PREVIOUS CHAPTER: NINETEEN: 1999-2004
January: built a low wall in the back garden to hold up flower borders, and coated the bathroom outer wall to stop damp penetration. 11th Jan: Stormy. I drove to the car park half a mile east of Freshwater Bay and watched for 1½ hours as waves crashed against the cliffs by the Needles. Heard the entire Eroica Symphony on the car radio followed by a talk by Glyn (didn’t catch the other name) about a walk over the moors from Burnley to Hebden Bridge. Thought how full and varied my life has been and wondered how it would have been had I stayed on in Hebden Bridge and possibly written that talk.
From my diary
Adam has written a three-page article on President Mbeki in the Economist – receiving strong criticism from the ANC in South Africa, but getting good support from his Editor in London, who had commented to the effect that, “When I read your article, I liked it. When I heard the response to it, I liked it even more”. 21st January: Finished Shell sculpture for East Cowes.
Wrote two limericks for Dan’s poetry box in Brading:
There was an old Poet of Brading/ came a cropper while out roller-blading
“You should give up that hobby” /called a rather stern Bobby
Which he did; needing no more persuading.
There was an old Poet of Brading / found his financial fortunes were fading
So he swapped muse and ditty / for a job in the City
And made millions from Insider Trading
27th January: Linnea’s birthday. Sang and played with Linnea all morning. Watched Ivor the Engine numerous times. Björn came back from John Radcliffe Hospital to say complications with Ellie’s pregnancy. We all went in to visit her.
28th January: AN AWFUL DAY. Björn went in to the hospital about 9.45 and rang to say specialists were there and they planned to induce Ellie right away. We were pleased, thinking this was better than waiting for the weekend. Waited with Linnea most of the day hoping for joyful phone call, but when it came, it was to say they had done a Caesarian. Little Holly only 4½lbs, but, much worse, she has Edwards Syndrome, more serious than Downes – and there is a great deal wrong with her. She is not in pain, but life expectancy is very limited – weeks, or months, at the most. I feel so very sad for the little flickering life, and for Ellie and Björn. Adam and Dan both rang. Holly was baptised at the hospital on 2nd February. Adam and Anne visited from South Africa.
11th February: Charlotte Hofton’s article about me appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press. Very positive, though I do rather come across as a Luddite hermit, having no landline, mobile, internet, email address or TV.
23rd February: No premonition, but I decided to go up to Oxford, and found Björn and Ellie had left for Helen House respite centre. Little Holly died in their arms at 1.45pm. I played with Linnea for a long while, and then we joined Ellie, Björn and Holly for some moments. Back to the Isle of Wight. Snow.
Adam having big row with South African government over AIDS policies.
3rd March: Holly’s funeral at Wolvercote Cemetery. Dan and I drove up. Bitterly cold out, and in the little church. Simple ceremony (Catholic) in which Björn gave a wonderfully moving tribute to Ellie, Holly and all who supported them over the previous weeks. Sigyn would have been very proud of him. I was.
Money available from Island 2000 for art linked to their Mill Walk project. Started research to see if I could find a story relevant to it, suitable for a carving.
19th to 20th March. Up to Hebden Bridge for Lady Royd School and Calder High class reunions. Four out of five Lady Royd pupils from the class of 1949 “present”: 80%! Discovered I have a relative, Jane, living in Midgehole, whom I’d never known about. Strange to meet old class mates. Some easily recognisable, such as Pat Williams. Others much changed, at least in looks. Enjoyable in one way, but I shan’t go again. Too much nostalgia. I want to look forward.
April: On the marble slab of an old wash-stand I carved “3,5&7 Minerva Road”, plus a pointing hand and an owl (Minerva’s symbol) and erected it on the side wall of number 9 – so visitors can at last find my house.
No 3 this way (l), and my carving shed (r) beside the entrance gate
With my neighbour Shaun took tools to TFSR Netley Marsh and then went on to the quarries at Portland. Lots of scrap stone available. Made up a big pile of slabs and got a quarry official to value it. “Will £50 do you?” he asked. Bought through a stone merchant, it would have cost ten times as much. Drove home via the Yarmouth ferry, jubilant. Built a timber arch to stand over entrance to back garden and have jasmine, honeysuckle and wisteria growing over it.
29th April: With Dan and his Limerick Bike by car to London as part of a protest against the Iraq war and parked south of the river. Dan filled a container with paint, which then trickled down through rollers and onto rubber letters fixed to the back tyre. I cycled over Westminster Bridge leaving a trail of “There once was an honest man, Blair, who…” every 20 yards. Reached Parliament Square before the first policeman stopped me. Ordered off. On to the Embankment. Invited people to complete the Limerick using pieces of chalk (supplied). Several good ones. French students much impressed by our original form of protest. Then Dan cycled down Whitehall. Hundreds of police, but nobody looked down at the road until he very demonstratively rode down Whitehall to Downing Street. Stopped by police. Obliged to make statements, give details. They sent in for a glass of water to see if paint would really wash off. Tried to make out we were damaging the road surface, and that we would offend tourists with our graffiti. We responded that tourists had said how much they admired Britain, “where the police don’t harass peaceful protesters”.
Helping Dan lay and sand new wooden floors to living room and upstairs of his house. Looks good. Found good story about Bishop Odo hiding stolen gold in Carisbrooke millstream. Great for a carving!
10th May: Oxford. Linnea (2yrs 4mths), drawing the curtains, asks, “Shall we let a little light in?”
Our old Peugeot has done 140,000 miles and sports 11 faults, including a jammed seat belt, a door permanently locked, blocked windscreen washers, a window that won’t close… BUT IT IS A JOLLY GOOD CAR, with many more miles left in it. The main reason for selling it (£50 – I was robbed!) was the sour smell. Dan, kind as ever, had taken an elderly nun for a spin round the Island and stopped along the way for an ice cream, after which she vomited over the upholstery. Soap, bleach, disinfectant…nothing would remove the odour.
Back in Portsmouth, consulted David Collins as to what new car to buy . David’s special skill and delight was to search Which magazine and motor dealers’ catalogues for Best Buys. I told him my modest requirements of a new car. It should be small on the outside, for ease of parking; but massive within, to transport furniture and stone, and so I could sleep in it fully stretched out on long journeys. I expected total reliability, with at least ten years trouble-free driving guaranteed; a small engine, miserly on fuel and low on CO2 emissions, but able to do 100mph on a German autobahn; and my price limit was £12,000. He selected a Toyota Yaris Verso – which met every condition I had specified. ‘Not a pretty car,’ he conceded, but looks had never been a consideration. I drove HW 05 6XR home from Sandown one May morning, spotless and shiny, with its particular “new car” fragrance, dropped the back seats into floor recesses to produce a wonderful cavernous space. This, I filled with a month’s worth of workshop debris, garden waste, a broken ladder and three dust bins full of household rubbish – and left for the Island’s landfill site. David, ever-protective of his bikes and cars, was shocked to hear of my casual use of a brand new car, but to me it was just a work horse – and a great one at that.
Nevertheless, I wanted to really try it out on a longer journey, so on 25th May, I set off via Calais for Denmark, Norway and Sweden. From this, five memories stand out especially.
A sunny evening in Oslo with Oddmund Hammerstad, sharing a huge bowlful of prawns washed down with white wine. We agreed about Anne and Adam – what a lovely couple they made – and then talked more generally about our lives. Oddmund told me that when he was a young Captain in the Norwegian army he was posted with the North Brigade, quite close to the USSR border in the far north. This was in the summer of 1968, a time of great international tension. One day a large part of a mechanized Russian division, with a great number of tanks, rolled right up to the border. The commander at the border radioed Oslo and was told to “stay calm and stick to standing orders” – or words to that effect – which was all very well, but as the threat seemed overwhelming, a few words about reinforcements could have been welcome, pointed out Oddmund’s colleague at the border.A couple of very uncomfortable days passed, with the Norwegians looking straight into the barrels of the Soviet guns. Finally, the Norwegian Border Commissar called his Soviet-Russian counterpart and – referring to paragraph 7 in the Border Treaty – asked that the Soviet tank commanders turned their guns in a different direction, because no threatening action was to be tolerated close to the border. “So, would you mind just pointing the guns away from us?” The Soviet General agreed, the guns were turned and the Norwegians breathed a little easier. A few nights later, they heard the rumble of engines and at daybreak the tanks had disappeared. The tactic was never properly explained; perhaps it had been to divert attention from a much more tense situation in Czechoslovakia, where a Soviet invasion took place later the same year.
In Stockholm I had a wonderful couple of weeks with Göran and Rita Dahlgren on their island home of Reimersholme, looking out over Lake Mälaren towards the old city, Gamla Sta’n. Göran told me the tale of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit a few years after World War II. Eleanor, elderly widow of the late American President, Franklin D Roosevelt, took a great interest in social welfare wherever she visited – housing, schools, community facilities and such. In Stockholm she told her hosts that, besides all the formal events, she would like to visit the home of a typical Swedish family. ‘Nothing special,’ she insisted, ‘just ordinary folk’. The Swedes agreed, but of course they chose a top official in the Social Democratic Party, speaking fluent English, with a beautiful wife and gorgeous children, living on the top floor of (Göran’s) modern apartment block on Reimersholme, with a sensational view over the lake and the old city.
Came the morning of Eleanor’s visit and the nervous official checked his apartment for the umpteenth time: wife, children, flowers, curtains, view…. all perfect. He stepped out onto the landing to call the lift up to the top floor. A sign flashed – OUT OF ORDER. In a panic, he rushed down the emergency stairs, aware his elderly guest could never climb several storeys, and wondering who on a lower floor could possibly receive her. He reached the first floor and in desperation rang a door bell at random. A man answered, but a man just out of bed, unshaven and in a string vest. The official blurted out, ‘Eleanor Roosevelt would like to visit your apartment. I can hold her off for a couple of minutes, but then be so kind as to show her round!’ To which, the man yawned and asked, ‘Eleanor who?’
We have no record of what happened behind the door of that apartment, but on the day of her departure Mrs Roosevelt thanked her hosts for an interesting programme, concluding, ‘Finally, I must say a few words about my visit to an ordinary family here in Stockholm. Normally – and this may surprise you – I am not shown an ‘ordinary’ family, but an elegant home, newly decorated, filled with flowers, with charming, educated people… But this was something different! And I must say how much I respect your courage – that you would allow me to see such an apartment.’ To which her hosts replied, ‘Mrs Roosevelt, naturally we respected your wishes. We Swedes are an honest people’.
There, too, on the adjoining island of Långholmen, I had a near run-in with the police. As parking in Stockholm is fiendishly costly, I’d left the car some distance away from the Dahlgrens’ flat under the gloomy arch of a road bridge. It was an unsavoury spot, with rough-looking people hanging about and few other cars in evidence, but it was free. Early on the last morning of my stay, I went to bring the Toyota back to the Dahlgrens’, meaning to load it with my things for the journey home. Almost there, I saw that there were only three cars in the parking area, all in a line: my vehicle, a police car, with a knot of policeman standing about, and a Volvo with its windscreen and side windows completely smashed. I had neglected to bring any car documentation with me from England – no driving licence, no ownership papers, no insurance. If I approached my car, with its prominent GB plate, I guessed the police would automatically ask for papers and I would be in trouble. I thought of turning away, but had already come too close, it would have looked suspicious. All I could do was to march up to my car with a smile to the police and a friendly “Hej!” They ignored me, and I drove off as casually as I could manage.
Next, I enjoyed a week near Lake Vättern with various members of Sigyn’s family: Eivor her kindly elder sister and – since the death of her parents – accepted head of the clan, and a weaver of fine carpets on her wooden loom; younger sister Ing Marie (“Lydia”) and her daughter Maja, who still lived on a traditional farm, much like Bidarhem, and several others. Staying overnight with brother-in-law, the ever-dependable Birger, and his kindly wife Rose-Marie, I woke up around five thirty and took my violin out into the garden. It was a glorious June morning, the sun well up, the air already warm, moist and smelling of flowers and newly-mown grass. Sitting on the wooden decking, for the lawn was heavy with dew, I fiddled away gently for fifteen minutes until some bushes parted and a little girl peered out shyly. I welcomed her and asked if she played an instrument. She rushed home and returned with a music stand, notes and a violin, and for a while we had a fine time. She played Swedish children’s melodies, to which I could quite easily improvise harmonies. The idyll was only broken when her younger brother pushed through the same bushes and, on being invited to make up a trio, came back and roused the neighbourhood with his Grade I trumpet exercise. The following day, little Elvira knocked on Birger’s door. ‘I’ve made this for you,’ she told me, shyly, and her painting – full of sunshine and grass – is on my wall to this day.
My last memory – of so many good ones from this trip to Scandinavia – was of three happy days on the low-lying coast of the Skaggerak, near Halmstad. Birger and Rose-Marie accompanied me to Frösökul and their wooden summer cottage, with its flag pole flying the yellow and blue colours of Sweden and the low trees singing in a wind that blew constantly over the sand dunes nearby. Rose-Marie was to celebrate her 60th birthday and I had asked Birger what she might like as a present. ‘The very best would be something you had made yourself,’ he’d replied. So I had gone to a public library and looked up photographs and paintings of married couples in Sweden – ordinary folk, not “society” – in the early years of the 20th century. They tended to be formal, with husband and wife standing side by side, serious and facing the camera. Birger cut me a large piece of oak and we squared it off. Then I got to work with a chisel and a couple of gouges, chipping away on a makeshift bench in the sunny back garden, with a clear blue sky overhead and birds singing in the bushes. It took two days, and a great deal of olive oil to stop the oak from splitting once it dried out, but by the end I managed to create a 60th birthday present for Rose-Marie that they have on their wall to this day.
Rose-Marie and Birger
Back in England, Margaret Lloyd – energetic councillor for East Cowes, with her equally politically active husband, Pete – unveiled the “Shell” sculpture in Columbine Road on 25th July. Some thirty people came along and, though it was grey and windy, the atmosphere was good. In September, I started evening classes in clay modelling at the Isle of Wight College. The young model impressed us by her ability to stay still for half an hour at a time, but the teacher wasn’t much help. She would visit each student suggesting various improvements, but whenever she reached me she’d say, “That’s coming along very nicely,” and move on. I never worked out if I’d offended her, but made half a dozen models and then quit.
Late spring: Björn, Ellie and Linnea visit South Africa with Adam and Anne. To Cape Town and the Garden Route.
July: Anne pregnant. May be triplets! They move back from South Africa to London, first Anne then Adam, who has time off from the Economist to work on a book.
Late in the year – To Kidlington. Doing jobs to pass the time. Some tensions between me and Ellie’s mother. I really enjoying looking after Linnea.
On September 20th, I chipped the first bit of stone off a block to begin the carving of William and Bishop Odo; and Adam and Anne had their offer accepted for a house on Hamble Street, Fulham.
Late October, I talked about stone carving to a school class at East Cowes Primary School. Showed them drawings of the William & Odo sculpture and, on impulse, invited them to come and see my workshop. They accepted, and a few days later thirty small children examined sculptures I had placed around the back garden and chipped away at chunks of breeze block. Even with two or three teachers on hand, it was exhausting keeping the children busy while trying to avoid too many banged fingers. After ninety minutes, I was ready to wave them good bye, but a teacher said, ‘Oh no, this is just Yellow Class. It wouldn’t be fair if only they came along. We have five more classes of thirty children to come; one each week.’ And they did. They kept me on my toes, putting things out, overseeing the “sculpting” and sweeping up afterwards, but it was all very rewarding. One little lad, for example, gave me the ultimate compliment when he saw the clay maquette I’d made for Bishop Odo. ‘Cor,’ he breathed, “that’s impossible!”
William confronts Bishop Odo
On 14th November, Daniel moved into 12 Lodgeside and I was delighted for him. It had been great living together, but he really needed and deserved his own place and had worked incredibly hard to renovate it – new floors, new kitchen, new bathroom…. Well done.
17th November: I was invited to speak at a rather posh evening do at the town Hall in Romsey, celebrating 25 years of Tools for Self Reliance. Drinks and canapés, various mayors and MPs and people dressed up for the occasion. I turned out to be the only bloke in a sweater, a favourite, knitted by my lovely Sigyn. Just before going up to speak, I looked over my notes and found them too detailed and ponderous, so once on the podium, I tore up the sheets in full view of the audience. There was a gasp, I knew I had their complete attention, and the next fifteen minutes went really well. A useful ploy for future talks? But not to be used too often.
21st November: Helping Björn cut, plane and sand dozens of small pieces of tropical hardwoods, to make up five displays for the Tropical Forest Trust. When I asked Linnéa what she was thinking about, she replied, “My imaginary friends: Happy Dog, Kitten and Leaf”.
18th November: Dan’s “My Pet River” unveiled.
Early December: On doctor’s advice, arranged to have a biopsy of my prostate as it is apparently unduly large. With Dan, helped move Adam and Anne into Hamble Street and repair, sand and varnish old flooring. A lovely house, in a good position close to the River and to Sainsbury’s. A week later, Björn & Co came to see Hamble Street, so the whole family was together for the day. Ellie told me that Linnéa, in the back seat of the car, had leant forward and said, “Mummy – drive like the wind!” Her vocabulary is growing fast – sometimes to dramatic effect. A while back, Björn and Ellie had been in the bathroom fixing something, with the door closed. Linnea knocked and wanted to come in. “Not right now, love”, they replied, but Linnéa kept on banging and whining, “I’m hungry…”, “I’m lonely…”, “I’m afraid…” After this, it went quiet for a moment until this two-year old (three in January) renewed her hammering and ordered: “Open the bloody door!” (At this, I reckon, mum and dad came out pretty sharpish and held a Roberts family discussion with little Miss.)
January: Finished the carving of William & Odo, the most complicated yet. Well pleased with it.
Reading Laurence Stern’s Tristam Shandy, disciplining myself to look up each of the hundreds of footnotes. Stern influenced perhaps by Rabelais, yet a great progenitor of way-out English humour (viz. the Goons). Enjoying it greatly, and following it much better by consulting the notes, though I can understand why young readers might find it hard going.
16th February: Wonderful news, Anne has delivered two boys – 5 weeks early – after five days’ difficult labour at King’s College Hospital. Adam in theatre. WELCOME to Magnus Frederick and Edvard Axel, two fine little boys. Anne in intensive care for three days and four more days in hospital, unable to walk more than a few steps. Björn, Ellie, Linnéa, Dan and I visited on the 19th and found Anne looking tired but so happy, and Adam too. Both he and I were aged 31 years and six months at the birth of our first child. And more great news! Ellie is pregnant again, with a baby due in late August. We are so happy for her and Björn. A fabulous few days.
4th March: An amazing day at TFSR, Netley Marsh, with “old timers” celebrating the organisation’s 25th anniversary. (Actually, we started in 1978, but the present staff seem to count the beginning as 1981, the year in which we registered as a charity.) A hundred or more people came, including Eddie Grimble, Mary Atkinson, Michael Jacobs, Mark Smith, the Backhouses, the Hiroms, Harry and Ruth Iles – and each person spoke, describing what TFSR had meant for them. It was very moving for me. David (Collins) read out a message from Arthur and, perhaps appropriately – given our sailing history together – I felt like the apocryphal drowning sailor whose life passes before his eyes. It was also moving to chat with some of the young volunteers helping out at TFSR, to whom the idea is still new and inspiring.
8th March: carved E.A.R. and M.F.R. 16.II.06 on a rocker of the cradle. Magnus has hernia operation at Chelsea Hospital under general anaesthetic. Recovers fine.
14th March: contacted Mark Smith and suggested we write a history of Tools for Self Reliance. He agrees.
31st March: In London with Adam where he is putting finishing touches to his book, The Wonga Coup, describing the farcical coup attempt by British, ex-Etonians and others in Equatorial Guinea. Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, was deeply implicated and Adam had interviewed him in South Africa, where he had let slip some very inappropriate remarks. Adam, obviously, wanted to include these in his book, but Thatcher’s solicitors tried to block him. Today, Adam met Thatcher again in London to discuss further. In the course of the conversation, Thatcher said, “If you [write that] I was behind the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt, I’ll have your teeth rearranged and you’ll be walking round on stumps”. Adam replied, “Can I quote you on that?” – and, amazingly, Mark Thatcher chortled, “O.K. Go on then. It’ll be a laugh”.
18th April: Councillor Barbara Foster unveiled William & Odo sculpture by the Priory Millpond, Carisbrooke. A good spot, though possibly prone to vandalism. Sunny and warm. All my dear old “regulars” turned out for the unveiling, including the Otterbecks, Andersons, Mayers and Collinses.
14th May: Helped Dan to display a poem “Keep off the Grass” on a number of signs in Ventnor Park. Two weeks later, an angry letter – purporting to come from one, Trevor Kronk – appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press attacking the Council for this waste of taxpayers’ money. In fact, Dan had financed the project himself. We checked the electoral records and street names, and found that Trevor Kronk does not exist, but then thought up a response to “him”– once I got out to Tanzania.
Mid June: Adam’s book is out and getting great reviews in several papers, including the Independent Financial Times, New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail, Observer and two full pages in the Sunday Times. A splendid book launch at the Economist offices, 22nd June, with one of the mercenaries actually having the nerve to turn up.
15th July: Shakespeare on the lawn continues. This year a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Perfect weather. Good performance and over 100 sitting on the lawn with their picnics and drinks.
26th July. Left for Tanzania with Mark Smith and Paul Turner (Garvald, Edinburgh). Probably my last visit, but a chance to see once more the communities to which TFSR has sent tools over all these years. Great to see such progress and a new spirit in small workshops. Hydro works. Tailoring for women with HIV/AIDS, inventor etc. Used pit saw for first time – top dog. Slept in brothel – “No need to use the services”, but interesting bits & pieces on bedside table. Zanzibar – Sultan’s 1950s bathroom in sad green plastic. What a development of bathroom standards to present day. Overall, a great way to end my connection with TFSR. It made everything we had done feel worthwhile. Back in Dar es Salaam, Mary Tolfree tells me of Bina Jordan’s new B&B in Walderton – she wants artistic/cultured guests. I write to Isle of Wight County Press the first Alice Kronk letter re. public poetry and Gazelles of the Mind – which they publish.
24th August: Björn rings from hospital to say “It’s a boy!” (I was right: everyone else had predicted a girl. Ho, ho.) His name will be James Karl Frederik. Really delighted for them all. Did him a special card/message about the good associations with his various names, and gave him and old compass to steer his life by.
25th August: Dan’s xylophone fence unveiled in Shanklin. “Oh I do like to be beside the sea side”. Very popular, right from the start. Delight on peoples’ faces as they tap out the tune with wooden sticks, running along thirty feet or so of fence.
1st Oct: started chiselling “Tricky Lawyer” carving.
Mid October: Three happy weeks in Italy with Goran and Rita. A good time of year to visit southern Italy: the weather still warm and sunny, but the tourist season over, the cost of lodgings cheaper and you are always welcome. From Rome, we took the train south to Matera, where we hired a car. One night the streets were alive with carnival processions and many different bands playing, but on any afternoon or evening one could sit in a square and hear students practicing their instruments in various buildings and, rather than a cacophony, the effect was very pleasing. I kept a sketchbook, and my first watercolour was of the Piazza Sedile and the Conservatore Statale de Musici. But Matera has a more extraordinary attraction: a considerable part of the town consists of ancient cliff houses, carved out of the living rock. These deserve to be much better known (perhaps a UNESCO World Heritage site?) and they will surely be snapped up by investors when the time is right, but for now they are largely deserted and you can wander through them at will. In 1935, during the years of Mussolini and Fascism in Italy, Carlo Levi – a leftist doctor from Turin – was exiled there for his political acts and found the people malaria-ridden and living in dire poverty. His book Christ Stopped at Eboli is well worth reading. Matera itself is definitely worth a visit.
Another memory from our trip comes from Piso, a small town on the toe of Italy. The Piso Tourist Office recommended that we rent the apartment of an old mathematics teacher. He would be glad of the money and could move into an adjoining flat with his relatives, and we much preferred to be in someone’s home rather than sterile hotel rooms. The first evening, we looked out over the sea into a red sunset and on the horizon saw smoke rising from the volcanic island, Stromboli. Next morning, il professore rang the bell and came in with a wicker basket of fruit and freshly baked rolls – a lovely gesture which we had not expected.
I had another motive for wanting to stay in the teacher’s flat: to improve my basic Italian by going through his books. Alas, half his wall shelved volumes on complex mathematics, while the other half housed heavy Marxist literature. Worthy, no doubt, but far beyond me. And then, as I listlessly took out a tome by Engels, I found thin but colourful booklet tucked away behind it: Emmanuelle, a light porn bodice-ripper, and an easy read – with only the occasional word needing looking up in my Italian-English dictionary. Though the word wasn’t always there.
From one political professor to the next: Back in Rome, Göran said that we were invited for dinner with Professor Giovanni Berlinguer, an elderly Communist MP who had for years represented a very poor constituency in Sardinia. His house, too, was full of books. Not only was each room ceiling-high with book cases, but packed shelves lined the stairwell and further volumes lay stacked around on the floor. He was a lovely old gentleman, still entirely on the ball, and during dinner he told us the following (roughly paraphrased here):
‘When I retired from many years of representing Sardinia, I gave up politics, meaning to concentrate on academic work. But a year or two later I was urged to stand for the European Parliament; I reluctantly agreed, and was elected. Reaching Brussels on July 20th 2004 for the opening of the next session, I was shown round the impressive building and introduced to various people – who greeted me enthusiastically. Now this was pleasant enough, but strange. Why should they be so delighted to meet a little-known Communist Italian MEP on his very first day? “Because”, they said, “we want you to chair the opening session of Parliament this afternoon.” “But how can I?” I replied, “I know nobody, I am not familiar with the procedures. I might make a complete hash of things. And why me, anyway?” “Well”, they explained, “by tradition, each opening session of Parliament is chaired by the oldest MEP present. You are the oldest Member, but if you decline, the honour passes to the second-oldest – a certain Jean-Marie Le Penn”.
Professor Berlinguer wiped a crumb from his lip, gave us the hint of a wink and concluded, ‘So, naturally, I accepted.’
Community Action to save Frank James Hospital in East Cowes – one of the most distinguished buildings in town, with memories for thousands of local residents. It was bought up by Developers several years ago, on the promise of turning it into living accommodation – and is now nearly a ruin. The Isle of Wight Council has tried to chase them up, but to no avail. I fix Alice Kronk’s poem to the hospital gates.
28th – 29th October: Now that Bina has opened her Bed & Breakfast in Walderton, hoping for “artistic, cultured guests”, I book in for the weekend in the name of the Hammersmith & Fulham Rambling Poets’ Society. Secretary: Miss Alice Kronk.
Anne mails it from Hamble Street so that it gets an authentic London postmark. Bina duly replies, via Anne, that we are booked in and I send her a letter of confirmation, inviting her to join in our poetic musings.
Punctually at three on the Saturday, the Rambling Poets’ Society turns up at Bina’s. I ring the bell, then rush back down the garden to join my fellow bards. Bina appears at the front door, gapes and after a moment’s stunned silence gives a guffaw that can surely be heard all the way down to Chichester.
31st October: I write to John Humphrys (BBC Radio 4) following his interviews with a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew on the existence of God. I describe the feelings of fear and awe I felt at times on the Atlantic and the strong wish that we would all survive, but I also describe the discovery of a rusted cake tin, shut up in an unused fridge for three years since the death of Sigyn, in the boiler room at Little Anglesey. Prising it open, I found three iced buns, red, green and yellow, with three “armies” of mould – also red, green and yellow – seemingly battling for supremacy in the blackness of their metal prison(s). Although, rationally, I cannot comprehend a God behind creation, I also compare the (very modest) knowledge that I have of the universe with that of the most intelligent bit of mould in that tin. I presume that I am several orders of magnitude more knowledgeable – but, if so, could there not also exist an intelligence the same order of magnitude above and beyond me? A nice reply from John Humphrys, who asks to quote from my letter in his book, In God We Doubt.
October: The Tropical Forest Trust in some trouble. Overextended some aspects but did not have enough ethical production of tropical woods to meet commitments. Björn moves on from the TFT – with good help from them – to join the Climate Group.
21st November: Mutti – Erika’s mother – died in Vienna. A very strong lady, though physically small. Not unlike Ruth, with her socialist opinions. Erika was lucky with her parents, both of whom were medics on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.
Ended the year with home-made Christmas cards, hand-painted. Took ages, but they were appreciated by many.
Merry Christmas 2006!
February: Dan gets poems put on the back of Vectis buses.
20th February: Erika’s 60th birthday: I make a giant 5-page sing-song birthday card for her.
17th March: Winter lecture at Tretower, Crickhowell for TFSR Cymru: “National Lottery – National Blessing or National Swindle?”
21st March – set up plaque in Kingston Cemetery, the wording of which I had written, on a railway sleeper Pete Lloyd and I had sunk into the ground – welcoming visitors. Adam in Johannesburg
Late March: drove with Dan to Bedlington, sleeping in the car, to collect 10 bronze plaques from Falon Nameplates. All excellent quality. Back via Kidlington. Asked Linnea, “Do you know how many beans make five?” Linnea, “One bean and four beans.”
Adam signs contract with Miramax to make film of Wonga Coup. Funds will pay for loft conversion at Hamble Street.
24 April-1st May: with Erika to Vienna to remove Mutti’s belongings & furniture from her room at the old peoples’ home. 22nd May: to Lancing College. Trevor Huddleston stained glass window.
20th May: Dan leads a dice walk as part of the Isle of Wight Walking Festival, using enormous die he’d made out of foam rubber. Björn joins the Climate Group. It was time for a move, and I’m glad that he’s involved in Climate Change as that seems to me to be the single greatest threat to life on Earth, and one that will affect the lives of our grandchildren. However, it means a horrendous commute each day: a 6.30 bus from Kidlington to Oxford, a jog to the railway station, a train to St. Pancras, down to the Underground and train to Waterloo, and a walk to work. And back each evening. He can’t keep this up.
14th June: Adam and Anne buy a second house, 6 Mallings Lane, in Bearsted, Kent. Very spacious, and well built, on a quiet road near the heart of the village, but in easy reach of the North Downs. The village green is pretty and cricket has been played there since the days of “The Mighty Mynn” who apparently whacked the ball one day from his crease right over some nearby oast houses. If the ones standing near the green today are the same The Mighty Mynn lofted his ball over, it was truly an astonishing clout. Adam will commute by rail to London each day, and Anne by car to Canterbury where she has a job at Kent University: a long trail for them both. Can they keep it up? Likewise the nursery they have found for the boys: it’s good, but a long way to shove a push chair down a busy road.
14th June: Disaster, almost! My carving of the Tricky Lawyer is complete and due to be installed tomorrow. All I needed to do was drill a hole into the top surface of the block in which to insert a bronze rod. This will slot into a hole in the recess, which we’ll cut out tomorrow, to stop the sculpture ever falling out (even if the cement holding it were to drop away). I took my most powerful drill and pressed the trigger, failing to spot that the drill was in “Hammer Action” mode. In a trice, I’d blasted off a considerable chunk from the front face of the carving, and felt sick to the stomach. (Only very rarely, would I consider using epoxy glue to get me out of a fix, but this is one such occasion and, frankly, the scar now makes the sculpture look even older and more interesting!)
15th June: Dan and I installed Tricky Lawyer in the Blacksmith’s Arms, a pub dating back to the 17th century. The owner had told us that his walls were double skinned, so we expected no problem: just cut out a square with the angle grinder, remove the bricks from the front course and lift in the carving. But, having made our cut, we found that every other brick in the front course formed part of the back course, i.e. there was no cavity. Suddenly a simple job became a nightmare. Each “through” brick had to be cut in half – and cut off without damaging the inner wall and plaster. We drilled, hammered and sawed, grazing knuckles and fingers, with Dan wandering inside every half-hour, ever so casually, to inspect the plasterwork behind. Only with the final half-brick chopped out and no cracks caused to the interior, the Tricky Lawyer up and cemented into place, the bronze plaque screwed alongside, only then did we relax. It had been a long day.
Pat & Paul Williams examine the Tricky Lawyer
30th June: Carol Jaye fired my clay maquette of Theodore Racine Searle, a Gentleman of the Road. Sent a photo to Derek Stirman of Isle of Wight Amnesty, who had known Theo and published a small book about him.
25th July to 1st August: I travel to via the Pass of Cattle and Ullapool – fabulous drive on the B869 – to Blairmore and Durness. Want to have my 70th birthday in the wild, communing with nature, rather than a lot of attention, cakes & candles. Visited Lonely Sandwood Bay and then Cape Wrath on the only stretch of the national road grid that is not connected to the rest (D 60?). Sat 28th: could well have died when, as night fell, I fell too, head first into a 6 foot deep, gorse-filled ditch by an isolated road somewhere near Lairg. Luckily, there were no rocks down below – only rotting dead gorse in slimy water – so I avoided a fractured skull, but climbed out drenched and filthy, and full of gorse prickles.
8th-24th August: drove with David and Erika by car to Vienna. Affixed Mutti’s plaque to the family grave stone. Helping to clear out her flat in Baden. They came back by car, I by coach Vienna-London. An old Hungarian with moustaches sat down beside me and talked incessantly in French, which initially I welcomed. He had six cats and one dog at home, and smelt like it. He claimed animals were far more intelligent than humans and confided he belonged to a group that could influence the weather by their power of thought while he personally could hold his breath for 48 hours, going into a trance and coming out fully refreshed. The sun set somewhere near Munich and he was still talking. Other passengers switched off their overhead lights and tried to doze: ours was the only lamp still shining, and he was still talking. The coach stopped for a rest break in the middle of nowhere and he got off. When he came back, I pretended to be asleep, but he picked up where he’d left off. Finally, I said, “Monsieur – you say you can hold your breath for 48 hours. Could you demonstrate these powers now, for the rest of the journey?” At this, he bristled and snorted, “Monsieur, vous n’êtes pas gentil!” But at least he shut up, and some hours later left the coach in the grey of a Liège dawn.
Last week of August: a happy week together with the whole family at Minerva Road. Jim’s birthday, Edvard and Magnus looking in excellent health and spirits. Ellie and Anne two beautiful and intelligent young mothers. Playing kubb on the recreation ground outside the house. Then a trip to the lonely beach near Porchfield – we were the only people there – swimming, collecting sea-shells, exploring the woods. Hot and sunny. A classic summer memory for the children. Dan lighting a fire. All helping to collect driftwood. Adam and Björn roasting marshmallows and frying bacon. Then in the late afternoon, back to Dan’s place for pizzas.
10th September: started drafting a history of TFSR.
Anne and two small helpers (l), Crocodile to Bearsted (r)
Late September: Helped move Adam and Anne’s stuff to the new house in Bearsted. Removal van took the main load, but I retrieved a life-size wooden crocodile just in time and lashed it with black tape (almost invisible) to the roof rack of my car. Had lots of quizzical looks from other drivers as we drove along the motorway. Dan, Björn and family all helped sort things and do many practical small jobs on doors, guttering and arranging Adam’s tools. (He had already left for the USA!)
Early October: repainted the three “Welcome to East Cowes” road signs, as part of my contribution to the Friends of East Cowes programme. Then repainted some old cast iron street signs (rather than have the Council remove them and replace with printed aluminium ones).
8th October: Invited to Arundel College in Sussex, that Archbishop Trevor Huddleston had once attended, for a ceremony at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa unveiled a stained glass window in memory of the college’s distinguished scholar. Both these men were patrons of Tools for Self Reliance, and though I had never before met Tutu, I had often heard him on the radio and admired him for his values and his sense of humour (not unlike that of Julius Nyerere, yet another TFSR patron). We chatted for a while, and I was proud to have met him at last.
Meeting Desmond Tutu
Late one warm afternoon in October, I looked out of the front room window onto the field outside and glimpsed a girl who appeared to be practising ballet movements. She looked so graceful that I could not resist going out for a closer view, and found that – instead of ballet – she was simply reaching for some large bubbles being blown by her father. Their black and white dog had joined in the fun and the effect, in the last of the sunlight, was dreamily magical.
Early November: contacted the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to see if they would finance the publication of the TFSR history. Contacted many old TFSR “veterans” to ask them for their early memories, for inclusion in the book. Dan got himself a lovely old wood-burning stove. French; filigree pattern cast-ironwork.
Started reading Ulysses – having finished and enjoyed Stern’s Tristam Shandy. Have decided to read some of the great works, rather than modern novels, now that I have more time.
Mid December, Bearsted with Adam and Anne, till they left for Oslo on the 20th; then Christmas with Björn & Ellie.
January: finished Ulysses, made an embroidery stand for Erika and had a discussions with Mark (Smith) and Eddie (Grimble) about Keeping Something Alive – my preferred title for the TFSR book. It might sound a bit medical, but once explained, it does catch the spirit of the organisation. As the book states:
The title comes from a comment made in the early days by Johnny Buck of the Bradford Woodworkers’ Cooperative. Working long hours to make and market furniture, they still found time to collect and refurbish tools for cooperatives in Nicaragua. Johnny told us, ‘Sometimes, even here, we end up feeling like part of some industrial production process – it grinds you down. But I think that supporting a small group in a village project abroad – it keeps something alive in me about the sort of world I want to live in.’
For us, this captures the spirit of practical solidarity that has inspired Tools for Self Reliance. Also, giving old tools a new lease of life helps to sustain artisan communities overseas. And by refurbishing tools and passing on their skills, hundreds of older helpers in Britain find a new purpose to life in their retirement years.
15th January: Dan launched Purple Kite. The Environmental group he works with had been about to spend several hundred pounds on a light-weight rowing boat that could be used for surveying ponds and the upper reaches of streams on the Island. Instead, Dan offered to make them such a survey vessel, in 24 hours, almost entirely out of scrap materials. In the event, it took a few days longer – materials had to be found and paint had to dry – but within ten days he had it ready, and a fine little boat it is. Later, he even took Ellen MacArthur (the round-the-world yachtswoman) out in it one day.
February and March: Had artificial lenses inserted in my eyes at Optimax (London). They sucked out the material from my own lenses with a vacuum pump, then made a tiny small hole at the outer corner of each eye and inserted two plastic lenses, each one custom-made to correct the unique myopia and astigmatism of that particular eye. The process sounds gruesome, but I can honestly say I have had more painful haircuts. They used a local anaesthetic and the operation itself took no more than 10-15 minutes per eye. After sixty years of glasses mislaid, broken, steamed up or blurred with salt when sailing; after not being able to see buses (let alone their numbers!), it was a miracle, from one day to the next, to stand on a London pavement and see every detail of buildings a hundred yards away, the brickwork, the cornices, the chimney pots, the colour of curtains in each window; to observe the bare branches of trees in the park, and note how each branch divided and became a fine spread of twigs in sharp outline against a clear wintry sky. I’m a Luddite regarding some kinds of technology, but this has been a revelation, literally.
Adam to USA to cover US elections. And to South Africa for long article on Nelson Mandela.
27th April: Björn & Ellie exchanged contracts on 4, Copse Close, Chilworth, with its long garden (231’ by 33’), little stream at the end, close to playing field and with good views of the North Downs. Should be room to add a conservatory at the back one day, as the house isn’t very big, but it is nicely proportioned for an ex-council house.
17th May: Jim’s baptism at Blackfriars in Oxford. Jim didn’t cry (Ellie and Björn had been “baptising” him all the previous week, so he was getting pretty used to being sloshed with cold water. A very happy atmosphere. Each of the formal rites that Ellie and Björn have arranged – their wedding, Linnea’s baptism, Holly’s baptism and funeral, and now Jim’s little do – has been very well balanced, not heavily religious, perhaps to accommodate Björn’s side of the family.
29th May-1st June Helping pack boxes in Kidlington and leave house and garden clean & tidy.
Goodbye to Kidlington
Next day drove to Chilworth, getting well lost in the narrow lanes after leaving the A3 too soon. Unloading boxes and setting up furniture. Linnea itchy and coming out in spots – chicken pox! Ellie worried about safety of plank across stream at bottom of their garden. Adam arrived and tried manfully to mow the lawn which was knee-high. More of a hacking job really, till a neighbour lent us his more powerful machine.
More of a hacking job, really!
One sunny afternoon, we all drove round to Peaslake – only three or four miles away – to look at the village and the building that had once been Hurtwood School. Strange to be back there after 63 years. Not that it had meant a great deal to me, though it was the first time I lived in the south of England. Long Dene School made a much greater impact on me. But somehow I felt very pleased indeed that Björn, Ellie, Linnéa and Jim would now live so close. As if the wheel had turned full circle.
8th June: Head from Stephen Pittam that the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust had made a grant of £10,000 for the publication and distribution of Keeping Something Alive. Yippeee! Now I can give the go-ahead to Lindsey at Studio Six. Alistair Plumb will handle the design.
19th June: Portsmouth Diocese finally approved All Saints Bier House for Manny Young carving in Freshwater.
20th June: Happy day as all the family met up at Chilworth, though Dan’s water rocket soaked Adam, so he was slightly miffed. Linnea using adult phrases such as “In the meantime, we can…”
1st-3rd August: Helped Dan to drill a hole in his living room wall, then cut & welded together various lengths of steel pipe to serve as the lower part of a flue for his wood-burning stove. Once this was up and through the wall, we riveted bits of galvanised piping to make a stretch 6-7 metres long (well, two lengths, the second one narrower, to slide inside the first) to make the exterior chimney. All this material was scrap that Dan had found here and there. We screwed five large clips into the gable end of the house, one above the other, up to the roof, and then – with Dan high on the ladder and me on the lower rungs – we raised the monster pipe vertically, hoisted it, and then lowered it onto the pipe coming through the wall. By now, the wind and rain had picked up and evening was upon us. To close the clips round the pipe and secure it to the house, Dan needed one hand to squeeze the clips tight, another to feed a fastening bolt through the end of each clip, a third to put on & twiddle a nut – while gripping the ladder for safety with his fourth. Once on terra firma, wet and weary, we lit the stove and basked in its warmth, enjoying curry and aquavit until nearly midnight.
5th August: the proofs of Keeping Something Alive (K.S.A.) arrived from the printers. Very exciting to open them up. Studio Six and Alistair Plumb have done a lovely job, with several colourful opening pages and lots of quotations done in a different type face. The photos, too, have come out really well, with black & white ones for the early years and then colour after 1985. Now begins the proof reading, which starts out as a pleasure, but then turns into a chore, with Mark and me both finding mistakes. Mark also wants to change complete passages, some of which I agree to, but where some – I think – are fine in the original. Several days to-ing and fro-ing between Studio Six, Alistair Plumb and David Collins’s house.
With a Board of Directors like this, TFSR was bound to succeed!
Finally finished at quarter to midnight on the 9th August. On Sunday the 10th took a bus to Fareham and then walked to Wickham to post the proofs through the printer’s letter box. The die is cast: any mistakes now will appear in the printed version.
11th August: Spoke with Lindsey (Studio Six) on the phone. He says he found K.S.A. an inspiring read. It reminds him of the ideals of his youth. Great.
Magnus (l) and Edvard (r) exploring new kitchen units Dan an Adam erect Praying Woman
16-29th August: with Dan to Bearsted, where we helped Adam erect a stone sculpture of an African Woman at Prayer in their back garden. Edvard and Magnus are talking much more now and they are two very lively, lovely little boys! Their bedroom is uniquely decorated with African paintings, sculptures and murals by Adam, while downstairs they have a huge collection of toy cars and a Brio wooden railway, the track of which Anne and Adam seem ever to be extending with more loops, junctions and bridges
From Bearsted, a long drive to Stockholm, sleeping in the car two nights, and looking in on Eivor and her family in Gränna.
On 22nd August we spent the morning helping Rita, Goran and others prepare table places for seventy guests at Kristinehof (an old manor house in Söder). Then, from 4 to 11pm, we celebrated the Dahlgrens’ joint “140th” birthday with friends and family. It was a wonderful experience. Of the seventy people, at least half performed in some way – saying a few words, reading poems, singing, playing western jazz and Vietnamese folk melodies, performing conjuring tricks – and all the catering had been done by one of Goran’s oldest pals. That so many people wanted to contribute to the event was testimony to the love, affection and respect that we all felt for the Goran and Rita. The boys and I must count it a wonderful gift in our lives to have had such loyal friends over so many years.
Next day, Dan spotted a ukulele in a shop, which I bought and found I could play right away, well, simple chords. It seems to be strung somewhat differently to the guitar.
On the 25th, it was goodbye to Stockholm and hello to the family in Habo, and later in Frösökul. Lovely to catch up with them all. It is so easy to pick up with them more or less where we left off last time. Then, via Gedser and Puttgården and the long drive back to Calais and Bearsted, where we slept.
Next day, drove to Wickham and Studio Six and picked up 420 copies of Keeping Something Alive! I am so pleased that TFSR now has a detailed history – at least of its origins, early years and the spirit that inspired it. Copies will be held by the British Library, the Bodleian in Oxford and to the national libraries of Wales and Scotland. A hundred complimentaries will go to “veterans” of the early years, several of whom contributed their memories to the book, to development institutes at universities in Europe and various developing countries, and to TFSR’s partner organisations overseas. Tools for Self Reliance will arrange a book launch and handle the sales side of things. With particular pleasure, I post a copy to Mark (Smith) and to Stephen Pittam at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
19th September, 2008: Drove to Durham for the wedding of Richard and Katherine. David unfortunately very ill, although he played a full part in the proceedings and even enjoyed himself at the sumptuous evening festivities in the great hall of Durham Castle. He became even more ill on the car journey back to Portsmouth next day and could not attend the reception given at the Royal Naval Club a week later.
David, Erika and other guests at the wedding, Durham
During the next month I went over to Southsea every week to help with practical things in the house and garden, as David was too ill to cope with them, being also in and out of hospital several times.
One project he particularly wanted to see completed was the planting of an orange and a lemon tree in the back garden of 97 Victoria Road South. From his sick bed, he gave me detailed instructions of where to put them, how wide and deep to dig the holes, what mix of soil and fertilizer to use when planting, and how to stake them properly. This was typical of David: he researched everything thoroughly – be it the purchase of a computer, the choice of skiing gear or the selection of garden plants – and though not very practical himself, he had all the information at his fingertips.
On one of my visits to Southsea, he and Erika asked me to stay overnight as David was particularly unwell, and early in the morning Erika called me to help as she feared that he suffered had a stroke. I came down to find him half out of bed and unable to move. With great difficulty, as David was a big man, we got him back into bed and called the ambulance. This took us to Queen Alexandra Hospital with sirens blaring and he remained there for two days under close observation. On 16th November we visited him and when Erika asked him how he was feeling. He whispered, ‘Foin, foin, foin!’ – a quote that Erika did not recognise, so he added with a smile, ‘The Goons, Woollie (David’s name of affection for her), the Goons!’. It was noble – that he could still joke at such a critical moment – but some hours later, he died.
David and Andy Collins
David had been a good family friend, work colleague and political sounding board (we shared many views) and I was one of three people to give a tribute to him at his funeral at Portchester Crematorium on 1 December.
Towards the end of the year, Dan and I made a 3m long bridge from recycled wood, loaded it onto the roof rack and – after dark one Sunday, hoping to avoid police attention – drove it up the M3 and A31 to Chilworth. Lights shone out from the Roberts’s kitchen window, but we crept under it, dragging the bridge, then carried it the length of their garden, and finally positioned it across the stream – to replace the wobbly plank that had so worried Ellie on the day of their arrival six months earlier.
Ellie pondering plank safety
January: Very cold spell. Only 6.8 degrees Celsius in the house and colder in the workshop, but must get sculpture finished of Manny Young, “the Island’s most incompetent smuggler”. The Church Commissioners say it has to be installed (in the Bier House wall, Freshwater) before 16th January or their permission will lapse and I must apply again. Got him up finally, with help from Dan – as ever – at 10 p.m. on the 13th.
Cheered to hear from Adam in Bearsted that Edvard invents songs such as “Jelly, jelly, go to bed”, “Hide and seek” and “It’s raining in the summer”. Like me, he is clearly a romantic, with an eye for beauty. Coming home from nursery the other day he confided to Anne, ‘Ella is the loveliest of girls!’
Mid-February onwards, Erika and I have agreed that it is time to start telling family and friends how fond we are of each other and that we now plan to live together. We have known each other for 37 years, and share so much in common: each is the only-child of socialist/communist parents and each was for years the close friend of the other’s partner – Erika with Sigyn, I with David; we have seen our five boys grow up, Andy being my Godson. We love being with each other, enjoying reading, languages and music-making. Each of us has Scandinavian friends and relatives. It all adds up. Time to tell the world!
Adam, Daniel and Björn are all very happy for us, Richard likewise. Andy, a little more cautious, says, ‘I just need a bit of time to get used to the idea’. Fair enough.
Distributing complimentary copies of Keeping Something Alive to 80 development organisations and libraries in Africa and Asia in the hope that our experience will inspire a similar “solidarity” stance – rather than charity or soulless Technical Assistance.
March: started carving “Furious Driving in East Cowes” and woke up early one morning realising that I had carved a left hand onto the end of the policeman’s right arm. Too late to rectify as so much stone has now been cut away. Will anybody notice?
April 11; An awful night. In great pain: ten or twelve visits to the toilet, desperately needing to pee, but only able to release a few drops. Standing there in the dark, groaning. Back to bed, and half an hour later, have to go again. Erika and her G.P. friends in Southsea are sure that the problem is an enlarged prostate and recommend medication, though this will only give a year to eighteen months’ respite. Then an operation will be unavoidable. I ask if it will require a general anaesthetic – which I completely dread, thinking back to the awful smelly rubber mask clamped over my face by the Hebden Bridge dentist when I was a small boy, being forced into unconsciousness. Their response: Yes, probably.
A week later, medication started, drove with Erika to Baden, near Vienna, to empty her late mother’s flat, load the car with mementos, chandeliers, carpets, crystal vases, dinner sets (what will we do with all this stuff?) collect the money from the buyer, bank it, and drive home again. A mixture of sadness, nostalgia – and mostly sheer physical fatigue – all outweighed by the relief to be rid of the responsibility of owning property almost a thousand miles from Portsmouth, used for only two or three weeks a year. Far better for Erika to have the capital to help Richard and Andy buy their first houses.
When not carving “Furious Driving in East Cowes”, I help Dan with his project to add a long, narrow workshop to the end wall of his house. He has it all clear in his mind, drawing rudimentary plans for guidance, and recycling his timber almost entirely from old pallets. One evening we go to hear the intelligent and quietly-spoken Moazzam Begg (snatched by MI5 and the CIA as a terrorist and held at the Bagram air base and then at Guantanamo) speak about his family background, imprisonment, “extraordinary rendition” and torture. We are impressed by his lack of bitterness and come away from his presentation convinced that UK and US “Intelligence”services made a mistake with this man – and probably several others.
June: Adam visited Greenland for its independence celebrations, getting some excellent photos and producing a long article for the Economist.
May: Erika and I leave by car for Holland and Stockholm, staying once again with our old friends Göran and Rita who always have a lively programme of activities lined up for us. The surest sign of this deep and abiding friendship is that we scarcely stop talking – however long or short the visit.
From Stockholm we head back to the great lakes of Vāttern and Vānern, which harbour such happy memories of Amity’s cruise and meeting up with the entire Ärlig family on the way. Today, Karl-Erik is no longer alive, and kindly Eivor in Granna is head of the family. We have lunch with her, but as the clouds roll in, we leave early to drive round the south of Lake Vāttern and north again to the lonely farm of another sister, Lydia (Ing Marie), some miles from Tidaholm.
Other sisters and a niece had gathered there, too, and it was heart-warming that they were so happy for us, warmly welcoming Erika into her new family. We sat down to a traditional Swedish meal, herring in a variety of spicy marinades, new “almond” potatoes with dill, crisp bread and cheese with caraway seed – all wholesome and tasty, once part of my normal diet, but now a rare treat. With wind and rain lashing the windows – more like dark November than midsummer – Lydia told me of something very strange: a week earlier, a small packet addressed to “Sigyn Erligh” had arrived in the post. Knowing that I was soon to visit, she had left it unopened. I cannot say that my fingers trembled, yet it certainly felt strange to open an envelope addressed to Sigyn within an hour of introducing Erika to the Ärlig family. And how come the surname featured an E and a gh – an arcane spelling that Sigyn had sometimes used before we were married – rather than an Ä? Things grew even more uncanny when letters emerged that were not to Sigyn, but from her, in her distinctive style and with her unmistakable signature!
We examined the remaining contents of the envelope and found that in 1964 Sigyn had helped to organise a voluntary workcamp in southern Italy. Now, in 2008, some of the original volunteers planned a reunion in the same Italian village and wanted her to join them. They had sent the invitation to the agency where Sigyn had worked during her Paris days. The agency forwarded the mail to her parents’ farm in Sweden – including carbon copies of her own correspondence with the Italians. The new owners of the farm had brought the package round to Lydia. It is hard to describe my feelings on reading my wife’s words, written so long ago, but now sounding as if she was in the very room together with us.
Then to Frösökul, to Birger and RoseMarie’s wooden chalet by the Gulf of Halland, there to celebrate Midsommar. And for once, it was perfect – warm, glorious sunshine and all the family around to enjoy the schnapps, the sill in different marinades, the mandelpotatis and many other savoury dishes followed by coffee and cakes. In the best Swedish tradition, we danced around the Midsommarstången (a tall pole with a cross-piece, set in the garden, all decked in leaves and flowers) singing songs about small frogs. We were so pleased to see that even RoseMarie’s nephews, aged in their early twenties, were not ashamed to join in the spirit of Midsommar, and wondered how many British youngsters would have agreed to join the adults in such “childish” antics.
Then the long drive back, again via Holland and the Zuyder Zee, to Bearsted – where we played dinosaurs with Edvard and Magnus in their sandpit – before heading back to Hampshire. Here, I learned that Ryde Council was happy to have my sculpture of Theo erected in the town square, alongside a bust of Queen Victoria.
Our Swedish journey concluded, Erika and I set up house together at 97 Victoria Road South – feeling sure that both Sigyn and David would approve.
In July, I carved the words, ‘IL FAUT CULTIVER NOTRE JARDIN’ DIT CANDIDE in the bricks along the wall at the end of the garden at 97 Victoria Road South. I wonder what future owners of the house will make of it.
Later in July, BBC Foreign Correspondent Mike Wooldridge made a programme about volunteering and TFSR for the Radio Four Sunday morning slots, “Something Understood”. In it, I managed to express some of my deepest held beliefs about the nature and value of volunteering.
Finally, in July, drove with Dan through France to join Adam, Anne, Magnus and Edvard up in our favourite mountain spot – Pralognan. It was little changed from the days when Sigyn, the boys and I had visited, with stupendous scenery, warm sunshine, crystal air, icy streams, pine-woody smells, tame butterflies, croissants and fresh baguettes each morning at the camp site. What a pleasure to see the boys enjoying it all – and Daniel, still inventing, heating water in his cardboard-box-solar-still – so that Adam (sceptical as to its efficiency) had to be prevented from plunging his hand into it. Very hot both day and night, and especially when playing Adam at tennis at that altitude. Only when Adam, Dan and I walked up beyond Les Fontanettes to the Lac des Vaches – ah memories again – could we cool off.
Back to England with Dan via Paris, Arthur and Madeleine at 7 ave le Corbeiller in Meudon. Arthur -now a semi-professional guide for certain walks in Paris, with his own website and publicity material – very keen to show us the Gare Montparnasse where he explained that General De Gaulle was not the first French official to receive the German surrender in Paris (WW II). It had been accepted the day before by General Leclerc and the Communist/ Resistance leader Henri Rol-Tanguy at the Hotel de Ville, but they were then air-brushed out of history by the Gaullist government. Hmmm?
September: Reading Marcel Proust – A la recherché du temps perdu. Volume 4. Page 347.
Daniel, helping Björn to install a wood-burning stove one Sunday, burned out the cutting disk for his angle-grinder on the granite hearth. Disaster. Until the next-door neighbour looked in to ask for help shifting furniture and, when they had finished, mentioned that he had some special granite-cutting disks, as he had once imported granite slabs from China. What amazing good fortune!
21st October, Ryde Town Square – after eight and a half hours hard work cutting out the brickwork, fitting sculpture into the hole, cementing, covering up prior to the event – Theo finally unveiled.
We never actually got permission to put it there, but everyone assumed that someone else had given it – and now it’s part of the town fabric.
3rd November: Adam interviewed by Jeremy Paxman (BBC) about The Wonga Coup and later that month edits a special Christmas edition of the Economist.
Also on 3rd November: Erika and I flew to Cape Town for a three-week holiday.
20th Dec: Carols at 97 Victoria Rd. South : a tradition that started back at Little Anglesey Road nearly thirty years ago. This evening we were 24 people singing (including Ian and Liz Backhouse, who sang with us from the very early days) and playing piano, violin, guitar, flutes and ‘cello.
We wish you a Merry Christmas – with alternative words
25th Dec Christmas with Andy and Rhian. 27th-28th Dec At Bearsted with the whole family, where Dan gave Edvard and Magnus a wooden engine he had made – to add to their huge rail network of Brio rail track – and we made our forecasts for 2010 (organised by Adam) and wrote them into The Book.
Sunday lunch at Bearsted; Jim, Magnus and Edvard on wheels