A Woman Without Equal

 

miriam in garden .jpegYears ago I was fortunate enough to become  a friend of one of the most outstanding people I have ever known – Dame Miriam Rothschild.  It was she who involved me in the field of contemporary crafts in Israel – a passion for which has endured over the years.  But more of this later.    First, something about this remarkable woman.

Miriam was born  in 1908 at  Ashton Wold, Northamptonshire, the family home built by her father Charles Rothschild of the Jewish banking family. He was the son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild who in 1885 became the first Jew to receive a peerage as the 1st Baron Rothschild.  

Charles devoted much of his energy to entomology and natural history.  He amassed a collection of 260,000 fleas, now housed in London’s Natural History Museum.  He was passionate about nature conservation, established the first nature reserve near Ely in 1899, and spent his life managing his estate at Ashton Wold to make it suitable for wildlife, especially butterflies.  Miriam told me how he was ahead of his time in his understanding that, whilst preserving endangered species in zoos was fine,  more at risk  were their natural habitats, without which they could never survive.

As a child Miriam never attended school but was taught at home under the watchful eyes of her parents. She said her father never approved of governesses or exams so she had a blissful childhood.  Aged four she played on the family farm and was featured in Country Life magazine as the ‘youngest milkmaid’ in Britain”.  She was always fascinated by insects and  recalls “My father never treated me as a child but made me believe I was helping him in his work.”

Tragically Charles died aged 46 when Miriam was 15, after which she was guided by her father’s elder brother Walter, a truly English eccentric.   He  too was  a naturalist who gathered the largest collection of specimens ever assembled by one man, including two million butterflies and moths, 200,000 birds eggs, 300,000 bird skins and 4,000 mounted mammals and birds. They were displayed in his zoological museum at Tring, Hertfordshire  and opened to the public in 1892.

 

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Miriam remembers seeing his cassowaries, wallabies and 144 Galapagos tortoises roaming freely around the estate. Uncle Walter was also famed for driving a team of six zebras to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate their tameness.

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As an active Zionist and close friend of Chaim Weizmann he worked to draft the document for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration, and personally received the letter from Lord Balfour confirming the support of the British Government.

Not surprisingly in view of her background, Miriam became a world authority on fleas.  She was the first person to discover their complex jumping mechanism and explained to me  how they could jump to heights 50 times their body size, akin to my jumping to the top of the Empire State Building.

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Miriam was very proud of being Jewish but denied believing in the creation. However on one occasion she did say that she began to believe it when she discovered that fleas had penises.  She spoke on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ about how beautiful these creatures were and illustrated the cover of her book ‘Atlas of Insect Tissue’ with an image of a flea’s vagina.flea book cover.jpg

The natural world was her main focus but she also pursued many other  important activities. Prior to WW2 she worked to persuade the UK Government  to admit more Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. She personally welcomed and housed  49 Jewish children.  She also cared for wounded British soldiers – one of whom  she married –  Captain George Lane, a  Hungarian Jewish exile who fought with the British Commandos and was decorated as a war hero. 

Another important contribution to the war effort were the two years she spent helping to break the Enigma Code with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. For this she was awarded a Defence Medal.

In her teens Miriam was an excellent sportswoman, following in the footsteps of her mother. She reached international standards at cricket and squash.  Aged 18,  she began Zoology studies at Chelsea Polytechnic, following which her prolific academic career took off.

 In 1982 she received the CBE, commenting “I must be the first person to receive this for examining the backsides of fleas.” In 1985 she was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society for her contribution to etymology and botany.  She became a Dame in 2000 and received honorary doctorates from eight universities including Oxford and Cambridge.  During her lifetime she published more than 360 scientific papers  and 11 books. 

The Royal Horticultural Society awarded her a medal for her wild flower meadows,  a gold medal for 80 varieties of gooseberries, and in 1991 she received their highest accolade – the Victoria Medal of Honour.    Because of her extensive knowledge of wild flowers, Prince Charles planted his Highgrove Estate with seeds that she cultivated and Lady Bird Johnson  consulted her about the programme  to beautify American roadsides.  On Desert Island Discs her chosen luxury was a bag of wild flower seeds – named ‘Farmer’s Nightmare’, so called for being full of what countrymen would regard  as  weeds.

In addition to all this she married and raised six children.

I myself met Miriam in 1989.  As Director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, I was working to promote cultural links between the two countries.   Miriam called to ask if I could arrange a trip to Israel for the UK’s  leading authority on Art Therapy – Edward Adamson.  I visited her at the museum she set up  at Ashton Wold housing 6,000 artworks by hospital inmates.   It was a revelation to learn of Edward’s seminal work, transforming, through art, the lives of so many patients.  In 1991 I brought him to Israel for a lecture tour combined with an exhibition  in Kfar Saba of the British patients’ work.

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Miriam then asked if I would  join her to sit on the committee in Jerusalem of the Alix de Rothschild Craft Foundation.  Alix had always had a great passion for crafts and tools. She and Miriam  were cousins and great friends and when Alix died in 1982 David de Rothschild, her son, established a foundation in his mother’s name.  Miriam and I attended meetings at their centre in the Old City of Jerusalem.   On another occasion she invited me to the opening of the Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem in 1992 , funded by the Rothschilds. It was a splendid and memorable occasion. 

Supreme Court building, Jerusalemiu-1.jpegIn 1997 Miriam suggested I set up a charity to work with the Alix de Rothschild Foundation to help artists by arranging exhibitions, exchange visits and awarding prizes.  And so the UK Designer Crafts Foundation was born.   Over the years more than seventy UK artists have visited Israel to give lectures and workshops.  Enduring links  have been created between artists of both countries.  This continues today.

 For some reason I kept all the letters that Miriam sent me over the years. Re-reading them I can hear so clearly her voice and her ready laugh – she had a great sense of humour and was hugely  enthusiastic and supportive.    In one letter she wrote “Dear Ruth, I am very impressed with your ruthless activity – but think I need to create a new adjective for it!”

 

Ashton Wold House A wold.jpegI visited Miriam several times at Ashton Wold.  Her house was covered  with a profusion of ivy, wisteria, clematis and roses. The gardens were bursting with wild flowers, trees and shrubs.  “My garden has come to symbolise the new sympathy with wildlife” she said. This was when I learned that there are no such thing as weeds – they are simply flowers growing where they choose rather than being given designated plots by us.

On  arrival I was always greeted by Miriam’s coterie of miniature Shetland sheepdogs that followed her everywhere.   Every room in the house was piled high with books, papers and paintings collected over many years – including an enlargement of a flea, by the artist Graham Sutherland which hung in her toilet. 

Over lunch Miriam regaled me with stories  – American airmen were billeted there during WW2,  one being Clark Gable  whom, she said, was very handsome but quite humourless.   She however combined wit with erudition and displayed warmth and a passion for life. She was an unapologetic humanitarian, fighting cause after cause, including homosexual rights, free milk for schoolchildren, better treatment for laboratory animals.   She was also credited with inventing seat belts.   During WW2  an airfield was erected on her land –  she met the pilots, noticed their seat belts and wondered if these could be applied to cars.  She produced one to test, the rest is history.

Miriam could always be identified by her singular dress style, loose fitting clothes, in mauve, blue and lilac with matching headscarf. These she designed to eliminate ‘the need to make unnecessary choices’.  She would often be seen walking through the village with a tame fox in tow and wearing her customary white wellington boots.  These she adopted after abandoning  leather shoes, having seen the cruelty to farmed animals.  Asked if she always wore them, she replied, “Well I wore them on a visit to Buckingham Palace”.

I remember clearly my last visit.  Miriam was about 95 and whilst talking of our work in Israel, she said “It is very nice for me to think that when I ‘ll be up there with the birds you will be down here looking after things”.   I have never forgotten this and sometimes, when I may feel like giving it up, I remember her and realise that there is absolutely no way I can possibly break my promise to this very unique and inspiring person.

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In memory of a special friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Scilly Story.

It was comedian Spike Milligan who famously said “Went to Cornwall once, to go any further would  be Scilly”.  This piqued my curiosity, but I never did anything about it until years later when we decided to visit the Islands. 

Situated 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, is an archipelago of 140 tiny islands. Five are inhabited, the remainder have their own residents – namely more than 20 varieties of birds, (the islands being heaven for bird watchers).  There are several types of bats, grey seals abound and it is the home of the unique Scilly Shrew, which sounds more like an insult than a species. Turtles, dolphins and sharks can be seen in the waters.

We discovered this paradise 15 years ago and have returned every year since. It exerts a magical spell over almost all its visitors who share an unspoken agreement never to tell others about it in case they decide to come and ruin the place. (oops! I guess I am now breaking that rule!)

 We fly from the mainland in a Twin Otter 16-seater airplane.  Once, before boarding, a zealous security official ordered me to remove my shoes.  I replied that were I to hijack a plane it would hardly be one flying eight passengers to the Scillies.   A fellow traveller, aged 94, was treated like an international terrorist when his bionic hips set off their electronic equipment.  On board there are no toilets, no food and no in-flight entertainment unless you count the  excellent running commentary given by our two pilots as to what to see below during the flight.

 

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coming in to land

The tiny landing strip on St Mary’s is merely yards from the rocky coastline and as you alight from the plane you are greeted with a stunning view overlooking the town, the Garrison and the Star Castle – our hotel.   Fifteen minutes after landing we are there. IMG_3245.jpg

 

On arrival  the first thing I do is  stand at the Castle entrance gazing at the harbour dotted with small boats, the islands on the horizon, and the unbelievably clear azure sea.  I am speechless (yes me!)  and want to cry with joy – it is perfect.

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According to Arthurian legends, these Islands were once linked to Cornwall by Lyonesse – a land of 140 villages, handsome maidens and strong men, rich pastures and the beautiful city of Lions.  One day, around 1099, all of this was suddenly engulfed by the sea. One man and his horse survived.  Theories abound – it was supposedly the location for the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde and periodically fisherman report finding pieces of masonry in their nets, but who knows the truth? Sea levels were undoubtedly once much lower than today so maybe there is a hidden city in the deeps covered in seaweed. 

One indisputable fact is that the sea around the archipelago is a graveyard for 700 shipwrecks – 530 of which are registered since records began in 1305.

One of the most dramatic concerned the distinguished Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cloudesley Shovell ( what a great name!) At the tender age of 15 he showed legendary bravery by swimming between ships during a sea battle with military orders in his mouth. In 1707 whilst returning from fighting pirates near Toulon, his flagship, HMS Association, hit rocks and capsized in four minutes with the loss of all 800 crew, including Shovell and his two stepsons. Altogether 2,000 sailors died that day, in one of the worst maritime disasters of British history.

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In  l967, I myself recall the sinking of the Torrey Canyon, an oil tanker carrying 120,000 tons of crude oil. It hit the Seven Stones Reef near the Islands causing catastrophic environmental damage. To minimise this, the Royal Air Force tried to bomb the ship and burn the oil, but failed. Thousands of volunteers attempted to clean up the resultant spill but at least 250,000 seabirds died.  Even today 51 years later, evidence of the oil is found as far away as Guernsey. 

The Isles of Scilly Museum tells of such maritime disasters and the geology, history and archaeology of the area, including the many Iron Age villages and burial places.   In  387AD two Roman Bishops were exiled here as a result of the Priscillian heresy ( look this up!)  They headed a cult of free love and it is said that they ensured that, being Bishops, they got more free love more often than anyone else. 

Over the centuries the Islands had periods of prosperity followed by acute poverty. The growth of Atlantic trade routes during Tudor times focused attention on the Scillies but it was the indomitable Queen Elizabeth who, because of the threat from Spain following the Armada 1588, began constructing defences – the Garrison and the Star Castle on St Mary’s.

During the English Civil War  the islanders were staunchly Royalist – Prince Charles stayed at the Star Castle after fleeing Cromwell’s forces in 1646. The islands were used as a base by Royalist privateers who raided merchant ships.  This piracy had been tolerated back in the Elizabethan era, provided the attacks were against Dutch or French ships.  When Cromwell took over, the islanders remained Royalist and continued attacking Dutch ships.  So much so that in 1651 a Dutch admiral came to the islands demanding reparation for the goods stolen and declared war on the Scilly Isles.  

This declaration was never rescinded until 1986 when the Dutch ambassador visited the islands to sign a peace treaty.    History books refer to it as the 350 Years War.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Islands became destitute, but Augustus Smith, a Liberal MP and social reformer, acquired the lease from the Duchy of Cornwall and set about restoring their fortunes. He introduced full time education and better living conditions for the poor; constructed a new quay and parish church;  established the sub-tropical gardens on Tresco, introduced  postal connections with the mainland and encouraged new enterprises including the flower industry, which today, together with tourism, is central to the economic success of the Islands.

From the Star Castle we often walk around the Garrison – a walled defence line with cannons and gun emplacements, encircling a large promontory overlooking the sea. Because of its strategic position, flying boats were based on the Islands during WW1 and  during WW2 a squadron of Hurricanes provided cover for convoys crossing the Atlantic. 

 Each day we explore a different island.   Our boatman, Tim, waits at the quay.  He takes eight passengers drops us off and returns to collect us at around teatime. He is an essential part of our visit – his jokes never change and he never fails to entertain.Tim, the boatman.jpgSt Mary’s and St Martins are the only two islands where  traffic is permitted. St Martin’s is renowned for its sweeping silvery white bays – the sand contains flakes of  mica which stick to your skin like fish scales and make you “sparkle like mermaids”, according to one small visitor.  Here are also the remains of the cottage industry turning seaweed into kelp, for use in the soap and glass  industries and which gave glass its green hue.

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the sweeping white bays of St Martin’s

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Here  you can see a variety of plant life in the crystal clear sea.

St Agnes and Gugh are the smallest inhabited islands and during low tide one can walk between them.  The dry stone walls completely covered in a profusion of plants and lichens give the Islands their distinctive character.

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At Bryher we walk north over gorse covered hills and then take a narrow steep coastal path towards  Hell’s Bay – so called as this side of the island receives the full blast of the storms which create a dramatic rocky coastline.  We always stop at Hell’s Bay Hotel for a drink, a snack and more lately a snooze, and then continue to the quay  to meet our boat back to St Mary’s.

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  Tresco is renowned for its world famed sub tropical gardens.They are impressive, but we prefer to walk north, scrambling  up steep hillsides  to Cromwell’s Castle and then across the heather strewn moorland to Old Grimsby for lunch.    As on all the islands there are magnificent views at every turn.cromwells castle.jpgTresco gardens.jpg

Two additional features are unique to the Scillies.     One is the tranquillity.  Even on bank holiday we walk for hours and meet only a handful of others.  Another is the friendliness of the locals.  Last year, whilst walking on St Martins, I lost my walking poles.  I mentioned this briefly to the local policeman Matt whom we met over lunch.   On arriving back at St Mary’s a message awaited me to come to the police station to retrieve my sticks.   Unbeknown to me, he had walked an hour to the north of St Martins, found them and brought them back by boat to St Mary’s then found out where we were staying.  How’s that for outstanding public  service?

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 However the islands are not without drama.  Last year the entire crew of  a naval frigate moored in the bay  planned a march past in the town.  Some 800 people turned up to see them. The excitement mounted as we waited. Suddenly there was an announcement.   Due to a slight change in the weather the lady commander ( commandress?)  decided that it was too dangerous for her sailors to disembark.   I sat next to three old soldiers wearing their military medals. One of them, Charlie, was outraged.  “How is it they managed to capture the bloody Falklands but can’t get off their  f… ing boat?”  We may have missed the parade, but the ribald comments of these old-timers more than made up for it.

On St Mary’s is a small area named ‘Nowhere’.  The story goes that a local recruit went to join the army in WW2.   When his CO asked where he was from he said “Nowhere Sir”,  to which the officer shouted “Listen here, when I ask you a question I want a proper answer.  Don’t be funny with me! You must live in a place, what’s it called?”  To which the young man replied “Nowhere, Scilly.”

As for me I prefer to think of it as ‘Somewhere’.  Remember the song by Bernstein/Sondheim from’West Side Story’  

‘There’s a place for us,   Somewhere a place for us,

Peace and quiet and open air, wait for us somewhere’

I have definitely found my ‘somewhere’.

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To the ends of the earth

Some years ago Charles and I were invited to a family wedding in Buenos Aires and, as he goes anywhere for a celebration, we planned a trip to South America. Travelling with Corman is always an experience.

I laid down the law about his tardiness, but for once we left home in plenty of time to get to Paddington station.    Once in the taxi my telephone rang.    “Hello, is that Ruth”  “Yes “I said, “How are you?” said a male voice.  “Fine”  I said.  “Where are you now?” he asked. I replied  “In a taxi to the airport”.  “Oh that’s strange so am I”.  “Where are you going?” he asked.  “Buenos Aires” said I.  “What an amazing  coincidence” – he replied, “Me too!” –   at which point I turned round to see Charles on the back seat, telephone in hand, speaking to someone.       He thought he was ringing his sister Ruth, but in error had dialled me.   An original start to our trip.

Charles, whilst wonderful in many ways, is somewhat limited in the technology department.  On arrival at Paddington station he spent five minutes trying to put his coin into a trolley – eventually gave up, informing me it was broken.     Not so.   I collected the trolley.  Next, on the Heathrow Express he blocked the carriage whilst attempting to lower the handle of his wheelie case and would not stop until we reached the airport.  Here he faced another challenge – the luggage labels from the travel agent.   “These won’t fit!”  he exclaimed, thrusting them at me to attach to the cases.   

Reviewing our itinerary I realised that we were due to cover a huge distance.    As a particularly poor traveller, I resolved not to complain about anything, but instead regard it as a challenge.  Little did I know what waited ahead.

London to Buenos Aires went without a hitch.  BA’s pull down beds are fine if you master the technique of sleeping immobile in one position, but not so  good if you are allocated a window seat necessitating  a climb over sleeping bodies to reach the bathroom.

At Buenos Aires, a car awaited us for the  ‘one hour’ journey to our destination, Hacienda Ombu.   It took two and a half hours – it was then I discovered that travel agents and South Americans share the same distain for punctuality.  

 

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Ombu was a mildly decaying estancia (ranch)  where the menu for ‘kosher’ guests consisted of tinned tuna and boiled rice.   A request for vegetables resulted in a bowl of floating disintegrated potato, courgette and pumpkin.   I had heard that Argentina is definitely not for vegetarians, confirmed whilst observing other guests being plied with endless varieties of meaty delicacies.

The other guests were mainly European seniors ‘Doing South America’, the first couple – a bursar from Oxford and his wife. She was totally paranoid about security, regaling us with horror tales from travellers in Brazil being held at gunpoint in their tour bus and robbed of their belongings. She feared carrying a camera and had even left her wedding ring at home. 

 I explained how we took a different  approach.  This being to stride ‘purposefully’ and, if threatened, to start picking our noses vigorously as this would  so disgust any assailants that they would rapidly leave.  The second option was for us to leap in unison into a martial arts stance, complete with a violent cry of ”Hi Yaaaah” so  any attackers  would a) think we knew what we’re doing or b) fall apart laughing.   Thankfully we never needed to resort to either of these undignified activities, but it was still useful to be prepared.

Ombu had several redeeming characteristics – a vast sky – which one forgets about when living in a metropolis, many different and colourful birds, and a variety of insects, making me aware of how closely we share the planet with wildlife.  We visited Areco, a traditional gaucho village with shops selling everything ‘cowboy’.

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local gauchos

Many of the men wore bright red berets, rakishly worn at an angle.  They looked very stylish and I assumed they were ‘extras’ from the film company that had been parading back and forth down the main street in 1930’s costumes, but no – this was the traditional headwear for locals, many of whom sat moustachioed and macho, astride horses.

 

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filming in Areco

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An Arecan gaucho with red beret

The ‘must do’ activity in town was to visit the local museum, but it being the Fiesta of the Virgin, everything was closed, including the taxi rank.  It was oppressively hot but we sat, optimistically if impatiently, waiting for any form of transport until  eventually a vehicle of sorts arrived, complete with customary shattered windscreen.   All the cars we travelled in whilst there were similarly damaged, presumably by disgruntled passengers.

After three days in Ombu we left for Buenos Aires immediately after Sabbath. As tradition requires, we sat in the garden of the estancia  waiting until three stars  appeared in the sky, the sign permitting us to leave. On arrival in B.A. we were informed that next morning we must leave  at 5.30a.m. for a full day flying to Santiago, Puerto Montt and finally Punta Arenas in the far south.

The airport at Santiago was a nightmare. We found ourselves in a queue behind  at least 600 others, with a probable wait of two hours and the likelihood of missing our connections.   I grasped the initiative, spoke to a customs official who promptly waved us through the diplomatic channel giving us at least a fighting chance. 

However we were, to quote Shakespeare, ‘sans everything’ – in this case, our luggage.   Carousels did not exist,   instead hundreds of suitcases were scattered haphazardly all over an aircraft hangar the size of a football pitch.

It was then I realised the common sense in buying a shocking pink case with neon straps – but we travelled, as most people, with black indistinguishable bags. After at least an hour of searching, we and they were reunited and we even found a porter. Our spirits lifted until he explained that the sole access to the departure lounge was up three flights by elevator but only one was working.

 With pounding hearts and getting more stressed by the minute we eventually struggled into a lift.   Once upstairs I passed hurriedly through security and continued with a sense of achievement towards the departure gate only to turn and see Charles beckoning, having been detained by security when their  x-ray machine identified a strange item in his case. Charles opened it, whereupon the officer gingerly extracted a 12” long metal object that he eyed with great suspicion.  “Che?  What is this?”  he asked, in the manner of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. He held it close to his eyes, inspected, shook and even smelled it.  Turning to me he shrugged his shoulders hoping I would offer some explanation. 

Chanukah

I could easily have told him how to get to the bank, order paella or enquire about the weather,  but  my ‘Teach Yourself Spanish in Seven Days’ was deficient in not having    even one sentence of explanation about ‘what is a chanukiah? ( see above).     I began “We are Jews “ (Somos Judeos) , “Today is a Jewish Festival”  (Ahoy eta una fiesta para los Judeos). I then struggled on incoherently about lighting candles, eating doughnuts and spinning tops.  The security men exchanged glances and shook their heads,  indicating that they were convinced we were both ‘loco’. But once again the miracle of Chanucah prevailed and they propelled us, undoubtedly relieved to see the back of us, through the departure gates.

The flights to Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas went well. However, despite ticking all the boxes for ‘vegetarian food’ with our travel agent in London, no one in South America seemed able to grasp our strange and incomprehensible  request for non-meat meals. Their creative substitution was an inseparable ham and cheese sandwich.  After many hours of travel we were now, like the Israelites in the wilderness,  praying for manna.  None arrived.   The hotel, we trusted, must surely feed us soon!.

Perhaps prudently,  no-one had forewarned us that the shuttle bus would take six hours to reach the hotel.    The first four were along a straight, traffic-free road with a 50kph speed limit which our driver maintained with  stubborn  determination.  You cannot imagine the frustration of crawling along at this speed with not another car in sight.

In Britain we are used to short distances and constantly changing landscapes, a wood, a village, hillsides, a lake, people and traffic.   Patagonia welcomed us  with an immense expanse of not a lot – just sky and distant mountains. Little to hold our attention except the occasional sheep or guanaco – the local llama.

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By now our sense of adventure was rapidly diminishing, to be replaced with questioning why on earth we had abandoned the comforts of  home.   Charles demanded that we return immediately, but frankly by then we were both very weary and could not countenance the thought of what that would involve.   Surely, we prayed,  the worst is over and it must only be another two hours,  albeit along a bumpy unmade track in total darkness.  

Israeli friends ( gerontologists) told us how they always travel to remote villages in Patagonia without booking, never knowing if they will reach their destination by nightfall.  This, they maintained, was the secret of long life,  as the stress involved is what everyone needs to keep alert and active.

I disagreed completely, declaring that my ideal holiday is knowing that wherever I stop there must be a clean toilet, drinking water and, if necessary, a hospital within easy reach.

I totally acknowledge that I am not a traveller but just a tourist (unlike my wonderful granddaughter currently exploring south America alone with a backpack). I question if this is an ‘age’ thing, but then when I was 20, I was a married mum so taking a year off was never an option. 

Suffice to say, when we eventually arrived  at the Explora in Southern Patagonia at 2.a.m.,  I knew immediately that I had died and gone to heaven.  Spectacular and unbelievably beautiful.  All the previous day’s rigours were instantly erased and we had a memorable and outstanding visit.     Would I do it all again?  Well of course – absolutamente!

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Once again – finding the unexpected….

Sometimes in life you come across a place that exerts a pull on your emotions that  can be wondrous and unexpected.

naarden.jpgFor me it was the discovery of Naarden Vesting – a small visually delightful town in the Het Gooi region of Holland  that has an atmosphere of tranquillity totally in contrast to its profoundly dramatic history.

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Canals around Naarden viewed from a boat trip.  Wild waterlilies, flag irises  – blissfully peaceful -the only sound is birdsong.

Naarden, dates back to 887 but over the centuries storms caused flooding which resulted in  the village being re-built in a new location on higher ground where it remains until today. It was designated as a city around 1300.

Naarden Vesting is a jewel, situated in beautiful wooded countryside and in the centre of one of the few remaining star shaped forts, surrounded by water.  The town has narrow cobblestone streets, pavements of red brick and historic buildings that are architectural gems.  Overlooking all of this is the magnificent St. Vitus Church.  Climb the tower for a panoramic view as far as  Amsterdam and Utrecht.  ( A treat still in store for me).

Whilst researching this story I soon realised how little I knew about the history of the Netherlands, having assumed that it had always been there.  How wrong could I be!

In ancient times it was a difficult place to live, being covered with wetlands, rivers, lakes and woods, however on the plus side this made it almost impossible for enemies to invade.   The Romans succeeded in the 1st century, but only in the south.  As the Roman Empire declined,  the Franks arrived bringing Christianity and by the 9th century Naarden was part of Charlemagne’s empire.  After his death the country was divided into smaller states ruled by nobles and by then had already developed strong trade links with Asia and Africa.  

Later the Dukes of Burgundy took over, followed by the Habsburgs.  In 1555 the Habsburg emperor Charles V granted the Netherlands to his son Philip 11, King of Spain.(He who married Mary, daughter of King Henry V111 and later sent the doomed Spanish Armada to England)  He was a devout Catholic, saying “I would rather lose all my lands and a hundred lives than be king over heretics”.  He had “a smile that cuts like a sword’ and it was he who started the 80 Years War which proved catastrophic for the Netherlands.

The Dutch, now mainly Protestants (aka heretics) rebelled and protested against his cruel regime and harsh taxes, so his army began a relentless campaign to punish them.  They looted the city of Mechelen, until “no nail was left in any wall”, killing several hundred citizens.  Zutphen suffered a similar fate.  Hearing this, a delegation from Naarden attempted to negotiate with the Spanish, offering supplies and promising to swear an oath to the King. The army arrived, the residents assembled in the Town Hall to welcome them.  Instead 400 were locked inside and murdered, while another were 400 killed in the street. The soldiers then proceeded to kill all remaining inhabitants of Naarden, burning many to death in their homes.   Only 60 of the 3,000 residents escaped. 

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Etching of the Massacre at Naarden

This massacre, including the murder of his son, was witnessed and recorded by  Lambertus Hortensius a priest and sympathiser of the Reformers. Two years later he was buried in the Great Church in Naarden where his tombstone reads: ‘A man of great scholarship, an excellent man of letters, an ingenious historian and an astute leader of Naarden youth.

Contrary to the intent of the Spanish, the destruction of Naarden became a rallying symbol for the Dutch rebels who eventually proclaimed their independence in 1581 with the Union of Utrecht.

One of the few buildings in Naarden to survive was St Vitus’ Church,  built by Catholics (1380 – 1445) before the Reformation. When I entered I was dazzled by the magnificent interior and was fortunate to meet Frans, a dedicated guide, with a passion for his local history that was infectious. 

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The walls were brilliant white and the barrel vault ceiling, 65 metres (214 ft) high, was covered with 39 glorious paintings of scenes from the Old and the New Testaments. Whitewashing was a key strategy in the Protestants’ alteration of churches, when all former ornamentation was obliterated.  However for some reason these paintings were untouched.  It seems that they were so high no one could reach them, hence this magnificent art remains for us to enjoy.   I had to lay down flat on my back to take photos but Frans brought me a magnified mirror with which I could get a close up view more easily.P1080734.jpgHe then produced an hour glass (sand timer) explaining how this was essential in earlier times when preachers were only allowed to speak for twenty minutes.  If this was exceeded, they had to pay a fine to the State.   A wonderful idea!  I can think of many public speakers today who could usefully adopt this rule. Charles was so enthused by this notion that, back in London, he bought one and presented it to our Rabbi. I wonder if he will adopt the tradition?P1080744.jpgThe church can hold 1,000 people but nowadays only 100 attend Sunday services. They have regular organ recitals, the church reputedly having the best acoustics in Holland. I tested this myself with a rendition of a Spanish Zarzuela and confirm that it is true!  my voice easily reached the heavens. (fortunately no one else was there at the time.)

I next visited the Spanish House –  the Town Hall at the time of the massacre. I was warmly welcomed by Han, who related its history.  The building was partially restored in the 16th century, serving as a weighing house prior to the establishment of standard weights. The house is now a fine museum covering every aspect of Weights and Measures.

IMG_0723.jpg This depiction of the massacre is above the doorway of the Spanish House.
I was invited for drinks in the garden with Han’s neighbours, one of whom was celebrating his birthday.  Another example of the warm welcome I received everywhere on my trip.

But no story about this place can be complete without writing about the Vesting Fortress Museum. I was lucky enough to be guided by Goos,  (his real name, not a typo) who was charming, patient and very knowledgeable.  He was also a gunner which was an added bonus.

Bastion forts evolved when  gunpowder and cannons dominated the battlefield. They were first seen in 15th century Italy where star forts were designed by Michelangelo to defend Florence.  Naarden  was established to protect Amsterdam from the East and is listed as Europe’s only standing fortification with double walls and moats. Cannons were placed prominently on two levels of the hillocks – the higher for long range and the lower for short range fire.  Underground is a gunpowder room, and brick and mortar bomb proof buildings covered with earth (casemates).  Soldiers worked and slept here, patrolling a 61 metre ‘listening’ corridor from where they could hear enemy movements.  They wore soft footwear (no hobnailed boots) to ensure that no sparks ignited the gunpowder.

I watched some fascinating films, including one about the unique history of Dutch waterlines.   It was  remarkable learning how this small country, constantly threatened by the sea, has harnessed it in ingenious and positive ways.  ‘Netherlands’  means ‘low countries’ and 50% of its land is barely 1 metre above sea level. Since the 16th century 17%  more land has been reclaimed from both sea and lakes.  Great for cycling, but more impressive is how it was used for defence.

As far back as 1629  during times of conflict, areas were flooded with water maintained at a level deep enough to make advance on foot precarious, especially after the addition of underwater obstacles such as pits, or barbed wire and  land mines in later years. The water was too shallow for enemy boats but locals could still use their flat bottomed boats to move around easily.  Their ingenuity was boundless.IMG_0702.jpgphoto courtesy Goos Van Gorkum.

For me the visit was an eye opener.   I learned so much, most of which, owing to lack of space, I cannot include here.  This small country that was at the pinnacle of world trading in the 17th century, now ranks fifth place worldwide with regard to prosperity; is the sixth largest economy in the EU and is the second largest exporter of agri-food products after the USA.  Add to this their  brilliant football team. They have played in more Cup Finals than any other country and are affectionately referred to as  “the best team never to have won the World Cup”. 

I came away with  a deep admiration and love for the Dutch and lasting memories of the 19 new friends I met on my brief stay – hopefully all by now reading my stories – I only hope they approve of my observations about their very special nation.

For Men Only…..

 

Recently I was contacted by Giles,  an old friend, to ask if we could meet for coffee near Green Park, London.

We first met in 1971 as volunteers for The Samaritans in Sunderland. He was training to be an Anglican priest, was ordained in Durham Cathedral and since then we have kept in touch. 

We  met and chatted for an hour until Giles, looking at his watch, said he had to go shopping and would I accompany him?  Now I  really do detest shopping, but for some  unknown reason agreed, and guess what?  An unexpected world was revealed to me,    resulting in this story.

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Our first stop was Trumper’s, Curzon Street,  established 1875 to provide barber services for the elite and awarded a Royal Warrant  “By Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales.”   It was as if entering an exclusive men’s club. I learned that “Facial hair requires the finest tools to maintain a well groomed appearance which, when used in combination with a lavender moustache wax, can sculpt facial hair into any required style”. Imagine, an entire shop devoted to mens shaving accessories! Brushes of badger or boar hair lined the shelves as did horn and rosewood special brushes for hair, moustache or beard.

Trumpers brushes xx.JPG        Display of Trumpers shaving brushes.

 Their gift selection included  carbon fibre cigar cutters, sterling silver collar stiffeners and pocket handkerchiefs. It was here that I learned  the difference between a pocket handkerchief and a pocket square: the first is for ‘blow’ and the latter for ‘show’. Nothing disposable here. They specialise in perfumery (elegantly named Wellington, Astor and Marlborough) and offer personal services – moustache trim, curl and wax,  shave with hot towels, ‘Friction’ and much more all of which take place in discreetly curtained booths.

A Trumper’s leaflet advises on ‘the correct use of an open-razor’ and their Shaving School provides one-to-one tuition on wet shaving.  I found it utterly fascinating – a tribute to the eminence of a tradition that, thankfully, is still upheld and admired world wide.

 That same day I saw a web enquiry from an undoubted personage in Vancouver. His 16 year old  son was beginning to grow facial hair. The father was adamant that his son should have a true ‘gentleman’s experience’ by having  his first shave in London.  Trumper’s was chosen. Apparently this is a regular occurrence for Trumpers at both their shops, the second one being in Duke of York Street, St James.  I accept that this is a rite of passage that I, as a female, could never experience. 

From here we strolled in leisurely fashion to Trickers in Jermyn Street to buy shoes.    Giles as a 13 years old was  greeted as ‘Master Giles’ on first entering their establishment by appointment in 1949. Now 81, he has never once bought shoes elsewhere.  There cannot be many firms that can claim customer loyalty for almost 70 years.   But this is Jermyn Street,  a unique place that began in 1664 when Charles II permitted Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans,  to develop the area near to St James’s Palace.  From its earliest days it was a street of distinction. 

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All shoes in Trickers are stored in special sections of the cupboards below.  This system has been in use for generations.

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James Tricker founded his company in 1829.    In 1840 young Walter James Barltrop (aged 7), made a leather boot which was a very early example that eventually was developed into  their  renowned  waterproof country wear for the landed gentry.  Barltrop married Tricker’s daughter and the company is today managed by his descendants who maintain high standards both in the quality of their merchandise and their exemplary customer services.  The courtesy and care extended to Giles demonstrated how buying a pair of shoes can be transformed into an event to be savoured.     

Today they have many Far Eastern clients who regard visiting Trickers for shoes as a ‘must’. However as part of the experience, they insist on having  photographs  taken with the salesman holding a Trickers bag containing their purchases.

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On returning home I mentioned my shopping expedition to Charles who asked “Was it Trickers you visited?“   This surprised me, as to my knowledge, Charles has always been a strictly M&S shoe man, but appearances are  deceptive. It seems that 40 years ago, Charles and his good friend Bob (later Lord) Gavron were playing squash at the RAC Club in Pall Mall.   After the game Charles returned to the changing room to find that his shoes had been stolen.   Unperturbed, Bob said “No problem, come with me.”  and took Charles, shoeless but wearing socks, for the ten minute walk to Trickers.

Charles entered.  The two salesmen obviously noted that he was unshod but, showed not a glimmer of either surprise or curiosity,  instead politely asking  “How may we help you sir?”.  The French have a word for it – sangfroid.

   Nowadays sales personnel can be brusque, dismissive or simply too busy on their mobile phones to pay attention to customers.  Trumpers and Trickers have  mastered the art of ‘doing things the right way’  an experience   replicated at many of the shops in Jermyn Street.  Turnbull & Asser (est.1885) produce, amongst other items, the finest hand made shirts. You choose from 2,000 fabrics,  13 collar and 11 cuff styles.  Another rite of passage no doubt. Their  customers  have included  Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Daniel Craig.

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 Display cabinets at Floris. 

Many  other establishments in Jermyn Street have illustrious histories.  Aquascutum fashions (1861), Alfred Dunhill  began selling motoring accessories in 1893, and  Floris perfumers (1730) whose  magnificent display cabinets, still used today, were purchased at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Their archives contain a letter from Florence Nightingale thanking them for a “fragrant nosegay” that helped her avoid the terrible odours in the hospitals where she worked.  Daks fashion house dates from 1894  and holds three royal warrants  and amongst all of this is  Paxton & Whitfield,  the oldest cheese shop in the UK (founded 1797) but not, I hasten to add, solely for men.

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Walking down Jermyn Street is a journey through history. A statue of Beau Brummell, Regency dandy and arbiter of men’s fashion, stands immediately facing the magnificent Piccadilly Arcade – also filled with attire for men. He never lived in this street but is noted as saying “to be elegant one should not be noticed.” An adage that wins my seal of approval.  He had an extraordinary life  but, sadly died in a French asylum in poverty.

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However  Sir Isaac Newton lived here for 65 years and Napoleon III sought refuge  here after the Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris in 1871.  Another famous resident, who both lived and died here, was Al Bowlly, an iconic jazz singer of the 1930’s.  He was killed instantly by a Luftwaffe bomb that exploded outside his apartment.  He was 42 years old.

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I looked him up on Youtube and was immediately captivated by this immensely talented performer.  Surprisingly, I knew all the words of his songs  such as  ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘The Very Thought of You’, ‘Melancholy Baby’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, Two Sleepy People’ and  more –  possibly because they were classic hits for years,   but also as they were used in much later films  by Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and quite recently  ‘The Kings Speech’ and  Woody Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, (2014).

 

I urge you to spend ten minutes listening to him.   He was elegant and urbane with a divine voice.  Jermyn Street seems to me to be the ideal place for him to have spent time.

This story about sartorial elegance reminds me of the tale of the Jewish boy who escaped Nazi Europe and came to England. His father remained behind living in a small village but his son vowed that one day he would bring his father over to join him.   Eventually that day arrived.

At the airport he embraced a little stooped figure, bearded and wearing traditional shtetl clothes.

“Papa, I am so happy to see you. I want to give you something now to make up for our years apart”.   He took him first to a barber where his hair and beard were trimmed. Next, they visited top class outfitters where he was measured for the finest cotton shirts and following this a bespoke suit from Savile Row.    Hand made leather shoes, a bowler hat and a rolled umbrella completed the ensemble.

Finally the son took his father gently by the hand and  went over to a mirror so that  he could see himself in his new finery.  The son thought his father looked magnificent.

“Well Papa, what do you think?”  he asked.  Suddenly he saw tears streaming down his father’s face.   “Papa”, he said anxiously,   please, tell me what is wrong?”

The old man turned to him and sighed “I am crying because we had to give up the Empire”. 

 

 

It all began with Adam and Eve….

am often asked how I find inspiration for my stories. They emerge from a variety of sources – sometimes unexpected incidents that lead me to explore new paths and produce a host of ideas.  

One such event occurred recently on discovering the Mikanmor boutique in Jerusalem where  a group of designers covering fashion, textile design, object design and jewellery combine their talents to produce a distinctive selection of stunning products made from leather.

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                                                   Mikanmor in Jerusalem

I was so impressed by their creativity and dedication that I decided to write about them but how best to tell their tale?   I chose to start with the origins of leather.  Where did it begin?  How did it develop and what significance  did it have in Jewish culture?

Tanning leather is one of the oldest known human activities.  Cave paintings from early paleolithic times in Spain illustrate the existence of leather clothing.  Archaeological finds from 40,000 and 10,000 years ago revealed tools, similar to those used much later for cleaning hides. There is also ample evidence from Egyptian wall paintings of the uses of leather and Homer’s writings refer to its role in Ancient Greece.  

Animal skins were plentiful but became stiff when cold and rotted in heat, being unusable without cleaning and curing.  Ancient methods were noxious.   Once the hair was removed tanners pounded excrement from dogs or pigeons into the skin and soaked it in a solution of animal brains.  This undoubtedly accounted for its bad smell, particularly when combined with decaying flesh. The tanner then trod the skins with his bare feet for three hours.   Children were employed to collect human urine from ‘piss pots’ in the towns to be used in the process. 

Surprisingly animal brains are  still used today by outdoorsmen (hunting and shooting  types) for tanning hides. Websites abound extolling the superlative effect on leather using this method. Later processes used vegetable tannin from tree bark and also chromium  which gives the leather a distinctive blue colour. 

 What I describe merely scratches the surface of a very complex process that once took up to a year, but now is just a few of days. Traditional tanning continues at Fez in Morocco.  What you perhaps do not know is that Fez is listed as one of the ‘ten smelliest but most interesting places  for tourists to visit.’    Curious what people choose to do on vacations!

tanneries in Fez, Morocco

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I had my own experience of noisome leather  many years ago when, as a middle-class Jewish housewife and mother of three boys,  I  enrolled to study sociology at Durham University.  Wanting to fit into the somewhat hippy environment I bought, as was popular then, an Afghan coat.  I loved it but never understood why it smelled so bad, a factor which resulted in the coat and I eventually parting company.  Unbelievably, it is only whilst researching this story now that I discovered my coat was malodorous because it had been cured with sheep urine… had I known then, my enthusiasm to buy would have faded rapidly.

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The Jewish connection  with hides dates back to the Book of Genesis  where it is recorded that God gave Adam and Eve ‘coats of skin” when they realised they were naked.

According to the Mishnah, Jewish tanneries had to be situated on the eastern side of a town at least 50 cubits (25 metres) away from private homes because it was such a smelly process.   Locals could prevent their neighbours from becoming tanners who in addition  were forbidden to enter the Temple. Their status was rock bottom owing to the terrible smell that permeated their flesh – as  The Talmud says “The world cannot exist without a perfume-maker or a tanner – happy is he whose craft is a perfume-maker, woe to him who is a tanner.” 

The Mishnah also states that a man who works as a tanner can be compelled to give his wife a divorce if she demands it.  Perhaps  this ruling against  bad odours could  be extended today to include those who take public transport but seemingly choose to shower only once a month, whether they need it or not.

In nomadic times leather was used for making vessels that could easily transport water and olive oil.  It was also used for a wide range of tools and utensils and provided warriors  with weapons, shields and helmets.

iu.jpegLeather shoes are mentioned in the Bible  – from the Song of Songs –  ‘How beautiful are thy feet in sandals’- highly relevant in  today’s Israel where sandals are the norm for men and women for at least eight months of the year.  The importance of owning footwear is also spelled out in the Talmud:  ‘A man should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet’. 

In Jewish ritual, leather has a significant role.   The scrolls of the Torah are made of parchment from the skin of a sheep, as is the biblical text inside a Mezuzah – a small box fixed to doorposts.  Men wear Tefillin  for their daily prayers.   All these items can only use skins of kosher animals in their preparation which must be supervised by a rabbi.mezuza.jpgMezuza              

  Another  traditional ceremony is  ‘Chalitza’, when a childless widow  can be released from the biblical injunction to marry her deceased husband’s brother.   He puts on a special leather sandal, she undoes the laces, removes it from his foot, throws it to the ground and spits on the ground. Job done.

In the Middle Ages, tanning was work for Jews because of its low status.     From such modest beginnings trading in hides became an important area of Jewish commerce throughout Europe and beyond.    Records attest to the numbers involved.  In the late 17c 45 Jewish tanners and 730 shoemakers  worked in Algiers.  In Moravia in the early 18c two tanneries were Jewish owned and 79 leased by them.   Bohemia had 86 Jewish tanners and furriers, 146 hide and leather merchants. In late 19c Germany there were hundreds of Jews  producing purses, wallets and cases and their family names identified their profession – Lederer, Gerber, Ledermann and Peltz.  Similarly in other countries –  the lists are endless.

In Israel the industry was boosted by immigration from Europe in the 1930’s when 850 were employed in 61 firms.  One major source of income during the Mandate was the production of around one million pairs of boots for the British army.

And now back to Mikanmor – they follow an ancient tradition but give it a very modern appeal.  They told me that visitors to their studios love the ‘intoxicating aroma’ of the leather.  I find it curious that a product with such a malodorous past can become so highly desirable and particularly attractive to the senses.

In 1781  King George lll’s glove maker, James Creed, was commissioned to perfume  the gloves of the English Royal Court – necessary to hide the odour of the poor hygiene at that time. From this developed the perfume Royal English Leather.  Creed is still one of the most prestigious perfumers in London.

Today the smell of ‘leather’ is the preferred fragrance for men along with tobacco. ‘Polo’ by Ralph Lauren claims to be  ‘A masculine expression of wood, leather and tobacco and  English Leather ‘Timberline’ ‘has a truly mesmerising aroma with a combination of woody and leather notes’ – ‘it can drop a woman at 50 yards’ –  whatever that means.!

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I myself have never knowingly experienced this, but am thankful  that ‘real men’ (whoever they may be) have not yet gone as far as creating perfumes redolent of beer and sweat.

As for Mikanmor, I am grateful to them for introducing me to their wonderful products and especially for opening the door to a fascinating history that I enjoyed exploring, to my surprise,  despite being a vegetarian.P1080635.JPGmore mikanmor

If Only……

The other day a friend asked whether I had ever experienced an ‘IF ONLY’ moment in my life, for example had I ever had occasion to pause and reflect about something I had longed to do but failed to achieve it.

My immediate reaction was ‘No’, as for me yesterday is gone and I am very much rooted in today, looking neither backwards nor forwards.

She said she didn’t believe me and there must be something I had overlooked, so, as one does, when unable to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I thought again, and sure enough something did come up.

I had always dreamed of being a dancer. As a small child I recall sitting in the cinema on a Saturday afternoon with my Russian grandmother watching endless Hollywood movies. They were spellbinding. We left the theatre in a dream state “trailing clouds of glory” to quote Wordsworth. It was just after the war when, during times of austerity, Hollywood led us into fantasy worlds far removed from our everyday lives.

I remember the glamour and the songs in those seminal musicals, from the 40’s – Carmen Jones, Oklahoma, On The Town, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and South Pacific.

Then in the 50’s The King and I, Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, CanCan, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Flower Drum Song, and the Sound of Music. The list is endless.

This was a prolific and rich period with composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, (later Rodgers and Hammerstein), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Leonard Bernstein filling our lives with the unforgettable lyrics of their classics.   Today reading a list of melodies from the ‘Great American Songbook’ (which was never published as such but just refers to the creative output of that period), I realise that I know every word of almost every song whereas ask me anything post Beatles and I am stumped.

My friends and I dreamed of experiencing that glittering world on screen. We imagined how it felt to be Ginger Rogers partnered by Fred Astaire, gliding across the floor in a bias cut frock, or being Leslie Caron or the divine Audrey Hepburn partnered with Gene Kelly.

Neither I nor any of my friends were sent to ballet lessons but I do remember a brief sojourn as a tap dancer and until today I can recall all the steps and the music – the ‘Anniversary Waltz”.

At grammar school we had ballroom dancing during lunch breaks. All I recollect of this embarrassing ritual was how we uniformed schoolgirls danced with our female teachers.ScanI was asked to dance by our English mistress ( see above)  and had to take the lead, which must have looked very odd as she was very well endowed and I was one of the smallest in the class. I clearly remember placing my hand gingerly in the centre of her back, but instead of encountering voluptuous female flesh my hand rested against what must have been the armour plating of the day, an all encompassing corset. Even writing this now I recall the overwhelming feeling of distaste and my relief when our foxtrot reached its end. Amazingly this did not diminish my love for ballroom dancing, it merely reinforced my determination to make sure I had an appropriate partner next time round.

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Dancing did however take another more enjoyable form at the ice skating rink in Cheetham Hill, Manchester where I had occasional dance lessons with the professional teachers. I continued this until my early twenties when, whilst living in Middlesbrough, I would skate three times a week. I remember wondering, as I circled the rink endlessly in an anticlockwise direction, whether this was all my future held for me, but it was glorious being whirled across the ice dancing the waltz or tango, supported in the arms of the instructor who made it feel so easy and totally sublime.

Music was a natural part of our childhood. Dad and his two brothers were professional musicians – he played saxophone, clarinet and piano accordion with Billy Cotton and his band.

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Mother told me that they met and fell in love when she appeared on stage at one of his concerts and sang “Mean To Me” – a bluesy classic written in 1929, recorded by Billie Holliday in 1937, a year before my parents wedding. It was later recorded by greats such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Sara Vaughan and Dean Martin.

Father always looked dapper and elegant as was the fashion in those days. No sloppy casual clothes for him, but wide leg slacks, tight fitted jackets and two-tone brogues.

vic nice shoes.jpgMother too was the epitome of style, slender and long waisted. I remember clearly her 39th birthday. She was dressing to go out. In those days my parents attended many ‘functions’. To watch her make up and dress was pure theatre from her powder puff and dressing table ornaments to her silk stockings.

That night she wore a dark royal blue silk bias cut full length evening dress. The shoulders were padded as was the fashion, and there was a triangular cut out shape at her neckline. In her tumbling auburn hair she wore a blue bird, the same colour as the dress and her matching shoes. “How do I look?” she asked. “I am getting old, I am 39”. I gazed at her admiringly and confirmed that I had never seen anyone quite so glamorous. She was the closest I had ever come to my fantasy world of the movies.

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Throughout her life mother was immaculate, always formally attired and well groomed. For her it would have been social suicide to appear before anyone without makeup or in her dressing gown. Quite unthinkable. Appearances were everything and had to be maintained. Her best friend ‘Auntie Faye’, was a milliner and she too looked like a fashion plate right into her nineties.

Thirty years ago they came to visit us in Jerusalem. I tried really hard to give them a memorable week. Afterwards I asked what Faye had to say about it, to which Mother replied “She wondered if you are letting yourself go”. It was then I realised I could never live up to Mother’s exacting standards and didn’t stand a chance in the fashion stakes.

Mother loved dancing. I took her to the Royal Albert Hall to see ‘Songs from the Shows’ where we sang along, both feeling nostalgic and emotional. How she would have adored the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ series to which I have become addicted.

I did have a brief excursion into the world of tango, when Charles and I booked dance classes, prior to a trip to Argentina. It was not hugely successful, because whilst Charles is wonderful in every other respect, on the dance floor he was somewhat out of his comfort zone. But once in Buenos Aires we attended a tango session in a seedy downtown hall – it was magical!

So there it is. My ‘If Only’ is revealed to the world and yes, I would love to have met a man who can dance – not so well as to make me feel inadequate, but just well enough to steer me around a dance floor in time to the music.

So what can I do about it? I did have my first public solo singing performance after retirement age in Jerusalem, so is it entirely naïve to think that the world of dance has escaped me for ever? We shall have to wait and see. Miracles do occasionally happen.