Saturday, October 16, 2010

Man in the Mirror

He died fifty-one years ago, yet I see him every day. Each morning, all I need to do is look in the bathroom mirror, and there he is.
            “Morning, Dad,” I’ll say as our eyes meet, though usually under my breath, for fear that Lynn, my wife, will take these mutterings as an early indication of approaching dementia.
            Even though he was maybe two inches taller than I, and had straight hair and a mustache, we still looked alike and, now that I’m nearly ten years older than he was when he died, I know that we share many quirky mannerisms. Yet in other ways we were about as different as anyone could be.     
            Sadly, it was years after he’d gone that I really began to realize what an unusual and lovable man he was. Perhaps, before his sudden death at the age of seventy, I wrongly evaluated people in terms of their material success. Now, I hope, I’m older and maybe even a little wiser, because by those criteria my father wouldn’t have measured up. Like their ancestors, doctors and surgeons for generations, his two brothers became professionals, Bill a doctor and Frank a lawyer. But after his stint at a boarding school in Somerset, my father didn’t go on to college; instead he became a clerk in a rural branch of the Westminster Bank, and spent the rest of his working life in small country towns.
            He was the most extraordinary mix of seemingly incompatible traits. On one hand he was warm and kind and generous, yet at the same time he was wracked by anxiety about money, and an irrational fear of being burgled. While he was fervent in his attempt to nurture my brother David and me, and to see to it that we were well-informed, he was one of the least tactile people I’ve ever known. I don’t think he ever hugged us, and he certainly never kissed us. From my early teens I addressed him as ‘Sir,’ and whenever we met or parted -- even later when I might have been overseas for a year or two -- we only shook hands.
            But for all his apparent remoteness, he was capable of making us laugh, bursting spontaneously into song and verse, or posing some silly riddle from his own early childhood in the 1890’s.
            “What kind of noise annoys an oyster?” he’d ask.
            “We don’t know, Dad. What noise annoys an oyster.”
            “Why?” he’d say, “a noisy noise annoys an oyster.”
            When you’re five or six that’s pretty funny, but sometimes his verses were a little too macabre for our mother, who thought we were a trifle young for some of them. In a solemn voice he’d recite:
            “Oh dear Mama, what is that mess?
            It looks like strawberry jam.
            Hush, hush, my dears, ‘tis your Papa,
            run over by a tram.”  
My father had three brothers, and a sister, Janet. All four boys were in the army in World War I, and three survived. Arthur, the youngest, a shy, fragile youth, died in the trenches in Flanders, while Frank and Bill served nearby in France. Bill won the Military Cross patching up the wounded under enemy fire during the Battle of The Somme. My father, Harold, caught a chunk of shrapnel in the stomach, and after being shipped home to hospital, finished the war running a prison camp in Belgium. He must have been the most benevolent commandant, for our house was full of strange artifacts that German prisoners had made for him out of brass shell-cases: ashtrays, a dinner-gong that hung in an oak frame, and a pipe tobacco jar with a lid, all with ‘Kapt. H. Birch’ engraved on them. 
            Father was fifty when, in 1939, the second World War broke out. He became an air raid warden, and my mother a volunteer ambulance driver. We lived in a village on the estuary of the river Thames, along which the German bombers came and went during their raids on London. Our county, Kent, was the stage on which much of the Battle of Britain was played, and it bristled with searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries. My father’s job as a warden was fairly leisurely. He and other older villagers prowled the streets and farm buildings to check that windows were blacked-out, and to watch for fires from incendiary bombs. My mother, on the other hand, found herself carrying hundreds of casualties after air attacks on the fighter and bomber bases dotted around the surrounding countryside.
            One moonless night there was an incident that typified the clown in my father, and at the same time, his serious-mindedness. For an hour or so, after hearing strange sounds in an apple orchard, he crawled on hands and knees, believing himself to be stalking a German parachutist. When he at last threw himself, unarmed, on his prey, it turned out to be a startled sheep, much to the later amusement of his fellow wardens in the village pub.
            Father was an inveterate walker, and as teenagers on our long summer vacations from boarding school, David and I would stroll with him between the tall hazel-wood hedgerows in the narrow lanes around the village. He called these excursions ‘informative walks’ and, as patriarch turned pedagogue, would quiz us about which river flowed through what city, dates of the reigns of English kings and queens, quotations from Shakespeare, and even Latin common nouns, most of which I still remember more nearly seventy years later.
            There was one poignant scenario near the end of my father’s working life about which my mother didn’t tell me until he was dead. It revealed one chronic cause of anxiety that I realize we shared during our lives – a hell that, for lack of a better word, I will call job anxiety.  For years, as far back as I can remember, he was the Number 2 at his bank in the little market town of Sittingbourne. And one day in the Thirties he was short-listed for a post as Number 1 of a bigger branch, and summoned to London.
            He was almost shaking with fear when he boarded the train for London to attend an 11:00 a.m. interview at the Westminster Bank headquarters.  Eleven o’clock passed, then twelve, and he had still not been called. At two he was sent out to lunch, and it wasn’t until nearly four p.m. that the interview began. By that time he was in such a state that he was barely coherent. He didn’t get the job.
            I’m retired now, and have two children, thousands of miles away with on two different continents with their own families. Sometimes I wonder whether, forty-odd years from now, in the distant, impossible-to-imagine 2050’s, my son will ever look into his shaving-mirror and see and speak to me. If he and his sister remember me even a fraction as fondly as I do my father, that’ll be just fine by me.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Man's Gotta Do . . .

Devon rhymes with heaven, and for good reason. The English county of Devonshire is all green grass, chocolate-box cottages and fishermen’s coves, wedged between three equally beautiful counties: Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Together, these make up the farthest corner of England -- a paradisical peninsula jutting into the Celtic Sea, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
When an Englishman thinks of Devonshire, cider and clotted cream come to mind, and wild Exmoor, where buzzards swoop overhead, and red deer and wild ponies roam free. The very last thing anyone would associate with Devon would be the Stafford Furniture Company, Limited.
In the 1970s, the town council of Barnstaple voted quietly for the creation of an industrial park to be tucked in a woody area on the edge of the town. This would result in jobs, and in increased business and tax income, they claimed. It would be good for Barnstaple. The local weekly paper gave the story supportive splash headlines, and not a letter was written to the editor; and not a voice raised in protest. Barnstaple’s people weren’t like that. Not at that point, anyway.
Barnstaple’s elders kept a wary eye on the kinds of plant that set up shop in their industrial park. The newcomers tended to be environmentally friendly -- which was not a phrase much used in England at that time. There was a manufacturer of duvets, for whom an environmental crisis could be nothing more serious than a cloud of goose feathers  accidentally leaked into the atmosphere. There were two household furniture factories that made couches and armchairs out of local oak and imported hardwoods. Another made window shades, and others produced balls of twine, cardboard boxes, and a brand of confectionery very similar to Twinkies.
And then along came Jack Stafford, a tall, lean man in his early thirties who had bushy black eyebrows, and who, had he chosen to be an actor, would have made a perfect hero in a Bronte or Dickens movie. Jack was a furniture designer who had recently won several awards from Britain’s prestigious Design Council. However, his furniture was not comfy couches and chairs for peoples’ homes. His business was contract furniture, and his specialty was stacking chairs, for use in conference rooms, hospitals and other public places. He’d been so successful that his firm had recently been bought by the Thomas Tilling Group, a conglomerate active in everything from life insurance and laboratory glassware to engineering. Stafford’s small workshop in Norfolk could no longer cope with the demand, and Tilling agreed to invest in a new plant elsewhere.
When Stafford’s planning application reached the town council, the burghers of Barnstaple read it with care. They looked at artfully lit photographs of his award-winning chairs, and another that showed his impressive gold-plated trophy from the Design Council. The recent acquisition by the respected Thomas Tilling Group was noted, and the application was accepted.
At that time I was a public relations consultant to several Tilling Group companies, including Stafford Furniture. Jack Stafford and I drove down to Devon to see how the new building, on a site on the edge of Barnstaple Bay, was progressing. For me, the main aim of this trip was to gather enough information to write a proposal for  organizing and publicizing the official opening of the plant about a year later.
At one point we passed a rectangular building, out of which several pipes snaked toward the bay.
“What’s that going to be?” I asked.
“That? Oh, it’ll be the water treatment plant.”
“What’s it going to treat, exactly?”
Jack seemed unconcerned. “It takes the gunk out of the water we use in the plating process.”
“What kind of gunk?”
“Chromium and cadmium. They’re deadly poisons, of course. We use them to put the chrome on our chairs. The treatment plant will filter it out, so by the time it gets into the bay it’ll be as clean as a whistle.”
That sounded o to me, and my mind switched elsewhere.
The plant began what they called ‘pilot production’ about three months before the official opening ceremony planned for April 1971. A few days after the first shiny chrome-plated chairs came off the assembly line, Jack Stafford called me in my office in London.
“Bit of a fuss going on in Devon, John,” he said.
“Really? “ I said.
“There are people demonstrating at the gate.”
Demonstrating? What about?”
“Some of the townspeople are in a bit of a tizzy about the plating plant. They’ve heard about the chrome and cadmium. They think our treated water could kill the fish in the bay, and find its way into the town’s water supply.”
“What’s your reaction to that, Jack?” I asked.
“It’s piffle,” he said. “Absolute bosh! That water’s as pure as the driven snow. Why? A baby could drink it."
In a day or so we’d fixed a press conference, at which the plant manager and I met the demonstrators and the local media. Armed with documents from the firm of consultants certifying the purity of the water, we took reporters on a guided tour of the plant. On the next day the noisy, banner-waving crowd was gone from the factory gates and, later in the week, stories appeared in the local paper and broadcast media assuring Barnstaple’s citizens that they had nothing to fear.

For the next few months all was quiet. Then, one day in the spring, Jack Stafford and his board of directors converged on the town’s best hotel in readiness for the opening ceremony. Later in the day came Sir Geoffrey Eley, the chairman of the Thomas Tilling Group and others of his ilk, together with Jeremy Thorpe, the popular Member of Parliament for Devon North. With my press releases, photographs, lists of invitees, name tabs and other PR paraphernalia after weeks of preparatory work, I was there checking and counter-checking, phoning and fussing.
That evening, as we all relaxed in the hotel bar enjoying pre-dinner drinks, I heard what seemed to be raised voices in the street outside the hotel. I looked out the window, where about thirty people were gathering, unfurling banners on which the word ‘Poison’ seemed to be prominent.
“They’re back,” I whispered to Jack.
“Who are?”
“The demonstrators.”
Stafford and I slipped out of the bar and into the street, where a slightly belligerent man with a red, round face asked me, “Is that Stafford bloke in there?”
“He’s right here.” I said.
Stafford strolled up to the man, for all the world like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. But he held out his hand. “How do you do,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
 “Well, you can shut down that bloody factory for a start!” the man said.
An argument began about the efficacy of the water treatment plant, at the end of which Stafford said, “Listen, my good man, I thought we cleared this up once and for all last year. Tell me, what do we have to do to convince you this water’s perfectly safe?”
The man thought for a moment, and his colleagues craned to hear his answer.
“There’s only one thing,” he said. “If you can get one of them high-ups to drink some of that water himself, in front of the newspapers and that. Then we’ll believe ya’”
“Bargain,” said Stafford, and they shook hands again.
Who’d impress them most, Jack and I wondered. We doubted Sir Geoffrey Eley would do it. Who better, we agreed, than their own, likeable Member of Parliament?
Back in the bar I sidled up to Jeremy Thorpe and put the question to him.
With a sly grin he said. “Why not? But there’s one condition.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“That you drink it first,” said the MP for Devon North.

In the morning I slipped out and bought an elegant crystal goblet from the nearby Dartington Glass Works, and half an hour later, the Right Honorable Jeremy Thorpe, Jack Stafford, a foreman and I stood together, alone, around a faucet in the water treatment plant.
The water ran clear and clean. I raised the goblet to my lips. It was flat, and utterly tasteless. I refilled the glass and passed it to the others.
“Not a vintage year, I ‘d say,” Thorpe said dryly.

Three hours later the band played, Sir Geoffrey Eley cut the ceremonial tape, and the VIP party meandered through the plant under the watchful eyes of the reporters and TV cameras. At the water treatment plant, true to his word, Jeremy Thorpe drank a convincing amount of the water. Then, inviting an unbiased witness to join him, he poured himself another glass, carried it to the front of the building, raised his goblet to the crowd, and downed the entire contents. Smiling broadly, the Right Honorable Member made a little bow.
The demonstrators had watched silently among the public on their tiered benches, waiting for the show, their banners furled but ready. Slowly, a ripple of applause from the audience swelled into cheers.
And we never heard from them again.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Lucy, Soapy and Dogs

It’s taken more than three-quarters of my life to realize that my best teachers and professors were the ones who taught not from their heads but from their hearts.

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 English 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. You’ll find more on this shortcoming in this blog, in a piece entitled “Count Me Out.”

At the time I thought I was a dunce at math because I was plain dumb, and later that maybe 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, July 23, 2010


It wasn’t a lot of fun being duty officer. On call during weekday nights or whole weekends, he'd spend his evenings sitting alone at a desk in the adjutant’s office, and sleeping near a phone, fully-dressed, on a camp bed in a room that was as cozy and commodious as a broom closet. No wonder the duty officer was nicknamed "duty dog."

On a quiet night it was fairly straightforward. You might handle an occasional phone call from brigade headquarters, or deal with a minor fire caused by a drunken soldier falling asleep while smoking in bed. At worst you’d have to confront an abusive street-walker causing a scene at the barrack gate, complaining she’d been wronged by one of the troops.

Among the duty officer’s routines was keeping the sentries on their toes. Once every night, some time between midnight and six in the morning, we’d make a surprise visit to the eight soldiers who, woken while snatching a nap in the guard house between turns on sentry duty, would tumble out under the dim yellow lights, yawning and tousled, their weapons ready for inspection.

An even less popular function as duty dog was accompanying the duty sergeant-major to the cookhouse, to inspect the mens’ meals and invite complaints. The food was terrible, yet this routine of asking for complaints had been a tradition in the British Army since long before the battle of Waterloo, and both officers and men knew it was a pointless exercise. But it did give even the most lowly soldier an opportunity for a joke at a junior officer’s expense. The duty officer would approach each table and ask “any complaints?” Normally, old soldiers, knowing the score, would grin and shake their heads, but from time to time some barrack-room commedian would grin and say “Well, since you asked, Sir, the caviar’s not too fresh today.” The sergeant-major would growl something on the lines of: “That’s enough from you, you cheeky bugger!” and we’d pass on.

But some nights there were real dramas. One of my first spells as duty officer was at Ballykinlar camp in Northern Ireland, a remote spot where the Mountains of Morne really do sweep down to the sea as they say in the song. I had a call from a corporal’s wife in the batallion’s married quarters. Her husband was away on a posting somewhere, and she was bellowing with pain, calling for a breast pump. I was a few weeks short of my twenty-first birthday, and had no idea what a breast-pump was, nor why she’d ever ask for such a thing, but her need was clearly desperate, and I dispatched a driver the twenty or thirty miles to the nearest hospital. Meanwhile, her voice growing more hysterical, the unhappy woman called me every few minutes until the mysterious gadget arrived.

In a more poignant episode in the British Zone in occupied Germany, I had a phone call from the adjutant at our regimental depot back in England.
“Tricky job, John,” he said. “Corporal Randall’s mother’s died. Heart attack. ‘Fraid you’ll have to see the chap and give him the bad news.”

It was about seven in the evening on a Friday night, and the camp was deserted. I went down to Randall’s barrack room, where I found a lone soldier lying on his bed, reading a newspaper.

“Seen Corporal Randall?”

The man jumped up and shuffled to attention.“They’re all out, sir. It’s pay day, see?”

“All right,” I said. “When he gets back, tell him to see the duty officer, will you?”

It was past midnight when there was a knock at the door of my room.

“I’m Randall, sir. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, I said. “Come inside for a moment.”

There were several hundred men in the battalion, and we’d never seen each other before. He entered a little hesitantly, removing his beret. I offered him a seat, clearing my tunic and belt from the only chair in the cramped little room.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Randall.”

I held out an open pack of cigarettes. He took one and I lit it for him.

“Bad news, sir?”

“Yes. I . . . I had a call from the depot tonight.” I told him. “It seems your mother was taken ill. They asked me to tell you she . . . she died this afternoon. I’m very sorry.”

Randall said nothing. He lowered his eyes and took a deep drag on his cigarette. When he looked up his eyes were wet with tears.

“She ‘ad one of them attacks before, See? We was always afraid she might ‘ave another one.”

We talked for a while about his family, and then he stood up, preparing to leave. A little self-consciously I put an arm round his shoulder. “Listen, it’s late,” I said. “Try to get some sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make out a travel warrant and send you home. OK?”

The next morning, just as I was going off-duty, I had another call from England.
“Morning, John,” the adjutant said. “I say . . . awfully embarrassing thing . . . turns out it wasn’t Randall’s mother who died.” I found it hard to hide my incredulity.

“Well, who was it?”

“It’s an odd business. Seems it was his girl-friend’s mother. Not quite the same thing, what? Awfully, sorry, old boy.”

It was just before seven in the morning, and I sent someone to fetch Randall. Again, he knocked on the door.

“I hardly know how to tell you this,” I said.

But to my astonishment, he actually grinned when I told him the true story.
“I didn’t like her a lot, to tell the truth,” he said. “And she’d have been a flippin’ awful mother-in-law.”

There was a genuinely tragic incident a year or two later, when I was duty officer in Cyprus. This time my visitor was another corporal, but unlike Randall – who’d been a fresh-faced draftee of about twenty – this man, with two rows of campaign medals on his chest, was a sun-shriveled veteran in his late forties, or older.
Corporal Benson was an armorer in one of the rifle companies. Each company had its own armory, where its weapons and ammunition were stored. The armories were stone buildings without windows, whose doors, like those in stables, were in two halves, so that the top section could be opened independently. Each armorer slept in his own dingy store room.

Benson was shaking with emotion when he came to see me. As he told it, a few evenings earlier he’d been sitting alone, naked on his bed doing something to himself that it’s impossible to define with any delicacy. While he was engaged in this solitary act, and unaware that he had an audience, some of his comrades had apparently peered into his shadowy quarters and taken a snapshot of him.

“They took a picture of you?”

“They did, sir.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“They’re showing pictures of me doin’ it. Around the canteen.”

“Have you seen these pictures? Actually seen them?”

“Well, no, sir. Not the pictures themselves.”

“Tell me this,” I said. “Did you see a flash go off when they took the pictures?”
Benson thought for a moment. “No. There wasn’t no flash. But I did look up and see them there.”

“Did you see the camera?”

“No, Sir. Can’t say I did.”

As I had done with Randall, I offered the man a cigarette. I weighed-up the story in my mind. The armories were dark inside and, by his account, Corporal Benson had been all of twenty feet from the doorway. Without a flash bulb it would have been impossible – absolutely impossible – to take a picture. I was convinced that he was being fooled by his comrades, and I told him so.

We talked for a while, and slowly Benson seemed to become as sure as I was that, embarrassing though his situation was, he’d been the victim of a mean practical joke, and no photographs were really being passed round to shame him further. He returned to his armory relaxed and encouraged. Or so I supposed.

But back in his room, Benson took a revolver, inserted a single round in the drum, stuck the weapon in his mouth, and killed himself.

At the subsequent inquiry it turned out that there had, indeed, been no photographs. But even now, about 60 years later, I can still see the anguish in Benson’s tired old eyes, and I can’t help asking myself what else I might have said to him, and what further comfort I might have offered.

. . .

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Outside, the rain flooded along the gutters in front of the Victorian row houses on Belmont Road. My father snored gently on those wet 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 fiery caverns that would collapse from time to time, creating new fantasy scenes.

That comfortable picture in 1937, two years before Britain was at war, was the first of a whole lifetime of memories of fire, 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 annual bonfires 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 was 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 cold at the bottom of our garden, stuffing kerosene-soaked rags under a pile of dry tree limbs, wooden furniture from the town dump, and fruit and vegetable crates begged from the local green-grocer. Our parents watched solicitously from the shadows, coming forward to supervise the lighting of bottle rockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels while we chattered around the flames licking around the masked, straw-filled effigy.

My first memory of a fire as an adult was in Finnish Lapland in the winter of 1951, heading south toward the end of an Arctic 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 twenty-five by thirty 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 fired on with mortars and machine guns 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. Fifty years on, I not only see it; I can also smell the burning wood, 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 adventure, 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 in 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 seventy 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, half a century on, a narrow road hugs the coastline south, but then we made the journey a little way inland over virgin desert for more than two hundred 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. Scrubby bushes grow near the wadis, dry riverbeds down which sweeping torrents flow in the brief 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 in the very center of the world. Across the sea, fifty 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 -- ‘All the 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 bloody 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, 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?” John 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, then a British colony, 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 Greek national 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 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 eyes of the men who 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 regiment 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 forty 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 fell for a girl called 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, for 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 British Army Reserve, and spent the next eighteen 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 more able to support his daughter, took a much better paid position back in Cyprus, as the press officer for the Emergency Police Force. I returned to the island without my fiancĂ©e 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. 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 deal with 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 more clearly to the other side of the blaze. 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 was silent, 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.
Fourteen years ago, my wife and I were in Varanasi, an Indian city so ancient that it was already two thousand five hundred 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, it’s 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 six hundred fifty 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 over the border in Khatmandu, 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, and who come from afar, 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 odor 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 thirty 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 and, through I accept the reason why, that was a ritual whose passing I regret.