Saturday, 25 December 2010

A Walk by the River

My car was snowed in last Sunday – the ice slope from the garage was too dicey to risk. So my young friend and I took a walk by the river the mile or so into Henley.

That’s the view from my garden towards the millstream. At the bottom of the garden is a gate with a combination lock. As I know the code we were able to walk through my neighbour’s garden towards the lock.

This is Marsh Lock, ably looked after by Nigel, the affable lock-keeper who, I’m told, will soon be celebrating a birthday with a nought on the end of it. Gingerly walking across the frozen end gate this scene of the hill beyond was entrancing.

(During the Second World War under this hill a vast underground series of caves housed all sorts of secrets. I ventured in there once and with the aid of an infra red camera photographed a gigantic map of southern England on one 12 foot high wall.

With my jaunty German hat keeping my ears warm, I tarried a while on the horse bridge which spans the river here.

 On the other side of the river is the house belonging to Jane and Brian – friends I’ve often mentioned in my blog. It once belonged to the famous Danny La Rue, and with its lovely swimming pool in the garden and extensive grounds, a verandah reminiscent of the twenties, and a well-appointed small ballroom, Brian and Jane have hosted many a party there (including my 70th).

Passing by Mill Lane, and over the little wooden bridge, we looked back through the foliage towards my flat – which you may be able to glimpse in the background.

One of my favourite glimpses of river life is to see a kingfisher. It may be sitting perfectly still and almost invisible on a branch looking down to the river, but suddenly with a flash of incandescent turquoise and lilac, and a tremendous burst of speed it will dive along the surface of the water to emerge with a tiny fish struggling in its bill. I saw one on this walk but it was too fast for me to capture with my camera.
 We aren’t on the Mississippi, but here comes the New Orleans riverboat. Operated by the Hobbs family I’ve been on it many times – usually in the summer and once in the autumn where I hosted my best party ever – 60 guests on my 60th birthday.

Nice reflections as the New Orleans slowly glides past us and up towards the lock.
For many years an Australian man called Alastair lived on his boat moored by this towpath. I used to regularly have a chat with him in the evenings as I rowed past in my little dinghy. His boat was called ‘Australian’s Possum’. Sadly Alastair died 3 years ago, and a wooden seat was erected here in his honour together with a photograph. Someone is looking after him, as recently a new photograph has replaced the faded old one.

If you happen to slip in the snow and land up in the river, hopefully someone will throw you a lifebelt.

We’ve arrived in Henley. This little corner on the riverside leads into Friday Street. A number of years ago I very nearly bought ‘The Old Granary' – the second house along Friday Street. Although it had a beautiful garden, at the end of which was a big artist’s studio perched over a three-car garage, I found the house itself too dark. It hardly got any sun at all. (Anyway I couldn’t afford it, but it would have been interesting – a Mundy living on Friday Street).

Finally we reached Falaise Square, right in the middle of Henley. All we have to do now is to shop at Waitrose and lug the heavy bags back home.

Yesterday my day started with breakfast with Paul Daniels and Debbie at their riverside home by the river where we exchanged Christmas presents. They are currently starring in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill (till January 3rd), but manage to get home most nights – snow, ice and the M25 motorway permitting).

Then on to Marlow for a big family lunch hosted by my niece Louisa. Here’s a picture of her children – Max and Kate - next to the snowman they made earlier. We also watched a video of the school’s nativity play where Kate acted the coveted part of Mary.

It’s now gone midnight on Christmas Eve. Most of my day has been spent travelling around delivering Christmas presents. (I even woke up this morning to find that Father Christmas had left a big stocking full of goodies draped over a chair during the night!)

Happy Christmas to all my friends, wherever you are.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


It’s very cold outside today - the snow has just started – look at the view from my studio

The snow has been falling thick and fast, and the road outside my flat resembles an ice rink. So I think I’ll stay inside today. This is what it’s like in my back garden – and that covering only took about an hour or so.

One of my first tasks this morning was to solve a knotty problem. My young friend - having bought a new hairbrush – had somehow got it caught up really tight in her hair. Apart from cutting off great big chunks, the only solution was to untangle it, hair by hair. The whole exercise took over 45 minutes. We now have one full head of hair between us!

On Monday afternoon I had an appointment with the oncologist in Reading following the CT scan last week. Having wondered lately why my stomach had increased somewhat in girth (no, not jam doughnuts or crunchy bars) he informed me that I had developed a hernia. Apart from that it seems the scan result necessitates a further scan – this time a CT - PET scan, whatever that means. So I have to go to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford next Tuesday to have it – I’m told it will take about 3 hours. Fingers crossed!

Much of the past fortnight has been spent painting a miniature portrait of my New York friend’s five-year –old daughter. This is the third miniature I’ve painted of this little girl – the previous two were as a baby and at the age of two. As always a computer image never truly shows what the actual painting is like. You need to see all the colours and the fine brush-strokes to really appreciate the work. I never like giving my overseas clients a preview if at all possible.

And I’m intending to finish my ‘Les Tres Heures’ painting before Christmas. However I wish I’d checked the paper before I’d got too far in the painting as it’s virtually impossible to paint a wash or to get a smooth finish as the watercolour is absorbed instantly into this strange surface. I’ll never use this ‘line and wash’ board again, that’s for sure. Just a bit more work on the left and in the shadows, then I’ll attempt to stipple the dark brown background. Here it is to date.

I’ve been to a few Christmas parties this week – one at friend Stan and Fee’s at Broadplat House on Friday, and another put on by The Henley Standard newspaper in the King’s Barn – a lovely old building right in the middle of town – I even spied some wattle and daub around the half-timbering there. On Saturday evening Paul, my cousin took Jo, Val and me out to celebrate his 65th birthday at Phyllis Court. (I missed the actual date and party as I was still in Singapore) And at the beginning of the week another ‘Colours’ evening at Phyllis Court where I won the first match but lost in the final. One day I’ll come away with the trophy. This is the winner.

Now with the heavy fall of snow today I don’t think we will venture out this evening – maybe we’ll toast crumpets by the fire.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Les Très Riches Heures

I can’t believe how quickly the time is rushing by. Can it really be two weeks since I wrote my last blog? (Yes I’m still here, RG9, and by the way if you want to give me your address I’ll send you a ‘snowy’ Christmas card). But now we are in the run up to Christmas a lot of my time has been spent writing and addressing all my cards, and scanning and printing out Christmas cards for my talented neighbour, who, like me, paints his own cards. But my main activity has been total absorption in my latest painting. Here it is halfway completed.

Quite a big painting it depicts an open book and hopefully, if I can work out the shadows successfully, it will become an interesting Trompe L’Oeil painting. The book will illustrate pages from “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” These illuminated manuscripts were painted by the Limbourg brothers (Herman, Paul and John) between 1409 and 1412 when they became Jean de Berry’s miniaturists. A lovely example of the art of miniature painting before such people as Holbein and Hilliard took up painting portrait miniatures. I’ve introduced gold elements into the calligraphed lettering and some of the costumes of the figures (although you won’t be able to see it properly in the above). With a bit of luck I may finish it before the New Year. But right now I have to put it down for a while and concentrate on a miniature portrait for an American client.

I’m convinced the Post Office is taking some of us for a ride. I say this because the day after I arrived back home after my short holiday of the numerous bills awaiting me was one from my frame-maker. I duly sent him a cheque – in an ordinary envelope affixed with a second-class stamp. Not only did the letter take 2 weeks to arrive, (his shop is in Reading – just eight miles away from me) but the Post Office had the cheek to demand £1.32 compensation, with the excuse of ‘Insufficient Postage’. Now I know there is a size and weight regulation but the weight of the small letter together with the cheque were obviously way below both limits, so no way should an excess charge have been made. I was relating this story to a friend at lunch yesterday and she told me that she had to pay for so–called ‘Insufficient Postage’ for FIVE of her birthday cards last month. And then another guest told me that he also had to pay recently. Both of them said that none of the letters or cards were overweight or oversized. I just wonder how much the Post Office is making from what, to me, is a big scam.

This country has not been very good at handling the weather recently, what with airports closing and motorways becoming blocked for hours on end, not to mention the lack of gritting in many parts of the Kingdom. After all we could have learned a bit from last year’s snowfall. It’s still bitterly cold. On Thursday I braved the snow to visit my friend Felicity in the Berkshire Independent Hospital in Reading where she was recovering from an operation. Glad to say she looked the picture of health. Saturday morning I had breakfast with Rolf and Alwen. He showed me his latest paintings. My word, that man is prolific. Having spent the last few weeks completing a number of enormous paintings for the upcoming BBC Arena programme (to be shown on BBC2 on December 29th by the way) I was amazed how many more paintings are under way in his studio. One full-length painting of two small girls is enchanting, and I’m sure they and their parents will be absolutely delighted when they see the final work.

My young friend came with me to the Royal Berks Hospital on Saturday where I had my latest pelvic and chest scan. I won’t know the result till next Monday when I see the oncologist, but as I feel fine I’m crossing my fingers that all is OK. Lately as a small gesture to fitness I’ve spent a little time on my Wi-Fit. Although I haven’t noticed any weight reduction yet, I live in hope. And now with the approach to Christmas accelerating, my diary is getting filled with party dates, so no chance of losing weight in the near future I expect.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Raffles in Henley

Having just returned from Singapore it was a real pleasure, last night, to attend the Henley Operatic and Dramatic Society’s production of the musical ‘RAFFLES OF SINGAPORE’ at the Kenton Theatre in Henley.

Although it was the last night the theatre was completely full – not an empty seat anywhere. My three lady friends and I had prime seats in the front row of the balcony. This production, a UK Premiere, was really well cast and I must say Michelle Wesson, playing Raffles’ wife Olivia, ‘bobbydazzled’ us all with her wonderful voice, and Alan Elston quite dominated the stage with his portrayal of Raffles himself.The first performance of the show, by the writers Richard Cleghorn-Brown and Ian Senior, was held at the Victoria Theatre in Singapore for a record two-week run.

Incidentally I’ve just finished reading the most fascinating book about Raffles and can highly recommend it. It’s called ‘In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles’ by Nigel Barley.

My journey home the other day was extremely comfortable on both Singapore Airlines and Eva Air, but I suppose I ought to confess to an embarrassing episode. Upon leaving Singapore I tentatively requested a lift on the baggage trolley upon arrival at Bangkok where I was due to make a change to EVA Air for the main portion of the journey. The reason being that one of my legs is a bit dodgy, and the distance of 1 km between the two airlines (especially with such a short time allowance for the transfer) necessitates a very brisk walk.
Not being used to the efficiency of Singapore Airlines, as I stepped out of the aircraft cabin I was surprised to see a smiling lilac-attired Thai stewardess holding up a placard with my name on it. She told me that she had been asked to provide a wheelchair for an ‘elderly gentleman’! (I don’t really think I qualify on either count). Next to her was a young man with the wheelchair. I hastily assured her that, only if it was available, I’d have appreciated a lift on the luggage trolley to take me to the EVA Air departure lounge. However I did appreciate her suggesting that she accompany me to the airline’s Evergreen Lounge at the far end of Bangkok’s enormous airport. However, so as not to appear a complete fraud, I put on a pronounced limp for the entire kilometre, but the effort of this deception absolutely tired me out by the time I reached my destination! (But as soon as the young lady disappeared I rushed back upstairs to buy a box of orchids, hoping that she wouldn’t witness my miraculous recovery).

This photograph of part of the beautiful koi-carp filled miniature lake adds to the serene ambiance that is Singapore’s Airport. It is a real pleasure to spend time at both Singapore and Bangkok airports with their vast carpeted concourses and super-quiet efficiency. Contrast this with the dirty rubbish-strewn welcome I experienced at Terminal 3 Heathrow Airport when I arrive there on Tuesday evening. Scruffy, cold, and packed full of frustrated people, a few of us were given red ‘fast track’ cards.  Fast track indeed!  After standing for over half an hour in what was easily destined to be a three-hour queue, I’d moved forward no more than ten yards and couldn’t help but feel ashamed at the impression that first time overseas visitors are confronted with at Heathrow.  What a contrast to the queue-free ultra clean splendid airports I’d left behind a day earlier. 

I’d always believed that people of religion had purer minds than the rest of us, and that Bishops in particular are required in the words of the Prayer Book to ‘set forward quietness, peace and love among all men’.  So I was disgusted to read that the Bishop of Willesdon, the self-styled ‘Bishop Pete’, likened Prince William and Kate Middleton to ‘shallow celebrities’. Does he know them? Has he met them? No of course not. And in his reference to the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana he declared “I managed to avoid the last disaster in slow motion between Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll, and I hope to avoid this one too”. He may possess anti-Monarchy opinions spouted by Marxists, but to publicly express such spiteful, crass and unchristian views only demonstrates what a shallow and nasty little mind he has. When he was ordained into the Church of England didn’t Bishop ‘Pete’ Broadbent swear ‘true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law, so help me God’? So when he ordains priests how can he require them to swear allegiance to an institution he regards as ‘corrupt and sexist’?

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Ride in the Sky

I'll soon be winging my way back to dear old Henley - I've had a lovely time here in Singapore - just wish I could stay a bit longer. Have a look at this picture - it has a bit of movement in it but that's because I'm suspended high in the sky in a cable car.

From the top of Singapore's highest mountain - Mt. Faber - a fleet of cable cars run continuously over the ocean to Sentosa Island. At night they sparkle all over. In fact one of the cabins is jewelled and some are glass-bottomed (for the brave amongst us). Last night I invited Jay and Nira to dinner at The Black Opal restaurant in the Jewel Box on the summit. Adjacent to the restaurant is the cable car terminus so, between the main course and the dessert I took the half hour round trip to Sentosa and back. (I wasn't being ungentlemanly but as Jay and Nira had only recently done the trip they insisted I go).
It's quite marvellous looking down on Keppel Harbour from above, passing over this beautiful cruise ship - the Star Libra I think it was called

... and then to the lights of Sentosa.

The original name of the island was Blakang Mati - it was called that when I first came to Singapore in 1956 and was inhabited by the Gurkha Regiment. Since the Singapore Government renamed it Sentosa (the Malay translation is Peace and Tranquility) they have worked wonders in making it the marvellous resort it is today. One of the recent attractions is the Universal Studios. This in addition to the underwater world, butterfly park, casinos, spas, etc. And from the air, as I saw it on Saturday night, it really does look like a magic kingdom.

Here you can see - somewhat hazily - the lights of the restaurant as I return.

Back down to earth and another day dawns. It's a bit special as I'm going to the races. Siok Sun and K.C. picked me up from the Tanglin Club at noon and drove me to the Singapore Turf Club. Siok Sun wore a 'fascinator' (I learned this name at Henley Regatta a couple of years ago, by the way) it being the Longines Singapore Gold Cup Day and one of the events of the year. Everyone looked very smart. Here's a handsome young couple at the next table to us.

And here am I together with Siok Sun and K.C.

Our view of the racecourse was spectacular.

Every comfort was catered for with soft outsize yellow armchairs to watch the races in splendid comfort, then a magnificent lunch, as many drinks as we could manage, followed by tea and scones with exotic sweetmeats. Soon the President of Longines arrived and made a short speech. Then, with a suitable fanfare and a hustle of photographers, the main guest of honour made his way towards us. His name? S.R.Nathan, the President of Singapore. I managed to take this close up portrait of him.

And to give one of my loyal followers - RG9 from Henley - a taste of the glamour present, here are a couple of random shots I took during the afternoon.

Now the big question is, how much did I win? I'm the sort of person who never backs favourites - if I'm going to win I want to win big. So I go by names, usually names, however loosely, associated with people I know. (For example - magic man, artist from oz, rowing lad, or tootle-poot). In this way I invariably lose. But today, not only did I lose on EVERY race up to race seven (when we left), I even lost when I backed 5 horses in a 7 horse race! But it was a lovely and even glamorous day out - although the rain pelted down most of the afternoon and lightning streaked the sky. I couldn't resist one last little $20 bet as we walked past the betting counter however, and gave my ticket to a friend to check and then tear up after the race (which happened to be the Longines Gold Cup).
Soon after I arrived back at the Club I received a text from Siok Sun - I'd won $158 on race eight - so there is a God after all!

It's always such a pleasure to meet old friends - especially those you haven't seen for many years. Singapore being a relatively small place means that the jungle drums, so to speak, soon broadcasts your presence! So when I received a message yesterday from Pierre and Sandra Moccand suggesting we meet up for lunch today I jumped at the chance. I've known Pierre since 1960 when we were both young men roaring around the roads of Singapore in our sports cars, or racing in the various motor-sport events of the time. Pierre went on to marry Sandra and they now divide their time between Singapore and Australia. I took this photograph just an hour ago overlooking the pool at the Tanglin Club.

We had a lovely lunch and reminisced a lot. Sandy was entranced by my iPad and some of the many apps I've installed on it so I think I know what she'll be getting for Christmas.
So, very reluctantly I'll start packing in a few minutes time in readiness for a very early start tomorrow and the long journey home.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

At Last - the Sun

Having chosen the worst possible time to be in Singapore, weather wise, it's been really annoying to watch the Asian regional weather forecast each night and to see that everywhere from Japan and Hong Kong to Thailand and the Philippines is having lovely sunshine - the only exception is Singapore with rain all the way. So today dawned cloudy as usual, but slowly a little brightness appeared until at last the sun made a tentative appearance. Enough for me to head towards the pool. While lying on my lounger, and in between sipping mango juice and enjoying a 'gula Melaka' I glanced up into the sky and was amazed to see two birds flying in complete formation - each one performing exactly the same manoeuvre as the other. My gaze then moved down to the far side of the pool and there I saw a couple of girls walking along wearing identical bikinis. It was then that I realised that without my glasses on I was seeing everything in double. The second image was only slightly lighter than the original and it completely fooled me. It's such a long time since I took my specs off for any length of time that I'd forgotten my eyes work independently without them on.
This club has wonderful facilities - and they get better every time I come here. In the new sports centre take a look at the outdoor tennis courts (four)

... And the 2 indoor ones

But best of all - as I now have joined the Henley Bowling Club - is this full size bowling green on the third floor. Pity I'm not here long enough to have a game.

I've just received an invitation to go to the Royal Palace in Johor (Malaysia) to have lunch with Sultana Nora. She's another friend from the past when I was 'Court Painter' to her husband the Sultan. Sadly I've had to turn the invitation down as it's for next Thursday and I'll be back in Henley by then.
Yesterday I took Stephanie, from Craft Print International, to lunch at the Tavern here at the club before she took me for a tour of her company in Jurong, which is in the industrial north of Singapore. It's where I've had all my books printed. Very impressive with over 250 employees and many printing machines running continuously for 24 hours. This is also where that beautiful big book on miniature painting through the ages, that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, was printed. On the way back from Jurong I took a trip round one of the latest shopping malls, called the ION. So spectacularly modern the design is almost vertiginous with all the various levels and walkways - some leading to the MRT (underground). There's even a way to go inside this enormous lilac Christmas tree.

A few of the Christmas decorations are lit already but I'm hoping all the lights will be turned on tomorrow night. Singapore loves lights - especially at Christmas and Chinese New Year. Of course they always have an eye towards profit and Singaporeans love shopping. However if a Singaporean wants to gamble at the new Sands Casino they have to pay $100 to get in, whereas we foreigners can get in for nothing. I was told meals were also free for us but I'm not likely to try it out as I'm reserving my gambling (and losses) for Sunday when I go to the races! Having lived here on and off for 20 years I've gathered many friends from every walk of life. Tonight I'm going out for dinner with Shamsuddin - one of the artists I worked with in the early sixties. But last night I met up with yet another old friend and her young friend who I used to call 'Dolly Daydream' for a reason I've forgotten - we landed up in a Western styled restaurant in the countryside called North Border.

I could barely read the menu it was so dark under the flickering candlelight, and as usual my request for Brandy Ginger Ale with NO ice materialised with a glass half full of ice. Another of my dislikes (allergies) is garlic and these days so many restaurants seem to speciallise in putting it in everything. Last night they just didn't give up. "We'll bring the garlic separately" they said, as if they were doing me a really special favour. I gave in eventually and the steak was lovely. The garlic and honey sauce (as a special treat) they brought just stared at me from the table, daring me to taste it. I didn't!
We raced around the Marina Bay area later so I could see all the buildings at night, Dolly Daydream drove too fast for me to take a decent picture, so this will have to do.

It's now about 11pm and I've just come back from a really interesting evening with Angus, a historical lecturer, together with Sham and his charming daughter. Expecting a brightly lit Malay restaurant, as we were dining at a restaurant called Bumbu, we were ushered in to what looked like an old traditional Chinese house, and up a dark staircase till we came to this room

Hardly Malay. And each table was divided by it's own carved Chinese screen. It was a lovely evening with many reminiscences of the old days when artist Sham and I worked together in Papineau Advertising. I hadn't realised what a taskmaster I was in those days, always expecting perfection in everything the artists did. It's taken this long to discover what a pain in the neck I must have appeared! We were the only customers and to my great surprise at the very moment I was telling Angus how I came to live in Singapore in the first place, the song 'Love is a Many Splendored Thing' wafted our way. That film totally changed my life as I saw it when serving as a National Serviceman at the camp cinema and immediately put down to be posted to Asia. My life would have been completely different but for Han Su Yin's classic love story. After the meal we passed by this wall of old photographs as we made our way to Arab Street.

It was a warm and tranquil night and the air was heavy with the aroma of the various flowers and trees dotted around the quiet streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.

But as soon as we reached Arab Street everything burst into life. Hundreds of crowded stalls lined all the little streets. Most of the drinkers and diners were smoking through big and ornate 'hubble- bubble' pipes which seemed to be the centre piece of every table. This picture is a bit blurred as I didn't want to upset anyone's reverie by using flash.