A year has passed

EXACTLY A YEAR AGO, at the end of November 2019, we were staying at the Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta. Every morning after breakfast, I would set out for a morning walk on the golf course as the air temperature began to climb rapidly towards 30 degrees Celsius. Being careful to avoid the golfers and their shots, I wandered away from the club buildings towards the far reaches of the luxuriant course. On my way, I passed the numerous obese dogs that hang around the club waiting for careless human snack eaters to drop bits of food. Further on, apart from the occasional players, I greeted the white egrets, which hastened away as I approached them. Then, as the club buildings grew smaller as I walked away from them, I often came across the jackals that sun themselves on the bunkers and putting greens. As I aimed my camera towards them, they would look at me suspiciously before slinking slowly into the clumps of bushes and shrubs dotted about in the grounds. Some mornings, I watched horses being taken for exercise and every morning I encountered people, both slender and not so sleek, either running or walking, usually viewing the screens on their mobile telephones. That was a year ago. And after leaving Calcutta, we told our friends and family there that we were sure to be back again in a year’s time.

It is said that one should not count one’s chickens before they hatch. Little did we know back then in Calcutta that a year later at the end of November 2020 we would not be in Calcutta in the Indian winter warmth, but in Bushy Park (near Twickenham) on a misty morning when the air temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius. We had visited Bushy Park about a month or so earlier in bright sunshine when the large carpark was almost full of cars. Today, on the last day of November, the carpark was less than a quarter full and the mist almost hid the tops of the tallest trees. The damp air felt bitterly cold, a feeling enhanced by the gloomy grey sky overhead that became visible as the mist dispersed.

Despite the greyness and cool air and our frozen hands, we enjoyed a brief walk in the Woodland Gardens, which are surrounded by a fence to stop the entry of the local wildlife, not jackals as in Calcutta but numerous deer, formerly the prey of the aristocratic hunters of yesteryear. A stream winds through the woodland area, widening sometimes to become like a pond. No egrets here, but plenty of ducks, gulls, and a few Egyptian Geese. Nor were there any golfers with their caddies and trolleys. Instead, there were plenty of parents, mostly younger than us, with their infants in buggies, and also some grandparents. Instead of being able to retire to the Shamiana bar, after the walk, for a coffee or, more likely in Calcutta, a tea,  we headed for a small window in the otherwise closed Bushy Park Pheasantry Café to buy hot drinks to take away. The wooden tables and chairs under the trees nearby were, as a notice put it: “Out of Bounds”, just as Calcutta is for us now, because of the blasted covid19 pandemic.

Methods are being employed to attempt to reduce the spread of the virus both here in the UK and in India. Much emphasis is put on trying to minimise association with other people. We try to do this as much as possible, but this does not stop us from getting out and about.  In contrast, many of our friends and family in India have been far more cautious than many in the UK, hardly leaving their home for weeks and months on end. I am not at all sure that we could manage to remain inside our flat for so long especially if the weather here was as warm and sunny as it is in India. We wrap up warmly and venture out into the cold whenever possible and that has helped to keep us feeling sane during this frightening plague. As a Norwegian said on BBC Radio 4 some weeks ago:

“There is no such thing as bad weather. There is just bad clothing.”

Brighton and the Alps

‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father.  He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.

Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.

On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.

After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:

I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”

And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.

I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’.  Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.

Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open.  Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.

She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.

After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.

I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.

Luck of the Irish

ONE EASTER LATE in the 1970s, some friends and I made a trip to County Kerry in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. We travelled by sea from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire (close to Dublin) and hired a car. We drove to Kilshannig (near Castlegregory), where my PhD supervisor and his wife had a cottage, which they lent to us.

On the Saturday evening of the weekend that we were spending at Kilshannig, we decided to sample the local nightlife. We drove through Castlegregory to the main Dingle to Tralee road, and stopped at an isolated bar with a few cars parked outside it. On entering the warm, noisy, crowded bar, we were welcomed as if we were long lost friends. Soon after we had bought drinks, musicians began playing Irish folk tunes, and people began singing and dancing. We had stumbled upon a ‘ceilidh’ (a party with dancing). When we left at the end of the evening, we  had all fallen in love with the Irish.

I also came across the welcoming warmth of Gaelic and Celtic people to strangers when I was travelling through Wales with Michael Jacobs, who was doing field research for his book, “Traveller’s Guide to Art: Great Britain and Ireland”, which was published in 1984. It was on a Sunday evening that we drove into the tiny port of Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsular, which projects from western Wales into the Irish Sea. This place, which resembles the village in the 1983 film “Local Hero”, was a predominantly Welsh speaking community and serving alcohol on Sundays was not allowed. We took rooms in the town’s only hotel, which also functioned as the village’s pub.  As we ate our non-descript dinners alone in the dining room, wishing that we could have washed them down with a beer or something stronger. But we knew of the ban on booze. Throughout the meal, we could hear a great racket coming from somewhere else in the building. After dinner, we left the dining room and were on the point of taking a post-prandial stroll when some double doors burst open and two young girls shot out. When they saw us, they dragged us back through the double doors, and invited us to join the lively private party that was in progress. We were warmly welcomed by a friendly group of Welsh speaking youngsters who plied us with alcoholic drinks. Clearly, even in this isolated spot, the embargo on Sunday drinking was far from sacrosanct. Now, let us return to Ireland.

One morning soon after enjoying the ceilidh near Kilshannig, we decided to drive over the Conor Pass to Dingle on its westward side. The weather was fine when we set off and remained so until we reached a lay-by near the highest point on the pass, where we parked, and then locked the car. We all rushed up the hillside, a slope of Mount Brandon, next to the car park. After a short while, the sky clouded over and the rain began to pelt down as it did every few minutes during the day, and we decided to retrace our steps back to the car. It was windy and as we ran down the hill, I noticed a handkerchief or tissue flying out of Nandan’s pocket. I thought little of this apart from being amused that the breeze was strong enough to be able to do this. When we returned to our locked car, Nandan, our driver, fumbled about in his pockets for the car key. It was nowhere to be found. We returned to the rain-soaked hillside, and looked around for the missing keys, but did not find them.

It was a bank holiday. There was no telephone box in the area, and mobile telephones did not exist in those days. Nandan and another of our party decided to try to hitch-hike to Limerick that was at least 80 miles away. The town had a car-hire office, which we hoped would be open. When they had left, the rest of us hitched a lift into Dingle, and headed for the police station, where we reported the loss of our keys. The police were very friendly and welcoming, and plied us with tea and biscuits while we awaited the return of the rest of our party.

While we were in the police station, a middle-aged couple entered to report that they had found a set of car-keys on the slopes of Mount Brandon. They were, as you might be guessing, ours. We were overjoyed, but still had to await the return of Nandan and his companion. They returned empty handed, telling us that as it was the Easter weekend, we would have to pick up the spare set of keys when they were delivered to the office in Limerick 2 or 3 days later. They were disappointed to have to report this, but soon cheered up when we revealed that the keys had been found. We all piled into a police car, which ferried us back to where we had abandoned the car. Inside the car, we found a note which read ‘found your keys at the bottom of the hill. Happy Easter’, but it omitted to say what the writer of the note had done with them.

People talk of ‘the luck of the Irish’. We were fortunate enough to sample some of it.

Sculpted by nature

WE DROVE AWAY from the sun-soaked, windswept sands on the sea front in Paignton (Devon) and headed upwards on to Dartmoor. We followed narrow roads, often barely wide enough for a single car, bounded by hedges, until we rumbled across cattle grids and entered the wide-open spaces of the moor. The roads remained narrow, but the vistas were wide open. Patches of the moor have been cultivated but most of it is not. Sheep, cattle, and occasional horses or ponies grazed here and there.

We headed up a hill topped with what looked from afar like the ruins of a temple or a small fortress. As we neared it, we saw it consisted of piles of huge flat surfaced, irregularly shaped greyish boulders piled on top of each other in what seemed like a state of precarious balance. It appeared as if a giant had collected these stones and put them together in piles, as if to tidy up the land around them, to clear the space for animals to graze. We had arrived at Combestone Tor. A ‘tor’ is defined as:

“… a large, free-standing rock outcrop that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest.”

The definition of tor includes the rocky outcrops I have seen in South Africa, where they are known as ‘koppie’ or ‘kopje’.

We walked from the car park towards the picturesque, tall piles of rocks, the tor, arranged almost artistically. Nature has done a better job aesthetically than many modern artists. A strong warm wind buffeted us as we approached them. It is weather conditions, like wind and rain, that have shaped the stones over the centuries and millennia. The formation of these geological formations began about 280 million years ago when molten rock crystallised to form granite (see: www.dartmoor.gov.uk/data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72097/lab-tors.pdf ). To cut a very long story short, rock covering the granite gradually wore away, allowing the granite to become exposed to the atmosphere. Oversimplifying a lot, the minerals between the lumps of granite became worn away by meteorological forces and, during the ice age(s), by mechanical forces generated by freezing and thawing. What has been left after all this is what we see today.  

The earliest surviving written mention of Combestone Tor was in 1333, when it was named ‘Comerston’ (see: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/combe_stone.htm).  On an 1809 map the tor is named ‘Cumstun’. Over the years its name has mutated to ‘Combestone’.

We wandered around the tor enjoying the amazingly balanced jumble of rocks of different sizes and the views of the surrounding landscape that stretches far below the summit of the hill (1168 feet above sea level) on which the weathered stones perch. Nearby brown cattle grazed, probably unaware of the strange geological formations, which we had come to enjoy. Recently, we visited the former home and gardens of the sculptor Henry Moore. His often huge sculptures dominate the landscape like the stone pillars that form the tor. Whereas Moore’s sculptures seemed to intrude on the landscape and deform one’s view of it, the rocky piles that comprise the tor feel harmoniously integrated into their surroundings.  Give me moor, rather than Moore, any day!

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Head to toes

It's raining again_240

 

This patient of mine was a local school teacher. An educated person, you would imagine.

One rainy afternoon he sat on my dental chair. Then, I reclined it so that he was lying almost horizontal: his head and mouth at one end of the chair and his feet at least five and a half feet from his mouth. I administered the local anaesthetic, waited for anaesthesia to become established, and then repaired the teacher’s decayed molar tooth with a silver amalgam ‘filling’. When the procedure was over, the teacher left my surgery apparently quite content.

An hour or so later, the teacher returned to our practice and asked the receptionist to allow him to speak to me. He entered my surgery and pointed to a mark on one of his brown suede shoes.

“I believe that you must have dropped some of your chemicals on my shoe while you were treating me,” he said.

I looked at the mark and quickly realised that this fellow was hoping to be compensated, possibly for a sufficient to buy a new pair of shoes.

“Unlikely,” I replied, “while I was treating you, you were lying horizontally. Your mouth was a long way from your feet. If I had dropped something, it would not have fallen anywhere near your feet.”

“Mmmmh,” he replied.

“Furthermore,” I added, “it’s been raining heavily all afternoon. Maybe, you picked up that mark while walking along the wet streets.”

The teacher left, and I heard no more about the problem with his footwear. I was left thinking what an unintelligent man he was, and that somebody had qualified as being capable of teaching young people.