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After a tortured childhood, a desperately unhappy spell at Charterhouse School where he was bullied mercilessly, and his fear of the approaching prospect of going up to Oxford University, Robert Graves quickly signed up for service in the trenches at the outbreak of World War 1.
He vividly describes life and death in the trenches; he drank heavily to assuage his fears and calm his nerves; he was wounded several times, once so severely that he was believed to be dead, and his death was publicly announced and relayed to his parents. The fact that an orderly spotted breath in his ‘corpse’, as it lay amongst dozens of other corpses waiting to be shipped out, was a remarkable serendipity. Though he eventually recovered from his injuries, he was destined to see out the war in non-combative military roles back at home.
After his failed first marriage, he met Laura Riding and, together, they left the UK and settled in Mallorca. It was a bitter separation from his homeland, hence the title “Goodbye to all that”.
Travel writing with a difference always excites my curiosity. Norman Lewis’s account of Naples during the year 1944 is not the usual memoir of a personal journey of discovery, but the result of being posted out to Italy as a member of the British Intelligence Service in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of southern Italy.
Lewis came to the posting with a useful command of Italian, learned largely from his Sicilian wife, but the job description that came with the new duties was non-existent. In the early days, they had no idea what they should be doing and, for the next 12 months, much of what they did achieve was the result of following vague orders from on high, with a liberal input of creative imagination. They formed part of an occupation force that was intended to sort out the governance of the south of Italy, long used to the whims and savagery of both the national fascists under Mussolini, and later by the German occupation.
His work was made up randomly of seeking out and dealing with German collaborators, controlling the sale of stolen military goods through the black market, liaising with the local police and people of influence, and dealing with the local Camorra (Mafia). Italy was in a state of crisis and the people were starving. The living conditions were medieval, both because of poverty and the density in which people lived together in squalid circumstance. Typhus, smallpox and malaria were rife. Lewis himself contracted malaria three times during the year.
Although written 30 years later, this memoir vibrates with the immediacy of his experiences, and serves as a perfect snapshot of life that deserves a place in the archives.
A dramatic and confused start to any venture brings with it a few anecdotal stories. I chose Gatwick as my airport of departure because Monarch Airlines offered a very good deal….and my plan to get there? Easy….a straight through train from Bedford to Gatwick. Ah, but there was the little matter of the ongoing Southern Network strikes…..damn! Plan B? Take a National Express coach from Milton Keynes. Straightforward? Sure, but let’s not mention the gathering snow storm hitting the south east which forced the cancellation of dozens of flights (admittedly mainly from Heathrow).
My coach faltered its way around the M25, while vehicles rapidly became enveloped in the white stuff, and it began to bank up on the hard shoulder. There was an element of touch-and-go about the last 30 miles, but we made it in the end, albeit 90 minutes late, putting the driver beyond his legal time limit.
Any blessings? Oh yes, the fact I had decided to travel down the day before my early morning flight has been, undoubtedly, a huge blessing…… no fretting about the possibility of a missed flight unless, of course, we had got completely stranded on the M25. So, a night sleeping rough in the airport?
The capsule pod. I must be giving in to my feminine side, because I’ve just shelled out £45 to spend the night ‘glamping’ in the South Terminal. I can’t really believe I’m doing this. I was rapidly becoming a world authority on airport sleeping conditions, and the next plan was to write a Lonely Planet guide on airport sleepovers, assigning a starred rating to each one.
So, proving that the spirit may be willing but the wrinkling flesh is weaker still, I booked into a Yotel, a Japanese-style capsule hotel, where the rooms are tiny pods that look like small (and I mean small) ship’s cabins.
These pods are only a one-floor lift ride from check-in, the pods are superbly designed, with full en suite, TV and WiFi, even a little camping stool and fold-away table. A couple of square metres is about the size of a small family tent.
So, instead of curling up across three uncomfortable seats near check-in and having all the disturbances of an airport at night (automated security announcements, cleaners etc), I am now wrapped up in an air-conditioned sound-proofed little pod where hot drinks are provided at any time of the day or night….and I can lie in bed to watch the 10 o’clock news. Is that cool, or what?
Nigel Holland, in his early 50s, suffers from an inherited genetic disorder known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which is a motor and sensory neuropathy. Basically, this means that his nerves cannot communicate action messages to his muscles. He was diagnosed in his infancy and, since then, has progressively lost his ability to live independently. He has been confined to a wheelchair for many years, but has never let this get in the way of meeting the challenges of life. In his own words, he may have a disability, but he is definitely not disabled.
This book is a diary of one year in his life (his 50th year) when he set out to complete 50 challenges, which not only included obvious challenges like scuba diving, zorbing and drag racing, but also less obvious ones like making a creme brulée and completing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The whole book is written as a message of hope to his young daughter, who has inherited the condition, and Nigel wants her to know that she doesn’t have to lower her sights in life because of her progressive disability.
Writing the book itself was one of the 50 challenges, and I would heartily recommend it for its very human story.
As we approached a remote 5* hotel in Andalucia (one of the most prestigious in the country), along its 3km drive we were informed of this…..
What have the string of celebrities, monarchs and oil-rich sultans made of this, as they approached their £400 a night stopover?
Needless to say, we only went for a coffee….
…..a great place for surveying the plethora of different cycling concepts.
to Bressingham Gardens and Steam Museum and, on the route back, got waylaid by the fascinating little town of Diss, so beloved of both John Betjemen and Mary Wilson (wife of PM Harold). It’s a town that surrounds a 6 acre mere, giving it an unusually picturesque setting.
This week of pedalling through the country lanes of Suffolk has opened new vistas on a county that is often overlooked by the passing traveller. It’s a county full of hidden gems.
“Hey up….come on, move it…hup, hup, hup…..”.
I heard this in the distance, and this is what I found…….
…..and there’s no hurrying them.
I’ve also discovered that country churches in Suffolk have baptismal fonts decorated with hairy little men carrying clubs, called ‘wodewoses’….
…and the medieval equivalent of a secure password is to have all valuables put in a chest with 5 locks, so that whenever it is to be opened, 5 men have to be present.
….but then they hadn’t discovered the power of the crowbar.
But the crowning jewel of the day had to be Orford Castle
which, despite its fortified appearance, was probably more of a whimsical folly than a real castle.
As the early-morning mist began to lift, the day promised to be hot and sunny……and it was. Narrow lanes led to hidden villages, sand on the verges testified to the proximity of the coast, and huge tractors and trailers reminded us that the harvest was in full swing.
My primary goal for the day was to spend a couple of hours at the ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site of Sutton Hoo.
The story behind the discovery of the treasure-laden long boat is fascinating, and their exhibition gives an excellent overview of the history. And the star exhibit of the Treasury is this warrior helmet
Nearly 150 came to hear my End-to-End of Japan story last night, and now they’ve asked for a second show…..I feel flattered.
I had to be back to set up the room and kit for doing a slide presentation of my End-to-End of Japan, so a short ride took me to Saxmundum, Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings, the recent history of the last two so connected with the composer Benjamin Britten, and his singer and partner, Peter Pears.
But another gem of Aldeburgh was its eye-catching Moot Hall, part of which still serves as a Town Hall, and the upstairs as a museum.
A near minor mishap on the final ride of the year. Riding on a shared cycle-path with walkers, the quick release on my front brake popped out as I was going down hill, right in the direction of a couple of walkers at the bottom. Fortunately remedial action meant they weren’t in danger, but it was a heart-stopping experience for me at least.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for closing off the year: bright sunshine, fresh breeze, coffee and cakes at the house of some cycling friends, along with a crowd of other like-minded roadies. A great way to finish off the year.
Sharpening the pencil and doing the sums, I worked out the bottom line for the annual mileage in 2015. After hitting a personal best in 2014, I promised myself to keep the miles down to a more reasonable 10,000 this year, and only just overstepped the mark with 10,597 miles/17,053kms.
Steve Abraham, who has only done 63,616 miles this year…….eat your heart out!
On a beautiful sunny ‘spring’ morning (winter solstice, in fact!), Jenny insisted on a tandem ride……now it would have been churlish of me to say ‘no’, wouldn’t it?
As this is the season for dreaming of next year’s holidays and, in my case, the planning of forthcoming cycling adventures, Proust gives us a timely reminder:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” (Marcel Proust)
How right he is.
I was given a musette by my local bike shop as a ‘freebie’ one day, and I never realised how useful a bit of kit it would be. For those who don’t already know, a musette in the world of cycling is the small shoulder bag used in elite road races for handing out food to riders as they fly past.
On my long cycle treks, I keep one rolled up (the size of a tennis ball) and use it for buying food to carry to a camping spot. For everyday use, I use it for carrying anything from books to food and drink.
Today, I was able to wrap a 50 mile ride around doing some of the inevitable Christmas shopping, thus lightening the burden of the experience a little, and going to one of our delightful small local market towns, which seldom ever sees the mad frenzy of the Christmas rush. I can’t imagine the ugliness of shopping fever ever hitting the quiet, restrained streets of Oundle…..
As I worked my way around the streets, dozens of cars were parked in every available space (and places with no spaces), tailgates wide open, suitcases, sports bags and musical instruments being piled into the back……and yes, term was finishing for Oundle School, and there was an eagerness in the air for making a quick exit, and getting back home.
I thought wistfully back to my own teaching experiences of term coming down……and alas, they are becoming ever more distant memories. Oh dear………
The meteorologists told us we had said ‘goodbye’ to autumn 9 days ago, but thermometers around the country hadn’t been informed reliably of the event. From unseasonably warm humid days, today we were gaspingly plunged into the gloriously cool and sunny clime we are used to this time of year. It was perfect……..