Out Now!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Tis the season to be jammy

I’ve been tip-toeing around the damson trees, speaking in the same hushed tones as those about to take their cat to the vets—to be put down or spayed— in this case pruned. Seriously pruned. I’ve managed to delay it until next Spring but sentence has been pronounced, and there’s no getting away from it.

As though suspecting our intent this year’s crop has been spectacular. I’m up to my ears in damsons. My hands are brown in damson juice, and I have bags upon bags of stoned damsons occupying every inch of freezer space. It’s why you rarely hear from me between August 19th to August 23rd. Our damson trees are akin to Swiss cuckoo clocks, fruiting the same time every year. And I’m as predictable as a Swiss cuckoo clock, making mountains of jam and gallons of wine…and blocking the freezer. Squirrel Nutkin on speed.

But there’s no getting away from it. Our trees are rumbustious bullies crowding out other plants and throwing much of the garden in perpetual shade. One branch has almost reached a bedroom window. Give it a year and it will be plopping ripe fruit in my mouth while I sleep.

So this year I was brutal in collecting the damsons I normally wouldn’t reach. Extendable lopping shears cut through the higher branches, bringing them down in a flurry of fruit. That’s the other weird thing about damsons. Other trees you’re advised to prune only in winter. Not so with Damsons – spring to autumn being the best time to prune. Despite the brutality, the trees continue to dominate. I suspect they know and are extending their hold, like Hitler before Stalingrad. 

I give them a consoling pat.

Next year it is likely I’ll have less fruit but far more time. Here’s hoping it extends the life of two old trees and jam production resumes in 2018

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Clark Gable's butler

In 1940, a ‘furtive delicate man, with a pencil moustache and darting grey eyes’* was arrested in Jersey for a minor fraud. Unfortunately for him, Jersey then was under German occupation and an anti German leaflet was found in his possession. A further month was added to his six-month sentence. The unlucky man was Charles, Anthony Faramus, former hairdresser and dishwasher and barely twenty years old. In Ben Macintyre’s words: ‘…tall and slender, he looked as though a puff of wind might blow him away.’*

His luck took a turn for the worse when, in prison, he hooked up with one  Eddy Chapman, a wily adventurer and crook. Chapman persuaded Faramus that the best, indeed only way to escape German occupied Jersey was to offer themselves as ‘spies’ for the Germans. A letter was duly sent to the German governor of Jersey and apparently ignored, until one night there was a thunderous knocking on their door in the small hours of the morning. The Gestapo, more suspicious than impressed, arrested them and whisked them to France. Eventually the Germans decided that a tough and resourceful crook would, with the right training might prove a useful agent. They had no use for a shy hairdresser and and Faramus was left in his cell to rot.

Before seeing him for what may have been for the last time, Chapman urged Faramus to trust him, and that whatever happened he would somehow protect his friend from further harm.

They were empty words. Chapman might well have thought he could negotiate Faramus’s safety in exchange for what he was offering the Germans. The Germans saw things differently. Faramus would be a  pawn for Chapman’s good behaviour – a fictitious pawn for—unknown to Chapman, Faramus was promptly removed to Buchenwald concentration camp, where things went from bad to worse. Failing to see an approaching Warrant Officer and removing his cap in time, he was sent to Mathausen-Gusen, a concentration camp for the ‘incorrigible.’ There, inmates were worked until they dropped dead.

Somehow this delicate man with the pencil thin moustache survived, but only just. In May 1945 the 41st U.S. Cavalry liberated Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp and found, amongst an army of ‘emaciated ghosts,’ Anthony Faramus, his body traumatised by diphtheria, scarlet fever, gangrene and dysentery. He’d lost seven ribs and one of his lungs, which he eventually lost, was riddled with TB.

Faramus was nursed in an RAF hospital and released with £16 and a weekly stipend of £2. But Anthony Faramus was not yet done with life. He  became a film extra, and with exquisite irony, played minor roles in war films such as Colditz and King Rat. Then he emigrated to America and became a butler — to Clark Gable.
Faramus eventually returned to Britain where, despite having only lung he became an active hunt saboteur, eventually dying in 1990 aged seventy.

What happened to the even more remarkable Eddy Chapman? I suggest you read Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre,* which I strongly recommend.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Pigeons and the French

Life is full of small puzzles: why for example were there recently eight hour long  queues on English motorways as people tried to cross into France? The official explanation was that the French were, understandably, being over-zealous checking incomers after the recent terrorist attacks. Having said that, having only one policeman checking the passports of car passengers and each individual on every coach doesn’t suggest any great sense of urgency. Nor does it address the question of why there weren’t similar queues and equally rigorous checking on other nations bordering France. Does Schengen trump security, especially when it’s in neighbouring countries like Germany and Belgium where terrorism is most rife? Never mind. Just one of life’s puzzles.

Another thing that has me puzzled are pigeons. There are hundreds of thousands of them. Millions. But have you ever seen a dead one? With so many of them the streets should be littered with dead pigeons. The old C19th concept of a mythical  ‘Elephants’ Graveyard,’ is highly romantic. A Pigeons’ Graveyard, less so. But where do they go?

A Smithsonian scientist offers one explanation. It’s convincing enough, with the caveat that Britain is not well endowed with possums, raccoons or Turkey vultures.  

My final puzzle also concerns pigeons. Who taught them morse code?

I’m serious. I’m woken up every morning by one. Unfortunately it knows only the letter L which it repeats ad infinitum:   . _  .  . 
Walking to town later that day, I heard other pigeons, each of which jealously guarded their own unique letter. I heard a U   .  .  ­_
  a P .  ­­_  _  . 
 a Q  _  _  .  _

I think I’ve found a new hobby. And I’m wondering whether if you put enough pigeons together they might eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare in Morse, though that would, I suppose, depend on their longevity.

Friday, 22 July 2016

No one has talked about Skodas yet

One thing I miss most about the closure of the old Leisure Centre swimming pool is the changing room badinage and those who over the years have become friends. True enough, in a small place like Monmouth, we occasionally pass each other on the street, but a nod and a smile  proves a ghostly reminder.

Respectable pedestrians on the pavement, but within the privacy of the changing room something else.

There was Sirius, an elegant, skeletal 85 year-old, who never bothered to dry his toes and calves with a towel. Instead he’d stretch himself out on the bench and position them beneath an electric hand-dryer: Algy, who once worked in Rockfield Studios and helped produce The Stone Roses: Marmaduke, who arrived each day with the regularity of a cuckoo clock. You’d first hear a scuffle as a bicycle pushed it’s way through the door. In winter, he’d be muffled up like a medieval Mr Toad, his eyes encased by goggles, his head kept warm by a vivid red C14th coife: Ginger, who’d enter with a bounce whenever Liverpool won and wore a weary smile when they didn’t: Tom, a country boy in a small, modern estate, always ready to advise on the best ways of killing a magpie or indeed any rural pest. Conversation was varied and rich.  A small coven of three weirdly owned Skodas and would talk about distributers and parts of a car I’d never heard of before. Marmaduke was an astronomer, who talked with equal authority on local archaeology.

The names are clearly fictitious, the people real, each of us eccentrics in our own different ways but now adrift in picturesque streets.

It was one of the reasons I joined Monmouth Boys Gym and Pool, less to become a bronzed man-god than the fact I missed the non-consequential banter between strangers; easy, uncomplicated.

 The sauna I found disconcerting.  Silence and steam is comforting, the conversations less so. One woman talked non-stop about her daughter's pony, another about her son's disappointing grades. One man talked about an upcoming triathlon.

The changing room was equally disconcerting––At first. The body furniture, If I'm to be honest.

It put me in mind of those online sites that sell steamy romantic novels. They tend to have covers that look much like another: ripped young men staring moodily into the middle distance. Some wear Stetsons but little else, others have a woman draped around them doing interesting things with long, coloured nails. These new, temporary strangers in my life looked like book cover models, many preoccupied by triathlons, marathons and relative track speeds.

 I felt like a chubby Corinthian surrounded by Spartans until the norms of the changing room once again proved universal. After a particular gruelling session in the Gym, two others joined me in the shower room. Both were in their late seventies but looked much younger. One had been wheezing with exertion, balancing on some kind of wobbly ball and pumping iron at the same time. The other had been riding the bicycle at a speed approaching warp factor 9. 

They had nothing but encouragement for my own feeble performance, friendly, wanting nothing more than to be generous. I may have been prejudiced against perfection, afraid perhaps. A week had sorted it out. Old or young, Spartan or non-Spartan, the urge to wind down and talk about nothing to strangers seems nigh universal. 

No one has talked about Skodas as yet.

Friday, 8 July 2016

They never told me there'd be nightmares

There has been a muted but persistent campaign, for some time now, that I need to exercise more. A visit to friends who attended gym three or four times a week would earn me a 'look'. Understandably so because since the closure of the pool, my twice weekly early morning swim has been put on hold. 

There was an alternative. Monmouth Boys School has a fine pool and gym, a snip at £340 a year. I considered what else £340 could buy me and entrenched myself in my soft leather recliner.
Until finally I broke. I’d spent an entire day sitting – working on the computer, watching TV, reading –– and it hit me that one day that would be all I’d be able to do. Worse––I was feeling so sluggardly––– It might be one day next week!

There was general disbelief when I announced my intention of becoming a gym bunny, but that was just the start of it. New trainers had to be bought, and then panic set in. Should I spend money on socks, sole infills to cushion shock, a sports bag for heaven’s sake? I put my foot down. No bag. Why would I need one? A plastic shopping bag had sufficed in the past. Okay, so this was Monmouth Boy’s School. I conceded the point. I’d use a Waitrose bag. It was hopeless. I won the day over sole infills and spanking new socks, but the bag, it appeared, was non-negotiable.  And now I’m the proud owner of a black Puma bag. Very smart it looks too.

The day came when money changed hands. I tried to persuade myself the £340 was a reasonable investment if I went four or five days a week, Hell, I might even get to look like Adonis or at least Vladimir Putin.

The following day I learned a hard lesson. Where I’d gone swimming before was a mile away. This gym and pool was two miles away, which meant I had to get up even earlier, leaving the house at 6 am  to arrive in a state of exhaustion  for when the doors opened.

First off the gym. Already busy. Awful lot of masochists in Monmouth. The guy there ascertained I hadn’t been to a gym for forty odd years and limited me to 5 minutes per machine.

Rowing machine. Feeling good.
Bike, less good but bearable.
Cross Trainer. Longest five minutes of my life.
The swimming that followed gave me time to consider.
Four times a week had come to seem far less attractive.

Especially after the nightmares that kept be awake in the small hours of the morning. Nightmares or demons, they revolved around two figures, increasingly trenchant in their advice"

Nigel Farage extolling the virtues of the Cross trainer and urging me on for a half hour session, and the far more frightening 

Anna Soubry barking at me (at one point I think she was) to stick with the rowing machine. They wouldn’t leave me alone as I tossed and turned, unable to sleep… already looking forward to my next visit to the gym.