PC 206 Chewing The Fat

I caught up with Celina’s cousin Toni in Estoril, Portugal on Saturday and spent some time just ‘chewing the fat’ (Note 1). In Brazilian or Portuguese I am told the equivalent is ‘passar o tempo’ but that sounds like ‘passing the time’ and I sense our saying has greater depth. There was an old-fashioned phrase ‘chewing the rag’ where the word ‘chew’ meant simply ‘to say’ and ‘rag’ was slang for tongue. ‘Chewing the fat’ I can understand, maybe getting my teeth into some delicious pork scratchings; no good if you are vegetarian or vegan!! My mother used to ‘chew the cud’ when she was concentrating on some sewing job; exactly like a cow seems to chew the inside of its cheek, although this is actually ruminating. (Note 2)

I digress. We had called Toni on WhapsApp as it was his birthday. I brought him up to date about life here in the UK and mentioned that I had just read the obituary of Eric Mark (Jun 1922 – Nov 2020), a German-born Jew who had worked as a ‘listener’ at high-ranking German Officer POW camps in England during WWII. It was Mark who, through listening to bugged conversations of the inmates, identified the existence of a secret rocket programme, the Nazi ‘vergeltungswaffen’, that became known to us as the V1, colloquially the doodlebug, and V2. Completely coincidently the British author Robert Harris’s new thriller is called V2.

En passant, Toni asked whether I would have an anti-Covid vaccine when it became available. “Of course!” I answered immediately and went on to extoll the professionalism and standards of our regulatory system, the ‘checks and balances’ and the confidence I had in it. I imagined that any trials would fit all the required parameters ie the majority of people would show no adverse reaction (Doomsayers would jump on this and say but they are risking people’s lives and bleat about the Draconian State and …….) but common sense prevails. If it works for the majority, I’ll have it! Don’t forget I spent the first three decades of my life institutionalised – first at boarding school then in the military – and survived, not as an automaton, but someone who works within some boundaries, within some framework of values and rules. I have an inbuilt ‘acceptance’ switch; I trust the system.

We have had a hideous year by any measure; reminds me of our Queen’s annus horribilis of 1992: “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” That year three royal marriages collapsed, a fire destroyed more than a hundred rooms in Windsor Castle and a toe-sucking scandal involving Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, rocked Britain and the monarchy. Last year could have been another bad year for her but I leave that for you to research!

Celina and I have ducked and weaved and somehow remain physically and mentally in good shape. We left Singapore in early December last year (phew!), had our lovely time on South Island and our three weeks in Rio in January were just wet but free of Covid. We obviously got caught up in the first lockdown, had a glorious if constrained six weeks in Portugal in the summer and slipped back to Hove before we were required to self-isolate. We have adapted to yoga online and now with a room heater and humidifier practise our daily 26/2 sequence in a warm and cosy atmosphere. We have been lucky. Some people we know have not made it or are still suffering from Long Covid; being vulnerable I take care when out and about and have shunned the local buses!

There is always an upside to any crisis and it’s worth just thinking about some of the positives! The other evening I happened to look up into the night sky and saw some moving lights. Ah! Yes! I thought: an aeroplane; so unusual. (London Gatwick flights are down from over 900 to about 77 per day). Less pollution in the skies and around our major roads has cleaned our air and water, both fresh and sea. 

Some of us have been reacquainted with more simple pleasures like jigsaw puzzles, like Marvel’s Super Heroes, and Lego. My daughter has had world-wide quizzes with far flung cousins over Zoom.

After twenty years of argument, NHS’s patient records suddenly became available to doctors online in a few weeks. And instead of going to the surgery and sitting in the waiting area with people who were ill, we now have online consultations, saving time and efforts for patients and doctors alike. Granted it’s not for everyone but it’s working.

We should also now have a greater awareness of what makes one vulnerable to this virus. We have known for years that the UK population is getting fatter and that makes us susceptible to all sorts of things, but most of us ignore the signals – “it’ll happen to someone else!” But Covid is indiscriminate and slowly that fact is sinking in, through the subcutaneous layers. Initially we had the old, bold and overweight men ending up in ICU and heading to an early grave. Then we saw individuals in the forties and fifties suffering and the penny began to drop – “It could be me”. So hopefully all of us are using this period for a real sensible self-assessment of our physical being; this is your life and you can live it and live it well – or not – but it’s never too late to change.

You may have heard that those who caught the virus lacked Vitamin D or were of a BAME origin? An investigation on TV’s Channel 4 the other night aimed to determine whether Covid is racist and was presented by a medic described as a ‘gay, black, androgynous intersectional’ feminist – whatever ‘intersectional’ means. So not biased then? But there is a serious element here, as BAME (Note 3) groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

The pandemic has flushed out the vaccine deniers, those who try to link Covid with 5G, voting illegalities, worries about ‘the army on the streets’ and the mindless people who stand up and spout drivel. Poor misguided souls. Whenever the vaccine is available, if you’ve nailed your colours to the mast and said you will not have it ….. go and self-isolate for a year or two, please. (Note 4)  The shenanigans by President Trump over the US election results remind me of President Lukashenko’s continuing attempt to insist that Belarus’ August 2020 election was fair and that he won – again! In the west I suspect we all believe it was rigged – different country, same reluctance to accept they’ve lost.

Finally, above all, let’s not forget what we see as disgusting scenes in the Wuhan wet markets that beggar belief – and I then read they are going to ignore the connection! (I tried to post another photograph here but was prevented for ‘security reasons’???)

Just chewing the fat ……..

Richard 27th November 2020

Note 1 To talk to someone in an informal and friendly way

Note 2 Ruminating actually is the process of bringing back half-digested food into the mouth for further chewing (yuk!)

Note 3 BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. About two thirds of NHS key workers are from BAME groups.

Note 4 Another suggestion from a chum is to use the unused cruise ships to accommodate them – somewhere – anywhere – far away!

PC 205 ….. A First Step (continued)

Scribbling about that ‘Wants’ list (see PC 204) and sowing seeds brought another connection to mind, my good friend Jon becoming a grandfather for the first time. I wrote to him saying that I had found something extremely special about cradling my first grandchild in my arms, in my case Jasper in November 2011, and realising he contained some of my DNA. These scribbles are about more first steps but I suspect Otis’s are some way off, as he was only born in late October!

I caught up with Jonathan & Deborah earlier in the month. He’s been struggling to return to full health following a bout of Covid back in February and then Long Covid for five months; pleased to hear slowly but surely he’s getting better, but this ‘Long Covid’ is a real bummer. Deborah is a talented pianist and she told me that recently she’s ‘been hearing new tunes, passages and musical sequences in my head’ whilst gardening. The first step I guess to composing something, like a novelist looking at a blank sheet of paper and waiting for inspiration. We wait, we start …… with a first word, with a first note, with a first brush stroke.

In a note to PC 200 I mentioned that Simon & Benedicte have very kindly lent us a 4000-piece of Lego Techic – a Porche 911 GT3 RS. We saw it on their table completed; from memory it’s probably about 65cms long! Then they took it apart and gave it to us in a number of plastic bags. It comes with a book that’s 2cms thick and contains 856 individual instructions. Like so many things in life, building the model Porsche starts with the first step; take A and B and fit them together.

And some weeks on, after a false start and the need to go back to the first instruction, we are making progress!

I have sailed in dinghies and in keel boats all my life; sometimes around buoys or lightships, both inshore and offshore, in a race and sometimes cruising long distances to other countries (For instance the STA Transatlantic Race 1996 to Bermuda (PC 161)). No matter how often I have doubled up the warps in preparation for casting off from the mooring or jetty, the actual instant of feeling the yacht moving with the wind, taking that metaphorical ‘first step’, with all the anticipation that adventure brings, never ceases to thrill me.

The warp doubled up, ready to leave ……

Of course there is hesitation with anything unknown – with the analogous darkness if you like. But like the chap who wanted to walk to a far-off town, all you need is a little light. Sometimes that light has a religious feel.

Like a lot of people of my generation I read Nelson Mandela’s inspirational autobiographical book “Long Walk to Freedom”; now he took a huge number of ‘first steps’!! Somewhere in his Presidential inauguration speech he said:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. 

We are all meant to shine as children do. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I get that, letting our light shine, the light of our life. So it was sort of disappointing to learn some years later that he hadn’t actually written this, that he had been guided by the American Marianne Williamson. Ah! Yes! I thought, I have read her book “A Return To Love: A Course in Miracles”, about her journey from drug addict to someone with purpose and ambition. I reached for the book on my bookshelf; somewhere in here I thought, in this course of miracles, she will have written those words, but where exactly? I closed my eyes, thought about this quotation, and opened the book at random, finding myself at page 165. The first paragraph started: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. …” I kid you not; there it was! SPOOKY or what? Possibly a miracle?

Next to Rami’s there’s a café which acts as a venue for an AA Meeting (Note 1). I make no judgment as to its popularity but pleased that each individual, young and old, man and woman, has taken the vital first step, possibly one of the most difficult they have ever taken. Whilst I acknowledge that alcohol can act in all sorts of ways to enhance one’s experience of life, in excess it destroys both the individual and those who love them. I don’t know anyone who has engaged in the AA’s Twelve Step programme, although I have known some who should have! As I understand it, the first step is to admit one’s powerlessness over alcohol; the second to believe some ‘greater power’ could help restore one’s control and the third step is deciding to commit to the programme. The fact these meetings are still allowed during our second UK lockdown emphasises their essential nature.

And being an ex-military man, you would expect me to write something about marching, that first step, that initial lift of the foot forward. A military pace is 30 inches, measured by the drill sergeant with his Pace Stick. You start off with your left foot. Why? Well, when the Greeks developed the phalanx formation, the soldiers’ shields interlocked, and their weight was transferred to the left foot in a fighting stance. We have all heard it somewhere, sometime: “By the right! Quick March! Left, right, left, right, left …..” (Note 2)

Intake 39 Commissioning Parade July 1967 Slow March – that’s me on the right of the line!

Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon, on 20th July 1969, famously declaring: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now that was a very famous ‘first step’ ….. onto the moon’s surface.

And finally when you step forward you step into a virgin idea, onto a clean sheet of paper and as you do so you make memories. So go on, take a first step, whatever it is?

Richard 20th November 2020

Note 1. Alcoholics Anonymous

Note 2 ‘By the right’ simply indicated that you line up with the person on your right. When recruits were uneducated chaps from the countryside, they didn’t know left from right. Drill sergeants tied a wisp of hay to the left foot and a piece of straw to the right one; instead of ‘left, right’ it was ‘hay foot, straw foot’!

PC 204 A First Step (part one)

Actioning something new, anything to stretch and give sense and structure to your day during enforced (UK) lockdown restrictions, always starts with a first step.

But how do you see where you might want to go, what you need to do? In PC 124 I scribbled about darkness. “….. My friends lived in a little village in the middle of nowhere five miles outside Barnard Castle in Northumberland. It was night-time when I was ready to go home. I opened the front door to walk to the car which I’d parked about 50 metres away. Wow! Couldn’t see a thing, nothing to differentiate shapes, one from another! Hesitatingly I edged forward, arms outstretched, towards where I thought the car was parked ….” What I needed was a lamp or torch; there was one in the car, so that was no use, and this was before the answer would have been the torch app on my mobile ie before mobile phones!

Another story comes to mind, one heard during my Philosophy Course in 1995 at the London School of Economic Sciences (Note 1) This was recorded from conversations with Adi Shankaracharya. He was born in 700AD in Kalady, India and consolidated the Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy.

A certain man had to go out to another town nearly ten miles away. It was pitch dark and all he had was a tiny little lamp, which could at most light a couple of steps. Since the journey was long he became depressed and was not sure of reaching his destination with the help of his little lamp. He stood by the door in utter disgust and helplessness.

A holyman happened to appear (Ed: As they have a habit of doing!!) and asked him why he was standing by the door with his ridiculous looking lamp. The man replied he did not know what to do; he was all set for his journey but it was a long journey and the lamp was so small.

The holyman then said it was not necessary to have a light stretching all over the way. “As you proceed the light will also proceed and the way will always be clear for you. All you need do is to hold on to this light and keep walking.  You will reach your destination in full light.”

Illuminates the issue quite well, I think! Maybe at the start of the first UK lockdown you had a bucket list? Well, not a bucket list as that’s a bit of a cliché, but a list, in your head, on paper, rocking around inside your mind: “I must try and …., I wonder if I could ……, I’ve got time to focus on ……, maybe now’s the time to complete/revisit/restart ……”. And now, here we are again! When I was working with those who were looking for another role in the 1990s, I asked them to write down 30 things they wanted to do, wanted to be, wanted to accomplish. Often the result did nothing more than sow a seed or two, that over time they fed, watered and warmed with their zest for life.

Some of us will tell our friends and loved ones: “Oh! I am planning to walk every day/run every day/work out in that little gym in the spare bedroom every day” and often in the telling one sets oneself up to fail. Others just commit themselves silently ……. to read more, to walk twice a day, to research a local choir to see if that long held personal belief in one’s voice has traction, to write something every day. You shouldn’t be surprised that successful writers and artists and musicians practise, practise, practise every day.

For some of you the prospect of a lockdown might suggest more laziness in the morning. I use the word laziness as I am a morning person and simply love the first light of day, the freshness of the time of sunrise; staying in bed is just a waste of everything that’s out there, so a first step is actually putting your feet onto the bedroom floor.

 For some only a little light, our own light, on actioning something is necessary, certainly not a spotlight, and as we fulfil our own personal commitment so we become more confident about sharing the achievements. “I have been drawing/painting/sketching a bit and wondered whether you’d like to see what I’ve done?”

My first London flat was ‘below stairs’ on Cavendish Road SW12

I have dabbled with pencils, pen & ink and with oil paints at various times in my life. With the former I even took a few commissions to draw others’ houses. As with everything, they started with a first pencil stroke, a tentative line, a curve.

My side entrance. The Yellow Palette was my business coaching company

 I was reminded of this the other day on my way back from Rami’s, a newsagent where I buy my paper copy of The Times first thing in the morning. There on Kingsway, a main thoroughfare into Brighton, on a cold, sharp morning and in the rays of the rising sun, sat Stephen (Note 2), on an old milk crate, pencil in hand, drawing the beautiful building opposite. He told me he had drawn every building from the statue of Queen Victoria up to the King Alfred Leisure Centre (Ed. Some 500m) and was on his way back. Why? Because he loved the challenge, loved being alive, in that moment, focused. He did it for pleasure, pure and simple. Nice, that!

One of the houses on Kingsway Hove Stephen drew

Back in March 2009 I asked a neighbour whether she knew anything about ‘yoga in the heat’. “Oh! That’s Bikram Yoga. Do you want to go? Come with me on Wednesday to the Balham Studio?” So on the 12th March, eleven years ago, I took my first step into the hot class; been a few steps since then huh!

…… to be continued

Richard 13th November 2020

Note 1. Delightfully I remain in touch with my facilitator Robin Mukherjee.

Note 2. Not sure of the spelling; could have been Stephen or Steven?

PC 203 A Milk Bottle

When I was eighteen I applied to join the British Army and the selection process was a three night/four day assessment at The Regular Commissions Board (RCB) situated at Westbury in Wiltshire; I went in May that year. You can probably guess some of the items on the agenda: taking a team of four across a raging river, simulated by white tape, with only two barrels, a broken branch, a bucket of luck and some rope; an obstacle course to test fitness and agility; listening to lectures on why the Army might/might not be for you, being interviewed by a psychologist and by the selection board, and being observed 24/7 to see how you behaved. Being able to think on your feet was tested by the ‘Five Minutes’ talk.

I stood in front of my fellow applicants and was given my task: “Speak for five minutes about a milk bottle.” ‘Gulp’ I thought, looking across the room of expectant faces, not to mention the officer who was going to mark my efforts.

So I started, (Ed: without slides of course but I have added photos to assist you!) my brain struggling to get some salient points in order before I ran out of either time or things to say:

Three words; ignore the indefinite article so only two: ‘Milk’ and ‘Bottle’.

Milk is, er, the white stuff that comes from animals and humans. It’s a nutrient-rich liquid food produced by their mammary glands for their offspring. Dairy milk is extracted from cows (Note 1): one will produce about 2 gallons each day.

The Holstein-Friesian cow makes up 90% of the UK dairy herds

Glass I think comes from melting sand, soda ash and limestone in some ratios. (Note 2). Seem to remember it was the Egyptians who made the first glass containers around 1500BC.

Humans have being drinking milk for millennia but it wasn’t until 1880 it was first sold in a glass bottle. If you raid the fridge and drink milk straight from the bottle, inevitably it dribbles down your chin and leaves a tell-tale white rim around your mouth.

Combining the two words, my first real memory of a milk bottle was that one-third pint bottle that was dished out daily at morning break at school. This amount of milk, roughly 200ml, was deemed essential for our physical development, particularly its calcium component which helps bone structure. At Dauntsey’s School, just up the road from here in West Lavington, the bottles, some 5 inches tall and 2⅓inches in diameter (13cms and 5.5cms), were available from a crate in the Tuck Shop, run by a Mr Pickford; one for each boy.

Mr Pickford was a slight short man with a white moustache; for some reason he always wore a white laboratory coat. (Note 3) He liked Wagner and would often play the wonderful overture to Tannhäuser. At break-time we sat at Formica tables, drinking our milk and playing Cribbage.

The ⅓ pint bottle was unique to the educational establishments. It came into being with the School Milk Act of 1946, not only providing children with something good but also as a bolster to the Dairy industry in a time of a depressed economy.

In residential street milk in bottles was delivered by electric milk floats – the origins of why ‘float’ are lost but it’s a romantic image, the electric delivery vehicle floating down the streets of our cities. Light sleepers will know just how early the milk is delivered, as the noise of rattling bottles was as familiar as that of fighting foxes!

Somehow birds learned that the gold-foil topped bottles contained milk with the most cream and many a morning it was apparent that the birds had drunk from your milk bottles, but only from the gold-capped ones!! Needless to say you could buy a cover for the four-bottle container to stop them; a simple counter could also be set to indicate how many bottles you needed.

Er! Er! ………

……. and I know this talk is on Milk Bottles but it would be remiss of me not to mention Mrs Adams, the wife of the Headmaster of a preparatory school at Wookey Hole near Wells. The school milk was not delivered in bottles but in churns, some 2ft 4ins tall and over a foot in diameter, which contained 10 gallons. A gallon of milk weighs just over 8.5lbs (almost 4kgs). I remember watching her lift a couple of churns in from the road where they had been left by the farmer; she had very big arms! ……….”   (Note 4)

I am sure somewhere in my unrehearsed 5 minutes on ‘A Milk Bottle’ I launched into the ‘what it wasn’t’, when you start running out of ideas. It shouldn’t have been an empty container for artist’s brushes, for water to wash out water-based paint. And I don’t think it was a big enough bottle for those who were dextrous enough to create little models of sailing ships and slide them in, pulling the rigging upright and plugging it with a piece of cork. Whilst I have always admired the craftsmanship of those who did, collecting them didn’t appeal and I guess these days a cruise liner inside a bottle doesn’t cut the mustard!

Today in the UK a company called Milk & More are building a very good business with home deliveries of milk and milk products. They sell whole, semi-skimmed and organic milk in 1 pint (568ml) glass bottles. A group called ‘Friends of Glass’ say that “milk in glass bottles is left closer to its original state than milk in other packaging; more enzymes remain. It is therefore easier to digest and those who have intolerance to milk can drink it.” There is always a counter-view; …. the nutritional content is negatively affected by glass. Apparently essential amino acids in milk such as tryptophan and tyrosine break down due to light; vitamin A and riboflavin are also degraded. Remember when butter was good for you, then bad for you, then good for you??

When I first started Hot Yoga back in 2009, I would be gagging for some energy infusion after a 90 minute class. There was nothing like a bowl of fresh Kellogg’s Cornflakes with Granulated (not Caster) sugar and cold, full-fat milk; so bad for you ……. yet so good!!  

There is something romantic about the old-fashioned shape of the milk bottle, something that modern cartons don’t convey. Today you can once again buy the glass bottles – not with milk in but for flowers, pencils, etc. What goes around comes around!

Richard 6th November 2020

Note 1. I gather some children don’t make the connection between a dairy cow and milk bought in a supermarket.

Note 2. Factually, in case you didn’t know, glass uses generic silicate known as silicon dioxide. Soda-lime glass with some 70% silica accounts for almost 90% of manufactured glass. 

Note 3. It could be he associated a brown coat with ‘trade’ and wanted to inhabit the next level up, that of the technician or assistant?

Note 4. I must have done OK, as I passed and entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in September 1965.

Major-General Sir James d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, whose signature appends this note, was President of the RCB.