Archive | November, 2011

Post-Separation Christmas : “Outside Looking In.”

29 Nov

Christmas is for families. That’s often said. It’s one of those seasonal cliches — the cosy image of the perfect family gathered round a glowing fire ( or at least near a radiator), cracking nuts, pulling crackers, munching chocolates, exchanging presents and generally feeling happy, loved and secure. Some families travel from all corners of the country, if not the Globe, simply to be together at Christmas. They bask in the warm glow of togetherness. Some even indulge in a bit of seasonal showing off.  “They’re all coming to ours this year and I’ll be cooking for 17” How many times have you heard that one? They pretend to be exasperated with all the extra work but are secretly pleased that so many relatives want to join them on the “special day.” It’s all part of the annual, not so subtle, game of family  one-up-manship. “That’s nothing, we’ve got 25 coming . I don’t know where we’re going to put everybody!”

All this sounds very nice. It’s a lovely tradition. There’s nothing wrong with people getting together at a special time of year. But what happens if you’ve not got a family? What happens if you’ve become estranged from your relatives? What if you are actually alone at Christmas? The so-called festive season then turns into negative. It becomes a whole different emotional ball-game.

Back in Christmas 1988 this happened to me in a small way. I had been excluded from day to day family life by a no-blame separation, which eventually led to a no-blame divorce. I had done the decent thing by agreeing to my wife staying in the house and thus to be with our 3 children on a daily basis. I got plenty of access and was kindly invited along for Christmas dinner, but for the first time I woke up alone on the morning of December 25th. ( I forgot to warn you that this post was going to be a bit of a “weepy”!) I was living as a lodger in the spare room of some friends. They had gone away to visit their extended family in Greater Manchester. My “girlfriend” turned out to be commitment-shy. She presumably thought that it would send out the wrong signal if she was to spend a special occasion like Christmas with me. Thus, after visiting me for a token hour over Christmas Eve lunchtime and giving me my present, she disappeared for the rest of the holiday to join her family. I wasn’t invited.

Work and its distractions had finished for a fortnight. I couldn’t bear to go back to my parents’ place 22 years after leaving home for good, even though they had kindly invited me. I knew I would spent some of Christmas Day with my close family but basically, for much of the holiday I was to be on my own. Unfortunately this led me to have too much time to think!

Marriage and relationship break-ups invariably lead to indulgent bouts of self-pity. I was no exception. My first post- separation Christmas led to a really big wallow. I now realized that our society’s family-friendly Christmas could also be a cold exclusion zone.

As it fell dark on that Christmas Eve, I went out for a walk and couldn’t help noticing all those closed doors and drawn curtains. ( except for a small gap so you could see the twinkling tree.) In my hyper-sensitive state I felt that the doors had actually been deliberately closed on me! Absurd I know but that’s how I felt. To quote one of my favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, it struck me that I was now: “Outside Looking In”.

Back at the house I got into a mini panic when I saw the whole evening stretching out before me, and I had nothing arranged. Friends weren’t available because they were all with their families or so I assumed. Dredging up some desperate courage, I went out again and knocked on the door of some new aquaintances of mine who lived nearby — C and N. They kindly invited me in and I ended up going to a party with them and, talking to lots of people I didn’t know. At midnight I helped N erect an indoor slide for his kids to play on next day. For a couple of hours I felt included, albeit in a proxy family, but eventually I had to return to the empty house. As I mentioned before, I had been invited to spend some of Christmas day with my family but for now I was alone. I had not been invited to the usual Christmas Eve gathering at our friends’ house. I was not frantically wrapping presents and I had not taken part in the dressing of the tree. In other words: I was out of the loop.

In forthcoming years I grew to value being alone for a while. The peace and the calm were precious commodities in a busy world. I would have a lie-in, go for a run while the day was still fresh, greet everyone I met with a special smile and have a quiet, relaxing breakfast before going to spend some quality time with my children. However, on that first post-separation Christmas, I did none of this. I struggled with my feelings and felt my “aloneness” very sharply. I felt excluded from the mainstream.

I experienced lots of kindness that Christmas  — from colleagues, friends, extended family and not least from my ex-wife and 3  children. However I still felt the pain of being alone for lengthy periods. In fact, perversely, this very kindness served to, at times, to actually emphasise my predicament. My mind worked overtime and I grew to irrationally resent others whose families had not been broken up . I even unfairly branded them as “smug”.

After a restless night I awoke on Christmas morning. All was quiet; eerily quiet in fact. No-one was opening presents; no children were screamimg with excitement. I had a small, peaceful breakfast, took a few deep breaths and tried to remain calm. My allotted visiting time was a couple of hours away so there was no rush. I thought I was OK and had got my turbulant emotions under some degree of control. I just had the 2 gifts with me in my adopted home. The rest were waiting for me at the family house a few miles away. There was my “girlfriend’s” Christmas Eve offering and a big colourful box from my kind hosts, S and C. I opened the latter and found it was a large hamper crammed full with delicious goodies. It was so thoughtful of them. For some reason I burst into tears. That act of kindness touched a raw nerve. It’s difficult to explain. It made me feel included but it simultaniously reminded me that I was excluded. It was a strange feeling.

Christmas Day with my family was really lovely in the end. It was nice having one of those closed doors opening just for me. The children were excited. It was as if I was delivering myself as a present to my own family! The rest of the presents were under the tree and we had a happy time opening them all. I felt loved and wanted. I knew this all along of course, but in my heightened state of sensibility brought on by Christmas, I needed these things verified. They were. My ex-wife and 3 children were all lovely and I had a wonderful day with them. We did all the usual Christmas family stuff. We ate a delicious meal, lit the candles, pulled the crackers, read the corny jokes and put on the funny paper hats. For a while it was almost as if the split had never happened, except of course it had.

As a very pleasant afternoon rolled on and it started getting dark outside, I started to become anxious .Awkward questions popped up into my mind. How long was I expected to stay? When was I expected to go? Had they arranged to do something later on? It was strange and difficult being a guest in what had until recently been my own home. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome and didn’t want my ex-wife to think that I was inviting myself for tea. I wasn’t joking when I said I was feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity seems to be threaded throughout this narrative. I’m sorry about this but I’m trying hard to capture my emotions at that time, and tell it as it was. I wasn’t really a pitiful figure, or at least I had little cause to be. I had lots of good friends and my family still loved and supported me. But it was still difficult getting used to my new circumstances and the raw emotions they generated. Those emotions seemed to coalesce around that first post-separation Christmas.

Since then I have re-built my life and pulled out of the dive. I have enjoyed subsequent Christmases with new friends, new partners and now my lovely new wife Chris. What’s more — at every single Christmas I have spent quality time with my children. In the early years we continued to play “happy families” at the old house which was very nice. Then there came a time when we outgrew this arrangement and they started to come and visit me over the festive period. Recently my 2 lovely grand-daughters have been included in the happy mix. Trips to the panto or a special Christmas production have now become a new family custom.

However, I will never forget the Christmas of 1988 and the swirling emotions that engulfed me. That’s why I still have mixed feelings when someone describes the festive season as “family get together time” and mentions :” There’ll be 26 of us sitting round the table this Christmas.” I still recall being alone for lengthy spells and being paranoically aware of the great conspiracy of the closed doors. I vividly remember the short stab of pain I felt when my own ” home’s” door clicked shut and I stood alone on the dark, garden path.

I’m sitting pretty now. I’m happy and contented and feel loved and wanted, but it’s hard to forget the time when I felt like the “outsider”. Maybe I should read that famous Albert Camus novel now, while I’m in the mood!

Dedicated to my children : Joanna, Catherine and Ian.

Teenage Christmas Angst — The Scales Drop Off.

26 Nov

On December 25th, 1967, I just walked the wintry streets all day. For company I had a small, close-knit group of friends. For sustenance I had a small Tupperware box of vegetables in cheese sauce, kindly donated by my sister and pushed into my hands as I left the house. So what on earth had happened? Had I been rejected by my parents? Why wasn’t I with my family, exchanging presents and pulling crackers in the warmth of the house? Why wasn’t I looking forward to the richest, tastiest meal of the year?

Well, I had not been disowned. It was MY decision to go out all day and brave the December weather. I was in my late teens and I had been doing a lot of hard thinking. Once I had realized that my parents’  lifestyle and opinons were not set in concrete, I hastened to develop my own independent ideas. This incredibly had led me to reject several key components of our traditional family Christmas which had previously given me so much enjoyment as a child. By 1967, aged 17, I was determined to boycott much of it. To the bemusement of my well-meaning but long-suffering parents, I swapped the cosy but claustrophobic Christmas at home for the cold freedom of the streets. My friends and I forsook our lavish Christmas dinners for a small snack in a damp park. We did this because we wanted to show that one didn’t have to follow the diktats of tradition. It was possible to wriggle out of the straight-jacket and do something different.

We pretentiously read poetry to each other, imagining we were Allan Ginsberg- like rebels. OK, we were nothing like the Beat Poets of 10 years earlier but we did empathise with them to a certain extent, as we too felt beaten down by the conventialities of society ( I believe that’s how the “Beat Movement” got its name.). Unlike James Dean however, we were rebels WITH a cause. We wanted to expose the less acceptable aspects of Christmas in our opinion.  We no longer viewed the festival through rose-coloured spectacles, but in a newer, harsher light. To use another analogy, the scales were dropping off. Here are the reasons why.

[Don’t get me wrong. My parents were ( and still are) loving and generous. They organised many wonderful Christmases for me as a child. ( see last blog: “Childhood Christmas.”) However, as I grew up, I came under different influences through school, friends and books. I came to realize that there were alternative ways of looking at things.]

The first scale to drop away was the beguiling but totally fictitious myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. To the youngster, the idea of a kind, jolly old man,  riding a reindeer- pulled sleigh across the sky and popping presents into the stockings of every child in the world, is one of the highlights, if not THE highlight of Christmas. To the young, the presents appear on Christmas morning as if by a miracle. However it is all based on a “white lie”. The untruth is told for the best possible reasons but once a child discovers the truth, then a lot of the “magic” of Christmas instantly evaporates. It’s such a disappointment and an anti-climax to find out that it is your own parents who are delivering the presents, drinking Santa’s sherry and eating Rudolph’s carrot. It’s still nice receiving gifts but the magical aura previously surrounding them has now largely disappeared. Later on, I was to discover that Father Christmas or St Nicholas actually came not from Lapland but from Turkey, a country that does not have reindeers or elves! In fact, much of the myth of Santa Claus was developed relatively recently in the United States and Santa’s mythical clothes were changed from grey to red to suit Coca Cola who thought the brighter colour would look better in their adverts. So much for the innocent “magic” of a young child’s Christmas!

The next “scale” to drop off was the religious one. Christmas has become increasingly secular in recent years anyway but in the 60’s the Christian story of Jesus’s birth was still widely promoted and accepted, especially in our family who were devout and regular church goers. However, as I went through my teens I became increasingly suspicious of several aspects of the Nativity story, which had always been sold to me as the “Gospel Truth”. Did I really believe that Mary was impregnated by Immaculate Conception? Did I accept that Joseph, when he found out that his fiancee was pregnant, just took it in his stride and went along with the incredible, unprecedented idea that she was having God’s child? Did I really believe in choirs of angels singing in the sky or that 3 Wise men or Kings would travel a great distance to give precious gifts to a poor baby born in an obscure stable in a provincial town? It all makes a cracking story because it is so unusual but once cynicism entered my thought- processes I began to doubt its veracity. The story, accepted without question by my chapel- going parents, was about as believable as your average fairy tale. Also, I thought, why did the 3rd “Wise man” give Myrrh to a new-born baby, when this sweet smelling incense was most commonly used on dead bodies? It’s hardly appropriate I think unless you are a Christian looking for a significant symbol of Christ’s premature death.

As I grew older I came to realize that many other people also did not believe in or ascribe any importance to the nativity story. What about all the Hindus, Muslims, Sihks, Buddhists and even the Jews? Why were they not celebrating the birth of the “Son of God”? What about the athiests who did not believe in God or the agnostics who were not sure? Were they all wrong and only the Christians right? My parents would say it is a question of faith and that a true believer does not require proof. However, my doubting mind couldn’t help noticing that many more people did not believe and had no faith in this “earth-shattering” event than actually did!

Thus, despite the romanticism of the story and the beauty of the carols, I came to reject the Christian aspect of Christmas. Later, my cynicism increased when I learnt that the Church had hi-jacked the pagan midwinter festival of light. [ where people appealed to their gods for the coming of Spring, of light, warmth and of re-birth when all seemed dead and and dark in the midst of winter]. The Christian church supplanted this and adapted it for their own ends, pretending it was their festival all along. Later still, through my research as an RE teacher, I found out that historical records point to Jesus actually being born in September! So by late adolescense I had lost my faith in the Bible’s Christmas story. I did not want to go to church and hear it all again, so I took to the streets.

Another issue that forced me out into the cold was my growing awareness of the amount of poverty, famine and inequality there was in the world. I know that Christmas in the West is supposed to be a time for thinking of others less fortunate than ourselves. I whole-heartedly agree with this. The idea is constantly repeated in school assemblies and church sermons throughout the land. Businesses and celebrities adopt certain charities. The media looks for heart- warming stories of people helping in soup kitchens and temporary hostels for the homeless being set up. All this is very good. As a child I enjoyed giving as well as receiving gifts at Christmas. But I came to realize that many, if not most, of peoples’ presents were being given, not to the poor, but to people who already had a lot. How many times have you heard the question: “What can you buy for the man/woman/child who has everything?” In fact older relatives in my experience, often get so exasperated about trying to think of something to give to a child who already owns lots of toys, books, clothes, games etc., that they admit defeat and simply hand over the money!

I became more aware of this as the 1960’s rolled on .It seemed to me that Christmas was mainly becoming an orgy of materialism. This has grown a lot worse since then. Slick advertising persuades people ( especially children) that they have to have certain things or they will be missing out. Imagine being the only person in your class or on your street who doesn’t own a Kindle or a Smartphone! Poorer parents often stack up their credit cards and push themselves into debt to buy the required items for their children. By 17 I was already aware of excessive consumerism in our society, with Christmas being the time when it reached its grand crescendo. The shops were packed throughout December and there was a frenzy of frantic buying. This is still the case today with the Internet also joining in the “fun”. Postmen and women exhaust themselves delivering constant parcels to people’s doors.

On top of all this, the thought of starving people in famine- struck Africa and elsewhere, started to put me off my massive Christmas dinner, not to mention all those mince pies, cake and chocolates. I realize that much of this hand-wringing and moralising must sound terribly pompous and boring after a while. I admit I was like that as a teenager, constantly angsting as I  set out my ethical “stall”. I can still be like that today. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to my kind and generous parents and I am not advocating that everyone should have a serious and miserable time at Christmas. But ( yes — there’s always a “but”) I could not and cannot ignore poverty, inequality and starvation in the world. At the time this made me much less inclined to eat, drink and be merry. It was the extravagent excess of Christmas that brought this reaction out of me.

The final and probably the biggest factor that made me so disillutioned with Christmas was my conversion to vegetarianism. Don’t worry, I am not going to explain this in detail again as it is covered in previous blogs.( cf — “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) Suffice to say that my” Saul on the Road to Damacus” moment was seeing my Grandad’s slaughtered chicken lying lifelessly on our work top, its broken neck hanging at an awkward angle away from its body. My father thought he was being kind when he asked me if I would like to help pluck the feathers off and remove the giblets. At 17 he probably thought I was old enough to be able to do this “man’s” work. To his surprise though, his offer had the exact opposite effect to that intended. Instead of stepping forward to assist in this important job, I shrank away in disgust! Inside my mind I heard a distinct click — it was the “penny” dropping. Or you could say it was another scale disappearing from my eyes. Previously I had thought of our Christmas bird as a delicious piece of food and a special treat. Now I saw it for what it really was — a creature that had had its life prematurely snuffed out so that we could consume its flesh. In a previous post I have noted the irony of celebrating a birth (of Jesus) through a death. ( of the chicken.) This has sadly got to be multiplied millions of times every December as enormous numbers of  birds — chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese — are slaughtered on an industrial scale so people can stuff themselves at Christmas. I suddenly felt this very strongly and refused to eat that poor creature and have never knowingly eaten meat since. It’s no surprise that I felt compelled to go out all day as I wanted to take no part in something that I strongly disagreed with. Christmas has been a difficult time for me ever since.

Those rebellious years of teenage tantrums and walk- outs have now long gone and I have calmed down a lot.( thank goodness!) I have allowed myself to enjoy the numerous aspects of the Christmas festival which are harmless and pleasurable. This was especially so when I had my own family  and my first wife and I recreated the magical Christmases we had both enjoyed as children. I hope our 2 daughters and son enjoyed them too. Yet, I have never been back to Christmas morning church services after all those years of being forced to go. The nearest I got to this was a candle-lit carol service in Hexham Abbey, Northumberland. It was beautiful and atmospheric but extremely cold!  What’s more –I have retained that uncomfortable feeling about the explosion of consurism and over- indulgence that Christmas always seems to trigger. It goes without saying that I remain repelled by the mass killing of animals and birds simply to fill peoples’ stomachs. Last but not least, I am still enough of a rebel to want to fight against the constrictions of tradition. Why should I be forced to do exactly the same things as everyone else at exactly the same time? I know its an important bonding mechanism for the family and for the nation as a whole, but the James Dean in me still finds it pretty oppressive and I want to break out! It’s enough to make me want to go for a very long walk, or read a book of pretentious poetry! Amen.

Childhood Christmas — Fond Memories of Innocence.

22 Nov

I used to love Christmas as a child, back in the 50’s and early 60’s. Our lounge was decorated with twisted, coloured streamers, the mirror and pictures sported sparkling fringes of tinsel, bunches of holly appeared above the door and a traditional tree festooned with baubles and flashing lights stood proudly in the corner. OK — it was an artificial tree, but to my sister and I, it was real enough and we looked forward to decorating it and plopping the fairy ( or was it an angel?) on the tip of the very top branch.

At school we missed lessons to have class parties with sandwiches, cakes and jellies, and then were rewarded with a whole fortnight off. Everywhere, a sense of excitement and expectation filled the air as the great day got closer and closer. Both at school and in church we sang the much-loved,” traditional” carols (actually, mostly written in Victorian times). They all had that warm, reassuring ring of familiarity about them. Soon we didn’t need the song sheets to tell us the words of “Away in a Manger”, “We Three Kings” or “Silent Night”, along with numerous others. I especially like ” Oh Come All Ye Faithful” as everyone seemed to belt it out in a rousing manner and my dad and grandad sang deep, rich bass parts. Similarly, the soaring soprano voices in “Hark the Herald…” were indeed, to my child’s ears, just like angels singing in heaven. When I got older, I wrapped up warm and went carol singing with friends. Our breath hanging in clouds before us in the cold air, we sang our hearts out, being rewarded with: opening doors, smiles, extra spending money and sometimes, warm mince pies. However, the real reward was the sheer joy of singing and of joining together to feel part of something that was bigger than any of us. That’s one of the real positives of Christmas. It’s a great coming together in a spirit of goodwill such that we all feel part of a warm, caring community.

Then there were the Nativity plays. Three boys in colourful dressing gowns and shiny cardboard hats would carry important looking boxes that represented the gifts of: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Nobody actually knew what frankincense or myrrh were but they sounded suitably exotic and rare. The gifts would be ceremoniously presented to a specially selected boy and girl, also in dressing gowns but this time with tea-towels on their heads. The girl would cradle a doll which she had taken from a wooden crib. Pretend shepherds with their pretend sheep were already there, so before us, that famous event in a Bethlehem stable was magically recreated. I think many of us were so transported by the occasion that we truly imagined a special, bright star was at that moment shining right above us and a trio of camels plus a small flock of sheep were parked just outside.

Christmas Eve was extra special as expectation had now reached fever pitch. Our tree was twinkling away as were many others in the neighbourhood. ( although we didn’t have the over-the top, Beverley Hills- style extravaganzas that we often witness today.) Special foods had mysteriously made their way into the house. Bags of Brazil Nuts and walnuts, complete with fiendish looking nut crackers suddenly made an appearance. The fruit bowl was overflowing with apples, bananas and tangerines. Sticky dates or fleshy figs arrived in boxes decorated with pictures of turbaned Arab gentlemen or a  long-shadowed camel standing by a palm tree.

The radio ( and in later years — the telly) featured carols at regular intervals and we sometimes listened to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge. There were also lots of other seasonal songs usually involving snow and/or bells and usually sung by Bing Crosby. In our religious and classical music- orientated household, the Huddersfield Choral Society usually made its annual appearance at this stage, singing Handel’s Messiah and especially the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” My mum and dad had both performed that in their time. Once that lot got going and their magnificent music swelled to a stirring crescendo, even Bing and his fake Hollywood snow had to take a back seat.

As we got deeper into Christmas Eve, a stillness seemed to descend on our house, if not the whole world. ( in my child’s mind’s eye.) We sat around the bright flickering open fire and felt a warm glow of family togetherness and happiness. Eventually, my sister Glenys and I went up to our rooms, but were barely able to sleep because of the excitement that was now only hours away.

Now we come to the most memorable moment of the whole festival — Christmas morning. We emerged from our sleep early, usually about 5 or 6 am! And there, at the bottom of our beds, were big, bulging pillow-cases. We didn’t get piddly little stockings! This is the most intense moment of excitement in a child’s life — Christmas morning and the arrival of the presents! Father Christmas had been. He had actually parked his reindeer sleigh on the roof and come down our chimney! Yes, I believed it all ! It’s funny that today we lecture our children about stranger-danger, yet happily tell them that a wierd old man with a long, white beard is going to sneak into their bedrooms in the middle of the night. However it is through this myth, propagated by almost the entire adult population, that the true enchantment of Christmas is realised for our children. I may be cynical now but as a young child, I experienced that wonderful magic for myself. The fact that it was based on a lie and was giving me an early grounding in materialism, is by the by. It was still genuinely special.

In that bulging bag were: my Billy the Kid annual, my Rupert Annual, the latest additions to my fleet of Dinky Toys ( model cars), a toy train set, my sweets and my selection boxes. Each year it varied of course. I remember one year I was really pleased to get a magic set, another time I got a tricycle, to be followed by a bike a few years later. But the selection boxes were an ever present. Yes — there were whole boxes of chocolates, just for me! In that moment, Christmas was not a time for thinking of others as society likes to claim it is. At that specific time Christmas was extremely exciting but also extremely selfish. These were MY presents. These were MY chocolates. Mine, all MINE! I think younger children pay lip-service to the spirit of giving. Encouraged by adults they write cards to friends and family and present little gifts ( bought on their behalf) to others. However, basically for the under 10’s, Christmas is an aquisitive time. Selflessness only comes slowly as we get older and take a less ego-centric view of life.

So now it’s Christmas morning. My sister and I play with our presents and race around screaming with excitement. Everything is different on this special day. We have a carol service on the radio ( wireless) and unbelievably we consume pork pies and ketchup for breakfast! ( A strange family traditionlong since lost in the mists of time.) A church service now follows even though 6 years out of 7,  Christmas does not fall on a Sunday. I grew up in a Christian family, so the religious significance of Christmas was always emphasised. In the Methodist chapel service, we sing those familiar carols again, this time putting special stress on the final verse of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” — ” Yea Lord we greet Thee, on this happy morning!” The preacher talks about the baby Jesus as being God’s gift to the world and the well-worn bible passages are read — Isiaih’s prophecy, Mary’s Annunciation, the donkey trek to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn, the shepherds seeing the angels, the star and the journey of the Magi. Even at chapel where it’s usually pretty boring and serious ( in my child’s opinion), everyone is smiling and happy. Glenys and I receive shiny half-crowns from kind members of the congregation.

Then it’s back home for more playing with the presents and more stuffing of chocolate down my throat! One year I hid behind the settee and methodically gobbled the entire contents of a large selection box! I wasn’t much into sharing in those days. I only realized my terrible mistake when I went green about the gills, rushed upstairs and  wretched up half a toilet- bowl of brown sick! Lesson learnt I think.

That year I didn’t have much of my Christmas dinner, but usually, right up to age 17, the Christmas meal was one of the highlights of the day if not the year. For a family on a very moderate income ( my father was a railway engine driver), we normally ate conservatively. Sunday dinner was the biggest meal of the week. Well, Christmas dinner was like a Sunday dinner with knobs on! We had all the richest traditional fare and the stars of the plate were slices of tender pork accompanied by apple sauce and sage and onion stuffing. We couldn’t afford turkey or even chicken as the 50’s were before the days of factory farming and mass production of cheap poultry. Chicken and turkey were still luxury items to us. As I entered my teens we started to have a chicken on Christmas Day as my Grandfather had a small holding and gave us one of his birds as a treat. At the time I thought it was the tenderest, most delicious meat I had ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth. This was truly an exceptional day I thought. Later, of course , I became a vegetarian because of that very same Christmas chicken from Grandad Bates, but that’s another story, already told in a previous blog.( “How My Grandfather Turned Me Into A Vegetarian.”)

Our dessert was also traditional — a rich, fruity Christmas pudding smothered in sweet white sauce.( even better than custard.) I loved it, even though being good tee-total Methodists, we never had brandy in it. The afternoon meandered pleasantly through to tea time with the bewitching atmosphere hanging on. It was a day I wanted to last for ever. My dad gave demonstrations of his skills with the nut-crackers and how to use a pin to prise out the bits of sweet nut from seemingly inaccessible nooks and crannies. I tried to copy him and spent many a happy hour trying to winkle out the tiniest of morsels. It’s much more fun than buying a packet of ready shelled nuts. How boring! We also tried to eat the dates ( or figs) with little wooden forks but were never quite sure whether we liked them or not.

Christmas afternoon was always arranged around The Queen’s speech which came at 3pm. This was on the radio and from the mid-50’s onwards also on the telly. Even at a very young age I found this incredibly stuffy and boring, but it was impressed upon me that it was important so I fell into line. For many years we had to listen to it in silence, an atmosphere of awe descending on our house as if she was some sort of Deity speaking to her humble disciples. For my parents and grandparents this Royal interlude was very special. I think it took them back to the dark days of the Second World War, when King George VI had addressed a beleagured nation, once he had got his stammer sorted out, and put fresh hope back into everyone’s hearts.

Christmas tea was light, a sensible idea considering all the rich food we had been consuming for most of the day. The highlight of tea was definitely the Christmas cake which my mum or grandma had probably baked back in September. Again we were traditional and, as a child, I fully concurred in this as it was reassuring to be like everyone else and to know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. Surprises can be unwelcome and the very thought of them can breed insecurities. Our Christmas was certainly well within our family’s and our nation’s comfort-zone. Thus we got a rich, fruit cake topped by a layer of yellow marzipan, glistening white icing and lots of tiny, sweet balls arranged in decorative patterns. Little models of Santa, reindeer , fir trees or snowmen were stuck on the top for further decoration. It was delicious and so rich that one could only have a small slice at a time.

As I got older and reached puberty, Christmas tea posed a tricky dilemna. I wanted to eat it and get my teeth into the cake, but I also wanted to go and see the traditional pantomime that was always on the telly around that time. I like the gags, the songs, the dancing and the knock-about comedy, but most of all I liked the shapely, long legs of the leading man. No, this was not the beginning of homo-erotic stirrings, because the leading man, complete with seamed stockings and high-heeled shoes, was actually an attractive woman. It’s one of those panto traditions that I’ve never been able to fathom, but very welcome nevertheless! Thus I always fancied Prince Charming a lot more than boring Cinderella! And all the time my parents sat there, totally oblivious as to why I was so keen to see the panto.

I’m so sorry to have changed the tone of this piece now, as most of it has been devoted to my pre-pubertal age of innocence. Burgeoning sexuality, cynicism, vegetarianism, athieism, anti-consumerism and probable quite a few other “isms” had not stirred their worldly -wise heads yet. ( not until the later 60’s.)

It was all downhill after the pantomime. The presents had been opened and the wrapping paper thrown away. The special food had been eaten and we were feeling totally stuffed. The chapel was closed up, now that Jesus had been born yet again.( Maybe this is where “Born-again Christians get their inspiration from.) The Queen had disappeared back to Sandringham or possibly Balmoral. My Dinky cars were parked in their garage and my train track packed away. However, the tree still twinkled and the magic of Christmas still lingered on, only very slowly fading away into ordinariness. Boxing Day was officially designated as  special but it was a bit of an anti-climax really. It was a day for eating the left-overs and generally recovering from the excesses of the previous day. ( and we didn’t even drink alcohol. Raisin “wine” does not give you a hangover.) Maybe a special show would be on the radio or ( a little later) a blockbuster film on the telly. Boxing Day also had football matches which often ended in stodgy 0-0 draws because the players were still full of turkey and pudding. Certainly, by the end of December 26th it was all over and normality returned. People emerged from their annual seasonal trance, gave each other dazed looks and stoically prepared themselves for an endless procession of grey, ordinary days. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we didn’t celebrate New Year very much in England.

I enjoyed my innocent childhood and my enchanting Christmases. I loved the lights, the songs, the parties, the cards and the presents. However, on reflection, I think it was the comforting security of well-known routines that I loved the most. Also the fact that just about everyone took part (or so it seemed) made me happy to be part of a massive shared experience. This is something that tradition brings — togetherness, a sense of belonging ( and thus of identity) and the safety net of the familiar. It is what is so important in childhood but which makes growing-up so problematic and scary. Since my early childhood I have developed an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Christmas and to tradition in general. I resent being forced into a communal straight-jacket and being mocked or criticised if I don’t play along. However, as a child I was very happy to live the cliche and it led to some of the happiest days of my life. In some ways I wish I could travel back to those early Christmases and relive the joys of innocence, but unfortunately, that door has now closed for ever and I cannot pass back through it, except perhaps in my fond memories.

This blog is dedicated to my parents, Maurice and Jessie and to my sister Glenys. They all helped me to enjoy some wonderful childhood Christmases.

TO BE HONEST OR TO BE POLITE?

13 Nov

This post is going to include comments that some people may find rude or offensive. I’m writing it nevertheless because I’m sick of being polite! Society ties us up in a whole web of politeness. The result is that we spend a lot of time smiling at one another and exchanging superficial pleasantries, while at the same time hiding our true thoughts and feelings. Clearly, this is often very necessary , as it ensures that for most of the time, most of the people get on with each other without coming to blows. Politeness is the oil that lubricates the cogs of society. The problem with this however, is that our real, honest selves remain locked up inside us. We are like players on a stage, acting out the various roles that have been allocated to us. We carefully follow the script but hardly ever reveal our true identities.

I recently had a dream in which I was walking around with my hands covering my face. The simple interpretation is that I was hiding the real me in order to avoid confrontation and trouble. Another common analogy is that we are wearing metaphorical masks, like characters in Ancient Greek theatre. In my dream ( and in real life most of the time), I cannot reveal that I’m an athiest just in case the other person is religious. Similarly I cannot reveal that I am a pacifist just in case the other has a son or husband serving in Afghanistan. I cannot admit straight away to supporting Arsenal just in case the other is a Man Utd fan. One of my most important life-style choices is that of being a vegetarian. ( veggies would call it: choosing a compassionate life-style.) However I have to be careful how much I say about this ethical choice and even HOW I go about saying it. Some carnivores ( or omnivores) show polite and fleeting interest, but if I prolong my explanation beyond a couple of minutes, I run the risk of arousing their impatience and even anger. If a person outlines an ethical standpoint he/she is in danger of being accused of “preaching” or of trying to take the moral high-ground. In other words, people think you are trying to be better than them. This gets up their noses. As soon as a veggie tries to activate a meat-eater’s conscience, a defensive/aggressive shield drops down and  an unpleasant scene is potentially only moments away. Thus, in order not to offend others who do not share their moral views, most vegetarians keep quiet, unless they are sure that someone is genuinely interested in their stance. The result in most cases is that my opinions about animal welfare and my respect for all life ( human or otherwise), are trumped by society’s need to keep the peace and avoid controversy.

I wasn’t always this passive and polite. When I was a teenager I wanted to shout my views from the rooftops. I didn’t care what people thought of them. I was in fact proud of my views for I had a strong belief that they were right. At that time in my life I had fewer inhibitions and like all idealistic young people , I sincerely thought I could change the World for the better. Afterall I grew up in the mythical, magical 1960’s when traditional society seemed to be in melt-down and all the rules were being rewritten. Just for one shimmering moment, in the fleeting era of “Flower Power”, it seemed that peace and love would conquer the world, taking the place of the usual war and hatred. I supported this movement wholeheartedly. The Vietnam War was at its height and for a brief period it seemed as if all that appalling violence could be swept away by a mass movement based on  love ( and I’m not just talking about Christianity.) Basically I believed in a way of living that supported the protection and prolongation of LIFE rather than a mode of existance that accepted and even promoted cruelty, misery and unnecessary DEATH. I extended my definition of Life to that of all creatures on the earth, human or otherwise. Thus I was against war, against torture, against cruel sports and against the mass slaughter of animals for food. All these views fitted naturally together like a moral jig-saw. I wasn’t ashamed to express them even though I risked arguments and upset. More controversially, I decided that in order to be consistent with my anti-unnecessary- death stance, I had to disagree with abortion too, unless there was a very special reason such as the woman’s life being at risk. This was and is controversial as anti-abortionists for some reason tend to be on the right of the political spectrum, whereas all my other views fitted nicely with those on the left. So as well as arguing with carnivores — sorry– omnivores — and supporters of war, I now got embroiled in heated exchanges with feminists who insisted on “the woman’s right to choose” and said I had no right to even have an opinion on this as I was a man. The unborn child who was having it’s life extinguished even before it came out into the world, seemed to have been forgotten in all this. So as an adolescent I fervently supported the rights of people to live in peace, the rights of animals to have a life and the rights of the unborn child. Then I got a bit older ( some people would say I grew up) and all went silent. So what happened? To put it succinctly: politeness descended like a fog. My views got lost in an enveloping mist of good manners.

Once I became a young adult with growing responsibilities such as: a family, a career and eventually a mortgage, my priorities became more personal. Idealistically trying to change the world now had to go on the back-burner. I could not continue challenging people about their views or their eating habits without running the risk of stalling my career and socially isolating myself. If I had kept “banging on” about the evils of war, the abominations of abattoirs or the rights of the living foetus, my colleagues, friends and even family would quickly have got tired of me. The dinner-party invitations would have dried up and promotion opportunities at work would have disappeared. Eventually I would have been branded an “extremist”, that is: someone who is unwilling to compromise. So, there’s that dreaded word — Compromise. Nobody wants to be compromised but most of us end up doing it anyway, of our own volition. We water-down our views or keep quiet about them in order to get on with other people and be a success in society. I don’t know whether I should be ashamed to admit it but this is what I did in my twenties. Some would say I became a realist instead of continuing to be an idealist. I wanted to be a popular and accepted member of my community and so I made the necessary adjustments. In other words I became a conformist. Thus it was that I hung my “Superman” suit up in the wardrobe and concentrated on living a pleasant everyday life by fitting in. Besides, unrelenting challenging, arguing and campaigning had been draining and debilitating. Constantly swimming against the tide is very tiring. As a result, I decided to go with the flow and my more controversial views were hidden away to avoid embarrassment. Some would say that it was the coward’s way out!

For more than a decade I kept quiet, trying to be nice to everyone and not rocking any boats. I led a very happy family life with my wife and children and I got on in my teaching career. Schools in fact are great places for conformists. They try to be a microcosm of the wider society and the whole ethos is on  “fitting in”, from wearing the uniform to following all the rules. They are not such good places for “rebels.” One of the first things I had to do was get my hair cut. Up to that point I  looked like a cross between George Best and George Harrison.( or so I imagined.)  Now I was forced to look like an American GI going to war! I also had to get used to years of slavery to the collar and tie as I masqueraded as an upstanding member of the “establishment” Both at home and at work I generally avoided controversy and I was rewarded with social and vocational success. I was pretty happy most of the time.

However nothing lasts. Mrs Thatcher came to power in the 1980’s with her aggressive and destructive ( in my view) right wing doctrine. Unemployment reached frightening proportions, the pointless but dreadful Falklands war was fought, the miners’ strike was smashed, along with many of their heads, and dangerous Cruise Missiles were arriving at Greenham Common from Reagon’s America. On top of this, environmental issues such as pollution and destruction of habitats were getting more and more urgent. CND was revived and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were born. All these developments meant that I was radicalised again, as were many of my friends and family. It was no longer a case of hiding away one’s views in order to keep life pleasant. It was now the time to stand up and be counted. So I donned my duffle coat, put on my badges and found myself:  on torch-light processions, writing protest letters, lobbying my (Tory) MP, signing petitions , going door-to door canvassing, joining the Labour party ( and attending boring meetings) and going on a wide variety of demonstrations. I became a peace campaigner and in a small way, an environmental activist. It felt good. There were millions of us. Taking part in mass marches, I felt energised and empowered.  It was good to be fighting for positive change rather than timidly keeping quiet or sitting on the fence. Unfortunately millions more were either apathetic or downright hostile to the causes I supported and the Tories under Thatcher and then John Major unbelievably won 4 elections in a row! Eventually I and many others got tired and dispirited. Ten years of campaigning had burnt me out and I desperately needed to rest from the fray. So I lapsed into the “quiet life” again.

The temporary abandonment of my activism was also necessitated by an unfortunate series of crises in my private life in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Separation, divorce, not being able to live with my children and further relationship turmoil, all now took over from trying to save the world. I had to recover from the traumas, lick my wounds and reconstruct my life. It was quite a long time before things settled down and were more or less stable again. Eventually I found happiness once more, becoming a grandfather twice over, falling in love and even remarrying. By 2006 I at last managed to escape the tyranny of work after a tough few last years, and discovered the joys of slightly early retirement. I kept my more contentious views and concerns largely under wraps and avoided controversy. Everything in my garden seemed rosy. What more could I ask for?

However, underneath all this surface contentment, restless rumblings of dissent were once more stirring inside me like a dormant volcano coming back to life. Why did this happen? Why did I want to threaten my new very happy life? Well first of all, my fundamental, heartfelt beliefs had never actually gone away just because I hardly ever aired them in public. If anything, they had grown stronger and deeper, like good wine maturing in a cellar. They were beliefs that formed the foundation of my life. Although hidden away, they are what defined me as a person. I wouldn’t be Stuart Bates if I wasn’t a pacifist, a vegetarian, a socialist ( with a small “s”), a “Green”, a Republican, and so on. These principles shape me as much as my various roles of: husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend etc. Once I was a retiree and had more time to think and reflect on life, they inevitably rose to the surface again. Also, I’ve found that one advantage of getting older is that one is not so much in thrall to all the niceties and rules of etiquette that can prove so limiting in one’s life. William Blake memorably called these restrictions: “mind-forged manacles.” As I got past 60 and had less responsibilities to tie me down, I increasingly wanted to break free from my shackles and reveal my true self. I wanted to be honest and not be “economical with the truth”, to quote a famous cabinet secretary.

Many older people get this feeling. They lose some of their inhibitions and become so-called “grumpy” old men and women. They even made a humorous television programme about it and so I found myself in the illustrious company of Rick Wakeman, Ben Elton, Dawn French and others. It almost became fashionable to be “grumpy”. I prefer to call it being “honest”. However, other people think that older people can be as much of an “embarrassment” in polite society as children. Afterall they might just suddenly blurt out what they truly think instead of just saying what they think others want to hear. Older people, like young children, don’t care so much for the consequences of their words and actions. I would argue that they do not so often allow their true, honest selves to be smothered by the niceties of polite society. I am still courteous most of the time but think that it is also important to speak out. In this 21st century, Britain has been constantly at war and has proved to be an aggressive, militeristic nation, just as much as it was in the infamous days of Empire. We dress it up as supporting “freedom” and “democracy” but we still end up invading other countries and killing and maiming lots of people. The real reason is to get oil and other natural resources.( in my opinion.) We have even ended up torturing people and have apologised only when we have been caught. Yet the British still think of themselves as the good guys and describe their invading soldiers as “heroes”. Yes, there’s lots to speak out about and lots of potential arguments in store because so many have relatives in action in the armed forces. If you speak out against war you are accused of not being patriotic and even of being a traitor. Society has lots of techniques with which to gag its critics. And that’s just one controversial subject. There are plenty more that need to be addressed instead of being swept under the carpet of polite society.

Probably closest to my heart is my deep concern for animal welfare. I am against the abuse and exploitation of animals and birds be it through sport, in laboratories , on farms or in abbattoirs. Some of the stuff I read about makes my blood boil and makes me feel physically sick. And yet most people’s response seems to be either they “don’t know” or they “don’t care.” To me it’s simply a case of “Ignorance” or “Arrogance” How can I be expected to keep quiet about all this in order to avoid awkward moments in social situations? I have been emboldened in this by reconnecting with the friend who I turned vegetarian with in our mid-teens, all those years ago. Vic has not changed his fundamental views in his lifetime and neither have I. The trouble is that I am increasingly encountering people who believe: its OK to torture animals in order to find a cure for human diseases, it’s OK to eat animals’ dead bodies because they are very tasty and it’s OK to whip race-horses excessively in the name of creating an exciting finish. How can I remain quiet about all this?

I am sick of being policed by politeness. It’s cords still tie me down to a greater extent and I will probably not subject anyone to an outright attack. However I no longer try to disguise my disgust and dismay when coming across something shocking. For instance I was recently confronted with the grisly sight of a bloody, medium rare steak on a restaurant table. To me it was  obscene but the others in my party all drooled over it and couldn’t wait to get their teeth into it. To me it was the grilled corpse of a poor murdered animal. But apart from my look of horror, I meekly remained mute and pretended to be pleased with my vegetarian alternative. So I spoke out to my diary, to my wife and now in this blog. Sorry about my emotive vocabulary. It’s embarrasing isn’t it?

I know that some of my relatives regard me increasingly as a “loose cannon”. They fear that I might “go off it” at any time. ( and they may be right!) But I believe that honesty trumps politeness in most situations. At least it should do. What is the point of life if we all hide behind euphanisms and never say anything meaningful?  What’s the point in having views if one is afraid to express them or to act upon them?

So now, in my 60’s, I am embarking on another decade of campaigning. My Facebook “friends” are already getting fed up with my vegetarianism and for constantly reminding them about the shocking abuse of animals. However, as I have said, nothing is gained through being always quiet and polite. Anyway, it’s very uncomfortable sitting on that fence all the time!

PUZZLING DAY IN PUGLIA.

6 Nov

I was in a place that I had not intended to go to. I was alone, surrounded by a cacophony of foreign voices. Why was I here? Like Clint Eastwood, I was the stranger who had just rode into town. I was in fact in deepest Puglia, towards the southern end of Italy. The town was Foggia and I had never planned to go there. Why? Here’s the story. it’s true!
My wife Chris and I were in Termoli, a small town on Italy’s Adriatic coast. It was October, 2011 and we were visiting her daughter and her son-in-law, AND — her first grandchild: Gio.
While Chris was on Grandma duty, I decided to take the train about 2 hours south to Bari. I had read that Bari is a fascinating port/city with a slightly racy but evocative old town. It was to be an exciting adventure into the province of Puglia which I had only previously read about in Geography textbooks.
I set off early at 7am. It was still dark and relentless rain was bouncing off the pavement. However, my spirits were not dampened as I was off to Bari in the sunnier, drier and more exotic south. But I was not to have the day I had expected.
Arriving at the station soaked ( luckily, I had my quick-drying trousers on), the sour-faced lady at Termoli ticket office informed me there was NO train to Bari! There was no train at 7-42, as it said on the departure board or at any other time for that matter. She could not explain why as she couldn’t speak English and I cannot understand Italian.( I must get myself to that evening class that I’ve been putting off for years!)  I was completey deflated, having seemingly got up in the middle of the night for nothing! Then the ticket lady offered a glimmer of hope. I could always get the 7-58 to Foggia, which was halfway to Bari and which I had read had onward connections. But no sooner had hope been raised than it was dashed in the very same sentence! Sour-face said that she didn’t think I could get to Bari even from Foggia. What was happening? She was supposed to be a TrenItalia employee so why didn’t she know? It was a mystery. Despite this I decided to take a chance and catch the Foggia train. At the very least I could have a look round Foggia even though our relatives informed us that it wasn’t worth visiting.
The train was slow. It stopped at tiny places where hardly anybody lived. Once it stopped at a station near an abandoned quarry. No building and no person was in sight. No one got off and no one got on. Then, after an hour and after passing some low mountains mostly shrouded in cloud, we reached Foggia. For some reason I half expected it to be foggy there — how else did it get that name? However, it was clear and the early morning rain had disappeared.
I quickly checked the departure board. Was I to make it to the exotic attractions of Bari, or have to make do with the apparently mundane Foggia, a town described by one relative as “not nice” and another as “a hole”? I was in luck. In 50 minutes there was an express to Bari Centrale. It was even on the electronic departure board — Bari C -10-10. I joined the ticket queue and confidently asked for “Bari, per favore,” But to my surprise, the ticket man said there was no train to Bari! He tried to explain and I thought I heard a word that sounded like “strikes”, but basically I couldn’t understand why I was being prevented from getting to Bari. It seemed like a conspiracy. The trains seemed to be running but I wasn’t being allowed to catch them! If only I had gone to those Italian lessons — I might have understood what was happening instead of developing a persecution complex. Just because I’m not paranoic it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me!
So Foggia it was. I have always maintained that any place is interesting if you approach it with an open mind. ( though I’m not so sure about that lonely station by the deserted quarry.) Now was the time to put my theory to the test. How would I cope with 3 hours in Foggia, without a map, without a guide-book and without a plan? At least it was dry here and I soon took off my coat.
I walked into a fairly normal- looking Italian town. It wasn’t ravishingly beautiful or fascinatingly historic — just a normal town. I found the main square which was yet another Piazza Cavour. Who was Cavour anyway? I dimly remember him being something to do with Italian independence or unification or both, along with Garibaldi, the one who had the squashed-fly biscuits named after him. This Piazza Cavour was actually a big roundabout, busy with traffic. It had a broken fountain in the middle of it. Unlike the Trevi in Rome, no tourists were posing to have their pictures taken in front of this fountain. Along one side of the piazza was a collonade of creamy coloured columns. They weren’t ancient but had been put up in the late 1800’s to form the entrance to a park. I entered the park and strolled round it. It was a slightly desultory experience. I only met 1 dog-walker and a small group of giggling teenagers. The rest of the park was empty. Autumn leaves swirled around my feet and a small fountain spluttered sporadically into life. The refreshment kiosks were closed and boarded up and so were the toilets, which was a bit of a problem as I was hoping to visit them!
Back in the town, I spotted distant stalls and was soon in the midst of a busy, colourful street-market. You see — I told you every place has something to offer! A potentially bad morning in Foggia was turning into not so bad afterall. Clothes stalls merged into colourful food stalls, piled high with fruit and vegetables. Then came the fish stalls with ranks of poor silver fish, their eyes bulging and their mouths gaping. They jostled for space with unmentionable piles of squishy squid and tiny octopi. The stall holders announced their presence with long, drawn-out cries, like commercial Imans calling the faithful to their wares ( not prayers!) On the edge of the market, inching ever closer to a second-hand clothes stall, was a “down and out” man. I noticed him because his torn, tatty trousers appeared to be made exclusively of poultry feathers!
The need to visit a toilet was now getting more pressing. I got back on one of the main streets looking for a suitable cafe. However I was distracted again by an interesting leafy square that had an unusual array of bronze sculptures arranged in a circle around a central statue of an important looking gentleman. I guessed he must be one of Foggie’s most famous sons. ( sorry — I forgot to note his name.)  I gathered he was some sort of opera pruducer and the sculptures were depictions of his most famous successes. They all seemed to have been staged at La Scala, Milan and The Metropolitan, New York in the 1920’s. One of the productions was called “Siberia”. I noticed that because the statues wore furry Cossack hats.
In the background was the faded pink facade of an oldish church ( probably 18th century.)  I negotiated the teenage girl begging on the steps and went in. To my surprise,a service was taking place even though it was Friday and not Sunday. I stood at the back for a while. Worshippers came in, dipped their fingers in the Holy water and crossed themselves. Beckoned by the officiating priest, the congregation of about 30 to 40 stood up, raised their hands and spread their fingers. Then they chanted what sounded like the Lord’s Prayer in Italian. I didn’t recognise a word but the intonations and pauses were exactly the same as in my parents’ Methodist chapel back in England.
I slipped out of the church. The need for the WC was now reaching urgent proportions. I went into a cafe where everyone seemed to be drinking shots of coffee in tiny cups while standing up at the counter. But no-one took any notice of me and having little Italian at my command, I got overtaken by nerves and escaped back on to the street again. Foggia is not like Rome, Florence or Venice where English is widely spoken in the cafes, bars and shops because of the tourists. Here, people didn’t speak or understand much English, so to buy something, you have to speak Italian. This is fair enough. Afterall, Foggia is in Italy, not America or the UK.
I consulted my phrase-book, dived desperately into another cafe and blurted out:”Aranja and brioche per favore”, thankfully noting where the toilets were. What I didn’t notice until I got closer however, was a small sign, presumably saying that the WC was out of order, as when I staggered in, I found the flush mechanism had been dismantled! So it was a case of crossing my legs and thinking of other things as I pretended to nonchalently sip my freshly sqeezed orange juice and nibble my flaky croissant. In front of me was an Italian newspaper. I decided to flick through it to perhaps pick up some useful vocabulary. On the front page I was shockingly distracted by the squashed, bloody face of Colonal Gadaffi, who had been shot by one of his Libyan countrymen the previous day ( October 20th, 2011.)
Back at Foggia railway station, I at last found the toilet I had been searching so long for. It was like the “Relief of Mafeking” as my grandma used to say. ( I think it’s something to do with the Boer War.) Then it was back in the queue to meet the humourless official who had prevented me from going to Bari. Ironically, when I asked for a ticket back to Termoli, he at first thought I had said ” Bari” and was actually going to give me the ticket he had denied me 3 hours earlier! Every mystery needs some irony to make it even more mysterious!
When I got my Termoli ticket I brandished it triumphantly in the air as if I had just won an Olympic gold. I had half-feared he would shake his head and say “No train to Termoli.” The train was on platform 5. To rub salt into my wounds, I noticed a train to Bari was waiting on Platform 6!
I approached my train with a sense of relief, thinking my puzzling and frustrating foray into Foggia was almost over. However, unbelievably, 2 dirty- white husky- type dogs suddenly leapt off the opposite platform, bounded across the rails and up on to platform 5. I have always been nervous of dogs, ever since being bitten by one when I was a paper-boy. As I neared these two, they started to bark and howl furiously. Luckily the first carriage of the train was nearer to me than the dogs, so I was able to slip up the steps and sink gratefully into the welcome sanctuary of my seat .I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It was only then that I realized to my horror that I had not validated my ticket! I would have to go back to the station entrance hall — and the dogs were still waiting for me on the platform. It seemed that my adventures in downtown Foggia were not quite finished afterall…!

ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!

2 Nov

THANKS A LOT JULIUS!  —  I came, I saw and I photographed. It was October,2011 and I was at last taking up Julius’s open offer of a reciprocal visit. On my 62nd birthday I stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square, gazing at the great domed basilica. The fountains were gushing, the tourists were queueing and I was watching the statues on top of Bernini’s curving collonades slowly turning into silouettes as the late afternoon sun dipped. I had made it to Rome at long last! It’s the “Eternal City” that uniquely and generously offers two countries for the price of one — Italy and the Vatican. Eat your heart out Tescos! What follows are a few of my impressions.

THE COLOSSEUM FROM OUR WINDOW  —  Our 2nd floor apartment lay just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. I leant out of the window, pushed the shutters back and looked left. There it was, shining in the floodlights — ancient Rome’s greatest amphitheatre just at the bottom of our street!

Half an hour earlier, it had been a surreal experience suddenly driving around the Colosseum in our taxi, as if we had stumbled upon an abandoned film set. Next to it stood an ancient triumphal arch. ” O look, it’s the Arch of Constantine!” I exclaimed, like the good History teacher that I am. It was like a giant textbook suddenly springing to life! Now I was gaping at it through our window. Separating us from the 9th Wonder of the ancient World was: a cobbled street, a line of pavement cafes, tightly parked cars with moter-bikes squashed inbetween them, a half-excavated gladiators’ academy and a cream-coloured early Christian basilica. The next morning, I watched the first school groups and parties of tourists arrive to visit the Basilica of San Clemente with its 3 layers of Roman history. On our second day we visited this fascinating place ourselves.

MIXED-UP HISTORY and STRANGE JUXTAPOSITIONS.   —   San Clemente is a 12th century Greek style church which sits on top of a 4th Century Basilica, which in turn is built over the remains of a 3rd Century pagan, Mithran temple. The historical multi-layering of San Clemente is typical of Rome as a whole. The city groans beneath the weight of its own history. Different eras and architectural styles crowd in on one another, creating a constant whirl of confusing juxtapositions. A medieval bell-tower rises up beside an ancient arch; a flamboyant Baroque church- facade looms up behind the columned porch of an early temple, and so on. In certain places, like The Forum, buildings of different ages mix together in an intoxicating jumble, all the time being encircled by open-topped bus tours and camera touting tourists.

TOURISTS OR TRAVELLERS?  —  There is supposed to be a subtle difference between a traveller and a tourist. Travellers, it is claimed, are a bit more thoughtful in their choice of sights , not just flocking to the more obvious, famous destinations which appear on most people’s tick lists. I smugly think I belong to the former category but probably am also a fully paid-up member of the latter. Whatever — Rome pays host to thousands of tourists AND travellers. This must be especially so in the height of summer but parts of it were still very busy when we visited in mid-October. It appears that Rome has developed into a whole year destination. The trouble is , many of the visiters want to go the same places, the so-called tourist ” honey-pots”. Thus the hordes of people we encountered at the foot of the Spanish Steps one morning were probably mostly the same as those we had met throwing their coins into the Trevi Fountain the previous evening.

You can always tell when you are approaching a tourist “honey-pot”. The crowds thicken and the streets start filling up with souvenir stalls, buskers, pavement cafes and ice-cream parlours. You will probably get to meet a golden Tutankhamen or a silver Statue of Liberty who only move when a coin is put into their pot. I got to kiss the daintily gloved hand of a Jane Austin -style lady in the Piazza Navona, for the bargain price of 1 Euro. Sometimes it seems as if tourists are a bit like sheep, all flocking to the same few places just because they are famous. On the other hand, a more discerning traveller might seek out more obscure but equally rewarding sights, or wander down quiet streets and through deserted squares just to see what exciting surprise might pop up. Chris and I tried to do a bit of both. We visited a mixture of the famous and the obscure and did our fair share of aimless but fascinating wandering.

We walked around Rome most of the time. apart from a couple of Metro journeys. I have never been attracted to the easy but expensive convenience of the open-topped bus tour. This seems to me to be a way of seeing everything without actually seeing anything. Whizzing round the Colosseum and taking a couple of hurried, blurred photos is no substitute for actually visiting the building and soaking in its history. We visited it shortly after opening time and it was still quite busy. It was awe-inspiring standing inside the 2000 year old stadium and imagining 70,000 people blood-thirstingly screaming at brutal gladiator fights or hapless criminals and Christains being torn apart by wild beasts. However, by the time we left at around 10-30am, any historical atmosphere had been ruined by the hordes of tourists pouring in. It’s ironic that they seemed to be destroying the very thing they had come to experience. Sometimes, modern tourism is like that — killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe budget airlines are partly to blame for opening up foreign travel to so many people, but then again, if it wasn’t for Ryanair and their like, we would probably have not been there either!

WHAT I LOVED.  —  I loved the evocative ruins of the Forum and the Palatine and Celian Hills. I loved the Renaissances palaces, the over-the-top Baroque churches and the piazzas with their flamboyant statues and fountains. I loved the faded yellow, orange and red buildings of the old town, glowing in the sun. I loved the sculptured, pollarded trees with their deep green tops. The multi-flavoured ice creams were absolutely delicious like everywhere in Italy. I loved looking at the hieroglyphics on the ancient obelisks that seemed to punctuate every grand piazza even though we were in Italy not Egypt. They were a reminder that the Romans were plunderers as well as civilisers. However, the most memorable moments for me were entering 5 special places of worship. ( 5 of the many in Rome.)

The first two were Greek style early Christian basilicas : San Clemente and San Saba. Both have shining medieval mosaics, fading but still colourful frescoes, stately columns and geometrically patterned marble floors. The 3rd and 4th were 16th Century Renaissance churches — San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. Both had strikingly luminous works by Caravaggio, in side chapels, looking as though they were painted just yesterday. The intense light and shade, the dramatic foreshortening and the startling realism make this a thrilling experience. They even eclipsed the spectacularly frescoed ceilings.

The final unforgettable place of worship was the incomparable Pantheon — the Roman temple of all gods. It was later converted into a church. Entered between giant Corinthian columns, one enters a majestic circular splace, surrounded by ornate shrines and tombs of the “great” and the “good”, including that of Raphael, which we somehow managed to miss! However most of one’s attention is taken by the huge, hemispherical dome that just seems to hang magically in thin air, with no visible support. It was designed by the Emperor Hadrian himself in the 2nd Century AD. Sunlight pours through a circle in the centre of the dome, its shafts illuminating different sections of the coffered ceiling as the sun moves across the sky. There is little else to do but sit down and stare until one is in danger of contracting permanent neck-ache. Awe-inspiring seems to be a phrase specially invented for this ancient building.

FINAL THOUGHTS — NO COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN.  —   So that’s our first visit to the “Eternal City”. Yes, it’s got lots of noisy traffic, crowds of tourists, enough pizza and pasta to feed a small army every day, pestering street sellers and devious pick-pockets. But Rome is also a beautiful, enchanting place full of memorable sights, sounds and smells. I know we will be back, though we never actually threw any coins into the tourists’ favourite fountain.