Sunday, January 1, 2017

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, December 2, 2016


They say nobody’s perfect, and I guess that’s true. We all have our little handicaps and imperfections, whether we acquire them by nurture or nature. We can be left-handed or color blind, or have irritating habits such as laughing too loud, or biting our fingernails. And I’m no exception.
          My problem is a constant humiliation. I’m arithmetically challenged, and can't do even the simplest addition and subtraction in my head. No, seriously, faced with what you’d probably consider the easiest sum, my mind seizes up. I've always been mystified by this shortcoming. After all, I had a pricey private education at upper-crust British seats of learning. I learned (and then forgot) one dead language and two living ones, mastered subjects from English, history and geography to physics, chemistry and biology, and most people would be quite happy to swap IQs with me.  Both my father and brother made good livings in banking, so why am I such a mutt at math?
          One time when this disability used to rear its ugly head was whenever I was signing the check in a restaurant, with my pen poised while I calculated the tip.  In those days, if you’d watched carefully, you’d have noticed that, though barely perceptibly, I was counting on my fingers while my brow furrowed with the concentration of the task in hand.
I went through this embarrassing process for years until, not long ago, I discovered a little printed plastic card called a ‘tip calculator,’ that tells me fifteen and twenty percent of any sum up to one hundred dollars. With this, holding the card surreptitiously under the table, I can now work it out. In this way I impress guests with my seemingly instant mental arithmetic. Of course, in the privacy of my own home I can whip out a calculator with the best of them, and do the most basic sums without the embarrassment I’d experience using it in a restaurant, a barber’s shop or a cab. Working out a tip in a taxi is a breeze nowadays electronically, though it always used to be too dark in the back to read my cheat sheet. 
          Lynn, my wife, who’s infuriatingly competent at absolutely everything, says, “It’s so easy! To work out fifteen percent of something, all you do is move the decimal point one place to the left to get ten percent. Then you just add half that number to it to get your fifteen percent.” And she calls that easy?   
          Of course, being afflicted in this way doesn’t begin and end with calculating tips. Every day there’s a need for mental arithmetic, such as working out lengths, heights and widths when doing do-it-yourself jobs. And then there’s the constant problem of working out the change I should get in a store. If normal people pay $13.37 for something and hand over $20, they immediately know how much change to expect. But not I.
          Was this inability inherited, or caused by some life experience? My very earliest memories of math at school couldn’t have been happier. In the mid-1930s, at a convent school at the age of five, I was taught very elementary arithmetic by kindly nuns. We wrote the numbers on wood-framed slates with slate pencils that made the most excruciating scrooping sounds. Later, we moved on to two-times tables, mouthing them in unison to our smiling, nodding tutors. “Two twos are four, three twos are six, four twos are eight . . .” I still have instant recall of those tables up to twelve twelves.
          But there were no kindly nuns when, only a few years later, I was sent to my first boarding school far from home. Here, a scruffy, mop-headed, sour-faced Welshman called Dai Griffin took over where they left off. Mr. Griffin – we called him ‘Dirty Dai’– galloped through multiplication and long division at a cracking pace that was fine for the brightest and most numerate of his class, but not for the rest of us. He had a thick Welsh accent, and was given to outbursts of rage, when he was liable to throw sticks of blackboard chalk around the classroom.
With Mr. Griffin, arithmetic became a fearsome ordeal, something to dread. It became even harder when we began calculations to do with money. Britain’s currency was not yet decimalized; instead we had pounds, shillings and pence. Now listen carefully, there were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pence in a shilling, and two halfpennies (ha’pennies) or four farthings in a penny. How would you go about adding twenty-eight pounds, seven shillings and fourpence-farthing to seventeen pounds, three shillings, and eightpence-ha’penny?
Around the time when Mr. Dai Griffin was about to launch into algebra and geometry, something fortuitous happened – he died. That may sound harsh but, even if he was nice to his wife and children and kind to small animals, to us he seemed a mean-spirited monster. A master called Bob Hawkins took over our math lessons, a warm-hearted man who clearly loved his subject, made up jokes about isosceles triangles, and treated us like equals. In the next school, ‘Fuzzy’ Wheatcroft, a man of similar character to Hawkins, took us through the whole gamut of math, including trigonometry and calculus, in such a way that I actually looked forward to his lessons. Then, of course, we were using slide rules and charts, since desk-top computers were at least thirty-five years away. I thought trigonometry a futile waste of time then. Why would I ever need to know all this stuff about tangents and cotangents? I had no idea that, eight or nine years later in the British Army, I’d need it to plot targets for my 81mm mortar platoon during a bout of terrorism in the Mid-East.
I bet that would have astonished the late Dirty Dai Griffin.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016


        I read recently that an average man grows about ten yards of hair during his life, so I guess I’d look like an Afghan goat-herd if it weren’t for generations of barbers and hairdressers who’ve washed, cut and dried my hair.
       And what an incredible cast of characters they’ve been! I can't remember my earliest haircuts, but the first barber I recall, long ago in the mid-1930s, had a shop on High Street in our country town in Southeast England, between a pie shop and a movie house. He was a dapper little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and, believe it or not, his name was Mr. Tidy.
        Mr. Tidy’s barbershop was always busy. His customers sat in cane chairs along a mirrored wall, reading newspapers that my father, a staid and serious man, would never have allowed in our house. These reported little real news, but spicy stories about society divorces, or bishops running off with actresses. But for me there were also comic strips and, when I could read, I met Dagwood Bumstead and Popeye, and Dick Tracy.
Mr. Tidy’s barber’s chair was a miracle of chrome and leather on a swiveling pedestal that could be pedaled up and down, and had the words ‘Made in America’ emblazoned on a panel in its ornate silver filigree. When it was my turn, Mr. Tidy put a wooden box on the seat and lifted me onto it.  He worked quickly and I watched, fascinated, as the hair clippings fell on the floor around the chair. When he’d finished, he’d stoop and lift a wooden trapdoor by its tiny brass doorknob, and sweep the clippings under the floor boards.
When I was eight, I was sent to a boys-only boarding school miles from home, and later to another much bigger one. At both schools, barbers came from the town at regular intervals, carrying their equipment in black leather suitcases, and set-up shop in the sports changing rooms. After the quiet orderliness of Mr. Tidy’s shop, these sessions were rowdy and boisterous. The visitors clearly didn’t think enforcing discipline was a part of their job, and the older boys fought on the floor and elbowed the younger ones aside in the waiting line. For the smaller, younger boys, having a haircut could be an ordeal, and often took a long time.
        At Sandhurst – Britain’s equivalent of West Point – there was a full-time barbershop among the stables and stores tucked away behind the Academy’s elegant buildings. Haircuts were free, probably because the authorities thought we’d mutiny if forced to part with real money to have our hair cropped like convicts. It was little comfort to know that distinguished former graduates such as Sir Winston Churchill, Field Marshall (‘Monty’) Montgomery and other greats had sat in those very same oak chairs.
        The years passed and I suffered the attention of regimental barbers in half a dozen countries. But at least we were now officers, and could grow our hair a bit longer and indulge in a little individualism.
        Later I left the army to join a London public relations firm as a trainee. By then I expected to be able to pick and choose who cut my hair. But on a monthly salary of 41 pounds – today worth about $62 – my choice of hair cutters was limited to men who practiced in small back rooms behind tobacconists’ stores. The result was often little better than the clumsy attentions of a regimental barber. 
 But in 1959, on my wedding day in London, I had the most exclusive trim and shave of my life. I’d spent my last night of bachelor bliss at the apartment of a friend of my father-in-law who was shaved daily at Harrods, the venerable store that sells anything you can imagine at unimaginable prices to unbelievably wealthy people. In its low-lit, walnut paneled barber shop, respectful, speak-when-you’re spoken-to experts shaved my host and I with badger-hair brushes and cutthroat razors. We lay side by side on what seemed more like operating tables than Mr. Tidy’s chrome, all-American barber’s chair back in the 30s. There were hot towels and cologne to follow, and a massage of the neck and shoulders. The faintest sound of baroque music drifted from invisible speakers.
Nearly twenty years later, in the late 70s, came haircuts and shaves that were at the same time a wide-awake dream of fair women and the best barbering of a lifetime. South East Asia has turned a normally humdrum experience into an all-but erotic fantasy. Men’s hairdressing shops in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are a blend of an Arabian Nights harem and an Upper East Side beauty shop. It’s not that there’s any back-room impropriety going on, but simply that – however sexist this may seem more than two decades later – the dozen or more geisha-like young women in these places are recruited as much for their beauty and vivacity as for their tonsorial talents. Their deft, perfectly manicured hands seem not so much to work on one’s head and face, but almost to caress them, and any full-blooded male pulse quickens with their warm proximity. I wonder whether, now that I’m in my eighties, their welcome would be half as seductive.
Nowadays, accompanied by Lynn, my wife, I take my gray head to her place in Greenwich Village. The hairdresser is attractive and well groomed, but the place somehow lacks the mystical sensuality of the Orient. And, in place of the racy daily papers with their comic strips in Mr. Tidy’s shop, there are mostly fashion magazines, and books on hairstyling.
Things have changed. But so, of course so have I.


Saturday, October 1, 2016


At a museum in London a year or two ago I came across a revealing little pamphlet. Called Over There, it was issued during World War II to American servicemen being posted to Britain.

More than a million U.S. troops were stationed in England between 1942 and the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in June, 1944. Most of them had never been abroad before, and the aim of Over There -- according to The Oxford University Press, who have republished it -- was to prepare them for life in a very different country, and to try to prevent any friction between the newcomers and their British hosts.

Whoever wrote these seven pages had a remarkable grasp of simple, direct English, an impressive knowledge of psychology, and an amazing understanding of the most relevant differences between the Americans and the British. When the original pamphlet was distributed, its contents created more than a few raised eyebrows across the Atlantic, because it presented an unusually frank and objective view of Britain and the British; much more telling than they could ever have written themselves. The London newspapers were fascinated; in the London Times of July 1942, there was a laudatory if tongue-in-cheek critique of the pamphlet, comparing it with the works of Irving, Emerson and Hawthorne, all of whom, of course, had tried to interpret Britain to their American readers. In the self-important language of The Times of those days, an editorial said: "None of those American authors' august expositions has the spotlit directness of this revelation of plain horse sense, and an understanding of evident truths."

To us nearly 80 years on, the text of Over There may seem a trifle didactic and preachy and, with 20/20 hindsight, there is too much rah-rah breast-beating about "beating Hitler on his home ground." For example: "Hitler knows they (Britain and America) are both powerful countries, tough and resourceful. He knows that they, with other united nations, mean his crushing defeat in the end." The more likely truth is that, only a year after America had entered a war, and when Britain and its empire had been fighting alone for more than two years, Hitler must have felt the odds were strongly in his favor. At that moment the Nazis occupied pretty much all of Europe, and were already flexing their muscles in North Africa.

The pamphlet quickly gets down to business. Its first advice is to forget past history. If you're an Irish-American, it suggests, you may see the Brits as the persecutors of the Irish. Forget about the enemy Redcoats in the American Revolution, and the war of 1812, "There is no time today to fight old wars again, or bring up old grievances. We don't worry about which side our grandfathers were on during the Civil War, because it doesn't mean anything now."

It's with great tact that the anonymous author tackles the legendary reserve and -- though it doesn't say it in such terms -- the alleged stuffiness and stand-offishness of us Brits. The thing to do, the pamphlet says, is not to deny these differences but to admit them openly, and try to understand them. "For instance," it says," the British are more reserved in conduct that we are. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man (sic) learns to guard his privacy carefully -- and is equally careful not to invade another man's privacy.

"So if Britons sit in trains or buses without striking up a conversation with you, it doesn't mean they are being haughty or unfriendly . . . they don't speak to you because they don't want to appear intrusive or rude." Those aren’t the true reasons for the Brits' starchy aloofness, but it was a pretty good attempt.

The pamphlet takes a lot of trouble to discourage its readers from bragging or showing-off, especially about money. Saying, correctly, that American services’ pay was the highest in the world, it goes on, "The British Tommy is apt to be specially touchy about his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense, and don't rub him up the wrong way.” This was good advice. The GI’s hosts were indeed resentful that their allies were paid tremendously more. On a more personal level they were jealous of the U.S. forces’ uniforms, which were better-cut with higher quality cloth. Dressed in their thick, hairy, poorly cut, clunky-looking battle-dress uniforms, the Tommies found themselves swept aside by the local girls in the pub, who were all over these apparently prosperous visitors who came with nylon stockings and PX goodies, and talked like Errol Flynn or Clark Gable. It’s not surprising that the British troops labeled these intruders “over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.”

The author tried to tell readers, many of them rookies, that for all their sissy accents and soft-spoken politeness, the British were strong and resilient, and deserved a little respect for what they’d so far endured. “Sixty thousand British civilians – men, women and children – have already died under bombs, and yet their morale is unbreakable and high. A nation doesn’t come through that if it doesn’t have plain, common guts. The British are tough, strong people, and good allies. You won’t be able to tell them much about ‘taking it’” And here comes the rah-rah again: “They are not particularly interested in taking it any more. They’re far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.”

The pamphlet points out that comparisons are often invidious, and not a good idea; that England is smaller than North Carolina or Iowa, and that bragging about bigness – of buildings, mountains, family farms in places such as Texas and yes, money, wouldn’t go down in battered, small-scale Britain. The pamphlet says: “The British care little about size. For instance, London has no skyscrapers . . . they’ll point out buildings like Westminster Abbey . . . and the Tower of London, which was built almost a thousand years ago. They mean as much to the British as Mount Vernon or Lincoln’s birthplace do to us.”

And so it goes on. The GIs are warned to be sensitive to the stringent rationing of food, clothes and cigarettes and other necessities, because Britain was under siege. Few civilians were allowed gasoline, and their cars were shut up in their garages “for the duration,” on bricks or railroad ties. There’s a warning that the towns and villages will look scruffy and unkempt, and that even England’s famous gardens will now be growing only vegetables. Also, that many buildings will be unpainted and in disrepair, not only because there was little manpower, but also because most industries were hell bent on making tanks, guns and other war supplies for themselves, the British Empire forces and the Russians.

A part of the pamphlet describes “The People and their Customs,” covering such important topics as “warm beer” and the “impossible” money system. And there’s a none-too-successful attempt to describe cricket, soccer and Rugby.

Naturally, there’s advice about British vocabulary and pronunciation, which includes a caution that the natives “will pronounce all the ‘a’s in banana as in ‘father.’ However funny you may think this is, you will be able to understand people who talk this way, and they will be able to understand you.”

On the last page there are “Some Important Do’s and Don’ts,” most of which reiterate the points made elswhere. Noteworthy others are: “If you’re invited to eat with a family, don’t eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations. NEVER (actually in capitals) criticize the King and Queen. In your dealings with the British, let this be your slogan: it is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

There’s one thing wrong with that mention of bananas. Because of the ever-present threat of attack by German U-boats that blockaded the British Isles, such luxuries were unknown after 1941, so people probably never mentioned them to their allied guests. I remember an American boy, a New Yorker, arriving as a pupil at my boarding school in 1942. His name was Lou Taylor. He was a quiet, likable boy, and we nicknamed him Long Island Lou, even though he came from Hoboken!

On his first day at the school, Lou brought a few bunches of bananas, and I recall the hush, and then the excitement, when they were carried into the dining hall with some ceremony by the headmaster who, with help from the head boy, peeled them and proceeded to cut them in pieces so that all the boys could taste them.

Each piece was probably less than half an inch thick, and we ate them silently, and very slowly. They were the last bananas we saw until 1945. 


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Aftermath 9/11

September, marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  A few days later, Lynn and I were staying with friends in Ojai, California when, in their garden, I read an account of the aftermath in the New York Times.

Aftermath 9/11

Ojai, California
September, 2001.

Here, all around me, lies a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond a redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in,
species that I’ve never seen before,
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach of water pipes and hoses, are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents, and part-dismembered, unattended cacti.

Above the borders, bees dart
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper, swirl and rise and fall.

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog, no distant drone of planes or traffic, nor the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap, the Sunday paper shows an anguished and chaotic scene two thousand miles away.

A photo shows the silhouetted, crisscross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands, become a starker and more telling monument than any man-made memorial.

And on another page, portraits of two dozen wanted men, their faces grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault – are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims, their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears some eulogistic paragraph: the scoutmaster; a man called Yang, who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who loved the stage; Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan who lived for sport.

Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look in their last fear-frozen moments?

Meanwhile, the nation reels,
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
speaking of revenge, and war.

And after this carnage, dare I demand: where was God, all-knowing, just and merciful?


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Visitors

Minden, West Germany, 1952

The staff had cleared the big table in the officers mess dining room and, as they did every day, polished it until it shone like a new car. Presently, the three white-coated German stewards came out into the drawing room and quietly closed the tall mahogany doors behind them.
It was late autumn, around three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in 1952. Out of uniform, I sat alone by the fireplace, reading Friday’s Daily Telegraph, and looked up when Jürgen, the chief steward, stepped forward a little and was waiting to speak.
He was tall, built like a blockhouse, with cornflower blue eyes and blond hair cropped like a Junker. It was easy to imagine him in his black uniform and jackboots, and I hadn’t been surprised when he’d once told me that, promoted from the ranks on the Eastern Front, he was a troop commander in an SS Panzer squadron. He added that he’d been wounded and taken prisoner. At Stalingrad he’d said, as an afterthought. They all said that. We rarely met a veteran who admitted he’d fought the British or the Americans.
“Everything all right, Jürgen?”
Alles in ordnung, sir. We would like to go now, please.”
It felt strange. This man was in his late thirties, a veteran of the Wehrmacht, while I, at twenty-one, had been commissioned months ago, and had yet to hear shots fired in anger. But according to the unwritten rules of victory and defeat, he now had to ask me for permission to leave. I thanked him and said they could go and, almost like a drill movement, the group turned in unison and left the room.
The mess was always deserted on Sunday afternoons. A few of the majors drank heavily during lunch, and took a nap. Younger officers jogged through the frosty cabbage fields in the countryside not far from our barracks, or cycled along the bank of the river Weser, past the stark silhouettes of coal mines that seemed deserted. Some took a trolley car and strolled through the city of Minden, or watched a local game of soccer. Others wrote letters home.
I was about to go back to my quarters across the street when the front door bell jangled beyond the green baize kitchen door. Since the staff had gone, I went out into the hallway and opened the door. Two frail, elderly people, a man and a woman, stood holding hands on the doorstep. The man took off his fur hat and made a slight, deferential bow.
He spoke in German. “Good afternoon, sir. I must apologize for this intrusion.”
We shook hands.
“That’s all right,” I said, “what can we do for you?”
“My name is Helmut Kreig, and this is my wife, Resi.”
He turned to the woman, and back to me. “It’s . . . well, you see, Resi was born in this house and lived here until she went to the university. We live far away and, as you can see, we are old now. My wife has not seen the house for nearly fifty years, and we wonder whether we might see inside it once more.”
Krieg spoke hesitantly, in the softer, less gutteral hochdeutsch, the southern dialect of Bavaria. It sounded much more agreeable than the one we were used to hearing in Westphalia. He was clearly an educated man, and with my school-boy German I could just follow what he was saying, but doubted I could maintain a conversation for long.
“I’m afraid my German isn’t very good,” I said, “Do you or your wife speak English?”
Krieg smiled for the first time. “Jawohl!” he said. “Me, my English is not very good, but Resi still teaches English at the university in Munich.”
His wife, a sparrow of a woman with sad, anxious eyes, had said nothing, but now spoke in almost accentless English.
“Let me tell you something, so you will understand,” she said earnestly. “My family lived in this house for generations. Vati was a judge, and the mayor of Minden. Mutti died in the 1890s when I was a girl, but he lived until 1912. A few years before, Helmut and I had married and settled in Munich, where I was teaching. I was their only child, but we could not maintain this house, and so we sold it. It was sad, because I loved it and was so very happy here, but what could we do? It was so beautiful, but ever since, for many, years Helmut has promised to bring me back to see it once more.”
We weren’t allowed to let unauthorized Germans enter Army premises, but I was sure they were what they claimed to be. Anyway, what could be secret about an officers’ mess? How could I refuse them?
“I’ll be glad to show you around.” I said. “Come on in.”
Resi had seemed apprehensive and ill at ease until then, but now her big, expressive eyes had brightened with the excitement of a little girl.
She turned to her husband and said in German “There, I told you! And you said it wouldn’t be possible!”
The man smiled. “I also told you, my dear, that it is often not a good thing to go back. It could be strange and different after all these years.”
I took their hats and coats, hung them by the door, and we walked into the drawing room. To them, I thought, the room would seem more like a gentleman’s club than her parents’ living-room. Resi took in the big leather armchairs and couches, the paintings that depicted battles in which the regiment had fought, and portraits of long dead generals. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of the young, newly crowned queen, and her husband, who wore the dress uniform of the Royal Navy. Resi looked up at this and turned away. Her face was anxious again.
 Now they stood, apparently waiting for me to move on, and I eased open the big dining room doors and ushered them in.
The room was some forty feet long, and almost as wide. It, too, had a somber masculinity about it. No woman had been involved in its design and furnishing. The carved wooden table, already set for dinner, could seat fifty people. Pictures much like those in the other room adorned the walls between high casement windows with heavy burgundy curtains. Criss-crossed in front of the unused fireplace were our regimental colors, two unfurled, gold-staffed Union Jacks embroidered with the names of past victories from the two World Wars, the Boer War, Crimea, Waterloo.
Resi turned to me. “I would like to see the ballroom, please?”
Ballroom? There was no ballroom, what did she mean?
“We . . .we don’t have a ballroom,” I said.
“Of course you do,” the old woman said, smiling, “There is a beautiful ballroom through here! I will show you.”
She stepped ahead of us toward a double door, made of mahogany like the others, but even taller and wider. There was a tarnished brass key in the lock, which she vainly tried to turn. Beside her, I drew the door-handle toward me, and turned the key only with difficulty.
We went in. The room was two stories high, with an elaborate gilt minstrels’ gallery. Dark evergreen trees in the garden outside shut out the dying afternoon light through its grimy, undraped windows. One wall was stacked with wooden crates of Army stores, another with blankets. A rusty bicycle with a buckled wheel lay on the once polished floors of inlaid oak. Up in the lofty ceiling hung the shattered remains of six crystal chandeliers.
Resi’s mouth was open, yet at first I didn’t realize that the sudden anguished wail was hers. The cry seemed to fill the great room. She had turned and was stumbling back through the dining room, and her husband and I followed.
“She is very upset,” he said. “I warned her many times that it might be different. How could she think otherwise?”
Back in the hallway she had draped her overcoat over her shoulders and was leaning on the half open door, sobbing like a child. Her husband hurried forward and took both her hands tenderly, but she snatched them away, grabbed her coat, and ran down the steps and the pathway toward the street.
Helmut turned to me as he made for the door and grasped my hand. “You have been so kind, and I am sorry this has happened.”
We shook hands and he was gone.
Through the glass of the now-closed door I could hear her screaming, until the sound of a passing trolley car drowned her voice.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Memories of Fire

England, 1937

Outside, the rain flooded through the gutters in front of our Victorian row house on Belmont Road. My father snored gently on those fall and winter Sunday afternoons and every so often my mother, asleep and dreaming beside him on the settee, would let out what seemed like surprised little grunts. The only other sound was the sudden shifting of the coals in the fireplace.

Wide awake, my brother and I sat together on the hearth rug, the fire hot on our faces, in the safe little enclosure formed by our parents on their couch and the big, empty armchairs on either side of the fireplace. The coals glowed the colors of the rainbow, and if you looked closely you could peer into little fiery caverns that would collapse from time to time, creating new fantasy scenes.

That comfortable picture, two years before Britain was at war, was the first of a whole lifetime of memories of fires, some as benign and emotionally warm as this one, while others had grimmer, even terrifying associations.

For the next dozen or so years we had bonfires every year on the fifth of November, when Britons -- for whom, of course, there’s no celebration of the fourth of July-- celebrate the burning at the stake of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes, a traitor who, in 1606, tried to blow up the Parliament building in London. Guy Fawkes Night is a subtle combination of Independence Day and Halloween. A week or two before it, children dress up at night as masked and caped conspirators, and scurry from door to door, seeking not trick-or-treat candy but ‘a penny for the Guy,’ to buy fireworks. Somehow the grisly horror of burning a man alive has been lost over four hundred years. With a few invited friends, we’d gather in the first winter weather at the bottom of our garden, stuffing kerosene-soaked rags under a pile of dry tree limbs, old wooden bedsteads, and fruit and vegetable crates begged from the local greengrocer. Our parents watched solicitously from the shadows, coming forward to supervise the lighting of bottle rockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels while we gazed at the flames licking around the masked, straw-filled effigy.

My first memory of a fire as an adult was in Finnish Lapland way above the Arctic Circle in the winter of 1951, heading south toward the end of a sledding adventure. The temperature hung around 50 degrees below zero as we followed the frozen river Teno. Gliding along the icy river late in the evening, and with the moon high, we halted at a deserted cabin on the riverbank. This, and others like it, were provided for travelers to take shelter. The snow had been blown up to the eaves of the cabin on the eastern side, but on the leeward side it was relatively easy to clear it from the doorway.

We tethered our reindeer and heaved open the door. Inside was a room measuring maybe 25 by 30 feet. At the far end was a fireplace of roughly hewn boulders, in front of which stood a rough pine trestle table. The walls, floor and ceiling were of dark bare wood, and there were six iron bedsteads, with neither mattresses nor blankets. Matti, our Lapp guide, led us outside and, with his sleeve, swept the snow and ice from a pile of pine logs, which we carried inside. Then in matter of seconds, with a little razor-sharp axe, and with the assured skill of an expert chef chopping shallots, Matti rapidly chipped out a fan of wafer-like slivers of bone dry resinous wood that, miraculously, caught fire as though they were doused in oil. In a few minutes the huge stone grate was aflame, making the whole cabin flicker and glow.

A year or two later, in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1952, two of my Army comrades and I had attached ourselves at weekends to the Royal Air Force mountain rescue team, which scrambled over the Mountains of Morne that really do, as the song says, ‘sweep down to the sea.’ The team was on standby to help with any emergency on the range, from an air crash to the rescue of lost or injured climbers and scramblers. The mission entailed day and night patrols, hauling stretchers over the rocky, heathery gullies, and down the steep faces. We never had to do any of these things with real accident victims, but the constant routine of rehearsal was real and exciting enough. And in this setting there is another memory of fire. Near the foothills of Slieve Donard, the highest of these hills, which rises up to nearly 3,000 feet from the sea near Newcastle, County Down, lay a ruined mansion. By now the once-proud house, commandeered by the Army as part of a training area in World War II and never reoccupied, was nothing more than a shell, and pock-marks in the brickwork showed that the place had been shelled and fired on with mortars from time to time. Its roof had caved in, and the windows had long gone. If you looked carefully in its overgrown gardens you could see the last vestiges of expensive and exotic shrubs, and wildly overgrown pear and apple trees that some painstaking gardener had trained and trimmed on the garden’s sun-facing brick walls.

It was in this house, on its brick-strewn, earthen floors, that we set-up our base. At night, after meals of canned food -- maybe beef stew, peaches and strong tea brewed with evaporated milk and sugar -- we’d build a fire from the fallen roof beams, and sit around it, exhausted but content, smoking and drinking Irish stout, our faces flushed by the intense heat of the fire, and maybe by the brew. Beyond us, the red sandstone house glowed in the firelight, its hollow window spaces black and empty. And above it all, on moonlit nights the mountains towered through a constellation of sparks. More than 60 years on, I not only see it; I can also smell it, almost like incense.

Only a few years later, in 1955, we were in Egypt on another spring night. Four of us, young officers on an off-duty desert journey, were driving in jeeps from our camp in the Nile Delta, half way between Port Said in the north and Port Suez in the south. Our destination was a tiny fishing spot by the Red Sea called Al Qusayr, two hundred miles short of the Tropic of Cancer. The going had been good, on tarred roads as far as Suez. Then, for maybe 70 miles, oil men from the rapidly growing refineries around the port had made arrow-straight roads of flat, oiled sand that seemed to head nowhere. Now, a narrow road hugs the coastline south, but then we made the journey a little way inland over virgin desert, with not a sign of a house or a road for more than 200 miles.

The Eastern Desert is not at all like the romantic dunes in Lawrence of Arabia. While there are such areas, much of the territory is flat and stony, and as hard as a drill parade ground. Scrubby bushes grow near the wadis; dry river courses down which sweeping torrents flow in the rainy season. Pye-dogs and tiny deer roam the area at night, and yellow, slothful lizards as big as dogs bask in the sunshine by day. On the evening before we reached our destination we camped on a beach of silver sand. The sea was shallow and warm and, with a shrimping net, we hauled fat shrimps out of the sea, to supplement our dull, tasteless K-rations.

Afterward, tired but well-fed, we drove around in the dusk around our camp site, scavenging for the bleached woody stems of camel bracken and other growth in the wadis. It took a while, but fairly soon the jeeps were piled with fuel for a fire. We felt good. Here we were, comrades together at the very center of the world. Across the sea, 50 miles east, was Saudi Arabia. Down the beach lay the beginning of the Nubian Desert and, beyond it, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, where the Red Sea merges into the Indian Ocean. The fire crackled and spat, and sparks flew up into a moonless sky.

We were sitting on the sand, well into our stock of warm beer, and singing a song:

‘All de world am sad and dreary, everywhere I go . . .’

I gazed up at the flying sparks. What in heaven’s name was that up there above us, and had the others seen it? Lit by the fire, far, far up in the sky, it seemed, was a bearded, hooded face. Could this be God himself, Mohammed, or Moses? We’d stopped singing, rendered dumb. He was still there but, looking down, his head moved a fraction.

My neighbor broke the spell. “My God, It’s a ruddy Arab!”

And so it was. For days we’d seen no one, but here was some nomad, crossing the desert alone on a camel, who’d seen the fire and ridden over to investigate. Now, still mounted, he towered above us while we sat, staring up at his impassive face.

None of us spoke. Another comrade, John Gregory, who died decades ago, raised his hand in friendly recognition, and his response to this mystical visitation was more like that of someone meeting a stranger in his London club.

“How do you do?” he said.

Without a word the man reined in his camel, and rode away into the darkness.

A year after that desert crossing in Egypt, in the summer of 1955, my unit was ordered to Cyprus to deal with recent outbreaks of terrorism. We set up a tented base near Nicosia, the island’s capital, and were pitched into two very different kinds of action. Sometimes we faced riots in the city’s warren of narrow, twisting streets, using batons, tear gas and water-canon. At others, with more lethal weapons, we’d patrol the Troodos Mountains, the island’s rugged backbone. Here, EOKA -- a well-armed unit led by the partisans who’d once helped the Allies drive the Germans and Italians out of Greece -- was now hiding, and harassing the British troops.

That year, in the foothills of Troodos, there was an incident in which a dozen young British soldiers were burned alive. Though I never witnessed a single moment of it, I was a member of the three-man court of inquiry that followed the blaze, and re-lived it shortly afterward through the horrified eyes of the men who’d escaped it alive.

The enemy wasn’t EOKA, but fire. It happened on a warm October afternoon. On a narrow single-track road through a sheer rocky gully, a convoy of the Gordon Highlanders was making its way with trucks loaded with ammunition and other stores, led by an armored scout-car. The sides of the road were piled high with tinder-dry undergrowth and limbs that had fallen from the pine trees that overhung the pass. The road grew rougher and more uneven, and the scout car overturned, trapping the driver on the rocks half in and half out of the vehicle, which caught fire in seconds.

Ferret scout cars, like miniature tanks, but with wheels instead of tracks, had gas tanks that held at least 40 gallons, and more in jerry cans strapped to their sides. The Ferret exploded in a ball of flame, killing the injured driver and spreading quickly to the truck behind it. Jammed nose to tail, the convoy could move neither forward nor backward, and in minutes several trucks behind the Ferret were aflame. Later, expert evidence showed that there was a gusty wind that day, and a draught of air blew up the gully, fanning the flames. Although some troops tried in vain to use the vehicles’ puny fire extinguishers, many of their comrades were suffocated in the inferno.

As the junior member of the court of inquiry, I sat with a major and a colonel at a trestle table in an echoing room at the Chief-of-Staff’s headquarters in Nicosia. We’d already visited the charred site in the Troodos foothills with technical experts, and now eye-witnesses gave evidence that was scribbled down laboriously by a clerk who had no shorthand. Young Scots, mostly boy-faced privates and junior non-coms, all of them draftees, told how their brother soldiers had huddled together, their uniforms in flames, terrified and beyond help, unable to scale the perpendicular rock wall of the pass. In the court, several of the young survivors hesitated and wept while giving their evidence, as did a gray-haired veteran staff-sergeant, whose voice cracked with emotion and remorse as he told how he tried to wrap his burning boys with blankets in a futile attempt to smother the flames.

Then came the experts, fire officers and engineers giving their opinions on how and why the vehicles caught fire; military lawyers outlining the regulations about correct distances between vehicles, even a pulmonary specialist from a nearby military hospital. In stark contrast with the soldiers, all of these spoke in a casual, matter-of-fact way, as though they were witnesses in some everyday county court case back in England, dealing with some petty larceny, or a minor driving infringement.

We deliberated late into the second night. There was some discussion about whether anyone should be blamed for the closeness of the vehicles, but in the end we ruled the case a misadventure.

There was another fire in Cyprus. A year later, I had fallen for a girl named Anita, whose photograph I first saw as the island’s Girl of the Week in the Times of Cyprus. I managed to trace her and to meet her, and in a short time we were very close. She was Armenian, an alluring, dark-eyed, Mediterranean beauty, two years younger than I, and so much more exotic than the girls I’d known at home in England. When I could get away on occasional weekends, we’d meet at Greta’s Garden, a faded but still elegant hotel in a villa with apple green shutters, on the edge of the city, surrounded by an orchard of orange, lemon and fig trees, where peacocks strutted by day and cried eerily at night. But the affair, though sweet, was short-lived, because I was soon to leave the service and return to Britain. I missed her terribly after we parted on my last day, and believed I’d never see her again.

Back in London I transferred to the Army Reserve, and spent the next 18 months as a trainee in a public relations firm. By then I was engaged to a British girl. But, because my wealthy father-in-law forbade the marriage until I was better able to support his daughter, took a far better paid position back in Cyprus, as the press officer for the island colony’s emergency police force. I returned to the island without my fiancée for the year before the wedding; the mores of the day prohibited our being together there. Anyway, there was still too much violence for her to be safe, though Cyprus was by then moving toward the granting of independence. I suppose it’s not surprising that, alone, I often thought of Anita, but I was determined to keep her in the past and, though tempted, never sought her out.

But one night I had a call from police headquarters. There was a huge blaze in Nicosia. A gang of Greek Cypriot hotheads had set fire to a Turkish-owned timber yard and, since it was part of my new job to be at every incident to brief the press, I was there in minutes.

The yard was in a maze of narrow streets in the old walled city, and before I reached the site I could hear the roar of the fire, and see the sparks flying above the rooftops. Turning a corner into a cul-de-sac, I stared into a wall of flame that licked up into the night sky. Unable to reach the fire from that point, the firemen had backed their vehicles out, driven round and attacked it from another flank. Presently, the flames on the edge of the burning yard died down a little, enabling me to see the other side of the blaze more clearly. There were four fire engines, their ladders fully extended, and crews towered over the inferno with their hoses. A crowd had gathered, and my heart leapt when I saw that, among them, in the floodlights and the brilliance of the fire itself, was Anita. A tall dark, young man stood beside her, his arm round her shoulders. She was looking out over the flames, her face composed but somehow distant, as though her thoughts were lost in the fire. At that moment, all my memories of her flooded back, and it was all I could do to keep from calling out to her.

But I didn’t, and never saw her again.

And then there was fire in India, every bit as deadly as the blaze that raced up that mountainside in Cyprus.

Nearly 20 years ago, my wife, Lynn, and I were in Varanasi, an Indian city so ancient that it was already 2500 years old when Buddha preached there in 530 BC. Despite that connection with Buddhism, Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, is predominantly Hindu, and believers come here from all over India. For the healthy, the city is the center of kasha, or divine light, where people come to pray, to cleanse and purify themselves, and begin life anew. The city’s inhabitants can experience this every day, and take part in a daily drama on the ghats, huge stone staircases, more than seventy of which sweep down to the water for the length of the city.

On the ghats, loin-clothed men and sari-clad women come down for the ritual washing of their bodies, heedless of the impertinent eyes of foreign tourists. Others wash their clothes, kneading them on the rocks, beside other locals and visitors who stand, partly immersed in the holy Ganges, their lips moving in silent prayer.

Known as ‘The City of Light,’ Varanasi has another, darker aspect for which it might more aptly be called ‘The City of Life and Death.’ Nearly two thousand bodies burn every week on the ghats, in full view of passers-by. Hindus – there are eight hundred million of them in India and Nepal -- believe that coming to Varanasi to die brings instant release from the torment of everlasting reincarnation, and forgiveness of their sins. This is granted even to those unfortunates who, if their relatives cannot afford enough logs to finish the cremation, are heaved, partly-burned into the river.

We’d been told that the best time to experience the ritual panoply of Varanasi is at sunrise. The phone in our hotel room shrilled at 5 a.m., and we showered quickly, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, gulped down a cup of coffee and walked with our guide through still dark streets, already milling with people. Everyone seemed to be going in the same direction through the narrow, twisting alleys, heading for the Ganges. We reached the ghats a little before dawn. Already there were scores of rowboats on the river where thousands of candles, each buoyed up by a lotus leaf, bobbed and flickered around them on the water. With other travelers, we boarded a boat and paid the oarsman a few rupees for candles, and nursed their flames while he rowed us out some fifty yards from the riverbank. There, after we’d floated our little lotus lanterns off on the water, the boatman heaved on his oars and we glided upstream.

To one side, across the mile-wide river, the sun rose misty-gold, more like a full moon over the purple horizon, casting its swelling light on the crumbling sandstone buildings on the waterside: palaces; pavilions and temples. We passed the bathers, who seemed to say little to each other. Some were unashamedly naked, and more intent with the ritual pouring of the water over their bodies than taking a morning bath. At another ghat, the washing of clothes seemed to be a much more social affair, where women chatted and laughed together, helping each other fold their still wet garments, stacking piles of bed sheets, and what seemed to be tablecloths. Could these, we wondered, be for our own hotel?

Close by, we drifted past a ‘burning’ ghat. Hindus are cremated before sunset on the day they die, so blazing pyres are rarely seen early. At the back of the site stood a smoke-blackened temple, one of a thousand temples in this city of a more than a million souls. Alongside the building was a massive stack of logs that dwarfed the low caste workers -- untouchables – demolishing several smoldering black mounds. From each of these they dragged out the bones that even the 650 pounds of timber used for each body can never destroy: the skull, hip bones and femurs. Traditionally, the skulls are cracked open, to allow the spirit to leave, after which the remains and ash are raked into the river where, not a hundred yards downstream, people drink the water, wash themselves and their clothes, and even brush their teeth.

Earlier that week, farther north and across the border of Nepal in Khathmandu, we’d seen a funeral party, strangely cheerful, chanting, threading its way through the crowd with the yellow-shrouded corpse shoulder high, tossing coins to children along the route to the cremation site. Both here in Nepal, and also in Varanasi, people who are near death come from afar and lodge nearby. Sometimes the sick and aged wait for months or even years to die, but all are aflame within an hour or two of death. By the Bagmati river in Khatmandu, we watched the flames lap round shrouded bodies on several elevated platforms that extend over the riverbank, making it easier to sweep the remains into the water. The air was redolent of wood smoke, and the acrid smell of burning flesh.

Finally, year after year, there was my own slow-burning ceremonial of autumn fires in my garden at home in England where, under a towering tree, the smoke curled over a pile of crisp fallen oak and chestnut leaves, rose prunings, tomato and bean plants, and dead summer flowers.

In those days, about 30 years ago, a fragrant mist hung for days over our Surrey house and garden, heralding the frosts and the coming of winter. To me this was the purging of my little patch, a pleasing preparation for the cold, dormant months, ready for a new beginning in the spring; a perennial round of ashes to ashes.

Nowadays, as here in America, such fires are taboo for environmental reasons, and though I know and accept the reason why, that was a ritual whose passing I regret.