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.

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

To Vienna and beyond

V Melk Abbey BLOG

 

IN 1971, I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT. That year, I made my first unaccompanied trip abroad. I was travelling by ferry and rail to Vienna and beyond. My late mother, who was very worried about how I would fare, wanted me to stay in a decent hotel for my first night on the Continent. That was to be in Cologne (Köln) in what was then West Germany. Back in 1971, there was no Internet to look up hotels in Cologne or anywhere else for that matter. The only guidebook to Germany in my possession was a pre-1914 Baedeker guide to The Rhine. Amongst the few hotels listed in the book in the entry for Cologne was a Dom Hotel. I rang the international telephone directory operator and asked if the place still existed. It did, and still does, and she supplied the number. I rang the Dom and booked a room for one night. My mother was happy about this, and said that as soon as I arrived, I was to ring her from the hotel.

I set off from London with my luggage in a metal framed canvas rucksack, kindly lent to me by my uncle Sven. I arrived in Cologne in the early evening and soon arrived at the very grand Dom Hotel, the ‘poshest’ in Cologne, in the late afternoon. It was a short distance from the Hauptbahnhof. I was greeted at the bottom of the steps leading up to its main entrance by a liveried doorman. He asked me for my luggage. So, I handed him my well-used rucksack. He held it gingerly as if it were a rat that had been dead for several days. At great expense, I telephoned my mother to assure her that I had survived the journey so far. From then on, she seemed to lose interest in my well-being during my adventure. I was not required to send progress reports back home.

After Cologne, I spent every night in a youth hostel or similar. From Cologne, I travelled by train to Würzburg, where I was planning to see the brilliant paintings by the Venetian painter Tiepolo inside the city’s Würzburger Residenz. Between Frankfurt and Würzburg, there was a middle-aged lady in my compartment. She wore what looked to me like very old-fashioned traditional German clothes including a hat with a feather stuck in its hat band. As the afternoon light began to fail, we began travelling through hilly country. I had just enough German to understand that the barely visible hills we were passing were the Spessart Hills. She told me that they were very beautiful. I have no idea why I remember her telling me about those hills. The next day, having spent a night in a comfortable youth hostel, I fulfilled my desire to view the Tiepolo wall and ceiling paintings.

At each of the German youth hostels in which I stayed, there was a different method employed to wake the guests in the morning. At Würzburg, A young man playing a flute wandered from dormitory to dormitory. At Munich, where I stayed one night, the morning call was someone shouting “Raus, Raus!”, which immediately conjured up thoughts about POW camps in Germany during WW2.

I decided to attend an opera performance on my first night in Munich. I bought the cheapest ticket for Berg’s “Wozzeck”. I note from the Internet that the opera was performed in Munich on March the 23rd 1971, which helps to date my trip. The ticket I bought allowed me to see the opera from the highest tier of the auditorium. When I arrived in my casual travelling clothes, I was the only man in the audience not dressed in formal evening wear. I enjoyed the opera from my eyrie near the ceiling of the theatre.

The following morning just after I had eaten a very modest breakfast, I met my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, at the famous Hofbrauhaus. We had arranged this sometime earlier when we were both in London. Each of us ordered a large stein of lager, probably a litre each. We chatted and drank in one of the establishment’s large noisy halls. Then, we went our own ways. I walked to the railway station with my rucksack on my back. It seemed to me that the hitherto flat pavements had become wavy. The alcohol had gone to my head.

My uncle Felix had recommended that I should make a stop at Linz in Austria in order to visit an interesting monastery nearby. I enjoyed the trip from Linz to Sankt Florian in what looked like an antique tram. The composer Anton Bruckner was associated musically with Sankt Florian.

From Linz, I travelled eastwards to another town with an important monastery. The monastery at Melk is perched on a hill overlooking the Rhine. I spent a night in the town’s youth hostel before continuing eastwards.

Deliberately, I overshot Vienna and continued from there by bus to the small town of Rust on Lake Neusiedl. The water of this shallow lake is shared between Austria and neighbouring Hungary. I was told that if the wind blows hard, the lake shifts position: more of it moves into Hungary or into Austria depending on the wind direction.  From Rust, little could be seen of the lake apart from endless beds of reeds. I was the only guest at the youth hostel because it was so early in the year. At night, I was left alone in the hostel. As I lay waiting to be overcome by sleep, I could hear an incessant croaking of a multitude of frogs coming from the direction of the lake. This strange sound did not help me fall asleep.

The next day, I took a bus to Mörbisch am See, a village on the lake, close to Austria’s border with the then communist Hungary. I asked a village shopkeeper if I could leave my heavy rucksack in his shop so that I could take a stroll. My aim, which was fulfilled, was to see for myself the notorious ‘Iron Curtain’. I walked south of the village and soon spotted the tall watch towers overlooking the no man’s land between the two countries. I only crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time about ten years later. Then, I hurried back to the village because I knew that there was a bus about to leave for Vienna at noon. The bus was waiting. I asked the driver to delay departure while I collected my rucksack. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for its lunch break. The forbearing bus driver helped me find someone to unlock the shop. We set off for Vienna.

My father had an American secretary called Nancy Berg. She and her husband had very kindly torn out and given me the pages about Vienna from their copy of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day”. From this useful source of information, I discovered that there was an extremely cheap, centrally located hostel near Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. This was no ordinary hostel. It was subterranean. It had been a bomb-proof underground shelter built by the Nazi Germans. The rooms were somewhat spartan, but each was served by an air-conditioning system that had been installed by the Nazis. The hostel required guest to leave the premises between 8 am and 4 pm. This was not a problem because there was so much for me to explore in and around Vienna.  The hostel was good value as was almost everything else in the city. In 1971, £1 Sterling was worth 80 Austrian Schilling. About ten years later, when I next passed through Austria, £1 only bought 20 Austrian Schilling.

I ate most meals at the popular Rathauskeller under the City Hall, which served good food at very reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed ‘Gulaschsuppe’. One memorably enjoyable meal was at Grinzing at one of its Heurige, or wine taverns. I was not alone there. My friend Michael Jacobs had arrived in Vienna, where he was about to study German for a few months. He joined me and some other people, friends of my Uncle Felix. They were a couple in Vienna, whom my uncle had met. He was very keen that I should meet them. They invited me to afternoon at their residence in the city. It was a fine day and we sat on their terrace. I remember being given a cup of tea and a warm soft-boiled egg in its shell at the same moment. I had never been given this combination before. I hoped that it was not the local habit to break the egg into the tea. Had it been, I am sure that I would have not been able to even sip the strange mixture that would have resulted. Fortunately for me, the egg was designed to be consumed separately. I introduced Michael to this pleasant couple, and they became good friends.

By the time I travelled to Vienna, I had become a fan of the Dreigroschen Oper (Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. I had a gramophone record of the main songs in this work, which I never tired of hearing. Most people will be familiar with one of its opening songs, “Mack the Knife”. Many years later, I discovered a recording one of Ella Fitzgerald’s renderings of this song to a ‘live’ audience, during which she forgets the words following the first half of it. As luck would have it, there was a performance of the opera while I was in Vienna. I sat spellbound, listening to it at the city’s Volksoper.   

Amongst Vienna’s many attractions, there were several that I particularly enjoyed. One of these was the magnificent fairground at the Prater. This was on a scale I had never seen before. The Soviet War Memorial also sticks in my mind. I loved walking amongst the stalls in a street market that ran along the banks of a canal. Many of the stalls sold food from a part of Europe that I had not yet visited but wanted to: the Balkans and Communist Eastern Europe. Seeing road signs in Vienna pointing to places such as Bratislava and Budapest, both behind the Iron Curtain, thrilled me. I was also delighted by my visits to the Albertina art museum, Schönbrunn Palace on the edge of the city, and the Belvedere within the city.

It is curious that many details of my first ‘solo’ trip to mainland Europe remain in my mind but the return to London by train has left me no memories at all. I can only suppose that I travelled back without making any intermediate stops before reaching the English Channel. One thing that I regret is that I have mislaid the photographs, which I know that I took on this trip. I have an idea that they might be in a remote storage place that we rent on the outskirts of London. This is not accessible at present and even if it were, it might take hours or days sifting through what is being stored there to find them.

 

Photo: Melk Abbey from Wikimedia Commons

 

A suitcase of memories

Memories of childhood. Here is the introduction to a travel book, “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME”, which I published several years ago:

charlie

The attic of my parents’ house in north London contained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!

If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother.

This book contains my memories of the holidays and trips that I took with my parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of my life. They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, my parents preferred to expose my sister and me to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit us in the future. This was due to my father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from my mother being an artist. Whereas now I appreciate what they did for me then, I did not always do so at the time.

Please join me now as I examine the stickers in my memory – the souvenirs of many years gone past. Let them reveal to you how interesting school holidays can be even if they only include the rarest of glimpses of the sea and an almost total absence of ‘child-friendly’ activities.

These memories of my childhood travels are illustrated with photographs, all of which were taken by me or with one of my own cameras unless otherwise stated. I was given my first simple camera when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was not given to me by my parents, who never took photographs, but by my uncle Sven who was a keen photographer. His grandfather had been a pioneer of professional photography, as I will describe below. I will begin my narrative by choosing a label that could have been pasted on to my suitcase of reminiscences during the late 1950s or any time in the 1960s. It bears the name “Soho”. I have chosen it amongst all of the others because it provides a good introduction to my mother, who affected so much of what we did as a family and what will be related in this book.

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com , and on Kindle

Dry Martini

martini

 

The first alcoholic drink that I enjoyed in my early teens was Martini Vermouth. I liked it neat with a piece of ice.

One evening, a wealthy relative invited my parents and me to join them at London’s Savoy Hotel, where they were staying. Before dinner, we had drinks in their suite. I must have been about fourteen then. 

The room service waiter arrived, and we ordered drinks. I asked for my then usual Martini. Soon, the drinks arrived. I was handed a large glass tumbler with a thick base. It contained a clear liquid that did not look like Martini to me. Also, it did not smell like Martini, and its taste did not resemble anything I had drunk previously. Being a polite young fellow, I did not remark on it, but just sipped it slowly whilst the adults chatted.

When it was time to get up and descend to the dining room, I had an odd sensation. I stood up and looked at the floor which seemed to be undulating like the waves in the sea. Whatever I had drunk had gone straight to my head. What I had been served was not the dry Martini, which comes straight from the bottle, but the cocktail Dry Martini, which is mostly gin and only a dash of Martini. You live and learn.

 

picture source: http://www.diffordsguide.com

Such is life

pill

 

Quite a long time ago when I was in my twenties, I was invited by an Italian friend to stay at the hotel, which his parents ran in the Val ‘d’Aosta in a mountanous part of north west Italy. The hotel, which was quite luxurious, catered mainly for elderly clients. 

We used to eat meals in the hotel’s elegant dining room. All of the tables had starched table cloths and napkins (serviettes), beautifully polished glassware, and shiny silver cutlery. What struck me as surprising was that by almost every table setting, there were small bottles filled with tablets and capsules of varying shapes and colours. These were laid out ready for those of the diners who were required to take medicines with their meals.  The image of the medicine bottles as table settings has stuck in my my mind more than the rest of my stay at the hotel.

Now, many years later, although I rarely eat at such elegantly laid tables as in the hotel in the Val d’Aosta, I too need to have my collection of assorted tablets every breakfast and evening meal. I never imagined that I would be doing this when I was staying at my friend’s parents’ hotel. Well as the annoying saying goes “such is life“.

Wasting time by the pool

Pool side_240

 

My parents, like many other parents, wanted me to learn to swim. I was a reluctant learner. The reason was I could not believe that if I took my foot off the floor at the bottom of the pool or the sand beneath the sea, I would not sink like a stone. I could watch others swimming, but could not understand how they could do it and how much they enjoyed it.

Almost every Saturday morning, I used to be taken to one pool or another to get private swimming lessons. Year after year, these produced no results. I could not learn to swim. My parents must have spent a small fortune on these fruitless swimming lessons.

At school, we were taken to a public swimming bath at least once a week  during the Summer Term. The teachers supervising us were uninterested in those, like me, who were unable to swim. We were told to remain at the shallow end of the pool and not to move from there. This happened both at my primary school and also at secondary school.

Eventually my parents learnt of a Mr Brickett, who gave swimming lessons on Saturday ornings at the YWCA, which used to exist in Great Russell Street near Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. The red brick building still stands, but now it serves another purpose. 

Mr Brickett had a system that involved the pupil wearing an inflatable buoyancy arm-band arround each upper arm. Each armband had two separate inflatable chambers. With these fully inflated, I became convinced that I could make it across the pool without my feet touching the bottom. Each week, Mr Brickett would inflate the armbands a little less than the previous week, and then the pupil would be encouraged to swim to and fro across the pool. After a few weeks, I swam across the pool wearing my armbands. When I had done this, Mr Brickett revealed to me that he had not inflated the armband at all and that I was swimming without their assistance.  As I trusted Mr Brickett, I removed the bands and under his watchful eye I swam across the pool unaided. For this, I was awarded a certificate with my name and a Union Jack flag on it. It certified that I had swum 10 yards unaided, under my own steam.

 

I hardly ever swim any more, but I used to enjoy it a little bit, especially in the sea. I am glad that my parents persisted with the lessons, but regret that my slow progress led them to waste so much of their spare time by the pool.

 

A precocious child

Sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut at the dental surgery.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, our family dentist was a kindly German Jewish refugee called Dr Samuels. In those days, I learned later while I was studying dentistry, sugar used to be an ingredient of toothpaste made for use by children. I doubt that my mother provided us with children’s toothpaste, which she would have regarded as being gimmicky.

Dr Samuels had a very upmarket practice in London’s St John’s Wood. His waiting room floor was covered with thick pile oriental carpets and the reading matter was glossy journals such as Country Life.

The surgery, where Dr Samuels performed his dentistry, was old-fashioned. Instruments were kept on display in glass fronted metal cabinets. His x-ray machine looked antiquated even to my young, inexperienced eyes. So, did most of his other equipment, much of it made by the German Siemens company. One of my uncles, also a patient of Dr Samuels, once asked him if a museum might be interested in displaying this historic looking dental equipment. Samuels answer was that it was not quite old enough for a museum.

Dr Samuels drilled teeth with a cord driven dental handpiece. He told us that he had an air driven high speed dental drill, but he did not like it because it cut too fast in his opinion. So, having fillings in his surgery was quite a noisy and bumpy experience.

Dr Samuels was a gentle, kindly man, like a benevolent grandfather. He never frightened me.

At the end of an appointment, he used to reward me with a boiled sweet. I looked forward to receiving these. However, one day when I was about 8 or 9 years old and he offered me the sweet, I said to Dr Samuels: “No thank you. Sweets are filled with sugar and bad for my teeth.”

The price I paid for my precociousness was that he never again offered me a sweet at the end of my appointments with him. I should have kept my mouth shut and graciously accepted his kind but unhealthy gift.

Albania’s got talent…

ALBTAL 1

The Albanian community in the UK has been in the country long enough for some of their children to have been born in the country. It would be easy for the first generation born in the UK, who have to attend British schools and mix with non-Albanians, to begin to forget their cultural heritage. However, thanks to various organizations that some of the children of Albanian heritage attend, Albanian language and cultural traditions are being kept alive in the UK. On the 27th of October 2018, I was invited to attend the finals of the, which was held in a school hall in London’s Chalk Farm.

The Albanian Ambassador to the UK, Mr Qirjako Qirko, was one of several well-known personalities who introduced the show in Albanian. He ended his speech with a few words in English. The gist of what he said was as follows. He thanked the Queen and her Government for allowing Albanians to maintain their traditions and language, which is not the case in every other country. The show which followed the speeches certainly demonstrated that despite being far from their traditional homes and many years away from them, the Albanian community is encouraging their children to keep alive the traditions of their forefathers.

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The show consisted of a series of performances by young people whose parents came from Albania or Kosovo. There were songs (traditional and contemporary Albanian as well as renderings of current and not so current popular songs in English). Small troupes of youngsters in traditional Albanian garb performed traditional Albanian dances. Others danced routines that they had choreographed themselves. Several youngsters declaimed poetry in Albanian. Naturally, the quality of performance was not uniform. Some of the young people were dazzlingly competent, the rest were not bad. None of the performers was shy or overtly lacking in confidence. Each of them performed with an enthusiasm that was refreshing to observe. The large audience around me encouraged each of the contestants as they performed on stage, cheering and clapping to the rhythm of the music. The five judges praised and gave friendly encouragement (in Albanian) to each of the performers when their act was over. Three of the judges were for singing, one for poetry recital, and one for dancing. The atmosphere in the hall was joyful and friendly. Everyone who passed my wife and me, greeted us warmly even if they had no idea who we are. It was great to discover that the famed hospitality of the Albanian people has been preserved in its British diaspora.

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Many, if not all, of the performers, who sung or recited in Albanian or who dressed up in traditional costumes and performed the dances of their ancestors, use English in their day to day life. They have given up parts of their precious spare time to learn Albanian and to help Albanian cultural traditions remain vital and vibrant. They set an example that many children of British ancestry might profitably follow.

Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

ARY 36 HW 60s

When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.