Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The compass points

For many years, significantly beyond the point when I had flown the nest, my parents would book their annual holiday only after consulting Venetia, Charlie and myself. Did we want to holiday with them that summer? Our answer (my answer) was always in the negative. Thanks but no thanks. In my  twenties, I had other fish to fry.  Much as I loved my parents, the idea of being a child again for a fortnight invariably jarred with said frying. It seems ungrateful to me now, as I write about it thirty years on but it didn't at the the time. They simply offered us a holiday that we, the fruit of their loins, could take or leave as we pleased.

And if my parents were disappointed that we did not join them, they never for a moment articulated that sentiment. There was never any pressure.

Then one year, they stopped asking. There was no ceremony or formal announcement of the "Your mother and I have decided....." format. They just stopped asking. That's all. Nothing was made of this. It was not a line in the sand, just a tacit recognition of the fact that we had not joined them for a decade and were unlikely to do so again.

I suspect, if the truth were known, that my parents found it liberating. No longer did they have to pander to their children's whims. They could indulge themselves. And there was the cost of course. Five holidaymakers or two? Mmm, tough one.

I was born in 1957 and my sister in 1959. Apart from the potty training summers, during which my father refused to needlessly imperil the tan leather of his Magnette and we went no further than day trips to Scarborough, the first two weeks would find the Stamfords somewhere in Britain. Well, somewhere other than Doncaster that is. The annual family holiday was the centerpiece of the calendar year.

My father finished evening surgery at half past six and, if there were no home visits, or 'domiciliaries' as my father called them, we would hit the road, often driving hundreds of miles through the night rather than wasting precious daytime. My sister and I, in those pre-seatbelt days, would curl up in the footwells with a travel blanket each. Many was the time we would roll up at our destination before dawn and we children would wake, blinking in the bright dawn sunlight. And even after a two hundred mile night drive, my father dog-tired but still aware of his social standing as a GP, would insist on shaving before we presented ourselves at Mrs Millington's Bognor Bed and Breakfast.

Sometimes, if the journey was too long to be completed in a single span, we would stop. And perhaps a nod to his own childhood (his parents ran a haulage business), his preferred refuelling point would always be a transport cafe in those pre-Little Chef days. My sister and I would tuck into boiled eggs and soldiers, surrounded by stubbly, tattooed truck drivers from Widnes and Macclesfield.  Goodness knows what they made of my father, clean shaven, hair brushed, in his work suit. To say nothing of my mother in her pearls.

From the cottage charm of Minehead in the south to the craggy beauty of Arran in the north. From the bracing air of the Brecon Beacons to crab and chips on the beach at Cromer, we explored all possible compass points in Britain until one day in 1969 when my father was spotted on the beach in Cornwall by Mrs McArdle, a patient from Armthorpe who, delighted to have chosen the same holiday destination as 'the young doctor' proceeded to fill him in, at some length, with the latest on her husband's lumbago.

"Bugger this" said my father over a clotted cream scone "next year, we're going abroad".

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Alpha male

Testosterone is a wonderful thing. In the right hands that is. And, let's face it, the right hands are definitely not those of a 15 year old boy. Never has there been any group of human beings less well equipped emotionally to withstand the ravages of the hormonal maelstrom of adolescence than Alex and his friends. So bewildered are they by the internally imposed changes and the speed of their progression that, for the large part, they are powerless to swim against the tide.

And nothing is more confusing than Alex's voice. In the space of a few weeks he has gone from Madonna to Barry White. Mercifully he doesn't even know what Motown was or we would be opening a whole new can of worms. Telephone callers cannot be persuaded that they have the correct number, so persuasive is the vocal evidence to the contrary. Mind you, the grunting doesn't help.

In animal terms, he has transformed himself. A few months ago, he was a three-toed sloth, unable to rouse himself from his bed for any reason short of the house burning down or macaroni cheese for tea. Now, all of a sudden, he's a young gorilla, keen to assert his new-found physicality with a series of rather trying challenges to his father. I'm reminded of Attenborough sitting amongst the silver backs in Kenya I think. Spear tackling his father seems to be the primary recreational challenge. Oh and arm wrestling. And table tennis. And I'm sure that if the average whoop of gorillas had been able to master table tennis, they would have done so.

Alex greets each victory at table tennis with what he fancies is a meaningful nod in my direction to suggest the baton has been passed to him. That he is now the hunter and I a mere gatherer. I gently draw his attention to the fact that defeating an overweight 55-year-old with Parkinson's is probably not the absolute zenith of sporting achievement in table tennis. Canadian fishermen clubbing baby harp seals to death is, in sporting terms, a more finely balanced contest.

Evidently Alex, or more accurately his hormones, has concluded that it is time there was a new alpha male in the house. He seems genuinely surprised that I have reached an entirely different conclusion -- that I continue to be the alpha male in this household. Although, as any long-married men will tell you, the alpha male is rarely the one wearing trousers. Still, that's another story.

But the gamma male is having none of it. In his eyes, each victory is significant. Meaningful. The diminution of my powers and the blossoming of his. And arm wrestling. Who actually arm wrestles except pubescents? Or people with pubescent brains.

I remember adolescence myself. Well, dimly. But what I remember mostly was being confused a lot of the time. What seemed to me to be unambiguous signals from the opposite sex turned out to be nothing of the sort. And even on those (rare) occasions when a girl expressed an interest in me, I somehow contrived to be impervious. Like I said, confused. And let's face it, boarding school is not a place for confusion. The sooner you get all your ducks in a row the better.

Leaves more time for arm wrestling...

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Horsemen in the mist

In late August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force, in its first major battle, was trapped near Mons, heavily outnumbered and outgunned by advancing forces of the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck. The situation deteriorated until, unable to resist overwhelming might, the British infantry were all but surrounded. The potential loss of almost the whole British Army in Belgium was a real possibility. For days, they Germans kept up a continuous bombardment as they closed the loop around a broken British force. The situation was desperate.

With no other options available beyond surrender, a full-scale retreat was ordered on 24 August, in the knowledge that the German army would likely slaughter them. The soldiers knew this. There was no cover to protect such a retreat. And the British artillery, such as it was, had no answer to the long-range German howitzers. As the battalions hastily formed up, and the shells began to rain down, from nowhere a dense bank of fog descended, like a luminous curtain hiding the battlefield from view.

The British troops seized their chance and retreated westward, careering blindly away from the German gunners. And as they did so, the soldiers heard hooves and were aware of cavalry galloping among them, shepherding them to safety in the mist. For several hours the battlefield remained shrouded in mist and the British Army made its way west to the safety of Saint Ghislain and Boussu.

When, toward sunset, the fog lifted, the army was safe on the road to Boussu and the Germans closed their fist on the evening's empty shadows. General Haig, hearing first-hand from this man of the horsemen telegraphed HQ to know which brigade of cavalry had guided his men to safety so that he might commend their commander for his bravery. The answer from HQ, not long in coming, was brief. There were no cavalry units within 10 miles. They had been deployed to the south two days earlier. The story, published in Evening Standard, spread like wildfire as tales of protecting angels and spectral cavalrymen emerged and proliferated.

Stories of spectral cavalrymen and the notion that God was on our side fanned the flames of nationalism, leading to a sharp rise in volunteer recruits in the last quarter of 1914. One of these men was Frederick Mills, my grandfather, who enlisted in autumn of 1914, leaving Liverpool on 9 November to join the King's Own (Liverpool) Regiment. His face is discernible in a postcard of perhaps 500 men leaving Blackpool that day. Next to him was his friend Bob Andrew, who didn't make it to the end of the war. We have many of Fred's letters, written in beautiful copperplate, from early 1915. Many were censored. On 2 September 1915, he wrote optimistically to his parents that he had seen the leave rota and was likely to be sent home a week on Sunday. The next letter we have is dated 3 October from Craigleith Hospital.

On 25 September eight battalions of the King's Regiment joined the attack on Loos. More than 100 tons of chlorine gas was used on the first day of battle. Strong winds turned and blew the gas back toward the British soldiers. Fred was caught in this gas and badly wounded. For several weeks he was fed milk, malt and cod liver oil. He was moved to a convalescent home on 4 November and was still hoping to come home in December. There are no further letters until May 1916 when he was in the reserves of the King's Liverpool Regiment stationed at Oswestry. He was now Lance Cpl Mills shortly to be transferred to the 7th King's but not before Bob Andrew, his best friend, was killed.

Another gap until 8 September 1917, his first day at Officers training camp. He qualified in November and posed for a photograph in Yarmouth wearing his lieutenant's uniform. He failed a medical board in November 1917 because of damage to his eyesight and was told he could not return to France. Injuries to his face caused him lifelong problems because of damage to his teeth. Still, he survived and many didn't. In one of his last letters he explained that he was learning to ride. Because all officers had to ride.

In 1923 he received the British War Medal, The Victory Medal, and the 1914/15 Star awarded to those who saw active service on the Western front.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Le Mans (Part 2)

We arrived in Le Mans around 10. It was another 90 minutes before we had negotiated the traffic jam. And what a traffic jam -- Jaguars, Bentleys, Porsches, Aston Martins and so on. Not many Ferraris or Lamborghinis but, being either built or driven by Italians, they had all presumably either broken down or crashed. Just joking, my Italian friends... We know that you work to the highest standards of engineering and never ever exceed the speed limit.

Moving swiftly on, unlike the scarlet 458 steaming, bonnet up, by the roadside, we dropped anchor at the far end of the coach park. Mercifully even the Chuckle Brothers had paced their morning drinking and had not even touched on the subject of immigration. They were last seen heading, with determined bearing, to a bar by the Dunlop bridge. They had their sleeping bags.

The good old days of Le Mans, when the race began with the drivers running across the road to their cars, passed in 1969. Nowadays it takes a couple of minutes to get a driver in and out of the car, so precise and snug is the fit. In the 1920s you simply jumped into the car and hoped you didn't castrate yourself on the gear lever. And there was no point reaching for the seat belts. It would be another 40 years before they were in use.

Today it's a rolling start. One lap behind the pace car and, bang on the hour, they are away, accelerating in a blaze of colour and deafening noise towards the first bend. Fortunately Alan McNish decided that, in 2013, common sense was a better strategy than his infamous 2011 attempt to slide the Audi through a narrowing gap past a Ferrari. In fairness the Audi did manage to get through the gap. Well, most of it did, the remainder being distributed along the Armco.

But even with common sense in the ascendant, motor racing is still a dangerous sport and it was only one more lap before Allan Simonsen crashed the number 95 Aston Martin into the barrier of Tertre Rouge, a 175 mph corner. The only vague consolation I imagine was that he would have known little about it.

The biggest absence this year was the Peugeot works team. In the last few years they had given the Audis a run for their money and, although they had only won it once, in 2009, French automotive pride is such that this was touted as a national triumph. Then in January, Peugeot decided to pull the plug on their motor racing aspirations across the board. Not a single Peugeot engine started in anger on the grid anywhere. Ostensibly the decision was taken on grounds of cost but less generous rumour suggested that the 2013 Audis were even quicker than the previous year and that the nightmare scenario of an Audi 1-2-3, crossing the line like Panzers, was more than likely.

So it was left to Toyota to try and spoil the Audi party. And they almost did. Certainly they were competitive throughout the race and although they didn't win it, they took second and third. The French crowd was certainly cheering them on. In fact they were cheering on pretty much any car that wasn't an Audi, even on occasion accidentally cheering the British.

Alex and I watched until 2 AM, even having to endure a concert by Earth, Wind and Fire. I didn't know they were still around. In fact I didn't even know they were still alive. But, living monuments to Botox and liposuction, as one wag suggested, they were indeed still around. Their set started around 11:30. An hour later they were still around. And an hour after that, although that could have been just a bad dream.

You will probably have gathered that I'm not a fan. I'll take the exhaust sound of the 2013 Corvette over "Let's Groove" any day. The Chuckle Brothers, peering out of their sleeping bags like beer swilling pupae, thought they were brilliant. Enough said.

By late afternoon the following day, and even with a late surge from Toyota, Audi had won the race. Tom Kristensen, dedicated his victory to fellow countrymen Allan Simonsen and for a moment, caps were removed and everyone thought of the young Dane who had lost his life.

At least he was spared "Boogie Wonderland".

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Le Mans (Part 1).

In November last year, I put down my pen on Slice of Life. Partly, and I'm happy to admit this, it reflected a certain lack of direction. I was drifting and wasn't sure really whether this kind of apparent aimlessness should be subjected to public scrutiny. It's all very well scratching one's navel mentally, but who wants to watch that? It's worse than daytime TV.

But more than anything, I was concerned that I was becoming one dimensional. Parkinson's this, Parkinson's that. And there's nothing more crushing to the spirit than to realise that, whatever the subject of conversation, you find yourself accidentally steering it back to Parkinson's. Without realising. It's bad enough to have Parkinson's. In some ways (and this is by no means a criticism of my employers who I love dearly) it's worse to work in Parkinson's. But the cruellest cut of all is when it takes away the last of the person you were.

I greatly enjoyed being "Jon, the scientist", "Jon, the glass artist", "Jon, the writer" or "Jon, the Jag driver". Increasingly, I'm just "Jon, the Parky". People interrupt my anecdotes to tell me they have already heard them. People finish my sentences so that they can steer the conversation back to more comfortable territory. In short, I'm in danger of becoming a Parky bore.

I have this on high authority.

And I won't take it.

I plan to fight back before the little bastard takes what's left of the person I was. I won't go gently into that night. No, I plan to rant and rage against the dying of the light.

There's too much that I want to say and do. Like the weekend before last when Alex and I found ourselves at Le Mans. When I say 'found ourselves', that conveys a rather more arbitrary tenor than I intended. As though we had woken after a stag party to find ourselves on the train to Timbuktu. In actual fact this was a tidy military operation -- well a civil service coach trip starting on a bleary eyed Friday morning in Ebbsfleet -- to take in the 24 hour race.

Of course any coach trip is at best a lottery. I lose track of the number of times I have found my allocated seat to be amongst a Welsh rugby club, Canvey Island stag party or worse. And this occasion was no exception. Many of the coach party had embarked at Stansted and, it was swiftly apparent, tended to be thirsty. In particular one quartet seemed determined that the entire coach should benefit from their trenchant views on immigration, the building trade and their assessment of French plonk. And there is something uniquely cringeworthy about men in their 50s leering at a coach full of German girls returning from an exchange visit. If the ground could have opened...

It took nearly a month of driving to get the racetrack although, due to some fracture in the space-time continuum, this seemingly occupied only 36 hours of terrestrial time. Oh how we looked forward to the return journey.

The journey was broken in Chartres where we stayed at an Ibis hotel -- incidentally Alex, an ibis is a small wading bird. Not an Alpine goat. That's an ibex. An easy mistake. We spent as little time as possible in the room, heading up to the cathedral quarter for a fairly decent dinner in a small family run restaurant.

It turned out that we had arrived in the evening of the annual music festival. Whereas in Britain, such a festival might be sequential, with performers appearing after each other for instance, no such constraints appeared to apply here. As best we could tell, the various musical ensembles had simply taken up residence wherever they could find a vacant space. So, dotted around the cathedral were mediaeval madrigal singers, an African drum group, a small classical orchestra and, most inexplicably of all, a Led Zeppelin tribute band. There is no experience more dislocating than having your ears subjected simultaneously to Gregorian plain chant and Stairway to Heaven.

But the most astonishing part of the evening was a breathtaking light show, using the cathedral as backdrop. For some 30 minutes, we watched the South side of the cathedral bathed in an ever-changing pattern of lights, both abstract and figurative. It was even worth putting up with a decidedly second-rate reggae band for the pleasure. Even they couldn't drown out the oohs and aahs of the gathered crowd.

The lights faded and the applause dwindled to silence, the spell only broken by the sound of British voices at the far side of the square, arguing about Polish immigrant bricklayers.