Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

Istanbul

Between the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Marmara, there lies the narrow passage of the Bospurus, a shallow gorge only a few hundred metres wide. It is bridged several times by new and glittering suspension bridges, and on either side, lies the ancient and noble city of Istanbul.  It is not hard to imagine that this city is not modern Istanbul, but the Stamboul of Graham Greene’s novel, or the Constantinople of the Middle Ages, or even the Byzantium of antiquity. Even the Istanbul visited by James Bond in “From Russia with love” is full of romance. 

To me Istanbul is one of the most evocative and exciting places in the world. At a cross-roads of cultures, neither Islamic nor Christian, not Mediterranean, but influenced thereby. The might of Russia lies to the north like a sleeping giant, the deserts of Arabia are near enough to the East.

And we came there, by ship. Our ship came from Constantza, in Romania, and arrived in the roads on a rainy morning one February. We were taking the ship from Constantza right round Europe to Bergen in Norway, a journey of many weeks, and the majority of the crew were gathered ready to get off and go home – from right here in Istanbul. What a place to go home from…one minute, the exotic banks of the Bosporus, a few hours later – Birmingham New Street. What a contrast!

There were all manner of ships in the roads. Rusting, nondescript freighters from Cyprus. Small fishing boats, huge bulk carriers. The wind whipped the sea, and the rain spattered down. Mist obscured the top minarets of the Blue Mosque and the towers of St. Sophia’s cathedral. It was not a pleasant morning – but this was Istanbul. What possibilities!

Our boss was a man called Marco, a big man in his late thirties, half Italian and half Brazilian, a man who spoke excellent English despite not having heard a word of it until the age of sixteen. Marco took one look at the city and said, “lets go ashore”. Even as our colleagues were climbing onto a small boat to take them ashore to a fleet of taxis and the airport, we were going to be left behind. A word with the Captain assured us we had time to go ashore for an hour or two. A moment to collect our passports and such cash as we could muster, and we were on the boat ourselves – in our work clothes, in sea boots, with no coats. But Marco was taking us to Istanbul.

The rain was against us, but we cared naught for it. Romance was in our veins. Once ashore, the rest of the crew said their goodbyes and melted away. For a brief few hours we were alone with this great city. She would surely give of herself to those who dared for a day to visit her, to those who seized the moment. Could she be romanced for a brief fling? We started with a few beers and a light lunch in a dockside workman’s café – it was that time of day and the place recommended itself to us by being a dry place to sit out of the rain, no more than yards from where we came shore. Thus fortified, we first spent a little time obtaining some local currency, and then we sallied forth in a taxi to see what we could find – we were bound for the Bazaar.

Marco was an interesting character. As a youth he had run carpets out of Iran in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1978. He had spent time in the East and was confident he could find a fine carpet here in the bazaar. He was the kind of person that got things done, quite frequently by breaking or bending the rules. I had a stormy professional relationship with him, but one of the rules of our business, strict and unbreakable, was that work was work, and it was never brought into the bar or the social setting. Here we were amiable companions, work completely forgotten about. Such people as Marco are rarer nowadays, in our modern world of Safety standards, regulations and operating procedures, work instructions, meetings and Powerpoint presentations. And our world is poorer thereby.

The bazaar was a riot of colour and fragrance, all manner of things hung up for sale, every possible variety of cloth, leather and material. Carpets and kitchen utensils, trinkets and tools, presents and gifts. Here of course one had to bargain. Marco, who knew about such matters, warned us solemnly. You MUST bargain. They will not take you seriously otherwise. They will start the bargaining at four or five times the lowest price they could sell it at and still turn a profit. Keep that in mind…

Wandering around the bazaar my eye was caught by a merchant selling waistcoats. These were in gorgeous fabrics, a sweep of colours and styles. I thought they were great, but not so great as to part with serious money for them. The trader saw me and came across to pluck at my sleeve. He named an outrageously high price; insulted, I suggested to him that he might keep his waistcoat at that price. Those were not my exact words. After some bargaining and good natured insults, this peddler of cheap cloth, this charlatan who had tried to get me to part with over sixty dollars, sold me a rather fine waistcoat for a little over a tenner. I was delighted with my purchase. My wife wore on it occasion – it was in very bright colours – for a year or so, and I think it is still in the children’s dressing up box.

I found Marco in a carpet shop, arguing with the owner. He had strung the owner along and had a dozen of so of his finest carpets laid out over the floor, examining them minutely. He clearly knew good from bad in the Turkish Carpet scene, but I don’t think he had the slightest intention of buying a carpet then and there. But Marco was a Poker player and you could not read his face, this not being helped by a big black beard. He nearly caused a scene, mind. One of the pointers to a true Turkish carpet of quality, he had opined earlier, was that it could be washed and would not stain. No substance would stain it. The truth of this assertion I did doubt somewhat, but the evidence at the time – our subsequent escape from the carpet shop –  did point to him being quite correct. The carpet merchant served strong Turkish coffee to Marco, as was the custom in such shops. And Marco, sipping this coffee, quite deliberately spilled some on one of the merchant’s carpets. It all looked quite accidental, of course, and he was all apologies, but we onlookers knew he had done it on purpose. A cheap carpet would be ruined by strong coffee. We do not know if the actual carpet on which Marco spilled his coffee was one such, because we made our exit shortly thereafter, as it became quite clear to the carpet merchant that Marco had no intention of actually buying a Turkish carpet.

Alas, our time was coming to an end. We found a taxi, and made a mad dash through the rainy streets back to the dockside, to meet up with the small boat that would take us back to our home away from home. Istanbul, goodbye! You showed us a little of yourself – just a glimpse, a tantalizing glimpse. Not for us a whole night with you, but just a hint of thigh, a hidden curve of bosom. Istanbul – well we remember you, though we visit you again as older and perhaps not so wise men.

.

Curved Ridge

Whilst I was physically unhurt by what happened at Curved Ridge, I don’t doubt that it had a deep and lasting effect on my psyche. Rob and I (Rob was the lad from Kingussie who knocked me from my perch on the ice) had no business surviving such a fall.

I recall falling head down on my back, and tipping head over heels, until I was facing inwards to the snow and ice, head uppermost. I came to a halt. I truly don’t know how that happened, because I had let go of my ice-axes, and they dangled uselessly on their wrist cords. They played no part in my narrow escape from death. One might retain no composure at all during such an event. One moment I was climbing a fifteen foot wall of ice and someone shouted “Watch out”! The next moment I was off and falling. In fact my colleague, hoping to snap a racy and exciting action shot of me battling my way up the ice pitch, had slipped and plunged off downwards, unfortunately landing on me on the way past.

When my wits returned – it was probably no more than a few seconds of confusion – I found myself on the steep snow below the short ice pitch. Of my friend there was no sign. My first understanding was that we had been caught by an avalanche. A few glances about me, however, and I knew the truth, that we had fallen off. I looked around for Rob, but of him there was no sign.

Darren, the third member of our team, bravely made his way unaided down the ice pitch we had been climbing, and together we gazed into the depths. It was entirely possible that a small yellow speck on the snowfield a thousand feet below was the broken body of our friend. He could not have survived such a fall. It was a sour moment.

We could not follow him down the cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, the mountain we were climbing. To get down, we had to move on up to the summit. Girding our loins, we set off, hurrying up and over the top. We went swiftly on down into easier terrain, country where we might walk without risk of falling to our death. After an hour or so, we chanced upon some of our colleagues from the mountaineering club, to whom we relayed the terrible news. All of them were stunned to silence, appalled at the news of violent death. Someone immediately set off on foot to raise the alarm – this was 1986, long before the advent of mobile phones. The rest of us moved in a group around the skirts of the mountain, through the melting snow, to search for Rob. At this point I was suddenly struck with a tremendous fatigue. I felt terribly guilty about it, as if I was betraying my friend. I could go no further; I was almost staggering with exhaustion. That I had myself been involved in a serious fall, that I was bruised and in shock, and had narrowly escaped with my life, did not occur to me. I felt bad that I could not keep up with my companions.

And so it was that that paragon of the mechanical engineering department, Mr. Ray Boucher, came into view some time later, with unlooked-for good news. Rob lived yet! The best news ever delivered in a strong Ulster accent. By some miracle he had survived a fall of some fifteen hundred feet. Really this was what I needed to hear; uncaring of anything else, I felt I could retreat to the minibus without further disgrace. I recall stumbling right through the icy and swirling waters of the river, hip deep, unheeding of the cold and wet, the quicker to get back to the minibus.

Much later there was the helicopter, settling onto the car park in the grey and blustery afternoon. In the artificial gale caused by the helicopter, an old Citroen 2CV in the car park was rocking back and forth on its springs to such an extent that we thought it would blow away. From the chopper emerged Mr. Hamish McInnes, mountaineer extraordinaire and leader of the Glen Coe mountain rescue team. He was dressed in immaculate light blue Gore-Tex over-trousers. The Great Man spoke briefly with us, telling me that Rob and I were incredibly lucky to have escaped with our lives. More chance of winning the football pools than both of us surviving such a fall, he said. Odd that. It didn’t feel like I had won the pools. I’ve thought about it a bit then and since, thought about other narrow escapes. Is there destiny? Does God in Heaven direct the affairs of men, delivering one, whilst allowing another to die alone and in pain? I didn’t really consider myself important enough to be delivered from death, and still don’t, but that never stopped me wondering.

Rob dislocated his hip. He fell over a thousand feet over snow and ice and rock and dislocated his hip. And that astonishing luck meant that he made the Daily Mail, as did I myself in a small paragraph in the same article. In hindsight he reflected that the dislocation of his hip had done more damage and hurt more than if he had actually broken his leg. He was on crutches for months and limping for longer still.

 That summer I put the Curved Ridge accident behind me. Three of us went to Glen Brittle on Skye in an old black Mk I Escort, and climbed and walked the Black Cuillin. It is only a coincidence, so I tell myself, that I have not climbed ice since the fall at Curved Ridge. The final word? News of the accident, published as it was in the local press and even in the “Daily Mail”, made it to the ears of a teacher from my old school. He was a very experienced alpiniste, a climber of an entirely different stamp to me. He said to me at beer one night, in jocular reference to an article in the local press,

“So did you fall off the dangerous and treacherous Curved Ridge or was it the easy and classic Curved Ridge?” 

An account of suffering from pneumonia

Tues 13th January

On my way to Aberdeen on business, I had a beer with AK. in “The Head of Steam” at Euston station, with a nice burger and pleasant conversation as ever. I note in passing that over the last few days I felt some slight aches and pains in my left upper back from what I thought was some kind of pulled muscle.

I took the sleeper train from Euston to Aberdeen. This train was heavily delayed. I was woken up by silence when the train should have been thundering along. As a former seafarer silence can often wake me up – sudden silence on a ship at sea, particularly a seismic survey ship, is always a serious matter.

Weds 14th January

I was not best pleased to wake up finding the sleeper train parked at Edinburgh Waverley and that the time was a little after 6a.m – the train was nearly three hours late. It should have been through Edinburgh well before 4a.m.

We were asked to leave the train, which had broken down. I went from being snug in bed, unshaven, in pyjamas, to being smartly dressed for business and hurriedly shaved, on the station platform, in less than 15 minutes. The time was 6.45a.m and I felt dreadful, like death warmed up.

However, feeling rough at an early hour is part of life for the business traveller, and it wouldn’t be the first time, so I shrugged it off. By the time I got to Aberdeen it was 11a.m, and I had started feeling rougher still on the train North, with an unshakeable headache and terrible weariness. I did some business but the flu-like symptoms worsened to the point that by mid afternoon work was no longer possible, and I cried off sick. I recall shivering hunched in my greatcoat in the foyer of an Aberdeen marine contractor, waiting for a cab to my hotel, feeling like a character out of Dickens – “I have the ague”.

I had a bath, and retreated to bed. During the night the hotel turned off the heating, and I needed to call reception to get it back on again, as I was shivering.

Thurs 15th January

I just managed a light breakfast (always a clear sign that I am not well). The snow was sifting down outside as I ate. I managed to do my job as secretary for a certain committee, the primary reason I was in Aberdeen. Back to London by air, feeling rougher by the second. I was blessed mightily by the lady in the BA lounge who (as a favour to my Gold card carrying boss, not to me) allowed me to travel back on an earlier flight. Answered prayers! Shivering in the taxi back to to my home, into the bath and into bed by 8pm.

Fri 16th  January

A day of unavoidable hard work which was shared by others in the community. I’d given warning that I needed assistance, being poorly, with the setting up of the Frost Camp. My wife helped, and WC, Mrs P and Mrs D. My strength ebbed by mid-afternoon but there was no escape. I was much blessed and encouraged by the presence and the prayers of Susan Hanson at home.

At Bentley Copse my Scout colleague and I worked ourselves silly putting tents up from 3pm til 6.30pm, at which point I could no longer stand.

I went to give team information to the Wardens up in the lodge, and the Warden’s wife made me a cup of tea and brought it to my hand. This caused me to burst into tears, at which point I knew that I was gravely ill and deeply tired as a consequence. (I am often very emotional when exhausted and in my last job sometimes I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from crying when absolutely shattered. There would be no sympathy for mere tiredness on a seismic ship.) It was warm inside the hut and I was overborne with exhaustion and a sense of responsibility for all our youngsters.

I could not face staying up and went to bed early at 10a.m. I took a very rough night indeed, and slept not one wink, from pain and discomfort in my back primarily, from the noise of the Scouts and from the sound of wind and rain on the tent. On the plus side one of the few things I do enjoy is being snuggled up inside a tent on a rainy night.

After the fact I note that that from Thursday afternoon onwards I had the symptoms of pneumonia, but it really started to kick in on Friday night.

Sat 17th  January

I staggered to life in considerable distress with great pain in the side, upper back and chest. It made my breathing laboured and shallow. After breakfast I made my excuses and walked with difficulty, twisted and bent over, to the office, where I organised a doctor. I sat in the car wondering if I had the strength to drive; I certainly had not the strength to go back to the campsite and make a formal handover, and left all my gear where it lay. Much of my remaining strength was spent on the phone securing the assistance of another Permit holder.

Thence to Dorking to see a doctor, who prescribed “Augmentin”, and thence to Redhill where I was met by my wife who had been kindly driven through by Mrs C. My wife drove me home to a bath and thence to bed with a consolidated infection of the lower lobe of the left lung – pneumonia.

There was no measurable improvement in pain until after 10pm, when I’d had three doses of the antibiotics. Pain became ache. I was much troubled also with waking dreams, hallucinations and unpleasant visions of moving objects, swirling fantastic landscapes of outrageous, out-of-this-world colours. I slept poorly, and for the first time in my life, had to sleep sat up, because it was too painful to lie down.

Sun 18th  January

I had a slow day in bed starting the pattern of the next four days or so. Porridge in bed early, then a cooked breakfast in bed, a long hot bath and back to bed to drowse or read. I became feverish and started shivering violently at intervals, particularly after the exertion of a round-trip to the loo – perhaps eight paces there and eight paces back!

I was still troubled, more so, by hallucinations as soon as I closed my eyes. This induced nausea – as the visions were all of violently fast motion – and I reflected that if this is as bad as it gets, it could get a lot worse.

Mon 19th  January

Recovery continued almost imperceptibly. I managed a bit of email and stuff. Washing machine breaks down – what a time for it to do so.

Tues 20th  January

I watched a movie. I found that I could once again lie on my side for a short period without intolerable discomfort. I was still weak and felt particularly dreadful in the evening and around dinner time. The doc said this was usual – I was fortunate in that a doctor came to the house to see me – I could not have gone to the surgery at all and going to hospital is to be avoided at the best of times.

Ordered another washing machine on the internet – there goes our planned holiday to Lee Abbey at winter half term.

Weds 21st  January

It is becoming clear that the antibiotics are not prevailing against the infection – I am not getting better. The doctor prescribes stronger ones. Reading Scripture, esp. Isa. 38:17.

After a tough time of shivering feverishness, following my morning bath, I spent the morning drowsing and could hardly face some soup at lunch. But I rallied in the afternoon to a worrying degree. I remain ill but better than the same time yesterday. Towards dinner time feeling much stronger, but then rougher again as evening wore on. I was painfully hungry and had a big appetite for a good supper of chilli con carne. Later, another shivering attack after a visit to the loo. Did some leg exercises, as I was worried about the atrophy effects of being bed-bound for days on end. It made me tired – I am weak.

Thurs 22nd  January

An OK nights sleep. I had high hopes that there would be a dramatic improvement in health today, but instead, it has been much like the other days, with incremental, imperceptible improvement. More walking up and down in the bedroom to get my body going.

Fri 23rd  January

Last night I slept on my back for the first time since last week. However I did not sleep well; there were frequent dreams and discomfort woke me up frequently from 4a.m onwards.

After a bath, I went downstairs for the first time in over a week to sit and lie in the study, doing this and that, taking a slow day. I felt I did loads and had a full day. To bed for an almost “normal” nights sleep.

Sat 24th  January

Day nine of my illness proper.

Less sweats in the small hours, but still an uncomfortable night with frequent awakenings and nagging discomfort.

My wife and I sat in bed til 10a.m as if it was an ordinary Saturday morning. I had a shave and a shower rather than a bath, and actually got dressed! Following a hearty breakfast in the kitchen this time, I rested up in the study, though I was pottering up and down the stairs (slowly) several times during the day. By 4pm I felt quite worn out, and My wife bade me retreat to the bedroom. After another bout of feverishness I took a bath and so to bed after a relaxing evening at 10p.m. Too much too soon?

Sun 25th January

Properly convalescent now, but the weather is dreadful. Driving rain kept us indoors all day long. A day of pottering, planning aspects of Scout camp with my wife, and other stuff. I was very hungry. I needed a second cooked breakfast at noon, following my first at 10a.m. Nonetheless I have lost half a stone. At dusk my wife and I played Scrabble.

Mon 26th January

Feeling better at break of day, but still experiencing broken sleep in the small hours. Pain much lessened, now a dull ache under the left shoulder blade, without brufen. I did a little work in the study and went for my first walk out with my wife, to the end of the street and back. My wife wants to nurse me back to health as carefully as possible without relapse.

Scrabble at dusk, and a surfeit of energy in the evening. To bed, but not before 10.30pm – feeling almost normal.

Tues 27th January

Still waking up early, around 7a.m, but for the first time, without feeling the residual dampness from perspiration, coming from feverishness during the night hours. My energy levels are coming back up. No need for painkillers.

There is NO repaying what my wife has done for me as a wife this past two weeks; to say that I am forever in her debt is literally true.

Today a longer walk and a full and active morning. Remaining very hungry at intervals. I started feeling “bath-ish” and a little feverish around 7p.m. Later, at rest, I find I have pain in the left lower lobe at the rear, which feels like a step backwards. I do find more pain in the evenings.

Weds 28th January

A good nights sleep. Noting less and less pain and deeper breathing range. Nagging discomfort in left kidneys, otherwise feeling good.

As afternoon wears on, I feel less special. At 2pm I hit the painkillers again – Cocodamol and Brufen. Discomfort and nagging pain in the left lung, front and back. Feels like it is getting worse again. Feeling ratty, particularly as I find myself losing at Scrabble (itself not unusual!)

No lasting city here, but hope in the City that is to come – Hebrews 13:14

Thurs 29th January

To Westerham for a stroll and visit to a café – my first serious trip out. It was to be just coffee and cake but I was so hungry I ordered a Full English and the best pot of tea I have drunk in years.

Back home, some pottering and a relaxing afternoon. I was sketching and drawing. For some reason I am drawn to sketch, draw and paint.

At 4pm to the doctor, who prescribed a further course of strong antibiotics to finish off the remaining infection. Painkillers in the evening and cards, including a rare family game of Black Maria. And so to bed on this long road to recovery, at 10.40p.m.

A further week off is mandated by the doctor, and a trip to the Royal Victoria at East Grinstead, for chest X-rays. The doctor specifically suggested this hospital rather than the less reputable East Surrey at Redhill.

Fri 30th January

Up and feeling OK; to East Grinstead for chest X-rays. Then a sandwich whilst my wife shopped in Sainsbury’s and back home to rest up. Later, some easy work and a pleasant visit from those two affable buffoons DW and WC, which is a lovely gesture and welcome, even if I find I have little enough to say.

Later on, Anna made a nice supper, and my wife and I played Scrabble, then my wife went out. I felt very tired and had a bath, after which I flopped onto bed, exhausted. I find I have an annoying “crick” in my neck which only manifests when I lay myself down to sleep at night.

Sat 31st January – day 16

This period of illness has caused me to pray much. As I grow more accustomed to prayer, I find long-lost habits and tastes for silence before God returning to me.

Cooked some soup and made supper (Chilli) and then played Scrabble. Had a bath and then to bed – again with a crick in the neck.

Sun 1st February

Did not go to church. At 11a.m my son and I delivered the District mailing in bitterly cold conditions. Briefly saw TB at the Scout hut and discussed the new front door and its keys. Snow flurries at lunch quickly turned into a downpour which continued all afternoon.

Weds 4th February

A first day back at work – a leisured start, taking train only at 0923, but it was late! I did not get to 5LBS until 1040. I put in an acceptable day’s work and left still feeling strong – but was weak by the time I got home. My wife prepared tea for me. She had bought several shirts for me and we had a peaceful time together whilst I tried them all on. Then, I made supper, thence to the doctors and made a shopping list for the forthcoming curry night which I was doing for eight paying customers.

From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey

Day 1 – 13/8

An OK flight across the pond with friendly stewardesses, though I was a little put out to find ourselves on such a long-haul journey in a distinctly elderly 757 with little in the way of amenities. We got through NWC easily enough, picked up our luggage, and went outside. We found that a cab into town was the best and easiest bet, and were soon our way. The start of our American journey, from the airport to downtown New York, was marked by a transit of the Lincoln Tunnel.

We settled into our hotel, which was nice but not spacious, and then, tired, we went for a walk in Central Park and on to the Guggenheim. Then, back round the lake to Columbus Avenue, where we found ourselves a Tex-Mex restaurant for our evening meal. We retired tired and happy.

Day 2 – 14/8

Breakfast at a nice little diner – “Jackson Hole” – on Columbus Avenue. Weather fair but a little hazy. Then by Subway down to the Battery Park. Getting subway tickets was moderately stressful. In hot, hot weather, out by boat to the island on which the Statue of Liberty stands. We cannot go up it – one has to book months in advance for that privilege. Some pleasant moments sat in the shade on nice garden chairs, then a hot boat ride back to the city. Then we walked through streets to the Southport Museum, an entire historical area, and had a late lunch there. After that more walking, up to Chinatown. At this point we can see a storm developing.

We did some shopping in Chinatown as the storm brewed, and at last it broke. We hid from the pouring rain of late afternoon in an ice-cream parlour-cum-Tea shop in Chinattown. A local lady recommended a nearby restaurant but it was too early for dinner. After the rain we walked our legs to stumps round the Italian quarter, before retreating by subway to 34th Street – where as evening wore on, we found the rain returning,. We considered going up the Empire State Building, but the deck was closed owing to lightning.

Tired, very tired now, and not a little jet-lagged, we retreated to 81st and Broadway to go back to the hotel. Following the subway ride the rain returned with a vengeance, and we walked the blocks back to the hotel getting very wet. Later we went out briefly for pizza, but it tasted like cardboard, at that late stage – a long first day.

Day 3 – 15/8

Breakfast at the same nice little diner on Columbus Avenue. Thence to the Empire State Building, and up to the top. We noted that military personnel in uniform get a 100% discount – and rightly so. There were long hidden queues amidst the Art Deco architecture. At the top it was gloomy and there was not great visibility.

My wife went down again first and we could not find her. After some effort we found her  Then there was  Shopping in Macy’s, and a quick lunch of pretzels. Back to the hotel, we got our luggage and order ed another cab, which came late. We took this cab to Penn Station, and jumped on the LIRR out to Northport – a big double-decker diesel train with a guard who had a nice line in pleasant wit.

At Northport my wife’s close friend D was waiting for us. Once we were eatablished at their place with food and beer, we could relax, for we were tired. Later, to the motel for bed.

Day 4 – Saturday 16/8

J, D’s husband, picked us up from the motel and on the way to  their place bought a massive bag of bagels for breakfast. Then we relaxed, and after some while, myself and the male children went to the “private beach”, a mile or so from their house, on the North, Long Island Sound coast of the island. We combed and explored for a while. We walked through, over very hot sand, to the public part of the beach, and from there were picked up by J who by this time was out looking for us. We had some lunch, and then to Northport for a little shopping. It was very hot. Later we went for a pleasant two-families walk in the woods.  And later on the evening, good food, drink and chat. Can one ask for more of a holiday than good food, drink and chat?

Day 5 – Sunday 17/8

After another bagel breakfast we set off in two cars to “the ocean”, this time on the south (Atlantic) coast of Long Island. We went to Robert Moses State Park. There was very heavy traffic on the causeway owing to an accident; we arrived at the beach a good 45 minutes ahead of the females in the other car. We sunbathed and swam; it was a steeply shelving beach. However, there were jellyfish stings which kept us out of the water too much. We had a nice lunch of sandwiches and beer and crisps, and retreated mid-afternoon back to Northport. Supper at home was a huge buffet of everything. After supper, to Huntington in the cool of the evening for ice-cream and we all looked in a huge bookshop, and I bought a history book – “The Great West”.

Day 6 – 18/8

All our luggage back into the car and back to the station for our long train journey. It was a promising morning. At Penn we bought sandwiches for our lunch, and my son and I nearly caused us to miss the train as the deli stand took their time preparing ours – they were serious American sandwiches!

Once ensconced in first class we enjoyed our ride up the Hudson Valley, watching the glorious scenery slide by. As the journey progressed, we played cards, read and so forth, but a ten hour train journey will be subject to creeping boredom. A younger family should not contemplate such a train journey.

The train was running late, as was to be expected – on this railway the passenger trains are subordinate to the freight trains, and the whole affair feels rather like British Rail in the mid-70’s. The train reversed into Niagara, which was odd, as we became the front coach as it edged down the single track with the guard and driver standing in the end of the coach as the train backed down.

By cab to our B+B, which was lovely, although it was very late and mine hostess, a lady called Louise, was very talkative indeed.

Day 7 – 19/8

Today we did the tourist thing and visited Niagara, went on the Maid of the Mists, went to the Cave of the Winds. I have to say I was impressed with the power and grandeur of Niagara and would recommend it to anyone with 24 hours to spare on the East coast.

 Day 8 – 20/8

To the airport by cab. We accidently left a small knife in hand luggage; this was detected by the officials who took us to one side. My son – whose knife it was – was distraught. I filled in forms and made my apologies – it was a narrow escape. We’d not have got off so lightly at a big city airport.  I checked the bag in., and the flight was delayed; as a result we missed the connection to Phoenix by five minutes. We were all very cross. We got the Continental people to put us on another fight, after long delay, down to Charlotte. Then on with US Airways to Phoenix, whence we arrived 10pm, very tired and worn. Our luggage was ostensibly lost – but in fact it was “in another terminal” so that was a good aspect to a long and wearing day. Domestic aviation in the USA a -nightmare.

We obtained a rental vehicle – after a few changes, as the first one was not big enough – and set off on our long drive in the dark up to Flagstaff. We stayed at the Inn at 410, which was recommended by my boss  who had stayed there previously It was a wonderful place,  but it was very late – long after 1a.m – so we did the place no justice.

Day 9 – 21/8

A pleasant start with a nice breakfast and conversation with the owner of the Inn at 410 – an Englishman. Then a slightly more relaxing drive through some volcano country and on into the Grand Canyon national park to the South Rim. On the way we stopped at some Indian ruins, which  my oldest daughter thought were “uber cool”. All day, it was hot, damn hot, and it was an intensely dry heat that catches the nostrils.

At the canyon we found our hotel and went for a walk down into the canyon a little ways. A pleasant end to the day.

Day 10  – 22/8

Our trip to the Grand Canyon over, we checked out and started out on our long drive through to Moab, Utah, for which I had allowed two full days. We started with a  leisured drive back along the South Rim with frequent photo stops, before turning north through Tuba City into the lands of the Navajo nation. Interesting driving, but with some very tedious sections. Our day came to a fine climax with a visit to Monument Valley, which was glorious in late afternoon. Shame there was not time for a drive round the valley itself. Thence, onwards through remarkable scenery to a little village called Bluff, Utah. We stayed at the Decker House Inn, which was excellent and very cheap. Steak at a nice steakhouse on the main road. The steak, surprisingly enough, was indifferent.

Day 11  – Saturday 23/8

An excellent breakfast taken outside was followed by a leisurely onward drive through more astonishing scenery, and then gravel plains and tedium, to the area around Moab, Utah. We stopped at the Newspaper Rock, which was interesting enough, and a lady told us that there were “Bandidos” in Moab.

After lunch at a place called the “Hole in the Rock”, we rolled into Moab late afternoon, and sure enough the place was full of motorcycle gangsters. Also it was full of City, County and State police, even the FBI were there, all in heavy presence.

We checked in at the hotel, and with Tag-a-long tours, and then went to do some laundry, which was well overdue. We had some pleasant chats with various folk, including an amateur racing driver. We swung past at outdoor shop at my wife’s suggestion on the way back, and this proved to be the most remarkable place – we bought a brushed steel cafetiere for the Scout Group. Later we went for an Italian meal which was nice.

Day 12  – Sunday 24/8

After our concerns during the night about Bandidos (the internal phone system in the hotel was not working – the kids were effectively on their own – two teenage white girls at that!) we readied ourselves for setting off for the raft trip – an early start at 7a.m  from the offices of Tag-a-long which were next to the hotel.

We took an old school bus, painted white, down the river some miles, past a mine of some kind connected to the wider world by a railway line, and stopped at a wide beach, where it was announced that this was our last chance for a wee in a toilet.

Then we slid down the river pleasantly.

Day 13  – Monday 25/8

Rafting

Day 14  – 26/8

Rafting, with rapids from mid-afternoon.

My son, after my wife had got herself bounced around the raft in one of the early rapids, did not take well to the rapids and became completely hysterical, concerned primarily that his mum would be thrown from the raft to her premature and untimely doom. Our attempts to mollify his concern were not in any way successful, and I had to be quite hard on him to get him to calm down.

Day 15  – 27/8

More rapids, and then the cruise out into Lake Powell.

We left the rafts around 3pm, and set off in the heat for a monumental drive of hundreds of miles east to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We arrived at Glenwood Springs around 10pm, and only with some difficulty did we find the Red Rooster Inn, which was up in the hills some way up the Aspen valley. But what a place!

I found out the hard way (the experiment had to be done) what my dear wife thinks of five days growth of beard. It came off the following morning.

Day 16  – 28/8

What a view from the head of the bed – startling and beautiful. We had a relaxing day at the Red Rooster Inn and later in Glenwood Springs, and spent time in the hot springs swimming pool, which was rather expensive. Then, a scratch supper bought from a supermarket, and so to bed. My plan that we would need a relaxing day at the end of our busy holiday came to full fruition, and it was good.

Day 17  – 29/8

A pleasant drive up the valley, with a stop at expensive Aspen, and then up over Independence Pass. Some wonderful scenery as we motored through the Rocky Mountains and on down onto towards Denver. Here there was a tunnel that marked the end of our holiday, even as the start of the holiday was marked by the Lincoln Tunnel. We made our descent east to Denver through the Eisenhower Tunnel (strictly speaking the eastbound bore on I-70 is the Johnson Tunnel – but Eisenhower sounds better, because then the story of our American holiday can be said to be “From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey”.)

Day 18 – 30/8

We stopped that night at a Hyatt Place near the airport, and flew off to Houston and thence Gatwick the following day. I found myself reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand in the front seat of a 737, even as Democrat after Democrat walked past me boarding the plane (the Democrat annual conference finished the day before in Denver.) Personally I found that juxtaposition interesting, but no Democrats noticed my choice of reading material.

Riders in the storm

 

It all started with my son. He got into bicycles from a very early age. In fact he was only a little over four years old when he got his first bike, which was a hand-me-down from one of his older sisters. I took it all to pieces (for it was pink, and no use like that to a small boy) and sprayed it British Racing Green. He was proud of that – and so was I. That I paid more for the spray paint than I did for the bike is neither here nor there.
But then one day it broke. With an old bicycle of such low value, quite often a fault can develop that costs more to fix than the bicycle is worth. So it proved in this case. Without any real difficulty I bought another second-hand bicycle. When I got it home, I discovered that the bolt for holding on one of the stabilizers – included in the sale in a plastic carrier bag – was missing. I soon discovered it, snapped off in the frame. It would have cost me more than I had paid for the bicycle to go out and buy the stud extractor needed to remove that bolt. So I told my son – you learn to ride that bicycle without stabilizers, and I’ll buy you a bell.
Less than one week later, I had to take him to a bicycle shop, to make the promised purchase of a bell, and both he and I were pleased as punch. That was some achievement for a boy of his age. And so started our rides together. Perhaps one of the funniest occasions that has come out of my son’s cycling was recounted to me by a friend. My wife and I were out of town and left the children in the charge of my mother. One day, our friend and neighbour was strolling along near the local park, when up and over the hill comes my son, pedaling furiously, his little legs going nineteen to the dozen. Quite a time later, recounts my neighbour, a respectable lady of a certain age – clearly the boy’s grandma, my mother, came running and panting past, struggling to keep up with my son’s newfound enthusiasm.
As the boy grew older I found myself doing a lot of running to keep up. It became clear that I too needed a bicycle. Not long after that my older daughters got them too, and pretty soon I found myself with quite literally a shed-load of bicycles. When my wife bought one too I knew then that the boy had started something special. Sometimes we get them all out and load them on the back of the car, and drive off for a ride somewhere. But not too often – mostly my son and I go riding. As he grew older we moved up the scale of bicycles, eventually deigning to buy him a super-duper all singing and all dancing mountain bike with “gel filled tyres” (about which he never tires of telling me) and many gears. He had a digital speedometer from his uncle , and of course a bell. Cycling is a big thing for us two.
One day I thought we would go to see my father. On this occasion, I deemed it too far for him to ride – when we did finally make that journey entirely by bicycle, some months later, he was conspicuously quiet at the journeys end, after a ride of seven miles along canal towpaths and along the banks of the river. We went to see my father by putting our bicycles on the car and driving over. Then, we would greet his wife, my step-mother, and cycle off to see my dad at the Allotments, a more modest mile or so from the house. It was a hot summers day.
I remember the occasion because it was around that time that I made my father a gift of an enormous pouch of pipe tobacco, cherry vanilla, which I had managed to buy for a very low price whilst at work in Louisiana. The smell of such tobacco is very fragrant indeed, and entirely pleasant. So then, we cycled to the Allotment and in we went, along the rutted path between the scare-crows and little huts made of old front doors and plastic sheets, past the inevitable rows of Runner Beans and reflective older men wearing flat caps. The sun blazed down – but there was thunder in the air.
I like the Allotments because there are good, dry, garden smells – old twine, onions, dust and soil, creosote. My father has a little hut to sit in, though there is room for only one. A visitor might perch on an upturned bucket or rest himself on a tussock of grass, whilst contemplating the farmer’s domain with an appraising eye. We’ve had good stuff from that Allotment. All kinds of potatoes and onions. Lettuce and radishes, carrots. Even Sweetcorn. One year the raspberry bushes growing wild around the perimeter of each plot were laden to bursting. This time though, the only things laden to bursting where ominous thunderstorm clouds amassing overhead.
We did some weeding, and talked some, and found the boy something to do appropriate to his age – this generation of children, exposed as they are every day to technology, computers and other wizardry, have a short span of attention. When my father was his age he might have happily spent all afternoon on such an Allotment, and I likewise when I was a small boy. Though if truth be known, we only like to think that that was the case. Really, when you’re a seven year old small boy, whatever the generation of your upbringing, fidgeting and impatience is inevitable.
Perhaps the electricity in the air was making us all edgy. We decided to pack up and retreat – my father and I judged that a downpour was now imminent, and we would do well to retreat home before it engulfed us. So we set off, back along the rutted and bumpy unmade road, to the gate and onto the main road. The sun had gone now, and the atmosphere was decidedly gloomy. Too gloomy – we had not ridden more than a few hundred yards when the first tell tale spatters of a summer storm began. That smell of rain on hot dry tarmac, characteristic of the first minute or so of a thunder shower in hot weather, filled the air. And the heavens opened.
My father was in shirt-sleeves, my son and I hardly better dressed. We were soon soaked to the skin as we battled along through the gusts and the rain. Yet, it was warm rain. My son was a little distressed, but he toughed it out – I think he will remember this storm for many years. I will – it was actually quite a sight, quite a significant thing, for three generations of one family to cycle along a road in a drenching downpour of summer rain.
We gained the shelter of my fathers house, where his wife could not quite decide if she should berate us for our foolishness or cluck with sympathy. Once toweled dry, we grinned at one another – really it had been quite fun, to make such a journey in such weather. We had more fun in ten short minutes than we’d had in years, almost, as riders in the storm.

A toolbox talk

As part of my last job I was a coxswain of small boats. Not an instinctive driver of such boats, nor even a particularly brilliant one, but nevertheless a perfectly competent one. Small boat driving was the one area of my job that has given me the most satisfaction, though it wear me out from a purely physical viewpoint. This story is not really about driving small boats as such, but is the tale of an incident in a small boat that involved me. It has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons, not the least the gorgeous weather at the time.

On a time four of us were out in our Norpower 25’, a sturdy dory or work boat with a big diesel engine and huge propeller; it was a calm and sunny day in Tropical waters, in late afternoon. Our task was nearly done – I shall not attempt to describe that task in detail, save to say it involved the boat being physically attached front and back to a long cable towed through the sea. Our task was to replace a section of that cable, a piece some 100m long. We brought with us a new section, wound on a reel, and we would take home the damaged one we would be removing.

The time came to free ourselves from the cable, which being many kilometres long and towed from a large ship – our primary work place and home away from home – was under perhaps a ton of tension. Hydraulic pumps and winches were to be used for this task. We went to do this task, and nothing happened when we moved the control levers. This was a worrying moment, but we gathered our wits about us, as we had been trained to do, and soon enough after a brief search, we found a leak in the hydraulic control equipment. This meant that it was no longer possible to free ourselves from the long cable using machinery. The time was around 4.45p.m, and we found ourselves in a potentially quite hazardous situation. We were in a small boat on the open sea, attached to a cable without the obvious means to free ourselves, unable to navigate or control our boat, and to make matters worse, about an hour’s journey from the mother vessel, with perhaps ninety minutes of daylight remaining.

It so happened that on that occasion I was a workman – I was not the Coxswain. It also happened that I was far and away the most experienced and senior person in the boat. What did we do? It is instructive. We paused to discuss the problem. This is a technique we use regularly in our industry, a technique proven to reduce accidents and injuries in the work place – the concept of the “toolbox meeting”. Then, the coxswain, a young woman, call her K, yielded the helm to me as the more experienced person. We had to get the cable free of the back of the boat. Since we were towed from a rope attached much further forwards, we contrived to let out that rope manually, by letting the brake on the winch slip. This enabled us to free ourselves from the cable at the back of the boat, though not without some difficulty, and the task took fifteen minutes. As the sun sank to the horizon we were conscious of impending darkness, ever aware that the run back to our mother ship, would take most of an hour.

Nextly, as Coxswain I caused the boat to move forward, such that the rope on which we were towing became slack, and the boat was under way independently. This was a delicate task involving some concentration. Slowly then I ran the boat forwards up this winch rope, and my colleagues looped the slack into the bows of the work boat, since the winch, being hydraulic, would not work. It was a 200m long rope and by the time the task was done, there was a blazing sunset, a picture of glory, the sky painted red and gold and pink and orange. The final task was to remove the clamp that held the rope to the cable. This, though a delicate manouvre, is one we were all well familiar with, and in moments we were free of the cable and clear to go home. A potentially disastrous situation had been averted, through teamwork, clear communications, strong leadership, and familiarity with emergency procedures.

It remained only for us to motor the 4 miles back to our home away from home, this task taking getting on for a full hour since the ship herself was making 4 knots away from us, and the work boat could only make 10 knots. It was nearly dark when we arrived back, and we were well ready for our dinner after such an exciting adventure and – truth be known – such a narrow escape.