Warnemunde : brief impressions

It is difficult to imagine this seaside resort behind an iron curtain, difficult to imagine the lives of others.  The town is quaint resembling California’s Carmel although in this instance the quaintness is real, not manufactured.

The soft white sands stretch along a broad windswept beach for nearly two miles.  Empty numbered basket chairs are arranged in neat little rows, facing away from the sea and prevailing winds, they seem designed for eavesdropping.  Nevertheless, first  impressions can be misleading.  Beneath the lighthouse sits the Teepott (Teapot). This thoroughly modern sculpted building looks post-unification but was actually constructed in 1960.  Administrations and appearances can be deceptive.

Margaret Leigh writing in 1941 (Driftwood and Tangle) of a disappearing life in the Scottish Highlands describes a burial-ground with its freight of memories and prayers slowly sinking into darkness.  These are communities which  died of natural causes brought on by progress; by contrast the disappearance of many similar communities across Europe was hastened by war and its aftermath.

Helsinki : brief impressions

Finland is purpose made for the computer age, the language comes ready encrypted.  A common sight in the city centre is tourists peering at maps trying to match the random alpha character strings on the page with those of the street name.  Curiously the name is repeated on many direction signs; so similar are the names that this can only be a political imperative, one version being almost identical to the other.  Perhaps it is the alpha and beta versions of the encryption algorithm.  Like Oslo, like Copenhagen, unlike St Petersburg, this is a neat and tidy city. It floats amongst a land of islands and water; the land of Ari Vatanen  and the 1000 Lakes Rally. Everything is on the human scale even the industrial, the only objects that are out of the proportion are the ice breakers, laid up for the summer, they sit line astern, super Tonka toys.

All colours are muted, all lines are clean, there is no neon, nothing is brash.  Almost everything exudes good taste.

St Petersburg : more brief impressions

Deep under St Petersburg is the palace for the people, the Metro.  Mostly pristine and certainly grandiose, only the rolling stock fixes the system in time and place.  No moulded plastics, no bright lighting, the carriages are mostly wood lined with a depth of yellow gloss which can be traced back to the Neolithic.  Above ground, the western influences are more obvious – girls in too tight, too short skirts, mid-day drunks, too large, too dark sunglasses and McDonalds.  Amidst this is the Palace of Excess – The Hermitage – not too much wealth, just too much of everything.  Whisked through the heaving crowds by a citizen’s band voice in the head, the guides are intent on promoting everything and examining nothing – a hall full of Rembrandts was dismissed in a brush stroke.  The relief comes from looking upwards; away from the throng of heads hang the chandeliers, the bright gilt, the painted ceilings, the glass mirrors infused with gold to give a reflected image a flattering  Photoshop Gaussian overlay.

St Petersburg : brief impressions

St PETERSBURG:  Russians do not smile much and a journey into the centre reveals why.  Near the brand new port set in a flattened bleak landscape a six lane highway leads nowhere.  Cordoned off at each end, the locals sit on the central reservation and picnic; evidence that such surroundings are an improvement on the urban sprawl where they live.  Vast tenements reach upwards and outwards along the coast; this is not some hangover from the Soviet regime because they are building yet more.  This does not look a happy place.  I am reading Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines – the third essay, The Woman in the Field ends:  You are placed in the landscape, you are placed in time.  But, within that, there’s a bit of room for manoeuvre.  To some extent, you can be author of your own fate.  True in the West, less so here.  So they seek alternatives.

Tallinn : brief impressions

It is eight years since we were here last.  Then snow tyres rattled along the roads, the streets were snowy and empty and we walked along the shore of the frozen Baltic.  Things have changed; certainly it is warmer and I am told the shops have improved whilst the streets, far from being empty, were swarming – there were four cruise ships in the purpose built harbour.

Tallinn is a mini Prague, more compact and less wearing; everything is accessible and a short up and down hill hike.  The old town is in stark contrast to the suburbs which are haunted with crumbling Soviet housing schemes and overly wide road systems designed to give easy access to tanks entering the city from the East.  Outside the old town in the shadows, pressed between architecture of the old regime and the new regime, are the remnants of an entirely different history.

The churches, castle and museums are unchanged and predictable.  It is the unexpected which sticks in the memory – on this occasion the Tallinn TREFF Festival – Different Cultures, one language! www.nuku.ee.

Stockholm : brief impressions

I have been here before and have been subjected to the full history lesson, none of it sticks.  The Royal Palace is impressive, the Parliament substantial and all is surrounded by busy waters which unlike Venice, present no threat to the city – this place is permanent and solid.  There are too many tour buses and always there is renovation such that the idealised view of the city is never quite achieved – always and everywhere this unequal struggle to remember.  None of this is of significance though because the abiding memory is not of the city but the arrival and departure.  The approach by sea to and from the city threads itself between hundreds of small islands, some so close to the ship that a softly hit wedge shot could pitch a golf ball straight down a log cabin chimney – the passing of these floating megaliths must put the fear of God in the local residents, particularly the Italian ships.  On the evening we departed we watched the sun set across the islands from the eighteenth deck, a breath taking sight.  I have not mentioned that the weather has been perfect since arriving in Oslo.

Copenhagen : brief impressions

Another clear clean bright cityscape, it is almost a relief to realise that the Nordic countries can do serious tat as well.  I arrived about fifty years too late appreciate the gaudy charms of Tivoli Gardens; Blackpool Pleasure Beach with a few trees and grass.

The mermaid still sits serene upon the water whilst Japanese tourists gather to catch time and Europeans gorge on burgers, oblivious to the lady’s charms.

Facing onto the waterfront in a converted warehouse is the Royal Cast Museum, the city’s highlight.  A wonderful mix of the classical and seriously weird.

Oslo : brief impressions

All of the usual descriptions – clean, tidy, well laid out, a healthy looking race.  The mooring was adjacent to Akershus Slott (the Castle) and consequently close to the centre.  In the grounds of the castle is the Resistance Museum with helpful English translations but nothing in German.  This is one of many must-see museums of which there are far too many so didn’t.  The most enduring impression was left by the new buildings springing up at the western end of the waterfront – a series of sculptured thoroughly modern examples of 21st Century architecture which were nonetheless stunning.  On the boardwalk was this impish face.

Mum – a tribute read at her funeral on 18th May 2012

Marion Peggy Down – 13th August 1923 – 12th May 2012

On 13th August 1923 to Mr and Mrs F E T, Collingbourne Villas, Old Winton Road, Andover a daughter.

For the week ending Friday August 17th Andover Cottage Hospital:

Number of patients in Hospital – 8
Admitted – 5
Discharged – 3

Gifts – Eggs Mrs Craddock, Mrs Ellen and Mrs Withers Cakes, Mrs Bert Miles Vegetables, Mr Pearce Jam,  Mrs Withers shin of beef, Mr Ponting Illustrated Papers

Mum was born into a different wholly unrecognisable world.

On 13th August 1923 her Dad, Frederick Earnest T was 31 and Florence May her mother 27 – a pretty young thing who turned into our Grandmother, a woman so alarming I called her Mrs Kipper and cried buckets if left alone in her company.  Fred was different though – a handsome warm man who smelled constantly of Three Nuns pipe tobacco which he rubbed in big brown scarred hands.

Fred’s life reads like a Michael Palin Ripping Yarn, a life not possible today.  Ordinary people in ordinary lives doing extraordinary things. Apprenticed as a motor engineer after leaving school, his entire life was enmeshed in the mechanical.   A member of the ‘Terriers’ he went to Gallipoli in 1914 and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt.  Between the wars he continued to work in motor engineering and in his spare time took part in motorcycle trials, built a Lea Francis from two wrecked halves and then raced at Brooklands.  By combining his passion for cars with a keen interest in local football he organised what was claimed to be the first floodlit match in the country; they simply surrounded the pitch with cars and turned on the headlights.  A full time officer in the local fire brigade, he raised enough money for Andover’s first ambulance and during World War II fought the fires at Southampton and Portsmouth blitzes.

Mum worshipped him.

Mum met Dad at a dance although the precise date and circumstance are vague – a surprising outcome – Dad was very athletic – a good tennis player, captain of cricket and football at Andover Grammar but in my entire life I never once saw him dance.  It seems remarkable to me that they found each other – a short adapted quote from a Garrison Keillor story:

The stove stands in the middle of the floor where decades of dancers have stepped up and down to keep their feet warm and the benches run around the walls inscribed with old thoughts of romance, some of them shocking to a child, news that mother or dad instead of getting down to business and having you was fooling around planting big wet smackers on a stranger who if he or she had hooked up with her or him, you would not be yourself but some other kid.  This terrible prospect from the past makes a child stop and think.

Chance is a wonderful thing and that is how we are here today – not just me and Pat but everything and everyone that has sprung from that seemingly random but surely inevitable, intended event.

Mum and Dad married in 1943 in the depths of war – she was only 19 and almost immediately my sister began her journey into life – not a baby boomer but a war child, a remarkable act of optimism.

In 1951 I was born to the mother of invention.  In a tight corner, looking for an excuse, making a quick decision, providing reassurance, Mum had a quick-fire, quick-witted imagination.  Five examples from life:

  • She was a good driver – never a crash in fifty years – I had two in my first.  Giving a lift to an ageing nervous spinster she would try to inspire confidence – ‘don’t worry my dear, I drove lorries for the Land Army during the war’.
  • One crowded Christmas I had to sleep on a camp bed at the bottom of Mum and Dad’s – Pat had one of her suspect boyfriends staying for a few nights.  I was woken by Ken, Ken, Ken – I am sure of it, I have seen that man on Police Five.
  • Then there was my first serious girlfriend who was much disapproved of – That girl is a gold digger Robin – she is just after your moneyBut Mum, I don’t have any!  Well if you did she would be!
  • Dad worked in Mexico for several years in the early 70s and Mum adapted to shopping wonderfully – faced with uncomprehending market stall owner she would make a sound like a chicken, flap her arms and point to her chest – determined to buy a chicken breast.
  • This is my favourite because I think the concern was genuine – it demonstrates a wonderful naivety and shows that all she ever wanted to do was protect us, no matter how small the threat – Mum and Dad retired to a village near Sherbourne and on one my visits I bought a well-used ex US Army coat in the town, actually a lined parka complete with insignia.  I was most pleased and proudly wore it home – Mum was immediately alarmed Robin, you can’t possibly wear that, you will catch Venereal Disease! 

Manchester was near where we lived, grew up and eventually flew the nest.  In the 1950s and 1960s it was a black and grey landscape.   The fogs came and stayed for weeks, fed by all those home fires and  the heavy industry of Manchester’s Trafford Park, a place of smells and smoke where Dad worked at ICI;  Trapped Under the Smog of the Industrial Blanket.  It was a partially derelict city where bombed-out buildings remained for years after the war but we were, nevertheless, proud Mancunians.

You can place a person’s position in history by the people they admire and the things they enjoy – Mum’s favourites were, in order of preference to a bored young boy, Coronation Street (as it used to be) Billy Cotton, Russ Conway, Val Doonican, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKella, the Black & White Minstrel Show, the Queen Mother and latterly Prince Phillip.  No wonder we rebelled!

After Munich 1958 she became a staunch supporter of Manchester United with great admiration for Matt Busby and the precious surviving Babes – so the gene has been passed down the generations.  We are reds not blues so we will not mention a more recent tragedy.  There were limits though – I once inscribed Up the Reds in 6 foot letters on the beach at Newquay and was immediately told to rub it out for fear we were thought communists.

Imagination, single minded determination and a quick wit, she passed on those genes down the generations too.  This is the remarkable sequence of pictures I carry in my head based on some photographs from the time.  It is early summer 1941.  She is standing on the platform at Andover Station waiting for a train – in her hand a small brown suitcase loaned by her father.  She is still only 17. Did her Dad really know where she was going, I like to think not.   The station is buzzing, the line was used heavily by the military throughout the war.  She is in a summer dress, light cardigan, flat white shoes and white ankle socks.  She is travelling to see Dad and we will suppose it is via London.  She is a young girl in a closed carriage compartment pulled by a blackened steam train – when she reaches Waterloo, she pulls on the worn leather strap to open the window and twist the outside handle to open the door, careful not to get marks from the filthy carriage on her clean summer dress.  She walks from Waterloo to Liverpool Street Station determined to catch the train to Cambridge.  She doesn’t have enough money for tubes or trains and anyway feels safer alone and above ground.  There is evidence of war everywhere – bombed out buildings, barrage balloons, sandbags, the Home Guard.  Later that day, exhausted, she finally reaches 8 Oxford Road Cambridge where Dad is living in digs with a very watchful landlady.

She could have stayed at home, she could have teamed up with someone else, she could have taken a softer option, but that is not what she did and that is not what we do.  Bless you Mum for making us everything we are.

Children in Need

Up early this morning to welcome Jocky Wilson and Phil Ginger, both of Alnwick Castle Golf Club in Northumberland who are on the second day of what many golfers would envisage as being an impossible task.

On Thursday the 10th May 2012, they  tee’d off at Bellingham Golf Club, the first of 585 tee shots in ten days for each of them.  Full details at their web site.

The challenge is in aid of Children in Need so Jocky & Phil are hoping YOU will either sponsor their efforts, or make a bid for one of the fantastic “Four Balls” kindly donated by participating clubs.  Donations and bids can be made through their website.

Unfortunately the weather has not been kind but keeping to Allendale’s tradition of “We Never Close” the committee was out in force to welcome them and donate £100 to this worthy cause.  Captain John Woodcock acted as caddy for the 9 holes.

Their efforts were thwarted at Hexham due to the course being water-logged – some clubs need to get their priorities right, not least Close House who would let them on but only if they paid £100.  Loadsamoney to sponsor Lee Westwood’s cap at the Masters but nothing for this charitable enterprise.