Friday, 15 November 2019

My Scottish Odyssey: Part Two

I woke up to find Edinburgh bathed in wintry sunshine. It was bitterly cold. There had probably been a frost whilst I was having a rather lovely lie-in in the very pleasant, not-too-pricey room I’d booked myself. 

Somewhat irritated by having to pull a suitcase about, I made my away along Rose Street, before crossing North Bridge and hauling myself up to the Castle, memories constantly rushing into my head from scores of Festivals in the 1990s. That feeling of invincible optimism returned. The sense of innocent hedonism. The Edinburgh Festival is a bubble of exhausting fun - at least, that is, if your show is selling out. If not, it can be a fairly humiliating experience...

Handing out fliers on the Royal Mile brings out the very worst in everyone. Passers by are forced to become the rudest people in the world simply to get from A to B. Introverts become almost catatonic. Public school boys become obnoxiously confident. Wannabe thesps turn into mini-Brian-Blesseds. I remember one year organising some sort of horrific, wanky exercise involving a company of actors, in chevron formation, standing on a street corner, moving and breathing as a single organism. No one wanted to be there. As instructed, they started moving like fronds of seaweed swaying in the tide, but then mortification took over and they started shuffling at ever-greater speeds down the cobbled hill... straight into a pub! 

I remembered the year when everyone came down with the most shocking flu and Philippa and I clung to one another in a single bed, shaking violently. There’s a picture of me wearing an enormous jumper in the height of summer because I felt so cold. I’ve only had a flu three or four times in my life and that one was a stinker! 

The sun set as my train pulled out of Edinburgh and skated across the beautiful hills and moorland towards Glasgow. 

As I walked through Glasgow Station, I could hear someone playing a pub piano version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on the honkytonk piano in the ticket hall. It seemed most strange to me that all the street lights in the city were on at just gone 4pm. In this neck of the woods you get beautifully long summer’s evenings but those winter nights must be super-punishing. 

Speaking of punishing, the hills which lead up from the station in Glasgow are almost as impressive as those in San Francisco. I was rather relieved to only have to walk up one of them.

I was staying at the Ibis Hotel, which is all a bit too cool-for-school for an old man like me. Instead of a check-in desk, they have a person who hangs about in the bar with an iPad. I walked in and immediately assumed I was in the wrong place...

Maybe I was! 

The room was fine, but I’ve started to get very angry with hotels which don’t have baths in them. Invariably, when I arrive in a hotel after a long day of slugging things about, I want a nice, long, hot bath. And, actually, even when I do manage to bag myself a room with a bath, it’s often either tiny, or the soap dispenser is half way up the wall. Life, it seems, favours those who shower. Mini-rant over... 

We ate at Glasgow’s CCA, which has a vegetarian restaurant attached to it. I had been joined by Adele, who is UK Jewish Film’s first point of contact up there, her husband Michael, and Tanya, who is one of my oldest university friends. She’s one of the group I go camping with, and, because she’s based in Glasgow, I don’t get a chance to see nearly enough of her. I adore Tanya and her entire family and have made a mental note to spend far more time with them. 

The screening in Glasgow wasn’t perhaps as well-attended as I was hoping. It was a late screening and the first time this autumn that temperatures in the city had dipped below freezing. I was given a proper telling off afterwards by one of the audience members who plainly feels that London Jewish people don’t think enough about Jewish people in the rest of the country. “We don’t all come from NW3” he said, “no,” I replied, “I’m from Northampton!” Of course, his argument has a degree of validity and it’s very much in the same sphere as the North-South divide issues which (Islington-based) Jeremy Corbyn smugly brought to the country’s attention after the recent spate of flooding. Of course, the thing which irritates me most about all of the discussions on the subject is that there’s this incredibly misguided assumption that everyone in the country is either Northern or Southern. If you really want to feel ignored, try coming from the Midlands. Or worse, East Anglia!

I had a troubled night’s sleep, and wondered if I’d been having nightmares because I woke up feeling quite anxious and sad. It’s a mood I didn’t managed to shake for the rest of the day. A long train journey home, crammed against a radiator didn’t help matters, neither did my bizarre ticket home which told me that my train left from “Glasgow Central/ Queen Street.” My outsider’s assumption from that piece of information was that Glasgow Central Station is also known as Queen Street. Wrong. They’re two separate stations, which are at least as far apart as Euston and Kings Cross. My map took me to Queen Street Station where a mock-astonished staff member scoffed before telling me that NO trains from his station went to London. I actually said excuse me to him three times before he deigned to give me his attention. Yay. 

So there I was, with fifteen minutes until my train, dementedly running through Glasgow to the main train station...

When I finally arrived there, I discovered the station had two levels, so asked a member of staff where trains to London went from. “Upstairs” - came the reply. “And whereabouts is that?” I asked. “Upstairs.” Ask a silly question - mock the silly Englishman who’s plainly in a panic! 

I have two bugbears about Virgin Trains. The first is that, when the crew come down the aisle with the food trolley, whenever anyone asks for a cup of tea, they’re trained to say “would you like anything to go with your tea? Crisps? Cake? Chocolate?” It’s hardly encouraging healthy living... 

And then, when you enter the loo, the most awful thing happens. A chirpy little voice pops up saying “hello, I’m the toilet. Well, actually, I’m Fiona from Glasgow and I won a competition to be the voice of the toilet.” She then lists all the things which can’t be flushed down the loo on the train. It’s deeply distracting. In fact, I know blokes with relatively shy kidneys, who wouldn’t be able to pee for a week after hearing that! 

Euston station was hell. Welcome to London! They’ve moved the entrance to the tube and now funnel people into tiny little, deeply-angry lines. It took five minutes to get down the first escalator into the ticket hall, where we were greeted by two gurning women flanking someone dressed in a Pudsey Bear suit collecting for Children In Need. I wonder how many of the frustrated commuters wanted to rip that soddin’ bear’s other eye out! 

Thursday, 14 November 2019

My Scottish Odyssey: Part One

I’m presently on a Virgin Train winging my way through the Midlands on the way back to London after three days away. The older I get, the more gruelling travelling becomes, and I’m absolutely shattered. 

My trip started in Newcastle. I felt a great rush of excitement as I pulled into the city. It really is like an old friend, someone you’re always really happy to see, even if you haven’t bumped into them for a while. Every street corner seems to have a memory attached to it. I made two films in the city and have spent long periods of time there as a result. Funnily enough, I’ve always been there during times in my life when everything’s been on an even keel, so all the memories are full of joy. 

The team up at BBC Newcastle are always so friendly: they knew their patch, they know their listeners and they’re always incredibly keen to roll up their sleeves to make great content for the North East and Cumbria. 

Stepping off the train, I instantly became aware of how crisp and cold the air felt. It was a massive relief after being crammed into a boiling hot train compartment which smelt of electric fires and dust. It was so hot that I could sense people panicking. Every face I looked at was bright red and slightly sweaty. 

As I walked through the ticket barriers, I remembered my first trip to the city and being filmed arriving there by the local BBC. They wanted to record my first impressions of the city but were quick to tell me that, under no circumstances, was I to pronounce the city like a Southerner, ie “Newcarstle.” I was told to sound a short “a” and to stress the castle part of the word. 

This was back in, I think, December 2010, which coincided with the coldest snap of weather I, certainly, have ever experienced in the UK. Temperatures dropped to minus 18 in the city and there was snow and ice everywhere. I seem to remember stumbling about in a suit, a duffle coat, wellies and a flat cap, and being astounded that Newcastle folk didn’t bother with any outer layers. Many of the lassies were out in high heels, skating on the icy hills of the city centre like Bambi. I remember asking one lad why he wasn’t in a coat. “Cus me friends would have taken the piss out of us” he said, adding, “I did think about wearing one...” 

Despite the Arctic temperatures, the sun was shining most days, so everything took on a very magical quality. Alastair from the BBC and I went on a bizarre odyssey which involved getting off at every single station on the Tyne and Wear Metro network. The idea was to see what the environs of each stop had to offer in terms of filming locations, but, somewhere on the branch to South Hylton, we became so bitterly cold that our trips to the stations merely involved getting off the train and sliding along the platform into the next carriage before it left again. I remember getting off the train at one stop to explore a multi-storey car park in the hope that its open roof had decent views over the tracks. When we got up there, the whole top storey was covered in a foot and a half of utterly virgin snow. What had been an expanse of Tarmacadam was now a giant field in the sky. We danced through it like little kids, taking great delight in the footprints we were leaving whilst our blue shadows stretched for miles in the late winter sunshine.

I was in Newcastle this time to do an interview with my old mates at the BBC about the UK Jewish Film Festival which comes to Newcastle at the end of the month. My job at the moment is running the festival’s tour - and it’s a fairly comprehensive undertaking. We’re visiting 21 towns and cities across the UK, from Inverness to Exeter, Bangor to Norwich, with the dual-pronged mission of getting films about Jewish people into locations where there are very small, often isolated, Jewish communities whilst simultaneously hoping that non-Jewish audiences will also come to watch. A good film is a good film, after all, and, in an era of growing anti-semitism, it also feels important to debunk myths and stereotypes associated with Judaism by demonstrating what a diverse bunch Jewish people are. That’s the theory, at least. 

Last week, this wonderful job took me back home to Northampton, where I learned that my Watford Gap film is now ten years old. Where do the years ago? On that front, I’ve noticed a whole flurry of BBC broadcasts in recent months, none of which I’ve had anything to do with, which bear uncanny similarities to projects I’ve run in the past. First there was “A Symphony of Buskers” (I made “The Busker Symphony” for Channel 4 in 2006) and then “The M1 Symphony” which sounds fairly similar to A1: The Road Musical if you ask me! Ah well: all art flies up into the ether and falls back down in little flashes of someone else’s inspiration. Ewan McColl made “Song of the Road”, a radio ballad about the building of the M1 twenty years before I was even born! 

From Northampton, I went to Manchester, where the UK Jewish Film Festival is a very big deal. They screen twelve films up there each year, and everything is run with great precision and passion. I was there to oversee their opening night: a screening of the French language film, My Polish Honeymoon, which I have been championing ever since I saw it about four months ago. It tells the story of a young  Parisian couple who go to Poland in search of their Jewish roots. It’s a film about belonging, really, and how difficult it can be when you don’t know where you come from. It’s witty, charming and quite sad in places. 

One of the film’s lead actors, the charming Arthur Igual, was in Manchester to do a Q and A after the film, and I was tasked with looking after him.

It had been a beautiful day in Northampton, but the further north I drove, the worse the weather became. It turns out that the Met Office had issued a yellow warning for the Peak District and Manchester, and I have seldom driven in such dangerous circumstances. In fact, the last time I drove in similarly shitty conditions, I was also in Manchester! On that occasion, there’d been a mega-snow storm, with snow so dense that vehicles were driving at less than five miles per hour. I remember my car suddenly going into a skid and spinning in a somewhat slow, full circle towards the side of the road. My first thoughts were, “that will do.” I got out of the car, looked around for a sign to tell me what the parking regs were (all were covered in a thick layer of snow) and promptly abandoned ship, my body shaking with adrenaline! But I digress... 

After being interviewed on Radio Newcastle on Tuesday morning, I had a lovely cup of tea with my old friend, Helen, who produced both Tyne and Wear Metro: The Musical and the first 100 Faces film. It’s always such a huge joy to see her, and she was looking particularly well. 

I travelled further North after lunch, following the East Coast Mainline up through Northumbria, over the glorious bridge at Berwick Upon Tweed and into Scotland. It’s surely one of the finest sections of railway in the country, clinging, as it does, to the coast for mile upon mile. There was a feint rainbow over the water at one point, then the rain started falling and the sea seemed to turn angry and grey. 

I kept catching glimpses of the A1 Road, which often runs parallel to the railway. The road becomes single carriageway in those parts, really for the first time since the Archway Road in London, which was, of course, my stomping ground until we moved to Finchley in the summer. 

There’s not a single stretch of the A1 which I don’t know, and I kept spotting places where we’d filmed whilst making my road musical film. The clover field on the outskirts of Berwick where I’d had a massive bout of hay fever, Eyemouth where we filmed a fishermen’s choir and where I was when Fiona called me to say she was getting married, the curiously bleak power station at Totness which we filmed from the window of an articulated lorry, the white-topped “Bass Rock”, which looms mysteriously out of the sea at North Berwick, and then, suddenly, the iconic Arthur’s Seat informs you that you’re nearing Edinburgh. And what a sight for sore eyes that must have been for ancient, weary travellers. 

Edinburgh was its usual buzzing self. Winter had definitely arrived up there and my stroll along Princes Street to the hotel was a bracing affair. It truly is the most spectacularly beautiful city. It may even be THE most spectacularly beautiful city in the world. Its castle seems to be made from the very granite rock that it sits upon, almost as though it were born out of the hillside. Pushed up from the bowels of the earth.

The Scottish premiere of My Polish Honeymoon took place at the Edinburgh Picturehouse, whose staff have been profoundly delightful at every stage. It’s a magical cinema, right in the heart of the city, just a stone’s throw from the castle and Princes Street. I was very relieved to learn that the screening had sold out, because it means all the work we’ve been doing in Edinburgh to let people know about the film has paid off. 

I focussed my marketing attention on French speakers, the Polish community and, obviously, Jewish people in the city, so it was quite fun trying to guess who was who as people took their seats! 

I had invited Laurence Païs to the screening as a special guest. She is Consule Générale et Directrice de l’Institut Français d’Ecosse. Having failed GCSE French, that became quite a mouthful to say in my little speech of introduction. I could feel my face flushing ever-redder as I got closer to the words!

The film was very well received and I was lucky enough to talk to a number of people afterwards, one of whom was a Jewish survivor who’d been smuggled out of Belgium as a baby by her heroic English mother when the Nazis invaded. I was so confused when she started talking to me because she didn’t look a day over 60! Her story made me realise quite how much fundamental kindness us Brits have lost in recent years. In both World Wars, when no one really had a bean to their name, we accepted huge numbers of refugees: Jews. Belgians. Poles. And here we are in the 21st Century clinging to our wealth like avaricious lard buckets. 

Monday, 28 October 2019


I am currently heading into work. I’m trying a new route which involves a bus and a tube instead of three tube trains. When you get above or below central London, it’s very hard to travel in a west-east direction, which means it takes me an hour and twenty minute to make a journey which would take thirty minutes to drive. And, of course, because I’m working conventional office hours, I’m travelling on packed tubes during the rush hour which invariably make me want to cry!

Just before the mayhem of High Holy Days in the synagogue, I managed to get a long weekend in Italy with Michael. Again, I wrote several blogs about it, but didn’t post them for the reasons listed in my previous entry. That said, we had a brilliant time, and because I’ve already written the majority of content, I’m going to reclaim a bit of joy and take you all back to the end of September..

We stayed in a villa in the hills above the town of Pescia, which is not a million miles from the ancient city of Lucca. Artists and creatives tend to bang on about the glorious light in Tuscany and the more I visit the place, the more I realise it has a unique and very beautiful light. I’m not sure I yet have the words to quantify this statement. Certainly, at the beginning and ends of the day, colours seem super-saturated and clear. But at other times, everything takes on a sort of soft-focussed, somewhat impressionistic straw-coloured haze. Or maybe I’m romanticising.

The villa we stayed in is surrounded by dark cedar trees and spearmint-green olive groves. From the balcony, you can see for miles, all the way to the lilac misty peaks of the mountains which rise from the sea plains between Pisa and Lucca.

In the middle-distance, ancient villages with their skyscraper-esque churches, cling perilously to the hillsides. Sound travels in curious ways in that particular location. The noise of a woman whistling for her cat, maybe half a mile away, feels like it’s happening right next to you. At one point, I heard the drumming and cheers of a festival in Pescia, carried on the breeze, direct to my ears. And of course, every morning and evening, the romantic clangle of church bells is delivered fresh to your ears.

It is, of course, astonishing how quickly us Brits can get to a place as beautiful and serene as Tuscany. Pisa airport is so un-busy, that you’re off the plane and through passport control in a heartbeat. We were swimming in the pool at our villa by the middle of the afternoon and eating in the most glorious little restaurant in a valley beyond Pescia by 8pm.

There is, of course, nothing better than properly-cooked, rustic Italian food. Weeks after our trip to Da Sandrino in Sorana, my mouth still waters when I think about what we ate there: spaghetti with tomato sauce, spaghetti with garlic and chilli, fried potatoes, a bowl of the glorious local delicacy, Fagioli Di Sorana (white beans), and fried mushrooms in a batter so light, and crisp, I have no idea how they were made.

The restaurant is in a tiny, wood-smoke-scented village, next to a river which gushes through a deep ravine. Does it get any better than that, I wonder?

We went for a trek on our second day; up the side of the rather steep hill from the villa where we’re staying, to a hillside town called Monte a Pescia. The air up there is incredibly pure, and filled with the scent of wild flowers, mint and wonderful Italian herbs. It’s the sort of air which is so rich with oxygen that a single gulp makes you feel alive. The views drifting down towards Pescia are glorious: farmhouses, with terracotta roofs, scattered across dark, tree-lined, hills. The odd wisp of smoke.

From Monte a Pescia, we followed an ancient stone-paved footpath back down into Pescia itself. This was the ancient road which linked the main town to its baby sister in the hills and it’s steeped in terrific atmosphere. You get the most astonishing sense of how hard life must have been for people in those Tuscan hills before the invention of the car. I imagined old women walking alongside donkey carts up the vertiginous slopes every market day.

We met a horrible cat with bright yellow eyes whom I made the mistake of stopping to stroke. It turns out it was utterly deranged and it went at me with its nasty claws, drawing so much blood that I had to go and see a pharmacist! Cats are freaks. They see my leonine energy and go on the attack or skittishly run in the opposite direction. Slags.

We swam in the villa’s pool that afternoon, which was a real treat. It’s a salt water pool, which I think is better for the environment, and, on a day where scores of young people across the world were marching against climate change, it was nice to know that some people were doing their bit. (Says the man who’d just jumped on a plane for a three day holiday in Tuscany!) I guess I’m just making the most of my beloved Mainland Europe whilst I’m allowed to feel a part of it.

In the late afternoon, we drove to Lucca, a Medieval, entirely-walled, circular city where cars are not allowed. We went to a little shop there where they sell lovely-looking formal men’s clothes at very reasonable prices and I bought a couple of suits and some ties, which I was excited to wear until I realised that the more expensive of the two had a small amount of wool in it, which makes it pretty much unwearable, particularly when it’s hot.

I’ve never been able to wear wool, much to the chagrin of my knitting-guru husband! I see knitters holding gloriously colourful yarns up to their cheeks and revelling in their softness, and simply imagine how sweaty and itchy they would make me feel.

We had a quick sit down in a cafe in the market square where, for reasons best known to themselves, they were playing an instrumental version of My Heart Will Go On. On a loop. Round and round. To make matters even more surreal, the tune was being played on a recorder - incredibly badly. It had plainly been recorded as a joke and the giggling waiter obviously found it very amusing, which it was - the FIRST time he played it!

It reminded me of being a student and my mate Ellie and me playing California Dreaming 18 times in a row on the juke box in Vanbrugh Bar to see if anyone would notice. They didn’t seem to. How we laughed!

We drove up to the top of a mountain for an evening meal in a remote trattoria. Heaven knows how a place like that survives. It was a Friday night and there were only four people eating there. I can’t think how the owner even covers the costs of his chef. We ordered a starter and then two plates of pasta, which, for the Italians, is a confusing choice. Pasta is only really a dish which you eat between a starter and a meaty main. We’d ordered a side of roast potatoes, because, well you can never eat too many carbs. We assumed it would come with the rest of the meal, but it actually arrived after our pasta plates had been cleared away as a sort of triumphant “and now here’s your roast potato main course. Ta-da!” It was really very strange. Nice potatoes though.

Annoyingly, I managed to lose my wallet at some point that night. It probably slipped out of my pocket as I got out of the car. I lost about €80 and taught myself once and for all that I’m just not a wallet person. I lose wallets at an almost frightening rate of knots whilst some people manage to keep theirs for a lifetime. I learned at my Uncle John’s funeral on Thursday that he’d kept the first love letter he wrote to his wife in his wallet for the best part of 60 years. A hugely romantic story, but I was slightly more impressed that he’d kept the same wallet all that time!

We left for Florence, rather early on the Saturday, after a glorious breakfast in the garden of the villa. They do the most wonderful spread of cheeses, home-made jams and marmalades, breads, pastries and hard-boiled eggs. To eat in the sunshine, with a light, Tuscan morning breeze ruffling your hair is definitely one of the things you need to do before you die! It’s right up there with seeing an eclipse or meeting a member of ABBA! (Or maybe not...)

We were in Florence early enough to attend a Shabbat service at the Great Synagogue there, which is a stunning, domed, ancient building. It’s got an almost impossible acoustic, however, certainly when it comes to understanding spoken words, and because it’s a Sephardi service, not a great deal of it felt familiar. What seems very clear is that the building and the service screamed out for a choir. Acoustics, where the sounds spin in circles into the ether, are always rather lovely for nice, slow, contrapuntal choral pieces by composers like Rossi.

We met my old, dear friend, Tammy for lunch. It’s become a tradition to meet her there every time I’m in Tuscany and it’s always wonderful to see her. We laugh almost constantly.

We went for a stroll through the old town, which, probably because it was a Saturday in the late summer, was utterly rammed with tourists. Isn’t it funny how you never quite see yourself as a tourist?! The Ponte Vecchio was nothing but a sea of faces bobbing up and down. After a while, the experience of walking about in a place so crowded starts to feel claustrophobic and exhausting. The inherent beauty of Florence is considerably diminished by its popularity. Beauty draws crowds. Crowds destroy beauty.

My Mum tells the tale of weeping when she saw Florence for the first time in the 1950s. I feel it’s important she never returns to the city, as it will almost certainly not be the place in her memory with which she fell in love:

We knew Sunday was going to be a day of bad weather and the likelihood was that we’d need to hunker down, read some books, eat food and snooze. As it turned out, the weather wasn’t quite as bad as promised, so we took ourselves on a drive to Bagni Di Lucca, a sleepy spa town, deep in the mountains. It’s a rather charming spot which has an air of faded grandeur. At some point in the early twentieth century, it was obviously THE place to visit. These days, it feels very down-at-heel - a forgotten time capsule which is charming precisely because so many of its shops and cafes are exactly as they were in the 1950s and 60s, right down to the signs which hang above the doors. The whole experience regularly transported me to those old 1960s slide projections we used to look at in German lessons, featuring Hans, Lieselotte and Lumpi the dog in the Bavarian town of Cadolzburg.

A beautifully clear river charges its way through the middle of the town and the whole place smells of damp vegetation.

On our last day in Tuscany, the mists rolled in, and turned the hilltop villages around Pescia into film sets.

The valley out towards Serana is as verdant and tropical as I’ve always imagined Hawaii. It is so unlike the scorched, sunflower-filled world one might expect to find in Tuscany. Tall ferns line the sides of the roads. The river batters the rocks with force. Many of the buildings in those parts are paper factories both ruined and fully operational. I assume that decent paper is somehow made from lots of trees and very fast flowing water.

We drove up to Vellano, marvelling at the fact that we couldn’t see more than five meters in front of us. We knew there were vertiginous drops into dark tree-filled valleys in all directions, but everything was protectively wrapped in a soft, white, hugely eerie blanket, as though nature were trying to lull us into a false sense of security to encourage us to leap into the unknown.

Under the mist, all sounds are amplified and held in. The trickle of water in a town fountain becomes almost deafening. The sound of rock music screeching in a local teenager’s bedroom might as well have been on headphones, just for a moment of course, before the fog blanks the sound out again. Distant thunder rolled, cracked and echoed. And there we were, walking in the whiteness, unaware of what was going to suddenly appear in front of us. It was magical, surreal and a little bit unnerving. You

By the time we’d driven onto the plains around Pisa towards the airport, the mists had lifted and Tuscany was bathed in sunshine once again. It was as though we’d just awoken from a dream...

Wednesday, 23 October 2019


Whilst Nathan was having his three month trip to hell and back, I wrote many blogs, most of which I didn’t post. 15,000 people actually read my account of Nathan’s being admitted to hospital but when some of them began to encourage their followers not to believe me unless I was prepared to provide filmic proof he was in hospital, I realised I no longer had any interest in anything these ghastly bullies had to say to me in the name of “education.” I was certainly not interested in any of them reading about my life or the struggles we were experiencing as a direct result of their hatred, misandry and cult-like behaviour.

I decided to knuckle down instead. I worked hard, looked after Nathan when his trauma episodes kicked in and processed the death of my cousin’s beautiful and vibrant wife. Friends and family tried to offer advice, but everything they suggested was conflicting and contradictory. Ultimately, the problem with the internet is that it’s the new Wild West. Laws and moral compasses can’t keep up with its ludicrous pace and, as a result, on a daily basis, it destroys countless innocent people. Anonymity turns otherwise sane people into absolute nut jobs, all hiding behind, and in many cases bolstered by, a thin veneer of self-righteousness.

For ten weeks I was utterly consumed by a feeling of absolute helplessness and felt I was never going to be able to find equilibrium again.

For the record, if anyone reading this blog goes through anything even remotely similar to what we’ve been through, your best weapons are the truth, stubbornness and instinct. The absolute bottom line is that you mustn’t cave into bullying behaviour - however much you’re threatened. By doing so, you strengthen the bully and give her the power to bully again. And believe me: the bullies’ demands will keep growing. Nothing will ever be enough and even if you do one of those classic toadying apologies thanking these woke women for helping you to see what a dreadful person you are, they’ll keep cutting at you until they’ve got their pound of flesh. At the end of the day, if everything else is taken from you, the one thing you’ll still possess is your dignity and self-respect.

Above anything else, just make sure the truth is out there.

Clarity is now with me again. Clarity came when I saw women monetising their hatred of Nathan. Clarity came when I was shown private messages sent to Nathan’s supporters telling them that if they didn’t publicly denounce him, what happened to Nathan would happen to them next. Clarity came when I discovered the sordid truth about one of Nathan’s most vociferous attackers. Ours was the truth. Theirs was the web of lies.

In the midst of the pain and mayhem, I had my genes tested with 23 and Me. I am, of course, a veritable mongrel, so the results were disappointingly non-specific. I’ve got Jewish, Welsh, Huguenot and probably gypsy blood pumping through my veins, and if family folklore is to be believed, some of it is blue (although name me a family that doesn’t think it has some sort of royal connection!)

My father’s genes certainly seem to be more dominant than my mother’s. One of the services which 23 and Me offers is the comparison of your results to those of other people who have used their service so they can link you up with people who are likely to be distant relatives. Every single suggestion came from my father’s side.

Flaws in the system aside, it’s been a great deal of fun to find a series of third cousins nestling in the US. That said, when you do contact someone with whom you share a great, great, great grandparent, there’s not a lot more to say other than “yay, we’re relatives! Bye!”

But here’s the strange part...

In amongst the clouds of non-specificity, one single line of text utterly blew my mind. Apparently my DNA indicates that a three-times great grandparent was 100% Chinese Dai. This person, the results conclude, was born in the late 18th Century.

The Chinese Dai are a minority ethnic group who mostly live in Southern China, Thailand and Myanmar. Myanmar, where the majority live, would have been under the control of the Portuguese when this particular relative was born, so one assumes that Colonialism played a part in his or her decision to up sticks and come to Europe.

Of course, my head has been filled with exciting and troubling thoughts ever since. Did my relative fall in love with a Portuguese tradesperson? Did they flee where ever they came from as a result of persecution of some kind? Or simply to live a better life? Why did they end up in the UK and not Portugal? How hard must it have been for a Chinese person in Britain in the late 17th Century? A brief bit of googling concludes that, if this relative DID come straight to the UK, he or she would almost certainly have been one of the first Chinese faces seen in this county. It’s utterly bizarre.

It seems clear that our Chinese ancestor was on my father’s mother’s side, which, curiously, is the Welsh branch of my family. My Nana and her brothers certainly had a Chinese look to them. It was something which we’d lightheartedly discussed from time to time, and curiously, more frequently in recent months. I’m told my Nana was always rather wary of anything to do with China and I wonder whether this came as a result of her being bullied as a child because of the way she looked.

This is, of course, supposition, but it would seem particularly brutal and cruel if it were the case. My Nana’s first language was Welsh. She grew up, near Wrecsam, at the tail-end of the horrendous period when the “Welsh Not” was used to terrorise and brutally persecute any child heard not speaking English. The Welsh Not was usually a wooden sign which was worn around the neck of the person being punished. When someone else was heard speaking Welsh, the sign was passed on to them. At the end of the day, the person wearing the Welsh Not was caned. Utterly, utterly unacceptable and totally hideous.

I very clearly remember my Nana telling me that she’d been forced to wear the Welsh Not at school and it’s clear to me that the inbuilt sense of shame it plainly engendered is partly why she didn’t speak her native tongue to my father when he was growing up. The thought that she was potentially also nursing a whole different set of fears about being “other” makes me very sad indeed.

Of course, the lesson for us all is that we must find the time to talk to our Grandparents about their lives. I wonder if my Nana even knew that she came from Chinese stock. As more and more people die from my parents’ generation, I become more and more aware that I there’s way too much I still don’t know.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

An ABBA odyssey

Nathan and I are currently sitting in Stockholm Arlanda Airport. We’ve been in the city for two days and are presently buzzing like a pair of over-excited bees. Here’s the story...

We’re actually here as a direct result of the hell that Nathan has recently been put through by the so-called social justice warriors. There’s much to write about on that front, and all in good time, but suffice to say that the extreme hatred and misandry which landed on his shoulders coupled with the grotesque lies which were told about him have generated an outpouring of absolute love. One of my oldest friends was so incensed that he organised for Nathan to review the Pop House Hotel in Stockholm in the National newspaper he works for. He knows that we’re both life-long ABBA fans and felt that a couple of days in Stockholm would give us a bit of a break from the mayhem and some joy in what was becoming a mirthless existence. 

We had to get up at 3am yesterday. This followed an entirely sleepless night for me the day before, so when the alarm went off, I neither knew my own name, nor cared what it was! 

I slept through much of the taxi journey to the airport. I remember seeing a giant lit up billboard for the UK Jewish Film Festival looming in the gloom by the side of the road and feeling more than a little proud to be working on it this year as its tour coordinator. 

I slept through much of the flight as well, which is about 2 1/4 hours. I remember looking down at the sea at one point and thinking how blue it looked. I drank half a cup of tea and then sparked out again. 

The first thing I noticed as we took the train from Arlanda into Central Stockholm was the colour of the trees. Autumn has very much arrived in Sweden and, this year, most of the trees are bright yellow. Apparently this isn’t always the case. A mild autumn means that the tree leaves don’t get as far as turning orange or red before falling. You learn something new every day. Actually I learned about ninety new things in the last two days! 

What certainly occurred to me as we neared Stockholm was that we were arriving in the city at the time that ABBA must have shot their iconic Greatest Hits “park bench” album cover. The one with Benny and Frida snogging, Björn reading a paper and Agnetha, in a cap, looking really sad. There are autumn leaves on the ground. Bright orange ones as it happens, which must mean the autumn of 1975 was a harsher, colder affair! 

It struck me, as we started our epic walk to the hotel from the train station, that this was my first ever trip to Scandinavia, let alone Sweden. Nathan has been to Finland, Sweden and Denmark, and, despite only being in Stockholm for 24 hours, some ten years ago, the place had made a massive impression on him and he’d longed to return with me for an ABBA pilgrimage. 

Our first stop was Strömbron, a bridge which links the mainland to the Gamle Stan, or Old Town island. Lasse Hallström, who directed all of ABBA’s pop videos, chose the middle of this particular bridge to mount his camera for the final tracking shot of the 1978 Summer Night City video, which happens to be my favourite ABBA song. The shot was made in the wee small hours after a night of filming on various clubs and streets around the city. It’s a forty second shot which slowly moves across a panorama of the city. The sky is still light, as you might expect on a summer’s night in a Scandinavian country. 

I got the video up on my phone and we had a great time recreating the shot on Nathan’s phone - literally second for second. The astonishing thing is that very little has changed in the view. Some of the boats in the harbour even seem to be the same ones, moored in the same places, 41 years after Hallström filmed them! 

We had lunch in a cafe at the Scenkonst Musett. We think it’s a sort of theatre museum, but it was just a rather nice-looking cafe in the right place at the right time. We had avocado on rye bread, which was delicious, before eating some sort of carob crap, which reminded me of the whole-food nonsense we periodically ate when I was a child. I think it was raw food. I’m not altogether sure what raw food is, but I think it’s meant to be endured rather than enjoyed. Very much like modern classical music! Emperor’s New Clothes and all that!

From the theatre museum, we walked to the Great Synagogue in Stockholm. A tiny, unrealistic part of me was hoping we’d be able to have a peek inside. Sometimes these grand synagogues are open to the public as museums when they’re not being used for worship, but the doors were very firmly shut. It’s certainly hugely impressive from the outside! I’m told about 5000 Jewish people live in Stockholm. 

We walked through a stunning tree-lined walkway on our way to Djurgården (the Island where Pop House Hotel is situated) and immediately learned that any tree in Stockholm is stunning at this time of year. To make matters even more glorious, we discovered, after it got dark, that trees get lit up spectacularly at night with orange and purple lights. 

It is almost impossible to go wrong in the city when it comes to views. The streets are spotlessly clean - I literally didn’t see a single piece of litter - and the architecture is stunning. Filigree church steeples poke up behind ornate town houses, many of which have their own somewhat eccentric little towers and spires. Most of the streets seem to end at rivers, canals and harbours and the countryside snakes its way right into the city centre. Djurgården is mostly parkland and forest. 

We crossed Djurgårdsbron onto the island and immediately took ourselves to the rather charming little cemetery, Galärvarvs Kyrkogården, which is where Stikken Anderson, the “fifth member” of ABBA is buried. Stig actually co-wrote quite a lot of the early ABBA songs, and was also the band’s manager. His shrewd, maverick and uncompromising management style was largely responsible for the absolute success (both artistic and financial) of ABBA.  

His grave is simple and classy, essentially a block of granite with a small treble clef at the top. It was rather moving to be there. I am hugely grateful that all four members of ABBA are still alive, but one should never forget Stig’s great impact on the band and the huge love the band had for him. 

The Pop House Hotel is housed in the same building as The ABBA Museum, and as you approach, the first thing you hear is glorious ABBA music. As you might expect, they don’t just play the hits. I heard all sorts of wonderful curios. Tiger, I Am Just A Girl, That’s Me... Fabulous. 

We were put in the ABBA Gold room, which is lined with genuine Gold discs celebrating 3 million, 8 million, then 20 million sales of this classic album. The room overlooks Gröne Lund, the amusement park where ABBA often performed in the early stages of their career. 

We have been accompanied throughout our trip by an excellent book called The ABBA Guide to Stockholm, by Sara Russell, which takes readers on a guided tour of every site in the city which might be of interest to the keenest ABBA fans. The majority of documented spots are places where the band did photo shoots. Throughout their fame, the band remained incredibly loyal to the city. Where others might have moved to LA to live the life, ABBA brought up their young families in rather humble houses in and around the capital. 

Our first sojourn took us to a spot, not a great distance from our hotel...

It had to happen. We had to pay homage to the park bench where the Greatest Hits album cover was shot. The book very careful explains which tree and which bench to look for in a sea of trees and benches. The tree is the same, with its familiar jaunty angle, but the bench has long since been replaced with something a great deal less charming. Of course, we couldn’t resist using the wizardry of our phones to create our own version of the album cover, with me playing Björn and Frida and Nathan playing Agnetha and Benny. People passing by must have thought we’d gone quite mad, but it was worth it for the quirky result! 

From the bench, we walked to the Old Town and Baggensgåten, the street where Benny and Frida had shared a flat in the mid 70s. The Gamle Stan is a charming island, covered in buildings, many of which must be four or five hundred years old. The roads between the buildings are more like alleyways - way too small and twisting to get a car down - and the whole island is a giant hill, which means you spend your time going up and down steep slopes and steps. We saw a rather charming sight on Baggensgården, namely a little girl carrying a violin walking up the street holding hands with her father, who was also carrying a violin.

We came across the most amazing little flea market on the corner of a pair of little alleyways. It goes by the name of Eddie’s Lopis (or something akin to that) and it’s one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. Two men sit inside the shop all day and all night. One of them is Eddie himself, who must be in his 70s. The other is David, who is probably 30 and was wearing his pyjamas. 

It’s one of those junk shops which is so jam-packed with stock that a simple movement might bring a whole heap of objects cascading down. The floorboards creek and bounce up and down. The whole building seems to shake with every footstep! 

Another curious aspect to this Bagpuss-like shop is that not everything is for sale. If you want to buy something, David and Eddie have to decide first if it wants to leave the building. If they’re okay for this to happen, they then decide on a price, one assumes based on whether they like you or not. I’d say that a pair of cufflinks and a glass paperweight for £15 implies they liked us rather a lot! 

David took us down into the basement of the shop to show us the space which had been run by Eddie as a bohemian club from the 60s to the early 80s. No alcohol or drugs were allowed at Klubb Kamelen, but there was belly dancing and mud wrestling and was only for the “open-minded”! It sounds exactly like my sort of place. The vaulted ceiling of the basement was covered in beautiful murals of serpents and icons from every conceivable world religion. David took great delight in telling us he was part-Jewish and that he was thrilled when the Jewish Museum opened up in the old synagogue next door. 

They didn’t accept cards, so David said he’d walk us to the cash point - just as well, as I don’t think we would have found it unaided. We noticed that the Jewish Museum was still open and I said I was going to pop in on our way back to see if they had a kippah. I always like to buy a pair of cufflinks and a kippa wherever I travel in the world. David told me that he had a beautiful kippah which I might be able to buy from him. I said I would never deprive him of such a thing and he said he was relieved because it was precious to him. 

We paid for our goods, and gave the same amount again as a gift towards the upkeep of their important building. David was hugely touched by the gesture and walked us back up to the Jewish Museum where we discovered they didn’t have kippahs for sale. David suddenly darted back into his shop, re-emerging a moment later holding his beloved kippah, which he thrust into my hand, and insisted I keep. His belief is that, one day, another kippah will turn up that he’ll love just as much. I will, of course, send one through the post. 

The entire experience demonstrated just how wonderful some people are and I felt so thrilled that this magical building had called us in. 

We ate an evening meal at Hotell Rival, which belongs to Benny from ABBA, and served us a delicious beetroot and goat’s cheese burger. 

We must have walked for miles and miles during the day, but it’s no hardship because the city feels so calm and safe. We didn’t stumble upon any loutish behaviour, any drunk people, anyone skulking about in the shadows. Even the drivers are polite. More often than not, if you’re waiting by the side of the road to cross, they’ll pull up for you! 

We walked home through the old town. A carrillon echoed around the darkened streets. The perfect end to a perfect day. 

We slept like the dead in a bed so soft I thought we were in a cloud! 

The first thing on the agenda today was a trip out to Djurgårdsbrunnsbron at the opposite end of the island on which we were staying. It’s hugely rural out there. A woman rode past us on a horse as we got out of our Uber. 

The trees in the area looked absolutely stunning, and the leaves were falling from them like golden specks of snow with every breath of wind. A yellow carpet covered the ground as far as the eye could see. I have seldom, if ever, seen such a glorious autumnal display. 

We were out there to find the rain shelter where the cover for the first ABBA single was shot. It’s a quirky little building: a sort of cross between a covered bus stop and a band stand. It is exactly as it was when ABBA posed there in 1970. It could probably do with a lick of paint and a bit of TLC, because it’s looking a little down-at-heel. Someone had obviously been sleeping there the night before, because there were signs that a fire had been made from pieces of wood close by. 

We walked back towards the hotel along a winding path beside the river through trees which were now glowing in the sun like molten precious metals. 

It was at this point that a very special day became utterly magical...

We have been beautifully looked after on this trip by the wonderful folk at Visit Stockholm, in particular a most charming woman called Birgitta. 

Now here’s the thing. In my view, the most iconic and startling image of ABBA is on the front of The Visitors album. I actually bought the album when it came out in 1981. I must have been 7, and I remember sitting on a sofa in our house in Higham Ferrers staring at the album cover for long hours. ABBA fans reading this blog will remember that the album cover is surprisingly dark. The band are pictured in a room full of paintings, with one, of Eros, perhaps fifteen feet high. The band members are all standing apart from each other, looking in different directions, with not a smile between them. It’s their last studio album. They were tired. The two couples had got divorced. They plainly wanted to be anywhere other than where they were and the surroundings utterly reflect this bleakness. 

The image was taken in a studio at Skansen, which is the world’s first open air museum. Skansen is like the Weald and Downland Museum: filled with historical houses which have been rescued, brick-by-brick, from elsewhere in the country. The studio where where the image was taken had belonged to an artist called Julius Kronberg. When he died, his widow bequeathed the building to Skansen and it was rebuilt on the site, compete with all of its contents and art work. Fascinating, really.

I had always wanted to see the room. I know the image backwards. But when I realised I was going to Stockholm, and started researching the places I wanted to visit, I realised that the room wasn’t open to the public, so we cheekily emailed Birgitta and asked if there was any chance she could pull a few strings for the sake of my inner 7-year old. 

...And we learned yesterday that she had done us proud, that we were to meet her at the entrance to Skansen at noon whereupon we’d be smuggled into the area for a private viewing of the space. 

Walking into the studio itself had the same profound impact on me as I’d experienced walking into the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. 

There was a heaviness in there. A deep, dark, sad, mysterious atmosphere. The curtains were pulled open, and a shaft of dusty light shot into the room, immediately lighting the top half of the famous painting of Eros. The moment literally took my breath away. The painting itself is impressive enough, but the connection to ABBA, the sadness of the occasion when their picture was taken and the knowledge that so very few people had walked into the space since that time, filled me with all sorts of emotions. I instantly felt like a child again. I saw myself in 1981, listening to the album on a loop, knowing it was darker and more mature than the ABBA I was used to, feeling uneasy and worrying somehow. It was a truly overwhelming moment. 

Nathan decided to take my photograph standing in the places the members of ABBA had stood. I was rather tickled by the lady from Skansen (Caroline) who’d let us into the building. As my picture was taken she repeatedly told me to look more serious. “Glum, glum, glum...” she kept saying! 

The delightful Birgitta took us for lunch and we had the most stunning mushroom and potato dumpling dish in lingonberries. Birgitta told us that it was mushroom season so we could expect something spectacular - and she was not lying. I loved the fact that she was aware of the seasons of various plants and fungi, but that felt Swedish, somehow. The Swedes feel earthier than the Brits. More aware of nature. Perhaps nature, with its long, cold winter nights makes itself more apparent. 

This afternoon, we went to the ABBA Museum, which is a really special place. Like the best museums, it works on different levels. If you like ABBA for the shiny clothes and the big hits, you’ll walk out feeling thrilled. If you need to delve deeper, there’s more stuff for you. Benny’s diary from the time they won Eurovision is displayed. Who knew that Agnetha got very ill with a virus the day after the contest, and performed on Top of the Pops with a ludicrously high temperature? I also didn’t realise quite how much ABBA had to battle the radical left wing climate in Sweden in the 70s which was hugely against anything representing populist “bourgeois” culture. ABBA, with their glamorous costumes and “vacuous” lyrics were seen as the enemy. They were so hated that they weren’t even invited to attend the Eurovision (in Sweden) the year after they’d won, and the same powerful anti-bourgeois lobby actually managed to withdraw Sweden from Eurovision in 1976 - the year ABBA’s international career took off. 

We met Caroline, the manager of the ABBA museum at 5pm, essentially to get some tit bits of information to potentially add to Nathan’s review. 

At one point she mentioned sending Björn an email which made our ears prick up. “Are you in touch with him regularly?” We asked. “Yes, of course...” came the reply. Our hearts started pounding at the thought! 

Nathan suddenly did something which mortified me. “Ben,” he said, “do you have a copy of the London Requiem with you?” He knew I’d stuffed one into my bag on leaving the house because, well, you never know who you’re going to meet! I went bright red and nodded. Nathan spoke to Caroline, “when you next see Björn, could you possibly hand him a copy of Benjamin’s album?” I wanted the floor to swallow me up. “Of course” she said, “why don’t you write him a note? I have another meeting now, but leave the CD at reception and I’ll get it to him.” 

So, we started to scribble a note, leaning against an unoccupied desk in the hotel reception. A few minutes later, Caroline reappeared. “I think” she said, “that you should give the CD to Björn in person. He happens to be on his way here, and I just called him and told him there are two very charming gentlemen here who would love to meet you...” 

I went into shock. Nathan burst into tears and hugged her. 

And five minutes later, Björn Ulveaus, one of my absolute icons, walked into the reception in a beautiful, grey frock coat saying “Ben and Nathan” whilst proffering his hand. 

It was surreal, beautiful, amazing, awe-inspiring. Björn is everything you want him to be. Kind. Charming. Interested. Interesting. 

We burbled as you might expect. I handed him the requiem and said his music had inspired me. I told him that, as a writer, I considered myself to be the love child of ABBA and Vaughan Williams. He laughed. I suddenly realised that he probably didn’t know who Vaughan Williams was! 

Nathan showed Björn his ABBA tattoo and then the picture of us on the park bench, which he found hugely amusing. He also told us he never remembered much about the photo shoots as he always hated them but that on the park bench shoot, the newspaper he was reading was something he’d found in a dustbin next to the bench! Part of the great joy of that image is the story it seems to tell. Agnetha looks so sad because her husband Björn is reading a paper whilst, next to them, Benny and Frida are snogging passionately.  To discover that this wonderful little story wasn’t planned at all, is fascinating, and wonderful, and you heard it here first!! 

We left the museum walking on air and, for the journey home, kept drifting into happy thoughts. We got lost on our way to the train station. At the airport we were forced to go though security twice, because, whilst searching for food, we managed to leave the departures area!! Head in the clouds, you see! 

What an extraordinary day! Thank you Stockholm. Your city is stunning. Your people are charming and kind beyond all words. You have made two men very very happy. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Kol Nidrei

It’s Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - and we’ve just finished the evening service, which heralds the start of this, the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar. The evening service is often called Kol Nidrei, named after the somewhat mystical prayer which kicks things off.

The traditional Kol Nidrei melody is ancient. It’s definitely medieval, if not a great deal older. Written in Aramaic, the tune is described by Jewish people as missinai - unchanged since Moses climbed down from Mount Sinai. Whatever the truth of it’s origin, what cannot be denied is its profound beauty.

I used to play Max Bruch’s version on my ‘cello. It was very definitely my torch song as a teenaged lad. The melody used to make me feel profoundly sad - in a very good way! I used to get utterly lost in its mournfulness. I could never have predicted that I’d be singing it one day in a synagogue.

I was recently asked to do an arrangement of the piece for our choir and we recorded it a few weeks ago. We learned this morning that Radio 3 had decided to play it on In Tune at 6pm, just as candles were being lit by Jewish people across the country to mark the start of Yom Kippur. I hope those who heard it were able to think about loved ones as it played out. Or feel a sense of pride that this special occasion was being marked by the BBC. I was very touched to hear presenter Katie Dereham describing the recording as “beautiful” several times.

To add an extra splash of joy to the occasion, it was broadcast just as our choir was gathering for the Kol Nidrei service, so we were able to listen to it together, which is a massively unifying experience.

We walked into the synagogue, heads held high, and gave the congregation a service to remember.

I sang for my Uncle John, who died this morning. His wife, my Auntie Glen, died at the start of the year and I think, overwhelmed by loneliness, he simply lost the will to live. He’s been slipping further and further into sleep over the last few days and I’m hoping Glen came to find him. They were utterly inseparable in life and I have no reason to suspect the same will not be true when it comes to their adventures on the other side. I know it sounds a bit silly, but I felt their combined presence very clearly this evening and felt happy to know that they’re both at peace.

Friday, 16 August 2019

The holiday ends

Unfortunately, our magical week in Pembrokeshire ended today. We returned to London in a storm not dissimilar to the one we’d left in, having been remarkably lucky with the weather in between! We had a shedload of sunshine which was usually accompanied by battering sea breezes which chiselled our skin like old gravestones in Whitby. I studied my face in the mirror yesterday and saw an old, tanned sailor looking back. That, or a big leather boot!

This week has been very good for Nathan’s mental health. We’re surrounded by old, true friends, who have protected him fiercely and kept him buoyant. Furthermore, hanging out in a gang which includes so many sparky, highly intelligent, enthusiastic young people is always good for keeping any woes you might have very firmly at the back of your mind.

Messages of support continue to come in from very kind and loyal members of the knitting community. They give Nathan a great deal of comfort and we are getting close to a time when I think he will be strong enough to reveal the full, horrific truth of what happened to him. The story is staggering enough in itself, but the most astonishing aspect was realising quite how far people were prepared to take matters, purely to save their own skin. And quite how far the mob was prepared to go in their attempts to get people to publicly denounce Nathan. “I saw Goody Nathan with the devil.”

We went for a wonderful walk yesterday along part of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, which must feature some of the most spectacular views in the UK. This vertiginous walkway snakes its way along the tops of tall cliffs, through flower meadows and blackberry-laden hedges. There are charming beach-lined coves where little ice cream stalls sell cups of tea and lollypops to weary walkers, and then the path heads up onto the headlands again, where ramblers are forced to contemplate stomach-churning 100-foot drops into the sea below. 

I walked some of the journey with Ivy, Tanya’s four-year old daughter. “Hold my hand”, I kept saying, as she merrily skipped along the path. “Why?” She asked. “Because we’re a long way up and I don’t want you to fall!” “Do you not like heights?” “Not really,” I said, starting to sweat. “I LOVE heights,” she said, “shall I hold your hand to make you feel better?” I suddenly realised she’d got it the right way round!

Yesterday, the sun shone constantly to accompany our walk and the sea was every shade from yellowy turquoise, through azure and royal blue, all the way to a deep purplish grey.

We ended up drinking tall glasses of refreshing lemonade outside a little pub on Pwllgwaelod Beach. The man behind the bar seemed incredibly stressed and apologetic. The sunny weather had brought a lot of walkers out of the woodwork, the kitchen had entirely run out of food and most of the drinks behind the bar had been consumed, so he was waiting desperately for a delivery to arrive, which he hoped would be coming later in the day. I guess it’s a common problem associated with running a business in a deeply rural location!

I ended the day with a swim in the sea, my first since the holiday began. Everyone else had been in and out of the water like aquatic monsters, but I was nursing an injury to my hamstring which I’d picked up playing rounders on the first day. It turns out that I’m now of a boring age where I need to warm my body up before a blast of physical exercise. Also, the sea had hitherto not looked massively inviting. Why would anyone wilfully throw themselves into refrigerated water?!

The journey home to London was absolutely ghastly. It rained solidly - an aggressive, hail-like rain, which felt like needles on the skin. I drew the short straw and ended up driving from just north of Swansea all the way to Swindon, which was the section of the M4 where most of the weather-related traffic jams were happening. There were all sorts of signs by the side of the road warning motorists about the perils of driving in such terrible weather, and we watched our estimated time of arrival slide from 5.30pm to 7.45pm. A day of driving. Hurrah!

I heard someone in a petrol station telling the person behind the counter that she was returning from Tenby (also in Pembrokeshire) and that she’d been sitting on a beach the day before in glorious sunshine. I knew exactly how she felt! We exited the petrol station shop at the same time, and ran for our cars, swearing miserably, no doubt both wishing we were in Spain.

Good Shabbos. And over and out!