Sunday, 9 December 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (8)

This is my eighth post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2), Post (3), Post (4), Post (5), Post (6) and Post (7) can be seen by clicking on the links.

Transient Beauty

“There was nothing to be done about such beauty,
except to try to keep it.”
~ Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall

A bunch of fresh flowers or a heartbreakingly perfect rose give instant pleasure, and you’ll smile without even knowing it.  And yet you’re very conscious that they are temporary and you must squeeze every bit of enjoyment from the experience because you will never see these specimens again looking so beautiful.   I gaze in awe at huge, full blown, deeply fragrant, waxy, white magnolias, because I know that even touching them will make them go brown.  It’s all wonderful yet sad, and looking at photographs of them is nothing like the same. 


A handsome human can affect you in much the same way; after all their beauty too is transient.  The pleasure I get from studying beautiful men and women is purely aesthetic and I have no wish to interact with them personally (well alright, maybe George Clooney).  It is as abstract as studying a beautiful painting or photographic image, but with the added pleasure that they walk and talk.  People who have affected me that way are these artists when they were at their best – Jacqueline Bisset, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer O’Neill, Elizabeth Taylor...

...Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly, Julie Christie, Jenny Seagrove and Hayley Mills as a teenager;

Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Alain Delon, George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Christopher Jones (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Rob Lowe. 

Naturally I’m not immune to the physical beauty I’ve witnessed during the Olympics this year and the stunning sight of people diving into swimming pools from great heights or viewing gymnastics generally, but I confess I can’t pretend to be a sports enthusiast.

The Community

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities;
but to know someone who thinks and feels with us,
and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit,
this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is heart-warming when people come together for a common cause and are able to transcend the usual social and ethnic barriers.  The Olympics this year have done a lot of good in this regard and I’ve loved hearing the goodwill and witnessing the ‘niceness’ it’s generated.  If only it lasted.


The death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 affected a lot of us in an extraordinary way.  I know this is not shared by everybody, but I was aware of a great common sadness concerning the abrupt end of a life which had been troubled.  She had seemed now to be coming of age as a woman of the world; watching the reaction of millions of people around the world made me realise that I was not alone in wishing that the Royal Family had supported her better and showed a little more warmth towards their subjects generally.  I had kept my critical thoughts to myself, and here was a situation where we all seemed to say the same thing at the same time.  It was a nice feeling.


The 11th September 2001 ("9/11") was a momentous and painful day for the the United States and for the western world.  Much has already been said about the day when the islamist militant group Al-Qaeda organised coordinated attacks on New York and Washington by means of hijacking and deliberately crashing four passenger jets, which brought down the World Trade Center in New York and crashed into the Pentagon. 

I knew nobody directly who was a victim, but the horror we all felt was intense, as was the outpouring of goodwill felt towards all US nationals.  The press have always liked to joke about 'the special relationship', but that was a time when it reminded us strongly that we were allies with a common beginning.  I read about Americans overcome when overhearing nothing but sympathy in conversations on public transport amongst people who didn't know they were there, and how they appreciated the sympathy which had emanated from Buckingham Palace.  It felt good to know we were all the same under the skin.


Wootton Bassett is a market town in Wiltshire not too far from where I live.  It has about 15,000 inhabitants with all the usual charming features typical of an English village.  It came to prominence in 2007, when the repatriation of British soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan was moved from an aerodrome in Oxfordshire to RAF Lyneham close by, and as there was no bypass round the town, the cortege passed through it.  The first such occasion coincided with a monthly meeting of the Royal British Legion, and they decided to stop the meeting to pay their respects as the procession wound its way up the High Street.  Local people and other British Legion branches joined them after that, and a tradition was born.   

In June 2008. when Corporal Sarah Bryant was among the dead, more than 5,000 crowded into the High Street to pay their respects.

This is part of an article by Cassandra Jardine and Richard Savill, from the online Telegraph of 7th July 2009:

The ceremony that has grown up in Wootton Bassett is as simple and moving as the coffins themselves, wrapped only in the Union flag. As the hearses approach, the tenor bell of St Bartholomew's Church begins to toll. Business stops while shoppers and shopkeepers join the crowds lining the pavement. When the cortege reaches the war memorial, the president of the British Legion says a single word – "Up" – to mark the moment when ex- and serving members of the forces should begin their salute. "Down," he says 60 seconds later, as the hearses move on.

"It is a most strange feeling," says Sally Hardy, manager of the Sue Ryder charity shop. "When the bell from the parish church starts to toll and the police stop the traffic, there is just silence. It is a very unusual thing to find in a town. Just about everybody and anybody comes out.”

British Legionnaires from far afield are joined by wounded and invalided Service people who wish to pay tribute to those yet more unlucky than themselves. On the pavement, they stand shoulder to shoulder with relatives of soldiers who have made the same sad final journey, and those whose loved ones are still serving. "They tell us that seeing our respect gives a tremendous boost to the troops serving in Afghanistan," says Maurice Baker, president of the local branch of the British Legion. "They know we are thinking of them."

Many who cannot be there send messages. "Please tell the people of Wootton Bassett," reads one sent this week by a man from Cheshire, "that each one who stands to honour the fallen has a thousand more of us standing unseen at their shoulder."’

There have been over 100 such occasions and the monarchy has thanked the town by awarding it the right to call itself henceforth Royal Wotton Bassett.  Most have been recorded by the media in the south west region where I live, and every time I see them I feel a shiver of pleasure and pride that I should be living in a country with communities such as this.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Lyme Regis on the south coast - a sequence 
which I enjoyed catching as two boys 'set sail' 


Saturday, 1 December 2012

"Don't it always seem to go...

…you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”
 (Joni Mitchell)

I had never thought about the role of my car in the fabric of my life until I lost my driving licence a month ago.

As a diabetic I’m allowed only a 3-year licence.  Every 36 months I must justify to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) why I should be allowed to continue to drive.  Every 36 months I reassure them that I look after my diabetes and don’t get hypoglycaemic attacks (excessively low blood sugar), though of course I know when my glucose levels are going down beyond my comfort zone, and what I should do about it.

This year I had a 10 second episode with my left eye, when a third of my vision went grey.  I told my doctor, and the health system went into overdrive getting me checked for a TIA or minor stroke (I hadn’t had one), plus eye hospital checks, retinopathy checks, diabetes checks at every level, monitoring and so on.  Everything came up negative.  So when the usual paperwork came through from the DVLA I knew I must tell them about this, and I did so in detail, with dates and details of all medical appointments. 

I wasn’t entirely surprised when they replied that they required me to see my GP during which he should complete their own tick questionnaire.  During the interview, one of the questions the doctor asked me was whether I was aware of an impending hypoglycaemic attack. 

“Oh yes, very much so”, I replied, and described the symptoms.  “Good”, he said, and ticked the Yes box.  Unbeknown to me at the time, the question had been phrased in the negative, i.e. “is the driver unaware of an impending hypoglycaemic attack?”  The No box should therefore have been ticked.  A double negative…

Two weeks later I received a letter from the DVLA telling me my driving licence had been revoked because I clearly could not identify when I had low blood sugar.  I could re-apply in 12 months for a new licence provided I could satisfy them that I had learned to do so. 

12 MONTHS!!  That was when I realised how important my car is to me – transport to and from my employment at two Bristol hospitals, part-time driver to my 85-year old partner, impulse shopper, visits to relations and friends on the south coast, running down to the local shop for a missing ingredient while preparing a meal, space to rant, laugh and cry in peace, babble like a halfwit, pick my nose or enjoy blissful silence with nobody to notice.  My own space.

Once I had established with the DVLA that it had been my doctor’s mistake, I took a day off work and made an urgent appointment with him, taking with me a carefully worded letter as if from him to the DVLA explaining the mistake.  Although he hadn’t kept a copy of the form, fortunately he immediately acknowledged the error and accepted the letter as being what he would have said.  Once on the surgery’s headed notepaper he faxed it through, and I posted the original as confirmation.  The following day I wrote a letter to them explaining the error - all this in the 48 hours after my receipt of their letter.  Both letters stressed how important my car was to my employment.  And after all, the problem had not been of my making.

I considered that I had acted promptly; while cursing that I would have to make other transport arrangements for a week at most, as John was willing to drive me to work it would just be a brief blip and not 12 months.  I sat back and waited to hear from them, keeping my fingers crossed that I would not have to bus it to work, which would have represented a 2-hour commute in each direction, door to desk.

That was a month ago. 

I became increasingly distressed as phone call after phone call was made to the DVLA.  When you make the call, you go through multiple menus before being able to speak to a human being, and a wrong choice places you in a loop and you have to hang up and start again.  The human I eventually spoke to was always different to the time before, and though they expertly called up my information on their screens after half a dozen security questions fired at me to make sure I was who I said I was, the answers were always vague.  (“It’s in the system”.)

I eventually heard that they had accepted what my doctor had said, and they would ‘allow’ me to re-apply for a driving licence from scratch.  I wouldn’t even have to pay the fee!   Subsequent chasers (going through the same rigmarole) prompted questions from them such as had I faxed the form?  What about my former expired licence?  (Couldn’t fax that… )

John drove my car once during that time just to check the engine was still ticking over, and parked it carelessly on the drive with two wheels on the grass.  And there it remained for the rest of the time, the smothered grass waiting for release and the milkman pleased that it gave him a clearer path the other side to make his deliveries...

At one point a friend suggested to me that if this had happened to me while I was still living in Argentina, the bureaucracy would have been a hundred times worse, and the whole situation more stressful.  Well, no, I replied.  I would have bribed somebody at the outset and it would have been job sorted.  Alternatively there are frequent bus services everywhere, unlike in the UK, where most people like me live isolated from bus routes. 

The new licence finally arrived today, after a month’s worth of fuel for John driving to the hospital twice a day and doing all my errands for me.  I learned from looking up driving forums on the internet that the question on that form which caused all the trouble is frequently ticked incorrectly, and the DVLA have showed no signs of changing the wording.  Some people have even had to resort to getting letters of complaint written by their Member of Parliament or pay for medical examinations by more senior clinicians.

It makes me wonder whether it was worth being honest to them about my eye condition.  I was blabbing on to myself about the whole sorry affair in the car as I drove home from work today, with classical music going full blast and in between picking my nose.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera’s digital archive

The Maldives - Kuramathi


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Life's Little Pleasures (7)

This is my seventh post on LLPs (Life’s Little Pleasures).  Post (1), Post (2), Post (3), Post (4), Post (5) and Post (6) can be seen by clicking on the links.

Lady Luck and the Good Fortune of Others

“Happiness is six green lights in a row”…
~ from Reader’s Digest

I once found this quote among the jokes and bits of whimsy in small print at the end of an article. It became a quotable quote in the family because we lived in a very large city bisected by countless long and straight avenues, and six green lights in a row would be the cause of unalloyed pleasure and a story worth repeating at every opportunity for the next week at least.

How do you feel when you arrive by car late for an appointment in a very busy part of town with a sinking heart, and there, right in front of your destination building on a teeming street is one beautiful, perfect space, waiting for you.  It might as well have a shaft of light beaming down on it from heaven.  Or a seat on a crowded train?  For a few minutes the angels sing – you say thankyou thankyou thankyou, though you don’t know to whom to direct your gratitude.  That’s one of life’s little pleasures. 

Discovering the wonders of automatic transmission was another.  Against general advice (“only the gears give you proper control”) I took a chance and decided that my next car should be a small automatic.  Now heavy commuter traffic and traffic jams have ceased to be more than the usual annoyance.  The muscles in my left ankle have recovered and instead of having to think aout what gear I should be selecting, I can keep calm with classical music, or by thinking about a story.

I had often noticed people with iPods in their ears and wondered why they would wish to be listening to music when out in the fresh air – surely that’s an indoor pastime?  And now I know – it’s to distract you from discomfort and to fight boredom.  I found this out also by chance, and now the 15 minute walk from my car to my desk is almost half the effort it used to be.  Part of my job is to do mailouts occasionally, and they’re now quite enjoyable because I plug into BBC radio plays and funny shows as my hands automatically slap bits of paper around.

There is a special kind of pleasure to be gained from the pleasure of others, as the Olympic fortnight has shown.  It was wonderful to see the happy and harmonious atmosphere at the games, and I felt no conflict of interest when Team GB came up against Argentina.  The UK had plenty of medals to rejoice over, and I was willing Argentina on to get a few for herself – as she did, ending up with a gold, a silver and two bronze medals.  I understand the achievement this was, because there is very little investment in sport in Argentina (except for football) – in fact there’s very little money around.  Whereas the UK had funding from the National Lottery and other sources.

“Heroism is endurance for one moment more.”
~ George F Kennan

Sometimes I have been drawn powerfully into a news story with a happy ending, and feel some of the pleasure which the victims themselves have experienced. 

The Andes plane crash.  In 1972 towards the end of my final scholastic year we heard that a Uruguayan school rugby team had been lost in the Andes.  In October a chartered flight carrying 45 people including the team, friends and family had been heading for Santiago, Chile to play in a friendly match against another school, and crashed in the Andes.  Some of my school friends knew a few of the boys who had been on that plane.  A quarter of the passengers died in the crash, and others succumbed to cold and injury.  Of those left, another 8 were killed by an avalanche a fortnight later; by the time two of them had trekked for 10 days and been found by a shepherd, there were only 16 of them left and 72 days had elapsed from the day of the crash.  The shepherd alerted the authorities, and two days before Christmas they were rescued.  It was all over the news in Uruguay and Argentina – and no doubt elsewhere.  We had been following the attempts of the authorities and the parents to find the victims for over two months, and when we learned of the story we all felt a rush of delight that some had survived against all odds.  I have followed their lives where possible ever since.

John McCarthy.  I felt the same rush of pleasure when the British journalist John McCarthy was set free in 1991 after more than five years captivity in Beirut, Lebanon, where he had been kidnapped by Islamic Jihad terrorists in 1986.  The efforts by his then girlfriend Jill Morrell to obtain his release were heroic, and it captured everybody’s imagination, making his release even more exciting.  I followed his fortunes later and learned more about the Irish hostage, Brian Keenan, who was freed slightly earlier than John, and of the extraordinary fortitude and spirit showed by McCarthy during all that time.

The Chilean miners.  In August 2010 a mine collapsed in Copiapó, Chile, burying 33 miners 700 metres underground and 5 km from the mine’s entrance.  For 17 days there was no response to the bore holes drilled to try and find them, and the mine’s instability and poor safety record led the authorities to believe that there would be no survivors.  But on day 18 a drill bit returned to the surface with a piece of paper attached that said “We 33 are in the shelter, and all well”.  The country as a whole erupted in a wave of euphoria.  Help was received from other governments and donations, but it still took a further 50 days to put the machinery in place to get them to the surface, during which they were fed and watered by means of a tube.  On 13th October they emerged in relatively good health, to be greeted individually by Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera.  I was pretty euphoric myself, and followed every morsel of news as closely as I could.  I felt enormous pleasure that they and their families had been reunited. 

The miners had been trapped underground for roughly as long as the young Uruguayan rugby team had been isolated at 3,600 m up in the Andes.  John McCarthy had been chained to a radiator by his fellow man for over five years.  None of them lost hope that they would be rescued; all did their best to cope in impossible circumstances.  All were heroes to us the observers.

Selina.  If you read this blog you know about Selina, the younger daughter of my closest friend Michèle, who was involved in a very serious road accident in October 2011 which left her in a coma for several months, then in a minimal conscious state for a few more.  She has come out of it now and is slowly on the way to recovery.  Every little step has been a major triumph; every time I feel tearful with the pleasure of it, of knowing how brave their efforts are; understanding how much it means to her that she can now communicate, and that the Selina everyone knew is still there, waiting patiently to get out.  They are both heroines to me.

The triumph against all odds by a person or persons not connected to you - a selfless pleasure derived from the good fortune of others which inspires you - that's a five star LLP.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Business is business...



Orange groves

Vicky, my father's cat


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lady in Waiting - A story for Remembrance Sunday

(My picture)

John’s sister Pam is an old lady of 94. She lives quietly in the south east of England looked after by a carer and visited by her 3 children regularly.  She lost her second husband last year when he was 95, and is held in great affection by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

And so it is with the hundreds of thousands of ladies of her age.  We view them with a mixture of indulgence and respect, understanding their slow gait and sometimes confused minds, their forgetfulness.  We smile when they switch our names round by mistake, and wince with sympathy at the discomforts they are forced to suffer because of their frail health. 

When you visit Pam and look beyond the evidence of old age around you, you start to notice the silver-framed faded pictures of times gone by.  They crowd the tables and mantlepieces, their sepia images not quite sharp; happy pictures of people standing together, proud ones of men and women in uniform.  With surprise you find yourself recognising a young smiling face holding a baby - it’s Pam, and the obvious dawns on you:  this is a previous incarnation of the gentle lady you are visiting.  She too was young once, and if you ask her when she is rested and has had her nap, you will learn that it wasn’t all happy child-rearing and sunny days.

There are so many ladies like her around Europe who had their share of suffering during World War II.  They were the waiting women, the ones who played no part in the glory of wartime heroism, except that they kept the home fires burning and welcomed their enlisted men back to love and normality.  They endured many hardships, ensuring their children were properly fed from the meagre rations they were allowed, and tried for their sake to keep everything normal, hiding the inner turmoil of fear and worry about their men serving at the front.

There are millions of stories, and this is Pam’s.

Don had joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) before the war and at the outset of the conflict became a full member of the RAF Bomber Command as a Pilot Officer and captain of one of the Wellington bombers, which were the main ingredient of the bomber force in the early stages of the war.

He and Pam were just married, and it was not long before they had a golden blond and blue-eyed boy, Frank, who looked just like his father.  John was a young teenager when war broke out, and hero-worshipped his older brother-in-law.  The missions were highly dangerous but Don made light of it because he didn’t want to worry his young wife; indeed, on recalling the many nearly fatal mishaps he experienced on these missions he always managed to recount them as if they were hilarious.

In those days aircrew members had to complete thirty sorties before being transferred to training duties by way of relief; when Don completed this first stint there was an impressive celebration in his unit as he was one of the first to survive that far.

But there had been a sad price to pay – he had had three rear-gunners killed by enemy aircraft and on one occasion he was very lucky to have managed to land on his own airfield with one bomb hanging from the under carriage owing to a fault in the release mechanism.

One anecdote has never been forgotten by the family because he shared it with John’s eldest brother Anthony, who was in the merchant navy – also a very hazardous occupation in wartime.  Returning across the English Channel from a raid, Don had spotted what was clearly a British Convoy heading for home, but had been shaken to realise that he was being fired on by some of the ships, whereupon he made haste for the cover of the clouds.  As he told Anthony about it some days later when they were both home on leave, the latter interrupted to say “So that was you, was it?” … The crew of his ship had spotted a bomber overhead, which they had assumed was an enemy, and had done their best to shoot it down before it could report their position by radio…  Fortunately they missed.

With Don’s record he was promoted to Squadron Leader and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and bar.  For the next year or so he served as an instructor at a training unit in Scotland before being posted to one of the units constituting what were known as the Pathfinders.  Equiped with the new, faster Mosquito bombers, their task was to fly ahead of the main bomber forces, locating targets with maximum precision and illuminating them by means of incendiary bombs.

By early February 1945 the number of missions required to be completed before aircrews had another rest period had been raised to forty, of which Don had reached thirty-six missions; he had also managed to complete two of these without Pam’s knowledge.  Thus he was happily looking forward to the day when he could give her the happy surprise of being told that he had finished his stint.

He set off on his thirty-seventh mission (or ‘op’ as they called them) in the middle of a vicious blizzard, but in spite of the desperate weather Don made it back to the vicinity of his home airfield, where he signalled that he was ready to land.  They radioed back advising him that they had a damaged aircraft about to land and asked him to return in five minutes.  The blizzard was still raging and when the five minutes were up they had lost radio contact with him.  A short while later his home station was telephoned by another airfield a short distance away, reporting that a Mosquito had crashed near their airfield and asking if it was one of theirs.  Don had died with three ops to go, and unbeknown to him, very near the end of the war.

A few years later widowed Pam met Bill, a quiet and mild-mannered solicitor.  He was her safe haven and became very attached to his little blond stepson who had been too young to understand how he had lost his father.  They married and had over sixty happy years together.  Pam had two further children, and at family get-togethers I have attended, her first husband Don is spoken of in a natural way, with respect.  He is still very much a part of the family, and not least because one of Frank’s sons, Don’s grandchild, is apparently the spitting image of his grandfather. 

His spirit lives on.

Different times, different world.  I wanted to tell this story because it is part of the human experience,  and worthy of record. 

It is long overdue for those we referred to then as ‘the enemy’ to come forward and tell their stories round the same camp fire.


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Some creatures,
and a few pictures of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

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