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!