“I’m so glad that you didn’t. There would be a huge void in my life without you, Rochey.”
“That’s a lovely thing to say.”
“You’re carrying the passports and travellers’ cheques. If you were lying down there like a big blob of strawberry jam, it would be hard for me to get my hands on them.”
It was the combination of a tender heart and a practical mind that were among her most attractive qualities.
And the reason we were in Bamiyan was due to a conversation that had taken place three years previously when I was working in Surrey with a group of fellow accountants from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, all of whom were satisfying a travel itch. One day we were having our lunch and as we drank our coffee and ate our sandwiches, the lads started talking about their travels. One of them had spent six months travelling around Europe in a camper van. Another had criss-crossed the USA and Canada. A third had spent a year in South America. And so it went on until the conversation finally arrived at me.
“Where have you been, Kev?”
“You’ve only got to travel twenty miles to get to France and you’ve never been there?”
This admission caused great mirth. But in that laughter a seed was sown and during the next three years my wife and I made and changed various travel plans that started with a camping holiday in Europe and eventually grew to the point that when I set out on my first foreign holiday, it was to travel around the world.
As every Elvis fan knows, the 16th August 1977 was the day that The King died. It was also the day that my wife and I set off on our three-year backpacking trip around the world.
Looking back over more than thirty five years it is hard to imagine the world as it was then. To quote L P Hartley, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ There was no internet, e-mail, mobile phones, cash points, lap tops or Kindles. Overseas telephone calls were confined to Christmas and birthdays and nobody knew what a gap year was. When travelling overseas we carried our funds in travellers’ cheques, wrote aerogrammes and air letters home and along the way we collected our mail from American Express offices. It was a time when you could leave from Victoria Station and via ferry, train and bus, travel all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal. Travelling across Asia was comparatively safe and you met many delightful and hospitable people along the way. The Shah occupied the Peacock Throne in Iran, Afghanistan was peaceful and Kashmir was quiet and beautiful.
At the best of times planning such a journey is a tricky proposition especially as most of my travelling had been done in the opposite direction – to Ireland. We were a bit older than the average long-distance traveller, I was thirty and Erna was twenty six.
My Malaysian wife has an unusual name, Erna. The poor lamb was named after a German nun who taught her mother at the convent in Kuala Lumpur. Rome has much to answer for in our family. To say that Erna is an old-fashioned German name is an understatement – if the last baby in Germany to be christened Erna was still alive, she would be a hundred and sixty. My Mum could never get her head around her daughter-in-law’s Teutonic Christian name; she always called her Irma, after Irma Barlow who ran the Corner Shop in ‘Coronation Street’. ‘Corrie’ was Mum’s favourite television programme.
For the last few days before our departure we were staying with my parents in Southall, West London. Since the 1950’s, the Northcote Ward in Southall has always had a high percentages of immigrants. I grew up in Northcote Avenue which consisted of private houses occupied almost exclusively by immigrants from India and Pakistan and council houses, where we lived, which were then mainly occupied by white British families. Both groups kept themselves to themselves and up until I left home in 1970, I never witnessed or felt any racial tension.
There were domestic tensions in the air because from the first time that they met, Erna and my Dad detested each other; and he would take every opportunity he could to wind her up. And she would equally take every opportunity she could to tell the old chap what a disgusting human being he was. Domestic bliss took a battering when those two were in the same room, but Dad could be an aggravating old git.
His party piece was to wait until the four of us sat down for dinner, then with a wicked little smile on his face, he would remove his dentures and place them lovingly beside his plate. Initially Erna turned green and left the room, but after a few months she grew used to Dad’s little ways and she ignored him. There was no point in having a ruck with him, it only made him worse. When he took out his false teeth the best thing to do was to wait for a while and then I would casually remark, “Your choppers are looking a bit yellow these days, Dad. Are you economising on the Steradent?” And then after a short time the knashers would be inserted back in the gob where they belonged and what passed for normality in that eccentric household would once again descend.
And they were an eccentric pair! My Dad was a great gardener and one day he showed me some green plants he was growing between his spuds and carrots. A short while later I found him leaning against his shed and smoking a roll-up; he had a silly smile on his face and saliva was dripping from his chin while his eyes went off in different directions. The green plant was cannabis. My Dad grew weed in the back garden and mixed dope with his Golden Virginia.
But I loved him dearly because he spent on me the most valuable thing a parent can spend on a child – time – and when there was just the two of us, he was the most delightful companion; tremendously observant, a wonderful mimic with a brilliant sense of humour and a quick wit. He was an interesting man, he had been a member of the Communist Party and he had gone to Spain during the Civil War. Had had served his time as an electrician and as a young man he played football, boxed and rowed. He joined the Electrical Trades Union and then the Communist Party and along with other young communists, he had street fights with fascists in the east end of London. Eventually he went to Spain to fight in the civil war; he never spoke much about his time there but he was in some sort of mixed gender militia. Apparently the girls were better shots than the men and they were always the first ones to volunteer for additional patrol duties. He read Dickens with great passion and news and current affairs television programmes were the first choice for viewing. I was always his little mate but the old boy never learnt that there comes a time when a parent has to let go and that was why he had such a problem with Erna.
In addition to the friction between Erna and my father, there were other tensions. I am not the tidiest or most organized person that you will ever meet. Since the time we had gone to stay with my parents before our departure I had turned the house into a chaotic mess and Mum was getting a bit humpty about it. She started dropping little gems like, “Do you have to wait until the 16th before you go?”
Then stress developed between son and daughter-in-law. Part of our departure preparation was to get our hair cut short for ease of keeping clean while travelling. Erna’s lovely long locks had been shorn and then it was my turn to get a haircut. I left the house looking like the balding accountant that I was, and I returned looking like a thirty year old skinhead. And this was at a time when chaps grew their locks two feet longer than Charles II. When I returned from the barber, Dad was sitting on the front doorstep reading the Daily Mirror. His mouth fell open when he surveyed my head. “Wait there,” he grunted then grabbed his jacket and made off up the road, pausing occasionally to look back and chuckle with delight.
The row he anticipated took place immediately. I’m no Robert Redford but there was no need to emphasize the point by returning home with a scalp that had five o’clock shadow around its edge. Even the eyebrows had been pruned. Erna looked at my new haircut, screamed in horror and collapsed into broken-hearted tears. “I’m not going to walk down the road with people laughing at me because I’m with you.” I was about to say, “You should be used to that by now,” but I managed to hold my tongue. We eventually came to a compromise; I was to wear a sunhat until what was left of my hair grew again.
Departure day finally arrived and I was woken in the morning by my Dad who stood in the bedroom doorway with a roll-up hanging from his mouth; a bar of ash broke off, floated down and splashed on the carpet. “Wake up, rise and shine,” bellowed The Pater, in full knowledge that his daughter-in-law did not do early mornings. His eyes were full of mischief and he pulled faces as the motionless form beside me. Erna cursed him and pulled the covers over her head.
“Just because your old man can’t sleep he has to wake the whole house.” Father replied with two raised fingers and a sweet smile.
“Come down and have some breakfast,” he said. I went downstairs, past the packed rucksacks in the hall and into the kitchen where a cup of strong tea was thrust into my hand. Dad banged a frying pan down on the stove and slapped some rashers into it. If our plans worked out I shouldn’t be seeing him for a few years and while he prepared breakfast I looked at him. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
He wore a flat tweed cap at an extravagant angle which in Ireland is known as the Kildare side of the head – Kildare being the county where most of the racecourses are situated. His eyes were still puffy from sleep and his shirt hung out from an old pair of trousers. When he cooked breakfast a roll-up was as essential to the process as a spatula. But I have never tasted a breakfast as delicious as those that my Dad prepared and I can only assume that his unique flavouring was brought about by a combination of butter, bacon fat and fag ash.
My auld Irish mother from Cork City joined us; Mum lost her Irish accent years ago but always managed to retrieve it when she was with her brothers and sisters. “I won’t come to Victoria to see you off, I want to get the house tidied up.” Since it would be a few years before I would be back to make a mess of it again, I felt that Mum’s maternal instinct was not as finely tuned as it could have been.
Erna eventually managed to wake up and she joined us in the kitchen. She sat as far away from the old man as possible. After breakfast we made our final checks on documents and passports, zipped up our backpacks and waited for the taxi to take us to Victoria. This was Dad’s treat for us, he never owned a car and he had booked the taxi with The Sikhs who he spoke of in glowing terms, always polite, always friendly but apparently not always on time because they were half an hour late. And when I called their office to find out what had happened to the taxi, my enquiry was met by a stream of Punjabi.
Mum had already swung into action and above the drone of the Hoover she was singing I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. Mummy has not been blessed with a golden voice and wherever it was that dear old Kathleen was being taken home to, she would certainly prefer to be accompanied by somebody who could sing in tune. It could have been worse. Mum could have mutilated the lyrics to The Rose of Tralee, a sad song about an Irish soldier in India who sings of Mary, the great love of his life who has died back home in Ireland. The heartbreaking lyrics would bring tears of sympathy to the hardest of eyes, unless it was Mum who was singing them when there would be tears of relief when she finally reached the end of the song.
We were ready to give up on The Sikhs and walk up to the Uxbridge Road and catch a bus to Ealing Common when our neighbour Harry popped in to say good-bye. Harry had been a Teddy Boy and he still wore long sideburns and swept his hair up into a trunk. His belly ballooned over a thick leather belt that had an enormous skull and crossbones buckle and which held up his tight drainpipe trousers; his suede shoes, which were called Brothel Creepers, had thick crepe ripple soles. The ensemble was completed by an assortment of fluorescent socks that ranged in colour from lime green to eye-watering pink. Harry was the King of Bling with gold chains around his neck and gold bracelets on his wrists. On most of his fingers he wore thick gold rings. He would have been worth a fortune if he had been rendered down. Harry and my father shared a number of intellectual pursuits; including betting on horses and greyhounds and playing snooker.
The Sikhs, like Godot, never turned up, so Harry kindly offered to give us a lift to Ealing Common where we could catch the underground to Victoria Station. When Harry got into his car, he observed the protocols of a respectable Ted. Sunglasses were put on and checked in the rear view mirror; a tape was inserted and Jerry Lee started giving the balls of fire some wellie.
We turned around to wave good-bye to Mum, but when Harry put the car into gear, a black cloud came out of the exhaust pipe and through the gloom we could just make out a fuzzy shape that appeared to be waving. Harry steered with a thumb and index finger while lounging back with his left arm along the top of the front bench seat. “Like the motor, Kev? I bought it for a hundred quid at the auctions.”
We stopped at West Ealing so Dad could get a racing paper and some Golden Virginia. This was the suburb where the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh lived when he worked as a chef in London. It was probably all of those years that he spent schlepping up and down the Uxbridge Road that gave him the idea for the Trail, the Vietcong supply line that ran from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia down to South Vietnam. Dad got back in the car, grumbling because the paper shop didn’t have his brand of rolling papers.
“What time’s the first race, Jack?” asked Harry.
“I’d better put me clog down then.” And another black cloud appeared from the exhaust pipe.
I knew what was coming. It would be under the heading ‘I Want To Go To The Betting Shop Instead Of Seeing You Off At Victoria’.
The old chap cleared his throat, “You know how your Mum worries, Kev.” Like those yobbos who were silent on that peak in Darien, Erna and I looked at each other with wild surmise.
“Yes, Dad,” I replied dutifully.
“Well, I had better let you go at Ealing Common and get back to tell Mum that you caught the tube in time?”
“Yes Dad,” I replied dutifully. And as Harry’s left hand made its way to the steering wheel, his thumb came up for an instant and Dad chuckled. We hugged, shook hands and said our good-byes at the entrance to Ealing Common Station; Erna even gave the old chap a peck on the cheek, although afterwards her mouth was contorted as if she had been sucking lemons.
We caught the District Line to Victoria Station where a group of friends was waiting to bid us farewell; we were catching the boat train to Paris. When you are lots of pounds overweight and have weak eyes and a balding head, you have to accept the fact that some scallywag is going to take a pop at you. Especially if you are setting off to travel around the world and you have never been further east than Southend.
Our mates were gleefully waiting to give me some stick, and as we came on to the concourse at Victoria Station, I entered into a verbal Valley of Death! With apologies to Alfie Tennyson, there were gobshites to the left, gutter mouths to the right, piss takers in front, who volleyed and thundered.
“You’ll be back next week.”
“Not that long. One whiff of garlic and he’ll be straight back.”
“Erna, are you sure he’s actually got a passport?”
“If you get dysentery you might lose some weight.”
“No chance of that, he’ll be the first person with dysentery who puts weight on.”
And when I flipped the sun hat off to reveal the shaved scalp, a huge roar of laughter went up. Patrick, Erna’s brother, pretended to be a bookie and invited bets from our friends to see how far we would get. Dover was a popular choice, Florence 10 – 1 and nobody was game enough to place a bet beyond Venice. After a lot more laughter, leg-pulling and good wishes we boarded the train and rumbled out of Victoria Station on the start of our long journey.
We passed Dulwich College, a public school, where that giant of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, the creator of the private eye Philip Marlowe, had been a pupil. Chandler also wrote the screen plays for Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia and he was nominated for an Oscar for both films.
We arrived at the Gare du Nord late at night, it was pouring with rain and we couldn’t find the hotel where we had made reservations. We walked around in circles; tired, soaked and bad tempered, until eventually we decided that we would book into the next hotel that we found. We squelched up the marble steps of a large hotel and made two puddles on the carpet while we waited to book in. The desk clerk was clearly not used to receiving backpackers and he looked at us like an old spinster looks at a dead bird her cat has brought home.
After our showers I danced into the room naked except for my sunhat and a flannel that I held across my face like a veil. In a bad French accent I said, “It is our first night together in a foreign land; it must be a night of love and passion.” Erna was sprawled on the bed reading Time magazine; without looking up she licked her fingers and turned a page. “I’ve got a headache, mon cheri,” she replied in a really diabolical French accent.
The next morning we had the traditional continental breakfast of cold meats, boiled eggs, rolls, jam and coffee. There is nothing that I can say about Paris that hasn’t been said many times before. It is one of the greatest cities in the world, full of life, colour and sophistication which it wears with casual elegance. Time spent strolling along the boulevards, sipping coffee, people watching and visiting the sights and art galleries are all part of the Paris experience. The first sight we visited was the Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world when it was constructed in 1889 by 300 steeplejacks who used 2.5 million rivets. It was due to be dismantled in 1909 but was saved to be used for radio aerials. From the Tower we walked along the Seine to Notre Dame. The wide river was full of traffic; sightseeing boats fussed up and down and barges loaded with goods cruised in each direction; the French are far more savvy over the commercial potential of their waterways than we are. In London, the Thames flows across the city and although there are a few squiggly bits, it easy to distinguish the north and the south bank. The Seine loops through Paris, starting off on the eastern side, it loops up to the north and then descends again on the western side, so it became easier to face downstream and call the banks left and right.
Notre-Dame de Paris is an example of the indomitable Parisian spirit; building began in 1163 and Thomas a Beckett was one of the many people who came to watch the construction. It took 200 years to complete and subsequently suffered neglect and it was so run down and damaged that in the revolution of 1789 it was nearly pulled down to be used as hard core. Fortunately Napoleon restored the cathedral so that it could be used for his coronation. The stunningly beautiful stained glass windows are its outstanding feature and the cathedral is the centre not only of Paris, but of France because all distances are measured from it.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Latin Quarter, so named because Latin speaking monks originally lived there, was the area in which artists chose to live. Then redevelopment of the city caused property prices in that area to increase so the artists went in search of cheaper accommodation and they eventually settled in Montmartre which at that time was a village of windmills and vineyards. A mouth-watering procession of artists moved there; Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque and Matisse. Living conditions were harsh; Matisse’s studio was so cold that he had to work while wearing his overcoat and Picasso’s lodgings consisted of a mattress, a rusty stove and a yellow bowl that he used for washing. And in a studio that was cold, smelt of damp and where wallpaper hung in tatters from the unplastered walls, a dealer stood in open-mouthed amazement before the huge ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ – one of the first and one of the finest examples of Cubism. The painting is of five nude prostitutes none of whom have soft feminine curves. Their angular, rather geometric bodies are in poses with lots of attitude and two of them have faces like African masks. For these two especially, it is difficult to speculate about the emotions the girls are feeling.
High on the hill above Montmartre, keeping a disapproving eye on the tarts, crooks and conmen below, stands the white church, the Sacré-Coeur. That night we made the first of many visits to the cobbled lane that leads up to the church. Many years later our daughter Sally shared a flat in the lane when she spent eighteen months in Paris as part of her degree course. But on that first night we puffed up the steps of the church to enjoy the night view of the city. And while we took in that twinkling skyline a young man with a guitar sang to an audience of clinically depressed people. His songs were so mournful that he made Leonard Cohen’s sound like a knees-up in an East End pub. Erna took a photo of me outside the church; it shows a Bunteresque figure with the camera flash reflected in his glasses and wearing a sun hat to protect his head from the moonbeams.
During the 1920’s there were thousands of Americans living in Paris, they were a lively lot, many of whom had served in the First World War. Given the choice of living in conservative Prohibition era America or enjoying the wine and sensual freedoms of Paris, for those who could afford to stay on it was an easy decision. Most of them lived on allowances from home and once the stock market crash of 1929 took its toll, the allowances dried up and the Americans, who Gertrude Stein labelled ‘the lost generation’, went home.
Among the Americans living in Paris in the 1920’s was Ernest Hemingway who rented a small flat at 74 Rue du Cardinale Lemoine. It was in this rough working-class area of the Fifth Arrondissement that the newly married 22 year-old Hemingway and his wife Hadley moved to a third floor flat in January 1922. It was a cold-water flat and the squat toilet was outside the flat on the landing. It was not connected to the main sewer; the sewage had to be pumped into a horse-drawn tank before it could be taken away. Coal dust bricks were used for both heating and cooking and milk came from a herd of goats that were led through the streets by their owner who played pipes to let his customers know that he was passing by. The area stank; it was full of beggars and drunks. At the street market there was fierce competition for the bargains and fights frequently broke out.
A few months after Hemingway moved in to number 74, James Joyce moved in to number 71 where he stayed until September 1922 and put the finishing touches to Ulysses.
Samuel Beckett moved to Paris to work as an English teacher and after being introduced to Joyce, Beckett helped him with research for Finnegan’s Wake, the first sentence of which is ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us to a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.’ When Beckett went to Paris he had no ambition to become a writer, teaching was his chosen profession. He returned to Dublin as a university lecturer and he even applied for a teaching post in South Africa. It was only after Beckett realized that he was no good at teaching that he began writing in earnest and after a huge argument with his mother, he went back to live in Paris.
These two gifted writers had other talents; Beckett was a county standard cricketer and Joyce was an outstanding singer – in a nationwide singing competition he came second to the great Irish tenor, John McCormack. The relationship between Beckett and Joyce cooled when Joyce’s daughter Lucia fell in love with the handsome Beckett who had sadly recognized in Lucia the early stages of the schizophrenia that she was to suffer from for the rest of her life. Beautiful Lucia, a dancer trained by Isadora Duncan’s brother, spoke Italian as her first language and after her illness was diagnosed, she became a patient of Carl Jung. She subsequently transferred to a hospital in Northampton.
Joyce’s literary friends used to drive his wife Norah to despair, she thought that they talked a load of nonsense and that Joyce’s writing didn’t make any sense. (Have another look at that first sentence from Finnegan’s Wake.)
We set out to do some sightseeing on a day when banks of dark clouds hung over the city. We took the Metro to the Louvre; this was at a time before the Pyramid and the Musee d’Orsay. We saw the Venus de Milo in all her glory and spent an entertaining few minutes wandering from side to side in front of the Mona Lisa. Not only did her eyes follow us around the room, but on one occasion she tried to peer over Erna’s shoulder at a fat lady wearing an outrageous shade of red checked shorts.
From the Louvre it is a straight walk down through the Champs-Elysees to the Arc De Triomphe. It was raining when we came out of the Louvre and when the rain eased we set off through the saturated Jardin Des Juileries. We stopped at a snack bar in the gardens and warmed ourselves with cups of hot chocolate. The wet weather was keeping the tourists away and the stall owner, who had lived in London for a few years, was pleased to chat to us and relieve his boredom. He took the opportunity to practise his Cockney rhyming slang.
He knew the more common phrases such as ‘mince pies’ for ‘eyes’, ‘boat race’ for ‘face’ and ‘plates of meat’ for ‘feet’.
“Why is hair called a ‘barnet’?”
“That’s from ‘Barnet Fair’.”
“What about ‘losing your bottle’?”
“’Bottle and glass’. That rhymes with arse.”
“’Berkshire Hunt.’ I’ll leave that one for you to work out for yourself.”
“It’s a very colourful way of speaking. But have Londoners stopped using rhyming slang?”
“No, but a lot of them speak without realizing that they are using rhyming slang. It’s common to hear Londoners speak about ‘using their loaf’, or having a ‘rabbit’. ‘Loaf of bread’ rhymes with ‘head’ and ‘rabbit and pork’ rhymes with ‘talk’. And a ‘rabbit’ has even been abbreviated to a ‘bunny.’”
An English family consisting of Mother, Father and Boy Wonder splashed up to the stall and he left us and made ready to serve them. Boy Wonder spoke in an accent that caressed each vowel and parted from it with great reluctance. Mother’s accent was beyond cut glass; she articulated and enunciated with such machine tool precision that she made the Queen sound a bit Gor blimey. This family was more than posh. Way up in the stratosphere where this gilded family resided, one lonely hyphen and two meagre barrels for a surname would have been borderline working class. They required a poly-hyphenated surname with each of its constituent parts being pronounced differently from the way that it was spelt.
The BW was no ordinary school-boy and he was destined for Oxford. But he would avoid going to any old Oxford college and be obliged to mix with the riff-raff from comprehensive schools with their dandruff and ear wax. He would be one of Billy Wykeham’s lads and go to New College – after all, it was new when it was founded in 1379.
But there comes a time in the lives of all school fee-paying parents when they look for a return on their investment. Now they were determined to show off their son. Father instructed Boy Wonder to place their order in French; BW protested but Father silenced him with a look. BW made slow but steady progress in placing the family order in halting school-boy French and his over-anxious parents sighed with relief when he had finished.
Erna and I had been waiting for the weather to be in a more forgiving mood but we decided that the rain had set in for the day. We drained our cups and prepared to leave. “Cheerio” we called out to the friendly stall owner.
“Aw right then geezers, you having it away on yer toes and going to have a butchers at the old Arc?” He gave us a conspiratorial wink. Mother, Father and the Boy Wonder exchanged expressions of silent bewilderment, and Mother placed a reassuring hand on her son’s golden head.
At the Place de la Concorde we stopped to look at the fountain where in livelier years students from the École des Beaux-Arts used to have an early morning bathe after their annual ball. Then we crossed into the Champs-Élysees and walked under the dripping chestnut trees towards the Arc de Triomphe, the monument Napoleon built to celebrate his victories. The site was chosen where eight roads met, the Étoile (star). When the foundations were dug in 1806 they had to be 26 feet deep in order to take the weight of the Arc. But Napoleon became distracted by other projects and lost interest – the Arc was finally unveiled thirty-years later.
While we were in Paris we began taking our weekly malaria pills and I tried our water purification tablets. Surprisingly, the water didn’t taste too bad, just a hint of chlorine. I was still adjusting to being on foreign soil. The cars were driving on the wrong side of the road and the policemen carried guns. I was also getting used to different food. I tried couscous for the first time and enjoyed spicy Algerian stew. It’s difficult to get a correct impression of Paris in August because so many Parisians leave the city on their holidays and for the few days that we were there, it rained in warm summer torrents.
We were catching the midnight train to Lausanne so we left our rucksacks at the Gare De Lyon and walked to the Sorbonne, a university in one of the world’s most romantic cities that has its roots in one of France’s great love stories. A scholar named Abelard established himself as a teacher in Paris in 1114; he eventually tutored Heloise, they fell in love and when she became pregnant they got married. But their love was built on dangerous foundations; her uncle had Abelard castrated and Heloise became a nun. Abelard devoted the rest of his life to religious study and the centre of learning that he established eventually became the Sorbonne.
One of the joys of Paris was to eat alfresco and dining in the open air has slowly caught on in England – but in the early days it was hard work. A friend of ours had a restaurant that had a wide pavement outside, so he bought some second-hand tables and chairs to see if alfresco eating would appeal to his customers. After he put the tables and chairs out for the first time, a council refuse truck came past, thought the furniture had been left out for them to collect and they took it all down to the dump.
We stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant along the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The waiters played a game among themselves by pretending they couldn’t speak English. I watched several English people try to order, the waiters raised their shoulders and eyebrows then shook their heads to show that they didn’t understand, and then winked at their mates. I was hungry and in no mood to play straight man for a French waiter, so I asked Erna to order. She blew a lungful of Malay at the waiter and punctuated the order with a big smile. The waiter stared at her. “Parlez-vous français?”
“Yes.” Then he quite happily took our order in English. Open-air restaurants are fun if you like diesel fumes with your lasagna.
The train to Lausanne wasn’t crowded, probably because most people prefer not to catch trains at midnight. Erna curled up like a veteran traveller and fell asleep. It took a long time before I mastered this skill. I sat up the whole night talking to a French girl who was on her way to pick grapes in Greece. When we arrived in Lausanne the next morning, our friend Ian was waiting for us on the platform. I had met Ian when I was working as a temp cost accountant at a cigarette factory in the East End of London.
Cost accounting is the murky backwater of the accountancy profession. In manufacturing, companies cost accountants work out what they expect the company to pay for materials, wages and the expenses of running the business. These are known as standard costs and when the actual costs are different from the standards, the differences are known as variances. In the cigarette manufacturing industry, cost accountants set standards for things such as how much baccy you need to make a packet of fags. And then they spend the rest of their time explaining why more or less baccy is used to make the fags. And it’s given a fancy name like Leaf Usage Deviation. Variances can be favourable but they are nearly always adverse. I was temporarily taking over from the cost accountant who was taking extended leave for a few months to get married and fix up his new home. I spent several weeks working with him while he handed the job over to me. During the first morning he fixed me with a manic stare and declared, ‘“I love working to three decimal places.”’ I smiled back and thought, ‘You sad git’. His personality was not contaminated by a sense of humour, so the hand-over was an ordeal. He would sit for hours in silent contemplation and then produce gems like: “I think that Labour Rate needs looking at again.” I needed to get some relief from this bloke. There was huge excitement in the factory because West Ham was due to play Fulham in the Cup Final and the factory floor was a sea of claret and blue flags, buntings and photos of the players. The whole work force was solidly behind The Hammers.
Then I discovered a Tannoy public address system in the telephonist’s office. Oh joy. I used to get hold of the microphone and chant: “Fulham for the Cup”. The factory erupted with indignant delight. Whenever I stepped on to the factory floor, abuse came at me from every direction. When it came to irreverent, quick-witted humour, the ladies were in a class of their own. They immediately spotted the slightest defect and then ripped it to shreds. They would eye me with ill-concealed mock distain before firing their verbal salvoes.
“’E finks Fulham can beat the ‘Ammers.”
“That’s ‘cos ‘e’s fick.”
“Yeah, but he’s got plenty of bunny.”
“Wiv’ a face like that, he needs it.”
“Oi Kev, you got any kids?”
“Wiv’ that big old gut, he probably can’t reach it.”
Every remark was greeted with loud, rousing laughter and they looked at each other with beaming admiration for the sharpness of their wit.
One day Ian, who was in charge of cost accounting in the European factories, flew over from Switzerland to check my work. We spent the morning reviewing schedules, tapping on calculators and conversing in soft undertones. I was on my best behaviour and wanted to give a good impression.
We stopped for lunch and made our way to the canteen. I walked Prince Philip fashion, hands behind my back, with a polite ear extended to Ian as we discussed the work we had covered in the morning. As we made our way across the factory, the opening shots were fired by the broad-hipped matrons who packed the boxes of cigarette cartons.
“Go back to Fulham, you fat poof.”
“I’m forever blowin’ bubbles.”
“That ain’t all she blows.”
“It’s called ‘Craven Cottige’ cos cottiges is where iron hoofs meet.”
“’E wears cologne, ‘e must be bent.”
And so on and so forth. It takes a lot of self-control to remain strait-laced and straight-faced when people working in a factory pause in their labour to hurl abuse and expletives at you. When we sat down with our lunch in the canteen, Ian fixed me with an expression of unresolved curiosity. “I see you have got to know everybody.” I explained about the Tannoy system and in the afternoon, he gave it a go and he enjoyed the cheerful eruptions that greeted his chants.
Over the next week the girls were too smart to give Ian the verbals as we went backwards and forwards to the canteen. I took advantage of this by hanging back, like a little kid hiding behind his big brother. I mouthed silent obscenities at the girls as we passed by. But they made me pay for it after Ian went back to Switzerland.
The 1975 Cup Final which West Ham won 2 – 0 was a landmark in English football; it was the last time that a team of all English players won the FA Cup. In fact with the exception of Fulham’s Jim Conway, who was Irish, all of the players on the field were English.
As soon as I arrived for work on the Monday morning after the Cup Final I went down to the factory floor to take my punishment. For weeks I had been taunting and teasing them over the Tannoy system and now it was pay-back time for the cheeky beancounter. But they were all in a sorry state. For the past forty-eight hours they had been drinking, singing and cheering. Some had lost their voices, some spoke in low croaks, some spoke in high-pitched squeaks like rusty gates. Some yawned to stay awake, others knuckled red-raw eyes for the same reason – others had black rings around their eyes like raccoons. Among the men there was a competition to see who could drop the loudest beery fart.
But these were no ordinary Londoners. These were the sons, daughters and wives of Cockney dockers, the people who even the Luftwaffe couldn’t subdue. Once more it was time for them to come together, to unite against the common foe – in this case, a chubby accountant who had been winding them up that Fulham would win the Cup Final. As I passed among them on my way to get a brew from the canteen, they croaked abuse at me. They groaned abuse at me. They squeaked abuse at me. Even the mute wafted farts in my direction. A cheerful, languid voice called me a tosser; somehow a Methodist had managed to stray among them. I surveyed them with an involuntary rush of affection; this was the Bulldog Breed. The Virgin Queen had rallied her troops not far from where we stood. And in the spirit of the moment, the wonderful words from Shakespeare’s Henry V in the speech before Agincourt came to mind:
‘From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;’
Ian drove us to the small town of Lutry which was dozing in the hot August sun beside Lake Geneva. His house was on a hill high above the town and we sat on the terrace and spent most of the day sipping wine and looking out across the lake with its paddle steamers and small boats, to the distant purple mountains. Small vineyards dotted the slopes above the house. One of the joys of Switzerland is the variety of wines produced in the cantons, which are only available in local shops because they are not produced in commercial quantities.
At dinner Ian’s wife Margaret introduced us to raclette, which is both a type of cheese and the name of one of the great Swiss dishes. When the Swiss cow herds were moving their cows to and from the high pastures, they would be away for days at a time. They took raclette cheese with them and at night they placed it next to their campfires and scraped it on to bread when it began to melt. We enjoyed the melted cheese accompanied by pickled silver onions, gherkins, potatoes, crispy bread and cold mountain wine.
The next morning we followed steep paths down from Ian’s house and approached Lake Geneva from the side of a rocky stream. Lutry is a medieval town with a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and we bought our breakfast bread from a bakery. While we stood in line, Heidi put her head around the door, frowned at the queue, fiddled with her blonde plaits and then left. She didn’t speak because her mouth was busy working its way around a large wad of chewing gum.
We went to Montreux to watch vintage cars racing through the streets; one was driven by Stirling Moss, the former Formula One racing driver who joyfully put an old Mercedes through its paces. Famous for being the best racing driver for never having won the World Championship, Moss was one of the last gentleman competitors. In the year that Mike Hawthorn pipped him to the Championship by one point, it was Stirling Moss who strenuously advocated against Hawthorn being deducted six points for a perceived violation during a race. He may not have won the World Championship but through his sheer class as a sportsman, Stirling Moss won the hearts of the British sporting public.
After the motor racing was over, we drove back to Lausanne and drank wine in a hotel in Ouchy where Byron wrote part of his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon. That evening Ian and I sat with cold beers in a jovial rhapsody of recollection of the wonderful characters with whom we worked at the cigarette factory. Three year-old Amy came into the room and stood before us. She placed her small fists on her hips, stamped her foot and yelled, “No poofdahs.”
Ian looked at Amy in a glow of parental pride. “She loves Monty Python,” he said.
After another pleasant day of good food, fine wine and humorous conversation, we caught the morning train to Milan and travelled through the Swiss Alps and the Simplon Tunnel before emerging in the Italian Alps. And from Milan we took a train to Florence, where we found a comfortable pensione.
The narrow streets and old buildings in Florence give the impression of having recently been vacated by the heavyweights of Italian history; Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, various members of the Medici family and Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. We set off in bright sunlight to see the Duomo and get some of that historical Florentine atmosphere into our systems. At a leather shop Erna abandoned Medici in favour of Gucci and it took me several hours to persuade her that she would look ridiculous walking along with a rucksack on her back and a Gucci bag on her arm. Having finally got her out of the bag shop she then disappeared into a shoe shop and I patiently waited while she worked her way through a pile of shoes. She needs at least three visits to a shoe shop before she decides to buy, so I sat quiet, confident in the knowledge that she was going through the motions. But as she headed for another shoe shop, it was time to start fighting dirty. “If you go in there, I’ll take off my sunhat.”
“Lead on my hero.”
The influence that Florence has had on European development is astonishing. Florentine architects, artists and craftsmen were some of the main driving forces of the Renaissance, the cultural change of direction that took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Italian and Spanish merchants went to North Africa and the Middle Ease to trade in silk and spices. The Arabs were consummate businessmen who taught them the Hindu-Arabic numerals that they used for their calculations. The word ‘cheque’ comes from the Arabic word ‘sakk’. The Medicis helped Florentine merchants set up offices in the east and the profits from these lucrative business arrangements helped to fund commissions from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and many others. These developments in art, literature, music, poetry, philosophy, science and politics were a return to the pure artistic values of ancient Rome and Greece. These values were re-born, hence the French term ‘Renaissance’, which wasn’t used to describe this cultural phenomenon until the nineteenth century.
The Italian spoken in and around Florence eventually became Italy’s national language; the local coin, the florin, became a world monetary standard and was the name of the old British two shilling piece. And the banks in Florence eventually became the most powerful in Europe.
The views of Florence from the hills around it have hardly changed in hundreds of years. The highest tower that can be seen was built at the end of the 1400’s and the Duomo is still Florence’s outstanding architectural feature. Duomo is the short name for the cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower. Began in 1296, it took 140 years to complete with generations of people through a wide variety of skills working on the project. The usual reasons for large project delays held back the completion of the cathedral. Getting materials to site was no easy task in those days and there was an outbreak of the Black Death. The Campanile, the tall tower that stands beside the cathedral, was designed by Giotto. Close by is the Baptistery, where Dante was baptized. It is the oldest building in Florence and Michelangelo described its sculptured bronze doors as being ‘worthy of paradise’.
The ancient bridge across the River Arno is the Ponte Vecchio. The traders who occupied sales pitches on the bridge in medieval times displayed their wares on tables known as bancos. If a trader failed to pay for his goods, the supplier could lodge a complaint with the city authorities who would then send soldiers to smash the banco and prevent the defaulting trader from carrying on his business. As a result of disrupting the bancos, the term ‘bankrupt’ entered the English language.
We visited The Academy to see Michelangelo’s David which has a fascinating history. There was a plan to commission twelve Old Testament sculptures for the buttress of the Duomo. The figures were intended to stand out against the skyline and terracotta figures of Joshua and Hercules were commissioned. In 1464 Agostino was commissioned to produce a sculpture of David in marble. A large block was provided for him and he got as far as forming the feet, legs and part of the torso when the project was abandoned. In 1476 another artist was commissioned to complete the project, but it was soon abandoned for the second time. For twenty-five years the marble block stood in a yard until 1501 when Michelangelo, who was only twenty-six, was commissioned to finish the statue. It is over 17 feet tall and weighs more than six tons.
Our guide at The Academy had a blue chin, no neck and looked like a Mafia hit man. But he gave us an entertaining tour. He explained that David’s outsized hands came about because of the work that had already commenced on the block of marble. But there is some doubt surrounding this. David killed Goliath with a single shot from his sling and some people believe that the outsized hands are symbols of his great strength. And another theory is that the hands were made deliberately disproportionate so that they could be seen from below when the sculpture took up its intended place on the skyline of the Duomo.
The construction of the Pitti Palace was started in 1458 by Luca Pitti, a wealthy banker and nearly a hundred years later the building was bought by the Medici family. They also bought the adjoining land so they could lay out the Biboli Gardens. The Medicis’ owned and occupied the Pitti Palace for two hundred years until they ran out of heirs. During this time they spent so much of their vast wealth on works of art that when Victor Emmanuel III gave the property to the nation in 1919, it was divided into five art galleries and a museum. The various galleries contain paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Correggio, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto and Botticelli.
The Uffizi Gallery contains one of my favourite paintings, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Beautiful Venus stands ready to step from her shell and has a coil of knee-length hair conveniently preserving her modesty. The Renaissance was in part a return to the artistic theories of the Ancient Greeks. Plato’s theory was that the stunning Venus belonged to the earth by arousing lustful desires and she belonged to the heavens by inspiring intellectual (platonic) love.
Erna and I were wandering around an exhibition of Ruben’s paintings when a large lady flapped a friendly pair of jowls at us and waddled in our direction. She wheezed and coughed as she walked. “They didn’t know about dieting in those days,” she gasped in the direction of a Rubens. Not the most politically correct remark to make to somebody whose ancestors went a bit hungry during a potato famine. She made a noise like a pair of old bellows then went into a coughing fit that caused her terraces of chins to vibrate. I watched the coughing with increased anxiety. The thought of applying the kiss of life to her vermillion mouth filled me with terror. She eventually regained her composure, dried her wet eyes and shuffled off in search of her group.
After three memorable days in Florence we caught a train to Venice. We got in the wrong part of the train and had to move to the correct section when the train stopped at Bologna, which was a lot more difficult than it sounds. The train slowed down as it pulled into Bologna, and mobs of passengers piled on, so we had to push our way through them and on to the platform. Then we had to barge, shove and elbow our way along the crowded platform until we found the carriages that were going to Venice.
We found a pensione near Venice railway station, and then we walked through narrow higgledy-piggledy streets of shabby buildings to one of the most famous squares in the world – St Mark’s Square. In the ninth century the people of Venice were envious of Rome because they had St Peter buried there. But Venice didn’t have the remains of any saints buried beneath it. So some blokes went to Alexandria and nicked the remains of St Mark and brought them back to Venice, where they now reside in a tomb beneath the altar in the cathedral.
There are 180 canals in Venice, extending to twenty eight miles and the best known of these is ‘the finest street in the world’ – The Grand Canal. Over a period of six hundred years, there have been two hundred palaces built beside it and ten churches. And it has forty-six side canals running off it. We enjoyed a night ride on a water bus along the Grand Canal, when there was a sprinkle of stars in the dark blue summer sky.
The original name for Venice was Rivo Alto and this name has been preserved in the name of what was for hundreds of years the only bridge across the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge. There have been various wooden bridges on the Rialto site since 1255 but from time to time they collapsed. It was decided that a stone bridge was needed and invitations for the design were sent out to various people including Michelangelo, but his design was rejected. If the rejection letter was written today, it would read something like this:
Sorry you missed out on the bridge design job in Venice; the budget was tight and the client was looking for cost savings.
We’ve got a painting contract coming up in Rome, wall and ceiling, if you want to give us a price for this, we’ll see what we can do for you.
All the best,
The other famous bridge in Venice is the Bridge of Sighs, which is between the Doge’s Palace and the prison. It is so named because unfortunates sighed as they looked out on Venice while they crossed the bridge and for many of them it was their last view of the city.
Venice is a paradise for people who love boats. There are water buses, water taxis, fire, police and ambulance boats, boats of all kinds supplying groceries and drinks, garbage boats and cruise liners that look like floating blocks of flats. And of course the gondolas that have been painted black for the past 450 years to conform to a law that prohibited elaborate decoration. At one time over 10,000 gondolas plied for trade in Venice, but once the water buses were introduced in 1881, their numbers declined and now there are just a few hundred left.
At its highest, or lowest, depending on which direction your moral compass faces, Venice in the 1820’s had a huge number of prostitutes plying their trade. In many of the coffee shops, art and literature were discussed with great animation downstairs, while activities requiring even greater animation were carrying on upstairs. And into this city of decaying buildings arrived Lord Byron. A city that was falling apart, full of skint aristocrats and where the morality bar was on its lowest possible setting, Venice was his perfect environment. He enjoyed himself on both floors of the coffee shops. Byron’s favourite coffee shop was Caffé Florian in St Mark’s Square. It has been there for nearly 300 years and in addition to Byron, it has been a favourite haunt of Goethe, Casanova, Proust, and Dickens. In Casanova’s time it was the only coffee shop to admit women, although there is no evidence of hanky-panky taking place on the premises at any time.
Byron was an outstanding swimmer and one of his great swimming feats was to swim across the lagoon and along the Grand Canal, a distance of four and a half miles. But even on the day of his swim, he had sex and not content with ripping one off before his swim, he had another one afterwards with a different woman. Byron’s ‘To Do’ list on the day of his swim would have made lively reading. He wore long pants when he swam; swimming was one of the rare activities that he engaged in when he kept his pants on.
Venice has inspired many great artists over the years, including that old skinflint, Turner. He loved the space, light and vivid colours of Venice. And he was a grafter; up on the roof of the hotel after dinner sketching and drawing or out in a gondola, capturing the vivid fire sunsets that energized his imagination. Turner had a sharp commercial mind and after Byron had helped to publicize Venice, Turner would include at least one Venetian painting into his Royal Academy exhibits.
Music has always featured highly in Venetian culture; Vivaldi was the music master at a church orphanage that also served as a music academy. There must be something in Venetian air that makes for hard work – Vivaldi wrote about forty-six operas and hundreds of concertos, the most famous being The Four Seasons. Monteverdi was a choir master at St Mark’s Cathedral and Wagner died in Venice. Erna and I once went to see a film about Wagner at the National Film Theatre, I can’t remember if it was ten hours or twelve hours long – but it felt like six months. And don’t take any notice of all that guff about Tristan und Isolde taking musicians and singers to the limits of their artistic and emotional capabilities. Isolde was Irish, and if she was anything like those raw-boned country girls that I lugged around dance floors in the west of Ireland, a big amber warning light should already be flashing. “Hey Isolde, how’s your man, Tristan?”
“He’s an awful eejit; sure every time I try to snog him, he bursts into song.”
Venice’s history is endlessly fascinating; Venetians even fought against the Normans who attacked from their base in Sicily. And it has the dubious distinction of having the original ghetto; in the 16th Century the Jews of Venice were forced to live in the area called Campo di Ghetto Nuovo and that restriction remained in force for over three hundred years until Napoleon lifted it.
My travelling apprenticeship was over and we were now ready to start the serious stuff. The next evening we were catching the train from Venice to Istanbul and from there we would be travelling by bus through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan until we reached Pakistan, where we would once again do some travelling by train. That night we had an enchanting ride along the Grand Canal. It was a night of warm air and softly-lit stars; a night that visitors to Venice keep stored in their hearts and one that they remember forever.
The clear sky of the previous night had lulled us into a sense of false security. All morning torrents of rain fell from a black sky and the wind constantly joined forces with the rain to drive heavy wet gusts across the square in front of our pensione. The streets were deserted, partly due to the saturating weather and partly because it was Sunday, the devout Venetians’ day of rest. The shops were closed, which was concerning for us because we were leaving that evening on a two-day train journey to Istanbul and no food or drink was served on the train. We stayed in our room for most of the day, hoping for the rain to ease. We took advantage of a gap in the weather to leave our rucksacks at the railway station, then we trudged the wet streets looking for food. All we found were some sickly sweet buns and sad-looking meat that we persuaded a sandwich bar owner to sell us.
The rain continued to bucket down as we left Venice that evening. We shared a compartment with an elderly Turkish couple who were on their way from their home in Germany to visit relatives in Istanbul. There wasn’t much spare room in the compartment and it was difficult to stretch out and sleep. This didn’t bother Erna – you could hang her out on a washing line and she would sleep like a baby. Erna just curled up and dropped off.
Whenever we travelled at night, by train, bus or boat, I never managed to doze for more than an hour or two. A crowd of people boarded the train at Trieste and three people joined our compartment, among them an Australian with whom I chatted through the night. He had been working in a factory in Slough and had managed to save enough money for his trip around Europe. When the train pulled in to Belgrade the next morning, the Aussie left and among the mob of people who joined the train was a Palestinian who sat opposite me and enjoyed himself enormously by lecturing me on British atrocities committed in Palestine in 1948. He went on for hours cataloguing examples of harsh and brutal British conduct. He had a high opinion of his own historical knowledge and was dismissive of any opinion that clashed with his own. When I pointed out that some of the cruel deeds he complained of were a part of the development of the infant state of Israel and there were people other than the British inflicting atrocities on the Palestinians, he would have none of it. There was not a single event in Palestinian history where he was inclined to give the poor old Anglo-Saxons the benefit of the doubt. He described the British as a vile and cruel race and said that England was the last country in the world that he would wish to visit. “What do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I teach English.”
While the Palestinian monologue was in full swing, I looked out at the green Yugoslavian countryside. The day had started slowly and the first faint silver slips of light hung around for a long time before fading to the fresh clearness of early morning. As we rattled and rumbled our way across the green countryside, we were treated to a landscape that was reminiscent of the novels of Thomas Hardy. There was very little mechanism; ox-carts and pony carts were a common sight and the cream and yellow fields of wheat and barley were being cut with scythes. Men pitched bundles of wheat to the tops of tall hay carts where waving children stacked them in neat piles. We passed great fields of sunflowers, now past their yellow radiance and beginning to wither before being crushed for oil. By mid-morning, the sky was clear and a soft lemon light delicately touched the trees and distant villages.
In addition to the Turkish couple and the Palestinian, we were joined in the carriage by a Hungarian doctor and an Iraqi drama student. The Hungarian’s passport only allowed him to travel in Europe and when I mentioned that my British passport didn’t restrict me from visiting any countries, he asked if he could have a look at it. “Do you realize how lucky you are to have a passport like this?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think I do.” He then cut a piece of cloth from a red, white and green roll and handed it to me.
“This is the Hungarian flag and I intend giving a piece to all the friends I make on my journey.” (It’s still tucked into the back of the little diary that Erna carried with her.) The morning grew hotter and hotter and by mid-day the sky was an eye-watering blue without a trace of cloud. People working in the fields sought the sanctuary of every piece of shade they could find; under trees and carts, beneath bushes. Nobody moved and nothing stirred in that fierce heat. And in our carriage the heat was suffocating, made worse by the fact that we hadn’t had a shower, all we had managed was a cat’s lick in a sink. And our meagre rations did nothing to improve our spirits. Eventually the Palestinian and the Turkish couple moved to an empty compartment, so the four of us were able to stretch a little and get some sleep. The Iraqi was a high-spirited rascal.
“Are you Christian?” he asked.
“No. I’m a lapsed Catholic.” He smiled and fumbled in the bottom of his bag.
“I’m lapsed Muslim,” he said, pulling out a bottle of vodka, “have a drink.”
During the night the train stopped at Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Erna was fast asleep as I ran up and down the platform looking for a food stall or at least somewhere I could buy soft drinks but there was nothing available. I went through another night with little sleep and when I woke from a doze the following morning, I was starving and smelt like a polecat.
To view photos that we took in Europe please click here