Defeated by snow and meeting Churchill’s widow

WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, that was in 1968, I made two memorable trips. The first was a youth hostelling trip in Wales and the other, which followed soon after that, was my first visit to Paris.

PARIS Clouds over the Beacons_800 BLOG

Three good friends of my age and I travelled by train to Chepstow in South Wales. Our plan was to walk from one youth hostel to the next, carrying our baggage in rucksacks.

 From Newport, we struggled along footpaths by the east bank of the River Wye until we reached the village of St Briavels. The youth hostel was housed in parts of the place’s mediaeval castle, whose construction began in the early 12th century.

We were assigned beds in a dormitory. At night I struggled to make myself comfortable in the shroud-like sheet sleeping bag that was required by guests staying in British youth hostels. In those days, I used to find it difficult falling asleep in places away from home. St Briavels was no exception. In the middle of the night I felt the urge to go to the loo, but because I was anxious about walking across the dark castle courtyard to the hostel’s only toilets, I remained becoming increasingly uncomfortable until day broke.

The eight mile hike from Newport to St Briavels had been a hard, tiring ‘slog’. We were not looking forward to doing something similar the next day. We walked a few miles until we reached a main road, and then boarded a local bus. At this point, dear readers, you need to know that in 1968 youth  hostels were only supposed to be used only by travellers making their way under ‘their own steam’ (i.e by walking, cycling, canoeing, horse-riding etc.), but not by motorised transport.

We reached the small town of Crickhowell and walked from there towards an isolated youth hostel on the edge of the Brecon Beacons mountain range. The Nantllanerch youth hostel, which only functioned between 1966 and 1969, was about a mile from the house where its warden lived. We were the only people staying in this un-manned hostel miles away from anywhere. It had no electricity and the chemical toilets were attached to septic tanks. Lighting was via gas lamps fuelled from a cylinder. This delightful place was also supplied with an out-of-tune upright piano. We stayed there for two nights, using the day between them to climb one of the nearby peaks. I had never climbed a mountain or a significant hill before. Every time I saw what I hoped was the summit, it proved to be a ridge behind which there was another gruelling climb. After that experience, I decided that Everest was not for me. However, a few years later, I did climb, or rather scramble up, Mount Ventoux in the south of France.

We left Nantllanerch and used public transport to reach Brecon, where we spent another night in a youth hostel. Then, again disobeying the rules, we travelled a long way using public transport to Great Malvern, where we spent another two nights. On the day between them, we completed a lovely walk along the ridges connecting the peaks of the Malvern Hills. I fell in love with Great Malvern and have revisited this mainly Victorian resort often.

Every time one left a youth hostel, the warden was required to stamp our Youth Hostel Association booklets with the hostel’s official stamp. On leaving Great Malvern, we notice that the warden had placed the hostel’s stamp upside down in each of our booklets. We wondered why. Long after we had returned to London from Great Malvern, we discovered the reason. An upside-down stamp was to warn the wardens of other youth hostels that the bearer of this stamp had caused trouble or breached a rule. The warden at Great Malvern must have realised that our itinerary as recorded by the hostels in which we had stayed could not have been undertaken without making use of motorised transport along the way.

I loved my first youth-hostelling trip and felt sure that my first trip to Paris, which followed it, would be an anti-climax. But I was wrong. I  travelled with my family to Paris on the Night Ferry train, which was boarded in the evening at Victoria station in London. There were two platforms at the station dedicated to the Night Ferry trains. To enter them, one needed not only tickets but also passports. Our family occupied two neighbouring compartments. My sister and I shared one of these. It was equipped with two berths, one above the other, and a basin with water taps.

The Night Ferry travelled to Dover, where the sleeping cars, such as we occupied, ran along rails into those in the hold of a cross-channel ferry. We all remained in our compartments. After a while, our carriages were pulled out of the ferry and onto the rails at the French port of Dunkirk. I could not sleep a wink. I stared through the glass of the window of our compartment throughout the night. There was not much to see during the sea crossing, but things improved at Dunkirk, where our carriage was shunted around a huge floodlit marshalling yard for what seemed like several hours. As dawn broke, we set off through France towards Paris.

Paris was a wonder, an ‘eye-opener’ for me. I loved everything about it, especially the metro with its curious pervasive characteristic smell and some of its trains that whooshed along on rubber tyres instead of metal wheels. In those far off days, the entrances to station platforms were provided with doors, ‘portillons’, which closed automatically just before a train left the station. These were supposed to prevent passengers from rushing to board the train just before its doors closed. Once, I got caught behind a closed portillon just after my parents and sister had passed through on to the platform. For a moment, I felt panicked, but the family waited for me to be liberated. Above ground, some of the metro stations were decorated with art-nouveau metal work. I loved this because I was already very keen on this artistic style.

We stayed in a small hotel on the Ile St Louis, a peaceful oasis separated from the rest of Paris by the River Seine. It was the nicest place I have stayed in the city. On my first visit, I loved the bookshops on Place St Michel and the well-stocked record shops nearby. We did a great deal of sight-seeing including a visit to the Louvre. What I remember most about this world-famous collection was rather mundane. We had left our coats at a garde-robe near one of the entrances. By the time we had paid our respects to the Mona Lisa and many other great works of art, we had forgotten where we had left our belongings. We spent longer looking for our coats than we had done admiring artworks.

My parents, who were not keen on visiting places that were neither churches nor museums, did take us up the Eiffel Tower, but only to its lowest viewing platform. What impressed me there were the lifts that climbed at an angle rather than vertically. My first visit to Paris was followed by many more, always enjoyable and always eliciting in me the same sense of wonder as my first.

We returned to London on the Night Ferry, arriving at Victoria in the morning. After we had stepped down onto the platform, my mother pointed to a lady disembarking from the next carriage to ours and said to us excitedly:

“Look, there’s Lady Churchill.”

It was Winston’s widow. I had been at the Hall School in Belsize Park when in early 1965, my class gathered around a small black and white TV to watch Winston’s funeral, ‘live’, as it happened.

The next year, following the success of our first hostelling trip in Wales and nearby, my three friends and I decided to go back to Wales on another hostelling trip. The first hostel on our itinerary was at Capel-y-Ffyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park, just north of the ruins of Llanthony Abbey. We booked in and woke up the next morning to discover that the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. Then, fate struck.

 I had promised to telephone my over-anxious mother every day. So, I went to the village telephone box and rang her. She told me that she had heard that there was snow falling in Wales. I told her how little we had seen. She replied that we were to return to London immediately. I do not know what she was imagining. She might have thought that snow in Wales was likely to be as dangerous as blizzards in the Arctic.

My friends and I knew that my mother’s orders were never to be questioned. It was with great sadness that we packed up (while the snow was melting) and returned to London. My mother’s over-anxiety had wrecked our adventure.

Years later, my wife and I were entertaining the mother of one of my friends on the sabotaged trip. Then in her late eighties, she could still remember being amazed at the time when she heard how my mother had reacted to the news of snow falling in Wales.

To my great relief, my three disappointed friends remained friendly with me despite my vicarious role in greatly abbreviating what promised to be a great trip. Sadly, of the three one died a few years ago. A spot of snow never put him off risking his life more excitingly during his colourful career. Nor, did it deter the rest of us from doing many things that would have given my late mother cause for great anxiety.

 

Photo showing clouds over the Brecon Beacons in south Wales

Paris

Wallace ladies_500

 

The recent tragic conflagration of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and its resultant degradation of one of the world’s best-known buildings evoked a sensation that I had not experienced since 1976. In that year, there was a devastating earthquake in the Friuli area of north-east Italy. 

We had good friends living in that area. They had taken us to see many  unique masterpieces of Longobard art and architecture that existed in the area. When we first heard the news, we were extremely worried about the fate of our friends, who, luckily, all survived. We were also concerned about the works of art and architecture we had grown to love.  Fortunately, most of these were restored eventually.

Ten years before the earthquake in Friuli, there was a terrible flood in Florence in November 1966. About 100 people were killed, and many, many valuable works of art perished in the oil-filled flood waters. Our family was extremely upset because we used to visit the Tuscan city every year to see old friends and to enjoy its rich artistic heritage.

We did not visit Florence the following year because of the damage, but recommenced our annual visits in 1968. For years after the flood, the height of the flood water levels was visible on the walls of buildings where central heating oil from the city’s boilers and tanks had mixed with the water and made indelible stains.

The fire in Paris brought back feelings of horror and disbelief that i had experienced in 1966 and ten years later. 

The picture illustrating this blog piece is a reminder of another tragedy that hit Paris: The Siege of Paris (1871) and the Commune. During those difficult times, there were great water supply problems. The English philanthropist Richard Wallace (1818-1890) built a number of drinking fountains for the people of Paris. Each was decorated with the four sculpted ladies shown in my illustration.

Already, many people are offering to donate money to help restore Notre Dame to its former glory. Had he been alive, i am sure Richard wallace would have been a willing contributor.

Come up and see my etchings…

 

Come up and see my etchings…” is often interpreted as being an invitation to sexual adventures. But when I used to say those words, there were, actually, genuine etchings to be viewed.

My late mother had a cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983; https://dolfrieser.com/biography/), who used to hold classes to teach etching and engraving. He lived in West Hampstead. I used to attend his classes onc evening a week while I was a dental student (1976-82). Dolf was an excellent teacher and an inventive artist. His comments on composition were constructive and and always apt.  

Dolf, who had a doctorate in some aspect of biology, became interested in art long before WW2. In the compulsory tea breaks that we had during the classes, he would tell us about his life as a young artist in Paris. He would frequent the same cafés as Picasso and other famous artists. The great artists in Paris during the thirties sat at one table presided over by Picasso. Budding artists like Dolf sat at neighbouring tables.  He was very proud of a small picture by Joan Miró, which hang next to the door to his studio in London. Miró, who was five years older than Dolf, had presented his picture to his young friend ( i.e. Dolf).

Having studied in Switzerland, Dolf had learnt how to ski in the 1920s. He used to ski every year in Switzerland while he was becoming an artist in Paris. He told us that in the thirties when he used to arrive at the railway station in Paris in order to visit the mountains with his skis, people would stop him to ask him what he was carrying because in those days hardly anyone in Paris went skiing. Few people in Paris had ever seen skis.

I loved the classes. It was wonderful becoming so immersed in what I was doing that I lost all sense of time and, more importantly, everything that was worring me at the time evaporated from my head during the three hours each week while I was engrossed in creating an artwork.

I graduated as a dentist in early 1982 and went into practice. Soon after that, Dolf died. Also, my urge to create artworks (prints, drawings, and paintings) seemed to disappear. I suppose that was because I was working all day with my hands in the surgery, my need to do fiddly manual tasks in my spare time, such as drawing and etching, diminished.

By now, you are probably wondering whether I ever invited anyone to come up and see my etchings. Well, of course I did, but I will not tell you whom I invited. Suffice it to say that the woman I eventually married has a good collection of my works!

 

The picture is a detail of an etching by Adam Yamey

Two bookshops: Scotland and Paris

Many years ago, in the 1970s, I accompanied ‘M’ on a trip, my first, to Scotland. We spent a few hours in St Andrews, which is famed for its golf course and its university, at which Prince William first met his future wife Kate. Both M and I were keen on second-hand book buying.

On arrival at St Andrews, we made enquiries about second-hand bookshops. Both of us felt the urge to visit one. We told that there was probably one somewhere in the suburbs of the small town. We drove along a tree-lined road and nearly missed the small sign outside what looked like a normal residence. The doors of its attached garage were open, and it could be seen that its walls were lined with bookshelves filled with books. We got out of the car and approached the garage. As we entered, and just before beginning to browse, a late middle-aged man approached us, saying:

“Do come indoors, I’ll be serving coffee soon.”

We followed him into the house and sat in the large living room with several his other customers. After we had been served with coffee and biscuits, the man, who owned the building and the business, told us that we were free to wander around the house, his home, selecting the books that we wished to buy. He told us that we could select volumes from any room except his office, which was on the first floor at the top of the stairs. Every room in the house was filled with books, even the bedrooms. We were told that he lent rooms to students from the university providing that they did not mind his customers wandering through them when his bookshop was open.

 

books on bookshelves

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

A few years later, I visited some friends of a friend in Paris. They were from the USA. One of them, Duncan, was a dealer in oriental carpets. It was a Sunday, and they served me lunch in their flat, which was on the edge of central Paris. After we had eaten, they invited me to join them for tea in the heart of the city. We headed for one of the quais that faced the Ile de La Cité, and entered a second-hand bookshop called ‘Shakespeare & Co.’ I believe that I had come across this shop before, but this time when we entered it, it was not to purchase books.

Shakespeare & Co. occupied larger premises than the shop in St Andrews and was spread over more floors. Both of the two shops (or maybe the correct term should be ‘establishments’) allowed, or maybe encouraged, young people to take residence amongst the books. Duncan had been one of these when he first arrived in Paris from America. As we climbed the stairs to the top of the building, he told me that we would be attending one of the owner’s famed Sunday tea parties at which anyone who had lived in the shop was always made to feel welcome.

When we reached the crowded apartment at the top of the house, I was introduced to the elderly-looking owner of the shop. Many years later, I discovered that his name was George Whitman. I cannot remember much about him except that a tiny child, who must have been less than 2 years old, was crawling around his feet. Her mother was close by. She was far younger than Mr Whitman and, if I recall correctly, looked as if she was of Far Eastern extraction. I remember being impressed that someone who looked as venerable as Mr Whitman had been capable of producing a child. He was, I have recently discovered, only 68 years old.  Recently, one of my cousins, who was then aged 69, produced a daughter. So, maybe I should not have been so surprised, but in the early 1980s, when I met Mr Whitman, I was less well experienced in the ways of the world! After tea, we left the shop and went our own ways. However, the memory of attending that tea party sticks in my mind.

After M and I had spent nearly two hours exploring the stock in the shop in St Andrews, we heard the owner summoning everyone to the living room. He told us to make ourselves comfortable as he was about to serve tea and cakes. Both M and I staggered into the living room bearing huge piles of books that we had chosen. Tea and cakes were served, and whilst we were enjoying these, we chatted with the book seller. It turned out that he was a graduate of University College London (‘UCL’), where he had studied either English or English Literature, M had studied chemistry, and I had completed my PhD. I do not remember when he was at UCL. He and M did not know anyone in common from the college. I have recently discovered that the present owner of Shakespeare & Co., Sylvia Beach Whitman – that small child who I saw at that Parisian tea party back in the early 1980s – was also an alumnus of UCL, but long after my time there!

When tea was over, we thanked the owner and asked if we could pay for the books we had selected. He added the prices in our books and announced the total. However, before we could pay, he discounted the totals considerably; he would accept no more than the ridiculously low amounts that he mentioned. We loaded the books in the car and set off for our next destination, Aberdeen.

Years later in the early part of this century while I was investigating the ramifications of my mother’s family tree, I discovered that I had many French cousins. I keep in touch with some of them. One of them, who is related to the famous Captain Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair, speaks and writes excellent English. On one occasion not too long ago, we met him in Paris outside Shakespeare & Co, where he is well-known. It turns out that he attends a creative writing class organised by the bookshop. It is a small world, as so many people say!