Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Peter the Pirate

Every Christmas morning (for at least the last twenty years) my first port of call is to Bird Place, next to the bridge in Henley. This is the home of Peter and Diane Sutherland. As I approach the front door, it opens and a strange figure emerges. It’s Peter in disguise. This year he was dressed as a pirate (to reflect the current state of affairs caused, we are told, by the greed of piratical hedge fund managers). In the past I’ve been greeted by Osama Bin Laden, Lord Nelson, The Mad Hatter, A French Onion seller, W.G.Grace, The Vicar of Bray, and many, many more. When the children arrived they all looked a bit concerned about this frightening character – especially when he drew his sword and kukri.

Only last month Peter and Diane went to Windsor Castle to collect his MBE from the Queen, and I had been commissioned to paint a miniature portrait of Diane, based on one of the photographs taken at the time. It’s rare that I paint hats on my portraits, but this time it seemed entirely appropriate. I borrowed the hat itself to work from, as I needed to see more detail than was apparent in the photograph. They were both very pleased with the end result, which was delivered on Christmas morning. – being Peter’s Christmas present to Diane.

Miniature of Diane Sutherland

After an hour at Bird Place, Christmas Day was spent over in Marlow with my niece Louisa, together with Guy and their two children, Max and Katie. Val was there too and as Louisa had bought her a new television set for her Christmas present, Val can now throw away all the many remote controls that seem to have accumulated around her old set which confuse us all.
I love being with children at Christmas – especially those still young enough to believe in Santa Claus.

Kate with her new pink dollshouse

Talking of children, the carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sung by a young boy, started off the Carol Service at Phyllis Court on Christmas Eve. It was a last minute decision to go there, so at just before 7 pm I joined friends in the ballroom. Jane and Brian came a little late (as usual) as they were looking after Jane’s father, but the service really set the scene well. Afterwards I stayed on at the Club for a very happy festive dinner with Jack and Norma Babbington and a number of other friends.

On Boxing Day I was quite prepared to dash into Reading in the morning to take advantage of the really low prices offered for flat screen TV’s. (With the imminent demise of analogue transmissions I ‘needed’ a new one for my bedroom). But the thought of battling through the crowds, finding a parking spot, then being told that they had run out of the particular model I wanted (which they had advertised at a very special price), and finally coming out of the shop to discover my car had been clamped, proved just too daunting. I eventually bought one – albeit a bit more expensive – on line. It was delivered yesterday.
So I joined my nephew Tim and his family on a long walk around Twyford and Wargrave. It was a lovely sunny day and gave us a good appetite for the nice Christmas lunch, which followed. Later in the evening we played games on the TV based on various fun tasks (like avoiding being swallowed up in the great big mouth of a lion) where speedy reactions are required

Val, Tim, Charlotte, Ellie and Lynn on our walk


Last night, after a tasty meal at the Chef Peking in Henley with my goddaughter Emma and her mother Felicity, we went to see the film Australia. It’s had mixed reviews, but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. A real epic, it runs for just about three hours. How they filmed some of the scenes of hundreds of cattle racing towards a cliff edge, I’ll never know. The last part of the film, where they showed the Japanese attacking Darwin, was brilliantly staged.

So now it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m probably going to spend it alone, slumped in front of the TV. New Year has never been that important to me, and I don’t like big crowds on New Year’s Eve, so I’ll be quite content – especially as I have something really special to look forward to tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Greetings

I took Val over to the Lord Harris Court at Sindlesham to see my very old friend William Stone on Sunday afternoon. It’s amazing to think that William was born in 1900 – and is still going strong. I took my video camera with me, and as William loves singing (and can remember the words to dozens of songs, some with ‘alternative ‘ endings which he recites with a wicked grin on his face) I made a little seasonal video. At one stage he got carried away and ended his song with the words “and Happy Christmas to you, Uncle Bill.” Uncle! I’m nearly 40 years younger than William!

A family in nearby Sonning have for several years decorated their house at Christmas time to such a degree that it was frequently voted the most elaborately decorated house in England. Each year more and more lights were added. However it became a bit too much for the neighbours as so many people came to view it after dark. So they complained to the police. Even though a large amount was donated by the public (and given to charity each year), the owner of the house was convicted of a nuisance and was served with an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order). It will last for 3 years. I went over there last night and found it much modified - but still very colourful. This is how it looked before the ASBO.

I’m not a party animal by any means, but at Christmas it’s a bit unavoidable, isn’t it?
Last Saturday Herchel and Terry Jordan held their annual party at Wooburn Green. They mostly live in Portugal and Cape Town, and as they only arrived back in England 3 days before the party, how Herchel managed to put on such a splendid and lavish spread, I’ll never know. (She even made me a special Shepherd’s Pie without cheese, knowing my allergy to cheese - or fad, as some people believe.) Most of the guests were friends I’ve known for many years. Jimmy Tarbuck was there as usual, cracking jokes one after another – a big pink ball of fun.
On Monday evening, after spending a delightful couple of hours with youngsters Natalie and Bart in Henley, who gave me a plate of fudge and coconut-ice they’d made themselves, I went on to Jurek and Vicky Piasecki’s ‘Polish’ party at Shiplake. This is the most lavish party I ever go to at Christmas. A large marquee had been attached to one side of the house, the interior decorated to resemble a comfortable Arabic tent with lounging seats and scores of cushions scattered all over the place. Canap├ęs were served most creatively – some resembling small piles of chequered parcels, some in little pastry-shaped boats, and others in glass spirals. And there must have been at least fifty different types of Vodka in highly coloured and decorated bottles on one of the tables.
Have you ever wondered what George and Martha Washington sat down to at Mount Vernon on Christmas day those many years ago? No, I’m sure you haven’t, but have a look at the menu:

An Onion Soup call’d the King’s Soup
Oysters on the Half Shell Grilled Salt Roe Herring
Boiled Rockfish
Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding Mutton Chops
Roast Suckling Pig Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
Round of Cold Boiled Beef with Horse-radish Sauce
Cold Baked Virginia Ham
Lima Beans Baked Acorn Squash
Baked Celery with Silvered Almonds
Hominy Pudding Candied Sweet Potatoes
Cantaloupe Pickle Spiced Peaches in Brandy
Spiced Cranberries
Mincemeat Pie Apple Pie Cherry Pie Chess Tarts
Blancmange Plums in Wine Jelly Snowballs
Indian Pudding
Great Cake Ice Cream Plum Pudding
Fruits Nuts Raisins
Port Madeira

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? And we complain today about our overweight children.

As it’s now Christmas Eve I’d like to wish all my blog followers and friends a very Happy Christmas and leave you with a picture of my, not particularly elegant, Christmas Tree nestling in the corner of my living room.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Court Dinner with the Apothecaries

The Stained Glass Window in the Apothecaries' Great Hall

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be commissioned to paint the official portrait of the retiring Master of The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Professor Brian Livesley. This led to me being invited to the Court Dinner at The Apothecaries’ Hall on Wednesday as Brian’s guest.
What a lovely evening it turned out to be. I was one of the very few ordinary people there, as the majority of the fifty or so diners answered to such exalted titles as President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Master Clothworker, Master Stationer, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, Master Coach Maker & Coach Harness Maker, etc. etc.

The Apothecaries' Hall in Blackfriars Lane

The Apothecaries’ Hall is in Blackfriars Lane in London, and at about 7pm we all assembled for pre dinner drinks in the Irish Oak Panelled Court Room, full of wonderful portraits of Royalty, Masters and other dignitaries. A unicorn’s horn, a Durer engraving of a rhinoceros (the animal which forms the crest of the Society), and many spectacular carvings and great wooden chests adorned the room. In the adjoining Parlour I was shown the collection of miniature portraits housed in three imposing glass cases. They dated from the 1930’s and depict every Master of the Society. Mine rested comfortably amongst them, being the latest acquisition.

The Great Hall laid out for the formal dinner

Dinner was absolutely superb, and it was a full Christmas fare – served on piping hot plates in the Great Hall (How did they manage that with such a large gathering?) I even found two silver sixpences in my Christmas pudding. (Actually 5 pence pieces) Vintage port, cheese and coffee complemented the witty after dinner speech by the Master. He amused us all by relating a story about a court case where the young lawyer was questioning an eminent pathologist.

“Were you sure the victim was dead?”
“Yes, quite sure.”
“Did you detect a pulse?”
“Did he have a temperature?”
" Was he breathing?”
“How could you have been quite sure he was dead?”
“Because his brain was in a jar on my desk …. It probably belonged to a lawyer!

Portrait of James Ist hanging in the Court Room

The Livery Companies of London have such interesting histories. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries can trace its origins right back to one of the earliest fraternities – The Guild of Pepperers – in about 1180. In 1373 it assumed the title of The Grocers Company. Did you know that the name ‘grocer’ is derived from the fact that its members imported in bulk, that is ‘en-gros’. The Apothecaries’ Charter was sealed in 1617 with King James Ist remarking as he granted the Charter ‘Grocers are but merchants, whereas the business of an apothecary is a mystery (i.e. a craft), wherefore I think it fitting that they be a corporation of themselves’.
(It’s interesting to note that Agatha Christie passed the Apothecaries’ Assistants examination – which explains her familiarity with poisons and drugs she so eloquently used in her detective novels.)
During the Great Fire of London in 1666 much of the Apothecaries’ Hall was destroyed, but part of the walls remained, and were incorporated in the new building undertaken in 1668. During the Second World War twenty of the 36 Livery Halls in London were destroyed and 14 seriously damaged. But the Apothecaries were lucky as an attack on the night of the 11th/12th October 1940; a German 500lb bomb fell on the Hall and penetrated to the basement. The bomb failed to explode as it was fitted with a delayed action device – removed by a brave Royal Engineers officer. The attentiveness of the firewatchers again saved the building when a number of incendiary bombs fell on the Hall. The end result is that Apothecaries’ Hall is now the oldest surviving livery hall in the city. What a privilege it was to be dining in such historic surroundings.

Earlier in the afternoon I joined my friend ‘Bluebells’ who had invited me to tea in the Laduree Tea Rooms in Harrods. She had brought me two lovely Christmas presents which she kindly said she’d post on, as I wasn’t quite sure about the arrangements at the Apothecaries Hall later in the evening. Bluebells lives mainly in San Francisco and is visiting London for a few days on her way to Singapore where she will celebrate Christmas with her family. She is a follower of my blog – hence the enigmatic name – and writes one herself – always full of interest and intellect. Apart from catching up with an exchange of news we touched upon another enigma - our mysterious blogger companion – Pootle! For my part Pootle will always remain a mystery woman. And to misquote one of Winston Churchill’s sayings “Pootle is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma!”

Good news for river users and lockkeepers. The Government has finally given up their ridiculous plan to sell off riverside lock houses and replace the experienced lock keepers with webcams! Six months ago, in an attempt to make money (and to make up for the fine imposed on the Environment Agency by the European Union after the foot and mouth fiasco) the EA announced that resident keepers were no longer needed because ‘telephones and cars made getting around easier’. What nonsense! We riparian dwellers know just what a valuable job the lock keepers do throughout the year in operating the weirs, keeping them free of debris, regulating the flow of boats as they enter the locks, etc, etc. This picture shows Marsh Lock under flood water. How could a webcam help in this sort of situation?
Bring back the Thames Conservancy I say – they knew what they were doing, and managed the river very efficiently.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Telephone Traumas

If you are anything like me you can’t stand these automated telephone systems where you are kept waiting while the computer keeps giving you more and more options to click on to. Yesterday was a case in point, as two of the several presents I’d ordered exactly one month ago from ‘Presents For Her’ hadn’t arrived. After listening to about six options, I was finally told that none of the operators had the authority to answer a question about despatch dates, and I was requested to ring a different (equally expensive) number. This turned out to be the customer service number. Nearly half an hour later I was still being informed that my custom was ‘very valuable’ and ‘all our operators are busy giving everyone else a speedy service’. But not me. They delighted in telling me that ‘our phone lines are now open till 9.30 in the evening enabling us to give you an even better service, so why not ring back then.’ But I didn’t want to ring back later – I’d already been waiting for nearly half-an-hour! I eventually descended into making rude and loud comments at every new message the computer uttered. But I was completely wasting my breath by talking to a machine that wasn’t listening anyway. How sad is that! In the end I gave up, so I still don’t know when, or if, the remaining two presents will arrive before Christmas.

On Saturday it rained – and rained – and rained. I braved the horrendous spray and almost nil visibility on the M4 (why do some drivers not turn on their lights in these conditions - do they think they are saving battery life?) to drive up to see Katie Boyle in Hampstead, and to take a few Christmas presents. Margherita, her glamorous younger sister, was there so we had a nice smoked salmon and champagne lunch. I just love Margherita’s sexy French accent. Katie was well, although she still can’t walk unaided. But her two dogs, Cassie and Tottie made up for her by racing around the house at top speed.

Margherita, Tottie and Cassie

Sunday dawned – it was my great niece Becky’s 18th birthday celebration party for the family. So from all points of the compass about twenty of us descended on Waterlooville where she lives. She’ll be off to University soon and has had two offers but is hoping for one from Edinburgh. All the children had great fun watching a video showing Neil - Becky’s father - making a complete fool of himself at the Waitrose Christmas party the other day. As Neil is the general manager he’d dressed up in women’s clothing and sported an enormous blonde wig while he performed an energetic dance to the latest Mama Mia musical. About ten of the girls danced around him, he being the main star. I thought Val (his mother) was going to wet herself, she laughed so much.
Of course I took the wrong route (as usual) driving down to Waterlooville, which made us a bit late. So on the way back in the evening, Tim, one of my nephews, said I could follow them home. He said his Land Rover didn’t have good acceleration so he would be driving slowly. Fat chance! Following someone along dark country roads is difficult under normal circumstances, but when the person you are following is driving up to 80 miles an hour it’s a bit hair-raising – especially if that person is a trained Police Pursuit Driver (as Tim is). I’m sure he was testing my nerve or at worst trying to lose me!

Becky at eighteen (and a little man coming out of her elbow!)

Watching Neil dancing to Mama Mia

Our local newspaper – The Henley Standard – gave a party in the ‘Old Barn’ last Thursday evening for people who had contributed to the paper’s success during the year. Don’t know why I was invited, but it was a good evening. The barn is very old – even parts of the wattle and daub are exposed between some of the oak beams. Most embarrassingly my photograph was featured three times on one page in the current edition on display there. (I hate being photographed!) Later in the evening I joined Vince and Annie Hill for dinner at the Chef Peking.

Fee and Stan Stride’s annual Christmas party always heralds the start of the season’s merrymaking as far as I’m concerned. It was held on Friday at Broadplat House, where they live, just outside Henley. It’s always so nice to meet up with friends you don’t see too often.
Apart from the two presents yet to arrive, all my Christmas shopping is done – I’ve wrapped over fifty presents and sent off 300 Christmas cards. On Saturday I decorated the tree, bought a few boxes of crackers, more decorations, a poinsettia, and had my car cleaned by the very efficient Polish guys (and girl) who have a little business right next to the garden centre, and then on to the farm shop opposite to buy a couple of my favourite cherry cakes.
It’s Tuesday right now and having just photographed Diane Sutherland in her borrowed black hat (for me to see the detail in readiness for my next miniature portrait) I’m now waiting for the aerial man to come and reposition my surround-sound speakers so I can watch Blu-ray films in all their glory!

When I lived in Singapore, Teresa lived in my apartment and worked as my amah (housekeeper.) In the early seventies her daughter, Wai Heng, was born (this is a miniature I painted of her in 1977). So it was such a pleasant surprise to find a comment from Wai Heng - now a grown woman, who still endearingly calls me ‘Uncle Bill’- on my blog this morning. Apparently she’d ‘googled’ my name in an idle moment during her lunch hour and discovered the blog. How nice it was to hear from you, Wai Heng. Here’s wishing you and your family a very happy Christmas.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Creativity and Christmas

Walking the streets of London is a tiring exercise! Not that I’m a streetwalker, but on Tuesday I caught the Phyllis Court coach to the capital, mainly to meet up with an old friend from long ago and to finish off my Christmas shopping. Dropped off at Marble Arch I walked the length of Park Lane, then all the way up Piccadilly to the Virgin Megastore and back to Fortnum & Mason where I was to meet Trevor Wayman for lunch. (Trevor worked as our Creative Director in Hong Kong.) At lunch he showed me his latest artistic idea – a large ‘pop-up’ fully illustrated book about Hong Kong. It looks great. Trevor is a romantic soul (aren’t all artists?), a demonstration of which is that every Valentine’s day he presents Laura, his wife, with a special ‘love-box’. He’s been making them ever since they married some thirty years ago.
To give you an idea of the sort of thing he makes, visualise a box of matches with the head of each match carved into a red heart. Beautifully designed, the wording reads ‘Perfectly Matched’. Another one depicts a cardboard cutout model of an elephant. Looking from the front his ears are the shape of large hearts, and the wording reads ‘You’re unforgettable’. One year he made a lovely little wooden jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a heart. The wording this time read ‘Without you my heart would be in pieces’. Another time he made a fully operational lighthouse beaming out the words ‘You light up my life’. They are all so incredibly well made – a true labour of love – I’ve seen about 20 of them - all quite small, but highly innovative. I’ll describe just one more. A lavishly designed heart shape made from plastic has a tiny pump attached to it, which somehow makes the heart move in and out. The wording this time reads ‘You are my heart throb’.
After lunch, before going to Peter Jones and Harrods (where I lounged in front of a 103” plasma television for a while) I spent a while gazing at the Fortnum & Mason wonderful window displays. The best in London, I think

Christmas window displays at Fortnum & Mason

You’ve probably seen those spy movies where the hero retrieves a parcel from a hollow tree or some other hiding place. Well last week, ‘Pootle’ – one of my blog followers - left a comment in which she wondered what had happened to Tim and Mei-Lin. These two were the main romantic characters in my novel ‘Balinese Twilight’ which I’d been serialising for over a year in my previous blog. I explained that as there was a fair amount of semi-autobiographical content in it, I’d decided to completely rewrite the novel, especially as my real autobiography has just been published. (click here). Not having realised that she was such an ardent and faithful ‘follower’ I said Id give her a copy. But as Pootle’s identity is a secret (and will remain a secret) I had to arrange a ‘drop’ somewhere in Henley or thereabouts. Not being able to locate a suitable hollow tree, I finally decided on the reception desk of Phyllis Court. I heard today that the book’s been collected - and no, I wasn’t lurking in the bushes to see who came to collect it. Pootle did tell me that when she identified herself as ‘Pootle’ she was given a few dirty looks!

Tracey and I finished painting the walls of my living room on Monday and then rearranged about 25 pictures on one of them in readiness for my new TV/Blu-Ray set-up. So now, as I wait for the Sky man (already 2 hours late) to arrive, together with the people to install everything, I’d like to share a couple of ‘bon mots' that I read this week, written by Quentin Letts. He was writing about the Home Secretary:
… He did not just land bolshy Jacquie Smith in his net, he removed her fins and scales, filleted her, scraped out her guts and chucked her mermaid tail into the cat’s lunch bowl, accusing her of ‘wilful ignorance’ and ‘smear and spin’. Letts wrote more – and this description I love – ‘Miss Smith tried to stand on her own dignity. It made her nose all pointy and gave her face the blotchy outrage of a slapped buttock.’

Friday, 5 December 2008

Stick to the Day Job

I’m not really a DIY person – quite the opposite in fact – but yesterday Tracey and I stripped two walls in my flat of paintings in readiness for the arrival of one of those big television sets, due next week. We re-hung twenty-five pictures to tastefully surround the monster, filled a few holes with Polyfilla, banged lots of nails into the wall, all in readiness for the painting session planned for next Monday. I also filled six strong garden refuse sacks with books – all hardbacks – to take to Oxfam or Sue Ryder. (Every couple of years or so I have a cull of books to make way for all the new ones that seem to accumulate.) I decided after banging my fingers a few times, and breaking the glass on one of the paintings, that I’d better stick to painting pictures in the future, rather than hanging them on walls.

I had a telephone call on Wednesday informing me that I’d won a prize. “Oh yes,” I said, “How much do you want me to send you?” (I get fed up with these bogus calls.) However this one proved genuine. It seemed I’d won a holiday for two in a first class hotel in Mauritius. Unfortunately it doesn’t include the flights. Apparently my friend Felicity, who is a Cabin Service Director for British Airways, had bought me a ticket in the Air Cabin Crew annual draw without telling me, and it had come up trumps. The expiry date is November 20th next year, so all I need is the airfare and a nice companion to come with me. Any offers?

Every Christmas day, Peter Sutherland – the founder of the Upper Thames Rowing Club - dresses up as an historical or topical figure, and I photograph the result. I’ve done so many that this year I decided to make him a surprise calendar the other day as a little present. Here are three of the images.

What do you say when a good friend tells you that he only has days to live and would like to say goodbye? This happened on Wednesday. Steve Jennings, an old friend from my advertising days in Asia – we’ve shared many adventures together – told me that his heart was rapidly giving out. Steve is an amazingly young-looking man of eighty-four and his positive outlook to his imminent demise was inspiring. “I’ve had a wonderful life, Bill,” he said. “Travelled the world, been married to two lovely women, and now looking forward to the next great adventure.” We chatted for a while before we said goodbye for the final time. What a nice man. Steve was responsible for a number of enduring designs – including the logo for the famous JAEGER brand.

Marsh Lock was full of canoeists again the other day. I should say kayaks, I suppose. When the water comes rushing out between the gates of the weir it’s an ideal haven for the youngsters who shoot them. I did this myself when a young man, but my kayak was a lot more bulky, as I made it myself, and not completely waterproof when it rolled over. But still enormous fun

Shooting the 'rapids' at Marsh Lock

Y.P.Chan, the man I appointed as the MD of our Singapore office when I left Asia in the 70’s, bought a copy of my autobiography last month. Yesterday I received a letter from him telling me how he and his wife, Diana, had been reading it while travelling through China on their way to Guan Dong to visit their ancestors last month. His comment about the early chapters really amused me, as he said they reminded him of a Charles Dickens novel. I suppose, as we had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and having to drag the tin bath indoors from off the outside wall for our regular Friday baths, would have seemed alien to a Singaporean. I wonder whether he also imagined that I climbed chimneys to earn a few pennies pocket money!

Felicity and I went to the Regal in Henley last Saturday to see ‘The Changeling’. What a superb film. Starring Angelina Jolie, directed by Clint Eastwood, and set in 1920’s Los Angeles, I strongly recommend it. Her acting deserves an Oscar as she attempts to find her young son who’d disappeared, and takes on the corrupt and malicious LAPD as well as being thrown into a horrific lunatic asylum. The atmosphere is electric throughout the film.

My friends think I’m a bit sad, as I’m currently hooked on ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out Of Here!’ Although I missed the first couple of episodes, when I heard that Timmy Mallet had entered the jungle I started to watch the programme. Mind you, he would have irritated a saint with his insane laugh and weird hooting. I think I would have hit him! (Alwen and Buzz know him well, and we all agreed he came across as a completely different person to the Timmy we know.) It’s even money on who will be the King or Queen of the jungle tonight, but I predict it’ll be Joey. Watch out to see how I lose my money!

Friday, 28 November 2008

An Evening of Cheese and Wine

I know nothing about wine (apart from enjoying it), am allergic to cheese, and don’t bank with Coutts, but the invitation to the Bank’s cheese and wine evening yesterday to celebrate the first anniversary of the opening of their Reading branch, was very welcome anyway. Especially as it came from Anna, who works at Coutts as a private bankers assistant. Anna also happens to be the person I’ve painted more than anyone else – four miniatures, one pencil drawing, and a large watercolour, (with the words to the song ‘Young and Beautiful’ appearing in the background). Anna also featured on one of my Christmas cards a couple of years ago.

A miniature portrait of Anna
The party was so warm and friendly and to listen to the cheese expert flamboyantly extolling the virtues of the dozens of very interesting looking cheeses on display, was most entertaining. Jilly came with me – and did all the driving - on a very rainy and dark evening in Reading's rush hour. We met a man there who mentioned that he wanted to buy a painting of one of his ancestors he’d discovered in an auction house, but the price - in excess of a million pounds - was a bit too much. His family has lived in the same house for hundreds of years and has a collection of miniature portraits dating right back to Nicholas Hilliard in the late sixteenth century. He’s invited me to see his collection sometime – so I’ll look forward to that.

I had lunch with another of my ‘models’ at the beginning of the week. Jane is the daughter of Mollie – my second cousin once removed. So does that make Jane twice removed? Mollie was going back home to New Zealand on Tuesday evening, so I took them both out to lunch at Phyllis Court to say goodbye. Jane was Miss New Zealand about thirty years ago, and as you can see from the photograph I took at lunch, looks quite ravishing. I’m trying to encourage her to write her autobiography, as she’s had a most amazing life. She features in mine. (Click here.)

And on to dinner with Paul and Debbie on Wednesday. (Yes I’ve painted both of them too!) They’d invited me to join them and Nancy - Paul’s 92-year-old mother - that evening in Denham. Now there’s a lively character! She’s bought and wrapped all her Christmas presents. They were stacked in big coloured sacks ready for Santa’s collection no doubt. We had a wonderful feast at a lovely little restaurant nearby. Paul and Debbie are off to Bridlington soon to star in the pantomime Cinderella. Paul will play Baron Hardup and Debbie the Fairy Godmother. I saw them last Christmas – they really are good and obviously love playing panto. Wish I could go this year but the ten-hour return drive is a little too far. (It opens on 15th December at the Spa Theatre in Bridlington and runs until January 4th.)

What price hurt feelings? I just cannot understand how our industrial tribunal system arrives at the obscene and exorbitant figures given out these days in compensation. Don’t get me wrong – for any serviceman or woman injured in battle, the sky’s the limit, as far as I’m concerned. But when a self-styled lesbian soldier is given the sum of £200,000 for ‘hurt feelings’ because she was ‘pestered for sex’ by her boss, I despair. Compare this amount with the Marine who had both an arm and a leg blown off by a landmine while on active service in Afghanistan. He was awarded £161,000. Or the Corporal who lost both legs and an arm in a mine explosion. He was given £214,000. Just how can his massive injuries, which will seriously blight the rest of his life, compare with ‘hurt feelings’? And how does the brave Captain Kate Philp feel as she lies in her hospital bed after having her left leg amputated below the knee as a result of injuries she received in Afghanistan earlier this month? Who are these people who make these ludicrous decisions with someone else’s money?

I’ve started writing my new book on the subject of the technique of miniature portrait painting. It’s going to take a long time, as I must aim it at both the professional and amateur artist. This will be my last book on the subject of miniatures, and surely the most comprehensive. Apart from detailed illustrated sections on how to go about painting these tiny portraits, I’ll include a double-page spread from the world’s leading painters of silhouettes, oil, and enamel portraits. Now I must have a blitz in my living room to prepare for the arrival of a new big television set.

And if anyone wants to ‘pester me for sex’ I promise I won’t ask for a penny in compensation!

Monday, 24 November 2008

Snow and Sunshine

On Tuesday evening I was invited to a reception at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Everybody who was anybody was there, and I had a really nice time talking to people I hadn’t seen for a long time. The inspiration for the museum in the first place was the discovery of a flint artefact by Sally Arbib. To house this little piece of history, Sir Martyn Arbib, Sally’s husband, decided to build a museum, and became the chief benefactor of the splendid building that borders the river today.

The frosty view from my studio window

Yesterday dawned cold and snowy prior to a trip to the Cotswolds with my sister-in-law, Val. Yet during the hour it took to drive there the snow turned to rain, and finally to a beautiful sunny day. What a contrast to the scorching hot weather I was basking in a couple of weeks ago. Joanne, a friend from my Singapore days in the 70’s had invited us to lunch - scrumptious as always. Joanne has only recently entered the world of computers, so I spent part of the afternoon joining her to Skype. Borrowing Paul’s idea, we registered her name as thejoannedalston, and after giving her daughter Nicola a call in Washington, joined her as well with the same prefix. So much to their delight we chatted for nearly half an hour totally free of charge.

On the painting front I’ve had quite a productive week. Last Wednesday I finished a portrait in a circular format. The client wanted a similar style, colour and shape to the portraits of the 16th century artist Hans Holbein. Now I await a leather and silk case to arrive from my frame-maker to encase it in.
On Friday a very nice man arrived with his daughter for a commission. She posed beautifully, and having taken a dozen or so photographs I’ve now started her portrait. People don’t realise that the surface of the vellum I use to paint miniatures on varies considerably. But luckily I’ve found a really good piece of vellum for this particular portrait.

Each year I make six calendars for the family – usually based on photographs of my great nieces and nephews I’ve taken over the preceding twelve months. However this time I decided to use 12 of the portraits I’ve painted of them since I embarked on my project of painting miniatures of each first born on their birthday every year. The calendar was Saturday’s task, so now I’m getting nicely ahead of myself in readiness for Christmas.

Have you been watching “I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of Here!” which started on ITV last week? I happened to tune in the other day, just in time to see Timmy Mallet, a friend of mine, being caught up in a net in the middle of a forest, and ending up dangling upside down. I know it’s a bit sad, but I find the programme compelling viewing, but Timmy’s personality seems to have taken a peculiar turn. As he watched Kilroy Silk enduring the most unspeakable tribulations, he was convulsed in laughter. Maybe Timmy was nervous, but if I’d been Kilroy I’d have whacked him one

I like the Christmas stamps this year. It’s a pantomime theme, and although they are small, the designs are really good.

If Pootle (one of my ‘followers’) is reading this blog, please tell me how I can leave a comment? It takes ages as I keep getting rejected with words such as ‘You have made an illegal entry!’ What do they mean?
Sometimes the comments get through, but there must be a key word I can use. Having tried my gmail address and my blog name, nothing seems to work now.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Titanic - The Musical

On Monday evening Jilly and I went to our local theatre – The Kenton – to see Titanic -The Musical. Was it a joke? Apparently not. The show won five Toni awards in the USA. We were interested to see how they would stage the show, and of course both knew how it would end! I must say I was very impressed with the sets (over fifteen of them) - more than I was with the music. The sinking of the Titanic has always interested me. I have many books on the subject, watch all the films that regularly appear on Sky, and even painted an exact replica last year of a miniature portrait that survived a day or so underwater before it was finally retrieved from the pocket of one of the unfortunate victims. Until I read the Kenton programme, however, I hadn’t realised that the order given by the helmsman to turn the ship’s rudder to port would be “Starboard Helm” Knowing that the Titanic actually turned to its left (port) in an attempt to avoid the iceberg, I thought that the director of the musical had got her facts wrong. But now I know better. (It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the current international standards were applied, and now, as the helmsman no longer directly controls the tiller, if he turns the wheel to port the ship will go to port.) We had a fish supper at the Rose and Crown – opposite the theatre – just before the show, to echo the nautical occasion.

Sarah Booth is the glamorous and talented daughter of Annie Coury, and on Monday she presented her collection of semi-precious stones, crystal and pearl jewellery, designer bags and gifts, at her mother’s house in Willow Lane. It was a great chance to buy a number of Christmas and Birthday presents. I’ve been to Sarah’s collections before and, as usual, was the ‘token’ man amongst a great many females. With my great niece Becky coming up to her 18th birthday next week and a god-daughter’s birthday approaching rapidly, I elicited the help of a couple of the young glams there, and was given what I’m sure was good advice on styles of jewellery worn by the young today. Seven or eight other purchases added nicely to my Christmas presents now piling up on the dining room table.
Yesterday afternoon Val and I popped over to Wokingham to see my cousin Jill, who’s just come out of hospital after a serious operation. She’s staying with her daughter, Samantha. Jill was full of praise for the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and especially for the Italian surgeon.

You may wonder why I’m showing a picture of an elephant carving here. Well, I was speaking to my lovely friend, Barbie, in Germany the other day and she commented on how much she liked the Thai carving I’d posted on my blog recently. So this one is a teak carving of ‘cavorting’ elephants adorning the library at the Ancient City in Bangkok. Hope you like it Barbie.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Ancient Mariner

Luckily I don’t suffer from jet-lag - mainly because whichever country I happen to land in I keep to that country’s time, and don’t try to make up on sleep. My flight from Bangkok took 13 hours, so I read a book and watched the little aircraft on the screen in front of me creep very slowly across the world. (The bloke in the seat next to me, however, watched 6 full-length films one after another during the journey.)

Got back just in time on Tuesday evening to see Rolf Harris on BBC Television trace his father’s footsteps across the battlefields of World War One. And very emotional it was too. As it was the 90th anniversary of the end of the war, being the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the late news was showing the scene from the Cenotaph in London that day. To think there are only three survivors of the Great War still alive today. And the amazing thing is that all three services were represented. Henry Allingham, 112, served as an air force mechanic, Harry Patch, 110, was a ‘Tommy’ in the army, and William Stone, the youngest at 108, was a stoker in the navy.
I’ve known William for many years. His mind is as alert as ever, and even his handwriting is still good. He always ends his letters with the words ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as you can see from the card (above) he sent to me a couple of weeks ago. What a privilege to know such a man. William went to Dunkirk five times to rescue our troops from the beaches and ferry them back to Dover, and then went on to join the Russian convoys – a highly dangerous occupation.

William Stone - The Ancient Mariner
Now it’s back to reality – I have a portrait commission to complete by next Monday, but at least I’ve finished all my Christmas cards. Bought 300 stamps yesterday and wrote them all today, having printed and addressed the cards before I went away.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Betwixt and Between

The new Bangkok Airport is huge, and as the Singapore Airlines counter is at the exact opposite end of the airport to the Eva Air counter, I’ve had the most exhilarating twenty-five minute walk - having just arrived here in Thailand in transit to London. How I hate getting up at sparrows fart in the morning! But now I’m sitting comfortably in the Evergreen Lounge.
My last day in Singapore was nice and peaceful. I popped down to Bras Basar Road to pick up the Chinese chop for my friend. (Hope he appreciates it.) When I asked why it was so much more expensive than those in Chinatown - especially as they had carved animal figures mounted on the top, she merely said “better stone.” As if it matters!

View from ny balcony in the rain
I’ve talked earlier about the brand spanking new sports centre at the Tanglin Club. So as a farewell treat I booked a couple of hours in the spa in the afternoon. (On the way I popped into the Billiards Room to say farewell to the pro.) Starting off with a defoliating scrub – I chose an Indonesian coffee flavour - it was followed by a very soothing massage. The soft tinkling music added to the fabulous ambiance and I relaxed almost to the point of falling asleep.

The Billiards Room at The Tanglin Club
I’d packed in the morning and written a few thank you letters, so when I came back from the spa (still in a state of Nirvana), did a quick change, and met Jack and Eileen Bygrave, who had invited me for an early dinner at the Mezzanine Lounge in the Hyatt – just a short walk away. It’s so nice to chatter away to friends you’ve known for so many years. I’ve known Jack and Eileen for more than 40 years – in fact we’ve lived in Singapore, Hong Kong, England and Bangkok just about at the same times.
Getting up at 5.30 this morning to catch the early flight is not my idea of fun, but now it’s time to say goodbye for a while to the heat and humidity (which I love) of Asia and back to dear old blighty. My Eva Air flight awaits me, but I think there’s just enough time to listen to The Archers on my laptop (I’d better turn the volume down low as I don’t expect everyone in this lounge are Archers fans!)

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

I’d forgotten just how hot it can be in the tropics! Yesterday, after a ‘fish moulie’ lunch at the Singapore Cricket Club with Gill and Jeff Alan, I decided to have a walk around the Botanic Gardens. Originally planted and designed by the great Victorian Botanists, it’s a wonderful place to visit – but not at 2.30 in the afternoon, when the sun is at its fiercest! (Noel Coward was right!) In the Orchid Gardens I found temporary relief by going into what they call a ‘cold area’. Still humid with little waterfalls, at least the temperature is a few degrees cooler

Orchids in the Botanic Gardens

When I lived in Singapore I became the ‘Court Painter’ to the Sultan of Johor, so when his young widow Sultana Nora heard I was in Singapore, she rang today to invite me to lunch at the Istana (Royal Palace) on Sunday. Although we had a nice long chat, I decided not to go. The reason being that taxis are not allowed to go all the way across the causeway to Malaysia. Consequently you have to get to Woodlands in Singapore, then go through Singapore customs, followed by a long (and very hot) walk across to the Malaysian side, go through more customs, then finally find another taxi to take you to the Palace. Sunday also happens to be the busiest day of the week, and the journey would take many hours. She quite understood.

Today has been a very varied day. After breakfast by the pool (rapidly becoming inhabited by little children, it being a Saturday) with Siok Sun, Suzanna collected me and we wandered off to the Lido to see the latest James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’. I’ve never been to the cinema in the morning before – It felt quite decadent.
A couple of hours later we ventured down to Bras Basha Road, as I wanted to have a Chinese ‘Chop’ made for my friend. (Eileen had already had his name in Chinese characters designed by her sister.) I needed a big chop with big carving, as my friend is a ‘big’ painter. He’ll use it if he ever paints anything Oriental, I imagine. I should have waited before ordering it because, after a quick lunch, we went to Chinatown where we saw hundreds of chops – all more decorated, and all a lot less expensive than the one I'd ordered! Oh well, I should have listened to Suzanne in the first place.

Inside the Sri Mariamman Temple

I love Chinatown – always brimming with bustle, life and colour. Already people are stocking up on items in readiness for the Chinese New Year in February. The ornate Indian temple in Pagoda Street was our first stop, then we just wandered through a maze of little alleys and shops for an hour or so till it became too humid.

Fans on display in Chinatown
Getting ready for the New Year
More fans in Chinatown

Where’s the coolest place in Singapore? The National Museum seemed to be the answer this afternoon. It’s recently been completely re-vamped. Housed in a beautiful white colonial building, the history of Singapore is depicted in every conceivable way there. My favourite gallery gives a 180 degree filmshow which graphically brings to life the early Temasek settlers in the 15th century, through the time when lions were thought to inhabit the island (hence the name ‘Singapura’ or Lion City), and right up to the Portuguese, and latterly British colonists, ending with a very complete collection of galleries depicting the last 50 years of fantastic progress.
So, after all that activity we had a quiet cup of tea in the Tanglin Club. After Suzanna left, I walked down to the Far East Plaza, as my tailor’s daughter wanted to buy a couple of my books. In an hour or so I’ll have a quiet dinner on my own downstairs in the Tavern, then post this blog.

Oh yes, I’ve just had an email from the USA – It seems I’ve won first prize for the Best Watercolour Painting in the forthcoming Miniature Art Society of Florida’s annual exhibition. It’s for a miniature I recently did of Peter Sutherland in his Upper Thames Rowing Club blazer, so he’ll be pleased.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Raffles Hotel Book Launch

Tan Siok Sun and I collected the large oil portrait of Tan Sri Dr Tan Chin Tuan from his house yesterday afternoon on our way to the Bar and Billiards Room in the Raffles Hotel – venue of the launch of my autobiography later that evening. We arranged about twenty-five of my paintings around the room, the four biggest on easels in the corners. The Raffles Hotel had arranged for a technician to install a large screen and all the other equipment needed for me to give my PowerPoint presentation. (I’d entitled it ‘My Life in Painting.’ Click here for details)
Over 50 people arrived for the launch and cocktail party around 6 o’clock. Jennie Chua, the former Chief Executive of the Raffles Hotel, performed the opening ceremony as guest of honour, with Siok Sun giving a very witty speech - even managing to couple Barack Obama’s “Yes you can” famous slogan with my future ‘How to Paint Miniatures’ publication.
Pictures of me as a young boy on the screen drew hoots of laughter – I’ve no idea why - although I did look a bit of a geek, or young fop as Paul Daniels would say. But the short film sequence I played from ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ (The reason I came to Singapore in the first place) caused large sighs of appreciation from the audience. The cream of Singapore mingled with several of my old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years. (Shamsuddin for example, in the photograph above, was a brilliant artist who worked with me in the early sixties - he's now 75 - doesn't time fly?)
Suzanna, me, Jayanti and Allen Pathmarajah

Overview of the Bar and Billiards Room

Changing mikes with Siok Sun at the book launch
Yesterday I had lunch at the Tavern with Bob Seymour. Bob now lives in Kuala Lumpur and Perth with his wife Hanim. Bob used to be the MD of our office in KL when I was Regional Director for Grant Advertising in the seventies. He told me an interesting story. When the office was having a bit of a downturn a few years ago, his Malaysian colleagues called in the Feng Shui man to sort it out. He advised that a tiger facing the building needed to be shot, so a small bow and arrow was erected in the office with the aim of neutralising the problem. (Don’t ask.) The weirdest thing of all, however, was that Bob, being the Chief Executive, was required to fully immerse himself in a bath of coconut milk! Apparently that did the trick. (But I wonder whether his staff gleefully got together next day and said, “Guess what we made our MD do yesterday? Gullible idiot actually had a bath in coconut milk!”)
It reminded me of the time when I lived in Thailand and two of our top young executives were killed in a bus crash. Because I was their boss I took precedence, even over their parents, at the cremation. I was the first person (heading a hundred-strong procession of mourners) to set fire to their bodies with long tapers and lotus stalks. At the very end of the ceremony I was made to hold my thumbs together while lustral (holy) water was poured over them. This signified the exact moment when Tachapong and Amnat ascended to heaven.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Singapore, my Singapore

It’s nine o’clock on Tuesday morning. I’ve just had breakfast by the pool at The Tanglin Club in Singapore. The scorching tropical sun is beating down from a clear blue sky, so I think I’ll have a swim to cool off.
I really love this country – it’s my second home. I’ve lived here on three separate occasions, and it’s always great to come back and meet up with my many friends.
Since I was last in Singapore the Tanglin Club has built a brand new five-storey sports centre. It’s joined to the club by the walkway you can see on the right of the photograph above. When I went over there on Sunday afternoon I was amazed to see a full-sized bowling green on the 4th floor. I popped in to the billiards room and had a one-hour’s snooker lesson as no one was there except for the coach

Jayanti and me

Later that evening my old friends Jayanti and Nira had asked me over for dinner at their penthouse apartment in Sunrise Gardens - about 15 miles from the Club. In total contrast to the traffic in Bangkok last week, my taxi speeded along wide boulevards, and I was there in ten minutes
Bowls of Chinese money on Mei's sideboard
Mei Lin Chan invited me to lunch yesterday – I was the only man amongst nine ladies - the youngest of whom had an intriguing name – Nic-Nac! (She could have been in a James Bond film.) Hope I don’t go on too much about food, but there we had Pohpiah – a Singapore delicacy. All sorts of little bowls containing things like bean sprouts, crabmeat, vegetables, shallots, shrimps, etc. are arranged around the table. You then choose what you want, and wrap a large thin pastry around it to make your own individual sort of outsize spring roll. Earlier Tan Siok Sun had joined me for breakfast in the Wheelhouse at the Club where we discussed the arrangements for my book launch on Thursday, and had a brief run-through the presentation – I don‘t want to make any cultural errors.
I paid a quick visit to my tailors to be fitted for a few pairs of trousers, and back in time for Siok Sun to drive me to Mei’s apartment in the city. After lunch she dropped me off at The Raffles Hotel as I had arranged a couple of meetings – one with Liana Wee to discuss my contract and Royalty payments for the painting ‘Raffles Remembered’, and the other with the F&B Manager, Jean-Philippe Joye. We walked along the wide corridors of this historic, and most beautiful, hotel, to the Bar and Billiards Room – the venue for my launch - where we worked out the logistics for Thursday evening.
Another bit of snooker practice and I was ready to take Suzanna Looh to dinner at the Tavern here at the Club. I first met Suzanna in the late 60’s when she was a model in Bangkok. A very clever girl – she’s just written a comprehensive book on the I Ching (the ancient Chinese classic system of cosmology and philosophy.) My leg was playing me up a bit, so I had an early night.

Allan and Jayanti Pathmarajah are both exhibiting the paintings I did of them some 20 years ago at Thursday’s book launch, and as Jayanti was concerned about a strange white mark which had mysteriously appeared on the shoulder of her blue sari, this afternoon we went to a frame maker to rectify the problem and to remount both paintings. The extremely high humidity in Singapore can cause all sorts of damage to both watercolours and oils – and they have one of each. On the way back I called in to the Peranakan Museum – it only opened a couple of months ago. Very interesting. The Peranakans were traders brought to Singapore by the prevailing winds. Some married local women and put down roots here. The lives of their descendants are depicted in ten galleries in the museum and are packed with fascinating collections of every kind – I even spotted the famous golf club belonging to Siok Sun’s father-in-law, Goh Keng Swee. Not only was he Singapore’s Minister of Finance for many years, he also had a habit of scoring numerous ‘holes in one’ in golf.

I’ve mentioned before about my fear of wasps. They are my sworn enemy! I hate them - they were one of the reasons I left England to work abroad all those years ago. Well, when I arrived at Changi airport on Sunday afternoon (what a spectacular, fully carpeted, ultra-efficient airport that is – the best in the world, in my opinion) I popped into the gent’s loo. Painted on each urinal – at no doubt the most strategic position – was a life-size picture of a wasp! Taking careful aim I sort of got my own back – in a virtual way!