2008 – 2009
EXTRACTS FROM CHRISTMAS LETTERS
I’ll start with an apology. Several people have sent me e-mails and not had a reply, so they think I’ve changed my address. But I haven’t. It’s still the same as ever. The problem is, I download my e-mails via Outlook Express and I had a hiccup with that at one stage. In the end I had to go into the server’s computer to collect my mail. And when I looked – wait for it – there were over 12,500 e-mails in there. Now, even a speed-reader like me has a problem ploughing through that lot. So I deleted them all with a press of a button – sorry. Needless to say – I do get a lot of spam. David and Jon say that’s because I must have been visiting dodgy websites. Dodgy websites? Moi? Anyway ‘it was only for research your honour.’ Come to think of it – how do David and Jon know what happens when you visit dodgy sites?
Now for the family – in order of seniority. David is still in the navy of course. He’s finished his time but he got a 10 year extension. So he’s still got a job. And that’s a bonus in this day and age. He’s on HMS Sutherland at the moment. She’s just finished a major refit in Rosyth. His daughter, Katie, loves being at boarding school. She’s brilliant really; left home without batting an eyelid. She’s also in the sea-cadets and wants to go in the navy like her dad.
Next on the list is Diz, Dan and family ... Their two kids, Isobel – 4 and Charlie – 7, are fine. They come out with interesting quips now and again. The other day Isobel said to me, ‘I’ve got an egg in my belly.’ So I said, ‘Did you have it for breakfast?’ And she said, ‘No. Charlie said it’s there so I can have a baby.’ ‘Off you go and play.’ Then Charlie said, ‘My birthday’s on the 25th of October. And Jesus was born on the 25th of December. So I think I might be the next Jesus.’ Watch this space.
Last, but not least, come Sylvia and Jon. They are still producing music at the far end of the Rhondda Valley. They had a shaky spell, work-wise, when the ‘crunch’ started. But it seems to have picked up again now. And they landed a contract to produce the theme music for a nature-cum-travel series on Norwegian TV. The programme makers are so pleased with it that that they have booked them to produce the music for the next series. And the man in charge, who is the Norwegian equivalent of David Attenborough, has written them a very complimentary letter and says they are obviously cut-out for this kind of work. So that’s pretty positive. They have also formed a jazz trio with Jo, who is a brilliant pianist and works alongside Sylvia in her other-life as a professional singer. The jazz group is called the Pen Pych Trio. Liz and I have seen them a couple of times, once in Porthcawl and once up the valleys – and we love it. So keep an eye open.
That name, Pen Pych is worth a mention. Pen Pych is a mountain close by their house. And it’s a rare example of a perfect table-mountain. Not a lot of people know that. Sylv and Jon have invested in a dog. Not an ordinary dog, but a massive English sheepdog. He’s called Ulf. Which is Norwegian for wolf. But he’s not a wolf by nature. He’s got a lovely temperament. And, of course, they live in the ideal area for a sheepdog – mountains and forests. So they all get plenty of exercise and fresh air. I reckon they have a pretty good lifestyle up there; log fires in an open fireplace in an old miner’s cottage in the mountains.
Nearer home we have – us two. Me an’ ’er, as they say in Manchester. Liz is incredibly busy. To start with she’s in the local WI and on the committee. So she does all kinds of WI things. She doesn’t make jam or pose in the nude for calendars. But she does everything else; WI meetings; committee meetings; conferences; weekend courses; and a couple of hours of skittles once a fortnight. Along with that, she reads the lesson in the church on Sunday’s and sits on the Parish Council – which is a kind of Vicar of Dibley thing. Then she does line-dancing every Tuesday evening and goes to a sowing club every Monday morning. As well as all that she child-minds Isobel and Charlie 3 afternoons a week, with all the ferrying that entails. But she still manages to come out with me a couple of evenings a week plus a full day’s shopping expedition every Tuesday. In fact I’m so busy watching her that I don’t really have time for anything myself. So I just skull along; bit of writing; bit of editing; bit of publishing; bit of blogging; bit of walking; bit of keep-fit; bit of reading; bit of gardening; bit of social drinking. Hmm – my life’s a bit bitty really. Maybe I should do something about it. Well; maybe; in a bit.
Travel? Well it’s ironic really. We haven’t done much but it got to be too much for me in the end. It started with a few days in Goodwick, West Wales. Then came a fortnight in Italy, followed closely by the Edinburgh Tattoo; followed closely by a few days in Lougharne, West Wales. So, when Diz invited us to West Wales again in the Autumn, I turned it down. Mainly because I am in the middle of editing a book. However, there is another little trip coming up shortly because, as a Christmas present, Penny and David have invited us to Dinner and entertainment at a pub in Cornwall on the 23rd December. The entertainment is a comedian called Jethro, or something like that. I know I am going to enjoy it because Diz says she doesn’t like Jethro. And Diz is Politically Correct. And I’m not. So that should be OK then. Funny thing though, about this travel; unintentionally, we seem to have had a bit of a Dylan Thomas cum Georgian theme this year. The house we stayed-in in Goodwick was used in the film version of Under Milkwood. It was Polly Garter’s house. And Polly Garter was played by Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a lovely place. Right on the beach. When the tide was going out you could step out of the front door and collect your fill of fresh mussels. Then the next connection with Thomas was in Lougharne, which is where he did all his writing. And, of course, he’s very much in evidence there. Then the Georgian theme comes in because, when we were in Edinburgh, we did a tour of the Georgian House in Charlotte Square – and we were all impressed with it. Then, in Lougharne, we stayed in The Great House, which is a Georgian House, fully furnished in the Georgian Period and tradition. And it was great too!
So that was the year that was. Now here’s to the year to come.
We wish every one of you a Merry Christmas and a healthy and contented New Year.
There goes another year spent baying at the moon.
I always think it’s funny how things just happen. Like, I never go to pub quiz-nights because I don’t know anything and I don’t want to show myself up. But Liz and I got caught up in one a few weeks back. There was this multiple question, ‘Finish the following sentences; Tom and –? (Jerry)! Wallace and –?’ ... I was the only person to say ‘Arnold.’ Elizabeth thinks I need to get about a bit more.
Magic moments? We have this thing about holidays. Liz chooses one year. I choose the next. The only rule is – never complain. I chose in 08 and we took a look at Stromboli and saw some eruptions. But this year, for a change, it was a mutual choice and we went with Sylvia and Jon to Sylvia’s part of Norway, which happens to be the most mind-blowing area. I don’t want to bore you with an essay on ‘My Hols’ but I must say this. It’s the most dramatic place we’ve ever been. And we’ve been around a bit. If you ever get the time, hop across to Bergen and explore northward as far as Alesund. On the way, take the ferry from Hellesylt to Geiranger where mountains, towering higher than Ben Nevis, rise sheer from the fjord with massive waterfalls leaping from the top on either side to join you on the water. Then go to the top of Dalsnibba where the air gets rare and you look down at the sea from a mile in the sky with the road snaking down in a tangle of tight hairpins with drops that make a man cross-eyed. And all around are snow covered peaks for as far as you can see in every direction. Then make your way down the Trolls’ Ladder among rushing torrents and snow-covered mountains that go on for ever. And go in June when it never gets dark. I showed young Charlie some photos and he summed it up in one word. ‘Wow!’ But for all that, the place that wowed me the most was a spot beyond the town of Stryn where a small little-known valley cuts into an arm of the Jostedalsbreen Glacier. There, at the head of the valley, you stand on glacier rubble with the ice above and cold air rolling over you. Then as you move back towards civilisation you go through scrubland followed by young trees as nature starts finding a toehold. Then you are in among older, more established trees with snow-melt waterfalls rushing down to form a turquoise river that transforms the valley into fertile farmland. Then there’s the first farmhouse as people follow the receding ice. And then you are in among fields and fruit trees with strawberry sellers by the side of the road. Now everything’s lush and green and teeming with fruit and you suddenly realise that, in 10 miles, you’ve travelled through 10,000 years of evolution from the last of the Ice Age to the present day. But before you think we stumbled on Shangri-La, think about this too. There’s a memorial half way along where maybe 100 people were killed in a landslide and their bodies never found. It’s the real world. And in the same area we visited a village where relations of Sylvia were killed in a tsunami after a landslide. But in the end it’s people that make places special. Norwegian hospitality is really from Shangri-La. Sylvia’s dad gave us the use of his car for a week. Then, when we’d finished with it, he travelled all day, down the coast by ferry to Bergen to collect it. Yeah, really! That entailed an overnight drive home – 5 hours when you’re lucky – but this trip had hold-ups. Then he went and did his day’s work. On top of that, Sylvia’s parents welcomed us into their home for 2 days and her grandmother gave us the run of her cabin in the mountains. And Sylvia drove all-day every-day for a week, up and down hairpins, showing us the sights and places and nursing us every inch of the way. And all we can do in return is say – ‘Thanks!’
We were in Stoke on Trent in February, to see Katie in a fencing competition. I’d never seen real live fencing before. I never got past Captain Blood. The scoring’s done electronically these days, so they’re all wired up to computers. They all wear white protective clothes and masks, so they look like robots plugged into the mains. Errol Flynn would get the shakes if he saw this lot.
Stoke’s only about 30 miles from the Hub of the Universe so I was back on my old territory. We took a run up to Buxton while we were there. That brought back memories. I used to cycle round that area when I was a kid. We used to go in the Pennines for exercise and fresh air because, in those days, Manchester was full of factories – and terraced houses with a million chimneys pumping out poison fumes from the industrial coal the locals pinched from the gas works. But the High Peak lies to the east of Manchester. And the wind comes from the west. So there was more smoke in the hills than there was in Salford. Until I was about 40 I thought all sheep were black, because the only ones I’d ever seen till then were covered in soot. But something I learnt on the Buxton trip is that the highest village in England is a place called Flash. It’s in Staffordshire off all places – 30 miles south of Manchester, cheek by jowl with the Potteries and the Industrial Midlands. I always imagined the highest village was at the end of a yak track in Cumberland. That’s why I gave up the pub quiz-nights.
The trouble with me is, I never learn. They used to beat me for it at school but it didn’t help. Like, some time ago I bought a hard-drive TV on the internet. But it didn’t work so I sent it back. Then they said I’d spoilt the box it came in and charged me £30. How was I supposed to watch the BBC repeats without opening the box? Anyway, I phoned the helpline to complain but the bloke there didn’t speak English. So I gave up. I think this language thing is done to discourage complaints.
I swore never to buy anything off the internet again. Then I decided to get up-to-date with this digital TV nonsense and went back online again, ‘Just for research.’ I finally made my decision about the type and make I wanted and started shopping around. In the end I found this deal through Amazon – which was £200-£300 cheaper than anyone else in the world. So I had no option but to go for it – on the internet!
Comes Saturday night, I’m sat in the house twiddling my thumbs when the phone goes. It’s the fraud squad from my credit card, saying that someone has just lifted £619 out of my account – and half an hour later, someone else has lifted £624. Am I happy about this? ‘Er – no.’ So they stop my card – which is fair enough. But to rub salt in the wound, at this precise moment in time Elizabeth is standing in the queue at Tesco with the week’s wine and whisky supply. And when she gets to the till – her card’s been stopped! Now it turn towards me and people trying to vacuum money out of my account at 600 quid a suck.
A couple of weeks later, this entry appears on my credit card statement; ‘Prime Membership £47.’ But I can’t remember joining anything. My memory’s not too clever so I ask Elizabeth, ‘What am I a member of?’ And she says, ‘Nothing. You never join anything – you’re anti-social.’ (Which isn’t true; I just don’t like people). Anyway, after a lot of faffing, I find that Amazon has enrolled me as a ‘Prime Member of …’ I never find out what. But the perk is that, for a fee of £47, I get free postage. English is not my strong point – but this sounds odd. So I look in the dictionary to see what ‘free’ means. And that tells me it means – ‘for nothing.’ So they’ve charged me £47 ‘for nothing.’ A lesser man would throw the towel in.
And that’s how it is with me these days. I keep buying things that either don’t arrive or don’t work. Then I phone the help-line and find myself somewhere east of Suez, holding a technical conversation with a guy with an accent as thick as a bucket of boiled rice. I first lost contact with the outside world when they moved the call centres to Yorkshire; Bombay’s worse. Mind you, I don’t know which winds me up most – a futile discussion with a Hottentot tut-clicker, or a Brit-twit mumbling jargon through his beard then going all supercilious when I don’t know what he’s on about.
Then I send off for a set of DVDs. But they don’t arrive. The money goes off my credit card on the dot. But there are no DVDs. So I’m back on the help-line. This time I get a mechanical voice that says, ‘This line doesn’t accept incoming calls.’ Now that’s enterprising; the final solution to the complaint-problem. Instead of paying someone not to speak English, install a phone that doesn’t take calls.
It’s not all bad news though. I sent off for a SCART switch. And they sent me two. They only charged me for one but gave me two. I was £6 up on the deal. I actually got something for nothing. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a winner in my life. But there’s a limit to what you can do with a SCART switch.
Eventually I did buy something in a local shop. It was a magic weighing machine that had been reduced to half price because no one wanted it. It says on the box that it weighs you while it works-out your body mass, fat, muscle, water and lots of strange things I didn’t know I had. I thought, ‘Hello – a couple of weeks with this chicko and I’ll be back on the A-team.’ But it didn’t work. So I took it back and changed it. The new one said I was overweight so I went on a diet and did more exercise. But the more I pant and starve, the heavier I get. I think the dice is loaded against me.
On a serious note, Elizabeth’s Aunt Maisie died in April and Liz wanted to go to the funeral, which was in Wick on the following Saturday. So we looked into flights, but there was nothing sensible available at short notice. In fact it would have been cheaper to fly to New York; and the train takes a fortnight. So I said, ‘Go by car.’ And Liz said, ‘Not on my own.’ So I said, ‘I’ll go with you if we go up on Friday and come back Sunday and share the driving;’ which is what we did. When we were in Wick we stayed with Liz’s Aunt Babs and Uncle Donald – 666 miles door to door. Going north, we did the journey in 12 hours exactly, to the minute; that’s an average speed of 55 mph; not bad considering there’s still a couple of hundred miles to go after the motorway ends. It meant that petrol stops were also eat, drink and toilet breaks. But it all went tickety-boo. Coming back took 14 hours, including a visit to Liz’s cousin, Margaret, in Golspie, and 3 hold-ups. We averaged 47 mph on that trip; which happened to be our wedding anniversary. So there you are; we spent our 46th anniversary as we’ve spent every day of our married life – working as a team in perfect harmony; never a cross word ... That’s strange ... talk among yourselves a minute. I’m just nipping to the mirror; feels as if my nose is growing.
Liz was back in Scotland in June. She flew easyJet, Bristol to Inverness, then hired a car and toured round her family up there. To start with she drove up to Ullapool then took the ferry over to Stornoway to see her cousin – David, his wife, Helen, and their new baby, Cormac. Then, after popping in at Maryburgh, it was across to Golspie to see Margaret and Jimmy. Then it was up to Wick to stay with Babs and Donald and do the rounds up there. After that it was back down to Inverness for a reunion with her cousin, Ellen. Not bad, eh? She was delighted with the whole trip. It’s cheap on easyJet. And it saves driving the length of the country.
While she was away I reintroduced myself to the washing machine and those pesky plastic pegs that snap before you get to the clothes line. I think they should release gypsies back into the wild; get back to the old wooden pegs. Handy things, gypsies; for the cost of a silver coin they’ll put curses on people you don’t like. (I have to watch what I say these days. Everyone’s gone touchy. It’s like they’ve all been brainwashed about their condition. They think you’re getting at them. If I open my mouth I’m an –ist or a –phile. A lesser man would throw the towel in). About the washing though; it’s funny but I always end up with this extra sock. And it never matches the one that was left over the last time. Researchers spend their lives looking into things like that.
Still in June, for my 75th Diz’n’Dan gave Liz and I a two-day holiday in a thatched cottage in Aberaeron, West Wales. It was lovely. We avoided the main routes and went in a, more or less, direct line from Cardiff. And we met hardly any traffic. If you keep away from the madding crowd it’s still possible to enjoy motoring.
All the family seem OK, as far as you can tell. David is still on his engineering course in Gosport. He’s finding it hard. He’s doing marine mechanical and electrical engineering up to preliminary degree standard. So there’s a lot of maths. They get a lot of tests and he has to score above 70% every time. So far so good. He’s into fencing now. He actually represents the navy on occasions. He’s no Hornblower but it could come in handy if he comes across any Somali pirates. He’s still involved with the Field Gun. But these days he mainly does judging. He only runs with the gun when one of the team takes time off to look for a missing finger. Penny’s fine. She works in a hospice. She’s in charge of Health and Safety so ’nuff said. And Katie’s good, enjoying school, enjoying fencing. In fact the last time we saw her she said, ‘I have a brilliant life. I spend all the week with my friends and the weekend with my parents.’ That can’t be bad.
Diz’n’Dan seem OK. They’re stressed-out at work but that’s life in the fast lane. The kids are cute. Charlie, 7, asked his mam to, ‘Sign this form,’ so he could enter the Britain’s got Talent contest on TV. She said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘Swallow knives.’ She didn’t sign. Isobel, 5, was being her usual impish self and Penny called her a, ‘Little tyke’ – i.e. mischievous. When she got home, Isobel told her mam, ‘Auntie Penny said I’m a dyke.’ I asked Charlie if he was happy. He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Happy means gay and I’m not.’
Sylvia and Jon seem to be OK too; not forgetting Ulf, the hound. The business sounds to be healthy and they’ve had more work come in from the Norwegian TV company. The series that they did the music for last year won a Norwegian TV BAFTA award. So that’s really positive stuff. Sylvia still works at the Newport College of Music and Dance a couple of days a week. She also sings in two different classical ensembles and does work for the BBC as well as appearing in concerts and giving singing lessons in the studio.
Jon and Diz are both into running big-time and did a half-marathon the other week. They practiced by running along rough tracks and over the mountains at the top end of the valleys. And, of course, Sylvia is in to sailing big-time and crews on one of the yachts based in Cardiff.
Liz is fine, as you’ve probably gathered. She’s still on the Parish Council and she’s just been made president of the local WI, which means she’ll be holding committee meetings at home. So once a month, for the next three years, the house will be creaking with geriatric old-women. Liz also has other ways of making a man feel good. The other day I said, ‘I let the cat in at five o’clock this morning.’ She bores into me with narrowed eyes and says, ‘I know. I saw you tottering across the bedroom, hanging on to the furniture.’ Another day, in the same triumphant voice, she said, ‘I found a lump of skin on the bedroom floor.’ When people say things like that, I freeze – scared of what’s coming next. Then she says, ‘It’s yours. It was by your side of the bed.’ It’s like an accusation. Now I’m wandering about the house, wondering what’s dropped off.
Ah well. Time to get back in the box. Bye-ee and:-
A Merry Christmas – and a Happy New Year.
Overheard: ‘My girlfriend says she’s pregnant again. Life’s a bastard.’
Let us pray … Dear … er – Allah … er – Brahma … er – Buddha … er – God … er – Jesus … er – forget it.
Get a hot summer and they panic about polar bears drowning; a cold winter and its Scottish deer starving.
Live with it.