“The divided country” by Michael Anthony

I was given a copy of this book by a family friend. She may have bought her copy direct from the author, for we read in the endpapers that Michael Anthony lives at Melbourne in Derbyshire, only miles from where our friends live in the big-sky country of the Trent Valley. The cover of the paperback has a drawing of a little African girl drawing the title of the book on the wall.

I had no expectations other than the recommendation of my friend, which was enough. I was not disappointed. The author covers a tremendous amount of ground. The action moves from Ulster during the Troubles, to South Africa in the time of apartheid, and on through to the modern era. We move from seeing things from the viewpoint of the Catholic Irish in Ulster, to seeing the position of native black and coloured Africans in the rural Transvaal, during the time of apartheid. SPOILER ALERT: Feel free to stop here if you don’t want the plot revealing!

The author is a former special forces soldier and will have seen and done much. Experience always illuminates good writing. We start, following a rough Belfast childhood, with the IRA’s guerilla war in the cold, damp darkness of Ulster in the 1970’s. Very “Harry’s Game” – there’s even a Catholic priest working toward the spiritual and practical support of the IRA. On that note, this would make an excellent film.

The action moves from the Emerald Isle to the Transvaal – a place not unlike Ulster in that it was fast stuck in the deep-rooted hatred, bigotry and intransigence of a Protestant overlordship. The story continues, skipping lightly over years, until suddenly, something dramatic happens. Then, there is a moment when you hear the sound of “lock and load” and you think the book is going to descend into traditional “lone wolf military hero takes on the baddies and wins” territory – as have a hundred lesser books and films.

But it never happens! Interestingly, the author puts some words into the mouth of a senior IRA officer, describing our hero thus: “he does not operate within the parameters of predictability”. I paused at that point to stare into space: do I act within “the parameters of predictability”? Am I predictable? Of course I am. For me and for most of us, it is no weakness to be predictable. But for the professional guerilla soldier, being predictable is death. For such people, to be unpredictable is an essential strength. Michael Anthony’s novel has this strength. It take unpredictable turns. The author does not always “operate within the parameters of predictability”.

From a moment of wild violence, to a court room drama – our hero ends up in prison. And you think, he’ll be out soon. But again, this is not a predictable book. It does not become a prison memoir, and he is not released. In the turn of a page, nineteen years have passed and our hero is a white-haired old man whose life has been spent in hard labour. I’ve not even mentioned the little girl on the cover of the book yet! She plays a central role. I will say this and no more: I mentioned “Harry’s Game” earlier; in Gerald Seymour novels, the hero always dies before the end…

The book covers the indomitability of the human spirit and shows human courage unto death. We see the deep-rooted nastiness and hatred that can arise when things turn sour for generations without end, even for centuries – as in Ireland, as in South Africa, as in the Balkans and elsewhere. Whilst this was an excellent and captivating read, in the end, I thought the author kept redemption and reconciliation under tight control. I think redemption needs letting loose – it cannot be kept in or caged.

A brief visit to Colombia

As the ship approached the coast, it was clear that an immense thunderstorm sat over this part of coastal Colombia, towering forty thousand feet into the sky over Santa Marta. The gloom grew as evening wore on, partly from the failing light, partly as we slid underneath this colossal storm. Lightning flickered, and the storm took all our attention as the supply ship Gulf Service lumbered along, rolling gently in the swell.

We made landfall at Santa Marta just as rain started in earnest.  The lightning was almost constant by this point. We waited patiently for the shore agents to arrive, listening to the warm rain lashing down. When three vehicles swung into the dockyard, we gladly ran out into the downpour to climb in and ready ourselves for the journey to the airport. The route lay along switchback mountain roads, during which the rain increased to an absolute tropical frenzy.

At the airport, we all checked in, and retreated to the café to drink beer. Outside in the darkness the rain came down.  Later, around 9.30p.m or such, the aircraft arrived, and we paid for our beer; a vanishingly small amount for the thirty or forty beers we had sunk, perhaps thirty bucks US. As we boarded the plane the rain was still falling, lightning was still lighting up the storm clouds, thunder booming away even above the noise of the engines.

At Bogota, we collected our bags, and almost immediately made the acquaintance of the security teams, the “Men in black”. These were smartly dressed, unfailingly polite, handsome and fit looking young men in dark business suits, all clearly but discreetly armed. Part of the experience of visiting a country like Colombia at our employer’s expense. James Bond eat your heart out! Swiftly then in MPVs to the hotel, where, after a swift check-in we went to the bar for more beer – as you do. It was after 11p.m when we arrived. I called it a night at 1.20a.m; some of my colleagues were still going strong at 5a.m.

After a troubled night’s sleep I didn’t go down for breakfast until 9.30a.m, and breakfast was superb. Freshly prepared omelettes with all the trimmings, fresh orange juice and black coffee. Can one ask for much more for breakfast? Together with a colleague I took a stroll around the enclave surrounding the hotel, buying a few trinkets in the process. Cash was easily available at the ATM, and it was conspicuous that the cost of living was low, in that the amounts of cash available in the machine corresponded to low dollar amounts. Also very conspicuous were the private security guards, everywhere, in various uniforms, all heavily armed, all polite and well mannered, and many with dogs.

Around 2p.m we set off for the airport.  As we arrived there, the depth of security was revealed.  We noticed the point car behind us as we’d motored to the airport, and as the five of us moved across the road into the terminal, it was clear to see four of the immaculately suited and suave armed security guards forming a box around us, and all very alert and attentive to his surroundings.

After another wait of half an hour or so we were all safely checked onto an Iberia flight to Madrid, and off we went. As we passed onto the airside, the security guards asked me if I’d thought their service was good. I thought it was and I said so. But as we passed through Customs and Immigration – and this is no lie – I knew it was going to be alright. The guy on the customs desk was a long haired youth in his twenties, and he was listening to Nirvana.

Twenty weeks of Coronavirus

We’ve had thirty days of lockdown; let’s review the diary since mid-April.

23/4/20: It IS the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine. It’s easy to have good and bad days in this lovely springtime lockdown. But don’t get bitter – get ready. The worst is yet to come; the slow-mo apocalypse is happening all around us. It’s pointless to mourn for old England, for she is gone. No use crying over spilt countries, or mooning over past glories. There’s no slow return to normality, where all the angst-ridden environmentalist Guardian readers can assuage their guilt whilst still going to Waitrose three times a week. There will be shortages, there will be privation. This time now, it’s like the “phoney war” in spring of 1940. Ask someone who lived through the cold winter of ’47/48 what they thought about that.

25/4/20: Andrew Marr writes, “The most fundamental thing WWII changed was the political climate. It made democracy fashionable”. What will Coronavirus change? Civil liberties are no longer fashionable, that’s for sure.

28/4/20: It is possible that earlier reports of the demise of Merrie England, may (recalling our Mark Twain) be exaggerated. What is not in doubt is that that classic English quality of understatement, really is dead. And that, my friends, is moderately displeasing…

8/5/20 – VE 75: An action-packed day. We put up bunting, cleaned the house, made some party snacks, and had afternoon tea outside, dressed, so far as was possible, in 1940’s clothes, with red, white and blue in them. An absolutely delightful time of (socially distanced) fellowship all along the street in lovely warm weather.

16/5/20 Reading Margaret Attwood’s apocalyptic novel “Oryx and Crake” which has been a remarkable journey. Shouldn’t have done it really – not really appropriate reading for the current times, at all. Her story-telling draws me along and as an amateur writer, much I ought to learn from her.

18/5/20: The lockdown draws to an end, such as it is. This may be disastrous and cause a resurgence of the disease. Long have I maintained that the lockdown itself will cause more damage in the long run than COVID-19, so “disastrous” is a relative term. Workmen have returned to repairs on the aging railway embankment at the foot of our garden. A piledriver bangs its very necessary but distressingly loud way through the day. I’m informed that this particular embankment, between Croydon and Oxted, is one of the worst examples in the country, of cheap and nasty laissez-faire Victorian private sector railway construction. Who knew?

24/5/20 My latest read was written by my namesake Richard Hough, and is a biography of Captain James Cook. Very interesting reading. I made some oat crackers. We’re making a lot of our stuff bespoke now: bread, muesli, crackers, even pasta sometimes. Chutney when the apples are ready. With my wife to wish happy birthday to an old lovely older gent who lives locally. He has the habit of paying NO attention whatsover to anything you say, and yet he manages to do this without conveying offence.

31/5/20 This evening we had two friends of ours over for socially distanced drinks, at a table on our patio. It was the first social occasion for months other than the VE 75 celebration. Oddly enough, this couple were actually the last people we socialised with in the old times. We enjoyed a pleasant pub lunch with them in the White Hart at Brasted, on the weekend before the lockdown started.

5/6/20: This morning, on my walk, politics and moral philosophy are banging back and forth around in my head like my brain was an empty tin can with a handful of dried peas thrown in to make a rattle. Is it only me that happens to? I read in John Martin’s “Raid over Berlin” “…a long established group of five [prisoners of war] who…to some extent shared things, but not food. This was always individual as it was so precious“. An interesting observation of prisoners.

14/6/20: Last night I dreamed of writing a screenplay for John Wyndham’s classic novel about telepathy, “The Chrysalids“. I woke up and started fleshing it out from my recollection of the chapters. I ended up re-reading the whole book. Would anybody go to see such a film? Or watch it on Netflix?

21/6/20 Father’s Day. I receive some cards and a crate of beer. A good day. “…patiently with invisible structures he builds, and as patiently we must pray, surrendering the ordering of the ingredients to a wisdom that is beyond our own” – R.S Thomas, “Adjustments”, writing of a greater Father than I.

27/6/20 Today I made a cash purchase! I bought some shoelaces from the guy near the station. The first cash purchase since sometime in March. Later on my son and his girlfriend came to visit for socially distanced lunch and supper, and we had a feast of delightful food made by our middle daughter.

8/7/20 A morning of heavy rain. This is the first morning since all this began, that my early morning routine has been disrupted by the weather. So I’m sat in the bower at the end of our garden, listening to the pleasing and refreshing sound of rain on the roof. Looking out across the lawn, I can see it has prospered wildly from the rather smelly lawn-food I spread on it the other day. It is clear however that I did not spread it in an even way, for the prosperance is blotchy. A bit like all our lives!

Near Westminster cathedral

15/7/19 – a little over a year ago.

In about half of my ways, O Lord, do I acknowledge You…coming through to spend time in Westminster Cathedral in my lunch break, I take a back street behind the head offices of John Lewis – Ashley Place, SW1. This lunchtime two things struck me.

The first is, the large piazza outside Westminster Cathedral has no cafes – not one. It is remarkable and unique for that reason. London itself, outside Covent Garden and one or two other areas, does not seem to have the cafe culture it could have or ought to have – ’tis a shame. Cathedral Piazza may be one of the biggest and most prominent squares in the whole of Western Europe that has no cafes. In any other city in Europe, a square like Cathedral Piazza would be absolutely crammed with tables and waiters from Easter til late September. Every square foot of building round the square would be tenanted by cafes and bars. Even in northern cities like Oslo or Stockholm, a square like this would be full of people eating and drinking.

The second is the homeless: I have taken this back street for years to avoid the ubiquitous Big Issue sellers on Victoria Street. There is a limit to the number of times you can buy the Big Issue. Over the last few years, it has become a place for homeless people. It is out of the way, hidden from traffic, largely free of uniformed policemen, and hidden from the bustle of Victoria Street. Today, two derelicts, lying in the street. Where did they come from? They were always there – they are not, in general, very young people. They are generally white Anglo-saxon men of military age. Other ethnicities tend to be much rarer, and few women – though there are one or two. I bought the Big Issue at intervals from a gap-toothed but cheerful street lady round here, often from the front of Pret outside Victoria station. The whole issue of mental health – particularly for men – is highlighted by the unfortunate people found in these streets. To say nothing of social justice. But even though it seems an inappropriate question, it is a question deserving of an answer: why are these homeless derelicts nearly all white men?

21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?

Seismic survey in the North Sea, 1989

Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.

We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.

We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.

After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.

We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.

Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.

I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…

But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.

All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.

Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

A holiday in Spain, and a visit to the wilder shores of Marx, by Theodore Dalrymple – 2016

Another bit of travel writing and a book review from the past – to help us all while we are all still locked down. In late summer 2016, my wife and I and our oldest daughter took a short holiday at a little village in Nothern Spain. We flew from Gatwick…

…interesting to reflect, sat in LGW (North) at least following my recent reading of Theodore Dalrymple on Marxist regimes, that there are no policemen airside, at least none in uniform and none that I could discern in plain clothes. Although as John le Carre (I think) writes, in a civilised country you will never know who the watchers are…

The flight to Barcelona was harmless. Passport control in Barcelona took a while, which ired me somewhat, but we were through soon enough.  It WAS a Sunday. An unusually pleasant and flirty rental car lady took us through the details of the car rental documents, and soon enough we were on our way to Barcelona in an Audi A4 – a quite dreadful machine….

Dalrymple writes very well, kind of like a superior English version of Bill Bryson, humorous but not as flippant or as coarse as Bryson can be.  He puts into eloquent thought, what I have long felt to be true of myself: writing of a visit to some long-forgotten tomb in Vietnam, he notes something that applies to every experience of my life, great or small, banal or timeless and glorious. “It is the fate of intellectuals to leave no experience, however ravishing, to remain in the memory untainted by theorising”. Me, I must think. To think, is to be. To be unable to think, is to be nothing. And going on holiday, allows time to think, amongst other things.

Leaving the airport, we drove right into the centre of Barcelona, and parked up in a tiny inner city car park within a few hundred yards of the Sagrada Familia.  It was a very cramped car park and used only with some difficulty, particularly with a shiny new rented saloon car.  Next door we found a café and stopped for a very welcome brunch.  For me, a croque-monsieur and latte.

The Sagrada Familia was wonderful, everything I expected and much, much more in terms of light, colour, space, columns, stained glass, carvings and architecture.  Later we had afternoon “tea” of coffee and cakes.  Then we navigated our way of the city, and thundered along the coastal freeway north towards the Costa Blanca.  We arrived in the village and were taken to a little village square, where we were very fortunate to witness one of the those “people towers” in the midst of a little party or carnival.

We lazed by the pool over a few beers, and then, in the gloaming, had a light supper, bought in the supermarket back in Barcelona.  The supper finished by candlelight and was enlivened by some great conversation. A good start to a holiday anywhere in the world.

Next day, we had a pleasant morning; we bought some groceries in the nearby shop. 40 Euros including some amazingly cheap San Miguel, six huge litre bottles for 7 Euros. Then, another ham/cheese/tomato/bread lunch about 1p.m – a slow and languid day on holiday. In the evening we went out for supper, to a restaurant down the street.  Plenty to eat; meat croquettes, frittata, rabbit, chicken, and fish, all washed down with Sangria.  There was a downpour whilst we were there, and there was much lightning visible in the distance – but it was never a serious thunderstorm. During the night the wind got up and was banging doors, waking us all up.

Theodore Dalrymple has written a number of very readable works, including Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses and Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, and my favourite, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. He used to contribute a rather dry and amusing, if somewhat distressing column to the Daily Telegraph, covering some aspects of his work as a prison doctor. His writing leans to the view that in the west, liberal views can have a tendency to minimise the responsibility of individuals for their own actions, and to lead to the creation of an underclass. I don’t think you’ll see him at the same parties as Robert Fisk or George Monbiot.

But he has written here a very humane and gentle account of journeyings in forgotten Marxist lands. Cuba. North Korea. Ethiopia. Cambodia. Albania. Some of them are Marxist no longer; others remain under the jackboot. His travel writing can be a little superficial, but it’s not less informative for all that. Reading it only serves to reconfirm my opposition to all forms of Communism – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, call it what you like. Heinlein called it “malevolent silliness.

Next day dawned very fresh and clear after the rain. After breakfast we hiked up to the local hermitage, and thence round the mountainside in bright sunshine to a monastery.  The views were wonderful.  We had an excellent lunch at the monastery; there was a set three course menu for 16.5 Euros, and some San Miguel. Very good service. And so back through the late afternoon to the flat at Palau, whence we three lazed by the pool and had laughter.  An excellent, first rate day of holiday.

Another relaxing morning with a “holiday breakfast” feeling.  I come down dressed to find my wife and daughter relaxed, taking coffee. I buy croissants and we have us a pleasant breakfast in this little courtyard, tastefully converted from some light industrial premises of the past. In this case, it was once a blacksmith’s yard. It is cool, it is clean and it is quiet, and it is private.  A little fountain provides a constant background tinkling. Outside an archway at the rear are some rather ordinary flats, and a terraced garden with a tiny swimming pool.  To the right, the hills.  To the left, the coastal plain. The property, says mine host, has been in their family since the 17th century.  Whilst it ostensibly sleeps eight, there is only one big double room.  Upstairs, two rooms, a double and a twin, a good bathroom and a large mezzanine lounge which could be used to sleep more people at the expense of privacy.  Downstairs, a good kitchen, an indoor dining area and lounge (although at this latitude dining indoors is probably only necessary from late November to late February) and a second lounge room with a huge futon.  There’s a delightful second bathroom, open to the sky (through a window of course).  The skylight opens on one of the three rooftop terraces boasted by the house, which would make some people edgy about using the shower. You would want to be careful if the house was full.

But all good things come to an end. We had to go home eventually:

Emily Barker at St. Peter’s, Tandridge – flashback to 2018

This is a remix…since nobody is going anywhere right now, I consider it legit to repost earlier blogs about travels and events, the better to cheer us up in these days. There follows an account of a pop concert at St Peter’s church, Tandridge, in October 2018.

Earlier this year we attended the first pop concert in 800 years, at St. Peter’s church, Tandridge village. It was an unseasonably cold night in March, and late snow lay on the ground. Tonight, we returned, in mid-October, on what was another unseasonable night. This time, however, the weather was very warm. To be able to walk around on a mid-October night in shirt-sleeves is most unusual.

This event, like it’s predecessor, was a benefit gig aimed at raising money for the fabric of this wonderful and ancient church.  In this case, money is sought to install a much-needed loo: prosaic, but a vital human need.  And this evening was both human and prosaic, warm and uplifting, but friendly and community-oriented.  The Rector, Andrew Rumsey, introduced the evening with a warm-up act of a brace of autumnal songs that might have even been written for the occasion.

The actual support act for Emily Barker were two gents called Roy Hill and Ty Watling. These gents looked and sounded like characters from Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing”

…Check out guitar George
He knows all the chords…

Mind, Ty Watling did indeed know how to make his guitar cry and sing, and that he went on to do.  Roy Hill was of indeterminate age, and was in good voice, and made banter with the audience about how much better this was than their usual pub gig.  They started dark, with a song about pain beginning, and finished with a deeply moving number about failing mental health, yet, they were always somehow encouraging, humane, and uplifting.

Emily Barker came on and immediately impressed everyone with her beautiful clear voice and her guitar playing.  This evening has seen a series of guitarists bringing great joy and beauty into the world through their playing, song-writing and singing, like Chet Atkins:

…Money don’t matter as long as I scatter a little bit of happiness around
If people keep a grinnin’ I figure I’m a winnin’…

In between the numbers she told us stories of her early life with a discernable Aussie twang.  It is always engaging when pop stars do that – you want to know that they do go to the shops, that they were once kids in the back of a car going on holiday, singing along to cassettes.  She performed an old Bruce Springsteen number – “Tunnel of love” – to illustrate this story.

Somehow, the fact that she is a supremely skilled professional guitarist and pianist, a powerful and gifted singer and a talented songwriter did not discourage or demotivate. After the concert I was speaking to a lady in the audience who has Downs Syndrome.  She wants to write songs – and she was saying, by no means demotivated, how high the bar has been set by Emily Barker.  The lesson is, everything is possible; anyone can do anything if they set themselves to it.  A lady you might pass in the street, wearing blue jeans and a cardigan, has a voice like Aretha Franklin, a solo voice so beautiful, so powerful, as to carry an entire church in stunned silence.

“To one, he gave five bags of gold, to another, two, to another, one bag, each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15.  It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, not how much you’ve got.

There’s a pattern emerging here with these concerts: Not so much inspiring, as inspirational.  Do new things. Dare to create, dare to do something new with your bag of gold.

Thirty days of lockdown

Have I traded the muse of the poet, the heart of a prophet, the freedom of a writer, for the mess of pottage we call a regular income? Maybe not: everyday things like a regular income have a higher value than we imagine, at any time, and particularly in these times. Others have been and are being blessed, in many ways, because I keep on keeping on.

Thirty years ago a band called The Lilac Time released a song called “Return to yesterday”. It is a delightful song, but the words have told a story ever since and are apposite for today, more than ever before. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no going back to yesterday – though we none of us, not one of us, have quite realized it yet. They sang We’ll face this new England like we always have / In a fury of denial / We’ll go out dancing on the tiles

There follows some personal reflections from the first month of living in this new England.

16/3: “The road ahead gleams in the rain like a silver ribbon. It holds endless possibilities”… I’m sure this date will live for a long time – the day when the closed-in living began. I dislike the expression “lockdown”. Today an old man fell over and I helped him home. I missed the PM’s broadcast when he told us all to stay indoors.

18/3: Each day, writing for ten minutes on one single subject. Today – weariness. The variety of weariness is not thin: it falls from the sky in many forms. I have known it in many ways, some good, some bad. Waves of sleepiness. An alert, diamond-like wakefulness. The unwillingness to talk; the irascibility. The pleasant weariness of a job well done.

20/3: “Revolution, slow time coming” – Buck 65 – Blood of a Young Wolf. Today it feels like defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. We need to find a way, in this time of sameness, when many of us are living AND working at home, to mark the beginning of the weekend – which otherwise seems to be just the same as the week.

22/3: Listened to a heart-warming Youtube address from our friend Bishop Andrew Rumsey, in which we’re encouraged to “plant seeds and stay grounded”. In the garden, fantastic, delicate patterns of filigree, in the skeletons of last year’s leaves. Friendly robins come close – and when I find a piece of flint, I am drawn to reflect on wealth. What is wealth?

25/3: Today is my wife’s birthday. We had tea together in the morning and she opened her presents. Dinner out will have to wait, perhaps. A good day at the office, although I found it literally, not metaphorically, somewhat tiresome. At 4pm, tired and I’m not going to go for a run. It seems inappropriate. In my object writing I reflect on visiting my grandma by omnibus, in the mid 1970’s.

27/3: Another sunny morn: the light remains beautiful at sunrise, grazing the stalks in a nearby field, highlighting the folds of the land. I am daunted and awed by the compassion and the creativity of others. I feel borne down by endless lecturing on social media – STAY INDOORS they say, and then I block them or hide them. I will be run over yet by the grinding wheels of collectivism. Though I do mostly stay indoors.

28/3: But what do I know of isolation? I fear for those in tower blocks with north-facing windows in a sea of grey tarmac; for those in damp and dingy bedsits. For those crammed in one or two rooms with squalling kids and sullen or angry partners. We have become, perhaps (as a Dutchman I know once said) “a nation of wuss”. We ought not become a people who are perfectly capable of controlling negative thoughts – but don’t…

29/3: Today I built a desk and shelves in the garden shed. It looked just like the image my wife printed – make it like this picture, she suggested. I am no joiner but it looks well enough. Building it did wear me out though – a long physical day in the cold actually made me dizzy. But that was low blood sugar. We dealt with that with some hummus and a very strong Gin and Tonic.

30/3: Today I broke a tooth, upper left molar, Oddly enough I am not the only person who has done so amongst my social media circle. There is no discomfort. Yet. Just as well.

31/3: I do love the early mornings. Never thought I’d be a lark rather than an owl. Heartened to read of pushback against the way the police have interpreted Boris’s Coronavirus Act 2020. I long for the day when it is repealed completely, but I confess I do not find that likely. What really depresses me is that there are people who fully approve of these new restrictions on our civil liberties.

1/4: Though I took a good day “at the office” I am depressed. I read an article in “Wired” about the future, and this has cast me down. I ought not have read it. Lord, fit me to serve You faithfully and set my face like flint to the task ahead.

2/4: I ran 10km in 58 minutes. I read about metaphor – a collision between ideas that don’t belong together. In metaphor, conflict is essential. Later, I read a senior lawyer who reminded us that it is the job of the police to uphold the law, not ministerial preference. The Prime Minister’s word is not law. This seems important to me, though perhaps not to others.

4/4: Weary with my own sense of individualism, my own ostensible lack of interest in what the community thinks. Make a better team player, O Lord! Teach me how to care. And yet, like “Blurry Face” from the American band 21 Pilots? I DO care what you think.

5/4: My birthday and Palm Sunday. Liberty – “it’s my birthday, and I wants it”. Now is not the time to release your inner Gollum, Nick. But what a lovely day; some gifts of railway books and a case for one of my guitars – though this lovely gift will only come into its own later. Technology provides a chance for my wife and I to meet and chat in a virtual space with all three of our kids.

7/4: Milder weather. I feel a tangible sense of guilt that I am less disciplined in the afternoon than in the morning. I’ve done my best work by 10a.m. In the late afternoon, my heart and brain are mush.

8/4: Sat for the first time this year in a little bower we have created at the end of the garden. A neighbours’ daughters are playing. One can hear the inherent bossiness of little girls, and perhaps of the first-born, as the older bosses the younger around. The sound of children playing is one of the greatest sounds. What is your favourite sound?

9/4: I ran 10km in one hour before 0700 and collected a birthday beer from outside the house of a friend. Thanks Paul!

10/4: I come into the kitchen and hear some politician on the radio droning away about how many items of PPE have been made – 325 million items of this or that – and for a weird and unpleasant moment I actually become Winston Smith. This feeling I have to shake off: Dylan writes “if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d stick my head in a guillotine” and it were true of me on occasion.

12/4: Easter Day: So many others have more positive attitudes than mine. What with the endless bad news, with the police overstepping their powers, with social distancing and the twitching of social media curtains, my heart remains heavy for Merrie England. On the plus side, my daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s “Oryx and Crake” which I started reading immediately.

13/4: It is now a month since I was at the offices in London SW1! The weather breaks to grey, flat skies and gusting wind. Today I ran 10240m in 56 minutes which is fighting fit.

16/4: We’re all finding ourselves, from time to time, in difficult places. I remember again – or at least try to – those who are less fortunate. I finish work and find I cannot face looking at computer screens anymore. ’twas ever thus perhaps. I want something physical, tangible. I shall practice guitar.

18/4: I’ve finished Anthony Lambert’s “50 great train journeys” and Andrew Martin’s “Night Trains”, and I’m reading Tristram Hunt on the English Civil War. Along with “1984” it is possible that this last may lead me in directions that are not entirely constructive – but I can do no other.

It is fully spring now. Flowers are coming out; seedlings are sprouting. We may hope that such growth is not only horticultural but cultural as well, in the months and years to come.