Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friendship and Fleur

I'm telling you this story now because, quite unexpectedly, it has broken out of the past and into the present.
Have you noticed the picture above my sofa, the rather stylised painting of a tiger? If you have, has it caused you to wonder if it had a story? The simple answer is that it has. The tiger was painted by Fleur Cowles. It was a present from Fleur. Let me tell you about her.

When King George VI died, to be was succeeded by his daughter, it was a time of post-war deprivation. The coronation brought a welcome moment of hope, colour and celebration. Eisenhower, who was then the US President, thought it fitting to send a representative who would echo the theme of youth and glamour . . . he sent Fleur Cowles. She came from the ranks of American high society, and was renowned for her work as a respected artist and journalist. It was Fleur's first introduction to this country . . . and she liked what she saw.

Her two marriages had ended in divorce and, before long, her name was linked to that of a British timber merchant, Tom Meyer. With Cary Grant acting as best man at the wedding, Fleur and Tom were married in 1955. Their London home was a large apartment at the Albany in Piccadilly, in addition they had an estate near East Grinstead in Sussex, and a castle in Spain.

Our story now jumps forward several years. It jumps to a time when my first book of poems had just been published. Quite how it happened I'm never sure, but Fleur came across my poems . . . she liked my poems . . . she wanted to meet the author. And when Fleur wanted anything . . . well, that was what happened.

So it was that I found myself invited to their apartment at the Albany. It was so spacious that it felt like a mansion in itself, staff moved discreetly in the background, everywhere there was evidence of Fleur's art and her interests. More like an exotic museum (a very comfortable museum) than any home I'd ever come across, I drank it all in and felt distinctly inebriated!

Despite the difference in our ages, and the even larger gap in our social circumstances, Fleur and I became unlikely but close friends. I owe her so much by way of incredible experiences. Thanks to Fleur, I met Grace Kelly, numerous MPs of both parties, philanthropists, top journalists and many creative artists. Whether it was in London or at one of her house-parties in Sussex, I was invariably the only unknown in a bunch of 'celebrities', and saw myself as a very privileged fly-on-the-wall. Fleur widened my world and offered me experiences that I would never have gained elsewhere.

I look back and smile at many memories . . . my first visit to Sussex, and the shock of discovering that the housekeeper had actually unpacked my battered suitcase! The anxiety on being told that I could either come to breakfast in my dressing-gown or fully dressed. What if I came down fully-dressed and everyone else was in their dressing-gowns? Or, even worse, what if I were the only one in a dressing-gown?

Always in the background was Tom, and the kindness of Tom. He was a man of great charm, wit and distinction, a man who seemed to have close contacts in the White House, the Kremlin and wherever else you'd choose to name. I could forget the international news that I'd read in the newspapers, the true story was gained from listening to Tom and his guests after Sunday lunch in Sussex.

Fleur visited this flat. More contentiously, Rupert visited the Albany. I say contentiously because no animal is allowed within the hallowed walls of the Albany. Rupert had to be smuggled in, hidden deep in his bag, and, to the best of my knowledge, is the only animal to have crossed that closely-guarded threshhold!

But Fleur was now growing older. Her house parties were a thing of the past. True, she and Tom still travelled, but not as frequently as before and the castle in Spain was more of a retreat than a place for entertaining.

Time passed, and it had been several years since I had heard from her. Occasionally, when looking at her books or her picture, I would regret not knowing how she was. Had she died? I felt sad to think that I didn't know. Her friendship had enriched my life. I wished that I'd told her so.

Which is where the story comes right up to the present day.
Two weeks ago, riding in a bus down Picadilly, I looked out of the window at the Albany and thought about Fleur. On impulse, on returning, I put her name into Google and was amazed to learn that, now in her nineties, she was still living at her home in London.
How was she? How was Tom?
Straightway, I wrote her a letter. I asked how she was, told her how I'd thought of her as I'd passed in the bus, and sent her several current photos of Rupert.
I didn't really expect a reply.
But . . . a week later, the phone rang.
"Is that Miss Spain," asked a woman's voice.
I said that it was.
"I've Mr. Meyer for you," said the voice.
It was Tom! What was more he sounded just as he always had . . . charming, interested in my well being, amusing, kindly.
Fleur, I learned, had been seriously ill. She was now recovering, but still confined to the house. They had sold their Sussex estate and their castle in Spain, and now lived - with their longtime helpers - in the home they'd always loved at the Albany.
"I was wondering," said Tom, "some time when you're passing . . . would you like to come in? I know Fleur would love to see you. It would do her good . . . "
"Of course," I said, "and I'll bring Rupert."

And so it was arranged. Rupert and I were to go at three o'clock the following Monday. Parking would be made available for me in the forecourt.

Rupert was looking keenly out of the car window as I drove into the forecourt. He clearly liked the look of the place and, after I'd parked, refused to understand why he should be confined to his bag. Surely, in a welcoming place like this, he could walk straight in?
The doorman standing on the step was watching curiously as, half-concealed within the car, I struggled to get my unco-operative cat into his bag. Finally, with a recalcitrant Rupert well hidden, I got out of the car, walked as innocently as I could manage up the steps to the door, and handed over the keys.
"I've come to see Mrs. Meyer," I said firmly.
"D'you know the way?" he asked, eyeing my strangely bulging bag.
I assured him that I did.
Once on the stairs, Rupert's head emerged from the bag and, after that, nothing held him back.

It was wonderful to see Tom. The debonair, powerful and highly intelligent individual that I remembered dominated the superficial veneer of old age. We sat in Fleur's study - under her portrait of her friend Mother Teresa - and chatted happily over tea and biscuits. This study, Tom told me, has been reproduced in its entirety at The University of Texas, where Fleur's achievements are honoured.

Then it was time to visit Fleur.

Clearly making good progress, she was out of bed, sitting in her chair and eager to greet us. Enthusiastic to explore yet more new territory, Rupert marched in. Her frail hand went down and grasped his fur . . . two old friends were reunited. Because of the Albany's restrictions, Fleur had been deprived of animal company for months. Rupert couldn't have been more welcome.

Eventually, when she broke off from stroking him to speak to me, he jumped up into a chair beside her, curled up happily and settled down for a snooze.
"He can stay with me!" she pleaded.
"He's a lot of work!" I warned.
"Then you'll come again?" she insisted.
I told her that we'd love to, and Rupert added to the general pleasure by producing loud grumbles of indignation when I lifted him, squirming with indignation, out of his chair.

I reflected as we drove away that, thanks largely to Rupert, I had made a miniscule return for the abundance of kindness that Fleur had given to me.

Just think.
If I hadn't passed the Albany and thought of Fleur . . . if I hadn't followed it up with a letter . . .
I'm so very grateful that I did.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A gift from Nazareth

I've said this before and (you're warned!) I'll doubtless say it again. But one of the most reassuring aspects about life is its very unpredictability. Yes, you can make plans for tomorrow, but only on the understanding that what you're doing is no more than writing fiction. There's not the slightest guarantee that it will ever happen.

If you remember, I was feeling a little resentful about yesterday's Governors' meeting. It had meant cutting short the the joy of Abigail's first birthday party, and I walked to the school with a sense of resignation rather than pleasure. Barely had I entered Reception than I met Samar. You remember Samar? She's my Muslim friend, the Palestinian academic whose family were thrown out of Jerusalem at the time of the Six Day War.

On seeing me arrive, Samar came up smiling. She had, she told me, just returned from Israel. For the first time since that traumatic departure in her childhood, she and her family had returned. They had spent a month in Nazareth with relatives she could barely remember, and several she had never seen before. They had all had a wonderful, memorable visit.

I was delighted to hear this happy news, and told her so.
Reaching in her bag, Samar drew out a small package.
"This," she said, "is for you. It's a small gift from Nazareth."

I couldn't believe it. It was so unexpected . . . so kind.
To be given a rosary by a Muslim . . . a rosary from Nazareth . . . at a time when the world is weeping at the hostilities in the Middle East.

I was reminded of the Rabbi of the West London Synagogue who, a week ago, when the attack on Gaza was at its height, prayed a prayer for the children of Gaza, ending with the words . . .

"Allah, whose name we call Elohim, who gives life, who knows the value and fragility of every life, send these children your angels.
Save them, the children of this place, Gaza the most beautiful and Gaza the damned.
In this day, when the trepidation and rage and mourning that is called war, seizes our hearts and patches them in scars, we call to you the Lord whose name is peace.
Bless these children and keep them from harm.
Turn your face towards them O Lord. Show them, as if for the first time, light and kindness and overwhelming graciousness.
Look up at them, Lord. Let them see your face. And, as if for the first time, grant them peace."

A rosary from a Muslim . . . a Rabbi's prayer for the children of Gaza . . . surely such gestures of kindness, compassion and love speak more strongly than any missiles, and carry a fragile hope for the future of mankind?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Orbs . . . unanswered questions

I hadn’t intended to write to you again on the subject of orbs. To send you photos, yes. But to write? No.
What more can be said? They call for silent wonder, not for words. I’m also aware that I don’t want to argue about orbs. I’m not an evangelist. There are plenty of people, people whom I respect, who dismiss them as no more than the product of faulty cameras. There are others who say they are dust particles caught in the flashlight, or smudges on the lens. They may be right. I don’t think they’re right, but I’d be the last to deny them the right to their opinion.

Then all these good intentions were swept away just before Christmas when I went to a Christmas concert at The Grosvenor Chapel. Sally had invited me. Sally, who is also very taken with the orb photos, insisted that I took my camera.
“You never know,” she said hopefully, “there could be orbs.”

It was a wonderful and moving concert - a packed chapel, a fine choir, outstanding readers, an audience enraptured by it all. It had that elusive quality of innnocence and magic that somehow triumphs over jaded spirits. When it was over, and the audience was slowly departing, I took out my camera. But I didn't want to be conspicuous . We were surrounded by Sally's friends, I didn't want to disgrace her by taking what might seem inappropriate photos.
So . . . the first ones I took were taken discreetly from the side . . .

. . . as you can see, not a sign of orbs . . .

. . . I then moved a little closer to the front of the church, but remained under the overhang so there was no view upwards . . .

still no orbs . . .

I took three more photos from this same position, with exactly the same result.

But Sally wanted orbs, and I was determined that she should get them. Abandoning discretion (and I really don't think that anyone noticed what I was doing) I moved to the back of the church and turned the camera up towards the ceiling . . .

. . . and there they were . . .

. . . do you see them? I took three more photos and, in each of them, throngs of beautiful, translucent orbs soared above our heads.

From my experience, there seem to be three varieties. There are the substantial radiant orbs that often come singly. These are usually pale blue or green, sometimes with touches of pink, and, if you examine them under a magnifying glass, each one has an unique, geometrical pattern. Then there are the shooting orbs. These, again, come singly and are smaller, but very bright. You can tell they are moving swiftly because their bright light is repeated along the line of movement.
Finally, and most frequently, there are the beautiful, shadowy, translucent orbs. These frequently generate in clusters, attracted by music, worship or mass emotion.
At The Grosvenor Chapel it was the translucent orbs that held sway.

How can this be a faulty camera . . . or dust on the lens . . . or a trick of the light . . . ?

They're so beautiful . . . so awesome . .. I had to share them with you.

But why my camera . . . why me . . . ?
Why do the orbs seen to be proliferating . . . ?
Might a publisher like to have them for a book . . . or a calendar . . . ?
I only wish that I knew.
The one certainty? This is a fascinating subject!

A final question . . .
What about these incredible visitors, viewed from my window at sunrise, the week before Christmas . . . ?

(See London's Orbs, click here)

Friday, January 9, 2009

For want of a zip . . .

Enneagram test . . . ?
What’s an Enneagram? I’ll do as you suggest and put it into Google, but I should tell you here and now that I’m not too keen on tests!Link

I take it all back . . . that was fun! Because there are no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers you can relax and be completely honest. I see that I come into Category Two bordering on Category Five. Although I’m far from certain what that means.
Why did you think I’d be Category Seven? According to this test, that means that’d I’d be 'adventurous' and, apart from a degree of adventurousness over grammar and spelling, I don’t think that the word ‘adventurous’ can truthfully be applied to me.

There was only once in my life, that I can remember, when . . . perhaps . . .
Can you feel a story coming on? You’re right . . . the story of the faulty zip!

My grandmother was Swiss. My mother, as a child, made frequent family visits to see relatives in Geneva. It was decided that, to strengthen this link, I should spend part of my schooling in Switzerland. The school chosen was way up in the mountains. Mother, whose knowledge of Switzerland was confined to the smart apartments and formal gardens of Geneva, had no knowledge of the mountains. But why let lack of knowledge limit your judgement? In deciding what to purchase for my life in the mountains, mother, knowing nothing of ski clothes, decided that a pair of smart maroon corduroy trousers would look perfectly suitable on the snowy slopes.

Thus is was that I arrived at my new school with corduroy trousers for skiing, whereas all my fellow students had sturdy, waterproof ski pants. Not being naturally athletic, I quickly discovered that in the early days of skiing an inordinate amount of time is spent either on your backside or on your knees. Equally quickly, I learned that maroon corduroy trousers mop up water like a dishcloth. The only solution was to pin a bath-hat inside the trousers so as to form a protective cover at seat level. This I did, securing the bath-hat with safety pins. In this fashion, with trousers tucked into thick socks and a bulging backside, I learned to ski.

To my surprise, I loved skiing. I wasn’t good at it, merely mediocre, but the sheer exhileration of speeding through the frosty mountain air, the almost reverant joy of looking down from a high altitude on untouched snowy slopes . . . I was converted. No matter that I didn’t take part in competetive skiing, just to relish the invigorating experience was more than enough for me.

But this peaceful pleasure was to end in competitive drama. As the days lengthened and the spring approached, the school told us that a day of races would be held to conclude the skiing season. There was no way out. I was being forced to participate. Meandering around on the less public slopes I had been perfectly happy in my maroon trousers, but there was no way that I could submit them to the public scrutiny of a race. Just for this one occasion I would need to borrow a pair of orthodox ski pants. This I did . . . a fellow pupil had two pairs. Clad in unfamiliar dark green pants, I was ready to play a totally inconspicuous part.

It was my plan to stay in a group well at the back. No-one would notice me, all eyes would be on the front-runners, and any lack of expertise in my skiing technique would be hidden from public view. We set off from the top of the mountain. Sticking to my plans, I lingered contentedly in the rear. But what was this . . . to my horror, I suddenly realised that the zip in my borrowed ski pants was coming undone. Perhaps there’d been a button at the top that I’d failed to notice . . . perhaps it was a faulty zip . . . whatever the reason, it was fast opening and, should I remain where I was at the back of the field, there was no doubt that I would reach the winning post with my borrowed ski pants unceremoniously and conspicuously around my ankles!

It was a choice between fame or shame . .. for the first and only time in my life, I plumped for the excitement of sporting competition! Down the mountain I shot . . . down my hips crept the traitorous ski pants! But, as I sped over the finishing line, the pants were still in place . . . whilst I, a total outsider, was the proud, but unexpected, winner of a Bronze Medal!

Somewhere, in the back of a drawer or lost in a cupboard, an old Bronze Medal still tells that story. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree . . . I’m not really entitled to Category Seven in the Enneagram Test!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ponderings . . .

Have you. I wonder, time for a little rumination . . . ? If so, read on, if not . . . well just skip it!

There was an excellent programme on BBC2 the other night called 'The Retreat'. Did you watch? In the programme one of the participants asked, in genuine perplexity, "Why would you sit in silence for an hour? Time is money."
I had to smile because it reminded me of something that struck me at Box Hill. One of the many good things about going to Box Hill is that it allows time to ponder. I like the word 'ponder', it lacks the urgency of 'think' or the earnestness of 'reflect'. Pondering can be light-hearted or profound - but it's always enjoyable.

But to cease pondering on 'ponder', and to get to the point. On Sunday morning my newspaper was delivered to the bedroom and it came complete with a 'Free DVD'. Not having a DVD player this didn't cause me any excitement, but it did cause me to ponder on the nature of a free gift. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this DVD wasn't free at all. Oh yes, it didn't cost any money. But money comes and goes. What it did cost was the far more valuable and irreplaceable commodity of time. The DVD was a robber. It would steal from the person who received it at least an hour-and-a-half of finite, precious time. An hour-and-a-half of their limited life-span.

We're a generation who are always feeling rushed for time. No wonder when so much of it is stolen every day. Take that Sunday newspaper. If I'd read it conscientiously it would have taken at least a couple of hours.. Then there were the two crosswords, three sudoku (alas, I'm addicted to sudoku!) . . . all in all, complete with the DVD, that newspaper would have voraciously consumed six or more hours of that single day. And then, the following day, along would come another equally time-consuming paper to do the same thing all over again!
We wonder where our time goes. We complain that time is going ever faster and faster. But it isn't time, it's us. We load ourselves with IPods (which take time to listen to), with DVDs (more time), we record the TV programmes we aren't able to watch (and search in vain for the time to watch these recorded programmes).

It seems to be electronic goods that have the worst, time-consuming quality. Books don't.
You can browse a book, not a CD. You aren't rushed to the end of a book at a speed dictated by someone else. You can take your time (even that phrase is appropriate) and not feel caught up in its slip-stream.

And it isn't just time that's being stolen, it's also our peace of mind. We are sated with electronic marvels. Our sensibilities are clogged with stuff. We have electronic indigestion. All right, I may not hold with rewards, but I do believe in consequences. Now, whether we deserve it, earn it, or even want it we are bombarded with music, information and entertainment. How can your eyes sparkle with joy at the first notes of a Mozart concerto when you've only to reach out for a plastic disc to hear the same thing, in stereo, any time you feel the urge?

And that's the joy of Box Hill. Plodding happily through the mud, time and entertainment are forgotten, they don't matter. When you get back the walk seems to have lasted for ever, you are full of air . . . and space . . . and fresh inspiration . . .

Oh dear, I asked if you had time for a rumination, but do you know what? Here am I, filling your over-crowded day, stuffing your over-loaded computer with unearned, undeserved and unwanted, electronically transmitted chatter!!

Forgive me! I just wish I could offer you a wonderful, restorative, muddy walk on a wintry Box Hill as well-deserved compensation!