PC 133 A Travel Vignette

I imagine most of us get excited about the view of the earth from an aeroplane or hot air balloon, or even a parachute? I know I do, with my deep-rooted fascination with maps and all things cartographic. Many years ago, in 1970, I spent a couple of weeks at the School of Military Survey; a memorable fortnight in the summer, learning how to make maps from aerial photographs, amongst other things. And we finished early enough to enjoy tea and toast, with lime marmalade obviously, and a couple of games of croquet. Bliss!

Eleven days ago, pausing in my read of the newspaper, I glance idly out of the port side of BA2594, on route to Catania in Sicily. It was a gloriously clear day for flying. ‘Wow, that must be Lac Léman,’ I thought; ‘there’s no other body of inland water quite so big in western Europe. So there’s Geneva ……’ and I became absorbed ….. the quest for news forgotten!!

1 Lac Leman

Within a few minutes the Alps are beneath us. Not sure whether they are the French Alps, the Swiss Alps, Italian Alps or Dolomites; from 33,000 feet they simply look majestic, small from this height but dwarfing the valleys and hilltop villages – the scale is Toy Town.

4 More Alps

Then we leave the land behind and slip down the west of Italy. The port of Genoa is below and the memory of the motorway bridge collapse invaded my brain space. Later I recall a ferry ride from Civitavecchia to Olbia in Sardinia in 1975 and a return from Olbia to Genoa and thence the UK.

“Good evening this is the captain. Currently North West of Palermo and starting our descent into Catania. Those of you on the port side of the plane have a good view of Mount Etna (see note). Unusually clear.”

7 Mount Etna 2

The brown parched land visible below is somewhat corrugated, as if some giant has raked his finger nails across the earth. Etna sits brooding on the horizon as the land gradually flattens out and we make our descent into Catania airport. Everywhere you look green regimented lines march across the fields; Sicily is famous for its wine!

The Captain puts on his ‘Aren’t I wonderful’ voice and announces we’ve arrived five minutes early. We troop down the aisle to the stairs and waiting coaches. Julia, the warm friendly stewardess in charge of the Cabin Crew, gives us a beaming smile and a ‘Thank you for flying British Airways’; she could have added something about how we treat your data sensitively!

The luggage safely on the trolley, we look for the familiar red sign of the Avis car hire company. Every company under the sun ……. except Budget and Avis! Frustratingly it seems they are located outside, after the end of the terminal building. Pushing the laden trolley we make our way in the gathering darkness towards the car hire office – us and twenty others. Inside, after the initial shock of what we see, we take a ticket – F78 – and gather our thoughts. There are just two desks open, and the number shown on the overhead display is an energy-sapping F69! So nine others in front of us and even if each transaction takes 20 minutes that’s over 90 minutes. Celina dives back to the main terminal in search of supper. ‘Baguette or baguette or pizza?’ She reappears to find I haven’t moved. Fortunately the German couple next to us realise they drew two tickets and when their number, F71, is called they give us their F72 ticket. I start getting excited; ‘simple things please little minds’ is so true in these sorts of situations. I sheepishly make my way to the desk as F72 is called, scrunching F78 into a small ball in my pocket. I say sheepishly as I am sure others in the queue will be thinking ‘I was here before him’ and other more unkind thoughts!
Nicola is just doing his job; I focus, my world shrinking to just him and me, and ignore the chaos behind me. I remark how busy it is, he mumbles something about the systems being slow, I would like to shout ‘you should have some more staff’ but want to be charming, want to be out of there into the night, although now not looking forward to a 70km drive in a car I don’t know, to a place I don’t know, driving on the wrong side of the road!! Nicola notices I live in Hove ……. and launches into how he had managed the Eat fast food restaurant in Brighton just by the Clock Tower for three years. He lived in Worthing (looks too young to have lived in Worthing!!) and has now come home to Sicily. A small world! I almost tell him he should have gone to Hertz or Europcar but that wouldn’t help my progress through the bureaucratic process involved in hiring an Avis car.

Avis logo


‘Ah! Yes!’ I say, ‘you’re going to tell me I need to spend lots of money to ensure that if a Lambretta driven by a bella signorina scrapes the car or the windscreen shatters or ……’. My mind filters out the long list, knowing the only sensible thing is to say yes yes yes …… anything to get me out of the door. My watch says 2030 ….. we landed two and a half hours ago! OK! Tell me where to sign and for that enormous extra insurance cost please lend me a Satnav …… for free? The conditions and retail agreement are emailed to me and I sign on a screen he thrusts under my nose.

Out into the dimly lit car park …… ‘follow the blue painted lane’ …….. I think it was painted when the Greeks were in charge of Catania and has not been painted since, but after pushing and pulling the trolley up this lane and under that barrier, you know how it is, we find the little Fiat Panda – shiny black. Our ‘free’ Jezebel 3 is plugged into the socket – I was going to write cigarette lighter but who smokes in cars these days? Come to that, who smokes?? – and we input the details of our hotel near Syracusa. We couldn’t see anything of the beautiful scenery, road works disrupt our southerly progress and Jezebel keeps ‘recalculating’ but eventually, after an hour and a half, we find La Rosa Sul Mare in the Plemmirio nature and sea reserve. We had arrived.

Richard  22nd September 2018

Note: Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, rises to 3330m above sea level and is situated in the north east of the island of Sicily. The most recent eruption in 2002 destroyed the visitors’ centre and a cable car station. This year it’s been quiet, thankfully!

PC 132 September

I never really believed it was only me who wondered why the Academic Year started, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, at the beginning of this month and a quick google (that’s a verb now, isn’t it!) confirmed it. Lots of people scratch their heads and wondered why it doesn’t align with the Calendar Year, or actually vica versa, ie New Year’s Day could be the 1st September! Now that would be weird. But the reason is grounded in the rural development of societies, the importance of successful farming to life itself. In those cold and dark months of November, December, January and February, down on the farm nothing much happens; then comes spring and families got involved in planting seeds, tending the growing crops and harvesting the results.

m65 (2)

September Morning

As soon as I type in ‘harvest’ my mind goes back to those years of compulsory church attendance and the Harvest Festival Sunday. Here in Britain Christians give thanks on Harvest Sunday, a date defined by the full moon nearest to the Autumn Equinox, 22nd or 23rd September. In North America the fruits of the farmers’ labours are celebrated at Thanksgiving, sometime in October or November. Here, in church, amongst the baskets of fruit and vegetables decorating the aisles we sang, with great gusto, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land; but it is fed and watered ….” It was originally ‘Wir pflügen und wir streuen ….’, a German hymn from 1780, translated into English in 1861. In a nod to its obvious rural connection, we boys switched to what we perceived as a country dialect and ‘scatter’ became ‘scaaa….a…tuur’! Sorry; I digress, lost in my reverie. Education? Ah! Yes that could wait until after the summer was over. Of course, if you are part of the 12% of the world’s population living in the Southern Hemisphere, all this is irrelevant!

Education in the UK became compulsory for children up to the age of 10 in 1880; this upper limit gradually increased to where it stands now, 16, by 1972. Amazing it has taken so long for societies to recognise its importance? So the school year in the UK starts this first week in September, unless you live in Scotland where of course it started the last week in August; you following this? Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire had started as an establishment rooted in the countryside. Although not an Agricultural College per se, when I started in its Junior School in 1960 lessons stopped in late September so we could go and pick the potatoes! My recollection is of very muddy fields, us boys dressed in the uniform of fawn shorts and long socks, bending over to pick the potatoes and throwing them into the trailer behind Mr Huff’s tractor. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see that, as an alternative to an hour’s lesson of Latin, this was such fun; except if it was raining, or when Jones Minor’s thrown spud hit you on the head!! One chap Jack Bancroft even went home to his family farm to help with the combine harvester; two weeks off – we were green with envy!

This start of the term initiates a pattern in your life, one that follows you from your school years to attendance at college or university. For me after the summer holidays of 1965 I started my officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst ….. in September; the two year course mirroring the school months, so we got commissioned in July. (See note) Later in life when your own children start school, the same regimentation starts again, periods and breaks defined by the school year. Dolly Alderton, writing in her column in the Sunday Times, says it’s ‘a habit hard-wired into me since school; the calendar year will always begin in the first week of September.’

I asked my daughter, who is a teacher at a secondary school, if she was looking forward to the start of the term. Her thoughts, which I paraphrase, probably echo those of every teacher in the country.

“Er! Not really! I’ll miss the wonderful long summer and I have to get on the treadmill of teaching and marking and organising packed lunches for my boys and someone to walk the dog and ….”

“So no passion to teach?”

“Of course; in an ideal world, absolutely. But it’s all the other things that start in September that require one to be so organised or it’s chaos!”

So an oscillating mixture of anticipation and anxiety, of certainty and uncertainty. Those of you not involved in academic life are probably jealous of their long holidays! At the start of the Autumn Term at Dauntsey’s, those of us who played Rugby knew that on the first Thursday there would be a cross-country run. Mr Proctor would take us up onto the edge of Salisbury Plain, along for mile after mile and then back, muddy and exhausted, into the school grounds. I hated it, yes hated it; intellectually I understood why it was necessary but I still hated it! The roller coaster of life huh! Not a Ferris wheel, simply round and around, but something that goes slowly, goes quickly, goes up and goes down, goes around sharp corners and occasionally throws one off balance. The Times’ cartoonist summed it up with this ‘political’ cartoon on Monday (see note 2):


Some of you will have moved house since the end of the last academic year, so your children may be/will be starting a new school. Some will have a new uniform. Some children will be starting school because they have reached that age (4 years old equates to Year 1; why does the year not match their age?), some a new school because they are moving from Primary to Secondary. Some of course are going to University, maybe leaving home for the first time in their lives. And some of you have no children and couldn’t care a stuff but acknowledge, I imagine, that society moves with this rhythm! Even the Leader of the Brighton & Hove City Council reflected on this in the local paper. “A good start to life, including a great education, brings benefits across the whole of our lives and for the whole community.” writes Daniel Yates (no relation!); “For each of you starting a new phase of your life within this city, I wish you great success.”

So a new year at the beginning of September. Perhaps Dolly has a point?

Richard 8th September 2018

Note 1 This pattern was thrown by attendance at a MSc-equivalent course at The Royal Military College of Science, which started in January 1978, to fit into the year-long Staff College course which started the following January; the establishments were some 60 miles apart! Played havoc with those families with children at school.

Note 2. The Prime Minister, Theresa May at the blackboard, trying to make a point about her ‘Chequers Agreement’ at the beginning of the Parliamentary Term to students David Davies (ex-Brexit Secretary), Boris Johnson (ex-Foreign Secretary), Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg (with the long nose).