You know that you will enjoy it when you get there!

I had a big boy’s birthday last week, I’d reached such a great age that I didn’t wish to be reminded of it.  All I wanted to do was ignore it and hope that it would pass unnoticed.  What would life be like if parties had never been invented?  Tents would still be used, but now solely for a place for boy scouts and campers to sleep. 

 We are not programmed to enjoy parties that much. Think; when you were little you liked your teddy and you liked your mother and father, but other children were the enemy.  You were forced to go and sit quietly until one of your enemy’s mothers comes up and makes you join in.  Then when you were older going through the “Rite of Passage” and another enemy’s mum finds you face down in her flower bed sometime around dawn.  And then when you are married you get into huge trouble for dancing with the wrong girl, in the wrong way, for far too long!  So there you have it, I’m not programmed to be a party goer but more to the point I’m not happy being old in the first place and I certainly have no wish to broadcast it.  However as I am now so old I am now wise enough to know when I should do as I am told, especially when it is my dear wife ‘Pollyanna’ who is doing the telling.

Then number one son and his lovely wife announce that they would like to honour my great age by hosting a party for me.  In fact it will give the game away as it is to be a “We can’t believe he’s eighty party”.  Is it butter or margarine?  Now my wife tells me “You will enjoy it”!  Well she didn’t say that exactly she said “Come on you know you’ll enjoy it”! But I knew what she meant.  She didn’t exactly lick her handkerchief before rubbing a non-existent smudge from my face before we left for the party but it was certainly reminiscent of long ago parties.  Thinking on the way to my son’s house, I smile and think “Now that I’m old perhaps I’ll get to dance with the wrong sort of girl in the wrong way for too long” without getting a rollicking for it.

When we arrive at the party there are dozens of old friends and much loved relations there and I feel a bit overwhelmed.  One who is part of my extended family and has been my son’s best friend since they were a mischievous seven years old.  He’s now fifty five years old with middle age spread and a teacher at a local public school.  I always call him my second son.  There were some of the ‘Jolly Boys’ from my gym who rather suspiciously appeared to be on their best behaviour.

There was my beautiful granddaughter with her husband and if that wasn’t enough to make me aware of my age there too was her younger brother, my 24 year old grandson.  He was tippling ten year old straight malt whisky and expounding on its depth of flavour and later began tasting wine like a professional Sommelier.  (My daughter told me later when they got him home he was chilling out on the carpet and in her bad books)  I managed to convince her that this was a necessary “Rite of Passage” a ritual that everyone goes through to move on to the next stage of their life.  Been there done that!

There were my late sister’s kids together with their lovely kids and the great thing about that is that those lovely kids have all turned into lovely adults.  Yey! A party without children, someone must have realised that other children are the enemy.  The party isn’t looking too bad now and I might get to dance with the wrong girl in the wrong way for too long!  I’ve been making notes of likely lasses.  Perhaps like my grandson I’ve gone through my own “Rite of Passage” and have gone through a transition and my change of status has moved on from my dislike of parties to actually enjoying them.  I’ve not exactly become a party animal perhaps that will come later.

My celebrations haven’t yet finished because next Friday my favourite Niece has invited me to dine at my favourite Fish Restaurant in my favourite English village and whose menu costs a lot more than a whole book of stamps, all to celebrate my great age.

I keep telling anyone who will listen that old age begins fifteen years from now.  Now where can I find the wrong lady to dance with in the wrong way for too long?

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It’s a bit late for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is a fairly short blog because I have had a certain amount of difficulty writing it.  It’s a bit more personal than my usual offerings.  Some people go through life never having seen a dead body let alone touched one.  Some people have never been in a situation so stressful that they will remember it the whole of their lives let alone give them sleepless nights, I envy them!

I don’t know what it is about me but when I look back at my life it seems rather like a broth of chaos.  Before I was sixteen I stood on an armed merchantman in Korea as the ship unloaded equipment for our UN troops while the US fleet were offshore pounding seven bells out of the enemy in the hills above us.  I stood mouth open watching shells that seemed the size of a double-decker bus streaking over our heads before erupting in huge explosions into the jungle.  I won’t say I was scared, I was bloody terrified.

That same voyage I visited Hiroshima in Japan just a few years after it was decimated by “Little Boy” the atomic bomb dropped by an American Superfortress bomber.  That introduced me to man’s inhumanity to man!

Later on, I stood on the bridge of a frigate, next to a shipmate, the ship rolled and a loaded Very flare Pistol slid across the chart table and accidentally fired. The phosphorous/magnesium flare shot him in the stomach.  We helplessly watched him die in agony.  The nightmare continued when we had to relive it through several Boards of Enquiry.

Another time I had to pull a close friend’s body out of his crashed glider.  He had been training for a stunt glider competition and failed to complete the performance.  My life carried on, unlike his.  At one time I had to pick up a severed human head and all I could think of was how heavy it was.  On two separate occasions I have picked up a severed leg to remove it from the road.  I just made ghoulish jokes to hide my horror.

Fifty years ago in 1966 I went with my team to give what help we could to what is now known as the ‘Aberfan disaster’, we got there two days after the tragedy and relieved some of the exhausted rescuers in their hunt for survivors at the Pantglas Primary School which had been totally engulfed by a coal slag heap that had towered over the town until it slipped down into the town.  85 children died in that school, in total 144 people were killed in the town that horrendous day, 116 of them were children.  There were no ghoulish jokes, just anger and blame being thrown around.  I had a few sleepless nights after that catastrophe but my life carried on.

I seem to have developed a hard casing over the years that has helped me put these sorts of memories out of my mind.  I hardly ever talk about them and normally seal them up in my “not wanted on voyage through life” bag, perhaps to be stored in our loft or somewhere equally out of sight and out of mind.  Last week another tragedy occurred, this time it was an earthquake in the mountains of central Italy, where the death toll was 240 and rising.  Modern communications being what they are such scenes are becoming commonplace.  Some manmade like Aleppo in Syria and others natural disasters like this one and we are possibly becoming inured to them.

I was watching on TV at the rescue efforts continuing in Amatrice hoping to find survivors; suddenly I watched the footage as a 10 year old girl was pulled alive from the rubble and I stopped breathing for a moment.  In my mind saw the children’s bodies in Aberfan.  A little boy and girl aged about six years’ old, holding hands even in death trying to comfort each other.  The deputy head teacher was found dead, he was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them.  I just burst into tears and began blubbing out my memories of Aberfan, just saying “the little boy and girl were holding hands”.  My wife rushed across the room to hug and comfort me as I sobbed.

There are tears running down my cheeks as I’m typing this a week after my breakdown.  Perhaps I should have kept this all to myself but I thought telling you might help to rid me of the Devil.  Can someone suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder fifty years after the event?  Don’t be daft! It’s just weakness in old age.  Age shows no mercy.

 

 

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Blame Brexit

I have had a long love affair with a car, now there’s a confession!  I’ve owned a top of the range V8 Lexus since it was just a two year old.  I call it a Louis XIV model because it has gold badges and bits all over.  I have also given it a name I am embarrassed to say because hitherto all cars have been nothing to me but tin boxes, and I’ve owned a few.  I’ve called my Lexus the novel name of Lexi.  That’s it, confession over and I am red faced.

Lexi is approaching 16 years old; it’s the car that I’d always promised myself when I retired and I’m certain that it will see me out in luxurious motoring for as long as I last.  Did I mention that she also has a personalised number plate which allows her to hide her age even though she is timeless?  The rich widow who I purchased her late husband’s, hardly used car from, didn’t mention the plate so neither did I.  The number plate is probably a lot more valuable than the car is; and no I don’t feel guilty.

On Saturday my local dealership sent me a gold inlaid, embossed invitation to the launch of their latest model.  I don’t need to change my car in fact as at my age, not only could I not justify the cost, my wife tells me that I couldn’t afford one anyway.  In spite of that I couldn’t resist having a look at the specification, just out of interest you understand.

I am also a self confessed gadget freak and tend to spoil myself with the latest boy’s toys such as iPhone, iPod, digital camera, thermal Wi-Fi printer, dash cam, etc, my toy box is overflowing.  You get the picture.  The ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ could have been written for me.  Anyway, back to the new model, the specification was chock-full of bait to tempt one such as me.  The lists of high tech gizmos such as multi-contour seats in the finest Connoly hide, with chambers which compensate for acceleration and cornering.  Split screen Satellite Navigation system that made my present one as outdated as a road map and Parking Cameras to the front and rear.  Individual rear passenger DVD players with wireless headphones, even in-car Wi-Fi, Advanced Voice Control for your phone, Auto Windscreen Wipers which switch themselves on at the first spot of rain.  Auto-dip Headlamps when it detects oncoming vehicles.  The car even alerts the driver if it detects drowsiness . . . . . . . and so on . . . . . and so on.

My juices were running, the Adrenalin kicked in and I went on to the dealership’s website. As I logged on someone immediately typed “Hello, my name is Martin how I can help you today?” Damn I’d been caught, sucker!   I typed, “Hi this is only a general enquiry for the price of the LS480, and I’m not really in the market.”  Martin quickly replied “You will never get a better time to buy.  Because of Brexit and the fall in the exchange rate, I am able to offer a one off price of just £71,999!” . . . .   Silence from my end . . . . .Oh my smart mouth . . . . . .  and then I typed “Did I miss something, is that special rate a buy one get one free offer?” . . . . . . . . . . .    Martin had hung up . . . . . .

Brexit indeed he obviously wasn’t aware of my Vote Leave/Grassroots Out campaign credentials.

Anyway what would I do with two cars?  I think that I will stick with Lexi; after all she is the other love in my life.  She is beautiful and in another 10 years she will be a Classic.  We are both maturing perfectly together! 

That’s it for another week, thanks for listening.  As Arnie in the Terminator said “I’ll be back!”

 

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It’s Downhill All The Way

Today’s blog came about after a friend on FaceBook wrote complaining of the usual aches and pains of old age, especially as her 65th birthday was that day.  One of her friends commented that at her age it was going to be downhill all the way from now on.

When I read his comment I knew what he meant, but the more I read that sentence I came up with a totally different interpretation and left her a comment that she should be more positive and think of the future as “Downhill all the Way” as though she was riding a bicycle and from now on is going to be freewheeling downhill all the way.  Wheee! Lift your feet off the pedals, and go!

The landmark age when you become eligible to collect your pension certainly doesn’t have to mean that you suddenly become decrepit or senile.  The Government doesn’t even call it an old age pension or even a retirement pension.  It’s the State Pension now, more political correctness!

 We are now being told that 60 is the new 40 and that 60 is now middle-aged.  What it is telling us that improved medical science has meant that we are living longer and we are aware that sensible eating is vital.  Certainly with life expectancy being so advanced those things have changed.  100 years ago a person of 60 would have been considered very old and 200 years ago 60 would probably have meant that you were dead.

In the past years we hear how each decade makes the population younger – 40 is the new 20, 50 the new 30 and 60 the new 40 – At this rate aging sounds exciting.  Truthfully aging can be difficult on all levels, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  It’s how we work these categories that will make the difference between feeling 40 and feeling 60.

Truthfully old age is a state of mind and there is no doubt that people who have a younger outlook are healthier in old age.  People who consider themselves frail are more likely to abandon activities which can keep them healthy in old age, such as taking regular exercise and others with a positive attitude can remain socially active and healthy and enjoy a greater quality of life despite having equal or greater levels of physical weakness.

A recent study found among people whose ages ranged from 66 to 98 whom had varying levels of physical health – some who lived independently and other who were under some sort or care.  Participants were asked about their experience of aging and frailty, to determine how their attitude could affect their health and quality of life.

Most participants even those in poor physical shape, maintained that they were still in good condition, with one commenting “If people think they are old and frail they will act like they are old and frail”.  There were two people who took part in the study who did consider themselves frail and their outlook had led them to withdraw from socialising and exercise even though they were physically stronger than others in the study.

So that’s the answer isn’t it? Age is a state of mind!  Well from experience I can assure that although that is a great help, its medical advances are probably the greatest help in keeping old buggers ticking over.  It is paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to the majority but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.

My own outlook on life is that old age starts 15 years from now!  I am old enough to have served on an armed merchantman in the Korean War and to have damaged my hearing in an underwater explosion when clearing the wrecks of ships sunk by Colonel Nasser (spit) in the Suez Conflict.  I’ve shot people and been shot at and came out unscathed (physically that is), mentally my brain has given me a death wish by taking part in dangerous sports and pursuits from white water canoeing, ocean racing, rock climbing and surfing and I still participate in anything that I think I physically can!

Medical science over the years has given me carbon fibre pins in my medial and cruciate ligaments in my left leg, prosthetic stainless steel joints in both knees and two replacement thumb joints.  I took my new knees up Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons to do the ‘Fan Dance’ without using a walking stick or even hiking poles, just to prove that I could.  Early this year I walked the Watkin Path up Snowden until I got out of breath somewhere beyond the Gladstone Rock.  Two months ago I went to Perranporth to go surfing.  I discovered that I can no longer stand up on a board because of my dodgy knees but I enjoyed a bit of belly boarding.  I was knackered after half an hour and found the water too cold for these old bones.

In about three weeks time my son is throwing me a party which is called “I can’t believe he’s eighty” which is very kind of him.  He was born in 1961 so I suppose that makes him only the new 35.  Do you know I’ve never heard anyone say that 80 is the new anything – just 80 so I suppose I shall keep celebrating that it’s Downhill All the Way! Wheee – here I come no brakes – Wheee!

Thanks for listening; I’ll see you again next week!  If I’m spared…

 

 

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And for the very last time – “Rio isn’t the right venue”

I promise that this will be the very last blog that I write telling you that “I told you so” about the stupidity of holding the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s been almost seven years since Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and I’ve been telling anyone who would listen, that it was a big mistake.

All I could think of when I saw Barack Obama was flying to Denmark to pursue his home town of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Games.  All I could say was great, anywhere but the UK.  Then I saw that the winner of the Olympic lottery was Rio de Janeiro and very unlike me, I was lost for words.  I was struck dumb, where have the Olympic Committee been for the past 30 years?  To be honest my first thoughts were to suspect the honesty and integrity of the whole panel.  No-one with any nuance at all could not know that Rio de Janeiro is known the world over as the City of Violence, the City of Corruption.

The opening ceremony is this week.  So far we have had one competitor apparently mugged by an armed Police Officer in uniform who took him to a cash point to empty his bank account.  We have had Bernie Ecclestone’s Mother-in-Law kidnapped and held to ransom for £30 Million. Fortunately the kidnappers have been arrested and she was released after 13 days, unharmed and without the ransom being paid.

Policemen, whose salaries were delayed by a bankrupt state government, have been greeting arrivals at the International Airport with a sign, written in English, “Welcome to Hell”.  Well they have been warned.  The promised and much vaunted Metro Line extension and the Bus Corridor which were promised to be the games legacy for the residents are nearly 2 years behind schedule.  Bus links are also late.   Days ahead of the opening ceremony, traffic has caused chaos with 20 kilometres of tailbacks in traffic jams.  A friend tells me that her normal 1 hour commute took her 4 hours.

The new Metro extension which finally opened last Monday is only available to Olympic ticket or pass holders.  Commuters with not be allowed to use the extension until the end of the year.  By the way the Metro extension stops more than 10 kilometres short of the Games Venues, so for the remainder of the journey visitors will have to use buses or taxis to add to the traffic jams.

Rio’s high crime rate is already up on its already high world ratings.  There are many reports of drivers caught in traffic jams being physically dragged from their cars and robbed.  On top of Rio’s local difficulties they are compounded by a national crisis.  Brazil is suffering from a really severe recession, it’s President Dilma Rouseff, is being impeached on charges of manipulating government accounts; an interim government is in charge.  Rio is one of the centres of this national dysfunction.  Petrobras, the state-controlled oil firm is at the centre of a multibillion dollar scandal is based in Rio.  The city’s policemen are no exception to Rio’s violent norm; they killed 40 people in May this year alone.  Last year 133 people died violently just in Santa Cruz, a deceptively tranquil district at Rio’s western tip.  Meanwhile in the Favelas, the shanty towns that cling to the hillsides and which house over 20% of the population, the shoot outs between gangsters and trigger happy police have become even more frequent and the death toll continues to rise

The federal government has sent 27,000 soldiers and national guards to fight crime and prevent terrorism.  There are a number of Jihadist threats and some home grown ones have had their plots foiled.  In spite of Rio’s reputation as a party city famous for its fiestas and carnivals and the forthcoming Olympic opening ceremony taking to the streets, the mood in Rio is very downbeat and even a successful games is not going to be enough to lift that depression.  It has spectacular scenery but that is not going to be enough to compete with outbreaks of mosquito borne diseases, sewage infested bodies of waters with levels of viruses so high that athletes competing in them are in life threatening danger.

Apart from health concerns for the athletes, and horrendous crime threats, there is also civil unrest among Brazilians themselves over misappropriated funds for the games and a worry that this may be remembered as among the worst in Summer Games history.  I will reserve my judgement until a later date but I still have to say “I told you so”

There I’ve said it and I promise that I will not say it again.  If you are interested in my warnings over the past seven years my blog at www.jakethewriter.com/?p=1151 will take you there and has links to all of my previous Rio rants.  In spite of that I hope the games are more successful than I predict.  Especially for the British teams, for the sailors I wish you fair winds and following seas with no life threatening detritus.  

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You talkin’ to me?

There’s no-one else here, so who do you think I’m talking to?  I’ve begun talking to myself and I’ve no idea when it started.  “What have I come upstairs for?”  Out loud and often without knowing that I’m doing it.  Did it come with my grey hair, the wrinkles, or expanding waistline?  Kids do it without embarrassment all of the time, they even have imaginary friends, but at my age?  No, what I do is furtively look around me wondering if anyone heard me.

It doesn’t help that another of my signs of old age is that I have become very deaf and I’m not sure how loud I am speaking.  Perhaps if I lived alone it would make more sense, but I don’t, I live with my very understanding wife.  She is quite used to being asked if she has moved my watch/reading glasses etc. But now it’s me that I am speaking to.

The more I write my web logs to keep this old brain ticking over and I research a subject or recall something from my past for a story, I find myself chatting to myself and suddenly realise that I’m chatting loud and I’m guiltily looking around to make sure that I’m alone.

Oh my Lord, where do I go from here?  Will I find myself dressed in Salvation Army couture pushing a stolen Waitrose trolley along the street as I hold loud, dribbling conversations with myself?  Should I get myself a dog that can act as a ‘beard’ to hide behind?  Nah! I’m a cat person and my cat always knew that I was weird.  He was also totally irreplaceable.  Sometimes now that he is no longer with us I find myself chatting to him.  I just hope that no-one hears my conversations.

Talking to yourself is supposed to be a bad sign.  What about hearing voices. Also bad, talking to yourself suggests a mild neurosis or perhaps improper socialization. Hearing voices in your head talk back to you? Now we’re talking psychosis.  Me? I talk to people that aren’t there.  They talk back. Of course they talk back. What do you think I am, the sort of fool who’d waste time talking to people who don’t answer?  Please!

Sometimes they’re conversations I really need to have with real people, sometimes they’re scenes from stories I’m going to write, or that I’m writing right now.  So I don’t tell my mind to run. I just let it play.  So far, it hasn’t complained.  I talk to myself a lot. And I don’t mean only in the privacy of my own home. I talk to myself while I’m walking down the street, when I’m at my office computer or even when I’m shopping.

Thinking out loud helps me materialize what I’m thinking about. So I’ve done a little research to help me make sense of things, it may even help to convince my friends that even though it might make me look insane, I’m not really.  Talking to one’s self, it turns out, is a sign of genius.  The smartest people on earth talk to themselves. Look at the inner monologues of the greatest thinkers. Look at poetry! Look at history!

Albert Einstein talked to himself. He wasn’t an avid social butterfly when he was growing up, and he preferred to keep to himself, he used to repeat his sentences to himself softly.  So, you see? I’m not alone, and I’m not completely bonkers. I’m just really smart. Ha!

This morning, fortunately sitting alone in the sauna at the gym, I once again caught myself talking to myself out loud as I was planning my day – I stopped the conversation as soon as I realised that I was doing it again.  Then I said to myself, out loud, “Bugger it! I’m old and I’m entitled to be a bit eccentric – I’m off to see the Wizard. . . . . . . . . .

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“Dumb Insolence”

Over many years as an investigative journalist I’ve come across many stories of the great and the good but one that has stuck in my mind.  It is about that great political pacifist Mahatma Gandhi who began the movement to gain independence of the Indian Continent from the British Empire.  He also sowed the seeds for the Anti Apartheid movement in South Africa.

In the British Army there is a punishable offence against discipline, called ‘Dumb Insolence.’ I believe that it’s included in the rule book purely because the powers that be simply do not know how to deal with it but I just love it.  Perfect for an old grumpy such as I and I’ve become an active practitioner.

So with my storyteller’s hat on please allow me to pass on this little gem  – When Mahatma Gandhi was studying law at the University College London’ a professor by the name of Peters disliked him intensely and always displayed animosity towards him.  And because Gandhi never lowered his head when addressing him as was expected by his students’ there were always arguments and confrontations.

One day Mr Peters was having lunch in the University dining room when Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to him.  The professor said “Mr Gandhi’ you do not understand’ “A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat!”  Gandhi looked at him as a parent would to a rude child and calmly replied “You do not need to worry professor, I’ll fly away”.  He went and sat at another table.

Peters, red with rage, decided to take revenge on the next test paper but Gandhi responded brilliantly to all questions.  Unhappy and frustrated, Professor Peters asked him the following question.

“Mr Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package with a note addressed to ‘the finder’ with instructions that he could choose between the contents.  Within were a bag of wisdom and another bag containing a lot of money!  Which one would you take?   Without hesitation Gandhi responded “The one with the money of course”!  The professor smiling sarcastically said “I, in your place would have chosen taken the wisdom”.  Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded “Each one takes what he doesn’t have”.

Mr Peters, by this time was livid, so great was his anger that he wrote on Gandhi’s exam sheet the word – IDIOT – and handed it back to him.  Gandhi took the exam sheet and sat down at his desk trying hard to remain calm while he contemplated his next move.

A few minutes later Gandhi stood up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone.  “Mr Peters, you autographed the sheet, but you did not give me a grade”!

Like many tales of the great and the good I’m sure that this story is apocryphal but I am old enough that I remember Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi during his civil rights performances and stunts to gain attention to his movement.  I can remember being shocked and stunned when we got news that he had been shot by an assassin in 1948 at the age of 78, an assassin from his own Hindu community who was displeased at Gandhi’s attempts to appease the Muslims and bring peace between the two religions.  After his death, India was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu majority, India and Muslim, Pakistan.  His vision of peace descended into mayhem and violence and even today still simmers between the two dominions.  Who knows what would have happened if Gandhi had been given just a few more years. . . . . . . . . . . . Dumb Insolence eventually wears down the Establishment, who will never understand it.

 

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Cor bugger Janner!

 Another sailor’s yarn, it’s time to swing the lamp to give you landlubbers some force fed naval culture.  A “Janner” in naval terminology or Jackspeak; is someone from the West Country specifically Plymouth.  It is believed to originate in Devonport dockyard when talking to their workmate “John” tis pronounced Jan in Devonian see?

Rather like workers in the Chatham Dockyards being known as “Marmites” from colloquially talking “Estuary English about “mar mites” instead of my mates.  As for Portsmouth being known as “Pompey”! it is reputed to be from the Portuguese, Bom Bahia, two words meaning good harbour; also the origin of Bombay, sorry Mumbai.

There was a yarn about an infamous Portsmouth Lady of the night known as “Pompey Lil” who reputedly, perhaps that should be disreputably, had two false legs.  Two Devonport ratings had removed her legs and hitched her up on the church railings.  After having their wicked way they had walked off without paying, leaving her hanging.  She was heard to berate the matelots as “You bloody Janners are all the same, if you’d been proper Pompey men you would have helped me down when you finished”.

I digress as usual; Once upon a time when Nelson was a lad, I was a Midshipman, an embryo officer and gentleman taking a run ashore in Weymouth.  Our huge Aircraft Carrier being too big to go alongside was anchored out in the bay.  All the libertymen were ferried ashore using a naval MFV (motor fishing vessel), as per standard operating practice.

My shipmate and I proving our suitability for gentleman status, went sightseeing in the lovely Dorset countryside, had one gin and tonic and returned to catch the liberty-boat as per our orders at 2100 hours. Meanwhile the remainder of the crew had promptly got themselves completely rat-arsed (another naval term meaning as drunk as skunks) on the local “scrumpy” once they had discovered it was only one shilling a pint. (That’s 5 pence in new money)

There were quite a lot of merry sailors aboard the MFV, singing their tribal shanty “The Janner Song” as we approached the gangway. It was November, cold, dark and blowing up for a gale, imagine; about sixty somewhat inebriated crew men, singing:-

Half a pound of flour and marge, Makes lovely clacker, Just enough for you and me, Cor! Bugger Janner.

Oh how happy us will be,When we gets to the West Countree, Where the oggies grow on trees, Cor Bugger Janner! 

Up to Camborne Hill we go, Down to Helston ‘Furry’, Come on Janner don’t be late, Come on Janner hurry.

Oh how happy us will be, When we gets to the West Countree, Where the oggies grow on trees, Cor Bugger Janner! 

You make fast, I’ll make fast, Make fast the dinghy. You make fast, kiss my arse, Make fast the dinghy!

There were also us two young “Snotties” trying to look as though we weren’t with them. The Officer of the Watch called down to the MFV “Coxswain, take them round the harbour until they have learned to behave”.

Bastard! Stupid, Sub Lieutenant; we fended off and took another trip around the bay. It started to rain and then some bright spark decided that all officers are Bastards and set of an ox-blood fire hose. This is a fire-fighting implement that pumped sea water through a barrel of ox blood which when mixed with sea water produces thick white foam. They aimed the foam at the two ‘bloody officers’ but also covered the vessel and everyone aboard with it. It was very cold, very wet and very slippery.

In spite of this, as we came up to the accommodation ladder for the second time, sixty voices began, “Half a pound of flour and rice, makes a lovely clacker, Just enough for you and I, cor bugger Janner”. This was followed by an apoplectic officer of the watch screaming at the Coxswain to take them round again.

So it went on, six trips around the harbour until about two in the morning, cold, and wet, bedraggled and by this time silent, we were allowed back on board. The only two to get it in the neck were my fellow Midshipman and I.  We were told in no uncertain terms that we ought to have known better.

Oh happy days; don’t worry, be happy! To quote Bob Marley, everything will be alright.  I was quite worried when I recently read in a Lad’s Magazine (it was in my barbers’, honest); “Fifty things you should do before you die” and I discovered that I have done them all but two.  I found that a bit worrying – Just two to go before I pop my clogs.  Then I read on and found that the two that I had left were Sodomy and Morris Dancing – NO WAY.  How does it go? In every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double, don’t worry, be happy.  It wasn’t a great ‘bucket list’ anyway, number forty eight has to be a pain in the arse and my dancing is worse than my singing, so that’s that then. 

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Ahh!  . . . . . . . Venice. . . . With apologies to Bisto!

I once was given an assignment by the Editor of a glossy, wedding magazine.  To write a travel article on the romantic city of Venice; so like Caesar, I Veni, Vidi, Vici Venice.  I gave him what he wanted and he paid me handsomely.  This isn’t the romantic twaddle that I sold him.  This is the Venice that I really saw. . . . . . . . .

I arrived in Venice in the late afternoon.  It was several years since I had last been there, but Venice changes very little and when it does the differences are barely perceptible.  When you walk out of the station and see the Grand Canal in front of you the impact is still exhilarating. Still sublime, no matter how many times you have been there.  And the smell is still the same – a tang of the sea mixed with undertones of fetid water, rank sewage and diesel fumes from the motor boats.  The walk to my hotel, a small pensione was the usual Venetian obstacle course of tourists and dog dirt.

I left my bags in my room and walked to the Grand Canal and stood for a moment on the Academia Bridge.  Venice has always been a chiaroscuro city, a place where light and dark change suddenly and unexpectedly.  One moment it seems dilapidated and tawdry, the next the sunlight alters and you catch a glimpse of a beauty that makes your heart miss a beat.  From the bridge the surface at one moment looks oily and brown and suddenly has the sheen of shot silk.  The exposed banks of mud along the edges can have the appearance of the expensive unguent women apply to their wrinkles rather than the poisonous slime it really is.

I walked further along and peered through a wrought iron gate, I could see and hear water lapping against the walls of a beautiful but somewhat dilapidated building.  Even in the gloomy light it was possible to make out the scum on the surface of the water, a thick layer of kitchen scraps and other rubbish which had been dumped there over the years and not been flushed away by the action of the tides.  I was certain that I could also hear the patter of the feet of rats.  I wandered to St. Marks Square for a drink before dinner.  It’s what all tourists do, but somehow in Venice it’s the only place for an aperitif.

The city is so cramped, its open spaces so small and so few in number that the Piazza alone gives any relief from the suffocating claustrophobia.  Only in St. Marks can you really see the sky, only there can you savour the exquisite atmosphere of the Venetian dusk, the shadows stretching out across the foot- worn stones, the water by the Piazzetta is as iridescent  as a sheet of Mother-of-pearl.  Here it was reasonably easy to write some romantic guff for the magazine for starry-eyed brides.

In fact when you get to the square you find it brimming over with foreigners, unscrupulous street sellers and overfed pigeons which splatter droppings on your head as you fight your way through the throng.  In history the Venetians had a reputation for savage cruelty.  The two men who made the fantastic zodiacal clock in the Piazza were officially blinded to prevent them from making another for somebody else.  Traitors were buried alive head first and other terrible tortures in the state dungeons sent shivers throughout the civilised world.  

This tradition still carries on to this day; in a modified form in St. Marks Square, not in the garrotte, or the rack of yore but infinitely more subtle and pitiless in the form of half a dozen cafe orchestras each competing with the others and the sounds reverberate around the surrounding building, assaulting your ears from every direction. . . . . . Can’t think of more romantic surroundings for a wedding. . . Honest!

I would just add that I had a conversation with a Venetian hotel owner who asked if it were possible for me to pay him in Sterling rather than Euros.  He told me that since the Euro was formed in 1999 the Italian economy has been a disaster.  Being fair he blamed a lot of problems on their political system but mostly the European Union Monster (his words).  I asked him what the solution was and he answered in one sentence – Leave the Euro!

 

 

 

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In God they trust – it says so on the dollar bill…

The United States is a country that challenges the world traveller to adjust to its scale. Little slumdog children in India are told tales that its streets are paved in gold. Cartoon books the world over mock the culture’s lack of refinement. Newspapers around the world speculate on the effects of the American administration. Incredible landscapes, hidden throughout the vast continental mass, counterpoise the endless parade of WalMarts and McDonalds. While every preconception one has about the “U S of A” is valid, the challenge to the traveller is to accept this country for its gems. And here the gems are the brightest and largest, as Americans will tell you, ‘We’re number one!’

America, doubtlessly, is the First World and yet a visit to Katrina-devastated New Orleans or to the jaggedly backwards Appalachia makes one wonder whether the term First World even has any meaning. In this land of the free you had better not drink until you reach 21 years of age. The richest nation in the world does not provide its citizens proper affordable health care, and it has the highest proportion of lawyers and jailed criminals per capita.

All things are the best in America, but money does all the talking. The poor backpacker, scrounging to try and see this country on the cheap, is likely to be treated like something the dog left on the pavement. But for those with pluck, a thick skin, or a little money saved, the United States opens her doors.

For such a large country, America has an appalling sameness and a very monotonous culture from east to west thanks mostly to national television. And yet there are quite a few States that are like separate countries themselves – such as California, Texas and New England among many. The east coast, boasting a sprawling mega-metropolis from Boston to Washington, carries a sense of urgency in the atmosphere and there is no doubt something always going on in the city.

The South with its Bible belt states like Alabama and Mississippi slow down the pace a lot and race hangs heavy in the air. Along the Pacific a new braver breed of a people, with no history to speak of, cling to their mountain bikes or Louis Vuiton handbags depending on their personal market-influenced consumer choice.

Somewhere buried in all of this, perhaps invisible to the naked eye, is the heartbeat of a fresh continent that existed here even before the Natives came tens of thousands of years ago. This is the land of Walt Whitman’s plaintive singing, the land where technological marvels continually spring up in unlikely places and the country of highways carry such solitude that Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac canonized them.

The struggle for equality continues in the United States, too, and for every Bush and Nixon you have a John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to impart some hope. Echoes of the spirit of the ’60s can be heard, a time in history as powerful as any.

When I listened to Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech I thought that there is hope.  If he can impress a white, dyed-in-the-wool, English Tory like me I thought that he must have something.  But like virtually every politician it turned out that it was mostly smoke and mirrors.  He, like an old girlfriend, promised much and performed little.  I read somewhere, probably in a Republican newspaper that Barack Obama is close to having played more rounds of golf since 2009 than Tiger Woods.  Unlike me, who has an opinion about everything, I am not going to put my nose into American politics.  They appear to be a mystery even to most Americans and to this Brit they will stay that way.

While I make that statement I am equally certain that British and European politics and even world politics are an equal mystery to Barack Obama.  In fact during his first term of office he took such little interest in world affairs we were even wondering whether, like very many Americans he even possessed a passport.  This being the case no-one in this country can begin to imagine why he is getting involved in our referendum.  In actual fact if he imagines that he is doing ‘Bro Cameron’ a favour let me tell him that his intervention in a matter that does not concern him will probably be the straw that broke the camel’s back, for the ‘Remain in Team’.  End of political rant!

Yes the United States has much to offer for the traveller to see and attempt to understand. The vistas of the Grand Canyon are as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile, the city of Las Vegas that rose out of the desert is so artificial and enveloping, Los Angeles destroys pedestrians, the Great Plains are as flat as a pancake literally. The list could go on indefinitely. Hated for its imperialism and ignorance, America is still a great country and worth a traveller’s time.

You will hear stories of rude U.S. Customs and Immigration officials and long queues as you attempt to get into the country; then when they eventually get in it seems as though everyone there with a menial job is an illegal immigrant.  I am always puzzled as to how they got in but honestly things haven’t changed simply because of 9/11.

In the mid-1950s I was a deck apprentice on a cargo boat when we sailed into San Pedro, California.  I was a well brought up English lad whose politics have not changed lot over the years and would put me slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.

I was just 16 years old and I was subjected to the most bullying type of grilling imaginable by an immigration official before being allowed to go ashore.  Incidentally the ship had already called at Tampa, Florida and Houston, Texas where I had gone ashore without any problems, and my documents were stamped as such.  I was asked no less than 5 times whether I was or had ever been a member of the Australian Labour Party even though he had all of my documentation in front of him and could see that at that time I had never visited Australia.

I was a very frightened boy by the time that this cross-examination had ended and he had signed my papers to allow me to visit the land of the free.  I have told this tale many times since, you see the name of this officious, sorry I mean official, and U.S. Immigration Officer was one Herman Hoestetter.  Sixty years on, that ‘Pig’s Orphan’s name is still burned in my memory.  (A pigs orphan is a naval term that describes the bully to a T)

Obviously that proud, All-American boy thought that he was employed by the Witch-finder General, Senator Joe McCarthy.  As I matured I realised that America wasn’t at all like that self important, overbearing jobsworth and I have spent lots of time there as a visitor and love the place.  I’ve crossed from East to West and North to South by car, coach, plane and train over many, many years.  I still find the place and the people fascinating. 

I query what the driving force behind Obama’s decision to use a visit to the U.K. this Spring to urge the British public to vote to remain inside the EU at the upcoming referendum.  Does he not know that the E.U is unraveling?  What are his advisors thinking of?  Oh well it can only help Brexit on Independence Day. 

What did the Moody Blues tell us? Nothing changes and nothing stays the same and life is still a simple game. 

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