The Child is Father of the Man

January 5th, 2022 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who died during his final journey to the Antarctic at the age of forty seven.

In 2002, a television series, recounting the story of Shackleton’s 1914 journey to the South Pole, received international acclaim. As it was filmed on location in Iceland and Greenland, the actors experienced some of the conditions under which the early polar explorers would have travelled across the Antarctic.

Our daughters, Polly and Lucy were pupils at St. Christopher, Letchworth where the uncle of a boy in the Junior School had had a major role in the film. The school invited him to a morning assembly to speak about his experiences on location. His talk was enthralling and his pitch was perfect, providing tense excitement without being boastful or overly inflated. During the Q+A session, I expected the children to ask questions about the extreme temperatures, the presence of dangerous animals and how the actors spent their time when they weren’t filming. Instead, the questions were very personal: Do you live in a flat or a house? Do you have any pets? What’s your favourite food?The Head teacher was clearly embarrassed and encouraged the pupils to be relevant to the topic in hand. The children’s interest, however, was focussed on Jake’s uncle and not on his life as a working actor. What kind of man was he? How and where did he live? Was he kind to animals? They were indifferent to his fame and the people he knew; what concerned them was his authenticity. Was he a good person? Was he trustworthy?

Ernest Shackleton was a leading figure in early Polar exploration. He was undoubtedly a brave man. He was also an inspirational one. His men trusted him, they respected him and they followed him.

 

The Child is Father of the Man by William Wordsworth, taken from My Heart Leaps Up, 1802

 

Poppy

In the spring of 2016 I was on a night flight out of Seattle. My travelling companions were two-year old Poppy and her mother. Poppy’s grandfather had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and they were flying to North Carolina to be with him. Poppy told me long stories in a language I didn’t understand, in a tone that was both passionate and thoughtful. As we flew over the lights of the city, she pressed her nose to the window and said ‘Wow, Wow ….’  over and over again.

Poppy found the long flight difficult and she cried a lot. Her mother rocked and soothed her and apologised to me for the disturbance. She carried her little girl up and down the aisle but nothing could stop the crying. The mother was clearly challenged and utterly helpless in the face of her daughter’s distress. I sat with my eyes closed, managing my own feelings of empathy and physical discomfort. In a quiet moment, I felt a gentle kiss on my arm as Poppy offered me a small apology of her own.

In order to become a parent, you don’t need to be wealthy or a particular height or skilled in any way. There are no degree programmes, no pass or fail. As parents all we really have available to us are internships, the ones we received in childhood as we watched our own parents be parents. There are 7 billion people on the planet and only two of them are our biological parents. It is a unique and never to be repeated relationship. We talk about the places we used to live, the organisations we worked for, the people we were married to, but we never talk about our ‘ex mothers’ or our ‘former fathers’. The attitude and the behaviour may be there, but there is no language for it in any  culture. Our parents may not be what we longed for, but they are what we have been given and there is nothing we can do to change that. We can deny it, we can wish it away but we can’t stop it being true.

When we got off the plane in Charlotte, Poppy was fast asleep in her mother’s arms and, as we re-claimed our bags at the carousel, the little girl’s mother apologized to me one last time. I told her how much I had enjoyed meeting them both and how fortunate they were to be related to one another.

 

The Tide is High but I’m Holding On.

Folkestone’s most famous Channel swimmer is undoubtedly the delightfully-named Sam Rockett who, following his success in 1950, trained Channel swimmers, managed the open-air pool and owned The Frogmore Tearooms in Sandgate Road.

In 1987, Peter Jurzynski became the 329th person to swim the English Channel. Over the next twenty years he made the crossing from Shakespeare Beach to Cap Gris-Nez fourteen times. His record time was 12 hours and 7 minutes. Today more than 4000 people, from orchestral conductors to garage managers, have successfully swum the Channel, a crossing that is still recognised as the Blue Riband of open-water swimming, the Everest of the seas.

Every summer, for more than a decade, Jurzynski, a city councillor from Massachusetts,  came to the School of English Studies in Folkestone to talk to our students about his experiences. One of SES’s Japanese students successfully followed his  lead and swam the Channel in the late 1990s. Peter, now 69, retired from Channel swimming in 2010, but still returns to his ‘adopted hometown’ twice a year. From his home in Naugatuck, Connecticut,  Peter spoke to me about his passion for the Channel and his affection for Folkestone.

One of the greatest challenges of crossing the Straits of Dover is the tidal drift, so although it’s only 21 miles to France, the shifting tides can result in swimmers covering twice that distance. Peter recalls that one year he was just 200 yards shy of the French coast when tides and a strong wind pushed him back out to sea. Eventually he surrendered to exhaustion. As part of his daily training, therefore, Peter would swim against the tide from the Leas Lift to Sandgate.

The waters of the English Channel are notoriously cold and infested with jellyfish, although Peter says he was more concerned with rough seas, wind chop and the fact that the Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world: there can be up to 600 vessels in the Straits on any one day. Fog, swimming at night and high seas all contribute to the possibility that escort boats can lose sight of their charges. Much has changed since Peter first swam the Channel thirty-four years ago. Boats have GPS, and whilst he ate biscuits and drank orange juice on his ‘feeds’, today’s swimmers are sustained by electrolytes and energy drinks.

The first person to swim the Channel was Matthew Webb in 1875. A 27 year-old Englishman, wearing porpoise fat and red silk swimming trunks, he completed the crossing in 21 hours and 45 minutes. He was to die eight years later attempting to cross the rapids at Niagara Falls. A bronze bust of Captain Webb stands on Marine Parade in Dover.

Channel swimming is an expensive hobby and Peter, like many swimmers, was on a tight budget. In 1985 the cost of hiring an escort boat and pilot was £600. Today that figure is closer to £3,000. Waiting for the right conditions requires patience and, following his daily acclimatization training, Peter would spend time at Folkestone Library where he read the newspapers and developed a lifelong interest in British politics.

In 2008, Jurzynski underwent by-pass surgery and although he made two further attempts at swimming the Channel, he was not successful. I don’t view them as failures, he said. I’m not competing with others, but with myself. Some of the best swimmers in the world fail the English Channel. I made it 14 times.

Covid restrictions permitting, Peter will return next month for his forty-fourth visit to Folkestone.

 

 

The Nook

My favourite vegetarian restaurant in Folkestone fell foul of the pandemic and is no more.  Its successor, The Nook is, however, a fine substitute. The eggy crumpets, soaked and fried on the griddle, topped with avocado, paprika and pea shoots are excellent and my American husband described his American pancakes as fluffy and delicious.

Eleanor Townley and her partner, James Canter grew up in Folkestone. They left at 18 and went to university – James to study Criminology at Southampton, Eleanor to read History and Politics at UEA. Then, they returned to their hometown, because … well …why wouldn’t they? In 2021 The Sunday Times, Harpers Bazaar and The Evening Standard all rated Folkestone as one of the best places to live in the UK.

Eleanor’s mother, Clare, has run Mermaids Cafe on the Lower Leas for more than 20 years. Her aunt and uncle, Jessica and Simon, manage the Champagne Bar on the Harbour Arm. James’ Uncle Paul, a former grill chef at the Savoy in London, ran Paul’s Restaurant on Bouverie Road West for more than 40 years. James learnt to cook from his mother. Between them, these two families know a lot about Folkestone and they know a lot about hospitality.

When they were growing up, the town offered very little in the way of cafe culture. ‘We all used to meet at Starbucks’ recalls Eleanor. ‘After university, most of our friends went to live in London. Now, they have all moved back to Folkestone’. She and James are deeply embedded in the community and they recognise that the support of family, friends and local businesses has been invaluable, especially during these globally challenging times. Siblings help out in the cafe and Eleanor’s sister, Rebecca, who works as an Assistant Producer at the Folkestone Fringe, painted the illustrations for the wall menu.

A family business is generally inherited from the previous generation. What’s unusual about James and Eleanor’s families is that their cafes and restaurants all launched at different times and are independent of one another, with each family providing something a little different to the local community. They are all located within walking distance of each other.  ‘It’s a lifestyle choice’ explains James. ‘The freedom to manage our own time is important to all of us. We work weekends and we close on Mondays and Tuesdays. On our days off we enjoy spending time together. Someone cooks, we go on trips, we walk our dogs. We all have dogs’. Bella, who is part Jack Russell, part sausage dog, sits quietly on Eleanor’s lap as we talk.

I will return to The Nook, not just because the food is great and Eleanor and James are friendly people but because I love family stories. And this is a wonderful Folkestone family story.

Adapted from an article published in Go Folkestone,  November 2021

Sugar paper in the beaks of birds of paradise

from ‘Last Words’ by Michael Symmons Roberts   (www.https://symmonsroberts.com)

(i)
You have a new message:
Kiss the kids goodbye from me
Keep well, keep strong, you know
I’m sure, but here’s to say I love you.
I lay these voice-prints
like a set of tracks, to stop
you getting lost among the tall trees
beneath the break-less canopy,
on the long slow walk you take
from here without me.

(ii)
You have a new message:
I do not want to leave you this
magnetic print, this digit trace,
my coded and decoded voice.
I do not want to leave you.
If I had a choice, my last words
would be carried to your window
on three slips of sugar paper in
the beaks of birds of paradise.
The words would say,
I’m sure you know,
I love you.

 

Remembering R.B.H d. September 11th, 2001.

Remembering H.W.H d. September 19th, 2001

 

 

 

 

‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’

Our granddaughter has recently learnt to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’, sounds that are accompanied by an outstretched arm and a small wave. As any parent remembers and any grandparent knows, it is a captivating and charming development in the life of an infant.

Thea is generous and inclusive with her salutations. She greets the lady sweeping leaves, the grandfather feeding ducks, the delivery man runnning with his parcels. Sometimes the person smiles and waves back.  A brief respite. A moment of connection.

In Salinger’s novel, ‘A Catcher in the Rye’, Holden Caulfield feels responsible for all the little children playing in a field of rye. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. He imagines having to catch the children before they all go over a cliff. His sister, Phoebe explains that he’s misremembered the words from the Robert Burns poem. She tells him that it’s  ‘meet’ not ‘catch’.

Thea has taught me something important. She has taught me how to greet those I meet in a field of rye. She has taught me to smile at strangers, not all strangers but the kind I am prone to overly-analyse  – the man with the growling wolf tattoo on his upper arm, the woman with the too-short skirt. Before my brain clicks into its well-worn groove, I try and catch myself. I smile. And when I do, I think of Thea.

Holden’s right. Those who are ‘big’ have a responsibility to guard and protect those who are ‘little’. But those of us who are big have also been provided with opportunities to witness the innocence, the single-pointed attention and the wonder of those who are still little.  Thea has taught me the value of smiling at strangers.

     Gin a body meet a body, comin thro’ the rye, Gin a body kiss a body, need a body cry;                                                       from ‘Comin thro’ the Rye’ Robert Burns, 1782

 

 

 

La Tavernetta: Portrait of a Landmark

In the early 1960s, Felice Puricelli and his friend Romano came to Folkestone from the shores of Lake Como. They found work at the Metropole Hotel, one as a chef, the other as a waiter. In order to improve their English, they took afternoon classes at the School of English Studies and, in 1965, the two friends opened La Tavernetta.

In 1996, my ageing father moved into the Clifton Hotel, just a few doors down from his favourite restaurant. Several times a week, he would visit his old friend, Felice for a plate of Dover sole and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Peter was already suffering with dementia and a few months later, Felice, somewhat awkwardly, explained to me that Mr. O’Connell was still ‘signing’ for, rather than ‘paying’ for his meals. The School of English Studies had an account at La Tavernetta for thirty years and Peter had never physically paid for a meal there in his life. He would have been mortified had he realised he was unknowingly cheating his old friend. I was grateful to Felice for continuing to feed my father, even though he had no idea when, or indeed if, he would ever be reimbursed.

After Romano died in 1996, Felice and his wife, Barbara took over the restaurant. Barbara was front of house and managed the legendary sweet trolley, which still travels around the room like a three-dimensional Thiebaud painting. The scrumptious display would arrive with perfect timing, just when your Pollo Sorpresa had settled, just when a little room had been made for a trifle, a pistachio cheesecake or those delicious orange slices, soaked in Grand Marnier. Once the evening rush was over, Felice, in his chef’s hat, would appear through the swing doors and sweep the restaurant, graciously acknowledging each table as he went.

Felice passed away last year on October 9th. He was 81. I used to visit him in his care home and although he was frail, his memory was strong and we never tired of sharing old stories.

Tommaso and Kirstine Borrello took over from the Puricellis in 2005. Tommaso began his career at La Tavernetta in 1979 when, at the age of 17, Felice gave him a job as a kitchen porter. He soon progressed from washing dishes to preparing starters. Everything I learnt about cooking, I learnt from Felice, he told me. He left for a while – to spread his wings –  before returning in 1992.

The restaurant has weathered three recessions and a pandemic and I asked Tommaso about the secret to its enduring success: Family is important here. Sometimes we see four generations at the same table. People like to return, to remember, to enjoy the dishes they associate with parents and grandparents. We often host wakes here too – for the same reason. Borrello acknowledged the importance of his own family and admitted that without Kirstine and Barbara, he and Felice could never have grown the business as successfully as they did. Behind the bar hangs a framed photograph of Mrs. Borrello Sr. at home in Calabria, stirring a cauldron of pasta over an open fire. The walls are punctuated with black and white photographs of uncles, brothers and cousins in Malvito, where Tommaso was born.

Diego Sanna has been on the staff for 27 years and Ferdinando Lambrusciano has been associated with La Tavernetta since 1976. They are a large part of what makes the restaurant a success, Borrello told me: They know which customers like their steaks well-done, which take sweetener with their coffee and who likes the corner tables. Silver Service is now only found in top hotels, French restaurants and on cruise liners. To those who say it’s old-fashioned, I say – If it works, why fix it? Carpet tiles cover the original parquet flooring but Tommaso is in no hurry to remove them because of the effect it would have on acoustics and increased noise-levels.

You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere that compares to La Tavernetta – not just in Kent but across the UK. I discovered a look-alike restaurant once, near the British Museum but when I tried to go back, it was gone.

I love La Tavernetta for many reasons. I love that everyone was so kind to my father. I love that Diego and Ferdinando will never greet us with the words Hey Guys.. what can I get you? I love the starched linen and the gentle background music that allows you to be in relaxed conversation with your dinner companion. I love that the staff wear black because it reminds me to dress up when I make a dinner reservation. I love that I can order Dover sole on the bone, safe in the knowledge that it will be perfectly-filleted. I love that if I have a sudden craving for Zabaglione, my mother’s favourite dessert, Tommaso will whip one up for me, right there in the restaurant, in spite of the fact that it’s no longer on the menu.

Going to La Tavernetta is like going home and I suspect I am not the only person in Folkestone who feels that way.

 

 

Manege Frei… Step Right Up …

The Knie, Switzerland’s national circus, is back on the road.  Every year, during the third week in September, the Knie sets up on the Gurzelen Platz in Biel. Until I was six years old, Onkel Bobi always got us tickets to a matinee.

Since 1926 the Knie has travelled across the country by train. Everything – equipment, offices, accommodation, animals – makes the journey between cities in forty-five railway carriages. It is a masterpiece in logistics. It was also a highlight in many a child’s life to have watched the animals disembark at the freight depot. The lions and monkeys were in cages but the elephants walked themselves to the Gurzelen. My grandmother once discovered a sleeping lion under the magnolia tree in her garden. One of the Knie brothers came round and took it back to the circus.

The Knies were actually born in Austria in 1807 and did not cross the border into  Switzerland until 1828. They were rope dancers and acrobats and performed for Napoleon’s widow. The family applied for Swiss citizenship in 1866 but their request was not granted until 1900.

During WWII, the Zirkus Knie was blacklisted by the Nazis and banned from performing in all countries of the Third Reich. Frédy, at twenty-two and his younger brother, Rolf negotiated with the German Ambassador in Bern and  were granted permission to hire artists from occupied countries. In exchange they agreed to perform during the 1942-3 season at the Berlin Wintergarten. Frédy became known for his equestrian skills in the ring and Rolf was widely recognised as one of the greatest elephant trainers of his generation.

In 2001, Stephanie of Monaco fell in love with a 7th generation Knie brother. She ran away from her life as a princess and joined the circus. Franco Knie left his wife and Stephanie  moved to Switzerland with her three children. The relationship lasted eighteen months.

In 2015, after almost one hundred years, the Knie family announced that it would no longer be using elephants in its shows. It would focus instead on an elephant breeding programme at its Rapperswil headquarters on the Lake of Zurich. A statement declared that this decision was part of a long-term plan and was unrelated to any criticism from animal rights groups. The Animal Protection League welcomed the decision whilst acknowledging that the Knies had always treated their animals well. Frankly, I was surprised to discover that Fredy Jr. and Franco had managed to resist the criticism, and the audience’s changing sensitivity to the roles of large animals in travelling circuses, for as long as they did.

The Knie has always been known for the quality of its shows which have set the standard against which other classical circuses are measured. The Knies are also a forward-thinking bunch: in 1956 the family purchased land and Rapperswil became their HQ and winter residence. In 1962, they opened a successful Children’s Zoo. Today they offer environmental protection courses, nutritional programmes, the opportunity to shadow a zoo keeper (the daily rate of 450Sfr is donated to an elephant protection programme in Thailand) as well as banquets, breakfasts and birthday parties in the Thai-styled lodge.

The 2021 Knie tour began in Bern and will take in 7 cities between early August and New Year’s Eve. Biel is not on the programme this year. I was curious to know how they had plugged the gap following the phasing out of elephants and big cats. The answer is: Bastian Baker (born Kaltenbacher), a Swiss singer-song-writer and professional ice hockey player. The new format is Cirque du Soleil meets rock musical, interspersed with old Knie favourites – sleek black horses and colourful Macaws. It’s quite right of course that wild animals (if not animals born in the wild) are no longer part of the programme but, watching a team of horses and a pandemonium of parrots getting off the train at the Gueterbahnhof won’t provide future generations of small children with quite that same magic.

 

 

 

 

The Unremembered is not Forgotten

On July 22nd I heard the news that Chris Vickery had died. I hadn’t seen him since 1978, the year we left Folkestone to go to University. He went to Leeds to study Medicine. I went to Reading to read French. We all unfolded our wings and flew away. We became invested in other things and in other people because, well, that’s what happens when you leave home – you can’t hold every hand in the river.

I can remember everything about Chris at 18 – his face, his voice, his Cheshire-cat smile and his whip-smart mind. My dad really liked him because he was so passionate. And he was a Communist. Long before he qualified as a doctor, Chris declared his intention never to work in private practice. That Chris Vickery is going to change the world, my father used to say.

Last week, we gathered in the Chapel of Jesus College, Oxford for Chris’ funeral. Never meet your heroes said Tony Davies, his oldest and closest friend in his eulogy. Chris was his hero  and he was never disappointed by him. Vickery inherited an abiding sense of honesty and integrity from his parents. He was mischievous, scatological, charming, funny and incredibly bright. He was the ‘bonkers’ uncle to Tony’s children and he brought them unusual gifts from his travels.

In 1988, Chris worked on a TB control programme in Nepal. In 1994, in the aftermath of the genocide, he went to Rwanda. Dr. Vickery’s level of dedication to his patients was legendary. In 2000 he was posted to West Bengal where he team-led a project to implement a health care system for 90 million people. Chris’ respect and inclusivity resulted in unprecedented levels of support from the Minister of Health. He was a Master Class in how to work with people and deliver a successful outcome, recalled his friend and colleague, Satjit Singh.

Chris really did change the world. He improved and saved the lives of thousands, hundreds of thousands and quite possibly millions of people.

In spite of the fact that Chris and I hadn’t been in touch for more than 40 years, I felt oddly compelled to attend his funeral. Tony was instantly recognisable as his 18 year-old self but he was also a 62 year-old stranger. Everything about the day felt familiar and at the same time remote. A decade ago, my daughter, Lucy was approached at a party by a woman who called her by my name. Lucy explained, a little frostily, that Suseli was her mother, to which the woman replied:  Of course she is, it’s just that you are the mirror image of your mother the last time I saw her. I didn’t want to be that stranger at Chris Vickery’s funeral, the woman who told his eldest son that he was a doppelganger for his father.

When I introduced myself to Chris’ widow, I was struck by a sudden feeling of imposter syndrome. You won’t know me, I offered weakly. I knew Chris in Folkestone many years ago. 

‘Suseli?  she replied. I know you. Chris mentioned you in his stories. One involved Andre gifting you a pipe rack for Christmas. I had no memory of any pipe rack. I didn’t start smoking a pipe until 1983. Andre’s mind was equally blank, although eccentric presents, he told me, were a tradition in the group. One year Ric bought Jonny some welding goggles, or maybe it was the other way round.

Our minds may be a little cloudy but we remember what it felt like to be 18, standing on the brink of a beginning, on the right side of a long life. Those bonds of early friendship remain. The unremembered is not forgotten.

 

 

Under Wembley’s Lights

I am in Chicago, where few people, it seems, are aware that there is a major football tournament happening in Europe. It’s rather refreshing.

It is 55 years ago that England won the World Cup and ‘the beautiful game’ has changed almost beyond recognition. I do not, as a rule, follow football of any stripe. However, just like the rest of the country, I am invariably swept into the frenzy that surrounds the Euros. This is especially true in 2021. Just four months ago we were forbidden from gathering in groups of more than six. On Wednesday night 66,000 people converged on Wembley Stadium to watch England beat Denmark in the semi-finals.

When England beat Germany in 1966, WWII was still very much alive in people’s memories. There was one jingoistic chant doing the rounds – World War I, World War II, One World Cup –  but on the whole, supporters were not overtly racist or unnecessarily provocative. The nastiness that is rife today is often described as ‘banter’ by those careless about the feelings of others. It is patriotism without content, aggravated by Brexit and a supposedly reclaimed ‘Great’ Britain.

My friend John Buss has followed football all his long life. He remembers Bert Trautmann, who played in goal for England in the 1950s. He was accepted as a brilliant member of the team, in spite of the fact that he had been in the German Army during WWII before becoming a P.O.W. There was fierce rivalry between clubs, but club loyalty was what was important. There were no foreign players brought in at vast transfer fees. Financial rewards were minimal and wages were not much more than those of a skilled worker. There were few celebrities, just ordinary blokes. Pecs hadn’t yet been invented, chest hair wasn’t waxed and tattoos were the domain of merchant seamen. There were no stylists, no makeovers, no endorsements. The game may have been ‘beautiful’ but the players were, as John says, just ordinary looking blokes.  Who can forget ‘Nobby’ Stiles who decided, before the game in 1966, that even if England beat Germany, he would not wear his dentures in the line-up to meet Her Majesty the Queen.

It is estimated that the Sunday night final at Wembley between England and Italy will beat the 32.3 million estimated to have watched the 1966 World Cup Final. I am grateful to have successfully navigated the Covid minefield that enabled us to fly to Chicago for a family wedding next weekend. But I also feel a little disappointed that no one here cares much about a ‘soccer’ game 5000 miles away. I shall miss being part of the fever-pitch frenzy that will sweep England on Sunday night and of sharing in what will surely go down in history as one of the country’s biggest ever sporting occasions.