Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

May 30th, 2013 Meldrewing

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Third day of rain in a row. Slugs and snails have tucked into my squashes and peas but eschew the delicious ground elder I left out for them. Just before we dropped off last night, Ann seriously asked me whether they can climb chicken-wire. I mumbled something reassuring but privately I’m pretty sure that the locals have SAS training.

Nearly June and I daren’t let the woodburner go out.

The sparrows are gathering chirpily. It’s obvious that they didn’t have to watch yesterday’s tedious England v Ireland match. I’d better put my wellies on and fill up the bird-feeders.

I shall probably skid on a slug and rick something.

May 29th 2013 Peaks, Petrels and other Madeleine Moments

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Rose before 6.00 to the news that it’s 60 years to the day since Tenzing and Hilary conquered Everest. The excitement of that comes flooding back – with proud memories of the first press photos; of Mr Bullock’s pointer tapping at the red parts of the world map unrolled over the blackboard, indicating, so that we, the 49 children in his class at St Saviours Westgate-on-Sea understood just how much of the globe Great Britain still ruled; and the clipped, excited voices of reporters on The BBC Home Service.

This came only moments after another Proustian flood of nostalgia – this time for the community hall attached to the cathedral in Hong Kong where I and my fellow scouts in the 36th H K (Cathedral Troop) milled noisily about with our eyes closed, calling the other members of our patrols to gather. It was easy enough for the Seagulls and the Owls to attract attention to one another – but a real problem for us Storm Petrels. None of us had a clue what a petrel was or what they sounded like.

But just before the news today (and a mere 57 or so years later) I heard the cry of that very seabird on David Attenborough’s Tweet of the Day. It was, as he helpfully suggested, a little bit like a fairy being sick. God! What an opportunity such knowledge would have afforded us arbitrarily and hopelessly croaking, creaking, whistling SPs of yore! And there was another snippet of useful info. Apparently these creatures are sometimes known as Jesus Christ birds because of the way they sometimes tip-toe over the surface of the sea with their wings spread. That would have been gold dust to boys with energy to spare.
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Now I see in my mind’s eye dear old Jimmy Froude, the curate, a jolly young sport who would let me and my friend take turns – considerably under-age though we were – to steer his ancient Morris Minor up the steep road to Mount Austen – where we lived. I can hear the Dean calling to his wife … “Dahling! Dahling!” and see the shining, round, eager face of young Timothy Beaumont whose confirmation classes I attended in something of a respectful daze. He was the assistant chaplain. I knew nothing except that like the Dean, he sounded awfully posh. Of Eton, Christ Church, the Bullingdon Club, the Wager’s (Hellfire) club, his stonking Fourth and his subsequent call to holy orders, I was entirely ignorant. But would I have been better off with access to Wikipedia then?

Nah. Bliss it was to be alive in ignorance, mate.

May 26th. Kitten-Power and Sentient Pants

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At breakfast, Les and Eva hubristically consider the kitten problem solved; in that the small brutes have been ingeniously consigned to the outer regions of the utility room and the cat flap has been securely taped shut. As we open our perfectly boiled eggs and congratulate Les on his timing and technique, the kittens are working together as a team. We are on the point of dipping in our soldiers when the conspirators break and enter, bursting through the taped up catflap like the drug squad. It’s worth a bit of cat-lick on your buttered toast to have witnessed something as remarkable as that.

We all sail off to a birthday lunch in Putney in the new (You should smell it, Ian. Only five thousand and change on the odometer!) car and naturally, I suffer a good going over from everyone for being reeled in by the nice man at the showroom. Everyone gasps theatrically at the automatic tailgate mechanism and they all practically wet themselves when the reversing camera kicks in. Naturally, I rise above all this.

The party is in the garden. The food is delicious, the guests well-chosen and fascinating, the drink – for those not driving home – good stuff and plenty of it. We have a great time in the sun and – would you believe it! – we have yet another example of the numinous powers of inanimate objects! It turns out that both pairs of white trousers present have attracted – to the area just below what I believe is called the gusset – a fine spattering of tomato pips. All darker laps remain unsullied.

Halina is right, by all that bursts, snaps off and squirts! I may have to report this phenomenon to the Saturday Live team on Radio 4…

May 24th and 25th. Ghosts in Machines

May 27, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

The idea has been creeping up on me for a while. So I bought a car today, Saturday. We signed on the deal at 11.11a.m, my Sales Exec and I. He liked the idea of 11.11; it was neat.

The showroom has something of the Tate Modern about it; my Sales Exec, with his impressive Roy Strong haircut, more like its elegant curator than the man charged with parting me from a considerable sum of money. He talks quietly and steadily to me for most of a miserably cold and rainy Friday in an accent only occasionally betraying Glasgow, California and Chicago. His Middle Eastern origins are not apparent in his voice.

He’s back in England and just back in the car game after a divorce that has prompted him to start afresh. Once, he confides, as we take a drive together in the direction of the A1, he ran a fleet of limos out west. He was personally in demand, albeit he had forty drivers working for him, by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Princess Grace, Lisa Minelli and Gregory Peck. All perfectly polite and reasonable people. Some of the women could be a little flaky of course, but only to be expected. The problem was now and then one wanted to have him all to herself and that was not going to happen. She would say maybe they should take the Corniche Convertible and drive to Vegas. That way she could tan while riding.

Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston he wasn’t so fond of. Most stars were generous. They were polite people. But some treated their fans, frankly, Ian, like crap. He could tell me things … but he shares with the priest and the doctor a reluctance to break confidences. John Travolta. Now there was a beautiful man, but a sad one, a mixed up one. He drove him for six years. The things some of those bastards did to him in the early years, Ian, excuse me …

When I drove my old car in on Saturday morning to complete the exchange, I felt rather miserable. It was like leading a faithful horse to the knacker’s yard. And there was something flat about the car, too; its offside rear tyre, actually. Later, when Ann and I were eating supper among old friends, and I mention this, Halina nods sympathetically in the way that certain Europeans do. It was the same with her handbag, she says. She went with it to Fenwicks to buy a replacement and its handle broke. They can feel these things, Ian.

We have a wonderful evening. My dear old chum Les has invited us south of the river, to a church in Mitcham, to hear a Pastoral Messiah – a dramatized performance in which Unexpected Opera is performing with the Colliers Wood Choral – of which Les, in spite of ghastly bouts of illness, remains a stalwart of the Bass section. Ann and I are deeply touched by the occasion and not least because he and Eva have gone the extra mile and put us up for the night – in spite of the fact that the bathroom boys have been in, ripping and plastering. Nobody should have to put up with visitors when they’re under that kind of pressure.

A post- show supper is enlivened by chumly banter and cats. Les and Eva are minding two hilariously badly-behaved Abissinian kittens. They climb walls, open cupboards, get on the gas stove while saucepans are boiling, walk on the table, crawl into your lap and attempt to share your lasagne. They have been named (by the son-in-law-soon-to-be) not Haile and Selassi as Les had suggested, but after the two most famous quarter backs in the world … whose names I’ve forgotten. It wasn’t Pinky and Perky; I know that… Anyway – whatever their names are, those guys must be hyper.

Who….me?
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May 23rd Who was Milton Keyne?

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I wondered… Lonely in a small crowd… And, yes, idly, as I headed by train deep into Bucks, about the crossing of the River Wat; whether Tring was really Trying; the meaning of Hemel and whether it would have been a Hamel if Hempstead hadn’t had to be invented to avoid a clash with Hampstead.

My taxi driver in LB put me right about the Buzzard as we wound through it. It was a family name. So what family, I asked. Norman, d’you think? Could it have been a reward for helping William to be a Conqueror? He wasn’t sure. But he thought that the Leighton part means hamlet. That makes sense. A tun on a lea. A cluster of houses round a clearing. Not any more, matey. Look, it’s got a Waitrose.

Then I arrived at the school, Heathwood Lower, and turned my mind to the job in hand. We’re up the leafy end, here. Nice, chatty greeting from the lady in the office – always a good sign; means that one has not come as too much of a shock. There’s some help with plugging-in my laptop; water and a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes. Just in case. The Head makes time for a chat, too, tired though she is after a late meeting with the School Govs and a weeny bit tense since there’s a school inspection in the offing – a 24hrs-notice job. Not that there’s much to worry about, I would surmise – since the children (and the staff) are perky, good listeners and game for quelquechose un peu off-piste.

Just two sessions a bit of robo-work for the photographer from the LB Observer, some signing and that’s the whole school sorted. I’m home by about 2.30. Wrung out, though. All the excitement, see?

So I had a little kip – and a chat on the phone with Aitch from Harper-Collins – a follow-up to our discussion in Hammersmith earlier in the week. Haven’t quite pinned down an idea that excites enough to get the old synapses snapping, but we’re getting there.

So nice to be encouraged and wanted. Was it something like that that got those men out of bed the other day in Woolwich and led them to butcher a man in a Help the Heroes T-shirt? If only they’d felt valued for some other reason.

May 21st Medals All Round

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Stopped over in Cambridge last night in order to be poised for Peterborough today. Ted and Amelie, my grandchildren, were waiting up for me, Ted with news ( and demos) of Judo techniques for throws and falls and Am advertising the new gap in her front teeth and the wobbly one next to it.

Wobble-wobble

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Ted tells me the latest about My Story World, which he has loaded on the family iPad, pointing out that the company has taken to heart my advice, when he and I visited the office together, to get children colouring creatively. Boy, that kid knows how to pay attention. And he can spell “gnarled”!

Wait…It’s g-n-a-r-l-e-d

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Not only that; Am can play the cello. Oy! So talented!

Roll over Yo-Yo!

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My daughter Lucy-the-actress (OY!) is away observing drama classes, so David is mine host. He’s the entrepreneur of the family, and the brains I like to pick. What I admire about him is his spirit of enquiry. He gives me a glass of red. “I’ve started drinking Malbec,” he says. “I really like it.” There’s a hint of a rising inflection at the end of this, one that allows me to reveal what I think about it, and also allows the possibility that I have more experience of wine, more refined tastes. That’s the way he is: a giver. If he doesn’t know about something, he says so and asks about it. When I was a teacher I learned to cover up my ignorance in order to protect myself from the egos of colleagues or the probing of students – but he has reminded me of the pleasure you give other people by allowing them to tell you things. So what if they look smug and go on too long? It’s your store they’re adding to at the insignificant price of giving their self-esteem a tickle under the chin. Everybody wins.

To Longthorpe School.

As usual I arrive earlier than I meant to but Vici, my minder comes up with the goods – a nice cuppa ( tho she avoids hot drinks herself) and a brownie. Yum. I surmise that this – apart from Mr White the Head – is an all-female-teachers institution and that somebody is having a birthday. This turns out to be right.

Biggish school. Pleasantly situated on a superior estate. Twenty languages spoken here. And today the new library opens; BIG moment. I have a great time, am made very welcome and awarded a large gold No 1 Author badge because the kids ran a small ballot to decide who to invite. At the last minute, they’ve invited Julia Jarman along to talk to the littlies in the afternoon and to help me open the new library. There’s no badge for her. Naturally, I flaunt mine and make her WILDLY jealous.

As a gesture of author solidarity I remove it before the photographer turns up. But here it is. Just in case you didn’t believe me.Smirk.

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May 19th Last Morning in Lviv

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There’s time on the morning of my departure for a farewell coffee with Kateryna  in the main square and even for a swift visit to an ancient – and still functioning Apothecary’s shop.

A picture on the menu celebrates the four ancient guardians of the square – and these are joined by tiny, exquisite butterfly-like creatures. At first I can’t work out what they are because they’ve become separated from their more familiar lofty location. They’re chestnut blossoms.

Our sunny idyll is jarred by the sudden noisy arrival of a crowd of nuns, orthodox priests and people carrying banners. I assume that this is a call to prayer, a reminder to us coffee-drinkers and strollers in the sunshine of where we ought to be  – but it’s worse. It’s a rant against the decadence of the US, against homosexuals and the godless. It’s ugly and Kateryna is upset.

It reminds her of the bitter Writers’ Union organiser who berated her for not wishing to become a member, warning her that she couldn’t properly call herself a writer unless she is like them. “But I am not like them,” she explains. “We are all different. But I am a writer.”

But it’s the kindness of my hosts and the independent spirit of Kateryna that makes such  demonstrations seem an aberration. And on my 14 hour slow journey home I shall begin the process of marshaling and mulling over some of my many happy memories of a delightful Ukrainian interlude.

May 18th Scouting vs Sociopathy

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Little Wolf is big among the Scouts of Ukraine – girls as well as boys – and at the last state-wide jamboree they made a big thing of a dramatized version of The Book of Badness. This is because, in the end the small brute rejects the Nine Wolfly Rules of Badness and decides not only to go his own way in the world but that the Scout rules give you more of an even break – plus an opportunity to have adventures  and to enjoy camping. Sadly, the connection between LW and cubs is lost in translation, because they don’t actually call young scouts cubs here. Never mind; one of the patrols has called itself the Little Wolves as a gesture in the right direction. Anyway, it explains today’s itinerary.

11.30 – book-based quest for scouts on the territory of the Festival

12.00 – lunch at the Trout&Bread&Wine

13.00 – meeting with scouts at the hall of the Lviv Palace of Arts

14.00 – autograph-session at the stand of the Old Lion Publishing House

16.00 – press-conference at the Ye Bookstore

18.30 – dinner

 

The quest is impressively conceived. The scouts form groups that have to solve a series of problems. Some are fun – a game of blow football and selecting what’s edible and not, for example.

Others, like putting up a tent, sending messages by semaphore, writing a letter   – are a bit more testing.

The leaders here include – dressed sportingly as Uncle Bigbad – a lecturer in architecture at the local university. The rest are all teachers or students who clearly regard this work as their patriotic duty. There’s discipline here but no sign of the militarism of Baden-Powell’s early movement and none of state-control or propaganda; only a shared pleasure in playing, singing and doing things together creatively. The camp-fire entertainment was designed, one of the leaders explained “to create a profound involving in story” where the children had to act out and sing about what they decided (with a bit of guidance) to be a series of satisfying next steps in a Little Wolf adventure. And deeply involved they were – for at least an hour.

By the time it was all over and I’d done a hectic signing session, it was gone 3.00. So Kateryna and I repaired to the Trout etc for a quick salad  – and then off to the conference at a bookshop named after one of the letters of the alphabet that differentiates Ukrainian from Russian. This, I’m told, says BIG statement. In a little lecture room upstairs, a couple of dozen journos, librarians, teachers etc are waiting. It’s a fabulous Saturday afternoon and there they are. And they’re Interested – not something you would expect in most English towns I can immediately bring to mind.

The questions come thick and fast for an hour – but gently, without much spin or bounce until a chap at the back goes into a diatribe about the failure of the system to teach children to read etc etc. Later, when the Old Lion gang and I are assembled for supper I meet a star of the Ukrainian literary scene. She is the formidable Oksana Zabushko whose latest 700 page novel – The Museum of Abandoned Secrets  – is to be launched by Pan in London in June. Given that she is in the know about the state of the nation, I grill her about why Tymosenko is still in jail. To her this woman is the Ukrainian Berlosconi – an actor, a sociopath who deserves to stay there. I tell her about the angry man. There is always one at every meeting, she says. We live in dysfunctional times, corruption everywhere. People want to know how to live.

Incidentally, on the way to the restaurant, we came across a glam lady dressed like a houri who was draping herself across the bronze statue of one of the town’s most famous representatives of the days of Lviv under the Austrian Empire when the city was called Lemberg – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, he of Venus in Furs fame.

He is still esteemed here as a great man of letters who has been unfairly sound-bitten into a sexual perversion by Kraft-Ebing and others.

It’s an education, this travelling lark.

May 17th. City of Lions

May 18, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Here at Hotel Reikartz Medievale in Old Lviv, you can hang a cute notice on your door handle:

HE TYPBYBATN.

This serves a dual function: alerting the Ukrainian people both to the fact that you do not wish to be interrupted and that you are writing your blog in the bath.

This morning I have plenty to think about and a little time to report on what happened yesterday since I don’t get a call before 10.45 today.

At 9 o’clock yesterday, Kateryna, my minder, Dep Ed of Old Lion Publishing and mother of two, arrived panting and all aglow, the traffic having caused her to have to sprint to whisk me from the hotel to the tv studio. We arrived mid-programme and so were sucked into it in medias res by two very attractive young women and their loud, fast-talking male side-kick.

We batted about Qs and As which focused at first on my infant work about a dead cat in a box and mine host’s illustration of same on a whiteboard. I was then challenged to create a story concerning a panda with a sugary sports’-drink habit.

It was a family programme.

There followed a whistle-stop tour of churches, starting with the oldest,

moving on through the glitteriest to the most sombre – the Armenian church which, though ravaged by the Soviet Army after the revolution, remains darkly impressive, especially with the lone figure of the priest kneeling before the altar singing the morning service to the lady in the shop in that swooping way that Jewish cantors have: it can’t fail to bring a lump to the most heathen of throats.

Down through the narrow street, past a courtyard where toys come to die,

past the once royal palace to the new Palace of Arts and Culture. The joint is HEAVING with children in fancy dress , hundreds of them in the yard enjoying a dance-routine performed by 9 year-old schoolgirls armed with brooms doing a version of Jailhouse Rock kitch enough to rival the King’s himself in the flick of that name.

Inside, you can’t move for princesses and folk-heroes but somehow I manage a trawl of the bookstalls.

This has the usual, slightly lowering effect on me that all bookfairs have: you may be getting the star treatment with radio and tv presenters poking batteries of mikes under your nose,

but all these thousands of books restore a sense of reality.

Our presentation on stage involves me, the translator of Little Wolf into Ukrainian and the illustrator of the cover; Marjana, the boss; a bloke dressed up us the Old Lion of her logo; my translator, Kateryna and a packed audience of kids and teachers. Only the wardrobe is missing, I hear you cry,  or you could do the musical right there. The kids pile in and are eventually installed two to a seat. Cheerfully they sing the Lion-song, admit that they much prefer playing on computers to reading and bombard us with literary questions: How old are you? Do you like Lviv? What is your best book wot you av rit?, etc. One little chap comes up on stage and explains why he hates reading. Why? “I’m too lazy.” But if you had a copy of The Book of Badness, would you read it to your mamma? “No way. She can’t even be bothered to read to ME.”

 

A Sobering Interval

Lunch at the Trout and Wine proves to be memorable on two counts.

Firstly, the trout with spinach and cottage cheese:

This turns out not only to be delicious but, though it looks like a trout and stares at you with the resentful eyes of a trout, it is in actual fact  entirely boneless. I swear, there is not one hairy little rib to test the tongue and threaten death by choking. As I marvel at this, and speculate on how the boning was achieved, somebody suggests that I may have been served Truit a la Chernobyl.

We all snigger a bit and I am moved to ask how things are in that part of the world. My fellow lunchers shrug and mention that some people refused to move from the danger zone and that others have moved back to nearby villages in defiance of warnings.

Then the guy who has illustrated the cover for the Ukrainian editions of the Little Wolf books drops a bigger bombshell. He was there. He was 21, doing service in the military police not much more than 40k from the town. He was ordered to get in and direct the evacuation of as many of the population as could be persuaded to leave. He describes how he made himself a helmet and a privates-protector out of sheets of lead; how all the men, officers and other ranks had to step out of their contaminated clothes on cold evenings so that they can be removed for destruction; how they have to stand naked in the fields near their camp before being doused down and provided with fresh uniforms; how they had to return again and again to the central danger zone and how his dad cried when he came home.

After another presentation back at the Palace of Arts and a long signing session, I’m taken back for a lie down and told to meet later than arranged, at nine, for a little party with fellow writers and book enthusiasts. At the appointed hour, Kateryna (who has been home to attend to her family) takes me to a place not far from the hotel which doubles as a cultural centre and a place to eat in the open. There’s a great exhibition of photos, slightly reminiscent of Diane Arbus in their focus on the bleak and bizarre and black and white – though instead of being exploitative, which Arbus sometimes is to me, these were simply bleak, sometimes darkly comic, sometimes sad and angry.

Dinner was a noisy affair when I ate and everyone else (who had eaten already) plied me with honeyed vodka spiced with cinnamon. Nuff said.

It was midnight when I hit the sack – luxuriating in the knowledge that my next call of duty would not be until 11 o’clock on Saturday.

16th May Lviv via Warsaw

May 18, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Ann’s always ahead, so the alarm goes off at 3.20 am. The taxi driver is cheery though his English is demanding. Terminal 1 is at 4.30 pretty much what it’s always like, except they don’t have the papers. Air Poland supplies the Mail and a sort of Ryvita cracker biscuit with sweet cream-cheese in the middle. The bumpy flight is made more bearable by my neighbour, John. He’s an ex-dancing instructor been in and out of property since his tendons went and is, having lost several million at the game in the 90s, eating, sleeping and dreaming it. He has plenty of units to be going on with – and borrowing was never cheaper – and he’s chosen to base himself in Warsaw with a girlfriend almost half his age. To baby or not to baby is the question preoccupying him.

The news that the connecting flight to Lviv is delayed by an hour is a handful of grit in the eyes.

We arrive and we’re into the Itinerary supplied by Kateryna, Dep Director of Lion Publishing and cheery and lovely with it.

Kateryna
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13.50 – arrival to Lviv (Hollow laugh) Marjana the boss is there and a chap who films the meet and greeting.
15.00 – moving in Reikartz Hotel
15.30-16.00 – lunch at the First Grill Restaurant of Meat and Justice
16.00-18.00 – excursion over the old city
18.00 – meeting with TV journalists at studio.
19.00 – dinner at Masons Restaurant

The Hotel is great and the FGR of Meat and Justice is exactly what it says on the tin. Next to our table a young chap gamely ( get it?) allows himself to be lowered in a cage through a hole in the floor by a laughing fellow dressed as an executioner. Nice salad, though.

The TV station is in a purpose-built edifice constructed by the Soviets. Its corridors are concrete and bunker-like with cells leading off them. Our studio is up steep stairs in some sort of attic. The interview is very serious with long questions, long answers and long pauses for translation. I try to imagine who – apart from somebody lowered through the floor at the FGRMJ in a cage – would watch this.

We wander the warm streets ( it’s like being in Italy or Spain) People are dressed up; there’s a film being made involving peasants sitting on forms crashing bumpers of ale together with loud cries. Maybe it’s a beer ad.

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We dine, with Marjana at Masons. Like the Meat and Justice, this does what it promises and sits you in a darkened space under portraits of famous masons and a screen with a loop portraying some of the masonic mysteries – including the handshake. How’s that for added value?
After a tasty supper – to bed – absoluement knackeray.