A beard on a whim

31/08/2014

I awake to an unfamiliar pillow. I touch my face and it isn’t the face I remember. A stranger looks back at me from the mirror. The post-shower drying ceremony has an extra twist.

Yes, I’m growing a beard. Three whole weeks without shaving my chin – hair is now covering the lower part of my face. Well, more of a stubble really – certainly can’t call it a real beard yet, but the end of the prickly stage, it’s beginning to catch the wind and I am constantly reminded that there is something there.

Curiosity started it. I missed a couple of days shaving while I was away on the boat. I thought of it as an age thing – a break from the past. The last time I grew one was forty years ago.

However, I can’t bring myself to grow The Mustache. I carefully clear the area between nose and lip each day. My top lip may have all the attention but (stiff or not) it is no substitute for the whole thing.  And I do miss the full morning ritual – shaving soap, shaving brush, hot water, razor.

I now know there are gels that can be applied to ‘soften a beard’. There are instruments to brush and shape them. There is a whole industry focusing on beards.

Peers with beards are beginning to look at me. Comparisons are being made.

Now I have become interested, I find that everyone is doing it. How out of touch, how unobservant I have been. Sportsmen of all persuasions have turned hairy. Footballers, cricketers – there are even beards on the Vuelta, when I thought cyclists went out of their way to remove hair for added aerodynamics. Television interviewees are increasingly bearded (sic). And there have long been religious and traditional reasons for growing beards – or at least not shaving.

04. Lock Gates, Bude

My great-grandfather’s bearded generation, Bude, Cornwall.

That it may have been fashionable is, for me, a reason not to do it and the fact that it is no longer considered mainstream – (on the wane last year apparently), is good enough for me. I prefer to give the impression of being my own person – (how hard that is).

There is a poem by Edward Lear that I learnt as a child:

Edwad Lear beard

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.”*

I can’t get it out of my mind.

Do I really want to go through with this? It’s using up time. Surely there are more important things in life.

I started on a whim. I wonder at my deeper motivation. It is certainly about appearance. Maybe it’s a gender thing – a nod to manliness. Or perhaps it is a benign equivalent of Botox or a ‘nose job’ or a face lift.

Whatever the reason, it is a gentle distraction within the rhythm of the day.

I am living with it but I have yet to own it. I feel it attached to me – not growing from within. I will give it another month. If it becomes part of me, I will keep it.

If I am still ‘living with it’ after a month, then it will be back to the shaving soap, the shaving brush, hot water . . . and the razor.

 

Credit Due:

 * A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear: via http://www.bencourtney.com/resume.html

    Bude photograph from Alfred Petherick’s private collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time – in 400 words

04/07/2014

 

Unnerving – to write 400 words straight off. I was taught to think before you speak – think before you write.

Finishing the day-job has altered my concept of time. I spent my working life working in blocks of minutes – 20, 30, 45, 60, always working with the knowledge that this task would be coming to an end in so many minutes and the next task would start.

I am finding that there are people who have never worked that way. Their days are one long continuation – days meld into days until the job is done. This is a novel experience for me.

Last Wednesday I sailed to a river a few miles east of where I keep my boat. By early evening, I had moored, cleaned up, cooked a meal and am sitting reading. The companionway is open and I can see the trees on the steeply sloping banks and a line of converted fishermen’s cottages.

It is quiet, peaceful. The water is glassy smooth. The tide has been coming in, occasional pieces of weed floating upstream, a gentle ripple on the bows of the neighboring yachts.

Even though the boat is absolutely still and there is no noise, I notice a change. There must have been a tension because I feel it ease, the boat seems to slacken. It’s not the boat that’s slackening, it’s the effect of the tide on it. The view through the companionway alters very slightly. A few more trees come into a view, I lose sight of others. Gradually, my view alters, from trees to cottages, another boat in the foreground, to different cottages, more trees, boats. A long pause later we are realigned, facing upstream against the outgoing tide.

This is time – real time. Not one expressed in numbers. The Earth has turned, it’s relationship with the moon and the sun altered in space. The billions of tons of water that has flowed in one direction, now turns and flows away aagain. This is the real rhythm of life, the music that unites us and all species, this surpasses all the endless explanations we use to justify our presence in this world. This happens despite us. In the past, I would not have had time for it – my own preoccupations would have masked it, but this evening, just for a few moments, I had the privilege of feeling that rhythm, of hearing that music. I was glad.

7�6 �

 

“Back in a minute, mum”

03/07/2014

“Come indoors, Claire!”

“Just a minute . . . “

No I won’t go indoors, not while Betty is being bothered. That greasy fat man has come in his shiny black car and he’s brought two police cars with him. She said this would happen and I was not to worry and she wasn’t going to let them in.  She said her boys would come to rescue her.  She said Josh has a Harley and lots of friends on bikes and the others would come in their cars and they would all come and rescue her. Where are they? There’s no sign of them.

I don’t think she’s thinking straight, not since her George died. She changed a bit then.

I do love Betty and her ways. I remember when I first went across the road and down the side alley and looked through the fence. There was this woman crying out back. I was five and I had never seen a grown up cry  . . . I have now though . . . lots of times. The gate was unlocked and I went in. She didn’t see me until I stood next to her. “Don’t cry.” I said. And she looked at me so sad. I didn’t know what to say, so I picked a flower and gave it to her. She took it and tried to smile a bit. Her hands were wet with the tears. One day last year, when I was having tea with her and Mr Pauley, she showed me that flower. She had pressed it in a book all that time ago. I was so surprised.

That first day I had gone home and told Mum about it – this was before all the trouble started, and she said that the lady was Mrs Pauley and her youngest son had just left home and now she only had Mr Pauley left and that was what made her sad. Mum made a funny movement with her eyes when she said Mr Pauley’s name. I didn’t know what that meant, but I decided that I would try and make Mrs Pauley happy and I would go there again. And I did. One day she said, “Don’t keep calling me Mrs Pauley, dear, you can call me Betty.” I had never called a grown up by their first name. It felt strange at first, then I got to like it. She always called Mr Pauley “George” but I could never do that. He was nice but a bit fierce. And now he’s dead and Betty is on her own and I don’t care if they are policemen, those men are bothering her

The year before last, when my mother and father started fighting, I went over there more often. Betty seemed to know why I was there but she never spoke of it. She could see I was upset. She would sit me down and make me a cup of her fresh orange juice and a piece of cake and we would look at old photographs of her “boys” as she called them. And she would tell me stories of when she and Mr Pauley were first married and didn’t have any money and the places they lived and how they kept moving on. But the stories I liked most were the ones when she was girl the same age as me and lived in the country and had adventures. She told me about the farm and about the horse her dad got for her, and how she rode all by herself for miles and miles. And she told me about the animals and how she looked after them and what happened when they were ill. When she told me these stories she looked so young and happy, and I forgot just a little about what was happening back home across the road.

At some point, we would hear a door slam and my dad would come out of the house looking horrid and get in our rusty old car and drive off very fast. And Betty would say “You’d better go back now, dear” and she would give me a long hug and I would go back across the road and mum would be crying and I would give her a hug too and say “It’s ok mum. I’m here.” And she would say “I’m so so sorry, Claire.” And cry even more.

And now dad’s been gone for a year. It’s more peaceful but we don’t know where he is. Mum is working in the shop down the road “to pay for food and find the rent,” she said, but I think she likes to be out doing and meeting other people.

And now Betty’s being bothered by those men and her boys haven’t come to rescue her so I must go and help her because no one else will.

“Back in a minute, mum.”

 

The Fall

01/07/2014

As I climb the path, the ground falls away on my left. The path narrows, the ground falls away more. It steepens to my right. Soon there is nothing but fresh air on my left and a rock wall on my right. A knot has started in my belly – just a small knot, a tightening somewhere inside. Then my knees – a wobble. Clamminess next; then dizziness; then, “Sit down. Now!” Sitting on a narrow path with back pressed against rock and legs dangling down a vertical drop. Nightmare.

“Trace it back to the first time. When did it start?” I want it to be logical. But logic is too slow for emotion in the race for fear. Logic can pull fear back, can try not to let it get away, while emotion bubbles and troubles and blasts its way forward.

It only happens on the way up, never on the way down. Up is a problem, down is a doddle.

I dealt with it years ago. I don’t sit down now. Sometimes you’ve just got to climb. Wider paths. Avoid narrow ones if you can. Walk close to the wall. Hand holds. Stick on the outside pushing inwards.

But I often feel it start – recently on a mountain in New Zealand – small mountain, big feeling.

High buildings – stand back from the window. High bridges – that feeling of falling with nothing beneath, over and over and over. As for the London Eye – I sat on the bench in the middle of the pod – fantastic views through shaded eyes.

Might there be a cause – a reason – an explanation? Aged three, I watched a man climb a cliff. Towards the top, he stopped. He fell backwards. I see him now, sailing through the air, bouncing against the rock face. I don’t remember the end.

 

Lost and Found?

30/06/2014

Imagine . . .

Our mother died a year after our father. They had lived separate lives in the same house, she doing good works, he hunting and fishing. I was generally too tied up with my own life to think there might be a flaw in the relationship. I had been very close to my mother but regularly fell out with him. My sister, Jill, had acted as the go-between in the frequent father-son disputes. We both left home early and built lives of our own. When the time came, we knew instinctively that neither of us wanted the house.

However, we could not bear the thought of getting someone to strip our possessions away in one anonymous sweep. We would go through everything first. And we did. Little by little, room by room, we sorted through the physical remnants of our family lives .

One evening, in the attic, a fertile source of wartime memorabilia, Jill finally opened the locked wardrobe. We had never seen inside it. Mother had always dismissed it, “Oh, it’s full of old clothes. You don’t want to go there,” which of course made us want to go into it all the more. But we never found the key. It was a very large wardrobe and very heavy. We had had to move it to get a large chair out of the way to get to the other side of the room. It was a struggle but we did it. And there, on a brass hook, high on the back of it, was the missing key. To Jill’s delight, it really was full of mother’s old clothes, clothes from the thirties and forties – her party clothes, her wartime clothes, her uniform, formal wear, casual clothes, shoes – all with the faint smell of old moth balls.

A happy hour was spent going through them. The curious thing was they had a fresh look, they looked as though they had been cleaned occasionally – the wardrobe had more the appearance of a modern charity shop than an untidy junk shop. Mother had been very fashionable and loved to dress well. The difference in the material of the prewar dresses and the wartime dresses was marked but she was a talented seamstress and the designs stood out. Jill swept the dresses away to try them on.

I was less interested in the clothes than the wardrobe. It was magnificent. Oak, I thought. Room to stand in. I looked idly around it wondering if there was a clue as to why it had been kept locked and why the clothes looked so tended. Inside, above the door, was a small envelope – and a fading black-and-white photograph.

My mother is sitting on a rock by a beach with a good-looking, vaguely familiar young man. She is stunning in one of her summer dresses – a dress I had just seen Jill take out of the wardrobe. He is casually smart, too. He has lost the universal tie and wears his shirt open-necked, the trousers fashionably baggy. They are lovers. Their eyes are bright, their smiles radiant, happiness flows round them. The photographer was very, very good. They are more than posing for him, the electricity between them is real for all to see. I was immediately pleased for her.

On the back is written “To Margaret, with all my love. Thank you for a wonderful weekend. John.” There is a date in the corner in my mother’s hand – Thursday, 23rd July 1942. I looked at the picture again and smiled at my mother’s happiness, realising, as I did so, that I was slightly shocked – I had never imagined her, let alone seen her like this.

Then it occurred to me, “Mum and Dad had married in 1941. 23rd July 1942? Surely that was nine months before I was born. No . . . I was a fortnight premature. They told me that. Dad came on leave at the beginning of August 1942. But I see why the man is familiar. I saw similar eyes in the shaving mirror this morning . . . And I never looked like my father . . . And my name is John . . . ” From being excited by what I saw, I grew puzzled, then troubled.

It seemed I had found a photograph and might have lost an identity.

 

Random questions kept coming:

Was this possible or was I way out of line?

Had she kept her secret all this time?

Did my father know? It seems unlikely if she kept this wardrobe to herself.

Did anyone else know? Her sister for instance? Had my favourite aunt been pretending to me all my life?

Should I tell Jill? Did she know? What would this do to our relationship – half brother-half sister?

What about this John person? Should I look for him? He may well be dead too.

And who am I now anyway? And am I right to feel so troubled or does it free me from the habitual irritation I felt towards my ‘father’?

And what about that irritation? Has it changed now? Is the cause obvious?

Had my mother been disappointed all her life because she had known happiness once?

Or had she been content because she had found happiness and knew its zenith to be far too singular to last a lifetime?

Had she found solace in coming to this wardrobe and re-experiencing her love through her clothes and this photograph? I imagined her reaching round the back of the wardrobe for the key and opening the door, her feelings for her lover flooding over her once again.

Was this why I always felt her close to me?

Why couldn’t she tell me – even at the end?

Would it have been better if I had never found the photograph?

 

Do I know that life will go on whether I find the answers or not?

Will the answers colour my life and add to it, or is it enough to know that the questions exist and leave it at that, the search for answers acting as a distraction to whatever the future holds?

I didn’t know then and, if I am honest, I don’t know now.

 

But I did know more about my mother and I understood.

 

 

 

Real disappointment . . .

24/06/2014

 

You ask how I would feel to lose an event that I hold dear, how I would feel to be told that it would never happen again. To say I would be upset would understate it. To say that I would be desperately disappointed would be getting closer.

When I was 17, I went on an Outward Bound course in Wales. It was March in the mountains, it was cold, my hands were freezing and I was climbing a rock face. I slipped. The grey rock flew upwards and I hurtled downwards. I fell about fifteen feet before the rope held, a split second between the relative security above and the grazes and bruises below. Too quick for fear, too swift for anger, the world had shifted before my eyes. Shaken, I needed time to recover and regroup . . . Now we are even closer to what I would really feel losing that event, but we’re not there yet.

The event I am thinking of is a yacht race – the Jester Challenge. It is not a competition in the way we accept competition nowadays – strict rules binding the competitors, encouraging increased financial input, possible corporate sponsorship and insistent media attention. The race I am following is from Plymouth, Devon to Newport, Rhode Island. The organisers describe it as “run on a ‘gentlemanly basis’ within the following guidelines:

  • for sailing vessels between 20 and 30 feet
  • human power is the only acceptable alternative propulsion to that of the wind
  • single-handed to Newport
  • one way
  • stops allowed
  • no time limit . . .
  • no fees
  • no inspection
  • no regulation: skippers will be entirely responsible for the equipment they take, based on their own experience

These are the guidelines, not rules; the rest is up to those who wish to enter. As one of this year’s entries said on his blog “Big ocean, little boat, low budget and more about cooperation and camaraderie than competition.” The mightiness of the task means that more people sign up for the voyage than arrive at the start. They are not diminished by dropping out. It takes courage to opt in . . . and courage to opt out when preparations fall short. The decision is yours and yours alone. (Yes, of course it upsets those who would like us all to lead a strictly regulated life).

With or without a race, the solitude of single-handed sailing draws me – not loneliness but aloneness and the sense of freedom that comes with it. A state of awareness, of continuous problem-solving, of feeling the changing wind and sea – the keenness of the boat. There is a continual desire to be good enough in my own eyes, then a wish to be better still. ‘Practice’ wins over ‘perfection’. And if I remove the words ‘sailing’, ‘wind’, ‘sea’ and ‘boat’, this becomes a description of writing – for surely this is a single-handed occupation too, and a clue to why I am here.

So what are my deeper feelings if the race were lost?

You are a writer. Imagine that someone takes your keyboard and your mouse, then your monitor and the computer with all your stuff on it. Imagine that they then remove your pens and pencils and your notebooks and paper. Imagine . . .  Now we’re getting very close.

It’s not the race itself that concerns me – (although I confess I would like to do it), it is the thinking behind it that encourages me. The instigators saw their chosen preoccupation – sailing, taken over by big business, by technology, by fashion, by people’s need for immediate excitement. They also noticed that one of the potential benefits of sailing, the development of the truly self-sufficient individual – (small boat, low budget, big ocean!), was being stifled by these changes. Here was a way to give those with the will an opportunity to grow their skills and widen their experience.

Whether these sailors like it or not, (and I suspect they don’t), the leadership built into their activity is becoming increasingly important in a world overtaken by universal communication. We need individuals who stand out. Where will they come from? Already it is virtually impossible to disappear into the wild without some form of tracking device. You can find Webb Chiles, who has sailed alone around the world at least five times without such a device, here, or Jeremy and Phillip who are sailing round Britain in a Wayfarer dinghy, here. These are people undertaking amazing adventures. We, who sit in front of our computers, can find them instantly.

What will we do when the Google satellites make everyone and everywhere visible in real time? We’ll work it out no doubt. But, in the mix of a humanity shaped by technology, we will still need leadership from individuals shaped by hands-on experience. I am not suggesting this race produces world leaders – although some amazing individuals have taken part. I am suggesting that the attitudes behind it are important in the search for those leaders.

So, if the race were abandoned, I,for one, would be desperately disappointed. Good leaders create spaces for their followers to move into. The space created by the Jester Challenge and those who participate in it has significantly enhanced my life. I would have lost that source of leadership. I would definitely miss it.

 

 

Resolved

22/06/2014

Continued from Day 4 . . .

It is 1966, I am 18 years old. Yesterday I crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York. Today I lost my address book . . .

Bit of a problem, I know no one in New York and I’m struggling to think whether I know anyone anywhere near here. It’s a difficult moment.

Then, after an agonising age, I do remember the name of someone – in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. I look at my map. This doesn’t seem too far away. So I ask my way to the bus station and, after a long anxious walk with the humidity rising and the suitcase getting heavier, eventually find a telephone kiosk, determined to tackle the stack of giant telephone books. I search the New Jersey book, looking for an entry in Point Pleasant. There are several entries under the same name – of course, there are, I should have guessed. Should I ring each one now or go to Point Pleasant and try my luck there? Either way, I need to get out of New York, because I’ve nowhere to go here and I don’t want to spend money on another hotel when I am unfamiliar with . . . well, everything here really. But I do still have my Greyhound bus ticket, valid for 99 days. There will be no problem getting on the bus. So let’s go now.

The address book had been my safety net. I have spent six months putting names and places together, each address another waypoint in the ninety nine day journey. One or two were family ones I had to visit but most were added because either I might be in the vicinity, or I might decide go in that direction rather than another, or, let’s face it, I might be in trouble and need someone.

I laugh about it now. Now I would have all those addresses on my mobile phone and on my iPad, and, in the unlikely event I lost them both, the back-up would be on the Cloud and I could access them in an internet cafe. Besides that, I would probably have a printout tucked in my socks; and failing all that my mum would be on Skype to list them out again. Before I arrived, I would have looked up each address on Google Earth and Google Maps – oh, and emailed profusely. But, do you know what, I had none of these, just a small book which I lost immediately. How lucky was that?

I am sitting in a window seat on a Greyhound bus. The seat is a blue, synthetic material, quite comfortable, moulded by backs mostly bigger than mine. There’s a cloth head rest. The seat next to me is empty and there is a piece of gum stuck on the back of the seat in front. The driver climbs on board, looks back at his dozen or so passengers, takes his cap off and swings the door shut. It closes with a satisfying hiss. The corner of the window is greasy but the view is leaving-a-bus-station fascinating. I don’t care about the vehicle, I’m travelling at last.

I still plan to see North America. Now that I have got over the shock, I realise that, without the address book, I am free to navigate wherever and whenever I want in the next three months. I don’t have a lot of money but I can sleep on the buses or in cheap hotels or with people I meet. In the next weeks, I will narrowly escape arrest in a Las Vegas casino, get asked to leave a bus in New Orleans because I am white, and find myself uncomfortable with the party scene on a beach near Vancouver. I will visit parts of the continent that the tourist boards won’t want me to see and I will be elevated by places, people and events in ways that I can’t yet imagine.

In 1966, three years after John Kennedy was shot, two years before Martin Luther King will suffer the same fate, four years before Woodstock, this is a remarkable continent. For the rest of my life, my view of the US, Canada and their relationship with the rest of the world, all their ups and downs, will be coloured by this trip. For now, all that is ahead of me. I sit back, relax and enjoy the journey.

And one part of the emergency plan has already been tested: if caught out, move on.

To be continued . . .

 

Plastic everywhere

21/06/2014

“This is what we found in the stomach of a chick.”

I vaguely heard the words but I was looking out of the window. The ground sloped steeply in front of us, the sea glittered in the morning sun. A ship had just passed heading who knows where. Small fleets of clouds from the Southern Ocean drifted across the sky. We had climbed from the visitor centre to the lookout to view the colony of Royal Albatross. The place was Taiaroa Head near Dunedin, New Zealand, the time: eight weeks ago.

I am not a bird person. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy when they come near me and I can even identify some of them, but I don’t normally arm myself with telescope, binoculars and sandwiches and go looking for them. But these were different. These were Royal Albatross, the largest and the most graceful of birds, birds that fly thousands of miles without touching land. These were the birds that had reached mythical status, the subject of mariner’s tales. I had seen my first one two days before. It floated along effortlessly, its shadow rising and falling with the swell, its wing tips within a fraction of brushing the water. I was elated.

Now we were looking at albatross chicks. I could see two, no three large white bundles sitting in the grass. One had its head up – small head, large beak; it was peering around in an awkward, juvenile fashion. The other two looked heads-down bored. Apparently there were more around the corner. An adult drifted overhead.  I wanted to see how big it was but there was nothing to judge it against. I was slightly disappointed.

There were murmurings behind me and I turned to find an outstretched hand holding a plastic food box full of plastic. All at once I clearly heard the words from a moment or so earlier.

I counted: one piece of foam, two short pieces of soft plastic tubing, four plastic bottles tops, at least twenty pieces of unidentifiable plastic – some as large as a bottle top, . . . one tooth brush (one what?)!

The warden talked of adult albatrosses picking small pieces of plastic out of the sea because they float on the surface just like their normal food. The parent brings them to the nest and feeds them to the offspring which sits there with its large mouth wide open, dying for food – (literally in this case). We can guess that most adult albatrosses and by implication baby albatrosses have one or more pieces of plastic lodged in their stomachs. This chick was unlucky to have a parent who was particularly adept at finding it.

I glanced out of the window at the bundles in the grass – now in my mind tainted by human hand. I was shocked.

Last Wednesday on my boat, I was trying to stow an awkward container into an equally awkward locker. It would fit if I trimmed some of the plastic edging, so I picked up a sharp knife and cut little strips away – and it did fit. I was pleased and congratulated myself on solving the problem. I was now sitting on deck with a pile of small plastic chippings. Let’s be frank, of course there was a huge temptation to drop them overboard into the current. They would have disappeared instantly. It would have been the work of a moment and I would have thought no more of it – just like millions of us around the world.

Unfortunately, the millions of us around the world have been too thoughtless for too long. The albatrosses, the seals, the sharks stuffed with plastic are just one part of a wider problem we must solve as quickly as possible. No sentiment, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, just an intelligent focus on a very complicated problem. If you haven’t started yet, start now.

. . . A toothbrush??? . . .

 

 

Twelve years old

20/06/2014

At 12 years old I had my own room. It had been my granddad’s study at the front of the house on the first floor; bigger than any room I had slept in before. The house faced onto the main shopping street and I could watch the people and the traffic. At closing time, around 11 o’clock every evening, I would lie in bed and hear the pub-goers wondering home – some more sociable than others, most of them noisy. The street lamp lit up the thin curtains. I liked the patterns the light and the curtains made on the wall.

The place is Bude, North Cornwall, the date is 1960. We had moved here three years earlier from a bungalow a few miles up the coast (close to Steeple Point!). The house was a three-storey Victorian terraced house, it was built half way up a hill. We would have been able to see the sea but they put a very large hotel on the land across the road. The house attached to us up the hill had been converted into a haberdashery, their small garden was now part of the shop. The house down the hill was an accountants’.

We lived upstairs on the top two floors because downstairs was my dad’s dental suite – surgery, waiting-room, admin office. This meant he could hear we children banging on the floors of the rooms upstairs – in the drawing room and, you’ve guessed it, my bedroom. Day-time was tip-toe time.

This was a Victorian house, therefore the main rooms were tall and large, the space ample. Perhaps not entirely – the bathroom was small, the bath smaller, and, as for the kitchen . . . At this stage, there were my parents, we four children and our uncle who had been living there with his parents (our grandparents) before they passed away. A few years later, the uncle got married and moved out and we four children became five with the birth of another sister.

There was no back garden to the house but a narrow backyard, one side of which was a series of sheds where we kept our bikes and the coal and logs and a lot of stuff nobody wanted but never got round to throwing away. On the other side of the yard was the garage. This opened onto the road behind the house and we would use the garage doors as goal posts. On top of the garage was the dental laboratory. In the laboratory worked two dental technicians who were never happy about us kicking a ball at the garage doors below them.

From my bedroom, I could go next door to what was grandly known as the drawing room with its open fire and tall bay windows facing the street and the hotel. Diagonally over the landing was my parents’ bedroom. Stairs immediately on the left led to three bedrooms upstairs and a loft in the roof above that. Straight out of my room, across the landing, a short flight of stairs led down, turning sharp left down again to the ground floor. If you didn’t turn sharp left, you went straight on past the bathroom into the dining room and then via a small landing to the kitchen. There was a bedroom above the dining room and another above the kitchen. The steep back stairs (up and down) led off the small landing. Downstairs at the back were two scullery rooms, one used for ironing, the other for washing. Their floors were made of Delabole slate, much sought after now but merely common and practical then.

Upstairs there were several creaking floor boards which the younger ones learnt to walk along – (well, they did tip-toe on them), and satisfying dark wood banisters up the front stairs. The stairs down had been walled off – tip toe time again! The ground floors were tiled in patterns much admired by all who saw them. The waiting room was extravagantly furnished with a large snooker table holding journals and magazines, with, arranged around it, old fashioned, black-lacquered high-backed chairs that would have looked good in a hunting-themed pub. I don’t know what his patients thought but we had lots of happy family parties in that waiting room when they weren’t there.

My mother didn’t like the house. Firstly, she had always lived with a garden and there was nowhere she could plant plants or sit outside; secondly, there was nowhere to hang washing properly; thirdly we lived ‘above the shop’ and my father would come up for a coffee at various intervals during the day, which was fine sometimes but not always; and fourthly, the choice had been taken away from her – we lived there for practical reasons. Yes, it was a house with no less than seven bedrooms – (or seven by the time they had converted other rooms) and where can you find a house like that? But it was my father’s father’s house, she wasn’t fond of him and found herself constantly reminded of him. Nevertheless, she made it a great home and we loved her for it. As children, this was where we lived, we didn’t know any different.

 

Dear Gin

20/06/2014

Dear Gin

I am writing to you because I recognise you as being on the edge of my life for the whole of my life.

I always liked the bottles you came in – your Gordon’s version a comforting deep green, your Plymouth version with the ship in full sail on the label, (don’t I remember an anchor too? Maybe not). When I was born, you sat in the cabinet in the bungalow. When I first started to walk your bottles were about eye level, tantalisingly close but locked out of reach.

It’s your smell that I remember most. When I drink you now, it brings up memories of my parents. Partying or not partying, they drank you. Mum would have a gin and tonic, Dad would have a pink gin, a drink he had grown to like in the navy during the war. The Angostura bitters have a special place in my memory too. But they drank you in greater quantity than we would consider now – whether to forget or to remember or to enjoy, I never knew.

As a child, being kissed goodnight by someone who has had a couple or more of gins was always a hit or miss affair – not unpleasant, just hit or miss.

When I stopped being a child – (I never entirely stopped to be honest), you were still around. I remember one incident at university . . . no, perhaps I won’t go into that. You have never been my preferred drink, just a special one.

Now I read that you are becoming fashionable again. There are new gins, in fancy bottles, with distinct tastes. And new tonics to try with them – the same Angostura I hope. Be(a)ware of fashion. Fashion is good, but the undertow speaks of competition, economies and corporate survival. One day you are there and on top, the next you are sinking and having to try harder. You tinker with the details. From the outside comes admonition from the pinch-lipped. “So much is enough”, “this is excess” and regulation distract you. And you lose your original reason for being.

This is not about excess. This is about special moments. All I ask is to sit with with one or two friends and you in your fine glass, early in the evening, perhaps outdoors as the sun sets, and to taste one of the defining tastes of my lifetime.

Thank you for the pleasure you have given me over the years.

Sincerely

Bill

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.