Thursday, 29 January 2009

Man of the Century

The funeral of my old friend William Stone was held this afternoon at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in the lovely little town of Watlington in Oxfordshire.

I was privileged to be among the invited guests, and joined a throng of highly decorated notables, old servicemen and friends as we passed through a gauntlet of television and press cameras gathered outside the door of the church. Having arrived early I was shown to my seat very near the front and found myself sitting next to a delightful young lady who I soon discovered had been commissioned to write William’s life story. The book is due to be published in the autumn of this year.
Truly a man of the twentieth Century, William was one of the last living links between the First World War and the Twenty-first Century. I’ve written about William before on my blog. He was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, served for 27 years in the Royal navy, was the last man alive to have seen active service in both world wars, went to Dunkirk 5 times to bring our troops back home, was the target of a German torpedo which thankfully went right under his ship -the German Commander mistaking it for a vessel with a deeper draft – escaped death many times during the second world war when both the Salamander and Hood were sunk, luckily for William just after he was transferred to other vessels. He also survived the Russian convoys and was mentioned in despatches.
At precisely 2.30 this afternoon his Union Jack draped coffin was brought into the church on the shoulders of six uniformed young ‘Stokers’. During a wonderful eulogy by son-in-law Michael Davidson, William’s great-grandchildren and children from the local Primary School placed little bouquets of snowdrops on the coffin amongst the flowers there. Vice Admiral Sir Barry Wilson KCB read the Pilot’s Psalm and John Green QHC, Chaplain of the Fleet, gave a very humorous address.
When it was time to leave, the coffin, now back on the ’Stokers ‘ shoulders, left the church accompanied by a rousing rendition of one of William’s favourite tunes ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. Once outside the church a lone bugler from the Royal Marines sounded the Last Post and Reveille. Finally, as we stood in the bright afternoon sunshine the church bell was tolled 108 times – once for every year of William’s long life.

'Stokers ' outside the church at the end of the Service

I’ll end this short description of a very memorable day by quoting William’s oft repeated recipe for life – “Clean Living, Contented Mind, and Trust in God”.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Farewell Florida

You’d expect Florida to be warm, if not hot and sunny – after all it’s called The Sunshine State’. However it wasn’t to be. Florida had its coldest January for many years. Ice warnings were prevalent and Mike Petryszak brought all his orchids indoors and covered his other plants in the garden to avoid the nightly frosts.
I always enjoy going to the Miniature Art Society of Florida’s Annual Show. This time there were over 1,200 entries. It was great to meet up with so many old friends – Wes and Rachelle, Mike and Kay, Susan and Russ, Herb, and Carol, to name but a few. And Mona – who I see has left a comment on my last blog. (Nice pictures, Mona – I’d like a copy of both of them if possible).
A happy dinner party with some of the artists

Wes and Rachelle have just published their book ‘Exquisite Miniatures’. They brought a few dozen with them. I’ve just finished reading my copy – it’s not only a beautiful publication with many full-colour illustrations of their work, but is extremely informative.

Rachelle demonstrating her exquisite work at the show

Being in the USA during the inauguration of the 44th President Barack Obama on Tuesday 20th was fortuitous. While waiting for my friends to arrive from across the state in the afternoon, I was able to follow the entire proceedings live on television from my hotel room. And very impressive it was too. What a gracious and elegantly organised transit from one President to the next. (In total contrast to the way our departing Prime Ministers are hustled out of Downing Street!) President Obama seems to be rapidly making a number of good moves – one of which is to appoint Senator George Mitchell his ambassador to the Middle East. He was the man who was instrumental in achieving the IRA ceasefire and peace deal. (Incidentally my miniature portrait of him is currently on exhibition at the MASF show, as I met him a couple of years ago in Barbados.)

Later in the afternoon my old friends Bill and Marge Organ drove all the way over from Port St.Lucie on the east coast of Florida to meet up. They stayed the night at my hotel - the Yacht Harbor Inn and we had dinner together at a nearby, supposedly good, fish restaurant. Bill and Marge visit Henley from time to time and have made many friends this side of the pond. They drove me over to the Art Exhibition the following morning on their way home.

Bill and Bill outside the Dunedin Fine Art Center

One of my dearest Florida friends, Mary Kuggleman, is sadly very ill. She lives at St. Petersburg Beach – twenty or so miles south of Clearwater. Kay drove me down to see her on Wednesday afternoon. Mary is suffering from cancer, and I fear this will be the last time I will see her. What a feisty spirit she possesses! Although her weight has gone down to about 85 pounds, she radiates goodness with a brain as sharp as a razor.

After my experience on American Airlines last week it was such a pleasure to board the British Airways flight home on Thursday evening. Mind you, the USA hadn’t entirely finished with me because, as I walked up to the baggage screening area, a big black hand was raised and the man behind it said “Whoa there Sir!” Had my complaints about AA reached his ears? No, I was singled out (yet again) for special treatment. Have a look at the red SSSS’s on my ticket:

They were stamped there for a purpose. I know there are random searches everywhere these days, but why do I always qualify in the USA? I must look suspicious. Anyway I was marched off to a separate room and all the contents of my pockets and bags were not only thoroughly searched, but a wet-wipe sort of pad was passed over everything (me included!) I’ve no idea what they expected to find, and as I don’t smoke, do drugs, and only really swear when I’m driving, eventually they found no reason to detain me further.

The eight-hour flight across the Atlantic was very smooth, and how pleasant it was to hear a friendly stewardess make the announcements, unhurried and with clarity, compared to the nasal automaton on AA last weekend. The meal was nice too - and piping hot.

Pat and Averil were waiting at Gatwick airport (now that’s a treat I don’t often experience) and drove me home in the pouring rain and spray along the M25 motorway, only making one small deviation when we found ourselves going the wrong way. Tracey had left a few groceries by my front door, so after unpacking, catching up on the news in the newspapers, (including the Daily Mail’s coverage of Paul and Debbie’s holiday in Barbados), answering all the waiting mail, emails and writing cheques, I managed a quiet evening watching last week's 'Eastenders' on TV. My recipe to avoid jet lag is to always keep to the time of the country I am in, so it was bed at midnight and up at 7.30 this morning bright and early. Now I’m ready for the Chinese Year of the Ox. Last year was pretty good, being the year of the Rat. I’m a Rat.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Misery in Miami

My advice? Avoid Miami airport whenever you can. After a very early morning start in Barbados I boarded an American Airlines plane, enroute to Miami. I suppose I must be spoiled by Far Eastern airlines service because AA’s was totally impersonal, even sullen, the cabin announcements so fast and mechanical that I could hardly understand a word, and although it was a 3 hour flight the only food offered was “we have a few cheese sandwiches left at 4 dollars a go”. She said something else but I couldn’t decipher what it was – but didn’t care anyway. Arriving at Miami the queue at the immigration took nearly two hours - at the end of which I was fingerprinted and my eye was photographed. Thank goodness my connection to Tampa was due in about four hours! When I finally retrieved my big case (with its new special lock on the strap to comply with the latest US regulations) I was told the plane I was due to fly to Tampa on had been cancelled and the bar-coded tag on the case wouldn’t get me there. So after a lot of computer clicking my case was retagged and I was told to “take it over to that pile of bags and leave it there.” From what I could see all the other bags were going somewhere other than Tampa, but I was past caring by now.

Then I did a really stupid thing. Leaving Barbados too early for breakfast, and having had nothing to eat on the plane, I decided to get a meal at one of the airport restaurants. Making myself understood (just about everyone speaks Spanish there - and I thought this was America) I ordered a hamburger from the bar. After waiting for over twenty minutes it finally came, but for the first time in my life I forgot to pick up my hand luggage and made my way further into the restaurant to find a table. It must have been about ten minutes later that I realised something was missing – my case with everything in it – passport, tickets, paintings, money - the lot! Panicking like mad I rushed back to the food counter and unbelievably the case was still there on the floor! I guess I was lucky.

Paul had been telling me the night before to stay calm on what I knew was not going to be one of the happiest days of my life. Miami airport has got to be one of the most complicated airports to find your way around (and I’ve been to hundreds) but I finally located the right gate, and waited. We boarded the plane, and I settled down in the tiny little seat. How the fat man on the opposite aisle fitted into his I don’t know as he seemed to spill over by about ten inches on each side. Then all went quiet and finally the Captain announced that the machine that pushes he aircraft away from the stand wasn’t working. So we waited 15 minutes for another one. That didn’t work either! But finally, nearly an hour later, we moved. Hurray! The flight to Tampa took nearly an hour – not even soft drinks or water were served this time. So when we landed and the Chief Stewardess asked us all to clap our hands to show our appreciation of ‘Gladys’, ‘Mary’, and the other wench, I firmly sat on my hands.

But magically my big case arrived – albeit a bit late – and I hired a taxi to take me directly to the Dunedin Fine Art Center where The Miniature Art Society was holding the artists reception, prior to its 34th Annual Exhibition the following day. I think the taxi driver ripped me off, but I was glad to be amongst friends again. Later, a dozen or so of us went out for dinner and I finally booked into my hotel – The Yacht Harbour Inn.

The Yacht Harbor Inn

It’s now Sunday and the weather is brilliant - Florida at its best. The MASF puts on the most elaborate awards show of all the miniature societies in the world, I think. It started with a lavish ‘Brunch’ at the Bon Apetite restaurant. My very good friends Wes and Rachelle Siegrist (wonderful artists and fellow bloggers) were there, as were Kay and Mike Petryszak, who I’ve known for nearly twenty years. (Kay is the President of the Miniature Artists of America). Rachelle, being a reader of my blog, wanted to know all about the famous chocolates that ‘Bluebells’ gave me at Christmas, and why hadn’t I brought one for her!

Kay and Mike Petryszak

Wes and Rachelle in the sunshine

About 200 people were at the brunch. Four artists on our table gained awards. Wes was Third in the Birds and Animal category, Rachelle’s award was for the Best Traditional Portrait Miniature, and I was First in Watercolour. After the prize giving (beautifully calligraphed certificates - and cheques) we all drove to the exhibition. It was held at the Dunedin Fine Art Center and this year there were about 800 exhibits on display. The MASF stages the largest miniature exhibition in the world and sales were really brisk. About thirty of us met up later for dinner in a lovely little restaurant in downtown Dunedin. The crab cakes were delicious and I know Rachelle enjoyed her Key Lime Pie – a Florida speciality.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Sun, Sea and Sandy Lane

The day started with a power cut, Apparently a lorry had collided with a telegraph pole so I missed my nice cup of tea and croissants for breakfast. But no matter. I’ve been firing on all four cylinders ever since I arrived here. Yesterday was no exception - we’d been invited for the day out on a large catamaran . Big enough for 60, we were a party of about thirty. Most people knew each other, and some were from Henley. There’s quite a Henley contingent living on the island.
We left at about 10 am and were soon out to sea. Once we were under sail we just seemed to race along with the warm wind whistling past. So exhilarating! The crew were fantastic and plied us with every sort of drink you could wish for, with smiles a mile wide. I kept to rum punches and pineapple juice, as I knew we’d be going out later in the evening. Lunch on board was great - all sorts of local fish – including flying fish and swordfish, as well as tasty curries and coconut rice. Some people donned snorkels, masks and flippers (all provided) to see the turtles and sunken wrecks, some just swam, and the rest of us just enjoyed the glorious sunshine - and the girls danced. We got back to the beach about five in the afternoon and waded through the surging surf to the shore.

And home in time to have a quick shower and get ready for dinner at ‘Daphne’s’ -another lovely restaurant. In fact it was the second evening we’d been there as we were with Debbie and Paul the previous night.
The Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados is probably the most exclusive hotel in the world. I believe there are over 600 people looking after about 250 guests at any one time. On Tuesday evening friends of my hosts invited us to dinner there. What a sumptuous spread it was too. Hundreds and hundreds of delicious dishes to choose from. Never have I seen such an incredible selection. I love seafood, so sampled the giant prawns, lobsters, coconut rice, and honey glazed sweet potato. Sandy Lane is the place for celebrity spotting if you are so inclined. It seems everyone who’s anyone goes there.

A calypso group sang to us at the table – I chose ‘Island in the Sun’ which always reminds me of my time living in the tropics. Our table was right next to the immaculate glistening white sandy beach and the sound of the waves rolling in just added to the perfect ambiance.

The singers at our table
Later we watched a really colourful cabaret with calypso dancers and stilt walkers dressed in gold and silver, and on the black sea in the distant horizon the lights of a big cruise ship slowly passed by. Again a lone star shone brightly above. Where were all the others?

Cabaret at Sandy Lane

Barbados is entirely made of coral formed many millions of years ago when the seismic plates pushed upwards. Within this land are caves. On Wednesday morning we went down the largest and most beautiful. It’s called Harrison’s Cave. Deep underground the stalactites and stalagmites were beautifully and discreetly illuminated. Apart from the occasional drip, drip of water I was surprised that the atmosphere wasn’t colder.

Harrison's Caves

As tomorrow I have to get up at 5am to get to the airport I think I’ll do a Cinderella act and Have an early night. Paul Daniels often kids me about worrying about such things, as he and Debbie are completely used to early morning travel. He did again today, as I joined them for lunch together with my old friends Fee and Stan Stride - they’re Henley people too)
Stan, Debbie, Fee and Paul

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Island in the Sun

My car was covered in the salt spread on the roads to avoid slipping on the ice, so on Saturday afternoon, after a pleasant little lunch with Jilly at Phyllis Court, I took it for a quick valet job, then packed a couple of bags and headed for Gatwick. I’d decided to spend the night there rather than risk an early morning drive on Sunday. I’d booked a guesthouse 5 minutes away from the airport. It was a bit crummy but adequate. Next morning I checked in at the airport and after the interminable security checks – which included a special x-ray for shoes - I finally emerged into the departure lounge where I spied Paul Daniels chatting up a beaming black girl sporting tall and waving feathers from her hair and shoulders. She was selling Southern Comfort (or was it Jack Daniels?) Everyone knows Paul, so he was able to get me in to the Virgin Upper Class Lounge where Debbie was poring over a Suduko puzzle. We were all heading for the sunshine of Barbados.

My companion on the flight was a charming Scottish widow. Older than me, her husband had recently died, but undaunted she was travelling the globe. I was impressed to discover she was conversant with the internet, and in fact had looked up ‘Hiking’ and Scottish Country Dancing’ in Barbados. Sure enough she found both and has brought her hiking boots and is enrolled for a Scottish Dancing evening on Tuesday. Paul and Debbie came back to have a chat with us. Paul gave my companion a very ingenious bookmark and performed the disappearing coin trick.

Now I’m in Barbados. How marvellous to be in tropical sunshine. I thrive in the heat. I was met at the airport and whisked off through fields of sugar cane waving in the wind to my hosts house. On Monday morning we walked along the beach to the Lone Star where I sipped the ice cold Pina Colada I’d been anticipating for a while.

In the afternoon I took a trip down to Holetown. This little village was first established by the British colonists way back in the 17th century. The tiny chattel houses there have now become picturesque pastel-coloured boutiques.

A Chattel House in Holetown

I’m staying in a lovely little cottage adjacent to the pool at my hosts house where I spent an hour savouring the hot sunshine and acquiring the beginnings of a tan.
In the evening we drove to the Lone Star one of the best restaurants in Barbados) where Paul and Debbie suddenly appeared - they were joining us for dinner. What a delightful surprise. We had a great time listening to the crashing of the waves just below us, looking at the stars, enjoying a lovely meal, and consuming a few bottles of Rose wine.
Now it is Tuesday, and it already seems as if I’ve been here for a week. I was driven across the island this morning. The views were breathtaking and the winding roads exhilarating, if a bit scary at times. We visited 350-year-old St. Nicholas Abbey – a Jacobean mansion built in 1658 -one of only three Jacobean Plantation Great Houses existing in the Western Hemisphere. After a walk around the house and gardens we drove to one of the highest points in Barbados where we gazed out to a rough sea in the distance.
Sugar Hill Clubhouse

I'll attempt to insert a littlle video clip taken as we watched the waves gently rolling in to the shore yesterday with the occasional water-skier and sailing boat gliding by out to sea. Talk about idyllic – especially after the penetrating cold I’d left behind in England.

I’ll end this blog on a sad note. Yesterday I had an email from Anne, William Stone’s daughter, telling me that her father, my wonderful 108-year-old friend, had just died. Having seen William only a few days before Christmas, I’ll treasure the little piece of video I made of him singing a sea shanty, which will always remind me of this marvellous old sailor.

Friday, 9 January 2009

To eat or not to eat

My friend ‘Bluebells’ gave me a beautiful box of chocolates at Christmas. She was visiting from San Francisco. It’s too nice to open, don’t you think? ‘Pootle’ – my enigmatic blog buddy wanted to see what it looked like – hence the picture. However when I get back from the USA perhaps I’ll give a little dinner party and open it then.

Apart from visits to the dentist, optician and barber, my life has been a bit mundane since the New Year. Pat and Averil – my old friends from schooldays hundreds of years ago - came over on Wednesday. We had lunch in the Catherine Wheel in Henley, and in the afternoon Pat ironed about 25 of my shirts. What a gem she is! While she slaved away I gave them a slide show on the big new TV of photographs taken in Bangkok and Singapore last year.

Even though it’s only January I’ve started painting my next Christmas card. It will be called ‘The Snow Queen’ and I was hoping that beautiful Anna was coming over on Thursday evening to pose for it, but she’s had to postpone her visit for a couple of weeks.

I’m not keen on this cold snap we are having right now. Early this coming Sunday morning I should have been travelling down to Gatwick, but chickened out for a variety of reasons. So have decided to travel down there tomorrow evening and stay at a hotel near the airport. Now I won’t have to worry about a lorry skidding on the ice, overturning and blocking the M25 motorway.

I’m fed up with my own cooking so am looking forward very much to dinner this evening at Phyllis Court with Jane and Brian (if he’s recovered from a virus) and Jules, who’s just returned from China and New Zealand.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Breakfast in a Time Warp

I saw the New Year in alone this year – mainly sprawled in front of the television, and making and receiving phone calls. The fireworks from the London Eye were quite spectacular. Geen Hong rang from Australia - she said Sydney’s were better.

However, yesterday morning I went backwards in time, as I’d been invited for breakfast at Lord McAlpine’s estate in Fawley – a village just outside Henley. Not your ordinary New Year’s morning breakfast. This one was held in a railway carriage!

Our Breakfast venue
Lord McAlpine not only has a wonderful collection of railway paraphernalia, he has several full-size steam engines and well-appointed carriages. A large and original waiting room completes the scene.

The Carriage at the station

Milk churns on the platform

The weather yesterday was very cold and very grey. But everything else about the day was colourful. I joined Sue and Tom Yonker at about 10.30, as we were all going in the same car. What an inviting scene awaited us. A few ladies were busily cooking a lavish breakfast – eggs, sausages, kedgeree, kidneys, tomatoes, beans, bacon, toast, marmalade and coffee. All in all a splendid spread. And of course there were lashings of champagne and Bucks Fizz. We chose to eat in one of the carriages just outside the waiting room. About twenty-five guests in all were sitting at tables spread around the station. Apparently this New Year’s breakfast is a tradition Lord McAlpine started some years ago.

About 12,30 we all donned our walking boots and wellies for the traditional walk. As I’ve said it was bitterly cold – this horse had made a little hole in the ice covering the water trough.

As the estate covers a number of square miles, the hardiest (and fittest) chose to walk about 7 miles. We decided on a more modest distance. As well as trains, Lord McAlpine loves exotic animals, and during our little walk we came across this Tapir lolling by the side of the woodland path we’d chosen to follow.

The Tapir

Sue soon made friends with it, and it wasn’t long before a couple of enormous ostriches came slowly padding towards us. In the distance we also saw a few deer and some other exotic animals. Earlier we’d spied a very strange animal sitting in the middle of one of the fields we were passing by. Sue walked up to it as it allowed her to get very close before it bounded off. About four times the size of an ordinary rabbit, we found out later that it was one of a number of Patagonian Hares that live on the estate.

Sue and Tom on our walk

An hour or so later, back at the warm and welcoming station waiting room, we were plied with a variety of home made cakes while we sat by the fire listening to songs from the fifties (my favourite era for music). Guy Mitchell’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers and a Huli Huli Skirt’ was amongst them. The rest of the walkers arrived back in little groups in time to join us for tea and hot crumpets - and even more cake. Lord McAlpine came in with John Madejski who’d been staying at the house overnight. (I ought to say ‘Sir John’ now, as he’s just become a knight in the New Year’s Honours.) They joined us for crumpets.
After a while I ducked out to look around the nearby museum. It’s taken over forty years to amass such a comprehensive collection, and it contains every sort of memorabilia you could possibly imagine.

Our ‘breakfast’ finally came to an end at about 5pm. What a nice day.