exchange.
        Believe me, it’ll be a long, long time before Chinese and Indian movies are week-by-week fare at your local multiplex. I guarantee it.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Not For Sissies

I’ll be 87 this month, an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. But you wouldn’t look twice at me in the street, and if you needed to ask a passer-by for directions, you probably wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d choose 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 has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, to be honest, 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 nice to 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 is not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me look 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 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. Ok, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of my friends who are older than I still have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I? My dear 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 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 things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to plain-looking 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 self-published a novel about 20 years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. It won the Honorable Mention in a national contest published by Writer’s Digest magazine. In it, Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days) is a young ex-British Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the Malaysian jungle; racing up three hundred temple 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 rented car. The flesh may be a little weaker, and I’ll be 90 in three years’ time, 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.
Smile at him, because he may be me.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Lucy, Soapy, and Dogs

 It took many years for me to realize that the best teachers in my schooldays were the ones who taught from their hearts rather than their heads.
       I enjoyed languages, and Latin, French and German came fairly easily. I also felt comfortable enough with biology, chemistry, geography and history. The people who taught these were competent enough, but what I learned about art, music and literature has lived with me forever, simply because these were taught with a transparent passion for their subject matter.
        But math? Forget it. Mr. Griffin, the math master, taught only from his head. As a result I'm arithmetically challenged. I count on my fingers under restaurant tables to work out how much to tip. I can’t read a balance sheet to save my life, and making change is always a puzzle.
        At the time I thought I was a dunce at math because I was plain dumb, and later that it was to do with being a right-brain person. But now I’m convinced it was because Mr. Griffin, our fast-talking Welsh math master, was all brain and no heart. Gray-haired, short and irascible, he galloped through his lessons, scrawling illegible equations and proofs on the board, laboring under the wrong assumption that everyone in the class was keeping up with him. At almost every lesson he lost his temper, shouting and hurling sticks of blackboard chalk into his bewildered audience. It was only then that he displayed any passion or emotion. Griffin died halfway through my time at the school, and for me the only sad thing about his demise was that although his successor – Mr. Hawkins – was patient and paternal, it was too late to start again. By then the die was cast.
        World War II was raging for the first few years of my days at Cranbrook, a boarding school in South East England. Most of the masters were either too old to be in the armed services, or had some physical or other reason not to be in uniform. Oddly, there was not a single woman on the teaching staff. It seems it occurred to no one then that a woman might be capable of explaining the difference between an equilateral and an isosceles triangle to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds.
        Mr. Lockett was one of the masters whose love of his subjects – art, fine arts and workshop – endeared him to his students. He was a gangling, bony man with hugely thick horn-rimmed glasses who we nicknamed ‘Lucy’, after the character Lucy Lockett in a nursery rhyme. He was a Communist and also a conscientious objector, but never preached about his politics or pacifism. He was impassioned about art in all its forms. In his painting and drawing classes we inherited his love of the Post-Impressionists and Surrealists. It’s no wonder that visitors touring the art room on the annual Parents’ Day were puzzled to find the pervasive influences of Cezanne, Matisse and Dali in our own efforts displayed on the art room walls.
        But it was Lucy Lockett’s fine art classes that affected me for life. He'd amassed what seemed to be hundreds of color postcards of paintings. They ranged from the nativities and crucifixions from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the Romantics, the Realists, Dada, and contemporary work that included Kandinsky, Klee, Ben Shahn and Homer Winslow.
        With a contraption called an epidiascope, Lockett projected these images on the whitewashed walls of the art room. So profound was his knowledge that he held us spellbound while he explained the artist’s intent, the focus and symmetry of each picture, its balance and the minutiae of the painter’s life and environment. Sometimes we’d discuss a single picture for the entire forty-five minute period, while over a month we’d study, say, the Florentines, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Cubists. So, through the history of art, with Lucy’s help, we dissected the astonishing detail of Vermeer’s interiors, recognized the social messages in Daumier’s grim portrayals of peasants at work, witnessed Van Gogh’s craziness creeping into his pictures, and the threat of Nazism looming over the German painters of the 30s. We weren't only learning about pictures hanging on walls in dusty galleries, but also about the artists themselves, history, psychology, religion, human nature, and life itself.
        It was Lockett who brought bags of broken Lucite into the workshop, fragments of the cockpit covers of enemy and friendly fighters and bombers that plunged from time to time into the farmland and woods around the school. These we cut and polished, fashioning them into useful objects – letter-openers, signet rings, paperweights and napkin holders. Later, we carved figures of humans and animals that bore an almost passing resemblance to pieces from Lockett's treasured collection of Japanese netsuke, exquisite miniature ivory sculptures.
        And then there was Mr.Hudson, the music master who also, like every one else – except the late Mr. Griffin – had had a nickname. ‘Hudson’s Washing Soap’ was the best-known brand of laundry powder, and so he was labeled ‘Soapy’. A darkly handsome man with a perennial five-o’clock shadow, he played seventy-eight-speed records on an ancient phonograph. Much like Lucy Lockett and his artists, Soapy Hudson knew his composers and their lives as though they were members of his own family.
        In the 1940s, the world’s greatest composers were believed to be Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Brahms. Soapy Hudson taught us their names in order of birth with an impossible-to-forget mnemonic – Please Bring Half a Hundredweight, Mother, Because Sister Wants Bananas.
        These nine, and many others’ works, were played again and again during my seven years at Cranbrook. We became so familiar with the great symphonies that we could hum along with them. We felt we’d been there when Beethoven was composing his ninth and final symphony, angrily pressing his ear to the lid of the piano in a vain attempt to hear the notes, even though by then he’d been stone deaf for seven years. We all but heard Schumann, a chronic manic-depressive, whistling softly to himself, facing the wall in his favorite coffee shop before his early death in an asylum. We felt for lonely Brahms, a lifelong bachelor who, even when well off, lived in a rented room in Vienna. He rose every day at five a.m., brewed himself cup after cup of pungent black coffee from a samovar, and smoked equally strong cheroots. How, Hudson asked us, could such a man write music that was so heartfelt, so romantic? But he never told us about Brahms’ curiously profound relationship with Clara Schumann for thirty years after her husband, Robert Schumann’s death.
        And then there was ‘Dogs’ Saunders, who taught English Literature. Larger than life, he was as different from Lucy Lockett and Soapy Hudson as chalk is from cheese. Since he had fought in several campaigns in the trenches in World War I, he was probably in his sixties, as much as thirty years older than his arty and musical counterparts.
        Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, before his blondish hair had grayed, earlier student generations had called him ‘Sandy.’ But by the 1940s, because he could be ferocious at times, and actually bared his teeth when he was upset, he had become ‘Dogs.’ Yet it didn’t take us long to discover that his bark was worse than his bite.
        Dogs Saunders was florid-faced, gravel-voiced, and corpulent, and had an oddly distinctive walk. Seeing him hurrying to a class, or heading down the village street for one of his all too frequent visits to the bar of the George Hotel, even on the calmest summer day he walked as though he were wading into a strong wind. Besides teaching English lit., he was also the school’s deputy headmaster, and the commanding officer of its highly active wartime unit of the OTC, the Officers’ Training Corps.
        Dogs’ classes focused almost entirely on three playwrights, whom he called ‘The Three S’s: Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw. These weren’t remotely representative of the whole compass of English letters but, luckily, two other masters more than capably handled the real gamut from Chaucer, through Milton and Wordsworth, to Joyce and Woolf. There are ample reasons why Saunders belonged up there with the two other memorable teachers; he had an abiding and infectious passion for Shakespeare, and taught it superbly, if idiosyncratically. As a student himself, he must have studied the plays and sonnets with almost the same labored devotion with which an Imam learns the Koran. For me, a thorough grounding in Shakespeare turned out to be a perfect foundation for a later, broader study of English. Like Lucy Lockett and his postcards, Dogs unveiled insights that formed the beginnings of an early understanding of human personality and behavior.
        It certainly wasn't the major’s ability to read aloud that endeared us to Shakespeare's plays. In fact, he read them terribly badly, with a total absence of feeling for the words. His reading of Richard III's impassioned plea for "a horse . . . my kingdom for a horse . . ." had all the fire and pathos of someone reading a telephone book. And when he read the lines of Ophelia and Cordelia – two of the Bard’s most tragic and feminine characters, he made no attempt to alter or soften his voice. His pitch and key were no different from his voice for Hamlet and Lear.
        Where was the magic, then, the fascination, the thrill? Strangely, Dogs’ monotonous tone didn't matter. It was his self-interruptions, his asides and translations of the language that made him the wizard he was. There seemed to be nothing he didn't know about the characters, their motivations, the different facets of their personalities and the actual construction of the plays. But for him, when seeing As You Like It on the stage, we’d never have known that melancholy and philosophical Jaques (whom Dogs correctly pronounced ‘Jaqueez’ and not Jacques) was there to inject some gravity and reflectiveness into what would otherwise have been little more than a saccharine Harlequin romance. In the same way he explained comic relief, showing how the bawdy nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the wisecracking grave digger in Hamlet and the lewd Porter in Macbeth were inserted at exactly the right point in the plays to offset these tragedies’ stark horror. Here was one of our first lessons in the craftsmanship of writing.
        There was no doubt that Saunders’ favorite play was Henry V. He was, after all, a bemedaled, battle proven veteran who profoundly believed that King and Country came before all else. Henry V is an enactment of war, courage and loyalty to the Crown, and probably the most patriotic play ever written, so it’s not surprising that the old man became watery-eyed, and his voice sometimes cracked when he read Henry’s rousing speeches. Is it too fanciful to believe that, in his mind, he was not a spectator at Agincourt, but back at war in France himself? Instead of the chaos of Henry’s battlefield in France, was he hearing the chatter of German machine-gun fire at Ypres, or on the Somme, the sudden bursts of flares in the night sky, the silence before the charge? Could he see and hear the writhing, unattended wounded, or smell the first pungent whiff of poison gas?
        Dogs could become fiercely loquacious whenever anyone dared suggest that the superhuman outpourings of Shakespeare, a mere glove maker’s son and a grammar school boy, were written by someone else. He scoffed at the suggestion that more worldly, university-educated men such as Bacon, Marlowe, an earl or two or even the well-educated and studious King James I might have been responsible. He took the side of the ‘Stratfordians,’ who were equally dismissive of the theory, but whose case these days holds as little water as that of the Flat Earth Society, or the Creationists. Even then, half a century ago, I found his rebuttals over-defensive and unconvincing.
       Dogs’ other playwrights – both Irishmen , Sheridan and Shaw – received short shrift compared with Shakespeare. But during our study of two of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal and The Rivals, he seemed to become a different person altogether. The sheer zest of these two Regency comedies, with their racy tales about marital infidelity, fraud and mistaken identity, seemed to bring him beaming out of his shell. He was tickled by the very names of the characters such as Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour in School for Scandal, and Lydia Languish and verbally-inept Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, and he positively chortled at their antics.
        When it came to Shaw, the major unexpectedly revealed his true political colors. Who would have thought that this dyed-in-the-wool, stiff upper-lip Englishman was not a staunch Conservative but instead leaned somewhat to the left? There was no hint of this when we were immersed in Saint Joan, but when we got to Pygmalion there was no doubt he was a latent lefty. Unlike My Fair Lady, Shaw’s play is almost a political tract, a parody of the idle rich, an attack on class distinction and a billboard for the cause of feminism. Dogs made no secret, at least in the classroom, that he, too, was a champion of the working man and woman.
        Lucy, Soapy and Dogs were three men with uniquely different personalities and beliefs. They shared their passions and played a part in making me whatever I‘ve become. In their way they were the lions of my boyhood – a pride of pedagogues.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Man in the Mirror

He died 60 years ago, yet I see him every day. Each morning, all I have to do is look in the bathroom mirror, and there he is.
    “Morning, Dad,” I’ll say as our eyes meet, though usually under my breath, for fear that Lynn, my wife, will take this muttering as an acceleration of my actual but mercifully slowly developing dementia.
    Even though he was maybe two inches taller than I, and had straight hair and a mustache, I can tell from old photographs that we still looked somewhat alike and, now that I’m nearly 87, seventeen years older than he was when he died in England.
    Like his three brothers, my father went to a boarding school. Bill became a doctor and Frank a lawyer, but my father didn’t go on to college; instead he became a clerk at what was then the Westminster Bank, and spent the rest of his working life in banks in small country towns.
Sadly, it was only years after his sudden death that I began to realize what an unusual and lovable man he was. He was the most extraordinary mix of seemingly incompatible traits. On one hand he was kind and generous, yet at the same time he was wracked by anxiety about money, and an irrational fear of being burgled. While he was fervent in his attempt to nurture my brother David and me, and to see to it that we were well-informed, he was one of the least tactile people I’ve ever known. I don’t think he ever hugged us. From my early teens I addressed him as ‘Sir,’ and whenever we met or parted -- even later when I might have been overseas for a year or two -- we only shook hands.
    But for all his apparent remoteness, he was capable of making us laugh, bursting spontaneously into song and verse, or posing some silly riddle from his own early childhood in the 1890’s.
    “What kind of noise annoys an oyster?” he’d ask.
    “We don’t know, Dad. What noise annoys an oyster?”
    “Why?” he’d say, “a noisy noise annoys an oyster.”
    When you’re five or six that’s pretty funny, but sometimes his verses were a little too macabre for our mother, who thought we were a trifle young for some of them. For example, in a solemn voice he’d recite:
    “Oh dear Mama, what is that mess?
    It looks like strawberry jam.
    Hush, hush, my dear, ‘tis your Papa,
    run over by a tram.”      
My father had three brothers, and a sister, Janet. It was she who generously paid for David’s and my education, which my father could never have managed on a bank clerk’s salary. All four boys were in the army in World War I, and three survived. Arthur, whom I haven’t mentioned yet, the youngest, a shy, fragile youth, died in the trenches in Flanders, while Frank and Bill served nearby in France. Bill won the Military Cross for courageously  operating on the wounded under enemy fire during the Battle of The Somme. My father, Harold, caught a chunk of shrapnel in his stomach, and after being shipped home to hospital, finished the war running a German prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium. He must have been the most benevolent commandant, for our house was full of strange artifacts that German prisoners had made for him out of brass shell-cases, including ashtrays, a dinner-gong that hung in an oak frame, and a pipe tobacco jar with a lid, all with ‘Kapt. H. Birch’ engraved on them. 
    Father was 50 when, in 1939, the Second World War broke out. He became an air raid warden, and my mother a volunteer ambulance driver. We lived in a village on the estuary of the river Thames, along which the German bombers came and went during their raids on London. Our county, Kent, was the stage on which much of the Battle of Britain was played, and it bristled with searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries. My father’s voluntary job as a warden was fairly leisurely. He and other older villagers prowled the streets and farm buildings to check that windows were properly blacked-out, and to watch for fires from incendiary bombs. My mother, on the other hand, found herself carrying hundreds of casualties after air attacks on the fighter and bomber bases dotted around the surrounding countryside.
    One moonless night there was an incident that typified the clown in my father, and at the same time, his serious-mindedness. For an hour or so, after hearing strange sounds in an apple orchard, he crawled on his hands and knees, believing himself to be stalking a German parachutist. When he at last threw himself, unarmed, on his prey, it turned out to be a startled sheep, much to the later amusement of his fellow wardens in the village pub.
    Father was an inveterate walker, and as teenagers on our long summer vacations from boarding school, David and I would stroll with him between the tall hazel-wood hedgerows in the narrow lanes around the village. He called these excursions ‘informative walks’ and, as patriarch turned pedagogue, would quiz us about which river flowed through what city, dates of the reigns of English kings and queens, quotations from Shakespeare, and even Latin common nouns, most of which I still remember many, many decades later.

    I’m long retired now, and have two children, thousands of miles away with their own families. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the distant, impossible-to-imagine 2040’s, my son will ever look in his shaving-mirror and see and speak to me. If he and his sister remember me even a fraction as fondly as I do my father, that’ll be just fine by me.

Monday, January 1, 2018


Every time I look back on that night more than 60 years ago – and I often do – I still feel a pang of shame about our brief, violent act. And I see the startled, fearful eyes of the little girls, huddled in their nightdresses, trying to hide behind their mother. I hear the woman’s screams as we left the house with her husband and, when we drove away, the engines of our trucks reverberating against the walls in the narrow, unlit street.
It was December, 1955, in the island of Cyprus, then a British colony.  For years, the Greek Cypriots had dreamed of Enosis – union with Greece – and breaking away from British rule. But while the island’s population of around half a million was seventy percent Greek-speaking, the remaining thirty percent were Turkish speakers, and bitterly opposed to the idea. Historically, Greece and Turkey have always shared a mutual antipathy, and since Cyprus is forty miles from Turkey and at least four hundred miles from mainland Greece, Britain’s support of a status quo made good sense.
But that year, being a part of Greece had become more than a romantic dream, and in the summer there were sudden outbreaks of violence. Young British soldiers died or were wounded in drive-by shootings and bomb attacks, and in ambushes on mountain roads. Some had been shot in off-limits bars in Nicosia, the capital. These were the early rumblings of what turned into an ugly, four-year terrorist action that few Americans know about, and the violence quickly flared out of control.
My battalion was flown into the island from Egypt that summer, followed by others from Britain and the Middle East. Not long after we arrived, the British Institute, a cultural and arts center in the middle of Nicosia, was gutted by petrol bombs, and police stations were attacked and destroyed. The death toll was rising, and there were riots on the streets.
Throughout the year, the word EOKA was daubed on walls, the name of a newly-formed group led by George Grivas, a Greek partisan who, with an underground force, had caused havoc among the German and Italian troops in Axis-occupied Greece a dozen years earlier. Now Grivas was training a local force against us in the island’s rugged Troodos mountain range. The locals dubbed EOKA national heroes, patriots and freedom fighters, but to us they were terrorists.
Then another set of initials began appearing on walls all over the colony – AKEL, a Communist group. This was two or three years after the peak of McCarthyism in America, and six years before the building of the Berlin Wall. In December, wary of what could well be an emerging red menace, the Governor of Cyprus secretly ordered the immediate arrest and imprisonment of one hundred forty members of AKEL. The colonial police’s Special Branch knew exactly where they lived, though EOKA and Grivas were invisible.
The first we knew of this was when, one afternoon, as the fifteen youngest officers in the South Staffordshire Regiment – and similar groups in other infantry and police units posted around the island – were summoned to a briefing.  We sat around Major Dick Stuckey, one of our company commanders, on a rocky hillside in our camp by the road to Nicosia Airport. Each of us was given a detainee’s name and his address. Our orders were to pick six men from our platoons and, with a jeep and a light truck, to make an armed snatch of our AKEL member that night from his home. The raid would be simultaneous, at precisely three a.m.
Before we dispersed, we all synchronized our watches and, an hour or so later I took my second-in-command, Sergeant Murtagh, on a hasty daylight reconnaissance patrol of our snatch site, in a village called Ayios Dhométeos, a few miles from Nicosia. The home was a single-story place in a contiguous row of about half a dozen others, in a street that was only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through. Without pausing as we passed it in our jeep, we checked out the door, a crude assembly of unpainted vertical boards, and agreed that, if we had to break in, it wouldn’t be a problem. We turned at the bottom of the street and again up the lane behind the house, deciding where we’d position two men to cover the dwelling’s rear.  Finally, we checked the route to a point about five miles away, where the area’s prisoners would be collected in a police compound before being driven to the detention center.
I was awakened at two a.m. with a mug of tea. Cyprus can be cold at night in the winter, and outside a chilly half moon hung bright in a sky, pulsing with stars. Walking down the slope from my quarters through the sleeping camp, I could see little groups of soldiers heading silently for the armory. Farther down, in the vehicle park, the engines of two dozen vehicles were already running. A few minutes later we inspected weapons, loaded them, and boarded a jeep and a light truck. Our group, like the others, was made up of a sergeant and two corporals, each with a sub-machine gun, and three privates with rifles, one of whom also toted a hefty axe.
The column moved off, and the sentries hailed us as we passed through the raised barrier at the guardhouse. With a number of groups we turned east onto the main road toward the city, while others headed west to their targets. Ayios Dhométeos was only a few miles from the camp and, as we approached it we turned off our headlights, driving in the moonlight. Just before the turning into the narrow street we parked under trees by the side of the road.  We had, of course, done a "dry run" on the previous afternoon, so only needed to mutter a few last-minute instructions to send the corporal and rifleman to cover the rear of the house. I led the four others round the corner and down the lane. Our canvas shoes made no sound as we approached, and when we reached the house next door, we stopped. Knowing what to do, the two men detailed to cover the entrance crept across the street to their positions.
The remaining rifleman and I stood with our backs to the wall beside the door, while Sgt. Murtagh did the same on the other side. We’d been told by Stuckey at the briefing that, since there was no evidence that AKEL had used any violence against the British, we were to break the door open only if we deemed it necessary.
I picked up a rock in the road and beat on the door with it, shouting “Anikse tin porta,” ‘open up’ in Greek.
        No light came on in the house.
        I struck the door again.
       “Anikse tin porta!”
        Lights flickered on in two other homes nearby.
        “Anikse –“
“Give me the axe,” I told the rifleman.
I raised the axe above my head; ready to smash it down on the timbers around the latch with all the strength I could muster. But at that moment a faint light shone from under the door, and we heard a heavy scraping, as though someone on the other side were drawing back a bolt or a bar. I lowered the axe and drew my revolver while, behind me, the rifleman focused a flashlight at the point on the door level with our heads.
The door opened slowly and there, blinking into the light, was our target, Stavros Joannides, an astonished man with a bloodhound’s eyes who, when he spoke, seemed to have no teeth in his head.
Under the circumstances, what he said was remarkable.
Kalimera.” (‘Good morning.’)
He wore a striped nightshirt that hung below his knees. Beside me, Sergeant Murtagh thrust the stubby muzzle of his Sten gun into the man’s chest.
“Put up yer ‘ands!”
The man’s arms shot up.
“You speak English?” I asked.
“A little,” he said.
“Bring him inside,” I told Murtagh, who marched the man backward into the house, where I patted him down to check for a weapon, but found nothing. Over his shoulder I could see through the open door of a dimly lit bedroom. A woman with long black hair sat bolt upright in the big family bed, the bedclothes pulled up to her neck. Two small girls, who might well have been twins, cowered behind her, crying hysterically.
We were in a living room, where a low-powered electric light revealed a few basic items of furniture: easy chairs round a stone fireplace, a threadbare rug, a few toys here and there, and a table that seemed to have been set for breakfast on the evening before. A loom stood in one corner. The place looked more like the house of the Three Bears than that of a political activist who was dangerous enough to be imprisoned.
Murtagh had stepped back a little, though his Sten was still slung at the ready, pointed toward Joannides, who stood staring at us, shivering in his skimpy nightshirt. He seemed not to know what to do with his hands.
“I’m going to search your house,” I said.
I left him with Murtagh and, with the rifleman, made a quick tour of the house. There were only three rooms, the living room, the bedroom and a kitchen. We began with the kitchen that, because it also served as bathroom, laundry room and storage space, was almost the size of the living room. The soldier and I pulled open closet doors and drawers, rummaged inside them, lifted the wooden lid of a wood-burning copper used for boiling clothes, peered in the oven, and looked around a cramped root cellar under a trap door.
We’d searched scores of houses of EOKA suspects in the months before. There were weapons, ammunition and documents hidden in a number of them, and we’d arrested their owners. But here there wasn’t a scrap of evidence. When we searched the bedroom, the woman was still in bed with the children, who had lapsed into silence. I called out to Joannides, who told his wife to wait in a corner of the room with the children while we searched the bed.  There were several boxes and battered suitcases under it, but nothing significant in them. One of the frightened children had wet the bed, and we pummeled the thin mattress with no result.
Apart from clothes, a large wardrobe in the room seemed to contain stacks of never-unwrapped bed linens and blankets, probably wedding gifts from years ago. When we were done, I gestured to the woman and the girls to get back into bed, and it was only then that I noticed the only evidence that this family was different from most other Greek Cypriots. There, on the bedroom wall, instead of the usual image of Archbishop Makarios, was a framed photograph of Nikita Krushchev, and Nikolay Bulganin – incongruous partners to the crucifix on the opposite wall of the room.
There was nothing in the living room. There was only one other place to look.
          “Where’s the toilet?” I asked the man.
“In the yard.”
I left the rifleman with Murtagh and went outside, where the two soldiers detailed to cover the back of the house lurked in the shadows. The privy was a small hut like a sentry box built over a pit and here, too, we drew a blank. Earlier we’d searched some of these more thoroughly, an activity that involved prodding the noisome contents of the trench with long bamboo canes. Fortunately, we had only a few minutes left, and I was glad to give the procedure a miss.
It was time to go.
“We’re going to take you away,” I told Joannides, “and I have to tell you that anything you say may be used in evidence.”
The man seemed perfectly calm.
“I have some questions,” he said.
“No questions,” I said. “The sergeant here will accompany you while you pack some things. You’re allowed to bring two cases of clothing and washing things, essential medicines, a bible, no food and no other books.”
“How long do you think – ” he began.
“You ‘eard what the officer said,” Murtagh said.
The wife seemed agitated, and asked her husband what sounded like a question, to which he replied quietly. His answer caused her to let out a piercing scream, and this started the children crying again. The sound of their anguish and its volume intensified during the few minutes it took our prisoner to collect his things together.
I was unmarried then and, looking back, I find it incredible that I gave the man no opportunity to embrace his wife and children at that last moment. He had taken the arrest well so far, and it was hard to credit that this allegedly dangerous troublemaker was so mild and dispassionate.
It wasn’t Joannides who needed restraint as we led him to the door; it was his wife. Leaving her two little girls screaming uncontrollably on the bed, she staggered toward us and locked her arms tight round her husband’s body, clinging to him with unbelievable strength. So strong was her grasp on him that, struggling to get her man and his baggage through the door, we were forced to wrench her from him, taking care not to break her thrashing arms with the sudden final slam of the door. The man said nothing during the six or seven minutes drive to the compound where he was united with his fellow detainees.
I never saw him again, but this isn’t quite the end of the story. Something remarkable and almost laughable happened within a month or two of the mass arrest and imprisonment of nearly 150 members of AKEL. The British Government discovered to its extreme embarrassment that AKEL, while it sympathized with other Greek Cypriots in their wish for union with Greece, treated the right-wing terrorist leader George Grivas with derision, and denounced violence as a means to achieve it. All but a handful of the Communist detainees were returned to their homes in a fleet of buses manned by the Cyprus Police Force.
Oddly, there seems to be no record of the snatch and its outcome in Her Majesty’s archives.


Friday, December 1, 2017

A Christmas to Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father. We sat - he, my mother, my brother David and I - amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in a modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.
        This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, a seaside resort, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.
        But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.
          David and I never really knew our parents. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.
          Nor had David and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at boarding school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.
          The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the one-pound notes and half-crowns and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.
          It was dark on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front.  The tide had turned, and now dragged on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.
          As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do like your new life, Johnny?"
          After nearly a decade as an officer in the British Army I was on my final leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service I'd had excitement in action, world travel, comradeship and the company of friends. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in a rented attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little wary of the future.
I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."
        "But are you happy?" she asked.
        "Happy enough," I said. "What about you?"
        My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.
        "No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."
        I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she still alive, I might have said "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.
      "What are you thinking?" she asked.
      By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.
      "I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"
      "Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before.  There we all were. Mother, five unmarried daughters and two sons in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed  . . ."
      "It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my voice.
      She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."'
      My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.
        "What are you two chatting about?" my father asked, smiling.
        My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”

          Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's words over and over in my mind, but I never told David.
          My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart.  And there was something else; he'd become almost miserly about money and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow.
          Every morning, at seven, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door.  A month or two later she knocked and there was no answer. She had to climb a ladder to the open bedroom window, and found him dead.
          Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission? Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden herself, to share her load?  She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.
        And nor did I.