Friday, 28 August 2015

Mr Big

Last day. We’ll be home tonight. We have dobbed from island to island, each day finding new things, mooring sometimes on the hook, at a quay, or – like this last night – on a buoy. Being in a buoy or at anchor gives you a quieter night but you have to get ashore in the rubber dinghy, and each of those journeys adds a perilous touch to me – I fear that my knees will let me down while I clamber in or out, or that my footing will slip, and I (plus handbag with precious camera and phone) will capsize. The men, with their longer thighs and calves, and more muscle and agility, can manage these manoeuvres with grace and confidence, but each time we go (or even when it is proposed), I have to contemplate this tiny disaster. No doubt this is good for me.
We have had breakfast and lunch on board, and gone ashore for supper each night.
There is a huge variety of boats, and some are stunningly beautiful. Leaving aside the classic cruising yachts, the Jadrolinija ferries and the pirate-style repro fish-picnic trip vessels, I really like the look of the Katarina line mini cruise-ships, of which there is a whole fleet. With the three decks, sweeping bows, and tidy woodwork, they make a fine sight and we wil perhaps come and have a holiday with them. They just look well run.
Last night, having purred ashore in the rubber duck (agh!) and walked about a mile through hot olive fields, along a road lined with heavy dry-stone walls, and with cicadas orchestrating our path, we were in Milna having an orange juice and watching the harbour. A big pointy boat came in, rather stealthily, edging its way in towards the quays, we became aware that the ‘marinero’ was clearing space at the moorings, and a handsome couple in a slick little launch were dodging about in an official kind of way. At first we thought this was a Katarina boat (one already being tied up), but it quickly became clear that his was a big private yacht. As the launch couple waved and signalled, the Areti started to circle and prepare to come in. This way and that she buffered about. She really was huge – would block out all our sun, and a small crowd started to gather to watch. Evidently Milna dies not often see one of these big fuck-me yachts – it’s more of a working port, and not really developed for rich tourists. It still has a fish-factory on the water’s edge, for instance, and boat-repair yards.
The Areti was – slowly – thrashing about. It was as if her captain really couldn’t bear the thought of docking. Huge black fenders were dropped over her immaculate sides. The beautiful young man and woman from the launch waited on the quay – wearing a smart uniform of white shirts and beige shorts – and sunglasses with mic attached, as did all the visible crew. The giant edged backwards, awkwardly. The waters churned as the thrusters argued with each other and the water. She came back, so slowly. More crew turned up – all with their sunglasses on – they never have to do this after dark, and looking cool is a major part of the operation. Mr Big demands total anonymity at the same time as total attention. This is the paradox of celebrity.
The boat was a few feet away from the dock, towering over us, and the crew had to get the lines ashore. They had skinny ropes with weights on the end, one at each corner. One of these was successfully chucked into the hands of someone on the quay; the other firmly bedded itself in the thatched sunshade roof of the café umbrellas where we were sitting. Larger lines were awkwardly brought ashore – the ship being at a very strange angle – with one stern corner about four feet nearer the dock than the other. A special gangway started to emerge from the lowest visible deck – quietly poking out about ten feet up in the air. As it extruded itself, a dark-glasses guy fitted bits of chrome handrail into it.
A small boy on deck, attended by a middle-aged lady, appeared to watch proceedings – was directing it all, as far as we could see. He was rather sweet, maybe 4 years old, and he was longing to catch the attention of the pretty girl who had been in the launch and was now standing on the quay. He could quite easily  - indeed would probably – fall through the gaps in the smart chrome gangway handrail.
The gangway poked out form the boat to the quay but when they tilted it towards the ground, it remained about four feet up in the sir, so a line of handsome young make crew members, all in dark glasses and matching snazzy uniform, brought out a succession of various tables, chairs, boxes, cupboards eye to try to make some sort of bridge. This included a large mat with Areti on it, which added a welcome touch. The handrail had a built-in fire extinguisher and an entry-phone system. The pile of wooden boxes and table-tops was arranged this way and that. Nothing seemed to work.
Meanwhile other crew-members in sunglasses and snazzy uniforms were working on the mooring lines. They brought out several, which they arranged in various criss-cross patterns, tying them up to the bollards and rings. One line was laid in a particularly awkward way, with three problems. First, it ran tightly above a near vertical ladder running down from the main deck, at very close range. This sealed that companionway off, or forced anyone using it to duck and climb around it. Next it pressed against the handrail on the ladder – so at various times the handsome crew brought out mats, towels or other bandages to try to prevent it from crushing the handrail. Each time they winched this rope tighter, they had another go at protecting the brightwork. Lastly, this rope lay directly under the electric gangplank on the far corner of the stern, and this definitely prevented the gangplank from being fully lowered…..
The little boy watched imperiously. The boxes were brought out and taken away again. Some sort of senior crew member came to pat the marinero on the back and slip him a little something. The crowd on the dock grew. The young café owner was told he had to move all his tables and chairs out of the way to allow the gangway to be lowered. The men working on the lines kept at their winch, loosening and tightening the thick blue ropes which formed a fine network to and from the dock. The pretty girl waved at the little boy who shyly saluted her. The gangplank was finally fitted with a set of trolley wheels and gingerly reached terra firma – albeit at a very sharp angle. The crowd on the dock was entranced – laughing, lounging, taking photos (inc yours truly). The café owner said he was confused and troubled – why should he have to move his café from the pitch he pays for, to make way for these people? We were all wondering who this Mr Big was – I speculated that the little boy was the one in charge – he took a keen interest in the whole process. Once the gangplank was judged to be properly installed, two long-legged girls tottered off the ship, Snow White and Rose Red, escorted by one of the sunglasses-crew.
This all took a good hour… And the huge vessel towered above the quay and buildings, with its four massive comms domes high above.
Once it quietened down, I asked some of the crew about who their boss was. They would not say, of course. One was Dutch, one was from South Africa and one from Oz. None had been to the Cayman Islands where the boat is registered. The crew numbers 16. They liked being private, discreet, about this week’s employer. This is what he pays for – flamboyant anonymity. The way his boat was parked, skew to the quay, was a perfect illustration.
After our supper in the Palma restaurant (too much to eat) we walked home in the bright moonlight, back through the olive groves, to our little bay at Osibova, and then in our rubber duck and back to our quiet, lovely Lady Olivia, patiently and elegantly on her buoy.
A world of difference.
A small chapel here on the rocks is alive here this morning with a service going on – hymns, nuns, a sermon. We have to pack. We’ll get to Supetar and get the ferry to Split, and the bus to the airport. Home tonight.
This heat, the misty air, the lapping of water on the hull, the shining light on the clear blue seas, all will be left behind.
The priests will come and preach their sermons to tiny congregations in tiny chapels by the water.
Children will swim in the bays.
The cicadas will fill the air with deafening sound.
The fish will drift under the boats.
Mr Big will never see it.

Mastering your fears

Travel is also about facing your fears. The unknown. Things you avoid at home, you must do to survive on your journey.
I fear falling from the little gangplank leading to and from our boat - my balance is shaky, I feel a fool. I am pathetically grateful for a steady hand to get me ashore or back in board.
I am convinced the 'rubber duck' will deflate or split while we are halfway across the huge bay, getting into town from our anchorage, or back after supper.
I am scared I will be sick, or tumble, or fail in some way. I fear a huge shark will come and get me when I swim in these clear waters.
All these are chimeras... It has all gone brilliantly.
I need fear nothing.
What is that fear?
What does it do to me? How does it press into my mind?
Ah - travel is good. I learn all these things.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Why travel?

Reading Jan Morris as we go, it’s remarkable to me how the same ideas rise up – I am thinking something, and then find she wrote about first, in her book.  I am not disheartened by this. Rather, I see that there is a market for philosophical ponderings.
Now that we are out of Italy, and down into the Adriatic/Dalmatian coast, I have to try to collect my thoughts and put them into some sort of order.
One big question is – what is the purpose of travelling like this? Leisure, learning something, getting away, having fun, trying new ideas and foods, habits. Letting go. At home, I barely ever watch the news now as it’s so dispiriting and depressing – more and more dystopian. So my life at home is designed for tranquility and calm – creativity. (You may say I should be more engaged, concerned – but a) I feel I have done my bit over the years and b) I still support dozens of causes which interest me).  Anyway, coming to Trieste/Istria/Croatia it’s a pretty hard thump – to see how fragile ‘civilisation’ is. Huge powers, empires, trading arrangements, arts, development, peace – all these can be swept away, no matter how passionately the people or the kings seek to maintain peaceful prosperity. Something in ‘man’ looks for violence, war, torture. Original sin, I suppose. These wars come at any time, at any place. The current holiday atmosphere in these sunny, beautiful lands cannot last – according to history. It’s very sobering.
Jan Morris charts the waves of possession and war, detailing what happened to the Jews, for instance, who had provided the mercantile and financial means for Trieste to flourish for nearly a hundred years, bringing also an intellectual and cultural life which benefitted everyone, and which is celebrated still… (all those statues of literary men). But when Italy ditched the Nazis and signed up with the Allies, the Germans took the city over. Whereas thousands of Jews had left Europe through Trieste to flee to Palestine, America, etc etc…. those who had stayed (not believing that the safety of Trieste could be violated) were basically herded into the huge rice warehouse on the quays, tortured, killed, in their hundreds. The risario became a concentration camp.
Up in Istria, the home of the intriguing Glagolitic script, there have been atrocities over and over again – Serbs, Croats, Germans, Yugoslavs etc following on from Austrians, Italians, Venetians, Turks … in that beautiful mountainous landscape, which is now a holiday paradise.
It seems we can deal with, admire, cultures which are very far away, but those right next to us are always likely to become our enemies. It was the same with Denmark and Sweden, or remains difficult between England and France, or England and Scotland. Is it sibling rivalry gorn mad?
So one of the purposes of travel is to discover and describe these boundaries, to lessen the chances that we will, ourselves, learn to avoid getting into these nationalists wars. Jan Morris talks at length about the uselessness of nationalism, and we have this afternoon here on a beautiful quayside beside clear water, been discussing the same thing. We grew up believing we should learn French (‘the language of diplomacy’), but French has given way to English as the most usual parlance. In northern Croatia, they are still more likely to turn to German, but here near Split, ‘everyone’ speaks English, just as all the city high streets around Europe have MacDonalds and Next and Lidl…. These brands – owned by corporations who are bigger than any individual nation – are huge engines for peace, I suppose. They want us to keep spending. We are all consumers now. As a graffiti said in Rijeka:  Live, Work, Consume, Die.
So the rather dreary sameness of all the streets, the way one colour dominates ‘the fashion’ for a season, the addictive appeal of gadgets, the latest style of car, seems to be the modern way for us not to be at war. The pleasure of going to places like this – today, btw, it’s the little island of Solta – is that we can find the last traces of an earlier way of life – stone houses, noisy cicadas, old people looking small and bent, languages which are hard to understand…. It’s the same in Galicia, Asturias, Wales, Ireland, probably Kent too (if seen through the eyes of a visitor). We are stepping back into the past. So, for me, one of the purposes of travel – albeit a very comfortable tourist trip – is to see how we prevent war.
I once – about 30 years ago - started to write about how war and tourism were managed on either side of a mesh fence – on the hot poor sands of countries skirting the Med. It was more prophetic than I knew – think of Gaza, machine-guns on the beachin Tunisia, Libya, the refugees crammed into resorts in Greece, and boatloads of those terrified families fleeing to the shores of Italy.
So, where our yacht sways gently on the quays, where the great exhibition halls on the portside invite visitors to consider the history and future of coffee, where little squares roast in the sun, where men sit in cafes and all women are out of sight…. In these places, there was probably at some time blood on the pavements.
And finally, the other great reason for travelling like this is to describe it. Joshua Slocombe did his thing, built his boat and took it joyously round the world, wrote about it…. And eventually disappeared. His was a real adventure, and if he hadn’t written about it we’s never know. He inspired the building of many other boats called Ocean Spray – still in production.
Here today we have had fresh bread and jam for breakfast. The sun is shining. The cicadas are shouting their heads off. The yachts alongside are all in German hands. They sway and bash in the swell when the Jadrolinija ferry chugs into its berth around the point. I could happily consider buying a little house here, to live during the edges of the season and rent out in summer… The water in the harbour is crystal clear, with fish. Children and swimmers of all ages and mostly nut brown are in and out along the tiny beaches. We can see Split across the bay.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

International incudents

The bus station in Trieste is utilitarian and efficient. They can sell you a map of Istria, but not one going as far as Rijeka - our next destination. Sandwiches must be bought at the stylish railway station next door - unlike American greyhound buses, there's no on-board catering. We are assured our bus will be equipped with a toilet. (That proves to be true, but only up to a point).
Waiting for el bus to arrive we strike up with another snazzy chap, German, and a very experienced traveller. He has been all over the place, recommends India despite the dirt and smells. He's taken against a bus driver over the way who was rude to him. Our bus arrives, there will be only be about a dozen passengers. We load our bags on board and leave on time. We cannot find our route on the Istria map but our lady driver surges in, up onto the Karst plateau, and on to the motorway. We turn off at Plovnoc or somewhere - the bus station us by some caves. We queue to get into the compound but drive straight out again. A moment later, two bemused passengers ask to be allowed off - that was their stop. The lady driver seems annoyed about it but let's them off.
We pass into Slovenia ... passing through stunningly beautiful countryside, over mountain ridges, though forests.
Suddenly she pulls the bus over to one side.
She says in a loud voice - to the experienced German traveller - that his feet are awful, she can see - and smell - them, and this means she can't drive. She insists he move further back in the bus, and he - lincredulously - has to agree. He mutters to us as he stomps to the back - how RUDE the bus drivers are.
I go and try out the loo. It's down inside a small deep pit, under the seats. You have to be a gymnast to get in or out. No paper. No water. No flush. I climb out again - and Andrew says he'll use it but the assistant driver - an amiable older bloke - rushes along and bars him from going anywhere near it. Forbidden.
Leaving Slovenia we stop at a huge barrier - a police woman comes to check the passports of all those on board. The German seizes the chance to demand that we have a toilet break - the lady driver refuses. The German stands his ground. The assistant gives in. We are halfway between Slovenia and Croatia, where another huge barrier brings us to a halt, about sixty yards from the first one. A young male cop climbs aboard and checks our passports again, jovially stamping them with a little mechanical printer such as used to be the badge of office for local librarians when I was a nipper.  He gets off, and the lady driver accelerates into her native land of Croatia, while the German growls in fury. About a mile further on, we pull off into a service area - for the blessed toilet break. It seems we are only five miles from our destination, but honour is (sort of) satisfied.
Here in Rijeka, the town has a long and varied story - currently, I would say, it is rather in the dumps, but they're trying hard (nice public photo exhibition all along the Korsa which is the main swanky street), and a bit of Roman, and a huge harbour (though not deep enough or something to attract a lot of shipping). We have walked about, had a smoothie (very nice), looked at all the fishing boats, had a drink, seen the old market, had supper in the sunset, and retired to our hotel. Tomorrow may be quiet - with a lot of shops shut. But we gave to plan our 8-hour bus trip on Monday - down to Split. Sandwiches, sandwiches. In Croatian these are possibly called Zdjnks or Trgdjks or Polnkjzns. We have only one day to find out.

Friday, 21 August 2015

My father woz ere

Last night, my brother sent the following information about our father:

He was with the Royal Artillery, ostensibly, but I think he was doing general duties with the British garrison. There was a dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia as to who owned Trieste. He said he was travelling in the back of an open truck which came under sniper fire. The driver, a local bloke and possibly in on it, stopped and ducked under the dashboard. Marcus jumped over into the cab and took the wheel and drove away receiving a clip on the foot from a bullet fragment.

That's about it. He also told me about an English officer's wife who had a dark complexion and was mistaken for a local girl. She was attacked in the street by locals who thought she was a consorting with the enemy. Apparently the CO ordered all the non-combatants (cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics etc.) to line up along the waterfront in the evening and then walk slowly through the town with their belts swinging in their hands. They smashed every cafe and shopfront and beat the crap out of anyone who objected. There was no more trouble after that.

Not sure of the date but probably early 1946.

Jan Morris, Barbarians, Loo Seats

So many of the things Jan Morris described in her book ‘Trieste’ are still true, even though it was written 14 years ago. She talks about the calm of the city, how well-dressed people are, their civic pride, the international sense of the place, the strengths of the bourgeoisie, the culture. I have just been reading her account of the statuary in the Tommasini Gardens… She points out that James Joyce, the only outsider allowed into the pantheon of respect, is distinguished or circumscribed by a strange kind of frame behind his head, like a rectangular halo, whereas I was looking at how all the heroes are male, and female statuary is relegated to positions of furious homage or welcome – flying round the great botanist Tommassini himself, or draped around doorways and pediments (banks, insurance offices, cinemas).  The females are all naked or semi-naked. The men are mostly in overcoats and hats.
But Morris’s book is such a pleasure to read, so rich and well-researched, I will seek out more when I get home.  She pulls in all sorts of characters and stories from the past, and weaves them together with careful observation and anecdote, whereas I think I dwell rather too much on happenstance and (possibly meaningless) incident. I know I rely on tiny events to cast light on the greater world, but perhaps I can start to incorporate wider ideas.
Today, I remembered, this time, to take with me a Swing the Bridge badge from our current fundraising campaign, to photograph it at the fixed bridge over the Canal Grande – which Jan Morris described as having some nice old boats, some half-sunk… These have all gone, to be replaced by lots of white plastic ones, but the fruit market is still there in the mornings, and various coffee bars (well known to James Joyce) are still happily in business.
Our plan was to go to the so-called ‘Venetian fishing village’ of Muggia along the coast for lunch. The ferry timetable is usefully published online, but quite wildly erroneous. We arrived on the quay in good time, to see the ferry chugging away over the horizon.
We spent the hour or so before it reappeared by visiting the international coffee exhibition in one of the huge and beautiful trading halls on the seafront. It’s a terrific exhibition and worth going to see – a silver lining in the cloud of the poor public information about the ferry. It makes imaginative claims about how Trieste could once again become the seaport for Eastern Europe, an idea which had occurred to us before. Coffee is a huge international business, and the Illy family of Trieste are doing all they can to make us more aware… It is certainly a city of coffee bars, and the coffees we’ve had have been delicious. I will, in future, go more for Arabica, and away from Robusta, which is grown mostly because it is resistant to disease, rather than for flavour.
They did not include the traditional Eritrean way of making coffee, which I once enjoyed at a resto in Stockwell (with the Hernhill Reading Group), consisting of a tiny table-top brazier on which we roasted our own beans, then a long wait while they were ground up, and then the coffee brought inside a real gourd, hollowed out, and a filter made from a single horse-tail hair, stuffed inside a long pouring tube. The portions of coffee were minute, but it was the best coffee I have ever had – and years later, I still remember it.
The ferry arrived exactly on time according to the schedule pinned up on the quayside: the Green Dolphin. It was very smart, spick and span, clean as a whistle. The trip took 30 mins, past huge tankers, crumbling warehouses, and what seemed to be a colossal steelworks from the age of Tintin.
Muggia is very pretty, small in scale, depending now pretty much on tourists who come girl lunch, but quiet and charming and not too pushy. We had a drink, watched a huge parasol on a restaurant terrace collapse over the parapet in a squall, chose to eat there anyway. We had fish and more fish. Delicious. People sitting on the terrace fled inside when the rain started again – we made space at our table for a voluble local vet and his very quiet girlfriend. Signor Snazzy was multilingual, wanted to practice his English, had lived in London  for four years (and Vienna for ten), had views on everything, had been everywhere. He said if we went to Istria (we are planning our next visit), we will find the food inferior with garlic used to mask the off-flavours of bad fish.
We came home on the same sweet ferry, wandered steeply up to the old citadel to see the Duomo and the castle, caught a bus back to the centre, went to view the beautiful railway station as advised by Jan Morris, and then bought an ice-cream (at last) for Andrew. Here we are back at the hotel, preparing for tomorrow’s journey to Rijeka in Croatia. Trieste was regarded as on the edge of barbarian country (Austro-Hungarian Empire?). Our vet thought barbarity begins at Istria, on the edge of the city. We shall see.
A quick note about toilets. They have all been pretty clean. Many are in the Turkish style, which some think are barbarous. I still moan about how loo-seats on the sit-down kind are so poorly anchored. They must be badly designed, and then serially badly abused, for so many of them to be so wonky. Maybe the giant half-naked statuesses of Trieste were making the same point. Who knows?

Deep differences

We searched for a new place to stay and found a little hotel nearby. The charming young receptionist – a tall young man speaking pretty good English – offered us breakfast and guaranteed a double room for two nights though we couldn’t inspect it as the place was full.
(Later when we returned to check in after lunch, a forlorn family was being turned away – too late).
We fetched our few bits of baggage, engaged in another round of texts with the very SHOUTY landlord from the apartment (who was still threatening to CALL THE POLICE), and contemplated the different styles of hospitality on offer in Trieste.
Trieste has very distinct districts, and we went to see the old medieval quarter on its steep hillock, where the view few remaining bits of Roman work can be seen – a sorry sight, all over-worked, over-restored, unexplained and neglected. Concrete and modern steel railings adorn it all, and puddles and steep fences. But the tiny twisting alleys and streets are charming, and it’s all very arty. We found fruit shops, delis, museums (free in August and very well presented), antique shops stuffed with nice things, cafes, etc etc.  down to the huge quays and wharves, where the massive trade of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire once burgeoned in the 19th century, before war and politics sucked it all away again, leaving vast structures, buildings, ornaments and not much else.
Talking of ornaments, a stroll through the Thomasini (?) gardens revealed a truly remarkable collection of statue-busts of famous men from Trieste. Dozens of them. Most are wearing hats. Their names, occupations, dates of birth and death are all inscribed, and sometimes a quote from their (evidently infinite) wisdom. Not one woman.
Women get their revenge by draping themselves furiously about the place semi-naked, either around the occasional full-length male heroic statue (a botanist, perhaps), or around doorways. These females are absolutely terrifying, huge.
The atmosphere is very calm, rather middle-aged, though there are plenty of youngsters about, too.
We met a friendly couple at lunchtime – she Scots, he Triestrian. This is their favourite city in Italy, they said.
We went to the Post Office to buy two stamps. To get in, you have to go through an automatic one- or two-person security airlock. How anyone gets in with a buggy, a wheelchair, a dog or a family I do not know. You have to get a queue ticket – but the right one, as they are categorised (but only in Italian)… It’s not easy to distinguish the meanings of the categories, apart from ‘finanzia’ and ‘telefonica’.
We waited about ten minutes in the queue. The atmosphere was – well – languid.
Eventually, our ticket came up, and we asked for our stamps. The woman looked appalled. (We may have been in the wrong category). She checked that these were for simple postcards. For England. She clicked away at her computer. She went to see her supervisor. She went behind a big partition (like an Orthodox iconostasis). She came back with two beautiful aeronautical stamps. She clicked again at her computer. She pulled out a calculator, and added things up. She went to see the supervisor again. She did sums on a bit of paper. Eventually she put a sheet of A4 in the printer and out came two lines of print – a receipt. This she carefully folded in two, and tore off the bottom half of the paper. We git the top but. There! About twenty minutes, all up.
Perhaps the real highlight of the day was the tram trip to Opicina, up on the karst plateau which surrounds the city and kept it isolated from its hinterland for so long. This enchanting little railway was built in the 1920s, and its middle section is so steep it needs an extra push (or help with the braking coming down) from a sturdy extra engine. Andrew was – well – radiant with pleasure watching it all, and I was pleased he was so pleased. We went to the end, stopped at the famous Obelisk on the way back, just about dodged the rain, trundled back down on the next tram, took photos of the distant views, and came back to the city for a stroll, a drink, supper in a bistro (red and white check tablecloths), and then bed. Bliss.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Black hole. You have to laugh....

I am hoping this report will make my fans cry – with laughter. It’s been a bit of a bummer today. Started off ok, my answerphone password problems apparently to be resolved by a text which the service providers said they’ll send in a few hours. (12 hours later, it hasn’t arrived yet). Cross fingers.
And we had a smooth journey to the airport.
But – Andrew’s new Android phone proved to be broken, despite the best efforts of the guys at Dixon's in the terminus.  And, because I had decided I would, really, here and now upgrade my phone – and spent a nawful lot of money to do it, I then found that password glitches etc had wiped out all my contacts and photos, and masses of apps, and the  promised ‘two hours’ of battery in the new phone turned out to be 40 minutes.
So, as we boarded we knew we were going to be a bit incommunicado when we arrived.
Luckily, the threat of delays caused by French air-traffic controllers proving to be nothing more than a rumour.
But, during the flight which was pretty well perfect, I somehow managed to drop my reading glasses off my head and onto the floor somewhere under or behind my seat. No amount of wriggling or squirming on my part brought them within hands-reach. I tried facing backwards, but no good. I was stretching out into all the cramped spaces round the seat – nothing. Andrew, in the middle seat, tried. Nothing. We got up and tried to see where the spectacles had gone. Couldn’t see them.  We asked the poor girl in the third seat (by the aisle) to get up, and then I, and then Andrew, tried to lie down in front of the seats to find them. Nothing. We attracted the attention of the cabin crew. A beautiful and very calm young woman looking more like a film star than a stewardess said she would get them. She lay down on the floor as if she did this every day, and with one elegant flourish of her tiny wrist, she pulled my precious glasses out from their hiding place. Really it was balletic. She just smiled sweetly.
As we approached Trieste, a thick blanket of dark cloud obscured the whole landscape below us, until we came down to a couple of thousand feet. Then it was quite clear that the whole area was being drenched with rain. It looked like – well – England in November. Getting off the plane was like stepping fully-clothed into the shower.
We went through border control, got our bag, bought our bus tickets, found a dryish route to the buses while the rain slammed down around us.
Andrew’s preparatory research showed we needed bus 51 – and there it was. We queued and queued to get on…. The rain pelted down. The driver seemed to be having a deep philosophical conversation with someone ahead of us in the line. There was nowhere else to stand except in the monsoon. Andrew tried hiding under the luggage department lid, in the side of the bus. He may have kept slightly drier but had to stand hunched up like Quasimodo. Eventually the driver opened the second set of doors, and a grateful but sodden line of passengers got into the coach.
Our journey into Trieste was pretty mysterious because it was pouring rain outside, and the windows were all steamed up inside. Nonetheless it was a smooth and quiet journey, quite a  different experience from the great Jan Morris’s description of what the approach to Trieste is like. I cannot in any way compete with her remarkable, erudite and brilliantly written account of the city, and I thoroughly recommend it to you, pausing only to point out that it’s currently cheaper to buy it in paperback than it is to download it on Kindle, which is a degree further in the economics of publishing than I can aspire to understand.
We passed through small town and suburbs, then could see little glimpses of the sea to our right, and went below and though great rocky cliffs, and finally arrived in a dry but dark bus station. The loos were clean – somehow I got in and out without paying. Our little map lured us out into the rain, to find our apartment.
We had two pull-alongs, a backpack, and two umbrellas. The way to cross the roads here is rather German – wait for the green man. The rain poured down. We were splashed with puddle spray, somewhat.
We carved our way through the slightly weird streets – cobbles, utterly grand and knob-covered facades, tramlines, zebra-crossings which overlap at the corners, lots of closed shops, black guys trying to sell umbrellas to the masses of people who already held umbrellas of every possible design and colour…. Worrying, really, as it seems to indicate that it rains a lot here, which none of the guidebooks said.
We went up and down, back and forth, looking for Via de la gimmnastica…. But it was nowhere to be found. Back and forth. We asked. We asked again. And again.  We walked to and fro, up and down.  Eventually we found it, labelled as Via Cornorio della Cornorio, or something. The rain kept coming down.  Sirens wailed.  We found no. 13, which was described on as ‘a hotel’.  It is a dark entrance, narrow stairs. No-one in sight. We tried various doors. We retreated, and being phone-less, asked in the adjacent hair salon if we could telephone the owner of the apartment. The ladies, who were having a party with large glasses of pink wine (or gin?) were very helpful, let us ring, tried ringing the number themselves…. No answer. We tried ringing England and after listening to a lot of music, got through. The owner had left a message – long after we had left home – explaining that the key is in a little box, with a pin code.  We were in!
But – oh deary me! The flat stinks of cigarettes. There are no windows – just two openings into the bottom of a lift shaft. It is pitch dark. There is no wifi. The air conditioning appears not to work. In its way, this is as horrible as the notorious Hotel Moderns in Paris, which is rated as one of the ten worst places to stay in that formidably sanguine city. True, this place is clean and modern inside, but it’s a pit.
We dump our stuff, venture out to find something to eat, out into the interminable Mancunian rain. Oh Italy! Oh Trieste! Everywhere seems to be closing down. We collapse into a trattoria – Andrew has a dish of utterly divine carpaccio di tonno, and I mis-choose with some very salty ham, and then a very al dente pasta.
Back into the smokehouse of the apartment, there is a message asking if things are ok, and I  back (now that my new phone is partly charged up)…. I say it is not alright, and I say why. Back comes a reply – he thinks I am being aggressive and threatens to call the police. I repeat my complaints, say we will find somewhere else tomorrow. Andrew is disgruntled. We have had a long day.
I know it’s still raining because I can hear the traffic on the wet roads nearby (can’t see them, of course). There is loud laughter, thumping and banging from elsewhere in the building, a loud ping-pong announcement noise which we used to hear in airports, the clash of pots and pans, furniture scraping on the floors, men talking loudly, keys rattling in doors, the smell of fags all through. Oh, Italy!
This morning, the sun is shining. We have had a lot of very shouty emails from the landlord, threatening TO CALL THE POLICE.... But we have checked out and found a nice little hotel which claims to have wifi in each bedroom. This blog is posted from a cafe. Now we are off sightseeing. Andrew says the loo here is in the Turkish style....

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Heading to Trieste. Trouble with the electronics....

Standing on the platform at Stratford station, we can get a burn from various past ages. The Stone Age – clinkers on the track; Iron Age – the rails, the overhead cables, the huge rust-steel bridge over the whole are all; the Victorian Age – the rampant drive to consumerism in the vast shopping mall beside the platforms; the 20th century – planes overhead, tube map, the announcements, the privatised railway companies whose names are sonorously red out before any other details are given; the Information Age – the weird non-human nature of those announcements, the digital displays, the isolation….
We churn out through Essex, spotting the Shenfield Shark resting like a strange arctic fishy box on its siding beside the main line. Every time a train comes past us in the opposite direction, our coach seems to have been punched, with a loud bang as the airmass hits us – and we are in coach 4 of 12, or something.
Braintree Station is a gem – a charming proud little Victorian terminus with a single track, slightly curved, and a wealth of woodwork and craftsmanship in every quarter – panelling, cornices, strapwork, and all at a nice scale and beautifully looked after.
We are met by our friend Jeremy Nicholas who is late because of the traffic jams – he doesn’t think much of the town, but I like the fountain, and the buildings…. The countryside is benign, rich. The harvest is all done, already. I remember how it used to go on for so much longer, when the grain was poured into sacks in the fields straight from the combines, and the straw lay on the ground in lines….. Now it’s done by huge machines on contract, and all over in a blink. The fields look almost toasted.
We have a lovely evening, talking with Jezza and Jill, and sleep in pure white linen, and now we are off to the airport to go to Trieste. Our gadgets are playing up. Can we get it all fixed before we fly?

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The light

We're home again, and I am throbbing with the loss of the amazing light on that shore. The Øresund is utterly astonishing in its capacity to grab the light from the skies and massage it and work on it and then throw it back out at the heavens, so that the colours of the sky or the clouds are constantly reinterpreted and swept in to your feet by the waves, and the radiance - the sheer, shining, uplifting brightness of it is flung and bounced and caught and threaded and hung all about you.  Sometimes everything was purple. Sometimes blue. Or red. Or green, or pale arctic blue. But always mesmerising. I tried making paintings of it, and I tried photographing it, but none of the images come anywhere near the ecstatic emotional quality of actually being there.

I tried painting some of the little smack-boats in the harbour .

And I tried painting the beach just along from Chris and Bente's house - children and teens in the water, the little jetty, the black edge of the harbour. Please don't let my amateur attempts put you off, if you are of a mind to go and see for yourself.

We had supper in a fish-cafe by that harbour. Chris must have had wine before he arrived and was flirtatious with little girls, and did a tiny stomping dance to draw attention to himself.  Relatives can be embarrassing. The food was delectable - crab, hot-smoked salmon, haddock done like sugar/salt pickled salmon and cut into thin fragrant slices. Nice chips too - these are getting more and more difficult to find, in my experience; the cooks use the cheapest spuds with least flavour, and cheap oil which is frequently rancid or over-heated, and then they do it all too fast and without finesse.  When you get a good chip, as for instance, you can at the Gunton Arms in North Norfolk, it's so rare and so wonderful that they should ring peals of bells in honour of the moment.

Yesterday, going home, we went back towards Copenhagen and the airport in some trepidation because the news reports said the police had shot a man believed to have killed two people and the lines into the city were closed. On the train we heard that a railway employee had been mugged at 4am, tied up with tape and dumped in a luggage rack....  It seemed so completely alien in that sweet, gentle, civilised place, that nearly-English-looking and sounding country, where you rarely hear children cry and there is a powerful sense of community..... But, nonetheless, the violence and the madness are there, just under the surface. As I had been reading (and partly reporting to you) this land was the home of violence, for centuries - swift, brutal, organised or random, merciless..... And we had been relaxing and enjoying the most luxurious and gentle of holidays, forgetting about the murderous hatred which powers so much of the world.  

We went onto a very very very wide and shallow and flat tourist boat to have a cruise round the 'canals' (docks) in Copenhagen and gawped at the stunning modern architecture - the opera-house, the black diamond (library), the Maersk building, the bank..... Gorgeous. This city has never turned its back on the water the way English town have: Faversham! Take note!!!!!  The Danish Royal Yacht lies at anchor, pure 1930s with some radar on top and lots of gold decoration. How lovely.   We met with a friend for lunch - ate at the rooftop resto in the old Post Office building...   More pickled fish and pretty and tasty bits. A wedding party arrived - flowers were put on the tables for them, and the bride looked very beautiful in tight white lace, and about eight and half months pregnant. We did not see a groom - maybe her family was giving her a 'wedding' all on her own.

Coffee sitting in a side street. A silver shop stuffed with beautifully shining and labelled antique spoons and trays and little pots. Art all over the place. Courtyards leading off courtyards leading off courtyards. The lawcourts with grand portico and steps all stinking of piss. Three dark men huddled on a mattress trying to sleep, tucked into each other's shapes like - well, spoons.  The loo in a fastfood resto proving to be rather disgusting and then actually breaking down - an anxious queue getting longer and longer - but the public loo across the street immaculately clean and with no-one using it. The crowds swirling around the Tivoli gardens, more litter than I remember from last time. Lots and lots and lots of foreigners - women in hijabs, black students, middle-eastern children...  And the Danes themselves, with a very distinctive style: young men with long hair and short beards, older men with grey beards, and often with soft cotton captain's hats, women with brutally short hair (and bad knees), lots of young women with very short shorts and lovely faces, a very large proportion of the public on bikes, bikes left everywhere and not always locked, lots of people on some kind of motorised skateboards... It's all very endearing and lovely (till someone starts killing someone else).

It was an odd thing that in this land of fabulous design and well-considered public convenience, the elevator to the Left Luggage dept at the main railway station is both far too small for the numbers who want to use it, and subject to those on the top two floors commandeering it so that those with luggage or bikes down in the basement (where the department is based) can almost never get their kit into it.  As a result, people are left lugging their bikes and their bags up a narrow, steep set of stairs, bashing each other and any passers-by, and missing their trains to boot. Very funny, unless it's you.

The plane was supposed to leave at 6.55 but in the event was well over 2 hours late, so our early arrival at the airport was a prelude to quite a long stay. We were glad to get away, to chase the sunset across to the west, and see it setting once, twice, three times as we achieved 38,000 feet heading into the darkness.  And home does seem dark, compared to Espergaerde. We have had sun all day here in Kent, but I am still thinking of that wide spacious silvery sea, that sizzling, tempting sweep of water, where the morning sun and the light of the day and the evening pours down and casts its spell. I wish I was still there.

Thursday, 6 August 2015


Chris and Bente have sold their exquisite beach house to remove to a practical bungalow just a short way inland – down a quiet nondescript driveway, not far from the shops and medical centre, with three bedrooms and a wide South-facing garden. Bente’s arthritis is increasingly worrying, and their house on the beach – constrained by merciless planning laws – is too small to allow the installation of a lift and in any case is too much crammed with their treasures. They live in a cabinet of curiosities, not valuable except to them – mementoes, colours, paintings and photos, books, china and so on. We came to see them partly to say goodbye to the building, resting as it does on one of the allotments of land lying along the beach, where the easterly river or sound gives a clear view of Sweden a few miles away, and with scintillating light, and a never-ending panorama of boats and shipping tripping back or forth, and a huge sky taking the eye and imagination away to historic distances. I am very slightly reminded of the Bosphorus in Istanbul – not for the land-, sea- or sky-scape, but the incessant movement of craft on the water, from tiny kayaks and rowing-boats up to huge-scale cruise liners and tankers, which mercifully seem to favour the eastern, Swedish bank – maybe they like buying cheaper tobacco rather than booze, being on that side of the international line.
Bente in particular has very mixed feelings about leaving their house. It is she who swims once, twice, three times a day in summer. It is she who loves these beautiful objects – and I think is utterly possessed by the light, the colours of the sea. Chris – who effectively redesigned the house with the help of an architect, changing it from a charming Deco cottage into a Modern dwelling – is already thinking about how he can extend and alter the new place – which (from the very limited view we had if it) is just a plain, yellow-brick, 20-year old standard bungalow.
I suggested that Bente could, to alleviate her grief at leaving her seaside house, could from time to time, book herself into this little bed-and-breakfast place where they have placed us. It too is right on the beach, though only single-storey, and with a public path outside the beach gate. However, it has wild rosa rugosa hedges filling the air with scent, and a fine clear sandy access to the water just 50 yards away, whereas the beach at her little house is only accessed over harsh pebbles which through the funnelling action of the water are usually covered with slippery sea-reed stalks. So, she could be up in her new quiet spacious house most of the time and have weekends away back at her beloved water. 600 krone a night.
Of the arthritis I will say this: that whereas there are hardly any obese people to be seen here, there are masses of women in particular who clearly have bad knees (or hips). They walk in a distinctive way, as Bente does. I would be interested to know if their diet with so many potatoes and tomatoes has anything to do with it – those solanum toxins which I only very recently read about.
She commented on how lively and well Andrew and I seem to be (and are), and I said I am sure it’s our JuicePlus+ …
My reading for this trip is Michael Pye’s acclaimed book called ‘The edge of the world’, all about the North Sea – very apposite and informative. I really enjoyed the early section about the Frisians (who?)…. It seems to tie in with my current activities trying to help get Faversham Creek (and other small tidal places like Deptford and Rye) restored to their proper place in the collective and statutory imagination as being essentially maritime – rather than just residential development opportunities. Here in the tiny harbour are fewer than half a dozen wooden fishing boats, called smakkejollen – very like the Whitstable smacks back in Kent.
From these very waters and margins came cultures which resisted Romanisation, depending on common law and custom, exploratory, matter-of-fact, tribal rather than feudal, craft-based. They allowed some women unlimited power and scope to lead, while treating others as (worse than?) cattle – sexual rubbish, slaves, group-rape objects. Slavery was of course a colossal, global trade – from the Arab lands outwards, and everyone, every kingdom was both busily engaged in it and prey to it. Men, women and children were the unfortunate chattels. I can only shudder.
Yesterday, we tripped down the coast a short way to Louisiana, that beacon of public art – a sprawling mansion of gardens and galleries, filled with works of high status and thronging with people. The special show at the moment is our very own Peter Doig, whose colossal paintings fill the great walls with colour and wonder. I am very tempted to go back there again today – our last full day here. Chris and Bente are lucky having this marvellous gallery so close (2 bus-stops) away. It no doubt inspires them in their own collections of brilliant objects. Bente has given away box loads of things to help make their move simpler. It is very hard to avoid the modern curse of ‘too much stuff’. Maybe those who bought slaves (for ‘free’ sex or labour, or whatever), long ago (or still today), had the same problem. What to do with it all. Where to keep it. What to chuck out.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


The trains are delectable. Set on wide tracks, they are smooth-running, quiet, fast, clean, and even when crowded they have enough space to keep you relaxed. The carriages are designated for (eg) bikes, dogs, quiet zones, etc. the doors are prefaced with steps which do actually make it easier to step in or out, unlike our scary/irritating trains at home which are awkward at best and frightening at worst – especially for anyone with sight or movement difficulties. Tickets are bought from 7-11 shops which operate at every station we have so far seen.
We breakfasted at our little gite in the garden in bright warm sunshine, sitting at a large circular concrete table to eat our muesli and orange-flavoured yoghurt. Andrew picked this up from the store thinking it was fruit juice. Oranges are called Appelsin, which is confusing. Our breakfast was attended by sparrows – they are numerous along the beach due to the numbers of pizzas eaten by the happy gangs of teenagers who cavort and splosh and play in the waters. They have had a cold summer so far – this warm spell has come late, and the young are making the most of it, as are the sparrows.
I made a little painting of the fig and vine growing in ‘our’ conservatory – v pleased w the work, and only later realising I’d worked on the back of a drawing of Derek Steele’s Jack Russell Hans. Bah!
Then we caught the train to Helsingør, the Elsinore of Hamlet, ferry-port to Sweden at this pinch-point of the two coastlines…. The ferries run every 15 minutes to Swedish Elsingborg, and the journey takes about 20 minutes – a big watery competitive efficient bus service. Our bit of ocean is the most easterly of three outflows (rivers?) leaving the Baltic towards the North Sea. They are sea-swarmed rivers in effect – maybe the water is slightly less salty than the seas further north. The tides are minimal here - a metre at most. When the Vikings first spilled out from this region they knew nothing of tides, which came as a great surprise and mystery. Those three waterways are represented in the ancient logo of Royal Copenhagen porcelain – three squiggly lines. The two further west are entirely inside Denmark; this easterly one has an international boundary along the middle.
Helsingør station is worth a few moments of anyone’s time to take a squint at: high coffered ceiling in the main central hall, multi-coloured marble stairway, panelled walls, all  reminiscent of royal apartments, and (although referring back to some splendid late-medieval era which perhaps never existed) it’s a full-on, plumptious late 19th century bit of swank. Shakespeare has proved to be a good friend of this bit of Denmark.  Gorgeous.
Outside, the light is shimmering, the old dock spaces cleared away, the rival ferry services side by side just across the road, the tourist office near to hand, the medieval town hunkered down behind you, the Mariekirk - with Buxtehude memorial and fine organ case two minutes away, all of red brick, and complete with cloister, dating from 1540 in its origins, Carmelite then and now solidly Danish, with a patch of history as a haven for the halt and lame about 200 years ago.
Round to the old dockyards, with the Kronborg (Hamlet’s castle now covered in twiddles and dormers, and set into a Vauban-style fortification of zigzag brickwork) just over there. Some old 1930s dock-buildings have been done up. Here is a cultural centre – which won the accolade of Best Library in Europe this year. And here are some cafes and a theatre settled behind a remarkable glass zigzag wall, disguising the workaday offices behind it. Here are some elegant snub-ended docks with historic vessels moored up. And here, set into a huge sunken, stone-and-concrete dry dock is a brand-new subterranean museum of seafaring, approached down a gentle steel ramp, and leading through a brilliantly designed history of sailors and the sea. Children, mariners, travellers, historians, artists, film-makers, boat-builders, costume-makers, writers, navigators, everyone would find things here to amuse and enlighten them. Among the dozens of beautifully displayed artefacts I liked very much those model ships whose namesakes were lost at sea during WWII – they are shown in a near-vertical position, perfect in every detail, lit as they spiral downwards to the bottom in eerie greenish light, heading for eternity in the deep. Very moving. The story comes along to the present day with the arrival of those huge container shops which trudge around the world full of modern necessities (junk, mostly, no?). The models of all the boats are mounted in glass cases, and the bottom sections of the displays show the typical cargoes – coal, suitcases for passenger ships, grain, tyres, trainers. The very last section is dedicated to modern-day sailors, both sexes, who are mostly young and cheerful, and explain that when they’re at sea, they long to be at home, and vice versa. They all know how dangerous the sea is, but they love it. ‘It’s addictive’, says one.
We lunched in a tiny courtyard garden of an Italian café (blessed salad), did a bit of shopping, then took the ferry ….
My first visit to Sweden was very pleasant, and lasted 2 hours. It’s remarkable how different it is – signage, sounds, what people look like, all the little cultural aspects.
The main reason for this prosperous ferry is the tax-differential on alcohol. Our journey to Sweden was crammed with Swedes towing huge trolling full of booze, like the Brits at Calais.
Our boat was called Hamlet. These are about one fifth the size of our Dover/Calais ferries but otherwise equipped just the same. The captain’s announcements are very funny – you can only buy alcohol in Danish waters. And you can only buy tobacco in Swedish waters – the border being halfway across on this minuscule voyage. His pronunciation of the words ‘only’ and ‘hope’ are marvellously antiquated and hilarious – something like ‘hape’ and ‘anely’. The crossings are neat and swift. We bought an ice-cream, called Glass.
We came home on that reassuring train, showered and rested, and I made another painting in this pretty Japanese garden. Bente’s sister Klar came to collect us, and we walked along the beach to their soon-to-be-sold house, for supper and laughs, and a huge storm came up from the south. We ran home as the first great blobs of water hit the still-warm pavements, and fell into bed as the rains hit the glass ceiling of our little quarters.

Monday, 3 August 2015


Denmark – staying a few days with Chris & Bente. Slept last night at the airport hotel, flew smoothly enough out along the Thames estuary, landed in sunshine and calm into a bubbly sort of peaceful chaos… Noticeably more  immigrant families around than the last time we were here, a quartet of handsome young East African lads with cockney accents and good behaviour, signage rather poor (where to board your flight, how to get to the trains….)
Last time we were here, the railway station looked to us very modern and well-designed. This time, 13? years on, a lot of our own stations look the same, but still their trains are better, wider, quieter, smoother, more comfortable.
At Espergaerde we waited for our host who arrived in his tiny car a bit late and without explanation. The house is not far away….
In brilliant sunshine and astonishing clear light powering up from the sea, the little deco and modern house is radiant beside the sparkling water, pink and soft cedar-wood grey.
We sat, they made lunch, we ate a wonderful copious picnic of ingredients – a particular salami, some soft roast pork, duck fat instead of butter, finely sliced red onion, sweet long ‘asparagus’ potatoes, mayonnaise, cheeses.
Then Bente and I swam in the sea… Gingerly we stepped from the hot air, over the gritty stones and through the stringy weed into the cold clear water. This was me, aunt Bente and her friend Bente…. And the swim was wonderful in safe shallow water, with sailing boats and cargo ships zipping past somewhere towards Sweden a few miles away. Tycho Brahe’s Island is just over there. Friend Bente’s husband Fleming was not swimming but doing the garden, because he loves doing it.
Then aunt Bente walked us to our lodgings – although they have stayed with us many times, their house really is too smal for guests.
Along the beach is a sequence of grassy wild public fieldlets, with the beach full of families and sploshing children, and a marvellous little harbour filled with modern boats and some traditional ones – called Smakkeriggert… not so different from Whitstable smacks, either.
Our lodgings are in the garden of another beach house – the land covered in shingle with (7 tons of) granite stepping stones, and Japanese topiary, and sitting places with (eg) thick circular concrete table, and a sturdy grape-house just for our use with a fig tree trained into a ropey loop….. Our little room is all blue and white, with art on the walls, and a shared kitchen and bathroom – alas, in this trip, and for the first time ever, I emptied out my washbag of all shampoos, conditioners , etc at home, thinking that Chris and Bente would have everything and we are carrying hand luggage only. But we are undone, as the lodgings has nothing….
We had ice-cream, a walk, then back to the beautiful little B&B,and I slept!!!!
Now back at their jewel of a house for supper.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Why I won't join the National Trust

I used to live and work in Norfolk, long ago. Revelled in the beauty of its landscape and skies, the rich glories of the dialect ('mardling'), the large numbers of neglected cottages and barns, the clean air, the extremes of winter and summer, the haunted emptiness of the roads and fields. From time to time, warplanes of terrifying size and speed would split the skies in half, creating a rolling thunderous earthquake of sound, drumming out the story of our defence, our history, our ambitions and collaborations as a nation. I loved it - but work and marriage took me back south, and now I only come back for short visits.

Of course, everything has changed. It is still glorious, a head-long romance of a place, with huge golden fields, empty roads and lanes, langorous rivers, vast aristocratic stately homes, crumbling castles and neat villages. But the dialect is less often to be found. The buses are all privatised. The villages have bypasses and the spaces all around are 'developed'.  Grumble grumble. I wish I had known I was living in history when I was here. I would have taken more careful note.

We went on Thursday to Felbrigg which although in the care of the National Trust is still full of the furniture which belongs to the house. The grounds are minimally kept - grass, a maze, gravel, empty paths, a bit of lavender round the footings. The house has a suite of rooms of the highest swank, imported from Italy etc in the 18th C, carved and gilded, pictures and frames to die for... almost unbelievable wealth. But it all dribbled down to not much in the end, with the 'Squire' who died in 1969 unmarried having run the estate himself from a charming little office in the basement, beside the Servants' Hall and the Workshop. His stable had stalls for just 4 horses that I could see.  We heard two children playing a few notes on the Bechstein piano in one of the formal rooms. The big brother said solemnly to his little sister 'This is one of those old instruments. It has a lot of old tunes in it.'

The walled garden (4 acres?), was full of volunteer gardeners dead-heading about 500 yards of pinks. The echiums were 10' tall. The pomegranate tree was full of fruit.  Substantial parts of the garden are leased out to local allotment-holders, who have to label themselves as well as their produce, it seems. The labelling is very good - short flat white sticks with black writing on them.  Every kind of herb you can think of (but no Summer Savoury that I could see).  Bantams make dust baths.  It's all pretty idyllic.

We went on to lunch at the Gunton Arms - where co-owner Stuart the chef was cooking a non-stop series of steaks etc on an open wood fire. His business partner is an art-dealer, so there is plenty of modern trinketry - Emin neons, Hirst spots, etc.  The fossilised elk-horns over the steak-barbie fireplace are already much more long-lived and better works of art.

Cromer Pier was lovely - fringed with children fishing for crabs, children eating ice-creams, children eating burgers and pop-corn, children roller-skating, children in sunglasses.  The lifeboat station at the end offers you a free visit and all the time, you can hear people chinking cash into the donation boxes.  The roll-call of rescues is fascinating, the boats and lives saved. No mention of failures.  There were times when the lifeboat saved 30 or more lives, during the war 110 one night.   The present Cromer lifeboat is called Lester and you would be very pleased indeed to see it coming to rescue you if you were in difficulties.

On the way back home, we diverted to find Baconsthorpe Castle - a marvellous open-air relic of a once-prosperous and ambitious medieval merchant family - who wangled their way through the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses and finally achieved this huge and beautiful crenellated establishment complete with wool workshops and fulling mills - applying to have it fortified in the 1560s - ah, with towers and cupolas, and a moat! - but within 50 years their descendants had frittered it all away. It passed through various hands, someone lived in the gatehouse till one of the towers fell down in 1921, and now it's mostly grass and stone, and empty, like a bit of a husk, in the middle of nowhere. Run by English Heritage, as it happens. No bother at all. Good interpretation boards too.

On Friday (yesterday) the rains of god came down onto Norfolk - drenching, torrential, unremitting and so we crept across the county from one hospitable household to the second, and we are now in West Norfolk.  Today we went to the Gatehouse of Pentney Abbey, the Narborough Museum, lunch at the Bedingfield Arms, and then to Oxburgh Hall. Tonight it will be into Kings Lynn for a concert by Freddy Kempf.

Pentney Abbey Gatehouse was bought by Howard Barton, a pilot, when (judging by the photos) it looked pretty much like Baconsthorpe Castle - just a useless mass of old flint and stone.  Anyway, it was good enough to inspire him and he's done it up with the help of English Heritage and very nice it is too, though not apparently open to the public. We were lucky to get in, due to our hosts ringing and asking if we could visit. We were given a tour - shown how a rack-and-ruin became a shining star again, complete with inner steel staircase not relying on any part of the old structure, new roof, new walls, new crenellations. It is utterly gorgeous, and now just waiting for someone to come and put the vaulting back.  It seems to have been built at the time of the Black Death, no expense spared, and maybe to have taken its income from a tollbridge across the River Nar (the main route from the Fens to the north coast of Norfolk).  The rest of the abbey has more or less disappeared. The Bartons have a small discreet caravan site there, so you can go and stay and ponder.

Narborough Museum is in the old Methodist (Wesleyan) chapel, the brainchild of David Turner who (like Howard Barton) made a rendezvous with us to open up and show us round. It is a gem, a treasure house of mammoths and ammonites, maps, a model of the village as it used to be, history of the almost-forgotten Narborough Aerodrome, and lots about the project to restore the local bone mill. This vast sprawl of industrial buildings used to pound bones into fertiliser, and imported the bones from all around - including Germany. All was well till one day a human skull was found in amongst the German bones.  This macabre find seems to tally with the life of the late Andrew Fountaine who lived across the road in Narford Hall. I met him once or twice when I lived at Red Lodge, a farm on his estate. He was keen on the Nazis and held camps, and practiced a fair amount of Seig Heils.  Slightly more in his favour is how much he loved trees - planted thousands of them, and explained to me once how you have to intersperse your young oaks with faster-growing conifers which force the hard wood to grow straight up.

Lunch was in pretty Bedingfield Arms, beside Oxburgh Church - where the nave is completely roofless and open, but the chancel in full working order, complete with many a Bedingfield monument, despite the Bedingfields having been devout Catholics all through time. One of the main attractions of Oxburgh Hall is the picturesque Moat, and of course the Priests' Hole where the Bedingfield family hid their priests in times of trouble.  The whole place is one of those wonderful/exasperating National Trust places - with a sort of sanctimonious, this-is-how-we-do-it air wherever you look. It's probably down to costs... they sell the same plants and the same knick-knacks in every NT shop (with the exception of some Norfolk glass in this one), and they have the same elderly and enthusiastic volunteer guides in each room (and some of them at Oxburgh are absolutely fantastic, thank you!), and they all seem to have a second-hand bookshop near the gate, and the same sort of smell wherever you go.

I was given a severe ticking-off at the entrance because I declined to pay EXTRA to sign their Gift Aid form...  I was told 'We make people ASK for the non-Gift Aid tickets.'  The woman was rude and bullying, and I was inclined to write and tell the NT about her, but this will do well enough.  Her appalling manners were alleviated by the two sterling guides we liked inside (the man in the dining room, and the lady in the King's Room), and also, in fact by the two charming Entrance Volunteers we once met at Rudyard Kipling's house Batemans, down south.  The main problem is that the National Trust has slid down into a corporate style and uniformity, and although we have paid to 'belong' in the past, every time I go into one of their properties, I think I will never join again and just busk it, one property at a time, even if it costs more.

The Priests' Hole is a very tight squeeze and it must have been very unpleasant to have to hide in there, but an attractive proposition if the Queen's men were after you because you still cleaved to the old religion.  As a nation, there's a lot of blether talked about 'Good Queen Bess' and the Age of the Tudors/Shakespeare etc etc., but it must have been a nightmare to live through it, much like the fundamentalism of ISIS or Al-Qaeda or any of those other belief-based civil wars.... We went at it, one way or the other, after the Black Death put paid to feudalism, for two or three hundred years all based on which form of 'Christianity' you followed. Torture, war, inquisition, terror, savage punishments, racking, being hacked to bits, hung in chains, beheadings, mutilation, flung into a pit and abandoned, burnt alive in bonfires, being hung, drawn and quartered... (could anything much be worse?)... and that was all available at any moment to any Englishman or woman or child who found themselves 'on the wrong side'.

So all this 'national trust' stuff is too sweet and sugary for my liking.  And Abbey Gatehouses too, however quaint and interesting, offer a smiling face, hiding a terrifying truth.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Ferry home

(Written on 5th June, heading home, but posted on 18th June).

It's one of the privileges of being alive at this time and born into the ineffably fortunate culture which is modern Britain, that I am able to wander about, more or less at will, and go on these holidays or travels. We meet with smiles, efficient arrangements, amusements, picturesque scenes and just about every kind of freedom we might desire (and we are carefully persuaded not to seek other freedoms or feel their lack).
So at the turning-home part of a journey, it's easy to feel satisfied, regretful that we cannot stay longer, already planning a return trip. Just now, waiting to board the Swift ferry back to Holyhead, we met a young American woman from Utah who had flown in for a short holiday mostly driving round England. Somewhere between the US, Canada and Ireland, all the luggage for her party has been lost. So for a short while we commiserate and contemplate what it would be like to have no suitcase, no clean underwear or sweater, or raincoat….  She did not know she might be able to buy replacements and claim on her insurance. Andrew and I remind ourselves that we should always be 'safe' and have a mini-travel set of stuff with us, in the hand-luggage, for just such an emergency - but, really, this is all about 'stuff', and not about the realities of life. We have not even had our passports checked getting on this boat.
In an hour or two we'll be back in the land of the Welsh Celts. For now, the boat is filled with a chirpy mass of mainly Irish families, a big (English?) guy tattooed and with a very small boy both eating a large breakfast, a party on some kind of car-race with the men dressed in ridiculous suits (patterned with bright flowers, vivid orange, brickwork, stripes, etc) and the girls kitted out as belly-dancers or sunbathers, lots of bare midriffs.  There's a lot of Irish being spoken. Quite a few with black teeth. The café staff are all Polish. Children are falling over in the slight swell.  The rain is greying out the windows and the light outside is soft and dull.
We're exhausted, really, with just looking at things… the landscapes we've been through are just magnificent and yet barely known in England. When David and Jo were married in Dundrum 2 summers ago, so many of their guests said they had never been to Ireland, and had no idea how lovely it was. The landscape tells the story - the antiquity, the settlements, the dispossession, the poverty, the recent reinvestment from the EU (roads in particular, and hospitals, and schools…).  I need to learn more about the geology and the legends… All over Europe,  in my lifetime, I feel the ancient stories are disappearing and being ground down and lost, as the motorways and modern conveniences of travel disconnect us from the land itself. Anything like a path, or a cave, or a ford, or even a wood, a place where magic might have happened,  or a people have sheltered, or fought a battle, or a king may have died or been buried… all these places now look rather non-descript.  We live in an age of interpretation boards and I have very mixed feelings about them. Of course I am grateful to learn something, some scrap of history about a place. But, the boards fade or get vandalized, and they can only ever summarise. In any case, they have explained some sort consensual version, and that will probably represent the winner's point of view, and certainly the men's story rather than the women's or the children's. Having these boards up means that people just don't know anything except what the board told them.. they may have a human guide there, but probably not.  So the richness and the setting all vanish.
I am regretting now that I did not do my younger reading in a more disciplined way - where, for example, is the thing I found written by Oscar Wilde's mother, explaining the story of the field of corn, the queen, and the horses which came to trample the crops each night, and how the hero tried and failed to stop them?

One of the great things about Ireland is the stories - they flow out, people are full of them.  When I was here 40-odd years ago, it was the music which grabbed my attention - someone standing at a bus-stop would pull out a penny whistle to pass the time and play tunes till the bus arrived and that happened quite a lot.  I haven't been in bus queues this time, but I have not seen any penny whistles perched in the top pockets.  

But, the stories!  My son the gard…  Val O'Donoghue is the photographer who took that famous photo of the queen with the fish…  the man in that house was the one who started Click-and-Go, the plot of land cost him a million, but he lost it all…  that man there will tell you now…  the American security men are not nice at all, but the English ones, very polite, they'd untape the door for you if you left your purse inside… it was her son's ex-girlfriend who decided she needed some dogs so she got them from the owner and brought them to her and she was right, she did need them… that family were hoping the government would take the house on but they haven't had any luck with it so far…. this floor's no good, it always needs cleaning…  they're a great little dancing group, been in the national competitions and won it, just local boys and girls….   

Our hostess in the b& in Kenmare talked non-stop for nearly 15 minutes at breakfast with a Niagara-like flow of information. It would have made fine theatrical piece.

Next to us on the ferry is a group of men with rural accents, I am sorry I do not know where from, and they are talking merrily together but I can hardly understand them at all, and this is 'English'. It's fast and guttural and the odd word jumps out but the rest is just a noise… 'We were down in Ballycastle…' 'and Tom said..' 'know what I mean..' 'a load of money', 'she's a hard girl now', 'you know Miney?' 'a heavy fellow?' 'down in the strawberry fair', 'last couple of months', 'a hundred fellows last year,' 'three men'….  I cannot imagine a group of English blokes like this, the huddle, the neat beards and mullets, the baby coughing in the buggy beside them.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Dursey Island

Dursey Island

The Beara Peninsula (pronounced 'Barra') is a massive prod of rock heading out into the Atlantic from the SW of Ireland, and bounded like its brethren on either side by deep drowned river-valleys or rheas. To get around the edge of this visually astonishing landmass you have to drive an almost infinite number of zigzags along the coast.  This doubles the miles which any sensible crow would fly, but it does make for a grand day out.
We toured round some shops in Bantry first thing, then went to Bantry House to see how the other half lived, and then headed out to the far end of Beara because there, luring Andrew like a beacon, is the Dursey Island Cable Car. Dursey Island is one of many scattered around the coast, right out at the very tip and with a small amount of habitation, old monastic ruins, excellent bird-watching, etc. In 2006 it had a population of 6. It is separated from the mainland by a churning anxious race of tidal water, which attacks itself and battles against the wind in all directions. It looks to be less than quarter of a mile across, but I wouldn't want to swim in it, or even try to row a boat across. It churns. It boils…. Not because of rocks and breakers but just because the waters are fighting against each other and unable to establish any kind of supremacy in one direction or the other.
Back in the 60s, someone (English?) decided to sling a cable-car across and built a pair of flimsy-looking towers, with about 6 or 7 steel wires between them, and a stop-house at each end, and a small cabin about the size of a sofa which trundles between them. We do know the cabin has been replaced at least once because we saw an old one being used as a chicken house. The new one doesn't really look much more substantial to be honest.
Andrew fixed on this contraption as a destination and drove with a warm enthusiasm all the way there - fifty or sixty winding miles - with a subtle smile on his face. Boys' toys.   It took all the afternoon to get there… and when we did, I can tell you the extreme difference in our reactions was funny. He was profoundly disappointed to see the cable car was closed for maintenance… and I was heartily, joyously, pusillanimously relieved not to have to be persuaded to go in it.
The only compensation for him was to meet and talk to the three fine engineers doing the actual maintenance. They were all Cork men, from the county council. They spoke softly in that lovely accent, which reputedly comes from the French influence, and has so much courtesy and listening in it. They had to clean up the bearings and so on, using little scrapers to clean off the old oil and muck, and replace the nylon wheels which (I could easily see) had dented down after a year's use. They laughingly assured me the whole thing might look rusty but 'sure, that's only superficial, it's as safe as…..' and that 'the cables are fine - they are an inch thick'.  They let me take their photograph, we had a laugh, and then two of the three of them set off on the lid of the damned cable car, to test it.  We were watching from the car park, and saw them standing about on its top as it slowly trundled out across that dark and dangerous water. They had a little railing to save them if a gust of wind knocked them over, and maybe a little bit of string tied to their waists, but they were like little lads on a spree, as it shook and shivered its way through the flimsy rusty steel tower and out across into the far sunlight.