PC 210 Christmas Lights

If you are a regular reader of my scribbles. you may have been expecting to read whether we sorted out the ingress of sea water into St Barbara III or took to the life raft! However today is Christmas Day (Note 1) …… for Christians of course ……. I know many for whom this particular day doesn’t have any meaning ….. but the United Kingdom is essentially a Christian country, with an established church.

Our front door decoration

I wrote about Christmas in PC 27, way back in December 2014 when I wasn’t thinking I was going to write a ‘blog’. Rereading it now I find it covered my own Christmas experiences and the Irish comedian Dave Allen’s take on it. I returned to the festive theme in PC 86 in 2016, scribbling about a particularly British tradition – ‘Boxing Day’. My PC 113, ‘Extra! Extra!’ had an imagined conversation between Santa Claus and his wife, Mrs Claus (?)

‘Uncle Tommy’ a papier-mâché Father Christmas from 1963

My ‘Creative Writing’ evening class at Brighton Met was encouraging and I even liked a few things that came from the challenging homework. 2018’s PC 140 was another ‘Extra! Extra!’; it covered a couple of homework scripts, one Christmas-themed about carol writing. Facebook asked whether I wanted to repost this last one earlier this week, so you may have already seen it.

Our 2018 Christmas lights

In Christmases past I have had proper Christmas trees and some have survived with more than 50% of their needles intact until Twelfth Night, when we traditionally take down the decorations. In fact I was always told it was bad luck to remove your Christmas decorations before the appointed hour. You might remember those trees that were shedding their pine needles as you wrestled it from the car, before you put it inside in the warmth; you were lucky it made it to Boxing Day. I have always resisted the artificial ones preferring to carry on the Victorian Christmas tradition. The breeders of trees have been successful in making some varieties more robust.

Growing up, the choice of Christmas tree lights were very much class-driven! ‘White is best’ and then some coloured bulbs were allowed, providing they didn’t flash. Out and about the domestic displays have became competitive!

 I spent one Christmas in Kitzbuhel in Austria. The tree was about 2 metres tall and decorated with lots of red ribbon and real candles! Yes! Real candles that you could light. And we did and there is nothing like the soft glow of candle light – until one night the draft from an open window blew a flame onto a by-now-dry branch and the tree very quickly was aflame ……. the biblical connection of a burning bush comes to mind ……. not consumed but simply burning as God seemingly spoke to Moses! Well in this case the Christmas tree very quickly ended up on the balcony being doused with water!!

Rummaging around in the dusty cardboard box here, I detected the wires of the Christmas lights in one old supermarket plastic bag and gently pulled it out. Time for the baubles, bangles and beads ….. and tinsel later. But first I had to check that the lights are working.

One set OK! Second set? Nothing! This particular set comprised 40 white lights, simple, effective and classy. The manufacturers had thoughtfully provided a few spare bulbs and a little green plastic tool to extract the individual defunct bulbs, But which one out of the 40? In the old days the bulbs would have had a screw fitting and were often loose, so the IA (Immediate Action – an old military expression particularly relating to small arms handling) was to check the tightness of the individual bulbs. These little plastic-housed bulbs were just pushed in, the bulbs themselves too thick to see whether the wire had broken. Pulling one out showed a little copper wire on each side, making contact with connectors deep inside. I pulled them all out, discarding ones which looked dodgy ……. finding new ones …… and replaced them all in their little housing. Expectantly I plugged them back in and switched the circuit on. Nothing! OK! Replaced the plug’s fuse. Nothing! …… Amazon delivered another set during our ‘Prime’ trial and the result – fashioned into a heart shape with Uncle Tommy flying around in the middle – does the business I think.

At this time of year there are many biblical reminders, if only through the festive carols which have been broadcast on the various radio stations since the beginning of the month. We all have our favourites, each bringing back memories of special occasions. And the Christian bible is littered with stories of pestilence and plague, be it an invasion of locust which this year has been particularly troublesome in Africa ……. or famine ……. or pandemics. Those interested in our Nation’s story will recall the 1665 Great Plague of London; by the time a fire in a bakery in Pudding Lane started an inferno which destroyed most of the city in the following year and killed off the Yersina Pestic bacteria in the process, some 70,000 had died (Note 2). In the C14th in Europe the Black Death ravaged communities over 7 years.

So with all the sad and negative aspects of the last few days of 2020 maybe making us feel gloomy and doomy, we should all ponder on the recent alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. It’s not impossible that the Star of Bethlehem was another instance of this bright sight in the night sky.

Richard Christmas Day 2020

Note 1 There is little evidence Jesus was born on 25th December. The earliest mention of this day was AD 354. Early Christians preferred January 6th, nine months after the Passover; for Coptic Christians this year (or next!), their ‘Day’ is 7th January 2021. In the original Julian calendar 25th December was the Winter Solstice, the date of which moved to 21st December with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. “Here endeth the lesson!”

Note 2 The population of London was about 460,000 at the time. (Compare with today’s 9 million.

PS A Jamie Oliver retro Christmas trifle I made some years ago

PC 209 Off Arromanches; at night; in a gale!

This is a page from my Royal Yachting Association Log Book. Note the entry for 10th – 17th June 1979:

…… doesn’t say more than the very basic headlines but the memories from those few days, in fact one particular two hour period, linger on over forty years later. I attended the two year Army Staff Course at the end of the seventies: Division 1 at RMCS in 1978 and then a year at The Staff College Camberley 1979. In the summer of that second year we were fortunate enough to tour the Normandy beaches and hinterland used in D Day 1944. The Battlefield Tour was a welcome relief to classroom discussions and it lived up to its colloquial name, The Bottlefield Tour!

The battlefield tour was unique in that soldiers who had attacked and defended this part of northern France came and talked about their experiences and memories. I think it was the last, given the increasing age of our guest speakers; we were blessed. The administrative part of the tour was centred around Deauville but by tradition a number of us sailed across on service yachts to Trouville, the next-door harbour. I was lucky enough to skipper the RAYC flagship St Barbara III, a Nicholson 43.

The crew with St B on the left

After all the normal pre-voyage activity we assembled at Gosport opposite Portsmouth on 9th June. The weather forecast for the week was mixed, a bit like the weather of early June 1944, but for our outward trip was set fair. From memory a north-easterly F4 allowed us to clear the Solent forts and set a course for Trouville. Trouville, in keeping with a number of ports on the northern coast of France, could only be entered some two hours either side of high water.

We found the harbour entrance on the bow after some 65 miles of uneventful sailing and tied up stern-to on the harbour wall, bow to anchor, not a method I was well practised in but fortunately there weren’t too many rubberneckers!

When I was doing my military service or sailing offshore, the mnemonic ‘grid to mag add, mag to grid get rid’ served us well as the variation was some 4 degrees ……. and mistakes happened! An hour after our arrival one of the other skippers, who I knew well, took me aside up on the quay and quietly questioned whether you added the magnetic variation or not, as they had missed the channel entrance!! (Note 1)

Some left for the on shore accommodation, others stayed on board; we had a chance to have a party on Gladeye, skippered by Robin Duchesne.   

Of the tour itself, out of all the stands where a veteran, of whatever nationality or rank, told us of their experience, one particular talk stays in my memory. A grey-haired rather rotund Yeoman Officer told us he had been in command of a troop of three tanks and that they had come under fire from some Germany artillery on top of a ridge to his front. His leading tank was hit and he had watched in horror as his troop sergeant had emerged from the hatch in a ball of flame. We stood exactly where his tank had been 41 years before; on the horizon we could see the escarpment.

This lovely chap told us how it was. “I hadn’t really listened to much of the training about radio procedures and artillery cooperation and stuff, I just knew I wanted to get hold of some artillery fire to neutralise the enemy, and bloody quickly. I picked up my radio mic and yelled: “Hello Gunners, this is Tony! I need your help.” (Note 2) “Hello Tony, Gunners here!” a voice crackled in his headset “Where do you need us?” Tony admitted he wasn’t very good at map reading but after some discussion eventually the gunners put a round on the ground somewhere towards the ridge. From there Tony was able to say “Further on” “Right a bit” until he was satisfied that three rounds fire-for-effect would sort out Jerry. And it did!

The tour eventually ended and some of the participants left for the ferries whilst us sailors returned to the harbour basin in preparation for our trip back across the Channel. In an ideal world we would have time to wait for favourable weather but so often work commitments squeeze that window. The forecast was a squally Force 8 gusting 9 out of the North East …… so prudence suggested waiting a while. Just after midnight on 17th June, with the gale forecast to blow itself out, we hoisted the mainsail with its four rolls, tacked on the No2 Jib,

Bottom right shows the crew putting the reefs in. Bottom left happens to have the late Robin Duchesne.

…….. slipped our moorings and headed down the sheltered harbour entrance towards the sea. I sensed it was going to be a bit bumpy and ensured the fenders and warps were safely stored in their lockers and all the crew had well-fitted safety harnesses; I reminded myself the crew were not particularly experienced. Two of them worked on the foredeck, under the lights and in the torrential rain, to stow the anchor in its bow locker. Their stance was made difficult by the sea rolling in, and St Barbara rose and pitched as we motored out; every now and again there was a loud bang as she smashed into a large wave. By the time we cleared the entrance pilings they had returned to the safety of the cockpit. We could just about make our bearing to the Solent and, having hoisted the Jib, after about 30 minutes I switched off the engine; Tony went below to put the kettle on.

“Hey! Skipper! There’s lots of water on the cabin floor” (‘cabin sole’ for whom this sort of thing is important!)

To be continued …..

Richard 18th December 2020

Note 1 Each degree of variation over a distance of 60 miles will result in one nautical mile off course. A 4 degree variation would give you 4 nautical miles off course …… and the entrance to Trouville was a narrow dredged channel you approached on a transit!

Note 2 I was a Gunner so knew it should have been something like ‘Hello G31 this is Tango 23A over’

PC 208 Wills and Pens

There was a well-balanced but stark documentary on UK’s Channel Four TV station entitled “Surviving Covid” the other week. It followed the fights for survival of four Covid patients in King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, London this year. This PC was partly prompted by a scene towards the end of the documentary which showed the scribe, for the word is perfect here, recording the names of those who had died. She was adding the names extremely carefully in Italic script; it was beautiful and it was surprising and it was delightful – a somewhat old-fashioned tradition that added something to the record, more than if it had been typed. How long would this sort of thing last I wonder?

I tried to take a photo of the scribe, but the documentary has now been shortened, and that piece deleted! This is a simple example of italic script.

If you haven’t made a will it’s probably because you are under 30 and without children. If you are over 30 and want to make life easier in the event of your demise, make a will. Doesn’t cost a great deal and they are not written in stone; you can alter it as often as you like. Always surprises me that a court will accept a challenge to a will by a discontented relative as, in theory, a will is you last will and testament, your choice how you leave your assets, however small they may be. I should add that here in England you can leave your possessions entirely as you wish, not constrained as I might see it by diktats of The State (Note 1)

I needed to sign the latest alterations to mine and that signature needed to be witnessed. In these constrained times finding two people who could do that is bound to break the UK Covid guidelines. However within my part of Amber House are six other apartments, two occupied by their owners and the others rented out. We meet in the hallway and on stairs, on the external flight leading to the large old front door, we take in each other’s Amazon parcels and I argued with myself that we form a support bubble, so asked Ellie and Charlie in Apartment 8. Ellie is an art teacher in a secondary school and her partner runs his own landscaping business, so both are mixing with potentially infected people all the time. However, Covid rates in Brighton & Hove are much lower that the UK average so when they arrived on Saturday morning to witness my signature, I dismissed their ‘Do you want us to wear masks?’

I didn’t need to expose Ellie & Charlie to any details of my will so no explanation why I was leaving 50% to crofters on the Isle of Mull, who knit sweaters from the hair of island rats, was needed. The last page just covered the signatures, mine and theirs as witnesses. I had thoughtfully provided a pen, in this case a green Lamy fountain pen with green ink – my favourite ink colour at the moment.

“Goodness!” exclaims Ellie, “I haven’t used a fountain pen since I was at school.” (She’s just turned 30). Charlie added that he got fed up with getting ink on his fingers, which we all acknowledged was a constant problem. Ellie signed whilst Charlie practised, then applied himself to his task.

My affaire with a fountain pen goes back to school days I guess. At that time it was deemed an essential skill, being able to write well and legibly …. and that meant with a fountain pen, when you could impart character into your cursive script. I could not get into the habit of resting my right forearm on my desk as I wrote; apparently you couldn’t form your letters if you didn’t and Mr Adams, both headmaster and English teacher, took a dim view of such deviant behaviour! Eventually he thought he could beat the habit into me so gave me ‘six of the best’!

My step-father’s mother Isabella gave me a Conway Stewart pen for my 12th birthday; I lost it twenty years later during a weekend at Wield Farm where my chum Alwin was wooing the eldest daughter Claire. I went along in some capacity, certainly not a chaperon! So then I bought myself a Sheaffer which took an ink cartridge, as opposed to putting the nib into a bottle of Quink and letting it suck it up. I still have my Sheaffer, now almost 50 years old; the barrel is a little battered and worn but it writes beautifully.

The signature white ball in the top’s gone and the barrel’s metal casing is very worn!

During my period of unemployment after leaving Short Brothers in 1991 I applied for a sales role with an Israeli firm. After two interviews I was asked to do a graphology test. This was before personal computers and my CV and its covering letter was in my cursive script, in dark blue ink (safe!!). So I asked whether that was sufficient for the expert to analyse. “Could you write something with a biro?” I almost threw my toys out of the pram, imaging that my biro-created words were going to be used to determine my success or failure.

My final degree exams and the Staff College entrance exams all came out of the nib of this pen, as if the answers were all in the barrel or locked into the ink, or flowing down my arm from my brain and out across the paper. There were more figures than letters in engineering examinations, more letters in writing an essay on contemporary international affairs.

Constant use of a pen, whether fountain, cartridge, felt tip or biro is always going to cause a little piece of hard skin on the left hand side of the second finger. As I write this I look down and run my thumb along the finger, for sure enough it’s still there despite less and less use of any writing instrument in this digital world.

I have a collection of fountain pens now, including a MontBlanc given some years ago for some milestone birthday by Stewart, as well as lots of biros, felt tips, fibre pens, Staedtler Lumocolor fine permanents and dozens of pencils. But I do love my fountain pen.

Richard 11th December 2020

Note 1 For instance in Brazil when one parent dies 50% of the value of the house goes to the survivor, the other 50% split equally between any children. In Scotland children are legally able to claim 33% of a parent’s will, divided equally between them.

PC 207 I’ll eat my hat! **

My good friend Jonathan lives in the glorious little village of Bratton, tucked under the northern slopes of Salisbury plain in Wiltshire, and is gradually getting back to full health having suffered from Long Covid for 9 months. The latest round of Tier 2 restrictions that came into effect this week preclude him having a planned small supper party indoors but not put off, he was trying out his garden brazier to see whether (up to 6) people could gather around that one evening – in December??

For some reason we got talking about hats and the ubiquitous ‘flat cap’ so loved of the military and those who indulge in country pursuits. Jonathan messaged later to say he felt ‘a postcard’ coming on! So what follows was prompted by our chat, our ‘chewing the fat’!

My flat cap; sadly no longer, but here in 1976 on a Northern Ireland tour as PRO

Not being sexist but this PC is exclusively about male headgear, as I know something about this and little about female attire for the head.

My military service ensures I have some experience with many different forms of headgear; the Service Dress hat, the ceremonial Forage Cap, berets, the helmet and the Cap Comforter, a knitted hat that you could pull down around your neck if you needed to.

When the army was called upon to deploy troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, ‘in aid to the civil power’, regiments were initially welcomed by the catholic community as they would surely act as a buffer with the protestant one. Most troops wore their regimental beret – a softer look or so it was believed. Sadly it didn’t take long before the hail of bricks and bottles directed a more sensible alternative in the form of the helmet!

On a break on exercise in Germany, wearing my Royal Artillery cap-badged beret, with a glass of red wine and a cheroot.

The service beret was a comfortable form of headgear; the civilian equivalent is the beret so loved by our neighbours across the Channel. Mine, made by Kangol, I use occasionally; when not in use, it keeps Fredrick happy.

When I left the army in 1985 my father, with whom I had little contact, sent me his bowler hat in the mistaken belief that anyone who worked in London would need one. Fortunately that wasn’t the case but in the early part of the C20th every male wore a hat!

The success of the radio series The Archers, when it first aired in 1951 ‘an everyday story of country folk’ which morphed into ‘a contemporary drama in a rural setting’ and still broadcast today, led to television soaps like Coronation Street, Emmerdale, East Enders, Neighbours and Crossroads developing a huge following. For a decade from 1975 one of Crossroads’ characters was a chap called Beeny Hawkins who was not the sharpest pencil in the case. His trademark piece of clothing was a woolly hat.

After the 1982 Falklands War the military garrison was naturally strengthened and relationships with the small civilian population became paramount. Our armed forces are known for their wit and humour, often at someone’s expense. One morning the garrison commander asked his staff at their weekly meeting why the soldiers referred to the islanders as Beenys. Once his staff had educated him as to the character in the Crossroads TV soap, he asked that this habit stopped as it was disrespectful. A fortnight later he congratulated his staff; apparently the soldiers no longer referred to the locals as Beenys. “But why” he asked, “are they now referring to them as Stills?” “Still Beenys Sir!” came a quick retort.  

We have experienced a number of ‘firsts’ since settling in Hove in 2012, but one that has stayed quite prominently in my memory – someone wearing a hat at dinner! When you don’t know people that well, as hosts it’s our role to make them feel comfortable, and not necessarily comment on individual idiosyncrasies!! The couple came, we took their coats and scarves, introduced them to the others and got them a drink. The black flat cap stayed on; it stayed on throughout dinner and was still there as the owner departed. Does he have a huge scar on his skull or a birthmark he’s not happy about, is he bald or does he suffer from a cold bonce? We will never know but he certainly felt comfortable wearing a hat having his salmon and roasted vegetables …… and that’s OK!

I own a yellow cap in the style of a baseball one, although have never played the game. What I do not understand are those who wear it with the peak at the back! Maybe someone could explain this trend?

Dog walking requires the right clothing for any weather; when my Labrador Tom arrived in 2002 I realised my wardrobe required some extra gear. I am not one for an umbrella so, during a break in a coaching session in the Institute of Directors, went across Pall Mall to Farlows, a ‘Huntin’, Shootin’ & Fishin’ emporium. I came away with an Aigle jacket and a wide-brimmed hat that was, when first purchased, vaguely waterproof. It’s been through the washing machine a few times so probably has lost some of the rain-proofing but has developed some character; well, I think it has!

After the first six weeks of our Officer Training at Sandhurst in October 1965, we cadets were allowed to venture into Camberley, the local town. In a sign of how rigid and formal our training was, our civilian clothes, our mufti, had to include a Trilby hat, made of course by Herbert Johnson. If we were seen in town without one all hell broke out!!

Fortunately I still have a full head of hair but those who are follicly challenged used to believe that 40% of body heat was lost through the top of the head – so wore a hat. We now know it was a myth and that the head suffers no more heat loss than any other part of the body.

So, thanks to Jonathan for an idea for a postcard; always fun to look at something like a hat!

Richard 4th December 2020

** ‘I’ll eat my hat’ a phrase suggesting an event is extremely unlikely to happen so offering to do something silly.

A sun hat finds another use

A place for hats – a rack!

A fun hat after James Dennison’s 2018 wedding

Another use for ex-army stuff