Archive for the ‘expatriates’ Category

Jill’s paradoxes: an occasional series

June 19, 2013

So sad to leave Australia – so thrilled to be back in my little house.  (8th  June)

Lovely sunshine; dry washing – ridiculous hay fever. (June 19th)

Main Beach, Southport

April 18, 2013

A Story in Pictures

When I come home to Australia – I still call Australia home, even though I have lived in the UK now for more than thirty-five years – I love to look at the sea, and at the beaches I knew as a teenager. We all knew then that Main Beach was the best, after the king tides of the sixties destroyed Surfers’ Paradise. The Council brought in more sand by the truckload, and shoved big rocks along the edge, but the surf was never the same. At least, that’s what we said in the seventies. After that – well – I wouldn’t know. I’d moved overseas. Anyway, my Mum (now 87 years old) and I drove the couple of miles from her place, over to look at the sea.

04 Main Beach erosion

Blow me down if the beach hadn’t been destroyed by those cyclones and floods and stuff that they had through the summer. Washed away. That wooden bit sticking out isn’t designed to be a jetty: it was once a platform where you could stand to wash the sand off your feet before returning to the demands of shoes and cars and civilisation.

So I took a photo of Mum by the destruction and sent it to my kids with a feeble joke about two sorts of erosion – they all responded by telling me how well she is looking. Not much eroded at all. So much for wit.

06 Mum at Main Beach

I think she looks quite nice in her grey dress against the grey waves, while the orange plastic strips give the whole thing a kind of grim liveliness. A little further along there was a warning sign.

08 tourists

I struggled but eventually managed to get a clear shot of it, past the tourists who were having a good time, milling around and taking photos. “Japanese tourists,” as my mother inevitably observed.

09 tourists in danger

And then a middle-aged chap stepped over the orange guard rail. His women folk seemed to be urging him to stand closer and closer to the edge, and he was inching along obediently. They were trying for an exciting photo – and it was a long drop. Maybe he would have landed softly, but I didn’t want to see it. “Come back, come back,” I shouted, “Dangerous! Danger!” And waved my arms, beckoning in the universal sign-language. There’s always that moment when you feel that maybe you should let grown-ups take their own decisions, and then there’s the quasi-maternal moment when you feel that you want to protect the stranger who has been having a good time in your country. Nobody wants it to end in tears. Meddlesome Jill.

Mum and I walked on – well staggered on, really, as Mum doesn’t walk very strongly or very fast these days. I was hoping that: a) we hadn’t offended them; b) they weren’t going to rush up and hit us; c) they weren’t going to come and tell us to mind our own business. None of this happened. Somewhere there exists a photo of the next moment, but I don’t have a copy. A rushing of feet behind us, and the women grabbed us round the waist, gesturing that they wanted a photo. Laughing and excited, they stood us in a line of four, arms around each other, and the same man we had saved from the waters was organised and instructed to take our photo. There were a couple of different line-ups before the women were satisfied. I bet they are good pictures – he had a terrific camera. Perhaps a little story about the kindness of strangers was even better to take home than a daredevil stunt.

Instead of that vanished photo, I can offer you a different picture of random generosity. This is a water bowl, for dogs walking the seafront, and in case you didn’t know, there are dog pawprints in the concrete leading to it. It was in fact being used by an Egyptian ibis, who was dipping its head into the bowl, washing and having a drink – but I wasn’t quick enough to get that picture. Prudent bird, it startled off when I came too close.

10 water bowl

Beasts of the forest and city – Auckland again

April 7, 2011

Auckland: Friday Feb 18th  
Between Green Bay and the alternative atmosphere of Titirangi (charming coffee shops and galleries, and an endlessly interesting community noticeboard) lies a wild green space: the Rahui Kahika Reserve.   It looks forested but the word ‘Reserve’ suggests that it is cared for, and paths roam through it.  The walk up to Titirangi lies beside a busy road, so walking through the Reserve looks like a good option.   The first path leads along the backs of houses, where a council employee is mowing vigorously, wheeling to and fro and flinging curves of chopped green grass through the air.  A little further on is another clipped green path, access to Godfrey Road – still no wilderness – just a cluster of teenagers in school uniform, sitting convivially on the grass and drinking sober cans of pop.  Friday afternoon in Green Bay.  Mowing is everywhere – someone else is mowing in his back yard.  Eventually the path curves deeper into the Reserve, across a little stream and past steeper cliffs, into quiet shaded darkness.  It peters out into something that looks like the tracks you made in the bush when you were twelve, and the last thing you ever wanted to do was to get to a destination. It starts to bend back in an almost imperceptible  way and clearly there is going to be no way through to Titirangi Road, now well above us.  Our map didn’t show contour lines.
We turn back, and edge along the little stream through the eerie shadows of tall trees. A huge, sudden movement just next to me and a little behind – big soft golden-brown wings flap in the undergrowth and an impossibly large bird lifts low across the path, to land on a branch – so close -.  For a moment I thought it was some kind of bat – maybe a flying fox – but no.  It sat patiently, waiting us out, while I stepped gently back to take photos.

Bird in the underbrush

I wish I could show you how he glowed golden-brown in the beam of sun.  I fell in love with him, perched there so calm and quietly still.  It was hard to believe he was in the right place.  How could he live there – the canopy is dense – how could he ever possibly fly up through all that?  Perhaps we needed to phone the animal protection people.  Could it be a young one? or lost?  Surely big birds need lots of space?  And he sat on, waiting.

he seems to be watching, too

Watching something so fine and large (‘Being earth-brown, earth-golden’) makes me think of D H Lawrence’s poem, ‘Snake’.  It ends:  
And so
I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life
And I have something to expiate:
 A pettiness.
My littleness is to creep close, and submit him to being photographed.  What an insult.  Perhaps my concern for his wellbeing just masks desire for control?  We looked him up later in the bird book: like every other bird I spot, the Australasian Harrier Hawk is classed as ‘common’.  Well, the breed may be common, but the experience of seeing one was extraordinary.

It wouldn’t really be fair to call the Auckland Choral Society a ‘beast of the city’ – but maybe it fits if you think of the criteria: that it has many heads, is exceptionally long-lived and produces a very rich, musical call.  Anyway, we went to their free ‘taster’ concert: excerpts from programmes to be performed later in the year.  Great fun, especially the singalong. 

The ‘taster’ had ended early in the evening, and failed to satisfy actual physical hunger, but luckily that was the day of the Lantern Festival, celebrating Chinese New Year.  There were crowds and crowds of people filling Albert Park to overflowing and surging down into the little streets nearby: who would have thought Auckland could hold so many?   A party atmosphere filled the bright darkness with hurly-burly, and strange inflatable beasts of the city imaged Chineseness and New Zealand life.

scarlet lanterns welcome the New Year

These are just a few of the displays, and there had been fireworks earlier.

a dragon gateway seems to bring luck to all who pass underneath

I’m not sure what that circle is on the top – maybe a lucky coin? Maybe the moon, or the sun?  I suspect it’s the coin, though, as Chinese good luck seems to be mostly about good health and cash.

Bok Choi, snails and distressingly humanoid chickens

– oh yes – and food.  Eating well is a big part of the Lantern Festival, as we found in the populous side-street of multifarious food stalls.  Not just Chinese food, either, but all kinds of Asian dishes abounded.

Chinese-New Zealand multi-culturalism

I guess these beasts count as edibles along with the other inflated lantern tableaux, but they also symbolise much more.  Chinese techniques and conventions representing iconic New Zealandness.  The medium is the message.

Rain and Shine at Hahei

March 28, 2011

Monday 14th February – Thursday 17th February: Hahei Beach

Hahei Beach was damaged by storms – the edge of the cyclones that devastated North Queensland had also hit this coast hard. Landslips had closed roads and paths: the proprietor of the Tatahi Backpackers glumly showed us uprooted plants spread down the hillside: half his garden had fallen onto the road below. Clearly, cutting roads and paths into a hillside destabilises it, and invites these landslides. The evidence was there in lots of places on the Coromandel. You might argue that (by definition) we only saw the bits where there were roads, and that landslips can take place anywhere: but in fact plenty of native bush and steep hills can be seen, all still secure. The weather was still a bit chancy, and the walk to Cathedral Cove was closed (it might be open again by now). So we went for a drive. We parked at Ferry Landing near Cook’s Beach to take the ferry across to Whitianga and see the little local museum, with its extensive collection of photos and information about early life in the logging camps. (Perhaps inevitably) there was a charming DVD about Captain Cook and the Maori, apparently scripted and performed by members of the historical society. A discreet subtext of the displays (not loud, but deep) was a sense of outrage over the waste involved when the huge, ancient kauri were dragged out of the mountains and sent off to furnish the Empire with fighting ships. There is now a re-planting programme, which is something, but many of those trees cannot be replaced even by centuries of growth.
On Wednesday it rained on and off, but we got to Hot Water Beach just in time to paddle in the hot springs before the tide rose too high. Ravenous from all that and from a long time spent in the wonderful Moko Art Gallery there, we set off to find food – any food. Sweeping round a corner under dripping trees I spotted a rough and ready sign: Open fired Pizza  – winery.  The prospect seemed dubious, but indeed – quick decision –  down a short track we found a winery, with massive amounts of free tasting, excellent pizza, and a laid back atmosphere that anyone who lived through the sixties would recognise in a moment. Even the dark green paintwork and the Scottish waitress/cook sitting knitting a vast shawl looked authentic. I don’t for a moment think they try to create the atmosphere: they just are like that. We bought their wine and their Feijoa Liqueur, and wished we could have fitted many more bottles into our bags.

Purangi Winery

(Thanks to Kelly Chesterton’s blog for the picture.)
Back at Hahei, rain misted the hills and the out-of-focus low cloud was neither cool nor warm. The dark sea, hazy and flat, set up a rhythmic hushing monotone: a kind of white noise. I parked on the foreshore and watched the sea, wondering how best to photograph the rain. The birds had all vanished. Two kayaks circled and tipped endlessly where the murky grey-green waves were churning up sand, but my camera’s battery had flattened – the photos of islands in the rain, of headlands in the mist, would have to wait for some other year. But I swam in the cool grey waves under a light drizzle. Blissful.
On the last morning the sun came out, and brightened things up. Our useful host told us that some people had been through to Cathedral Cove anyway “using the old path”, so we decided to have a look. The path had returned itself to thick, dark-yellow clay, staining and very sticky, but there were indeed people coming back the other way. As we hesitated by the barricade and the ‘Path Closed’ sign, a Canadian clambering around it told us “It’s steep; you have to kind of rappel down; but it’s do-able.” The path itself was mostly quite easy going, but the last climb down into Mare’s Leg Cove was indeed steep: the topmost of the three flights of steps had completely washed away,

that's the top flight of steps, lying on the sand, right at the bottom

and the others were slippery from the muddy feet of the people who had been there before us.

two flights of steps were intact

We had explained the situation to a young German couple back at the barricade, and they decided to come along. They were agile down the cliff, and immensely kind – carrying my bag and offering a hand down.

behind those bright leaves is the tree root we used to rappel down the cliff

A New Zealander climbing back up showed us a slightly easier route, for the return: I imagine this was the ‘old path’ that the bloke at Tatahi had mentioned.

the alternative track up from Mare's Leg Cove

I’m noticing nationalities here because I really enjoy the multi-national feeling of Hahei, and of the folk whose sense of adventure led them along the forbidden path.

I mentioned the New Zealand attitude to rules in a previous blog. Here we found another interesting moment. Having disobeyed the sign telling us that Cathedral Cove was closed, we met some workmen on the way back, right by the barricade.
One looked at us (aggressively I thought) and said ‘Did you see the sign?’
‘Yes,’ Andrew answered (man to man).
‘And you chose to ignore it.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
No further comment. I enjoyed the unemphasised assumption that we could exercise personal responsibility, and choice. He clearly thought we were stupid, but he allowed our right to be so.
We hustled back to Auckland in broad sunshine, to return the hired car on time.

Travellers’ Tales – Surprises in Auckland

March 26, 2011

(First weekend in Auckland)

Ann and Colin kept us busy, all right. We walked up the defunct volcano that is Mt Eden – wondering why the name. Did it look like the Garden of Eden to someone? Perhaps someone had thought that New Zealand looked like a world before the Fall?  Alas – it was named after George Eden, Lord Auckland: an even more complete cultural appropriation. At the top we found busloads of tourists, mostly Japanese, taking photos of one another. Our hosts were amazed at the crowds and at the size of the coaches that were trying to turn in a very tight parking area. Some local folk were disobeying the sign that forbids access to the crater – perhaps New Zealanders are like the French in their creative attitude to rules.

needless to say, I found this photo on the internet

In the evenings we roared with laughter at reruns of a truly riveting TV show – ‘Wonder Dogs’. Why this has never been networked in Australia or the UK entirely defeats me: it is a hoot.
The promo video shows them all succeeding, and loses much of the naturalness. It’s much more fun on the actual programme, which shows just how difficult it is for the dog-plus-human teams. There’s a downside, though, as unfortunately the re-runs are in random order, so one doesn’t get to follow any one competition through the various stages to its finals. Apparently the format (the idea, not the shows) has been bought by Canada and Fiji – but for me the whole New Zealandness of the thing is a major part of its attraction. (A 2006 news item tells me that TVNZ has licensed ‘Wonder Dogs’ to the Discovery UK network – I think they are missing the point – it should screen alongside ‘Flight of the Conchords’.)
Also on TV was a wonderful doco about James Cook – we caught episodes two and three – and we were soon sold on finding out much more about this extraordinary and talented man. A reading project for the future, but for now we had enough superficial knowledge to sustain some conversation.
By Saturday we were ready to stroll through the city centre past ann’s favourite chinese chippy
(I think she mostly likes it for its name)
to take the ferry across Waitemata Harbour to Devonport, and another tall hill. The transport centre is called ‘Britomart’ but there is no sign of an armoured female knight, nor of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

Here she is -

– the warrior knight of heroic myth and legend, reduced to modernity and functionalism.  I can’t help thinking of Marvin the Robot from The Hithchikers’ Guide: ‘brain the size of a planet’ but reduced to parking cars until the end of the world.  In this way we subsume the richness of the past, of heroism and complexity, into our triviality.
It turns out that like so many slightly odd-sounding Australian and New Zealand place names, the connection is via a ship of that name. Of course, nineteenth century ships still very commonly had names from mythology and literature, so these concepts in turn stand a chance of being carried forward through time, via the places named for them because they had visited, or where they were shipwrecked.
Here is a small part of the information that Auckland Transport Centre kindly tell us on their website. HMS Britomart was a brig-sloop, one of 101 vessels of the Cherokee class, built at Portsmouth in 1820. The ship was 237 tons, armed with ten guns, and was sold in Singapore in 1843.
(You may need to scroll to the end to see the picture of  a brig-sloop.) 
[I love the next sentence.] In command of HMS Britomart in 1840 was Commander Owen Stanley, the eldest son of the Bishop of Norwich. [Surely he must be the bloke after whom they named the Owen Stanley Ranges.] HMS Britomart gave her name to an area of Auckland where fighting between Europeans and Maori took place, and thence to a street, and finally to a transport hub. So it goes.
By the ferry wharf there towered two enormous white cruise liners, huge and daunting as the castles that Spenser’s knights  occupied: suddenly the busloads of tourists at Mt Eden were explained.
Moored at Devonport, by a wharf full of earnest fishermen and their little sons, was a beautifully restored tug, the William Crush Daldy. We goggled at it, as this was the very ship named after Andrew’s Great Great (and possibly Great) Uncle, who had been an early settler in New Zealand. We had known that the tug once existed, but hardly expected to find it in pristine running order, lovingly cared for by a dedicated historical society.

Daldy with Daldy

(Andrew’s mother was a Daldy)
Furthermore, when a chap working on it saw us, he gave us an impromptu guided tour of the whole vessel – engine rooms, coal bunkers and all.

beautifully polished brasswork - is this a binnacle?

essential information

apologies to the mystery figure on the left - I just can't edit you out today

We heard about her coal consumption, her speed, her history – all from someone who was clearly very proud of the tug’s achievements. (She had won a tug race against much more modern ships not long before). It was altogether a great privilege and a big surprise.

you might have to enlarge this a bit to see what it says

Up on North Head, kite-flying was the order of the day, while scores of sailing boats flew across the water on the seaward side of the headland.

on top of the world with a two-handed kite

New Zealand’s daylight saving time puts it three hours ahead of Queensland, so we were inclined to sleep in shamefully: Sunday started late.  

This is HMS Pelorus - a brig-sloop very similar to HMS Britomart. There is a Pelorus River in Victoria (Australia) (where you can find advertising for the Perilous River Riding Stables) and a Pelorus Sound in NZ.

Travellers’ Tales – Auckland and guilt

March 22, 2011

Ann greeted us at Auckland airport – the first of many kindnesses – and chauffered us back to the house she and Colin share at Green Bay. We were just in time for a swim at nearby French Bay before the tide went out too far for comfort.  I hobbled over the pebbly shelly beach, too proud of my barefoot Australian childhood to wear flip flops. (New Zealand jandals; Australian thongs; and, I am told, South African slip slaps). Odd that something so basic and necessary should have so many names – and wikipedia tells of yet more. 

French Bay, facing the Manukau harbour, was cool and refreshing, and its rocky headland was densely treed in shades of dark green. The varied shapes – some rounded, some bulky, some tall cypresses – reminded us of Corfu. I feel a little guilty making the comparison – one wants experiences of a new country to be fresh and genuine, not comparative or second-hand. But there is no stopping the mind’s compulsive comparisons. Perhaps it’s  instinctive: a way of understanding novelty by integrating it with what is already known and understood.  And so it is a necessary guilt of the colonial, but at the same time it restricts the capacity to see things as simply themselves.  In the same way, labelling things with words both possesses and contains them – words, though they familiarise and comfort, can also restrict. 

As I backstroked joyfully across the bay I clouted some poor woman in the head – she came out of nowhere, I tell you. But I felt really guilty again, partly because as a stranger at the beach I reckon I owe the locals extra courtesy, but especially as the lump on my hand has taken weeks to go down. I do hope she’s OK.

promming: the end of the story

August 17, 2010

 Interval, and I found a glass of wine in time to drink it by being just a little assertive at the bar.  The time passed very pleasantly in unmemorable conversation with a white-haired chap, who seemed glad to go when the interval was over. 

I had asked the beekeepers whether you are allowed to move around (my dream of a promenading prom) – ‘Oh no.  Something would quickly be said if people tried to move forward,’ they assured me, with that gloriously depersonalising usage of the passive voice so beloved of a particular caste of the middle classes.  Most of the conventions they articulated proved to be a little less than rigid.  This time, as the audience was re-settling themselves, the eagle man picked his way back to his seat a few feet away on my right, leading by the hand a slender crop-haired woman in a bright red dress and a sleeveless denim jacket.  Perhaps the amorous eagle wasn’t after young men at all – throughout the second half he distractingly caressed the woman’s hips through her slippery silky dress.  She seemed entirely unmoved – neither welcoming nor rejecting. 

Nicola Benedetti played ‘The Lark Ascending’ with an icy abstraction which felt utterly beautiful.  The Guardian’s critic (writing in next day’s paper) disliked the effect, but I found it intensely moving, as if the lark had risen to some heavenly sphere, beyond all earthly concerns.  For the first time ever I heard Vaughan Williams showing us not just a lark, but Keats’s skylark speaking through this music ‘from heaven or near it’.  It is so unusual to hear a crowd-pleasing classic as if for the first time – and for that experience I would willingly walk miles, queue for hours and spend a small fortune on taxi fares.

After that, the Elgar sounded mechanical to me, like a formal exercise in composition, yet people around me looked intent and blissed out.  The amorous eagle was conducting with his head, anticipating the high points with rhythmic nods, and jerking his shoulders, while the beekeepers had their eyes closed.  The concert ended with raptures from all.

A man came up to me asking ‘How early do you have to be to get a chair?’  ‘I’ve left my wife’, he proceeded ‘and I’m bringing my first internet date here next week.’  I felt a little amazed – it’s not obviously a risk-free first choice for a more-or-less blind date.  Was he chatting me up, I wondered, as he escorted me to my bus. ‘I’m asking everybody this: which is more important, duty or living your own life?’ 
‘Some would say that you have a duty to live your own life.’
‘So you’re a philosopher too.’
‘As well as what?’  I was feeling quite confident and bolshy by then.

Catching the right complex of buses back to Marylebone in time for the 10.50 train was my project, and he seemed to detect that my heart wasn’t in the conversation.  The wonderful Season Ticket holders on the bus were endlessly helpful, and saw me on my way in the right direction, as if I was one of them, while chatting amongst themselves.  There’s something rather awe-inspiring about being helped to find my way home by a blind person, who hopped off with me at Marylebone, saying ‘Run for it now, I can catch any of these trains.’ 

And so, pelting and awkward in my flapping sandals I lurched into the station, checked the board, and found . . . . that there was no 10.50.  Madness. Insanity. Rage.  What is going on?  I railed against the online timetable, spoke to a friendly station official in a bright yellow vis jacket, and identified an 11.20 for Birmingham that would do.  And so, with time to spare, we chatted about – I forget what – but it turned into a conversation about being an expatriate (again).  ‘You play cricket?  Well, who do you support?’  ‘Pakistan against England, always Pakistan.’  ‘But what if it’s England against India or England against Australia?’  ‘Hmm.  Well I support the side that plays best.  If they are rubbish they don’t deserve my support.  If they play badly – noooo.’  I considered putting the case for supporting the underdog, but conversation had swept on.  He was telling me about the cricket team he plays for.  ‘Batsman?’ I asked, trying to work out what his slight physique might best qualify him for.  ‘No. Bowler. I used to be a fast bowler, but now I bowl spinners.’  I hmmed sympathetically – my husband tried to make the same paradigm-shift, but could never resist flinging one down really hard, and wrecking his shoulder all over again.  This guy was perhaps more canny.  We got on like a house on fire.  He showed me his card, and told me his best bowling figures.  And gradually the conversation ended, as all conversations must.  I looked at the board for my train and almost howled with rage: that 11.20 was on the Arrivals board.  There really was no train home.

Partial solutions rushed through my brain: phone my daughter and sleep at her place? (but she would be long asleep, and anyway I didn’t want to reveal myself as less than competent) catch the train up to Oxford and stay with my son? – (but no – those trains go from Paddington, and the same issues apply.)  So I angrily bought myself an unnecessary panini and a coffee, burnt my mouth and, full of doubt and anxiety, grimly took the 11.38, terminating in Banbury.  Did my home-based son have a friend who could drive down to Banbury and collect me? (No problem in that age group about driving about in the middle of the night, and no shame attached to being in an undignified situation.  But no – friend with car has gone on holiday.) I was going to arrive in Banbury after one in the morning, and would have to go to a B&B or else get a taxi home (if there were any taxis at that hour).  The train wore its way, creaking, through many, many small commuter stations, and I was filled with boredom and tiredness.  The number of passengers fell off by ones and twos, leaving the sour-smelling carriage as a Sartrean blankness rattling through its eternal night.

Banbury however rose brilliantly to the occasion.  There were rows of taxis, bright lights, and a welcoming driver who quoted me £40 to drive to Leamington.  Such relief – it was possible, even normal, to do a twenty-mile trip at that ridiculous hour of night.  And it was cheap, compared with my private estimate of fifty quid.  ‘Do you take cards?’ ‘No, but we can go round by a cash point.’  The man was all heart, and he knows Leamington well because his in-laws live there, so can easily find a cashpoint.  We negotiate the route and I explain that I have driven it to Oxford often, so I know the road.  (He’s not going by any silly long routes, I think.)  And we chat in the luxurious warmth of the car.  ‘My son is waiting up for me.  These students don’t mind sitting up late.’  ‘What is he studying?’  ‘Philosophy.  Not very practical,’ I apologise.  ‘Oh no.  In my family we don’t believe that study should be practical.’  I am amazed.  He tells me at some length about his father who has an MA in Econometrics, and his brother with the MA in something else.  So finally I find a way of asking how come he’s driving a cab (How did I ask that tactfully?  ‘Are you the failure of the family?’ surely not.)  He too has an MA, in computing: was a computer programmer until he got RSI in the shoulder.  ‘But surely steering must make that worse?’  ‘Oh no.  It is good to keep it moving.’  Another expatriate – and we talked about living so far from home.  ‘Did all your family come out here together?’  ‘No – I am the only one here.’  His father is still in Pakistan, his brother lives in Australia.  ‘Which city?’  The inevitable question, but a surprise response: ‘Canberra.’  I am struck with the delight of the unexpected: ‘I know Canberra well.  I was at University there.’  I feel warmly towards him, for having a brother in Canberra, for living calmly in England, for taking life easily.  ‘But don’t you miss your brother?’  ‘Oh no.  We all meet in Pakistan for big family get-togethers.’  And so at length we reached the cash machine, and then my home, where the outside light was on for me and my son was still up.  The meter said £43.50 – ‘Just forty will be fine,’ he said.  He told me his name – Abdul – and we shook hands.  It’s not every day that the taxi-driver gives you a tip.

the pre-concert talk

August 10, 2010

At the Royal College of Music, the BBC record a twenty-minute talk which they will broadcast to fill in the interval.  Entrance to the talk is free – so one queues, just in case it is crowded out.  In the queue I have another wonderful encounter – an American woman, dressed in a casually stylish fine olive-green pullover, who is over in London for the birth of a grandchild.  She is briefly free for long enough to come to this intellectual discussion, and we share experiences of foreignness.  This works especially well as I have a friend whose daughter is having a baby in New York in the early Autumn.   She talks fascinatingly about her work with legal guardianship of  children and we exchange thoughts on the expectations of employers and the nature of diaries (we are about to hear a discussion of Samuel Pepys).  Queueing can be like a particularly good party.   

This evening, the discussion features Max Hastings (not a dodgy publicist, it transpires, but an eminent historian/journalist ) and Jenny Uglow (to whom AS Byatt dedicated her recent The Children’s Book, and who is also a distinguished writer in her own right – what busy lives people lead).  We were warmed up and compered by poet and comedian, Ian McMillan. (  The discussion itself felt quite pleasant, but very conscious of time constraints and rather underdeveloped.  I was thinking about how much pepys dislikes muddle and the illogical, and how much he uses rationality and factual research to wipe  that away.  His organisation of the Navy and of its bureaucracy has always struck me most forcefully.  (like Ste Sévère, of whom another day, he could be the patron saint of efficient organisation).  Hastings was irritatingly emphatic about the level of fear that Pepys was experiencing throughout the diaries, and after the recording finished I found the courage to make the point  that Pepys may be afraid, but he also always has a plan that will get him out of this fear.  Uglow -making  the best point of the evening – quoted Claire Tomalin’s view that writing the Diaries is  in itself a technique for taking control of chaos, and of the fears that chaos engenders in Pepys.  A subtle and intelligent insight – as my new friend agreed. 

PS I’ve just googled Max Hastings, and I think I can see why I blocked him from my memory.

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