Lunch at the Oval Office

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The Ship and Bell, Horndean, Hampshire

Here is another glimpse into my personal life. In this case when I lived in a Hampshire village while briefly working as a ‘forky’ on British house building sites, after I came back to the UK in 2000. More about that later…

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Until I returned here, I had lived most of my life in New Zealand. At the ripe old age of fifty-two I decided to pack it all in and go and see something of the land of my birth – England. I discovered that I was not the last of my family after my favourite aunt passed away, as I had been wrongly led to believe by my father for reasons known only to himself. In actual fact I found I had cousins living in the southern English county of Hampshire.

After arriving at Heathrow tired from the long trip via Los Angeles, and finding a hotel in the centre of London behind the British Museum, I stayed for a few nights. It was hellishly expensive and staffed by toffee nosed snobs who looked at me like a piece of dirt when they heard my ‘colonial’ accent, but frankly I was too tired to care. I spent the next few days exploring London within walking distance of the hotel. I visited the fascinating museum with its myriad of ancient artefacts from around the world; and wandered for hours through the congested streets of the bustling city.

I rang a second cousin in Hampshire and made arrangements to visit. The train trip from Waterloo station to the town of Petersfield where he was going to pick me up, took about an hour. The next couple of days were pleasant ones for me, talking about the family. He arranged for most of the cousins in the immediate surrounding area to come and meet the antipodean addition to the family on that first weekend. I found out much later from another cousin that whenever the Commander ‘invited’ you to do something, to refuse was tantamount to an act of mutiny. No wonder my father never mentioned him. They may have been first cousins, but they were so alike in so many ways, both of them martinets suffering from delusions of grandure…

To achieve my goal to explore a little bit of the countryside, I had to find work to support myself. I spent the first five months of my initial three year stay, living off my meagre savings watching them disappear at an alarming rate. Eventually I found a low paid job for a few months, working as a civilian storeman in a dilapidated Territorial Army base, twenty odd miles north of the village.

Public transport in that part of the UK is practically nonexistent, so to get to work I was forced to buy a car. The cost of running a vehicle in the UK is prohibitive. I chose a tiny second-hand Renault hatchback, just a box on wheels but comparatively cheap to run.

During my time there I developed a deep affection for the people I got to know in the village of Horndean, and the place I call its heart, the ‘Ship and Bell’ pub pictured above. The following is just one story from that time.

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Sunday Lunch at the Oval Office

At Sunday lunchtime my local pub opened at 12 noon on the dot. I arrived at my usual time a few minutes before midday and sat outside in the intermittent winter sunshine, watching the traffic passing by from beneath the gently swinging old pub sign. The clouds were trying hard to blot out the sun as I rolled a cigarette and lit it.

A little blue car pulled into the car park beside the old pub. “Morning Jack.”

“Morning Ian.” He walked across the car park aided by his walking stick. He was a retired British army officer, ex bomb disposal, a nice bloke. Like every red blooded male, he had an eye for the young barmaids in our local pub.

“Not open yet?” Ian asked, shielding his eyes and pressing his face to the old bay window.

“Not yet mate,” I said as I enjoyed the sunshine and my cigarette.

“Morning,” an old pair of identities from the village said in unison.

“Morning,” Ian and I replied in unison.

“Not open yet then.”

“No, not yet.”

“Disgraceful! They’re always changing the opening times. You can slip in for a coffee or a pint at eleven in the morning during the week,” the elderly woman said to her companion.

“But its Sunday, they need a rest my dear,” her companion replied, shaking his head behind her back and pulling a face, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“Shouldn’t be allowed,” she said. “We’re regulars. We come in for a drink every lunchtime.” I smiled to myself and gave Ian a sideways glance. He smiled back and rolled his eyes mouthing “silly old bat,” to me.

A well groomed late model VW Passat drove in and parked nearest to the road. John got out and pressed the automatic locking button on his key fob. “Morning all, nice day. Morning Ian, morning sport,” he delivered his familiar greeting as he stood beside me. “Not open yet then,” he smiled. “How’s the job going, still working on the same site or have they shifted you yet?”

“Same site,” I sighed.

“How long did you say it takes you to get there in the morning?” he enquired.

“About an hour and a half, providing I leave around five fifteen in the morning,” I replied. “If I leave any later, I get caught up in traffic on the dual carriageway.”

“No good at our age sport,” he said shaking his head.

“Yes but I’m only driving a short distance John, you drive umpteen thousand miles a month up and down the country, and now your suffering for it – right!”

John nodded as he winced from the chronic back pain that plagued him. He banged on the window of the pub. “Shop! If they don’t open soon, I’m off to the ‘Farmer’ for a pint. It tastes better up there,” he said half impatiently, half joking.

Then Ben arrived. “Good morning Ian. Good morning to you both,” he said to the couple. “Good morning John, fine day eh what heh heh. Good morning to you great hairy antipodean troglodyte!” Ben roared his special greeting at me as he bowed low in his old fashioned mock royal way. I like Ben. He is a sweet, gentle, permanently sozzled intelligent man. Indeed at one time, one of the locals put him on the internet listing him as the ‘village eccentric’, much to Ben’s annoyance and to everyone’s huge amusement.

I don’t know about now, but back then Ben loved his pint of Guinness and a half of cider. “You’re up early Ben,” John said chuckling to himself for some reason.

“Yes, well, I had to be up at this hour,” he sniffed. “I’m having some alterations done to the house. I’m getting a new conservatory built at the back.” He produced his sparse line sketch of the proposed grand affair.

“Mother shelling out yet more money is she?” Ian said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Ben shot him a withering glance with those brown bloodshot eyes of his. “Gawd almighty, aren’t they open yet?” he shouted, suddenly realising he was outside the pub and not in it! It always took him a little while for things to register in his mind, bless him.

“No!” we all chorused.

“Garry’s coming up for a drink,” I said to John.

“Bloody hell, not another member of the Southern Cross Mafia,” he said shaking his head, looking at me with that cheeky smile of his.

“Which means Ben you’re no longer the undisputed leader of the oval office,” I said jokingly.

“Harrumph, fine fellow that he is I’m sure,” Ben began. “I’m still chairman of the oval office heh heh.” Ben laughed at the in joke between all of us.

The oval table inside the bay window of the old pub was where Ben, John, and I usually sat. A lot of the regulars sat there. Kenny the self-employed gardener who looked after my cousin’s garden, Ian D, Terry, and a host more, all unofficial members of the ‘Oval Office’. I don’t think anyone really knew who christened the table as such, but it was our meeting place most nights after work for a pint. And in the weekends, we met there during the lunch hour for a pint and a chat, to read the paper, sort out the world’s problems, and have a laugh.

Garry turned up in his new car, courtesy of his latest employers. “Not open yet?” Garry asked.

“No!” we all chorused yet again. By now everyone was looking through the windows trying to attract the attention of whoever was inside.

“Morning Ben, morning John. G’day mate,” he said to me finally. Garry looked at his watch. “Can’t stay long, the missus and I are off to the supermarket this afternoon,” he said. The sound of the door being unlocked behind us put an end to any more conversation. One of the attractive young barmaids opened the door and smiled her sweet smile. ‘Morning,” she said with that bright sing-song greeting of hers that melted our hearts. “Morning Natalie,” was the collective cry as we rushed past her to get to the bar at 12 noon on the dot.

~~~

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I tell you, it’s a wonder I’m still here

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It’s hard to believe that I was born on this day, sixty-seven years ago. With everything that life has thrown at me since that day way back in nineteen forty-eight, it’s a wonder I’m still alive to tell the following tale.

***

When I was about ten months old, I had my first encounter with danger. Fortunately for me, when they realised I was missing from my pram, my parents searched the garden and eventually found me hanging in midair above the cold dark waters of the garden pond. All that was between me and death was a bit of barbed wire which had dug itself into the fleshy pad directly below my left thumb. Dad had put the wire up once I started crawling. Maybe that episode accounts for my later adventurous nature – who knows? I’ve still got the arrowhead shaped scar on my left hand. Mum said I wasn’t crying. Apparently I was just hanging there with not a care in the world.

 1_12_05_14_1_18_00 Then when I was five I was almost drowned yet again when a large Pike dug its teeth into one of my legs and began trying to drag me into deep water, when I was collecting frogspawn in the shallows of another pond on the farm to put in a jam jar. Fortunately I had mum’s small garden fork with me. I forget why. It was a long time ago. But it’s a good job I had taken it with me. Repeatedly stabbing the monster fish with it, made it let go of my leg. Those future tadpoles were hard won I can tell you.

In the nineteen-sixties came military service during the Vietnam war, where I was badly wounded, not once but twice.The next thing that hit me between the eyes was when I lost my beautiful Mai and our four month old son John, when the suburb where we lived in northern Saigon, was wiped off the face of the Earth, thanks to friendly fire, while I was up country on patrol.

A few years later came the first of three mental break downs, followed by being thrown on the employment scrapheap when I was fifty-five, and as a result, being made homeless; meaning I was forced to sleep rough for several months. As if all of that wasn’t enough I also suffer from skin cancer, a legacy of living beneath the hole in the ozone layer in the southern hemisphere for forty-two years. Its a wonder I’m still here, and yet I am.

Given all of that, is it any wonder I resorted to my first love, books, to console myself, which led me to write my own and much later, to blog? The written word has become everything to me, no matter whether or not my books are read. Fortunately for me they are.

As for why I’m still here – I’m a stubborn cuss. I’ve had to be. Anyone with a weaker disposition would have given up the ghost years ago. Not me. Now all I have to do is survive the next three years to reach my seventieth birthday.

Child’s play

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Thoughts of Yesteryear

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It’s funny the things you miss. Over half a lifetime ago when I was still living in New Zealand, I used to love hunting a Captain Cooker pig like the one pictured above once a year, or the odd feral goat.

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I owned three firearms. The first, and my favourite, was my 45 calibre Pedersoli, Flintlock action, Kentucky Long Rifle.

91S.210It was the perfect tool to dispatch a Captain Cooker, because unlike a modern rifle, the undergrowth of the New Zealand bush muffles the sound of a shot fired from a black powder weapon. Providing I got to within one hundred yards of the pig, and managed to get myself behind, and slightly to one side of the beast, to aim just behind the ear, the rifle’s lead ball did it’s duty quickly and efficiently. Anywhere else and all you would do is wound the animal. Trust me when I say that you do not want to be charged by an angry, wounded Captain Cooker!

 Even when I went after a goat, while I sometimes took my Ruger Winchester Action 30-30, or my Ruger Bolt Action .270, I still preferred the flintlock. Unlike a modern rifle, you only have time to load and fire one shot, so you must make it count. By the time you have reloaded, any animals still in the area will be long gone. With the Kentucky it won’t be the sound of it being fired that makes them take flight, but the thick sulphurous cloud of smoke.

I really miss the taste of roast wild pig, and barbecued goat haunch. Mind you, I miss being the age I was back then, not to mention being as fit as a buck rat. I needed to be. Even skinned, boned and butchered, there is a hell of a lot of meat on a pig that size. Which is why you only kill what you can carry on your back.

Hey ho, happy days, now long gone…

Merry Christmas one and all…

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We are a nation trapped in the nineteen fifties

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For a nation that deludes itself into believing it is still a world leader, the greater majority of my fellow brits (those over fifty) still suffer from a nineteen fifties mindset.

A few nights back while watching the BBC news on television I listened to a reporter talking about the inevitable buying frenzy for Christmas. He was interviewing a senior representative of a well known online retailer asking him how his company’s sales compared to those of the high street. When he was informed that they far outshine high street sales, especially at Christmas, the reporter was completely taken aback.

Like so many adults here in the United Kingdom, quite obviously, he still hasn’t embraced online shopping. He and everyone his age, and older, still like to spend money travelling into town, wandering endlessly around, browsing the shops for that must have Christmas present. What he and every other member of the older generations fail to fully appreciate is that by shopping online you are not only saving time and shoe leather, but also a lot of your hard earned money.

How much does it cost you to get from A to B in this country? Either you walk, something most would never do these days except to go to their corner shop, or you use public transport which means waiting for an hour before the next crowded bus or train arrives, or you travel into town using your car like millions of others, adding to the inevitable traffic jams, not to mention the shortening of tempers (road rage), as well as wasting time and petrol to find somewhere to park.

With the exception of walking, even before you have found that Christmas present, it’s already cost you money. How much did you pay for your car, as well as to maintain it each year? Petrol prices are no longer cheap. Neither is vehicle insurance, or the necessary, often expensive, MOT checks to make your car roadworthy. Plus, never forget that you must also add the inevitable carpark charges to the equation.

Most of my fellow brits, with the exception of the young, still persist in doing all of the above, whereas if they fully embraced the humble computer and did all of their shopping online as I do, the only expenditure for them, apart from purchasing the item, would be time. Add to that the fact that you don’t have to shoulder your way past countless others in any retail outlet you care to mention (think department stores), and you know I’m making total sense.

Until the entire population of the United Kingdom fully embraces the computer age, sadly I can’t see things changing. It doesn’t help matters when the older generation still treat the humble computer as nothing more than a device for communicating with friends and loved ones around the world. When talking online to the wife of an old friend recently about where she could find all of my books, she said, “we never buy anything online,” as if to do so would be a betrayal of her high street shops.

While I strongly suspect that most men reading this will agree with me, their better halves will take the side of my friend’s wife.

More fool them, even though having read this, they know that what I’m saying here makes financial sense. Yes ladies it might be nice to gaze through shop windows at that new pair of shoes. But on behalf of my gender, I beg you not to let nostalgia and outmoded habits rule the way you shop. Buying online is definitely the way forward.

These days, owning a computer is not a status symbol to impress your friends and neighbours, it is a valuable tool. For god’s sake make use of it! If at almost seventy-two I can fully embrace the twenty-first century and its technology, so can you…

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The noble game

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My Chess Sets

The history books tell us that chess originated in Eastern India somewhere between 550 – 280BC. Back then it was known as Chaturanga, a game of four divisions of the military –  Infantry, Cavalry, Elephants and Chariotry, represented by the pieces at the time that would slowly evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook that we all recognise.

The earliest evidence of chess as we know it was in Sassanid Persia, where the game came to be known as Chatrang. It was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia, renamed Shatranj. The Persian version of the game reached Western Europe and Russia in the 9th century. By 1000AD it had spread throughout Europe, after being introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors. Around 1200, the rules started to be modified in southern Europe. In 1475 several major changes made the game essentially the same as it is today.

As you can see from the picture above, I own two chess sets, one playable, the other a beautiful miniature copy of the Isle of Lewis Celtic Chess set which is far too small to use (Click on the picture to magnify it).

While I have always loved chess, I freely admit that I am totally rubbish at it. Lets face it, when you are participating in what in essence is a strategic war game, any serviceman can tell you that being restricted by an open battle field of sixty-four squares (8X8) is limiting to say the least. But chess was never a modern war game. Instead it is a game that reflects the age old thinking and strict battlefield tactics of the generals from yesteryear.

Years ago when my mother was still alive, one weekend when I was home on leave, I made the mistake of showing her the moves of the various pieces. Mum absolutely trounced me. I should have known better. When it came to board games, mum was an absolute demon. I miss her more than I can say. Had she lived, she would now be ninety-nine, being born in the month of May, 1915. She was my best friend. But the one thing I don’t miss is being thrashed by her when playing chess, or even draughts…

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You Are What You Eat

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In the late forties early fifties when I was a small child, for me, a real treat was to be had the day after my mother had cooked a roast. Back then money was scarce. Food rationing, brought in during the Second World War, was still going on. Like a lot of women living during those years of austerity, she wasted nothing. Even the liquid that had leached out of the roasted meat was saved. We used to call it dripping. Don’t ask me why, but that’s what I’ve always known it as.

To a baby boomer child, a dripping sandwich was pure heaven. It consisted of a piece of sliced fresh white bread covered in dripping with a generous amount of salt liberally shaken over it. The fact that I was consuming saturated fat and salt didn’t matter a damn. No one bothered about whether or not what you ate was healthy. All that mattered was that your stomach was full. If I was still hungry, always providing the fire was lit, which it usually was, mum used to give me a piece of stale bread and the toasting fork. The trouble was that instead of carefully watching the toast, I used to get mesmerized by the sparks in the soot at the back of the fireplace slithering their fiery way around. To my childish way of thinking back then, they were alive. I’ve forgotten the number of times I ended up eating charcoal as a consequence of my inattention…

Each week mum used to walk the one and a half miles into town from the farm we lived on, with me gripping her hand, to get our weekly rations. From what I can remember they included a very small loaf of white bread, flour, two ounces of butter, half a pound of lard and two eggs, using my ration card. Not forgetting a tin of treacle, a jar of malt and a bottle of cod-liver oil. If she was lucky, and the butcher was in a good mood, she also managed to get a half dozen rashers of bacon and a small joint of beef, also on my ration card. Thinking about it now, I wonder how she would have fared if she hadn’t taken me with her each time? A lot of people tried to get more than they were entitled to, claiming they had hungry children at home, when they hadn’t…

While I loved treacle as well as malt, having a teaspoon of cod-liver oil forced down my gullet by mum was not a pleasant experience. I hated the stuff! But she always insisted it was good for a growing boy. Dad did his bit contributing to the larder by growing cabbage, peas, carrots and potatoes in part of the garden.

I'm making a sandwich - want one?

Seventy-one years later, I now consume the following:

Bread (wholegrain)

Butter

Leerdammer cheese

Belgian Beer Ham (when I can get it)

Eggs

Lettuce

Tomato

Mushrooms

Bacon

Beef mince

Spring Onions

Wholegrain Mustard

Salt

Freshly ground Pepper

Crunchy Peanut Butter

Vegemite

Coffee

John Smith’s Bitter

Tobacco

Bananas

A few weeks back I suddenly got the urge to eat another dripping sandwich for old time’s sake. Sadly, thanks to the food nazis, beef dripping as I knew it is no longer available. Given that my body can no longer handle fats like that, maybe its just as well…

How about you? What do you eat these days? Don’t be shy, share what you consume with the rest of us.

It’s Confession Time

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If you are a man of a certain age, you have already lived a lot longer than millions of others. If like me, you are a widower with no immediate family, and a senior citizen, you are entitled to a few pleasures in your twilight years.

In my case, especially when I’m writing or researching, I enjoy a glass or two of my favourite brand of English bitter each day – John Smith’s. The other pleasure for me while writing is to be able to create a rollup and smoke it. In my case, these days I prefer Amber Leaf tobacco.

Unlike the vast majority today, whether or not I die from smoking tobacco, or supping a pint or two each day simply doesn’t bother me. I’d rather die happy than miserable, especially when I read about various individuals dying, allegedly having led ‘healthy’ lives, eating organic this and that; refraining from alcohol in any form, and never ever smoking during their lifetimes, not forgetting, participating in some form of exercise regime.

I have to ask myself – why then did they die? In the case of the males, it was probably because of the lifestyles enforced upon them by family, their doctor, and society in general. Far too many men die comparatively young these days from stress related illnesses, brought on by the current mania and fashion for healthy living and working insanely long hours.

I can hear all of the lovely ladies who follow my blog, and others like you out there, tut-tutting as you read this confession of mine. I’m sorry to disappoint you all. No amount of castigation on your part will deter me. Think about it for a moment if you will. Would you rather I was content in my dotage, or not?

Face it ladies, I am who I am. I eat and drink what I like, not what you would have me believe is good for me. However, I no longer eat fatty foods. As you get older, your body simply can’t handle certain things like animal fats. Never the less ladies, I still enjoy being a carnivore, eating meat products of all kinds.

Happiness is growing old disgracefully…

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