Thursday, 29 January 2009
I was privileged to be among the invited guests, and joined a throng of highly decorated notables, old servicemen and friends as we passed through a gauntlet of television and press cameras gathered outside the door of the church. Having arrived early I was shown to my seat very near the front and found myself sitting next to a delightful young lady who I soon discovered had been commissioned to write William’s life story. The book is due to be published in the autumn of this year.
Truly a man of the twentieth Century, William was one of the last living links between the First World War and the Twenty-first Century. I’ve written about William before on my blog. He was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, served for 27 years in the Royal navy, was the last man alive to have seen active service in both world wars, went to Dunkirk 5 times to bring our troops back home, was the target of a German torpedo which thankfully went right under his ship -the German Commander mistaking it for a vessel with a deeper draft – escaped death many times during the second world war when both the Salamander and Hood were sunk, luckily for William just after he was transferred to other vessels. He also survived the Russian convoys and was mentioned in despatches.
At precisely 2.30 this afternoon his Union Jack draped coffin was brought into the church on the shoulders of six uniformed young ‘Stokers’. During a wonderful eulogy by son-in-law Michael Davidson, William’s great-grandchildren and children from the local Primary School placed little bouquets of snowdrops on the coffin amongst the flowers there. Vice Admiral Sir Barry Wilson KCB read the Pilot’s Psalm and John Green QHC, Chaplain of the Fleet, gave a very humorous address.
When it was time to leave, the coffin, now back on the ’Stokers ‘ shoulders, left the church accompanied by a rousing rendition of one of William’s favourite tunes ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. Once outside the church a lone bugler from the Royal Marines sounded the Last Post and Reveille. Finally, as we stood in the bright afternoon sunshine the church bell was tolled 108 times – once for every year of William’s long life.
Saturday, 24 January 2009
Later in the afternoon my old friends Bill and Marge Organ drove all the way over from Port St.Lucie on the east coast of Florida to meet up. They stayed the night at my hotel - the Yacht Harbor Inn and we had dinner together at a nearby, supposedly good, fish restaurant. Bill and Marge visit Henley from time to time and have made many friends this side of the pond. They drove me over to the Art Exhibition the following morning on their way home.
After my experience on American Airlines last week it was such a pleasure to board the British Airways flight home on Thursday evening. Mind you, the USA hadn’t entirely finished with me because, as I walked up to the baggage screening area, a big black hand was raised and the man behind it said “Whoa there Sir!” Had my complaints about AA reached his ears? No, I was singled out (yet again) for special treatment. Have a look at the red SSSS’s on my ticket:
The eight-hour flight across the Atlantic was very smooth, and how pleasant it was to hear a friendly stewardess make the announcements, unhurried and with clarity, compared to the nasal automaton on AA last weekend. The meal was nice too - and piping hot.
Pat and Averil were waiting at Gatwick airport (now that’s a treat I don’t often experience) and drove me home in the pouring rain and spray along the M25 motorway, only making one small deviation when we found ourselves going the wrong way. Tracey had left a few groceries by my front door, so after unpacking, catching up on the news in the newspapers, (including the Daily Mail’s coverage of Paul and Debbie’s holiday in Barbados), answering all the waiting mail, emails and writing cheques, I managed a quiet evening watching last week's 'Eastenders' on TV. My recipe to avoid jet lag is to always keep to the time of the country I am in, so it was bed at midnight and up at 7.30 this morning bright and early. Now I’m ready for the Chinese Year of the Ox. Last year was pretty good, being the year of the Rat. I’m a Rat.
Monday, 19 January 2009
My advice? Avoid Miami airport whenever you can. After a very early morning start in Barbados I boarded an American Airlines plane, enroute to Miami. I suppose I must be spoiled by Far Eastern airlines service because AA’s was totally impersonal, even sullen, the cabin announcements so fast and mechanical that I could hardly understand a word, and although it was a 3 hour flight the only food offered was “we have a few cheese sandwiches left at 4 dollars a go”. She said something else but I couldn’t decipher what it was – but didn’t care anyway. Arriving at Miami the queue at the immigration took nearly two hours - at the end of which I was fingerprinted and my eye was photographed. Thank goodness my connection to Tampa was due in about four hours! When I finally retrieved my big case (with its new special lock on the strap to comply with the latest US regulations) I was told the plane I was due to fly to Tampa on had been cancelled and the bar-coded tag on the case wouldn’t get me there. So after a lot of computer clicking my case was retagged and I was told to “take it over to that pile of bags and leave it there.” From what I could see all the other bags were going somewhere other than Tampa, but I was past caring by now.
Then I did a really stupid thing. Leaving Barbados too early for breakfast, and having had nothing to eat on the plane, I decided to get a meal at one of the airport restaurants. Making myself understood (just about everyone speaks Spanish there - and I thought this was America) I ordered a hamburger from the bar. After waiting for over twenty minutes it finally came, but for the first time in my life I forgot to pick up my hand luggage and made my way further into the restaurant to find a table. It must have been about ten minutes later that I realised something was missing – my case with everything in it – passport, tickets, paintings, money - the lot! Panicking like mad I rushed back to the food counter and unbelievably the case was still there on the floor! I guess I was lucky.
Paul had been telling me the night before to stay calm on what I knew was not going to be one of the happiest days of my life. Miami airport has got to be one of the most complicated airports to find your way around (and I’ve been to hundreds) but I finally located the right gate, and waited. We boarded the plane, and I settled down in the tiny little seat. How the fat man on the opposite aisle fitted into his I don’t know as he seemed to spill over by about ten inches on each side. Then all went quiet and finally the Captain announced that the machine that pushes he aircraft away from the stand wasn’t working. So we waited 15 minutes for another one. That didn’t work either! But finally, nearly an hour later, we moved. Hurray! The flight to Tampa took nearly an hour – not even soft drinks or water were served this time. So when we landed and the Chief Stewardess asked us all to clap our hands to show our appreciation of ‘Gladys’, ‘Mary’, and the other wench, I firmly sat on my hands.
But magically my big case arrived – albeit a bit late – and I hired a taxi to take me directly to the Dunedin Fine Art Center where The Miniature Art Society was holding the artists reception, prior to its 34th Annual Exhibition the following day. I think the taxi driver ripped me off, but I was glad to be amongst friends again. Later, a dozen or so of us went out for dinner and I finally booked into my hotel – The Yacht Harbour Inn.
It’s now Sunday and the weather is brilliant - Florida at its best. The MASF puts on the most elaborate awards show of all the miniature societies in the world, I think. It started with a lavish ‘Brunch’ at the Bon Apetite restaurant. My very good friends Wes and Rachelle Siegrist (wonderful artists and fellow bloggers) were there, as were Kay and Mike Petryszak, who I’ve known for nearly twenty years. (Kay is the President of the Miniature Artists of America). Rachelle, being a reader of my blog, wanted to know all about the famous chocolates that ‘Bluebells’ gave me at Christmas, and why hadn’t I brought one for her!
Friday, 16 January 2009
We left at about 10 am and were soon out to sea. Once we were under sail we just seemed to race along with the warm wind whistling past. So exhilarating! The crew were fantastic and plied us with every sort of drink you could wish for, with smiles a mile wide. I kept to rum punches and pineapple juice, as I knew we’d be going out later in the evening. Lunch on board was great - all sorts of local fish – including flying fish and swordfish, as well as tasty curries and coconut rice. Some people donned snorkels, masks and flippers (all provided) to see the turtles and sunken wrecks, some just swam, and the rest of us just enjoyed the glorious sunshine - and the girls danced. We got back to the beach about five in the afternoon and waded through the surging surf to the shore.
A calypso group sang to us at the table – I chose ‘Island in the Sun’ which always reminds me of my time living in the tropics. Our table was right next to the immaculate glistening white sandy beach and the sound of the waves rolling in just added to the perfect ambiance.
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
My companion on the flight was a charming Scottish widow. Older than me, her husband had recently died, but undaunted she was travelling the globe. I was impressed to discover she was conversant with the internet, and in fact had looked up ‘Hiking’ and Scottish Country Dancing’ in Barbados. Sure enough she found both and has brought her hiking boots and is enrolled for a Scottish Dancing evening on Tuesday. Paul and Debbie came back to have a chat with us. Paul gave my companion a very ingenious bookmark and performed the disappearing coin trick.
Now I’m in Barbados. How marvellous to be in tropical sunshine. I thrive in the heat. I was met at the airport and whisked off through fields of sugar cane waving in the wind to my hosts house. On Monday morning we walked along the beach to the Lone Star where I sipped the ice cold Pina Colada I’d been anticipating for a while.
In the afternoon I took a trip down to Holetown. This little village was first established by the British colonists way back in the 17th century. The tiny chattel houses there have now become picturesque pastel-coloured boutiques.
Now it is Tuesday, and it already seems as if I’ve been here for a week. I was driven across the island this morning. The views were breathtaking and the winding roads exhilarating, if a bit scary at times. We visited 350-year-old St. Nicholas Abbey – a Jacobean mansion built in 1658 -one of only three Jacobean Plantation Great Houses existing in the Western Hemisphere. After a walk around the house and gardens we drove to one of the highest points in Barbados where we gazed out to a rough sea in the distance.
Friday, 9 January 2009
My friend ‘Bluebells’ gave me a beautiful box of chocolates at Christmas. She was visiting from San Francisco. It’s too nice to open, don’t you think? ‘Pootle’ – my enigmatic blog buddy wanted to see what it looked like – hence the picture. However when I get back from the USA perhaps I’ll give a little dinner party and open it then.
Apart from visits to the dentist, optician and barber, my life has been a bit mundane since the New Year. Pat and Averil – my old friends from schooldays hundreds of years ago - came over on Wednesday. We had lunch in the Catherine Wheel in Henley, and in the afternoon Pat ironed about 25 of my shirts. What a gem she is! While she slaved away I gave them a slide show on the big new TV of photographs taken in Bangkok and Singapore last year.
Even though it’s only January I’ve started painting my next Christmas card. It will be called ‘The Snow Queen’ and I was hoping that beautiful Anna was coming over on Thursday evening to pose for it, but she’s had to postpone her visit for a couple of weeks.
I’m not keen on this cold snap we are having right now. Early this coming Sunday morning I should have been travelling down to Gatwick, but chickened out for a variety of reasons. So have decided to travel down there tomorrow evening and stay at a hotel near the airport. Now I won’t have to worry about a lorry skidding on the ice, overturning and blocking the M25 motorway.
I’m fed up with my own cooking so am looking forward very much to dinner this evening at Phyllis Court with Jane and Brian (if he’s recovered from a virus) and Jules, who’s just returned from China and New Zealand.
Friday, 2 January 2009
About 12,30 we all donned our walking boots and wellies for the traditional walk. As I’ve said it was bitterly cold – this horse had made a little hole in the ice covering the water trough.
As the estate covers a number of square miles, the hardiest (and fittest) chose to walk about 7 miles. We decided on a more modest distance. As well as trains, Lord McAlpine loves exotic animals, and during our little walk we came across this Tapir lolling by the side of the woodland path we’d chosen to follow.
Sue soon made friends with it, and it wasn’t long before a couple of enormous ostriches came slowly padding towards us. In the distance we also saw a few deer and some other exotic animals. Earlier we’d spied a very strange animal sitting in the middle of one of the fields we were passing by. Sue walked up to it as it allowed her to get very close before it bounded off. About four times the size of an ordinary rabbit, we found out later that it was one of a number of Patagonian Hares that live on the estate.
An hour or so later, back at the warm and welcoming station waiting room, we were plied with a variety of home made cakes while we sat by the fire listening to songs from the fifties (my favourite era for music). Guy Mitchell’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers and a Huli Huli Skirt’ was amongst them. The rest of the walkers arrived back in little groups in time to join us for tea and hot crumpets - and even more cake. Lord McAlpine came in with John Madejski who’d been staying at the house overnight. (I ought to say ‘Sir John’ now, as he’s just become a knight in the New Year’s Honours.) They joined us for crumpets.
After a while I ducked out to look around the nearby museum. It’s taken over forty years to amass such a comprehensive collection, and it contains every sort of memorabilia you could possibly imagine.
Our ‘breakfast’ finally came to an end at about 5pm. What a nice day.