Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Compressed Life

A Compressed Life
I have   written a fairly comprehensive unpublished account of my life from the late 1920s until the very early 2000s. So here I want to have fun in compressing that life into as short a written space as possible, occasionally recalling events that have appealed to me. 
My father was a farmer who was showing the Egyptians how to water the desert from the Nile when WW1 was about to start. He returned to England, joined his Territorial Regiment, was sent to Mesopotamia where, after a terrible time fighting the wily Turks in the marshes, where many of his officer colleagues were killed, was badly wounded. He had charged the enemy at the Battle of Hanna with a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other. He never really recovered, and certainly never again to play cricket for his county. Madame Curie discovered radium, a cure-all of the time. He had treatment with it, which destroyed his blood and then him.
My mother, brought up in court circles, pretty and vivacious, found that being a chicken farmer’s wife was not really to her liking.
Well connected, but very poor, my sister, brother and I (unwanted) led an ideal life close to animals and nature.
WW2 has started when I was at school, and my mother, now high up in WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services), heard of an American family who wanted an English refugee. Wanting one of us to survive, I jumped at the opportunity.  At 15, I took a train to Liverpool and boarded the Duchess of Richmond bound for Montreal.
Kind though my American hosts were, I did not really fit in with their way of life. From the elitist Taft School I was sent to a trade school where I learned how to draw the teeth on cog wheels.
When old enough to join the RAF, I boarded the M/V Axel Johnson in New York. We sailed northwards toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join a convoy across the Atlantic, breaking down on the way.
When enough ships were ready to leave, we were escorted out by a Canadian destroyer. It was slow going as convoys can go no faster than the slowest vessel.
In mid Atlantic German U-boats were waiting for us and, during the night, many of our ships were sunk. I had not been woken from my bunk and was surprised to hind our few passengers and crew still standing by the lifeboats at dawn.
Joining the RAF soon after landing in Liverpool, I was told to return to civvy street to await flying training. I took a job as a farm labourer to learn a bit about farming and to help feed the nation during strict rationing.
It was when in the middle of a field hoeing weeds that there was the noise of approaching engines. And suddenly, just above me, was a German JU 88 bomber banking on its way to bomb Reading Railway Station. The gunner declined to kill me, but their bombs missed the station, killing many children in school. It was the nearest that I came to the enemy during the war.
Then I heard of a job going five miles away at RAF There as a prop swinger, which I took. 
My job was to swing the propellers of Tiger Moth biplanes for those just starting to learn to fly. As there was no such thing as weather forecasting, an instructor would fly upwind to see that the oncoming weather was fit for students. The second cockpit was unused. Knowing that I was in the RAF and waiting to fly, I was often given this spare seat. Soon I was flying the aircraft. So when I was recalled to train, my records rightly stated that I had little experience in the air. I now had that initial experience and flew my first solo flight in what was thought to be record time. I was off to a good start. 
There was a lot of waiting around to do as pilot training schools in suitable climates where congested. So we were posted to airfields for operational experience. One of these was RAF Davidstow Moor, in Cornwall. Here I did 20 hours operational flying in the second pilot’s seat of Warwick aeroplanes, just to keep an eye out for a nasty German four-engined convoy buster called a Condor. Our slow and very noisy twin-engined aircraft was a failure as a bomber and used in this instance to save bailed-out aircrew with a lifeboat slung beneath to drop to the Bay of Biscay on 6 parachutes.
We never saw anyone in such an expanse of sea, but, with wonderful eyesight, I did see a Condor as a speck in the distance. As we were absolute mincemeat for its speed and cannon fire, we dived to just above sea level and headed hotfoot home - where we were each guaranteed an egg. 
At another RAF airfield near Lincoln, Skellingthorpe, the rear gunner of a Lancaster bomber was unable to fly, so I was asked if I would like to go on an engine test up the coast to Scotland in his place in the tail turret. My job was to line up the guns with the landscape beneath, read off the drift on a scale, and report it to the navigator via the intercom. With four fully armed-up Browning machine guns to fire at the press of a button I was fully prepared to use them should a German aircraft cross the North Sea. But none did.
Still waiting for flying training and based at RAF Northolt, I volunteered to mend bombed roofs in Plumstead. One of the first German V2 rockets landed in the district.
Then I was crossing the Atlantic by sea for there third time in the war, this  time in the Mauritania, to Oklahoma, where I wrote off a lovely PT19, Cornell aeroplane (not my fault) and gain my wings flying Harvards.
Although the was ended in Europe, many of our more experienced pilots continued flying in Pacific operations. I crossed the Atlantic for the fourth time, now heading for home as an officer and in safety on the Queen Elizabeth.
Until invalided out with TB, I became Photographic Intelligence Officer, using captured German aerial photographs of the northern Caspian to see what had interested them in the region. My war was truly over. 
I lasted a year as a medical student. Then the TB returned. There was no cure at that time. Rest was recommended but you either lived of died. To rest my lung, atmospheric air was introduced through a tick needle inserted between ribs to a gap between lung and rib cage. Never pleasant, it was a weekly inconvenience for some seven years. 
I went to Central School of Art and worked with the artist Bernard Meninsky, also taking the theatre design course, to be followed by the design course at the Old Vic School.
I was lucky enough to buy a bombed out house in Fulham, London, to rebuild and live in.
My first theater jobs were to paint scenery at the Royal Opera House, and then to design for repertory and touring shows. After repainting pantomime scenery in York in the costume I made for the job out of scene canvas and rubber solution, I made off for home. Transporting my basic paints in chamber pots (ideal and plentiful at the time) in the back of my van, an accident on an icy road decanted much of the paint over me in my monk-looking habit. Bystanders were surprised.
The big design jobs were not coming my way, being of a different sexual orientation to those in power. As the war had interrupted my education a Grand Tour around Europe seemed in order.
For this I bought an old Ford 8 flat-back vehicle and built a body on it.  Its fun features were two, brass, nautical air scoops on to of the cab, a compass, an altimeter and a horn that would waken the dead. I lived in it to travel around France, Spain and Italy, selling it eventually to some Scottish Laird.
A replacement VW van, designed so that I could paint landscape from water in a small pram dinghy that it held, followed. When the Russians invaded Hungary, Anna de Goguel and I filled it with blankets and clothes to take to the refugees in Austria. We contacted the Red Cross in Vienna and were told to deposit our clothes in their warehouse. A local newspaper told us that refugees were entering Austria in Eisenstadt. On reaching it we found people shivering in a straw-strewn farmyard. We backed the van into the yard and distributed our collection to the people who really needed it. In doing so I learned a lot about charity.
The mid to latter part of the 1950s were mainly rebuilding the Fulham house, working in the theatre and exhibiting mainly landscape paintings with some success. But I was feeling my lack of education again and thought that to see the world would be in order.
So I bought a medieval wreck of a house in the Berkshire Downs north of Newbury, sold my London house and set off to see and draw around the world. It was a wonderful time to travel, there being virtually no international conflicts going on. Costing a thousand pounds I spent most part of a year travelling around the globe, mainly in the far east. Out of it I held an exhibition of drawings and paintings in London’s Cork Street, a further show in Japan, and later, and the illustrated book: ”Harbours, Girls and a Slumbering World”.
My next job was to deal with that medieval wreck I had bought outside Chieveley. It had a thatched roof. So, in league with my lovely cottage neighbour, I telephoned the Newbury fire brigade, told them not to come out, and put a match to the downwind corner. A chimney stack  remained.
I designed and got a Polish builder to construct a studio sed my bedroom house with one bedroom. I vegetated there, to the extend that a blue tit used my bedroom as its roost. I somehow lost my way with painting. This I rectified by making collages, which have now become popular. I had to return to London’s art life, so sold the house to Francis Bacon, a charming fellow.
In the 1950’s, I had worked on coaster ships as a supernumerary. These sometimes left London from Limehouse. It was a part of dockland that appealed to me, with its close-knit dockers’ world and artisan community. So, in 1965, I bid at auction for a warehouse off Limekiln dock, got it, and, with yet another Pole, Max Jarnot, turned it into accommodation of two studios that overlooked the Thames. It was at that time I made most of my dockland paintings. 
Then marriage, first son, a few years at Yale, where I ran the home and made a garden from soiled nappies and subsoil, back to England and off to Great Chishill, in Cambridgeshire, to form a vineyard, run a house and garden, paint and sculpt large pieces of elm wood.
My next home move was to Tangley, just north of Andover in Berkshire. Again it was my job to bring up two children, cook, garden (another vineyard), make a press for cider and wined-making and continue to sculpt large elm logs. Unfortunately, I broke my wrist in a car accident and could no longer sculpt. 
Now was the time for another tack. No one was telling us then about supermarket wines. My knowledge was of importing it in cask for home bottling and making wine for my own vineyards. So I started to write - over 700 articles and 14 books over the next 25 years. And I did the first of two “Gardener’s World” programmes for the BBC.
Then my wife left to make her fame and fortune and I, with one son, returned to London, where I had the best of fortunes to meet and marry my charming Dutch wife.
Two matters goaded me back to painting (actual pastels). One was losing a delightful Matthew Smith painting with the divorce and emulating his style with “Homage to Matthew Smith” written on it boldly, and next selling a 1954 painting at Christie’s for an obscenely large sum of money when two people desperately wanted it. Working on that “homage” pastel started me off to make pictures once more.
I now sell mainly to private collectors with as much success as I want. And I write a blog. Well, this may the last blog as my trusty Windows 95 has taken on a mind of its own. I no longer understand it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


This is just another piece about a hospital operation, an occurrence that always gives one time to think and scribble a few words – words that the squeamish might well pass by.
Some time in the middle of 2017 I suggested to a doctor that I might have a hernia. No, I hadn’t. Later, another doctor said: Yes, I had.
So the wonderful National Health Service system, in which I believe so wholeheartedly, put their wheels in motion.
I saw a specialist in hospital. And after some months was given a date for a pre-op and another for the operation.
In the meantime I had bought a truss from a local chemist and fitted it to my body. This was an enormous help in pushing my guts back into my belly. By hand it had been a rather unpleasant experience.
Unfortunately, this tight-fitting appliance caused soreness and some fungal infection – the latter cured by Margreet after referring to the medical diagnostic part of her computer.
Then came some lateral thinking. These minor afflictions were caused when the truss structure was next to the skin. Why did I not put on pants first and the truss outside them? This I did, and with a daily change of fresh pants I had no further trouble.
The pre-op was to discover what pills I was taking, my medical history, and that of my family. This was followed by a lady anaesthetist who advised me on the injections that I was to give myself before the operation instead of taking my regular Warfarin tablets. 
The trouble with this was that the dose was only part of the volume in each syringe, and its markings in red were almost impossible for me to see.
So I used a black dye marker to make it easier to see when I should stop injecting the solution. This was a rather haphazard procedure as I plunged the needle into folds on my stomach. But what’s a millilitre or two more or less?
Finally the great day arrived. I appeared at the hospital around 6.30 in the morning and was conducted to a cubicle with a bed on which lay a surgical smock, surgical stockings in a packet that was very hard to penetrate and a pair of slippers-cum-socks.
I enquired if the dress should be open at the back or front – the back. If my blood pressure was normal beforehand, struggling to put on the surgical stockings must have raised it a notch or two.
The first of the blue-costumed and clogged personal to appear was the anaesthetist. To ensure that he would not kill me I mentioned, in passing, that my grandfather was a pioneer and the first anaesthetist to be knighted. But I’m sure it made no difference.
Then came the surgeon and the Big Boss who was dressed in a city suit.
I gave them all out-of-date copies of some of my books. This gesture always goes down well as people seem to think that even having written but one book makes you someone of note.
Then I was led to the anaesthetic room on foot to lie down on the operating trolley and have stickers with wires applied to my skin and needles shoved into it.
        Then I was wheeled across a corridor to the surgery where the surgeon barked out a few orders before I woke up with the operation concluded.
It was curious that I should recover from a total anaesthetic rather than the local one proposed. And when I came to take off the dressing a few days later there was no sign of the keyhole surgery promised but an incision needing eighteen stitches. So I now consider myself to be rather lucky that the surgeon who operated on my hernia had not changed his mind again and dealt with some other unsuspecting body part.
Anyhow, a post-op room came next, and then another from which I was released with an instruction that after taking off the dressing I was to leave the stitched wound to dry and heal uncovered – a procedure of which I most thoroughly approve. 
Margreet came to collect and take me home 5 ½ hours after I was admitted to the hospital.
I had had a hernia sewn up some 70 years before when I was a medical student, and remember the weeks of pain before I could stand up straight. As I was taken home, with the effects of the anaesthetic wearing off, I realised that this time it might well be just as bad.
A bottle of Morgon 2010 that evening, donated by a grateful neighbour, helped, but pain-killers were needed. Even adapting the now worthless truss to something that would keep the dressing temporarily in place was of little help and rightfully abandoned.
With the stitches out ten days after the operation, I was committed to weeks of discomfort and inactivity. But at least I had the wonderful feeling of freedom again.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Corn and Garlic (Mussels, too)

There were two out-of-season sections of sweetcorn in the refrigerator. Feasts of in-season corn, eaten with butter and salt from the cob is one thing, but what should one do with two sections that were supermarket wrapped? I boiled them for 20 minutes and cut the corn from the cob with a sharp knife. The corn was then broken up and put into bowls containing pressed garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, vinegar and Tabasco. They were ease itself to consume, unlike the rather messy way of chewing off the corn from its cob, when bits are inclined to get stuck between the teeth. I did the same later with mussels that had been bearded, steamed open, and separated from their shells. That, too, was a delicious dish when eaten with crusty bread.


You will need:
Corn on the cob (or mussels)
Olive oil
Pepper and salt

Boil the corn on the cob for 20 – 25 minutes and, when cool, hold the cob upright in the middle of a large plate and cut off the corn from its sides with a sharp knife (the thinner the blade the better). Break the corn up with the fingers and combine it with the ingredients already mentioned.


Monday, October 15, 2018


Heaven knows when our slate roof was last laid. Anyhow, over the years there have been leaks, broken and disintegrating slates, wood rot and deteriorating lead work. It was a mess. It was time for renovation.
Difficult to access myself, I had, in the past, employed various people to execute spot repairs. And using a long pole with a paintbrush tied to the end, I had manoeuvred roofing mastic into holes and craters to keep the rainwater out. But all this was only patching up an old roof.
Then a big leak appeared, soaking a ceiling, and needing buckets on the carpets to catch the minor cascade, eased a bit by the hole I drilled to duct most of the water into a single bucket below it.
We decided that it was time to bring the entire roof up to date.
The insurance company was reluctant to pay for repairs as the roof was old and in a poor state, but would make a small contribution toward the cost of a new one.
I contacted a well-established local, family-run roofing firm that I had known for some 30 years. They looked aghast at the condition of nearly everything that should have been keeping the elements at bay.
As Health and Safety now insist on expensive scaffolding being used for such work, a “patching up” of the roof seemed out of the question. So a brand new roof was commissioned.
The roofing firm’s own scaffolders constructed some platforms and a hoist, giving their entire construction unbelievable rigidity and strength. Then off came the old roof and its slates (that had been second hand already when installed), leaving only sound rafters remaining.
Dry weather was much on our wish list – and it came, only raining for about an hour during the entire three weeks of roof replacement.
Insulation, in the form of thick foam sheets silver foiled on either side, was installed between the rafters throughout.
Old slates and decaying lead work were cast off from on high into the back of a flat-back vehicle below. Reconstruction could begin.
New slates, from Spain, arrived with rolls of lead sheet, treated wooden battens, guttering, thick ply board, copper nails and all the bits and pieces needed for the new structure. They were delivered and stored on the several scaffolder’s platforms.
Battens in place and roofing felt laid, the slates were positioned so close together that gaps between hem barely showed. This work was combined with lead flashing, with insulation and new lead work fitted around each of the dormers.
Our gang of Charlie, Garry and Allan worked from 08.30 to 3 o’clock, each knowing what the others were doing and co-ordinating their jobs so that progression could be continued without disruption.
With the roof lining installed, the house was watertight during construction should showers fall.
The tea-boy (me), supplied endless cups to keep the roofers happy (perhaps delaying their work a little). And when our electric kettle broke (in two pieces at the same time – that’s planned obsolescence for you) I was most surprised to discover how long it took to boil water in a saucepan.
The dormers seemed to take a lot of time to renovate, but insulation and beautiful lead work cannot be rushed by such craftsmen.
It now remained for only the flashing and guttering to be completed.
So, with a gift of a letter of thanks, wine and a selection of my books as a topping out present to each man, the job was complete.
Neighbours, who might have been inconvenienced by vans or noise, were invited for evening drinks as our own topping-out ceremony.
Roll on rain, frost, snow and wind. We will be snug inside from now on.
But that was not the end of it. Hardly had the roof’s ridge tiles been laid than a watchful and helpful neighbour telephoned to say that red tiles had been laid and, being in a conservation area, there would be complaints for sure. Fortunately the scaffolding was still in place so that the roofers could return to change the red tiles for black – like the rest of the neighbouring ridge tiles. Job done.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Compressed Life

In the hot summer of 2018 we are sitting on a garden bench beneath our vine arbour with ripening grapes hanging from above.
In front of our seat is a table-top slice of marble resting on metal legs.
But the marble is not just a marble top, but also a beautiful object in its own right. How could ancient volcanic action produce such a myriad design of glowing chestnut colours with white streaks running through it in all directions?
I once designed for the theatre and painting marble for the scenery was always a pleasure. I laid on a background of colour, that probably related to the action of the play and, with a brush full of colour (or white) pushed the bristles against the way in which one would usually use a brush. The result was theatrical marble for columns and walls that to the audience looked much like our garden table-top. 
This marble top was never a table-top but once a washstand top.
After the war the emerging generation wanted to be rid of the old and start afresh in a world at peace.
Washstands were old hat. They once held a basin and matching water jug for washing one’s face and neck (usually with cold water). Times had changed to hot water from a tap and basins that would empty just from pulling out the plug. So those old-fashioned washstands with their marble tops were thrown away or sold for a pittance.
So how did I come by the lovely table-top beneath the grape vines?
Thinking in advance in life, I saw the marble on those washstands becoming the future surface of a marble floor. So I bought them wherever I found them (5 quid max but mainly a lot less, or free), burned the wood for heat, and had the marble stored for future use.
That future came to fruition when I built a country studio house. The rectangular slabs were positioned, levelled, and bedded down above underfloor heating. The marble quality was not of the finest but the combinations of colour and pattern delightful. From this floor one could look out through floor-to-ceiling windows on to the Berkshire Downs. My washstand tops had, at last, come into their own.
But of all the slabs to be used there was one odd one out. It had rounded ends. And you cannot fit a round-ended slab with rectangular ones.
So I kept it aside and had a table frame and legs made for it using reinforcing rod.
And that is the story of my lovely slab of marble that gives so much pleasure beneath the grapes. It is a delight. And I hope that the long-dead cutter of it (number D 8 8 3, carved on the reverse) would also be pleased. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Fear is something that is very personal and comes in degrees.
It is possible to imagine the fear that others experience in life and often to be very moved by what we hear or read about it. But one’s own fears are real, very real, and usually remain in the memory – not always happily.
The fear of death is, I suppose, the greatest universal fear, much of which has been used to coerce religious people into devotion and donation. We atheists are spared it.
So what I write here are some of my very own fears and what has frightened me in the past. So they are someone else’s fears and probably of little interest to you. But here goes.
I suppose, as a boy, I was frightened while waiting outside my headmaster’s office door to be caned by that sadistic man. But then showing off the raised, purple welts to fellow pupils later proved that I had experienced fear and come through it unscathed – except for the marks on my behind. So pride was to follow fear, and made up for it.
At the same school we boys were taught to swim by a master holding us up from drowning in the swimming pool (where masters took moving films of us naked) with a ring of material attached to a rope at the end of a pole. I hated it and did all I could to avoid the lessons. That created a fear of the water that I retain to this day – except, of course, for baths and drinks.
Fear and excitement are close companions, especially for me whenever I flew in those early biplane aeroplanes with their open cockpits, wind, noise and bumps on the ground. It was exciting yet enjoyable fear.
But generally, fear and flying do seem to go together, even now when transportation in the air is about the safest form of getting from A to B where great distance is concerned.
When flying in Warwick aircraft from an airfield in Cornwall during the war,  and still only training to be a pilot, I was taken along on sorties over the Bay of Biscay, simply as another pair of eyes (excellent ones). So when I saw, in the far distance, a menacing, German, four-engined and cannon- bristling Focke-Wulf Condor, that would have made mincemeat of us had any aboard it seen us first, we dived to just above sea level (so we could not be shot at from below) and headed for base full tilt. I doubt if any of us aboard felt fear, but certainly considerable apprehension.
With aeroplanes again, when I crashed a lovely Cornell primary training aircraft into the muddy ground of Oklahoma, in the USA, I was more occupied with how to save myself and the aeroplane than to experience much fear. But it must have been there all the same.
I had joined the RAF in 1942 and, because weather was so bad in England, potential pilots were kept waiting for vacancies to train abroad in better climates. Until called, I took a job first as a farm labourer. Hoeing in the middle of a field one day, a German Ju 88 flew so low over me that the gunner could have popped me off very easily. This aircraft was banking on its way to bomb Reading Station. It missed the target and killed a lot of children in school. The enemy, in such close proximity so that I could see the pilot and gunner almost to have been able to identify them, should have frightened me, but I was so astonished, and it happened so quickly, that there was no time to be frightened.
 After the war I hated to be flown by another pilot because I knew how dangerous flying was at that time and could only trust myself to be in charge. I suppose that that was fear in a way.
I do not see the pleasure, in any form, for caving. Yet, in Bulgaria, I joined others in a journey underground from A to B. After a while I found myself wearing quite inappropriate gear for the operation and trying to balance on a narrow, muddy and slippery ledge, with a deep chasm below. I then felt fear all right.
Just as crashing old aeroplanes and fear seem to be complementary, so are cars and road accidents. Once, a lorry-driver, not seeing me behind his rear-view mirror, drove straight out from a country side road into my main road. There was nowhere for me do steer around it. Despite full braking, I had to hit it head on. Fear? Probably.
And on another occasion, in snowy conditions and poor visibility, an articulated lorry-driver decided to turn around his huge vehicle in the middle of a main road. My car simply slid into it. That must have frightened me – and probably frightened a few spectators when I appeared from the car just having painted some scenery in a northern theatre, and was now covered with multi-coloured scene paint that sloshed over me when the accident took place.
When stationed at RAF Davidstow Moor in the war, there were separate ablution blocks for men and women placed near to living quarters. I was in a very clean one once and was more than surprised to hear a woman cough from a few cubicles away. Such cleanliness should have alerted me to the fact that I was in very much the wrong place. Being caught in a women’s convenience was a Court Martial offence. My career in the RAF now depended on my making my way out unobserved. So, hastily adjusting my clothing, I made for the exit and, as nonchalantly as I could manage, went on my way - seen by no one. Now, that really was fear.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Instant Memories

It is our wont in later life to reminisce about countries visited in one’s lifetime and, importantly, impressions (often only minor ones) that remain in the memory about those places. Dates to some people are of importance, but to the enumerate, like me, they are of little consequence.
We were talking about these quick impressions over a glass or two in the 2018 summer of heat. And sitting beneath our vine arbour in London, the foreign incidents recalled from such an English setting seemed even more remote than they were.

I start and end in the UK.

In Wales, just after the war ended, a family took me in when I had been posted there to be the air controller of a single Spitfire. From a generous supply, they placed every single lump of coal in the firebox of a grate that warmed the house and supplied heat for cooking. This coal, for them, in a mining district, was unlimited, whereas in the rest of country we were severely rationed for fuel. It seems a very minor incident, but such bounty gave a warmth of feeling that better times were to come and, in my case of a missed education, thirst to catch up on knowledge.

Scotland’s Aberdeen in peacetime I thought to be grey and forbidding. But it was the sick on the pavements in the mornings after early compulsory closing of pubs in the evening, that I remember most about it.

On a visit to Ireland at one time to see if we might live there, an evening in a pub where a rugby match between England and Wales was shown, a serious confrontation almost erupted when we cheered for England.

In France I once had to hide in a cupboard when my lady companion’s lover and protector came to visit unexpectedly. I had imagined that such incidents really only happened on the stage of Whitehall farces.

To the north, in Finland, visited as a supernumerary on a coaster to collect timber, I was introduced to a black sauna. The fire to heat large stones had no chimney, so the soot from smoke mingled with sweat, stung the eyes, and clogged the lungs. We dashed into the cold Baltic water at intervals and drank a lot of lemonade. Because I was a foreigner we wore items of clothing.

Sweden, on yet another coaster trip, meant mosquitoes (huge ones) and a youthful population who seemed to have nothing to do but look miserable. Our motley crew of non-Swedes were pointedly ignored.

Holland, where all the courses for a meal might come at one time on the same plate, is, for me, Amsterdam, where you can hardly turn without seeing a building that is not a delight. And I managed to find a wonderful wife from that country.

In St Petersburg, the closely-fitted bunk bed was too short for my frame. So I put the mattress on the floor for the night. As soon as I had done so, the floor lady rushed in to investigate (no locks). Being observant of architecture, I noticed that our hotel had a floor missing (an extra one when seen from the outside and missing one from the inside). This was the electronics floor, found by a fellow guest (a spy) at a dinner party, who managed to access such a floor in Russia and was never challenged – being thought to be part of the organisation.

As a child visiting Germany before the war, I was delighted to see so many fortifications and tanks around. My mother knew what was to come and saw it in quite a different light.

After distributing clothing and blankets on the Austria-Hungarian border to refugees fleeing Hungary, we stopped off in Alsace. Next to our bedroom was another smaller room with a hole in the wooden floor for defecation, etc. The smell was really atrocious. If that wasn’t bad enough, I looked above this hole toward the ceiling where there was another hole for those living above. 

Staying with a family in Switzerland to learn French as a young schoolboy, I was summoned back to England as war with Germany was imminent. But before I made my way back, I was going down a wooden-slatted slide into a lake for a swim and had not realised that a bucket or two of water should have been sluiced down first to lubricate the wood. So I returned home with vertical welts on my behind instead of the usual horizontal ones delivered by my sadistic headmaster at school.

To me, Spain means swifts. In England I watch each morning in springtime to see the first swift arrive from Africa. When one comes, summer has arrived. Alas few are now to be seen over London at all, but in the 40 degree heat of Granada, in Spain, the sky was full of these mysterious birds that only touch ground to nest and reproduce.

In Sicily, where we had noticed in a nearby café several Mafia youths throwing their weight around, and who were obviously not going to pay for their food and drink, one of them fancied Margreet, broke away, and started to follow us. It was not a nice feeling, and a memorable one.

In Bulgaria, my son and I ordered beer. And as is our custom, we paid for it on its arrival. Our waiter went off duty. We ordered more and paid for that, but they claimed that we had not yet paid for the first order. Without knowledge of the lingo, and despite our protestations, we had to pay again to avoid trouble. We were glad to leave that surly lot.

Confirming that scent prices rely on marketing and exclusiveness, it was a delight to find, in Greece, copycat scent that was sold from bulk for next to nothing. And with returning samples to test at home, they were as close to the “originals” as we could discern.

En route through desert scrubland to an oasis in Morocco, where no visible roads led to a suddenly revealed small community based around a stream surrounded by crops, trees, and animals, we passed a tree inhabited by goats. To see these four-legged animals climbing around a tree was almost more surprising than coming across the verdant oasis in mid desert.

On the eastern side of North Africa, in Sudan, desert merged with town and goats with desert, there was something touching and elemental to see a family stop in the desert sand to pray.

It was while drawing women weeding beneath rubber trees in Malaya, and standing near to a Land Rover, that I heard shouts and screams. Coming straight toward me was a large snake. Just how I found myself on top of that vehicle I will never know, it happened so quickly. The snake passed by the wheels below and made off toward the jungle nearby.

In the south of Africa we stayed in a hotel in Cape Town that had once been a prison. Wisely or not, they had preserved that ancient punishing machine, the treadmill. What a sinister and frightful object it was – and adjustable for speed. It upsets me even to think about it.

As the only passenger on a ship from Singapore to Thailand, an ant run crossed from one side of my bunk to the other. When in bed, they crossed on top of the sheet.

I rented a room in a Bangkok brothel. It was cheap and entertaining, giving me much to draw. The downside of my room was to have an open drain at one end. This plumbing arrangement was used by the occupants of cubicles upstream. Perhaps that was the reason for the modest rent.

India is a place that seems to be either loved or loathed. It is a country full of extremes. For one leg of our journey through this land of beauty, and architecture that often needs a good scrubbing, we took an overnight “Luxury” bus voyage in Rajasthan. With passengers mostly made up of men, many slept on the floor and most, if not all, farted throughout the night. So much for luxury.

In Vietnam, when I was there, Vietnamese soldiers in the south were being trained by Americans to fight northern Vietnamese. This now seems absolutely crazy.

In Japan, where there was an appreciation of art throughout, I saw gardeners  pruning a pine tree, clambering around its high branches with secateurs in hand, such was the general appreciation of nature among the people. A word or two of the language would have helped when venturing into a small section of a public bath, I found myself buried up to the neck in very hot volcanic sand. There was no escape. And my shouts for help may have seemed to them like noises of appreciation. I now know how lobsters feel when cooked.

In a South Pacific island I saw a spider catch a full-sized bird in its web. And when walking along a remote crushed coral track, a dark man appeared from the jungle next to me, dressed only in an animal’s tooth through the nose and a scarlet jungle flower in his hair.

A returning sad and diseased passenger on my South Pacific coaster to Australia, kept saying that back of beyond in the outback of Australia was “back of Bourke”. So, on landing in Brisbane, I hitchhiked to Bourke. It took several days. There were very few cars on that dirt road, but each would stop. Once, for a very short ride, I became the self-starter and reverse gear to one of them. Two workmen, knowing that I was interested in seeing a kangaroo, spied one and tried to shoot it for me to look at. It was rather like a Japanese fisherman who did the same with a bird, killing it with an oar. We have rather a different approach to wildlife.

I left Sydney, Australia, on a ship that called first at Aukland in New Zealand. I found during so brief a stay that all was so neat and tidy I wanted to see dirt, poverty and even some of the lawlessness of Australia to give it balance.

For another brief stop of the ship in Tahiti I bought a large and flat mother of pearl shell from Gaugin’s son who ran a small souvenir shop there. It is a remote connection with his father, and one that I treasure.

After Tahiti came the Panama Canal and at the end of it a rather sordid Panama City. There I saw a buxom lady, dressed not unlike Carmen Miranda, who was offering her body – with a free cigar.

Back in the USA, having completely written off a rather nice aeroplane there during the war, and in the process knocking two instruments out of the panel with my head, I asked the ambulance driver who was taking me to hospital what had happened. He didn’t know. My question had been a global one. Was I, perhaps, in London and been run over by a bus? And of course I had forgotten how wonderful it had been to have left wartime rationing behind in England and been able to eat unlimited (though not very good) food.

The 707 jet airliner had just been introduced on the New York to London route. Short of money I took the cheaper Bristol Britannia instead to the country of my birth and one where aeroplanes had always been part of my life.

It was from the muddy grass field of Croydon Aerodrome that Kingsford Smith was to fly my brother and me around London in the very early 1930s. But the tail skid of his aeroplane had broken and another pilot took us boys up in the open cockpit of a Klem Bat. With our caps on back to front we held on like grim death and were probably more frightened than observant. They were days when flying was still in its infancy, but fascinating.

It is extraordinary how often such minor incidents in life stimulate the memory of them and events that surround them.