My sister’s husband works for a pharma company, and don’t worry, I regularly harangue him on the evils his employers perpetuate, their cynical pricing and how in an ideal world we would all be going to the grizzled old wise man who lives by the stream on the moor for some concoction or other when our ill health demands it. (The only respite he gets when I visit my sister is to retire to the loo, ostensibly, to take a dump, but even then I’ve found standing outside and yelling through the locked door can be quite effective. No man must be allowed to hide from the truth.) He has been posted abroad three times, which means my sister and her family have spend around five years each time in Manila, in the Philippines, Istanbul, Turkey, and are within weeks returning from a stint in Warsaw, Poland.
Holding down the job he does, my brother-in-law is very well-paid (and it has to be said the Germans do look after their own), but their lifestyle in Manila was truly colonial, paid for, of course, by her husbands bosses: a guard at the gate (no doubt armed), a man to take care of the pool, a driver, a great many maids (I think eight in total, one for each bathroom) and a superbly uniformed major domo who had merely one duty, to stand by the door when guests arrived looking very grand (and my sisters tells me he was very good at his job).
My sister insists the set-up wasn’t quite as outrageously swanky as it seems and, anyway, her domestic arrangements were quite modest compared to those of others. She also tells me (and I believe her) that employing so many folk (I won’t call them ‘natives’ or else I’ll have the Guardian on my back) is a real boost to the economy and at least 12 Filipino families are supported who might otherwise have nowt.
Life was similarly pleasant in Istanbul, where the family, or at least those of her four children still at home, lived in a rather splendid palace on a hill overlooking the city with impressive views of the Bosphorus. Warsaw sounds less attractive, however.
But this entry is not about the why and wherefores, hows, whens, whatevers, which ways and whereforuntos of my sister and her husband’s gilded and unmistakably capitalist existence but - you guessed it, you are way, way ahead of me - seasons.
My sister (who like me is half-English and mainly grew up in England until she married at 22 and moved to Germany) tells me that what she missed most while living high on the hog in Manila were the seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter.
There, she says, there were no seasons. The weather was the same throughout the year, hot and muggy, with the occasional muggy and hot interlude. There was no spring and twee poems from readers in the Daily Mail;s Peterborough column about the rebirth of Mother Nature, no summer with the endless chatter we are accustomed to here in Britain when a fine day makes it through to second and we all tell each other how splendid it is to live in Britain. There was no autumn and more twee poems in the Mail about rosy apples, hoary hawthorn and Mother Nature’s beauteous bounty. And there was no winter with poems about ragged Robin Redbreast pecking pitifully against the window begging for a scrap or two and when our transport infrastructure grinds to a complete halt and we all manfully struggle to work by foot through inches of snow. She missed all that (though she assures me, and on balance I believe her, that she was tempted to write a twee poem about ‘God’s glorious seasons’ only rarely and resisted the temptation each time).
Istanbul did have seasons, however, though a geographical oddity meant that in winter when her palace and its grounds on the hill were covered in a foot of snow, she could look down onto the bustling city itself where there was no snow whatsoever. Warsaw, it seems, also has it seasons like Britain, although the weather each brings, especially the winter and summer is pretty extreme: temperatures regularly hit -15c and in the summer hover at around 35c.
(She also tells me that about the only meat you can get in Poland is pork. The Polish eat pork several times a day, for breakfast, lunch and supper, and as soup, hors d’ouvre and for the main course. There are even some traditional desserts involving pork, she says, and not all of them are quite awful. On the other hand beef is rarer than a smile in Scottish kirk, though she did track some down a year or two ago, a restaurant in the red light district of Warsaw whose proprietor is regarded as decidedly odd by everyone else and, naturally, universally shunned. But this entry is about the seasons not meat.)
. . .
I mention this because we are officially now three days into autumn and it is quite noticeable. And here I should admit that autumn is my favourite season. I no longer care as I do in the summer when I sit outside with a glass of something and a Wilde Cigarros and shiver that the are is remarkably damp: after all, it’s autumn. You’re allowed to shiver - even supposed to - in the autumn. Down here in Cornwall, the autumn brings a marked reduction in the number of sodding tourists clogging up our very narrow lanes, although from now until the end of November we still get quite a few anglophile Dutch and the occasional German who arrive for a week or two because they ‘love Cornwall, we always have’ and want to ‘avoid the tourists’.
What are you, then? I always want to ask them. Seriously, if it wasn’t for the fact the Cornwall depends almost entirely on sodding tourists to provide work and keep widespread famine at bay for at least another year, there’s a good case to be made for erecting a barrier across the Tamar bridge at Launceston and turning back everyone who can prove beyond doubt that they are not a tourist and do have legitimate business in Kernow. Bloody tourists. I know for a fact that several magistrates here in North Cornwall treat with remarkable leniency anyone appearing before them charged with violence against a tourist.
Autumn also means the run-up to Christmas (although strictly a short part of that run-up is in winter, which officially begins on December 21), and the occasional bad weather is made a little more bearable because you have something to look forward to. And here in Cornwall October and November are usually very pleasant. OK, they aren’t warm and they bring a fair amount of stormy weather, but once you are holed up in a warm cottage with the woodburner on, it’s very pleasant to hear the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows. I have a theory that you prefer the time of year in which you were born, and my birthday is November 21, pretty much slap in the middle of autumn.
Anyhow, autumn is here and we should make the most of it before we have to soldier through the usually very dull and very trying months of January and February. Having said that, of course, it was even those nastier months which my sister missed when she still live in Manila. My cousin (I call him my cousin, but he is actually my stepmother’s nephew) lived in Taiwan for some time and once when he came back and we were sitting outside having a drink and it began to drizzle, he refused to come in but stayed outside to ‘enjoy’ the drizzle, because, he said, he had missed it so much while in Taiwan.
Here for those who like that kind of thing is an ‘autumnal’ photo, though a strongly suspect Mr Photoshop has had a strong input in this picture. Nothing’s that red.
I must say I enjoyed my two days on the high seas (we put into harbour during the night). Thirty of us set out from Enkhuizen on the Friday afternoon in the Novel, a
converted flat boat of the kind which before the days of mass tourism and pretty much unlimited leisure time (i.e. in the days when we all still worked) would sail along the north coast of Holland and Germany, delivering stuff to Hamburg and bring stuff back from Hamburg, the stuff being pretty much anything which it was easier to transport in bulk by sea rather than by land, clogs, edam cheese, dirndl dresses, that kind of thing.
Anyone who has heard of Erskine Childers famous novel The Riddle Of The Sands but hasn’t read it will know what I am talking about. Incidentally, I did briefly try to start a discussion with some of my sister’s German friends about the feasibility of Germany and England jointly invading Scotland by sea in the event of an independence vote but was smartly sent away with a flea in my ear. Make no mistake: today’s German is a sound democrat who has put his country’s past well behind him and her. If there is to be any invading, it can only be done under the auspices of the EU and by the EU invasion force Jean-Claude Juncker is putting together as I write. (Oh, and by the way, Juncker is not an out-of-control boozer as some malcontents are suggesting. If and when he falls over, it is merely because he has had a gammy leg after a car crash in the late 19th century and often finds it difficult to keep his balance with a glass of brandy in his hand. I think we should be clear on that.)
All those flatboats, and there must have been several hundred of them at Enkhuizen from where we set out and at Monnickendam where we spent the night, have since been converted for accommodation, and ours had 15 cabins. The Novel was a three-master with six sails (I am not speaking with any greater nautical authority, it’s just
that I can count quite well up to 100 and there were certainly not 100 masts and sails on our boat) with a crew of three - the owner, his wife and a crewman, Mick. Mick, by the way, a lad from The Hague with Indonesian heritage, had a degree in economics, one in infomatics - I don’t know what that is either - but then worked as a roofer before deciding his destiny lay in a life on the high seas, or at least on seas that get as high as they do on the Markenmeer.
Once everyone had arrived by 8pm on the Friday, we were shown how to secure the many, many ropes which seem to make up most of such a ship and told the names of the different sails. When I say the Novel had a crew of three, I should add that we were also part of the crew in that when directed to we, en masse, would pull on whatever rope we had to to hoist sails or lower them as necessary. And there was quite a bit of that. The rest of the time, though was ours, in which to do nothing but relax, eat and drink.
I sure there is a proper nautical term for food and booze brought on board to feed passengers - ‘provisions’ and ‘victuals’ sound far to land-based to my ears - but whatever it is there was a hell of a lot of it. Everyone contributed - wine, champagne, Sekt and beer, in particular - but there was more than enough for three square meals a day over two days with a lot of it brought back home again. My brother-in-law, who is a rather good cook, prepared a supper for the Saturday night (with help) of fillet steak, courgettes and risotto, with a very nice Rioja followed by pudding and cheese. It was very good indeed. In the morning everyone (except me - I don’t like to eat at all before noon) sat down to a substantial German breakfast (Brötchen and Schwarzbrot, Schinken, Käse, Konfitüre and Marmelade, and Kaffee) and the snack lunch consisted of bacon and eggs.
This all took a great deal of organisation, and I fell to wondering just what a similar group of Brits would come up. Years ago, at the beginning of term at university we were four in a flat and as nothing had yet been bought, we sent one of our number out to get ‘essentials’. He returned several packets of crisps, a jar of marmalade and a bottle of orange squash. I rather think had this been a Brit excursion, we would all have mucked in and survived on any number of Batchelor’s Cup-a-Soup Extras (‘A big hug in a mug’ apparently), loads of crisps, Morrisons ready meals and Angel Delights. Or perhaps the German in me is coming out and I am just being nasty.
I’ve got to say as far as food is concerned, give me the German way of life any day. I should add, though, that the Brit in me doesn’t take to well to some aspects of German organisation: it was regarded as slightly odd of me to skip breakfast and lunch on both days. (One helpful soul even tried counselling me and remained unconvinced, though diplomatically silent on the matter, when I explained that I simply prefer to eat when I am hungry, not according to some timetable. She definitely thought I was now just a few steps from the funny farm and gave my arm a charitable, knowing squeeze when we all said goodbye to each other on the Sunday afternoon. It assured me she would be there for me if, you know, if . . .).
I’ve got to say I enjoyed it. The only downside was that whereas I once spoke German as fluently as I speak English and was always taken for a German, that complete fluency has, not to make too fine a point, has gone, and I found I couldn’t converse as freely as I would have liked. Certainly all Germans and most of their pets can speak English (although not always as perfectly as the imagine), and like to do so, but, oddly, it just felt wrong to me to be speaking English to a German. That’s as best as I can describe. Although I know, or at least tell myself, that were I to live in Germany among Germans for several weeks I would regain that fluency - the German is most certainly there, but deep down - that seems unlikely to happen. Oh well. Now I must be off to pore over my charts of the North Sea. There surely must be some way to get the fleet up the Tay without causing too much fuss.
. . .
I have long like taking photographs, and now that everyone one of us carries a smartphone (or even two or three) and each has a camera, it is easy to take a snap of this or that when and if. What particular catches my eye are patterns in our surroundings. They might not be obvious at all, but I will see something and in a matter of moments take a picture (and usually then dicking around with it a little, usually giving it a judicious crop. Here is one such picture, taken at work a day or two ago:
I pasted it on Facebook and it immediately drew the following comment from my daughter: You are so strange wtf have you taken pictures of stairs for (sic).
My repy was ‘Elsie, it is not ‘a picture of stairs’. It is a picture of light and shadow and lines and curves. Try to look at it that way. Try to look at it as thought it were an abstract picture, not a picture of something you can recognise.’
My question is simple: am I getting soft-headed? I like the picture, as I like this one
and the same applies to each: don’t look at it as an object you might recognise, but try to look at it somehow in abstract. I suppose rotating a particular picture might help, to break that link between what we see and what we think we know. Like this
Here’s another question: am I losing it? I don’t think so, and for me all three pictures hold a certain, though it has to be said trivial, interest? But I do like the ‘light and shade and lines and curves’. Is there a lot wrong with that?