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?


oo0oo

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.


                                    ooo0oo

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.





oo0oo

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Dads Boss

My  homework  by Micky Edwards (aged 7)
23, Latimer Rd.,  Southampton, England, April 1943.

My Dads Boss                                                        

Mr Sneads fat and shorter than my Dad. Hes got a red, round face and a mousetash like Adolf Hitlers, and a pot belly with a watch chane hanging over it from one pocket on his waistcoat to another. Dad says the chanes made of real gold.  Mr Snead always wears the same dark blue suit with light brown shoes, which Mum says look low-class and dont go together.
Dad works for Mr Snead at Westminster Bank. Hes the chief clark and Mr Sneads the manger. The bank looks after peoples money so it doesnt get stolen by burglers and people like that. When the custermers want some money to spend, they write out a check saying how much they want and then the tellers give it to them.     
Mr Snead and Dad keep all the money in a great big safe in the cellar that has an iron door on it that ways about a ton. Nobody can go into the safe if they dont know a secret number and a special key thats made in two bits. Dad has one bit and Mr Sneads got the other one, and when they want to get more money they have to put their bits together to make one key that opens the lock.
          Dad doesnt like Mr Snead very much, and gets angry when he plays golf on work days, leaving Dad to look after the bank and tell all the people what to do. Sometimes he plays too days in a week. He tells Dad he only does it to build the business, so he can make friends with people who could be custermers. Dad says hes a lazy bugbear, and that when the bank inspectors come every year Mr Snead pretends he does all the work, and never tells them how hard Dad and everyone else does.
Mr and Mrs Snead havent got any children, but every Christmas they have a party in there big flat over the bank. The kids of all the grownups who work at the bank come, and lots of others from custermers families. There are little sardine and tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and lemonaid and brandy snaps and playbox biskets and scones with goosberry jam on them. They used to have ice cream but now the wars on you can't get it any more. Mum says we wont see any ice cream again till peacetime comes.
          Sometimes Mr Snead has a conjerer at the party who can turn sheets of white paper into five pound notes with a little machine. Once my brother David, whose eleven, asked him for one of the notes, but the conjerer said he couldn't have it.  David said why not, wouldn’t it be easy to just make himself another one? But the man looked really cross and went as red as his Turkish hat with a tassel on.  Then he put the fiver in his pocket, made a mouse disappear and took a pigeon out of Mrs Sneads purse.
          The best thing about Mr Sneads Christmas parties comes just before we go home. We all go downstairs into the dark spooky bank.  Mr Snead gets out a cart they use to take the money in a lift from the safe to the counters where the tellers hand it out to the custermers. You can get four or five kids on the trolley, and we take turns. When wear all on it Mr Snead pushes us round behind the counters really really fast.  He shouts out all aboard, and then zoom, zoom, zoom as we go along, and turn the corners so fast you think your going to fall off.  Because we can't see over the top of the counter, it's like rushing through a dark scary tunnel in a fairground.
          But last Christmas the party was different. We were playing musical chairs just before we started tea when the air raid warning siren went off at the bottom of Canal Street. Mr Snead got up on a chair and told us not to worry and everything would be all right, and said to follow Dad down into the cellar where weed be safer. He said not to run, but to walk down the stares where weed be told what to do.
          We went down lots of stares and it was a bit dark down there. Dad and another man were lighting candles to make it look more Christmassy, and someone else carried down the gramophone and started playing records. Mr Snead got us all singing songs like Run Rabit Run and the White Clifs of Dover and Therell Always Be An England, and when weed sung for a while we heard guns firing. A few girls cried a bit but David and me started going back up the stares, hoping we could see the searchlights and the shells going off, but Mrs Snead ran after us shouting and made us go back in the cellar.
There must have been a lot of germans flying over on their way up the river to London, because the guns went on and on. By then, the grownups had brought all the food down and we played blind mans buff and charades and games like that. But then all of a sudden there was a great big bang not far away. Everything shook and little bits of whitewash and stuff fell off the ceiling.
Dad and Mr Snead must have thought a bomb might land on top of us, because they put their bits of the safe key together and unlocked the safe. They pulled and pulled to get the heavy door open, and then Mr Snead said come in boys and girls and dont touch anything.
So we all went inside and it looked like a sort of Alladins cave. There were shiny metal shelves with thousands and thousands of pounds of bank notes in bundles with paper bands around them. There were also little sacks of pennies and shillings and things, and lots of drawers with keyholes in them.
We all sat on the floor talking and the conjerer came in and told us jokes. They kept the door open and it was fun in the safe, and sort of exiting. But we hadnt been there long before we heard the all clear siren. Everybody walked out and went upstares again and Dad and Mr Snead locked the safe up. Dad told us later that Mr Snead wouldve lost his job if anyone knew hed broken the rules and let us go in that safe full of money. Dad said it was reprahensable.
Before we went home Father Christmas came and gave us presents. He was a fat little man with a red face and Peter said it was Mr Snead, but I knew it was really Santa. I got a kit to make a Spitfire and Peter got one for a Junker 87 Stuka dive bomber, the one with the funny turned-up wings.
On the way home we walked along Market Street and there was smoke going up in the air on the corner of Park Road. A bomb had dropped on Mr Gladwyns grocery shop at the corner of Park Road and Market Street. The shop was still burning and a fireman told Dad that Mr Gladwyn was all right but his wife was dead. She was sitting listening to the wireless in their sitting room above the shop when the bomb came through the roof.  There was an ambulance outside with its lights flashing and another fireman said theyd put Mrs Gladwyn in it.
Mum said we didnt need a big supper after eating at the party all afternoon, so when we got home she made us a fried Spam sandwich and a mug of cocco.
When I said my prayers at bedtime I said one for Mrs Gladwyn but David said that was silly, because she was dead. I really liked Mrs. Gladwyn. She was kind and nice and I cried a bit before I went to sleep, but quietly so David wouldn’t hear me.                                                                                                                                    
         
                                        THE END
       
Micky  Edwards

Michael Edwards: Good story, but very poor spelling!
See me.
Mr. Smales

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A NATION OF GARDENERS

Napoleon labeled the English “a nation of shopkeepers.”  But he was wrong – we Brits are a nation of gardeners. Gardening’s in our blood, we love it and we’re good at it. Ask any group of Americans which nation they associate with gardening, and more often than not the English and the Italians will be way up there in the poll.
True, I may be a trifle biased about the Italians. I’ve seen their gardens, and they’re nice enough, so include them if you must, but they don’t quite match up to the Brits’. The Italian talent’s limited to gardens in the villas and palazzos of the wealthy, while in England the passion transcends wealth, class and social status, which I have to admit is a paradox in the world’s most snobbish and class-conscious country.
There are several reasons why we rate so highly in the gardening stakes. The first is that it rains a lot, and this is what makes the British Isles and Ireland so startlingly green, lending a chocolate-box beauty to even the humblest back yard, and making village cricket pitches look like pool tables. Perhaps this is God’s compensation for dealing them some of the world’s most depressing weather.
Two other reasons are history and good soil. The British have been on their knees and up to their elbows in rich brown earth, sowing and planting and weeding their plots for at least two thousand years. The Romans, originators of the Italian garden, knew a thing or two about horticulture, recognized good soil when they saw it, and so became the founders of an ancient tradition in Britain. This was later nurtured by the lords of the manor and the aristocracy, and perfected by such gardening giants as ‘Capability’ Brown, once a gardener’s boy who, in the mid-1700s, rose to become the greatest landscape gardener of all time. It was he who created what the world chooses to call ‘The English Garden.’
So what’s all the fuss about? What is a typical English garden, and  exactly what distinguishes it from those of other countries? Primarily it’s the antithesis of  the great formal, geometric gardens at the Palace of Versailles, or the lavish and incredibly beautiful spreads of the great Russians, Peter and, later, Catherine the Great near the Neva river in St. Petersburg. To begin with, there are no straight lines in the English garden, no neat rows or circles of identical plants, no disciplined box-tree hedgerows, and no rigid pathways. If you like, it’s the art of deliberately creating a disorder that is at the same time orderly -- a natural but deliberately balanced contrast of ying and yang.
If that’s too esoteric, here’s Dan Pearson, a London gardener quoted in an article in The New Yorker, who describes the English garden style with crystal clarity. He calls it “a juxtaposition of formality and informality . . . a controlled chaos, all tumbly and jumbly, where one plant is spilling and spraying over into the next.”  
In the same article Vita Sackville-West, author, poet, wife of writer Harold Nicholson and Virginia Wolff’s lover (and also, for decades, the gardening editor of Britain’s Sunday Times) explained the difference in just ten words when writing years ago about her own famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle. “If roses stray over the path,” she said, “the visitor must duck.”
The British are pretty good at grass, too. As the originators of tennis, cricket and soccer, they became masters of growing the perfect lawn, which is evident not only in sports fields all over the country, but also in city parks and on village greens, and in every dwelling place from hundreds of stately manors and mansions to millions of modest suburban homes. You’ll find none of that bright-green plastic stuff on the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, or at the stadiums of top-class soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United.
It should be said that gardening’s a great deal tougher in America, and even the most passionate and persistent American garden-lovers are up against natural forces about which their British counterparts know nothing. To begin with, there’s hardly a single four-footed species of plant-eating predator in England. True, there are wild deer in the national parks from the Lake District in the north to Salisbury Plain in the south, but they’re nowhere near as numerous or as voracious as their once-colonial brothers and sisters. They don’t sneak around the suburbs and open countryside by night and in broad daylight, gobbling up every new seedling and emerging shoot, or munching on hibernating flowering shrubs and newly-planted trees. The only groundhogs the English have ever seen were in a silly movie with Bill Murray, while rabbits have never proliferated in England since an outbreak of myxomatosis years ago. As if all this weren’t enough, American gardeners fight a perennial battle with the weather. It’s either too hot , too dry or too cold. Real droughts are commonplace over here, but rare in England.
There’s a story about an American tourist who stood amazed at the lushness and perfection of the lawns at King’s College, Cambridge. An aged gardener stood nearby, leaning on a fence, and the visitor turned to him.
“Gee, that’s mighty fine grass you got there, sir! I never saw anything like it. How do you do it?”
The old man took his hat off and scratched his head.
“Well,” he said, “There ain’t much to it, really. First you rakes it well and puts down some seed. Then you spreads ‘orse manure and bone meal on it, and waits for a bit of rain. Then you rolls it . . .”
“And then what?” the visitor asked.
“Well, it’s easy after that. You just  go on rollin’ it an’ rakin’ it every day for four or five hundred years.”
And that says it all.




Monday, April 4, 2016

NOT FOR SISSIES

Ye gods! I’ll be 85 in April. I’m an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. You wouldn’t look at me twice in the street and, if you were going to ask a passer-by for directions, you surely wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d look for someone who looked more approachable and genial; more user-friendly, as they say these days.
It’s not that I look menacing or anything, but that, with my face in repose, advancing age – okay, let’s be honest, advanced age -- has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m kind to babies and small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
They say that growing old’s not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
Time happened, that’s what. Okay, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I (yes, there are still one or two) have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?
My wonderful wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the photos 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, with a string of numbers hung on a board around my neck.
My late mother-in-law, Erma, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and inanimate things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value. Instead, search for the beauty within.
She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, you Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood. 
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like façade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I  published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the protagonist (yes, they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his rented car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
King Duncan, in Macbeth, knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Go on, smile at him, he might be me.

oo0oo





Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mr. SPARKS


When I published the bio piece “Mr. Sparks” for a month last year it had a much more appreciative reception than usual. So I’ve decided to run it again for the rest of March for anyone who may have missed it. Here it is again.  JB.


Mr. Sparks

In England in 1942, when I was eleven and my brother David was almost fifteen, we lived in a house on a hill in the county of Kent. The hill, Stockers Hill was a steep, woody,  curving road that led out of a valley of apple orchards and vegetable fields to Rodmersham, with its neatly mowed village green, its towering, white clapper-boarded windmill, and a circle of trim cottages with diamond-paned windows that seemed to peer out myopically from under thatched eaves.
Half way up the hill,  just before its steepest point, and across the road from our garden gate, there was an oak park bench in an alcove scooped out of a chalky bank, where pedestrians trudging up to the hill to the village could sit and recover their breath before laboring to the top.
A high hawthorn hedge, maybe seven or eight feet high, hid the bench from our house, so that any occupants could only be spied from only one place, David’s bedroom window. They must have thought themselves invisible, for it was from that window, through slightly parted curtains, that my brother and I once stood speechless while we witnessed the true facts of life, athletically demonstrated on a hot August afternoon by a uniformed American airman and a local girl.
But there was another, more frequent occupant of that bench, an old man whose ancient hairy face is engraved even more vividly in my memory than those of passing lovers. We heard him before we ever saw him, and for a day of two knew him only by his high-pitched, phlegmy cough. My parents listened, sitting in deck-chairs on the lawn, and my mother, looking up from her book, murmured, “There’s a heavy smoker for you!”  But my father, who’d fought and been wounded in the trenches in World War I, said, “No, that’s a war gas victim if ever I heard one.”
On those first few days we listened to the stranger’s cough as he rose from the bench and struggled on up the hill, the sound fading into the trees as he rounded the bend. Then, one day, we heard him through the hawthorn hedge and, slipping upstairs, David and I stared out through the open bedroom window. Lounging on the bench, with his long legs stretched out, and his feet on the curb, a very old man in patched, ragged clothes leaned back with his bearded face turned up to the sun.
And then we saw my mother open the garden gate. What was she going to say to this old man? She walked across the road to where the stranger lolled in the sunshine. His eyes were shut; he might even have been asleep.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” my mother asked.
Evidently, he wasn’t asleep. His face lit up, and he eased himself painfully into an upright position.
“That’d be ever so nice, Mum,” he said. “Thank you kindly.”
It’s not unusual for British people to offer boiling hot tea on a summer’s day, even one as sweltering as that August afternoon. In, fact, there’s a widely held belief that it actually cools you down.  Back in the house, Mother put the kettle on the hob, and rummaged in the back of a closet to find a large, one-of-a-kind china teacup and saucer. On a plate that didn’t even closely match the cup she put several raisin cookies, a small jug of milk, and a few cubes of sugar.
My mother carried a tray to the old man on his bench who, rising, walked a pace or two to meet us.
“That’s proper kind of ya’, Mum,” he wheezed and, taking the tray, he put it on the ground in front of him.
She stood looking at him, which seemed not to disturb him at all.
“Where do you live?” my mother asked.
He didn’t answer her for a while, but leaned down to the tray at his feet with some difficulty, poured some milk into the tea, and stirred in four lumps of sugar. Then he leaned back on his bench, raised the cup to us as though making a silent toast, and took a sip.
The old man beamed. “Now that’s what I call a nice cup of tea.”
He put the cup down on the bench beside him. “I haven’t got no home, really, Mum,” he said. “I’m what they call ‘on the road,’ see? But in the summer time I ‘ave a place I go on the other side of Rodmersham.”
Later, we pondered on where he might take shelter in the winter time, when icy North Easters from Scandinavia swept over the flat, bare counties of Suffolk and Essex and across the wide River Medway a mile or two away. Nor did we know where he went down the hill every morning. And it was a while before we discovered where his ‘place’ was on the other side of the village.
One day soon after we met him, I asked the old man his name.
“Sparks, sonny,” he said, “Why don’t you just call me Mr. Sparks.”
“And how old are you, Mr. Sparks?” my brother asked, unaware that it was impolite to ask this of a perfect stranger.
The old man’s pale blue eyes twinkled. “Now that, young man,” he said with a little chuckle, “would be tellin’.”  
Mr. Sparks became a regular part of our lives. Every day, before he continued on up the hill, he carried his tea tray back across the road and laid it on the ground by the garden gate, and we always heard his loud coughing through the hedge when he came back the next afternoon. My father, normally the kindest man, even wondered aloud one day whether some of Mr. Sparks’s coughing wasn’t a subtle way of saying, “Listen, here I am, ready for my cup of tea.”
August passed, and we slipped into a long Indian summer, with cool September mornings and sultry afternoons that lasted into early October. Every afternoon, Mr. Sparks passed by for his cup of tea, and we grew to know him a little better. David and I would sit on either side of him on his bench, listening to the old man’s adventures. We heard tales, in his high, piping voice, of the Zulus and pigmies in South Africa, and the giant Hausa warriors on the river Niger in West Africa. There were horrible accounts of maggots in sea biscuits aboard the troop ships to India, and the agonies of frost bite at the Battle of Balaklava, during the Crimean War. Once we asked him whether he had ever married, or had children, but about this he was vague and evasive.
The first frosts came in October and then, one chilly November afternoon, Mr. Sparks’s bench was empty. A week passed, and another, but still he didn’t come. Should we notify someone and, if so, whom? After all, he’d admitted he was ‘on the road,’ which was a kinder, more friendly way of saying he was a hobo, tramp, or vagrant.  Mother suggested he’d moved south to the Sussex or Hampshire coast, where the winters are a little milder.
It was nearly Christmas when we learned more about him. There was early snow in the garden outside, and my father was reading the local paper. At the bottom of a page there was an item that ran for little more than an inch or two, telling how Ronald Sparks, aged about 80 years, a former corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been found dead after sleeping in the warmth of a lime kiln outside the village of Rodmersham. He was, the coroner said, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide gas that hung over the kilns on cold nights. The cause of death, the report said, was ‘not uncommon.’
Lately, now in the mid-80s myself, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Sparks and his stories about army life. Could he really have fought in the Crimean War? It took no time with an encyclopedia, many decades before Google,  to find that the war ended in 1856. Even if he’d been a drummer boy at that time, he’d have been more than a hundred years old on that cold December night in 1942. 
          So it wasn’t true. It saddens me that I doubted that grand old soldier.
          I wish I’d never looked it up.