blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Welsh at Cardiff station

We do a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on our trips to the UK, and I was in transit at Cardiff station four times, on the last occasion. The Welsh used for the station announcements and on the notice boards is becoming familiar to me! Like the Quebec French speakers, the people who speak this minority language want to preserve it––by force, if necessary.

At the station exit directions are given in Welsh first and English second to the Stadiwm y Milleniwm, Canol y dinas (city centre), Tacsis (taxis) and Maes parcio (carpark). Next to this is the Customer Information desk, Gwybodaeth i Gwsmeriaid (what a mouthful).

On the arrivals and departures board the trains are listed, going from Caerdydd (Cardiff) to Casnewydd (Newport), Llundain (London), Abertawe (Swansea) and Harbwr Abergwaun (Fishguard), for example.

The station announcements are given first in Welsh, then in English.

Platfform Un ... Dau ... Tri ... (pronounced een, dye, tree ...) Pedwar ... 

There's a Platform 0 at Cardiff station too, Plattform Sero.

I love languages.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A few hours in Stafford

We arrived in Stafford late on a wet evening, having travelled on first class tickets from Brighton, via London. We'd had some luck on that journey. The first class tickets had turned out cheaper than second class ones (I still can't understand why) and our Brighton friend Hyder had given us a good tip for getting across London in spite of flood warnings and the strike on the London Underground: we should simply take a train over Blackfriars Bridge to St. Pancras instead of Victoria station, and walk from there to Euston for our connection. We'd had an atmospheric supper at The Betjeman Arms at St. Pancras and had duly splashed through the rain and commuters to Euston. Had we realised in time that our tickets entitled us to use the First Class Waiting Lounge there, our transit would have been even more comfortable. The ride to Stafford (over 200km) took only an hour and a quarter which makes this a feasible place for London commuters to live. When we got out, Chris interrupted a loving couple to ask the way to the Swan Hotel and we walked there in five minutes, rolling our cases across some wet grave stones that we thought were a path through the churchyard. The hotel, that dates back to the 18th century, had sloping floors.

Darkness and rain notwithstanding, we needed some more fresh air on arrival; a late evening walk through the mostly deserted town gave us a good first impression of it. The whole of its centre is traffic free. The house prices advertised seem remarkably low, half the price of equivalent houses in the London area.

Next morning after a good hotel breakfast with Chris and his colleagues Michael and Garry, who had arrived by car, all three of them dressed identically in QNX shirts, I set out to explore Stafford by daylight, and the sun shone for me, so that I was able to take some touristy pictures of the Ancient High House next door to the hotel on Greengate Street and the Shire Hall in the market square.

Shire Hall
I went inside both the Shire Hall and the Ancient High House. The Shire Hall was particularly interesting, containing a modern art gallery, a craft shop, and a courtroom. In the art gallery an exhibition of portraits and self portraits held my attention; I took a look at the landscape art too, views of nearby Cannock Chase (attractive hilly woodland that we saw from the train that afternoon). The most original art in the building, though, was in the court room, location of the County Assizes until the 1990s, where lifelike models of the "circuit judge," the defending and prosecuting lawyers, witnesses, defendant and jury had been placed for the sake of visitors' education, reminiscent of Rumpole of the Bailey! I had the room to myself, walked all round it and took pictures from the gallery.

Hassocks beautifying the church
Round the side of the courthouse a narrow lane led to the elegant judges' house and other imposing old buildings. I then paid a visit to the "Collegiate Church of St. Mary," the parish church, dating back to the 12th century, although apparently there was a wooden church on that same site in the 8th century too. The existing church has an ancient "Byzantine" stone font at the back and many a Green Man carved on the ends of the pews. The church wardens have brightened up the nave by displaying all their colourful hassocks on the pew stands. Each one is embroidered with a different image in cross-stitch. Beneath the pulpit a musician was improvising at the piano as I walked around. A bust of Izaak Walton, the best known of Stafford's residents, stands against one wall. But the fact that "Kidz Prayz" (sic) take place here nowadays during the Sunday morning Sung Eucharist makes me cringe.

Edwardian shop in the museum
Chris phoned to say he had finished his meetings and wanted to meet me for lunch, so I didn't have much time left to explore the Ancient High House, which is used as a museum, and was full of a school party that day. It has rooms decorated in the style of different eras, a civil war room, for instance. The Staffordshire men were Royalist in those days and Charles I had once stayed at this house. On the top floor is an exhibition dedicated to the Staffordshire Yeomenry Regiment (1794 to the present) and their brutal, historic campaigns in Syria, Palestine, etc. (Nothing changes but the participants.)

Victoria Park and the River Sow
After a quiet lunch in St. Mary's Mews we walked on with our luggage over the river Sow at Victoria Park, flooded, to the station, and so caught an afternoon train back to London––to Euston––then via Vauxhall to Teddington.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pianista with a hat

Here's a post I meant to write before leaving town in January.

On the evening of January 23rd I attended a concert presented in the Auditorium of the Library and Archives Canada by the Embassy of EcuadorMarcelo Ortiz, a Quebecker originally from Quito, was the performer, who plays both the piano and the guitar. Based in Quebec, he also sings, composes and studies ethnomusicology. The programme notes say that he is
a performer of great sensitivity and talent, who travels through the musical universe with his cultural background imprinted on his skin.
I don't think he speaks much English, so he addresses his audience in French.

The first thing one notices about Marcelo Ortiz is the hat, a white fedora, embellished with a tassel at the back, on its black brim. Usually a concert pianist doesn't wear a hat on stage, but this was a special occasion, very Ecuadorian. The stage was decorated with the colourful "ecuador love life" logo which brightened up a dark winter's evening for me. As well as his hat, the performer wore a white shirt and black, embroidered waistcoat.

Before he played, Ortiz talked to us about the pentatonic scale, how it is universal, and as an example of its use, he improvised a melody on the black keys. It must be that which gives the music of Peru and Bolivia and Ecuador its melancholic quality. The Sarabande, so he told us, is of South American origins.

He played two of his own compositions, Pasional and Lamparilla, after first performing four short pieces by Gerardo Guevara (1941), one of which was a lyrical pasillo, this being a "poem in music," apparently. Guevara's Fiesta represented fireworks. Another 20th century Ecuadorian composer, Corsino Durán Carrión, was featured next. He too wrote pasillos, but his music, according to Ortiz, was more European or perhaps North American in flavour, influenced by Scott Joplin. I didn't feel it was very profound music, but it was pleasant to listen to.

"Composers are pianists; performers are guitarists," he said.

Now came a change in the programme when Ortiz picked up his guitar, tuned it, and accompanied himself in some songs, first of all Pobre Corazón (the link takes you to a recording he made of this song a few years ago, wearing a different hat), a Cuenca song, and then "a sad poem of loss by four poets" called Vasija de barro.

Ortiz finished his recital with a series of items by Luis Salgado, his one-time tutor (and a keen mountaineer). It included another pasillo and finished with an extract from the Suite Mosaico de Aires Nativos in which he sang and made appropriate onomatopoeic noises: shouts and squeals and the "...isss!" that Ecuadorian women shout as they dance, apparently.

As he bowed, Marcelo Ortiz was given a bouquet of flowers.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The real thing?

I'm reading a work of fiction about Qing Dynasty China which seems more genuine than the chinoiserie I saw at the Brighton Pavilion, mentioned in my previous blogpost. This is a book or series of books that George and Sha sent me for Christmas, the Chinese classic 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber ––Hóng Lóu Mèng (紅樓夢)––by Cao Xueqin, or The Story of the Stone as it's called in the translation I'm reading.

The narrative is very slow moving with an inordinate amount of detail in the descriptions. Keeping track of the hundreds of characters is not easy, but there's a helpful list! The hero is a man, or boy (at first), called Jia Baoyu. I have to take my time over this novel, and find it fascinating to imagine the characters living their strictly circumscribed, unnatural lives in the aristocratic courts of those days. The women or girls in the story are for the most part delicate, sickly creatures, often in tears. They were the privileged class, but had little freedom within their bounds. They remind me of the wistful courtiers of 18th century France, painted by Watteau.

I wonder if Frederick Crace, who designed the Chinese interiors at Brighton a few decades after this period, had ever visited China or had read any of the Hóng Lóu Mèng.

In Chapter 17 of Volumn 1 is a series of descriptions of courtly buildings:
Jia Zheng [Baoyu's father] led them inside the building. Its interior turned out to be all corridors and alcoves and galleries, so that properly speaking it could hardly have been said to have rooms at all. The partition walls which made these divisions were of wooden panelling exquisitely carved in a wide variety of motifs: bats in clouds, the 'three friends of winter'––pine, plum and bamboo, little figures in landscapes, birds and flowers, scrollwork, antique bronze shapes, 'good luck' and 'long life' characters and many others. The carvings, all of them the work of master craftsmen, were beautified with inlays of gold, mother of pearl and semi-precious stones. In addition to being panelled the partitions were pierced by numerous apertures, some round, some square, some sunflower-shaped. Shelving was concealed in the double thickness of the partition at the base of these apertures , making it possible to use them for storing books and writing materials and for the display of antique bronzes, vases of flowers, miniature tray gardens and the like.

[...]The trompe-l'oeil effect of these ingenious partitions had been further enhanced by inserting false windows and doors in them, the former covered in various pastel shades of gauze, the latter hung with richly patterned damask portières. The main walls were pierced with window-like perforations in the shape of zithers, swords, vases and other objects of virtù.
The next few paragraphs go on to describe the mirrors and gauze hangings that create further optical illusions.

The Royal Pavilion

 The Pavilion at Brighton is worth visiting on a wet day, although I admit it would be grand to see the gardens outside in mid-summer sunshine. These days, their original plantings are being restored, apparently.

The outside is Indian style architecture, with domes and minarets everywhere. The inside, as a sort of witty surprise, is all (Qing Dynasty) Chinese, or at least chinoiserie, what the western Europeans of the day thought of as Chinese. I took the offer of a headset for my self guided tour, but found the recordings too long, so I didn't listen to the whole thing. I'm not a great fan of headset tours; they either state the obvious or make the assumption I don't know what to be interested in, whereas I feel I can make my own decisions about that, and can read the information boards for myself.

Banqueting Hall at the Brighton Pavilion, in 1826
The interior has been restored as far as possible to its original appearance. A long corridor stretches at right angles to the entrance, mirrors and gilded cupboards lining the walls, with nodding wooden Mandarins standing on their surfaces. Chinese lanterns hang there and long red and green carpets lies underfoot. The headset told me that the interior was planned by Frederic Crace at the request of the Prince Regent to be a surprise that increases; the further in you go, the more sumptuous it looks. Visitors aren't allowed to take pictures of the interior, but I found a Wikipedia image that I'm including here of one of the most lavish of the rooms, where the banquets were held, a chandelier in the form of a dragon hanging above the dining table being the most eye catching ornament. It literally weighs a ton. Above the chandelier is the painting of a tree top as seen from below, with extra leaves attached to make it more realistic, three dimensional. Every panel of the walls is painted with a pseudo-Chinese scene.

George unconventionally used to take his guests into the kitchens at Brighton, alongside this hall. The pillars supporting the ceiling there are shaped to look like palm trees. On one occasion he served a meal that consisted of 100 different dishes, high cholesterol ones at that. No wonder obesity finished him off at the end. He eventually needed wheels to get himself across the gardens and was ashamed to be seen in that state by the local people. Disapproved of by his father, he was a playboy in his youth who entertained a series of mistresses at Brighton, and who brought music (Beethoven's music, for example) and dancing to this exotic palace. The music room, used as a ballroom in its day, has a full scale organ at one end, painted gold, velvet curtains as in a theatre, rows of miniature pagodas against the walls and great hanging lamps in the shape of lotus flowers.

Even the galleries or withdrawing rooms between the big reception areas are lavishly decorated with Wilton carpets and ornate furniture in the Chinese style. The King's and his family's apartments featured heavily clad four-poster beds, of course. What a way to live. Queen Victoria, apparently, did not feel so comfortable here when her turn came to inhabit it.

In the first world war the grand rooms of the Pavilion were converted into wards for wounded Indian soldiers, using the photographs of this makeshift hospital as propaganda to convince Indian recruits that they'd be treated well if they were injured. All the same, some died there and were cremated in a purpose built funeral pyre on the South Downs where a memorial to them still stands, the Chattri.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

In the storms, wind and rain

February 5th, 2014 was an extraordinary day in southern England, or perhaps not so extraordinary any more, since they've had a whole series of storms like it, this winter. A record amount of rain has fallen––the Express says so!––the country is flooded to an unprecedented extent and the high seas have devastated the coastline. We were lucky with our cross country journeys. The day after we travelled from Stafford to London all trains on that line came to a standstill, and our journey from Brighton to London wouldn't have been possible either, a few days after we did that. When we needed to leave Cardiff on the London train from South Wales, we discovered that the trains were running only once an hour instead of twice an hour and actually went no further than Reading, because of floods on the line. Fortunately we didn't need to travel any further than Reading that day (Feb. 11th). We waited for the train on the Cardiff platform in a torrential hail storm and saw a terrific thundercloud (maybe the same storm) on our way to the Welsh border.

Inferior photo of the waves at Brighton, from our hotel room.
Some of the old pier on the right was washed away that day.
While we were in Brighton we had a particularly good vantage point. All we had to do was look out of our window to see waves on the usually meek and mild British Channel such as you might encounter mid-Atlantic. I couldn't take a very good photo because our hotel windows were obscured with rain and spray; they were cleaned the morning after the storm but by then the view wasn't so dramatic. I couldn't have gone outside to take pictures because the water would have soaked the camera and in any case I could hardly stand up in that wind, gusting to 80kph. I had to walk back to the hotel in the afternoon and was blown round a corner and up a side street in a direction I hadn't intended to go. I hung onto some railings so as not to fall over. When I reached the shelter of our room I was so wet, I had to change all my clothes.

Wet street in Brighton
I had gone out to do battle with the elements and explore the town while Chris was battling a bad cold at his conference meetings (which took so much effort that he wasn't up to attending the conference banquet that night). Brighton was hillier that I remembered. Beyond Churchill Square where I did some cursory shopping, I went up Queen's Road to the railway station to pick up tickets for our next journey, then walked downhill on Gloucester Road into the North Laine district which had an almost Asian feel to it, with narrow streets selling odd little things crammed into odd little shops. It began to rain in earnest so I took refuge in the Brighton Museum.

An oddity in the museum
It was the sort of museum that had a glorious mishmash of different things: a painting by Léger, Egyptian mummies, the head and foot of a dodo, photos of the Gay Pride processions famously held in Brighton, Toby jugs in a room full of British ceramics, prehistoric flint-stones and 19th century Punch and Judy figures, exhibitions created by school kids of Iranian, Inuit and far eastern cultures, old maps, drawings, toys and costumes. I found some lunch there too.

After my lunch I crossed the gardens originally commissioned by George IV while he was still Prince Regent, as part of the Royal Pavilion, and bought a tour of the Pavilion, a place I'd never visited while we actually lived in this area. I'll describe it in a separate blogpost.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Revisiting the past: Downside, Shoreham, and Lancing's Widewater

From 1983 to the end of 1985 we lived on a street called Downside, in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. When I was in Brighton earlier this month, only a short bus ride away, I decided to revisit it.

I had a brief walk on the nearby Downs so as to be in the countryside for a few minutes. It was lovely. I saw sheep, horses and puddles, plenty of pale grass on the bare hills and a view of dazzling sea. Having trespassed through a farm there, I easily found my way to our old house, No. 19, and even went as uninvited as a ghost down the passage way to peep at our old back garden (altered unfortunately though they're still growing lots of indoor plants in the extension we had built at the back of the house). It is in a quiet neighbourhood that hasn't changed much.

I wandered on down the street (where I once conceived a little poem called Ecstasy) to the top of Buckingham Park, still recognisable too. I remembered the right direction to the primary school, then known as Kingston Buci, where Emma and George used to go every morning, but I hadn't a clue where I used to go to do my shopping. Isn't that strange? I must have been less interested in material things then than I am now: I could remember my poem but not my groceries. I didn't find Emma's "Middle" School and hardly recognised anything in the centre of Shoreham except for the railway station which hadn't changed one bit. You still have to wait at the level crossing gates for the trains to go through. I saw my father alive for the last time at that station.

After a spot of lunch at "Teddy's Tea Rooms" near St. Mary de Haura church, I walked across the "Adur Ferry" bridge (new, with glass walls) to Shoreham harbour, crossing the Adur estuary, as far as the shore again with its long row of locked up beach huts, and then as far as the Widewater at Lancing, that lies between Brighton Road and the sea.

I have a book a friend once gave me called The High Path––by Ted Walker, who was a British poet. It was his autobiography, written in 1983, and the title of the book refers to the path I took from Shoreham to Lancing along the seashore, with the waves breaking on the pebbles on one side and a quiet salt water lagoon, the Widewater, on the other, which is a nature reserve. I crossed the Widewater on the wooden bridge half way over, and took this picture looking back, not including the two wild swans, off to the right:

Ted Walker grew up here. We used to live behind the houses on the left, too, on Brighton Road, during the few months between leaving Switzerland in late autumn 1982 and moving to Shoreham in the spring of 1983, and we used to lie in bed listening to the waves breaking on the far side of the sea wall and moving the pebbles about. I could no longer identify the house; we only used part of it and used the lower entrance. I remember that we had the use of a piano and TV that didn't belong to us.

This time I did recognise the shops and the corner where I phoned to hear of the birth of my triplet nieces in 1982. I caught a bus back to Brighton from there, catching a glimpse of Lancing College on the hill and passing Southport where all the working ships are moored. 

At the end of the day I had another encounter with the past when Chris and I met four friends––fellow musicians––who still live in Sussex (David, Margaret, Hyder and Lea). We had supper together at the Café Rouge in the Brighton Lanes and enjoyed one another's company just as much as we used to do: a very pleasant evening indeed.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Brave men in little boats

During my visit to Cardiff at the end of January, my sister, my mum and I took a look at the World of Boats museum in Cardiff Bay. It was freezing cold under the canvas ceiling in there, but at least it gave some protection from the wind outside and the boat collection was really well worth seeing.

There were dugout canoes and coracles in the first hall; it seems that people from very different parts of the world came up with the same ideas at around about the same time in history. (This phenomenon doesn't only apply to the history of boats, but to many other kinds of artefact, coins for example, and I wonder why.) Rafts were another early invention, made of reeds or logs. As I recorded from my visit to the maritime museum in Sydney, the first people to come ashore in Australia almost certainly came in a craft like this, 40,000 years ago.

We saw a beach canoe such as is still used by the Yami people from the Lanyu (Orchid) Islands near what is now called Taiwan.

What affected me most were the stories that went with some of the boats on display, such as a "Very Slender Vessel" or sampan from Vietnam which had once carried three refugees over 600 miles of ocean to Hong Kong. We saw a camouflaged "cockle" from the 1940s used as a raiding canoe (see photo above) in World War 2, both in France and Japan. The museum's story about the "Cockleshell Heroes" made such an impression on me that I've since bought a recently published book about it, written a couple of years ago by Paddy Ashdown, which I'm avidly reading at the moment. It's called A Brilliant Little Operation: the Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War Two.

A replica of the launch used by 18 men loyal to Captain Bligh after the famous Mutiny on the Bounty was in the Cardiff museum too. They'd spent 42 days on the Pacific in this tiny vessel (7 metres long), from the Pitcairn Islands to Timor, having travelled on water for 3618 nautical miles; that's further than the distance from Ottawa to London. All they'd had for navigational aids were a quadrant and a pocket watch.

Then there was a metal boat not much bigger nor more seaworthy than a bathtub, it seemed, a jokey home made craft called Wun Betta (sic) that tried and failed to reach the Canary Islands from Wales. It was built by a would-be sailor aged 55, called Brynmor Griffiths.
In 1980, Griffiths and Wun Betta, complete with its red dragon stickers, the symbol of Wales, set sail westward from Oxwich Bay. No sooner having rounded Cape Finistere, the Welshman encountered heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay. He was well protected by the plastic bubble cockpit canopy above his head. This was originally used in an aircraft and acquired from a scrapyard in Swansea. "This item saved my life. When I was in the fully enclosed position it made my little craft almost impervious to the following seas breaking over me. These lifted her stern end up and buried her nose. However on my first capsize, a substantial amount of water got in past the edges and although the little boat self-righted again, the interior was about a quarter full, and sloshed back and fore with quite a wave action. It was rather uncomfortable. I bailed the boat out and decided to continue to the Canary Islands for repairs but was again capsized. This time I was too tired and too dispirited to continue further. For 7 days I sat, ate and slept and generally lived in about one foot of sea water before arriving back at Looe in Cornwall."
...where the boat was abandoned.

After inspecting a Portuguese crab-fishing boat, a Venetian gondola and a Maltese water taxi, we came upon the narrow kayak used by "Gino" Watkins of Lancing College, the Cambridge University Air Squadron and the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the coasts and inlets of Labrador and Greenland. It was a very primitive expedition. Watkins was lost hunting seals in Tugtilik Fjord in 1932; and though they retrieved his kayak, they never found a trace of him.

Although I entitled this blogpost "Brave men in little boats," perhaps I should have called it "Foolhardy men in little boats," because prudence and common sense were not their dominant qualities.

There was only one more person in the museum at the time we visited it: the man in charge, who also sold us the entrance tickets and manned the Look Out Café Bar which was kept a good deal warmer than the exhibition space. Mum declined his offer of a drink and we hurried back to the Millennium Centre for a pot of tea over there, instead, passing, on our way, the memorial to Captain Scott and his men of his Antarctic expedition that came to grief––Captain Oates and company. They had set off from Cardiff Bay.

"Grandma, this is London!"

I was delighted with the progress little Thomas had made in speaking, since I saw him last. He still makes a few charming mistakes with his speech––"My do it!"––and he has some difficulties with constonants, saying 'poon, 'nake instead of spoon and snake, for instance. He doesn't let the difficulties get in his way of telling us about his plastic dinodaurs and the marbeyball (marble) game.

While we were on the Thames I asked if he knew where we were. Thomas replied without any hesitation, as if I were stupid, "We're here!"

With the family, we had taken the local train from Fulwell Station (near Alexander's school) to Waterloo, got off, walked to the South Bank and seen the London Eye, or big wheel, as Thomas called it. Amazingly, because it was only February 2nd, we ate our lunch out of doors, admittedly wearing coats, at Eat, which was popular with families and too crowded inside. I had a tasty and warming bowl of chilli. Then we made our way to the most important place in London on this occasion, the children's playground near the Eye.

After the inevitable bumps, bruises, disappointments and triumphs and mouthful of blood when Thomas bit his tongue while riding the metal chicken, we decided to queue up for tickets to ride on the river. The cheapest way is to catch a river bus, a Thames Clipper, which took us to Greenwich and back for £12 each and showed us all the famous sights from the warmth and comfort of our seats: St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf and its skyscrapers. While I was taking my photos Thomas solemnly informed me, "Grandma, this is London." As the river widened, the catamaran could speed up considerably; we anticipated the "whoosh" as it reached that stretch.

At Greenwich we disembarked to take a look at the Cutty Sark and to let the boys run around again. There was an interesting museum in the imposing entrance to the neoclassical Royal Naval College, now the National Maritime Museum (free admission), with activities for the children there too.

We returned upstream by another Clipper boat, passing the Shard (Europe's highest building) and the newly reconstructed Globe Theatre, reaching Hungerford Bridge, from which we could see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, by sunset. Then we caught another train "home" that set us down at Hampton Court station. It's only a short bus ride back to the flat from there. His mother asked Thomas which part of the day he'd liked best and he told her it was that bus ride.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

At the Twickenham Stoop

February 9th * was the day of the rugby fixture, Harlequins v. Wasps at the Twickenham Stoop. A capacity crowd of 15,000 were assembling to watch the game. We filed in through the turnstiles 40 minutes early, ahead of most, and made our way round the field towards the Gate 3 corner. Hot snacks were on sale from kiosks at all four corners.

We were in the BB stands, out of the sun, but also somewhat out of the wind. A girl had given me three handwarmer gels for free as we entered the stadium; two of them worked. It was too cold for sitting out of doors for two hours on metal seats without protection, so I put on all the clothes I had available and decided to sit on my rucksack, not realising until much later that it had a banana in it.

Most of the action was to happen at the sunny end of the field, a long way from where we were sitting; Peter used binoculars and the zoom lens on his camera. We couldn't see the screen from our seats but had a good view of the electronic scoreboard. The teams ran out to practise and warm up, rolling in the mud, lifting their very muscular legs in the air, throwing themselves at padded punchbags (instead of men, as in the game proper), practising their scrums and line-outs (i.e. high jumps, lifted up by team members) and passes. As far as I was concerned this was as entertaining as watching the game itself and not much different, since I knew I wouldn't be able to follow what was going on. At least I could tell which side was which, though: the Wasps were wearing distinctive yellow shirts and the other team not. You could tell which were the extras, too, because they sported luminescent orange jackets. Some of the players wore long black cloaks for the warm up; I'm not sure why.

Two bands of little boys came out on the field, lining up with team flags to give their heroes a guard of honour welcome as they ran on at the start of the hostilities, the Wasps boys in yellow and black stripes, of course. Some of the players had scull caps pulled tightly over their heads. Chris told me they were the hookers, making sure their ears wouldn't get bitten off during scrums. Right ...

We were 'Quins supporters, mostly, and Alex had a 'Quins flag, too. As the game progressed and the crowd got more excited, people started shouting in chorus and stamping their feet on the metal footways in the stands: "Har-le-QUINS," stamp-stamp-stamp! The stands shook with our stamping. It was great fun. Some burst into a song we didn't know, the Harlequin's theme song, conducted by mascots in bear suits wielding batons. Peter went down to buy himself a hot sandwich and a bag of crisps. "Oooh!" yelled the crowd when the Wasps scored or the Harlequins nearly scored, or perhaps it was "Boooh!" When a penalty kick was allowed, the 15,000 spectators went quiet with concentration, willing the ball through the goal posts.

A non-stop stream of jet 'planes flew in towards Heathrow just beyond the stadium and a strong wind from the west brought a series of brief rain showers too. The rugby players were covered in mud, faces and all. At half time a gardening team with pronged tools came out to flatten as much of the churned up turf as possible and the bear mascots walked around the edge at the bottom of the stands, giving the children hugs and high fives. Lots of people had come as families that day. The colourful crowd was very noisy, but very well behaved. Professional photographers used their heavy equipment and long lenses from the corners. They got better results than mine.

By the end of the first half, the Wasps were winning and it looked as if the Harlequins wouldn't manage to beat them. However, the team held what looked like a few prayer meetings in a huddle, with their arms around each other, and in the second half, the battle was more even. "Come on, 'Quins!" shouted the little boys, at the knock-ons, and when the players got into a scrum near a crucial white line (don't ask me which), Chris was shouting, "Push! Push!" At one point in the game I took a closer look at one of the scrums through Peter's binoculars and saw that the intertwining arms and legs looked quite intimate. It's a rough game. The tackles were dangerous and must have hurt a lot. In fact there were constant interruptions for dealing with injuries, the medics running across to the scene of the incident in their orange jackets, carrying their first aid boxes.

The 'Quins fought back, ardently supported by the crowd, finally scoring 5 points in the last 3 minutes of the game, to win 11-10. It was close!

The crowd were on their feet, in raptures. Alex and his friends in the row behind started a count down as the seconds ticked away, and the game ended to a great roar of cheers ... and a squashed banana. I ate it anyway.

*  9/2/14, a.m. We packed and stored our luggage at the Park Hotel, grabbed a quick breakfast on Broad Street in Teddington then walked to Emma's to help get Thomas dressed. Peter and Alexander were already out with the rest of Alexander's rugby club, meeting the "extra" Harlequin players at Twickenham Stadium. After a second breakfast at Squire's, the Garden Centre on Fulwell Road, Emma, Thomas, Chris and I caught the 281 bus through Twickenham to meet the other two outside the big stadium. There we said goodbye to Emma and Thomas and walked on with Alexander and his dad to the Stoop.