PC 202 Other’s Manners

Stating the obvious ….. one’s observations about life are very personal! You and I may see the same thing, experience the same event, be in the same space and in the same time, but our own memory will be different as we have developed our own filters through which we make such observations. I have always wondered how autobiographical writers have remembered conversations from months or years ago; yesterday’s difficult enough for me!

Then I read ‘The Spaces In Between’ (Note 1), an autobiographical account of the early life of Caroline Jones, a yoga enthusiast and good friend. She writes about one’s ability to recall experiences: “…..  I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings – and who is to say that my version is true anyway? Who is entitled to say what is true in any family’s history? It is all shades of grey, interpretations and misinterpretations: something that passes one person by might be the thing that tips another onto a different journey; and all, in the end, coloured by imagination and weakened by unreliable memory.” Exactly: so simply put. (Note 2)

On the UK TV’s Channel Four there’s an interesting Belgium drama called The Twelve; fortunately subtitles are provided for those of us who don’t speak Flemish! A jury has been selected to try a case of double murder. As the story unfolds, it focuses on the background of the individuals who make up the jury, making us very aware that their judgments and values are unconsciously coloured by their own experiences, good and bad, despite hearing in the courtroom exactly the same thing.

Normally we try and celebrate my Scorpio birthday with a supper party of some sort. This year we wondered how to do that living in the half-life of Covid 19. So we planned a couple of suppers, maximum 6 to abide by the rules, and Celina would shout a dinner at The Ivy in central Brighton. The name The Ivy is familiar as part of the upmarket London ‘eating & be seen’ scene; actually I ate there once …… didn’t recognise anyone else!  

The original restaurant started life as an unlicensed Italian café in West Street in London’s theatre-land in 1917. Over the decades it’s maintained a reputation as a very special place to eat and remains hugely popular; mobile phones and cameras are banned. In the last decade the company has established The Ivy Collection, a number of similarly-themed restaurants all serving the same good quality food and staffed by well-trained individuals.

Part of the dining area in The Ivy Brighton

There are Ivy Collection restaurants in a number of British cities; for instance we ate in The Ivy in Bath (See PCs 164 & 165) last year. The Ivy in Brighton opened in early summer 2018. Intrigued, we had a drink there a year ago and then in November were delightfully included in the wedding and Ivy luncheon of chums Sandie & Dom.

When you book a table in a restaurant you have no control over the behaviour of the other diners or where you sit, although I appreciate there is probably a difference between those in McDonalds and those dining in The Ritz (Probably better in McDonalds?)  Obviously you imagine that most people are well mannered and sensitive in shared spaces. Some of you may recall our irritating experiences of sharing a sun-terrace in Sicily with some Russians in PC 134? And you may have seen cartoons of an airline passenger sitting in an aisle seat and being next to a giant of a man; I think Gary Larson did one of a huge man coming down the aisle towards his seat?

The Ivy had no free tables on the day of my birthday, last Saturday, so we went earlier on Thursday. With current restrictions the restaurant has to close at 2200 and by 1845 it was full; we were shown to our table, one with places for 4. I guess it’s rude to stare directly at the people at the next table, but I remember clocking them and thinking “Oh! Dear!” Too quick to make a judgment, me, you might suggest; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Mr & Mrs Overweight were accompanied by a couple who in the course of the evening said little and laughed, actually ‘screamed’ is a better word, a lot, in a way that grated on my sensibilities. Mr Overweight clearly appreciated their unconscious admiration at his jokes and stories. It was Mrs Overweight’s birthday so a time for celebration and the alcohol in the form of cocktails (with umbrellas of course) flowed. Halfway through the evening I met him on the stairs to the loo; I was on my way up, returning to our table. No recognition! No ‘after you’ suggestion as one of us had to give way. Gravity and potential energy (Note 3) was of course on his side! During the course of the evening, Mr Overweight’s language, liberally doused with swear words, and the volume at which he spoke got more irritating, all the time ‘stuffing his face’ with food and washing it down with glasses of wine. Twice they left to have a cigarette outside; the smell of stale smoke from their clothes on their return wafted across our table. I have to say I was much relieved when they paid their bill and left. Don’t read this incorrectly! We had a lovely meal of food that we do not normally eat, served by some skilled waitresses, and ignored the riff-raff manners. Celina took a photograph of birthday boy.

In PC 50 from September 2015 I scribbled about suffering a house & pool party of 450 people next to Celina’s parents’ house on Iposeria in the Sān Conrado suburb of Rio de Janeiro? We are often in conflict with others’ behaviour but nowadays there is a growing lack of respect for our fellow human beings and our tolerance levels are extremely low; mine included, sometimes!! Ironic words huh!!

Richard 30th October 2020

Note 1 On the book jacket the typeface had “the spaces in between” with no capitals! Very casual and calming.

Note 2 The late great Clive James’ first autobiographical book was titled “Unreliable Memoirs”.

Note 3 Potential energy is defined mathematically as mgh – ‘m’ mass in kg, ‘g’ acceleration due to gravity and ‘h’ height. Mr Overweight had lots of mass!

PC 201 Facts and Dying

In one of my posts from Estoril in the summer, PC 194 ‘Waiting for ……’, I mentioned the larger-than-life character who owned one of the apartments where my brother-in-law lives in Portugal. Early sixties-something Glenda told us last year that she had been diagnosed with cancer. With typical joie de vie she laughed and said how she was going to try everything but Chemo to beat it. When we saw her at the end of July this year you would not have known she was losing the battle, but by the time we left on 9th September it was quite clear her time left was measured in weeks rather than months. She had laughed and said that when it becomes unbearable, she’ll check out; she did so on the 15th of October. As someone recently said about a chum: “She loved this earth but could not stay.”

How often have looked up into the sky at the end of a holiday, after a get-together with friends off the beaten track or on Sunday afternoon when thoughts inevitably turn to the working week ……. ‘but can’t we stay’?

Someone suggested that we are the architects of our own demise and I agree. Most of us know that drinking alcohol to excess damages our livers, most of us know that smoking can cause lung cancer, most of us acknowledge that eating too much makes us fat, and we read that exercising is good for us. Only this week I read that swimming in cold water reduces the onset of dementia. We ignore the data if it suits us; a look on the bathroom scales can be fact, but we mitigate the unwelcome rise with some excuse. Those of us who smoked pointed to the 90 year old smoking 30 a day or thought that one might get hit by a bus crossing the road, so why not! We make our own luck but sometimes, inevitably one can be in the wrong place at the wrong time! Some people subscribe to the fatalist view, that no matter what they do, the outcome will be the same …… as it’s predetermined.

I never used to read obituaries published in the quality press, but do so regularly now because it’s more likely I might know someone whose life was noteworthy enough! It’s not only the rich and famous or the well-connected who feature. Often an ‘ordinary’ person whose life was fascinating appears and the compilers of the pieces clearly research their subjects with relish. I used to wonder why the accompanying photograph was of the person at 53 or 64 but never 86! We all can see that the ageing process is not flattering. Here’s an example of the little stories that often colour the summary of a life. Philip Ayrton-Grime was an established vet in Windsor and was entrusted with the health and well-being of the royal Corgis. Sharing a glass of Sherry with The Queen after one of his last visits in post, the elderly Philip was asked whether he was forgetting names and faces. As he nodded in agreement, the Queen sighed: “Fortunately everyone seems to know me!”

For the last few years I have got used to watching what is known on the BBC channel as the ‘Early Evening News’, broadcast at 1800. Since the start of the pandemic and repeated every evening since, the newsreader has solemnly read out the number of Covid deaths for the day and the cumulative total ie people who have died having a positive test. Initially it was sort of shocking, as if these deaths could have been prevented. Then it became apparent that the majority of the deceased had had ‘underlying health issue’ – suggesting that the virus had simply hastened their demise. A few months ago the public body for reporting the deaths, Public Health England, admitted that they used a different measure to that used by the other nations of the United Kingdom. Reworking the figures took over 5000 deaths off the total and introduced a measure of scepticism with the published data. So now I often scream at the television when they give the total as gospel! Now it’s just morbid mumbo jumbo. Next they will be announcing how many people have died as a result of a car accident. (Fact (check it?): In July 2020 the UK had 38,179 deaths. A daily average of 450 from cancer, 180 from heart problems …. and 17 from Covid 19)  

A headline in the newspaper concerned Russia and fake news.

You and I might think this is absurdly childish and pathetic, but if it is absorbed as the truth by those unable to make more informed judgments, it becomes a real concern, as such people are easily swayed.

Writing in The Times this week, Hugo Rifkind says: “Ideas that thrive are not necessarily the best or wisest ones. Witness a tweet saying a recent study had shown half of all positive Covid tests were false. It hadn’t at all, but that tweet was re-tweeted thousands of times. Various scientific brains tried to set the record straight, but the reality was boring and complicated and nobody wanted to hear it. What do we do with these people? Ignore them? Argue with them? Shut them up?

Recently I watched the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ about how people use the interconnected world to spread all sorts of news. Watch it and I imagine you like me will think it’s kinda scary? Sometimes the headlines are skewed by those with a particular bias. My dear friend Jonathan, who had fought in the Falklands War of 1982, drew my attention to a claim that veterans of that conflict were committing suicide at a higher rate than the average for their age profile. He investigated; of the 21,432 service personnel who had fought in the war, by December 2012, 1335 had died (compared with 2079 civilians for that age group). Seven per cent of the veteran deaths were due to intentional self-harm, making them 35% less likely to kill themselves than their civilian peer group. So what point was the claimant trying to make? I leave that to you to figure out. Of course I accept that the figures Jonathan quoted are accurate!

Funny world, inn’t?

Richard 23rd October 2020

PC 200 Another Milestone!

On the 2nd July 2017 I posted my 100th postcard …… and thought that was quite an achievement; quite proud of myself! And now, just over three years and three months later, I am trying to pull together my thoughts for the second one hundred, and doing that with the grey fog of Covid 19 hanging over me like a wet blanket. I assumed that Covid 19 was named as ….. CoronaVirusDecember2019 but if I Goggle it I find I am wrong; it’s happened before!

Despite everything being in digital form these days I wanted to have a paper record of my first three volumes of 50 PCs each. The local printer in Portland Road produced these ………

…… and in anticipation I created a frontispiece for the fourth volume PCs 151-200! They are possibly the most expensive single colour copies ever produced. (Note 1)

I am always amazed when people say they remember conversations they had with their mother/father/sister/brother/dear friend/boss/ex-boss/lover/ex-lover/dinner party guest/whoever months or even years afterwards. Can I remember what I was doing in July 2017, or even July 2018, let alone remember conversations? Nah! So I scroll back through my ‘Articles’ folder in Word and am reminded what’s happened over the last three years, events and thoughts that have prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak!

Scribbling about this milestone, I sense I am looking back into a forgotten world, one where we could travel freely, could mix socially and could use our unmasked faces to express what we really felt and not have to rely solely on our eyes.

Boy did we travel! In addition to annual trips to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the establishment of a Rocha Miranda base in Estoril has given us an excuse to travel to Portugal at the drop of a Panama hat. In 2018 we took the ferry to Santander, drove through north-west Spain and south to Estoril (PCs 129 & 130); this year we spent six weeks there.

September 2018 found us in Sicily for a week (PC 134). Apart from going to Rio, these were all shortish journeys compared with our long haul out to the Far East at the end of 2019. Singapore (PC 168) and then, putting some of my family history into context, visiting Farewell Spit on the north of New Zealand’s South Island.

You may have got bored by my interest with the Fosberry and Nation families but if not, PCs 127, 152, 154, 169 &170 will put you right. Some of you will have read my PCs about our Alaska trip in 2015, following the escapades of George Nation who married the girl who was shipwrecked on Farewell Spit in 1877. There are some simply beautiful places to experience on this planet of ours, and I reckon New Zealand’s landscapes rate as some of the best.

In amongst the second one hundred PCs I have written about visits in the UK to The Anchor at Warbleswick (Courgette Neutral PC 153) and to the city of my birth, Bath (PCs 164 & 165).

Under the wooden representation of entwined ‘Love’ and ‘Hove’ that I carved from a pine board ……

……. around our dining table we have entertained some of the people whom we have met since arriving in Hove eight years ago this week. Some have come much more than once, such is how relationships develop. Sometimes one of the couple has had a passion for hot yoga. One of the real negatives of the current pandemic is that the social aspect of following our yoga practice has come to a halt, frozen in the fear of contagion and social infection. It will recover.

In addition to scribbling about social mores and changing behaviours, a hot topic of the moment, I have written about Virgins (PC 120), Bananas (PC 121 – and not related to the previous PC!), Night & Day (PCs 124 & 125) and September (PC 132).

My beautiful gorgeous Labrador Tom only spent a few months here in Hove before finally hanging up his collar, but the stay of my daughter’s American Labrador Margo prompted a PC about animals I have owned (PC 122). If we didn’t want to travel so much I am sure we would have another one – although Celina is more of a cat person.

Three PCs about my time in Northern Ireland came at the end of this batch of 100. Odd that after two tours there in the 1970s I should find myself working for a Belfast-based company when I left the Army in 1985. There is often something circulatory about one’s life’s events.

When lockdown was imposed in March I decided to increase the frequency of my fortnightly posts to weekly; if I hadn’t, this PC would have appeared sometime in May 2021. I imagined, rightly or wrongly, people would have more time to read (See Note 2). I have also tried to bang the drum for everyone to read more, given that the numbers of people in the UK who can’t read and write well is far too high (PC 174). (Note 3)

And I guess we have all been watching more Netflix than usual? One documentary that was recommended by Celina’s mother was The Social Dilemma, about the insidious invasion of our lives by postings on social media platforms, and the potential to alter our own judgements through fake or biased news items. Scarry!

Stay Safe. Stay Healthy. Now …… for the next one hundred.

Richard 16th October 2020

Note 1. Think you can make out postcards being sucked up into a Royal Mail red postbox? Now to collate another 50 and take the memory stick to the printer.

Note 2. In Estoril in the summer we were challenged to complete a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Marvel’s Avenger characters.

More recently Simon & Benedicte have very kindly lent us a 4000-piece of Lego Techic – a Porche 911 GT3 RS. Now that’s going to give days of ….. fun!

Note 3. One of my favourite authors Lee Child (He, real name James Grant, and his wife often referred to their daughter Ruth as ‘le child’ (the child)!) has co-written his next book about Jack Reacher (The Sentinel) with his brother Andrew. The intention is that after a few more, Lee will hang up his pen, leaving it to Andrew to continue.

PC 199 The Way We Are?

On my kitchen island I have a piggy money box ……

….. into which I drop the odd one pound coin. The habit of desultorily collecting spare coins started back at university when I wanted to stop smoking. In those days a packet of cigarettes was £0.50, so I bought a Snoopy money box and dropped a 50 pence piece into it every day. It was a few decades ago but that fund paid for a week’s holiday in Spain. (Note 1& 2)

The money box came to mind the other evening when Bill came to supper. Do you have an Anxiety Box? Somewhere you can drop those anxious thoughts about this and that ….. and leave them to fester, as opposed to not putting them there and seeing them in the cold light of day and seeing them for what they are …… often things completely outside of your control ….. and just let them go ….. let the wind take them? 

He sat opposite me, replete after a bowl of lovely fresh pasta and some yummy pudding. Relaxed and at ease with himself, he started talking about the next few months and then mused about the next few years. This was unusual for a bloke, talking about his feelings and thoughts, exploring the inner recesses of himself. In the climate of the Covid 19 pandemic, making any definite plans is fraught, for we don’t know, if we ever did, what tomorrow is going to bring.

For some, this uncertainty is easy to accept, for most of us it’s irritating to say the least, as exploring the future from the benefits of your armchair is what we do. For armchair read on top of a cliff, possibly windswept and bracing but with an horizon with which to stretch your thoughts; on a yacht using nature’s forces to go somewhere or just enjoy the experience; on a beach with the ‘lonely sea and the sky’; at the top of the spire of some cathedral; the theme is somewhere where you can see …. “an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight” (note 3) …… and not snuggled under a duvet. And now those ideas and dreams are tempered with the uncertainty of when, if ever, life will return to some semblance of what we had previously considered normal! Some seem to believe life is on hold; naturally we are all a little anxious.

Smugly, I am OK thanks! I have reached a point in my existence where I am extremely happy in my own skin, think I know what I like, what I love and what I don’t like and what I don’t love – oysters for example! Some of you will, of course, be right at the beginning of adult life (I have to assume no teenagers read my scribbles?), as some of the children of chums are, reaching university and all that that rite of passage entails, for some onto their second or third careers, for some battling with health issues, for some fighting with relationship trauma. It’s happened before and it will happen in the future; don’t think you are the only one! For example, back in 1978 the mortgage interest rate was over 16%  and that sure gave one sleepless nights!

“So” he muttered “should I stop work and if I did what would I do? Would I continue to live in my current house now my children have left? What should I do? Learn to play bridge?”

“Oh! Come on Bill! That’s such a cliché!”

With a climate of anxiousness, ‘mental health’ issues have come under the microscope in 2020 and about time too. (See PC 136) But I am afraid all we hear are the negatives and not the positives. I wrote “On the day of my recent birthday the quotation in the yoga studio was very serendipitous: “Happiness involves taking part in the game of life, not standing on the edge of things and frowning.” Mental Health was a minority issue that has moved mainstream; failure to address it properly will have major consequences for the nation.”

If you read PC 195 ‘Snippets …..’ you will have read of the death of Ken Robinson. Maybe if you hadn’t done so before, you went onto You Tube and watched his TED talk about finding your element, that issue, that topic, that sport, that experience that engaged all of your emotions. I get that, for many, being in love with your work is not always possible. We get drawn into something that gives us an income and that pays for the art classes, the singing lessons that, whilst acknowledging you will never be Adele or Caruso, give us so much pleasure and we think that’s it, that that’s all there is. In fact just this last week someone admitted over supper that their job pays the bills, but what they really wanted to do was sing, preferably in the ‘chanson’ style as that suited their voice ……. and that was a real passion.

Bill again: “It’s too difficult and it’s alright for you, you …….” and the defensive self-justification comes rolling in from left field.

“But I’m OK! I thought it’s you who are coming up with all these situations that for no reason make you anxious. Does it make you feel comfortable to pop these anxious thoughts into your box and leave them there to look at in the small hours, when the churning starts? Please, just get them out and let them fly away.”

Richard 9th October 2020

Note 1 I stopped smoking then and at various other times during my life, always tempted back through smoking little cigarillos. My last cigarette was on 14th March 1994 – at 1230 if you are that interested?

Note 2 Additionally I have, like most people I guess, an old coffee tin into which I drop my monetary shrapnel (1, 2 and 5 pence coins) when I come back from a shopping trip. At Christmas it’s given to charity – ie my daughter!!

Note 3 Father Bede Jarrett (1881-1934) was an English Dominican friar

PC 198 Tales from Northern Ireland (3)

I went back to Northern Ireland in October 1975. This time 39 Medium Regiment’s area of responsibility was centred on Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) The Maze (aka Long Kesh). The prison housed members of the various paramilitary groups, IRA, Provos, UVF, etc. The UK Government had introduced a policy of ‘internment’ where those out to cause trouble were imprisoned, without the benefit of a proper trial by jury. As I write this over forty years later I wonder how it had become a politically-acceptable policy.

Our primary responsibility was the prison’s external security; others included an area of North Armagh and a permanent VCP at Aughnacloy, just before the border with The Republic.

Aughnacloy is due west of Portadown and south west of Belfast

This was an intellectually challenging tour as I was the regimental Public Relations (PR) Officer dealing with the press from our recruiting area of Birmingham, interfacing with the PR offices at HQ Northern Ireland in Lisburn and keeping the soldiers’ families aware of what their loved ones were doing.

I decided to produce a fortnightly magazine and called it TNT, for Three Nine (39) Times, although the pun was very obvious in the context in which we operated. The four Regimental batteries were cajoled, encouraged and hounded to produce some news and stories about their particular operations!

In my office. I wore civilian clothes most of the time and grew my hair!

My TNT magazines were printed by a company in Portadown, a town some 20 miles from The Maze. For travelling around I had a hard-topped Land Rover that, in an effort to disguise its military ownership, was painted grey and cream; except that is for parts of the inside….. which were Army green!! Portadown was a reasonably peaceful place and Gerry was a small bundle of Protestant energy. We got on famously and during the tour produced some 300 copies each of the 8 issues.

Visiting a recently blown-up farmhouse. The bodies were inside.

For the battery guarding HMP The Maze’s perimeter, this was an extremely tedious, repetitive and boring task, although the possible reaction to a unprofessional job was obvious. There was the added frustration that the sentries in the watch towers could see into the prison, could see a regime and culture that had many critics and maybe secretly wished the roles were reversed! HMP The Maze was run by the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. One example of allowed prisoner behaviour was the blanket protest when the inmates wore only a blanket and smeared their own excrement over the cell walls. Our soldiers took a dim view of this behaviour.

My role during the tour put me on the duty officer rota, manning the operations room on a shift basis. I was due to take over from Major John Harman, the Regimental second-in-command, one morning at 0800, he having completed the graveyard shift (midnight to 0800). He greeted me with a big smirk on his face and said:

I was just completing the handover notes and thought I might be late for breakfast in the Officers’ Mess. So I picked up a telephone handset (ed. from one of the bank of three) and dialled the Mess number. Just at that instant one of the other phones in the operations room rang. I reached across and said: “Ops Room 39! Just a minute, I am on the other line.” …… only to hear my own voice in the earpiece. I had phoned myself!”

Piggy-backing on the relationship that Zack Freeth (PC 197) had established with Julia Morley and the Miss World Organisation, I persuaded Julia to bring the then current Miss World, 18 year old Wilnelia Merced to Northern Ireland (Note 1). We visited a children’s home …. and entertained the new Miss World for three days, flying down to the VCP at Aughnacloy and around North Armagh.

As part of the visit the Sergeants’ Mess invited her and Julia to dinner. In my capacity as escort (!) at an appropriate time I knocked on Wilnelia’s bedroom door to take her across to the mess. She looked like someone off the set of West Side Story, leather bomber jacket and extreme short skirt. At another time and in another place completely gorgeous but she would have been eaten alive by the randy chaps in the mess!! I persuaded her with some difficulty to change into something less, how should I say it, sexy!

On the last day of her visit the officers’ mess laid on a curry lunch (Note 2), where Wilnelia was the guest of honour. The word got out and it was possibly the best attended curry lunch I have ever been to!! After lunch I borrowed the CO’s staff car and driver and took Wilnelia and Julia to Aldergrove Airport. There we were met by the VIP conducting officer and taken to a private room. Black Bushmills whiskey, one of the best things to come out of Ireland, was produced. After thirty minutes we were warned the flight gate was closing. Another twenty minutes and a member of the cabin crew came and escorted the VIPs to the foot of the aircraft steps.

A few weeks later another four months ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ ended.

Little did I know then that in 1986 I would join the Belfast-based global aerospace company Short Brothers. As part of the sales team I travelled internationally a great deal from the London office – but occasionally had to visit Belfast. On my one-week company induction I was booked in to the La Mon Hotel. Someone had a sense of humour; in February1978 the hotel had been bombed by the IRA in one of the worst atrocities of the troubles which had killed 12 people and wounded another 30.

Richard 1st October 2020

Note 1 In 1983 the Puerto Rican married the British entertainer Bruce Forsyth and became Lady Forsyth-Johnson.

Note 2 A ‘Curry Lunch’ was an established monthly Sunday event in most officers’ messes throughout the world.