Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Deep and Crisp and Even

Good morning to all in the Land of Blog, the Land of Shimp, the Land of the Walking Man, Shadow's Land, the BeeKeepers Land (aka BeekersLand) and everyone who inhabits the Blogosphere.

You can see how wintry it is in these parts; beautiful vistas and just wonderful for all the youngsters building snowmen, playing snowballs or just skidding along on their toboggans and sleds. Been there, done all that and the tee-shirt needs renewing - but heigh-ho - it's snow great problem!

Haven't used my mini-camcorder for a while so hope it comes through on here today. All our best wishes to everybody. Take good care of yourselves - and that's an order!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Brief Encounter

My apologies for lack of postings and for not visiting my favourite bloggers.

Health problems in the Croydon Boy cottage have been the cause. My wife and I have both had some time in hospital. Pat was in Edinburgh Royal and I was in Borders General. My problem was heart damage of a few years ago which gave me some reminders recently! Pat has a vascular problem and this is worrying but is being treated well enough.

I don't want to dwell on the health side of things as life's too short for all that. We shall be more concerned with the weather at present. Plenty of snow and a radio warning today said that Lothian and Borders (my area of course) can expect heavy and prolonged snow - lasting until after Christmas Day.

So, a white Christmas this year. Lovely for the youngsters; not too sure about those in isolated areas who are easily cut off in snow storms. This happened to us about five or six years ago when we lost power for five days and all roads were totally impassable for three days. Memories of cooking eggs and bacon on a fry pan over the coal fire. Slowly boiling water for coffee and tea on a gaz camping stove. Romantic? Not very. ;-}

We wish everybody a very Merry Xmas and a Happier and Healthier New Year. If winter comes can Spring be far away...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A Beautiful Woman - How to be one

A friend in Australia sent me this recently. I think it's worth more than just a look.
Audrey Hepburn wrote the following when asked to share her 'beauty tips .'

It was read at her funeral years later.

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.

For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.

For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.

For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.

People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of each of your arms.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands; one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.

If you share this with another person you will boost her self esteem, and she will know that you care about her.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A quiz for you...

There's something odd about the following extract from a 50,000-plus word novel. Can you say what it is?

If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.”A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.

But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child “prodigy” in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child’s inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant.

The complete novel has the same unique 'peculiarity' - and is thus quite a remarkable achievement by Mr. Gadsby, the author, who died at age 66 just as his amazing book was published. He never even saw it as a publised book!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Search for Madeleine Continues

The heartache of the parents goes on, and on ... they will never give up their search for the daughter who was snatched from their lives over two years ago.

I can think of nothing worse than not knowing where one's child is. What has happened to her. Is she well, or being abused. Or has she been murdered.

You might say otherwise. You may say that the death of a child is far worse. But at least you know what has happened.

Not knowing must be a constant nightmare. A terrible thing to have to live with. So I hope more blogs will include this video - it is available on youtube and the more widespread it becomes the more chance there is that SOMEBODY will give the parents the lead they pray for.

I hope so. I sincerely hope so.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Floors Castle (Kelso)

Floors Castle in Kelso is the home of the 10th Duke of Roxburghe and family.

This is a large estate with extensive grounds, cottages, stables and other properties including the Roxburgh Hotel and a new golf course.

The Duke and Duchess are fond of horses and have bred some very good race horses. Currently they have Elation, a two-year-old bay filly in training at the Mark Johnston racing stables; one of the most successful trainers in the UK.

I like strolling around the pasture areas of Floors Castle and sometimes see quite a number of beautiful horses grazing. However, today I could find only a couple in the area I was walking in. One of the two looked as though she might be in foal. I'm no expert but I thought she looked a tad 'plumpish'.

I've not been around the blog scene for a few days as my wife, Pat, has been spending a couple of days in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where she had a minor operation called an angioplasty. It went very well; Pat was able to see this procedure on the monitor as the surgeon went about her job! She is now safely back home I'm pleased to say.

Short video:

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A Question: Could You Live Without ...?

Of all the modern wonders I wonder which, if any, you would like to get shot of?

1. The infernal combustion engine, i.e. the motor car.
2. The internet.
3. Television.
4. The mobile (cell) phone.
5. The microwave oven.
6. The aeroplane.

Me? No.3 - the TV would be dumped if I was allowed to. What a time-waster it generally is.

Also, the mobile or cellphone. OK, they're handy on a long car journey if you break down, but I managed without one extremely well for 50 years! Now it seems millions of people, especially kids and teens, have one welded to their ears or fingers. 'Texting', with its own micro language, seems to be replacing conversation! Still, everyone to their own likes.

I'd even go so far as to say the aeroplane has caused a heck of a lot of heartache, death and destruction that it might have been better never to have been invented.

Argue amongst yourselves - if you are interested!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Earl Interview on Hundy Mundy

This is a video of a few years ago when Lord Haddington was interviewed by the local Scottish Borders TV about Hundy Mundy.

His farm manager, Richard, did a lot of the preparatory work and is also on the video.

Obviously this is not one of my Flipping videos but one day ... I might get there.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Bus Ride and a Rush Hour in Scotland :-}

Today we had to go to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as my wife, Patricia, has to see the lady doctor who will perform the angioplasty in a few weeks.

We drove five miles to Earlston and then took the bus to Edinburgh. Main reason is that I detest trying to navigate around a large 'roundabout' a few miles from the hospital.

I took a few short video shots of the bus ride into the hospital. The interview went well. We set off for the bus back to Earlston where we had parked our little Ford Ka car.

About half a mile from Mellerstain and our cottage I had to pull up. It was the typical rush hour in this neck of the woods....

Billy May's orchestra blares out 'Autumn Leaves' in the background!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A Sunday Stroll in October 2009

October this year is beautiful in the Scottish Borders. Breezy at times but the blue skies and sunshine suits me perfectly. Love it like this.

I enjoy wandering around churchyards and suchlike. Some of the gravestones are touching to read. We have some beautiful abbeys, cathedrals and churches in the UK. I've visited many of them over the years. Chester, Salisbury, Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, St. Pauls, and Liverpool to name a few cathedrals. Liverpool has a relatively new Roman Catholic cathedral. Unusual in shape, rather like a large tent. Locally and irreverently called 'Paddy's Wigwam'. Inside the colours are breathtaking as the sun illuminates the multi-coloured leaded light windows. Fabulous. Virtually all these buildings are now charging casual visitors before they enter. The upkeep is expensive of course and most people do not object to paying. However, there is no 'enforced' payment - strictly speaking. There is a notice requesting a 'donation' of, say, £5 but this is a ploy to escape the dreaded value added tax (VAT) which would be payable by the church if they were charging a fixed entrance fee. A 'donation' is not liable to VAT. Just thought I'd explain that (the old VAT instruction book still resides in my head!).

Robert the Bruce and Melrose Abbey.

There is a well known story about Robert the Bruce, one time king of Scotland. It probably gave rise to the old exhortation: If at first you don't succeed try, try and try again. Robert the Bruce was in despair, resting in a cave. All seemed hopeless. It was at this time while secluded in this cave that he noticed a spider continually remaking its web. Every time a strand broke, the spider repared it. This was the moment at which he vowed to keep trying to free Scotland from the English.

On his deathbed in 1329, Robert the Bruce asked that his heart should be carried into battle against the "Infidels" because he himself had not been able to go on a Crusade. (Removing internal organs after death was a common practice in those days). His dying wish was said to have been carried out and his heart, in a casket, was taken on the Crusades.

When he passed away he was buried at Dunfermline - minus his heart.

His heart was taken on the Crusades by Sir James Douglas (aka Black Douglas), who, just before he was killed in Spain, hurled it at the enemy. The heart was recovered and taken back to Melrose Abbey where the then new king, David II (Bruce's son), had asked for it to be buried.

"Black Douglas" was a sort of 'bogey man' in England. English mothers would threaten their children when they were being naughty. "If you dont behave and do as you're told the wicked Black Douglas will come and get you".

Background music today is J.S. Bach's well known piece "Air on the G-String".

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Lara Fabian - Sings 'Caruso' (Live)- Love Personified

Our lives are too short to find every thing of beauty on this earth. If we lived a thousand years I guess we would still say something similar.

I've now found another thing of beauty; my newest love. She has ripped my heart out. Caused my eyes to flood with tears. I am totally smitten, never to recover normality after hearing this heavenly voice singing such a heart-rending song.

Lara Fabian - I love you, love you, love you.

And you don't even know my name. Life is beautifully cruel, is it not? I wonder how many other hearts she holds captive today? Millions I guess.

She's so talented. I'd never heard of her before but found out on the web that she was born in Belgium on 9th January 1970 (she's Capricorn - same as I). She sings in French, Italian and Spanish - also Portugese and German, plus a little Flemish. Sold over 12million records.

And for all you lucky Canadians - she adopted your country and became a Canadian citizen in 1994.

Forgive me Lara Fabian for not finding you until now. I watched a film called 'One More Kiss' last night, about a girl returning to the UK as she was dying from cancer. One of the musical clips in the film was 'Caruso' sung by a good tenor. I searched for this song and found Lara!

I've heard Pavarotti sing it, Il Divo sing it and others - but none, in my mind, can touch the beauty and feeling she imparts in this version. I felt much the same when I first found Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time. Wonderful - and he was Belgique too!

Monday, 5 October 2009

A Gentleman's Gentleman - Alan Parkes.

I may be breaking some rules (again) by posting this short video because it was produced not by me but by the British Broadcasting Corporation - around 16 or so years ago.

Shortly before we decided to move to Scotland I read a piece in The Times about Alan Parkes. It told how this 65 year old man had left South Africa where he had lived for twenty or more years.

Alan had set up a flower shop business in S.Africa and was successful. However, when he reached 65 he wanted to return to England and retire. The plan was good, except that the ruling government then banned him from taking the money from the sale of his business out of the country!

He arrived in London virtually penniless. He was a well-educated man, a student of architecture amongst other things and an ex-army officer during WW2. He decided to put an advert in a London newspaper offering his services as a butler! He had no experience as one although when he was a child his family had their own butler - so he knew what the job entailed.

He was offered three positions. He took one of them and remained as butler in that same house until his death, aged 84 a few years ago. The 'Times' diary article gave this brief outline of his return to London for 'retirement'.

I was most impressed by the article and wrote to Alan, via The Times newspaper, and told him of my impending plans to decamp from England and go to work for an Earl in Scotland. He wrote back and we became friends via the telephone and letters.

After my arrival in Scotland, having settled in OK, I invited Alan to spend a week or so with us in the east wing of Mellerstain. He was 80-ish at the time. He said he'd love to come for a few days as he had never been to this area of Scotland.

He arrived at Berwick railway station and we picked him up in the car for the 30 mile trip back to Mellerstain. His stay was really enjoyable for all of us. He was one of nature's real gentlemen.

During his stay he told us of his various experiences and employers as a butler. He also had a video tape of a short article on BBC television which I managed to copy onto a blank tape. I have now been able to rip that video onto my hard drive and this is shown below.

The BBC had heard of Alan Parkes being butler at a lovely old house on the banks of the river Thames. The house was being sold, and one of the conditions of the seller was that the new owner would employ Alan as butler. And so they did.

I was greatly saddened when Alan's daughter rang me one evening to say that Alan had been ill for a week or so and had died suddenly. She said that her Dad had often told her of his visit to Mellerstain and of our brief friendship. Pancreatic cancer killed this lovely old chap. Thankfully he had only a short period of illness before he passed away.

I hope you enjoy this little item, and hope also that the BBC doesn't object to my sharing it.

Friday, 2 October 2009

A Walk to the Mausoleum (and back!)

It's Thursday, October 1st 2009 and the weather is fine. Beautiful in fact. So I'm off for a stroll to another part of Mellerstain. Neglected by many, mainly because it is unknown to most visitors, and quite a few others.

Part of Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto plays gently in the background. This music, like so many other pieces, always relaxes me. As you know, it was used in that old romantic film "Brief Encounter".

I count this film as a classic now. I must have seen it at least ten times and never tire of it. Why is this? Yes, I heard you ask that question; a very good question. Well, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are just superb in this old 1945 black and white movie. And I just love old railway stations! Especially this old-fashioned railway buffet, complete with a haughty-ish barmaid and cafeteria assistant; Stanley Holloway as the protective railway porter. It's all so nostalgic for me and many others.

In 1945 David Lean filmed this romantic classic at Carnforth railway station. Filming took place at night between 10pm and 6am to avoid interfering with daytime trains. Carnforth was later reduced to a branch station and gradually crumbled into disrepair.

A project started in 2000, jointly with Railtrack, and about three years later the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room and Visitor Centre opened in late 2003. One fine day I shall make it to this place. Have a cup of tea, or maybe a beer (if they're licensed) and just imagine Trevor and Celia being at a nearby table.

Trevor Howard was not too pleased however. He made many other films of course but he was reputed to be annoyed that Brief Encounter was the film he is always associated with. He's one of my top ten actors, along with James Mason (whose voice is immediately recognised), Richard Burton - especially his rendition of Dylan Thomas's excrutiatingly wonderful "Under Milk Wood".

However, 'Brief Encounter' will grow in stature, imo, as the years go by and movies become ever more car-chase, car-crash, special effects and all the other modern methods of movie making with acting slipping into the background in so many films today.

A Conversation with some Cattle

Taking a stroll in the gentle October weather I met some friends.

Some sheep, some cattle and some mushrooms. Or maybe they were toadstools?

Anyway, the day was sublimely calm and autumnly; a lovely day for a stroll. And to have a chat with some of my 'neighbours'.

The background music is part of Rimsky Korsakov's 'Sheherazade' - one of my favourite light classical pieces.
I remember taking my 12 year old son, Graham, to the Royal Albert Hall in 1973 to see the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Sheherazade waspart of the programme played that evening.
On leaving the concert my boy castigated me: "Why did you never tell me about this sort of music before!?" I could see he had been weeping. The music had really penetrated his young soul.
He had albums by the pop groups of those days, like Alice (banal) Cooper, T.Rex and Marc Bolam (quite decent stuff there) and plenty of others. But no classical music.
He's now in his late 40s and has a roomful of LPs and CDs of virtually every classical piece under the sun. Should have spent more time with him when he was a schoolboy. Like most fathers I was far to occupied with earning a living; he's a very forgiving chap, thank goodness. He and his lovely wife have blessed us with a beautiful (now 18 years young) granddaughter!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Wwoof-ing in Canada

Do you know any Wwoofers? Anywhere?

Neither did I until my neighbour, just 4 cottages away from ours decided to become one in April 2009. She is now in Canada and in a month or two will be going on to New Zealand.

Why should a 43 year old midwife decide to up sticks and leave her lovely Flossie doggy with another neighbour for a whole year?

We don't really know of course; her motives could have been many. We think it might be due to stress. Midwifery may well be a rewarding occupation but can, I imagine, also be quite stressful. Maybe she just needed a break; a complete change, doing something new.

And what, I hear you yell, is wwoofing all about? Good question. The simple answer is that it's a voluntary scheme whereby anybody can go and work on organic farms, as an unpaid helper, advisor, worker. All the host farm has to do is supply board and lodgings.

Welcome to the WWOOF program in Canada - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Canada is just one of many countries welcoming wwoofers. In Canada there are some 600 farms that are hosting this scheme.

Would you like to take a year off and start wwoofing? Charlotte did (not her real name) and a girlfriend of hers from Ireland plans to join her in a few weeks from now. I'm sure it will re-charge Charlotte's batteries by the time she returns to her demanding midwifery job in about six months time. We look forward to hearing of her adventures. Her beautiful border collie, Flossie, will also be so happy to see her again.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Wanna Buy a House? Or Hear a Poem?

I have a bit of a lower back problem today. Every so often something 'clicks' at the end of my spine. It is something I just have to let take its course and heal itself. Tried chiropractors and osteopaths in the past but they have not helped speed this pain away.

So today I took a slow stroll along a track to a much neglected area of the estate. The first stop was at the old bothy. A neighbour nearby says it was once 'the Lodge', but that must have been 40 or more years ago by the looks of the place.

Almost next to it is a large walled garden. It is about the size of two football pitches and was once tended by half a dozen gardeners of varying grades. I have a photo of this walled garden as it was in the days of the 12th Earl of Haddington. I shall have to try to dig it out.

Today it is massively overgrown. Nature hates a vacuum so she has filled this space with trees and bushes; almost impenetrable now.

Whilst standing there in that now overgrown jungle I thought I'd mention William Henry Davies who wrote the poem 'Leisure'. Many will know the first two lines at least which, today, are still as meaningful as when he wrote them in the 20th century.

I met my neighbour, Alice from the east lodge cottage on my way back. She had 'Flossie' with her, an elderly border collie. Flossie's owner is a midwife who lives in a cottage a few doors from me but has gone to Canada for a year and had to leave Flossie with Alice. I am sometimes allowed to take Flossie for a walk. As she is about as old as me, in doggy years, our walkies are gentle strolls; she doesn't pull when on the lead and she doesn't dash off when the lead is taken off. A lovely old gal, but I think she misses her 'mum' who's in Canada for another 6 months at least.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Kelso Abbey and an ex-Prime Minister

Very sorry about the noisy traffic but that's life nowadays, wherever you live!

Kelso Abbey would have been ab fab in days of yore. Started in 1128 Kelso Abbey was one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture. Finally finishedin 1243 , it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St John. It was one of the largest Abbeys in Scotland.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Abbot of Kelso was granted the right to wear a mitre, which gave him a precedence higher than any other Scottish abbot.

Two kings, James III and James IV, were crowned in the Abbey, and Prince Henry, son of David I, was buried there in 1152.

There's another Abbey in Melrose, about 12 miles from where we live in Mellerstain. I may try some videos there one day. The heart of Robert the Bruce, brought back from the crusades, is buried in the precincts of Melrose Abbey. Melrose Abbey is about 500 years older than Kelso Abbey. Built to last, were they not!

The video below is just a short look at the recent statue of Lord Alec Douglas Home (pronounced Hume), one time prime minister of England. He was the 14th Earl of Home and his estate is The Hirsel, in Coldstream. He renounced his peerage to become PM for about one year, (October 1963-October 1964). He died in October 1995, aged 92.

Coldstream is the home of the Coldstream Guards, formed in 1650 and is the oldest regiment in the regular British army. Coldstream is a true 'Border town', separated from England by the river Tweed, with England on the south side of the river and Coldstream on the north. It has been 'in the wars' over the years, having been twice demolished during the 'border wars'. However, it is still going strong - and very peacefully now, thank goodness!

Music: Avé Maria

Monday, 21 September 2009

My Scruffy Cottage Garden

This is a short stroll through my untidy little back garden and to the east gates of Mellerstain House.

Their gardens are much better kept than mine. But they have a couple of chaps to do theirs; I'm chief cook, bottle washer and grass cutter in my bit of Mellerstain.

Background music: Pavane (Fauré)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Cheeky Gardener,Bumbles and Ginger Ice Cream

It is such a glorious day today I decided to wander around Mellerstain.

Gordon Low, the gardener, was making out he was working. Ha!

The Bumble Bees were bumbling happily.

A few visitors were enjoying a visit.

And I went in search of my favourite ice cream: Doddington Double Ginger. Believe yew mee, thart ther is a dee-lish-ushhh flavour.

BTW: The background music is part of Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Bernard Miles Monologue and Miles of Walls!

This is a monologue by the late, great Lord Bernard Miles. He was a much-loved actor and all-round jolly good chap. I was lucky enough to hear him give talks in St. Olave's Church in London where I sometimes spent my lunch hour when I was a civil servant.

Bernard Miles was a great raconteur. His anecdotes and monologues were unique. I wanted to let you hear one of them and the only way I could work out how to do this was to treat a recording of his as 'music' on a video!

Now I'm probably doing it the 'hard' way. That's not untypical of me. However, as I was driving home via Kelso I thought I'd show you how long part of the wall of Floors Castle is. So, my wife held the Flip video gizmo whilst I drove past part of the wall. I then chose to add this Bernard Miles monologue and cut out the sound of the video itself (which was mainly the sound of the car engine!). Towards the end of the video the monologue begins again; I don't think it's posssible for me to stop it, but never mind.

This extensive castle wall was said, by some, to have been built by Napoleonic prisoners of war, in the early 1800s. There were some 100,000 French POWs in the UK at one time and it would not have surprised me if some of them were made to do such building works - but I think this is a myth as far as Floors Castle wall is concerned. What the video shows is probably only half of the wall!

It's certainly a well built affair and it is still as solid as when it was was first constructed.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Murder, Violence, Treachery, Arson - and More!

The river Tweed runs through the Scottish Borders down to Berwick on Tweed. Once the most disputed border town in the UK. Berwick on Tweed is, officially, and English town. Its football team is, however, in the Scottish league!

The Tweed is a favourite river for anglers. They pay a licence fee to fish for salmon in this majestic river which meanders, and sometimes rushes, through the Borders including the town of Kelso.

Six miles from Kelso is the small village of Smailholm. Today I left my car and climbed to where 'The Tower House' of Smailholm still guards the surrounding area.

It's a steep climb and by the time I enter the tower I needed a short rest.

I did not fancy the further climb up the steep winding stone staircases to the very top. I've been there, done that - but still haven't got the tee-shirt!

For 300 years Scottish and English borderers endured violence, treachery, murder, arson, raiding and robbery. They lived in constant fear and often misery and squalor. The stories of the 'REIVERS' are many and varied. Bloody reminders of those fearful days.

Built in the 1500s this stone fortress in Smailholm housed people who were always vigilant and ready to repel the dreaded Reivers.

Smailholm Tower originally housed the Pringles and later the Scotts, two well established Scottish family names. Today it is a well-restored attraction and owned by Scottish Borders Council; open all the year round.

There were many of these tall tower houses in those violent and lawless days. Most of them have been demolished over the years but a number remain and tourists and visitors seek out those that still survive.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Another Castle - I've Got So Many, Ho Hum...

You know, of course, that the film director, Alfie Hitchcock, liked to appear at some point in his movies. So why not me? I am the producer, director, sound engineer, camera operator and narrator. This, however, is not likely to catch on in my case. I don't do mysteries. Not deliberately anyway! This little Flip Ultra video thing is so cheap and cheerful. It is easy to use and edit. OK, the definition is way below ideal - but good enough for the occasional amateur user. The novelty will wear off I suppose. Being a bloke, I'm a bit of a mug for gadgets and gizmos. Keeps me happy, as my missus would say, for about nine days. Perhaps I should call this blog The Chronicles of a Nine Day Wonder Bloke. What'dya think.

This short video is part of the extensive garden centre at Floors.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Lunch in a London Church - Try It

It's the late 1970s. I am travelling daily from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, to Fenchurch Street rail station and then walking to Custom House in Lower Thames Street. I had just been promoted to HEO and was leading a team of EO's (Executive Officers) known then as the Export Enquiry Unit.

Custom House is located twixt London Bridge and Tower Bridge. One of the most interesting and historic parts of dear old London town. This particular Custom House has one of the largest unsupported ceilings in the land. A huge room. Called 'The Long Room' which is the name given to all such rooms where duties are paid. It is here that all the importers and their agents come to present their documents and pay import duties and other taxes before they have their goods released by HM Customs & Excise.

My team investigated the other side of the coin: exports. Most of our time was spent out of the office, visiting various exporters and their agents for reasons I cannot divulge; official secrets and all that. (Taps right side of nose with forefinger...hush-hush){:-}

If working in the office, compiling reports etc., I would usually spend my lunch hour in church!

A very special church: St. Olaves in Hart Street. This is only a short walk from Custom House. An oasis in the busy concrete city of London. It is also the burial place of the renowned diarist Samuel Pepys. You've heard of Pepys, haven't you peeps? (Just a hint on pronunciation for non-Brits! ;-)

Why did I choose this place for my lunchtime break? Not to pray, nor to sing hymns. No, just to relax and perhaps have a bowl of spaghetti bolognese or shepherds pie.

Oh yes, this lovely church had some ladies who served some delicious lunches from a corner of the church for a price you decided to pay, as long as it was over 50p! Lovely grub, as we Londoner's would say. I wonder if they still do this? It was some sort of voluntary service and in aid of some charity I seem to recall. Anyway, one could collect your hot lunch and then take a pew. It was never crowded; frequently there might only be a dozen or so people there during the lunch break time.

But that was not all. Oh no! There were other delights in store for anybody who happened to wander into this delightful place at around 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

Free entertainment! And excellent entertainment too.

A professional string quartet on more than one occasion. A top-class piano recital on other days. Or poetry readings.

Or, (my favourite), a talk by none other than the late, great Bernard Miles! He was knighted in 1969, thus becoming Sir Bernard Miles. He was later elevated to the peerage (a Life Baron) and was thus Lord Bernard Miles was one of the few ever to be so honoured, (Laurence Olivier (Lord Olivier) was another notable peer).

Bernard Miles was a superb character actor and made many films. He also devoted a vast amount of his life, and money, in creating The Mermaid Theatre in London. Like many actors he was a devotee of Shakespeare and The Mermaid was created to be like a theatre in the Bard's day, with the audience seated around the stage, on three sides.

Bernard Miles was also a great story-teller. And this was where he excelled in my opinion. Peter Ustinov was another great raconteur and there are others, but Bernard Miles will always have top billing in my heart. He would spend around half-an-hour delighting the small audience with his tales. Some of them were quite risqué, especially when told in church! Here's just one of them (as best as I can remember it.)

"This old farmer had bought a brand new pair of boots. He was very proud of them, as being rather poor he seldom could afford new boots.

However, he was disappointed that his dear old wife had never commented on them. He was quite peeved at this. How could he make her notice them?

Then he had an idea! One evening he came into the sitting room stark naked, except for his shiny new boots. His wife was unconcerned.

"Well" says the farmer, "what do you think then?"

"About what?" asks his tired wife.

"Well look! Look where it's pointing..." he hints.

"Hmm.. pity you didn't buy a new hat then, aint it."

Of course, Bernard Miles told it with his wonderful rustic old 'farmer' voice and dialect. His style was unique. A truly great actor and a wonderful man.

If you are ever in the vicinity of St.Olave's church, do please look inside. You will love it, I'm sure.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Kelso: Town Fair 5 Sep 2009

Today, Saturday 5th September 2009, we drove to the nearby town of Kelso to do a spot of basic shopping. Forgot that the annual St. James'Fair weekend was on. Parking is restricted in Kelso this weekend but we were lucky to find a parking space at about midday, quite close to the town square. The St. Martin's Fair weekend is usually very busy and well attended, with all kinds of things on offer. Last year there were dozens of stalls with plenty of speciality foods and continental traders. Today, probably because of the heavy rains we have been having this week, there were none. A few hardy souls had risked the rain staying away today, which it did. Stayed for a short while and took a few snap videos and then drove back to Mellerstain. I've no idea what the programme is for tomorrow, Sunday, but somehow I doubt it will be very much at all. August and so far this September, the weather has been wet and windy.

PS. Just added a short clip of some younger Scottish dancers entertaining their mums, dads and everybody else with their energetic dancing. One girl has a little difficulty with the routine but she's anxious to do her best!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Hermes - Winged Messenger of the Gods

Poor old Hermes has stood here in Mellerstain for many decades, in all weathers, uncomplaining. Faithfully watching the southern aspect of the house, ready at a moment's notice to fly to Zeus with any important message. One day he may learn how to use one of these new-fangled mobile phones but for now he's content to stay with the old tried and trusted system.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Hundy Mundy

After taking up my post as security-caretaker/tour-guide at Mellerstain many hours were spent learning and discovering everything I could about this fabulous place. Gazing out of the south-facing windows one morning something in the distance puzzled me. It looked like some sort of entrance to a building, except there was no building! Just this structure, standing 'twixt some trees about a couple of miles away. I soon discovered it was a part of the Mellerstain estate called Hundy Mundy. A Gothic folly built to draw the eye to the southern extent of Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders. Built by William Adam circa 1726 it is just a tall archway between square towers, each topped by a stone pyramid. It was built with stone from an old tower house which had once guarded this area from marauding 'reivers' and other thieves. A Pictish Princess called Hunimundias was said to have lived in this tower. Because, so the story goes, the children of Mellerstain couldn't pronounce Hunimundias they called it Hundy Mundy. That name remains today and is on maps and documents concerning this area. There are quite a few of these old 'tower houses' in the Scottish Borders. There's one in the town of Gordon and another in the village of Smailholm, both close to Mellerstain. The Smailholm Tower is a most interesting place to visit. Perched on high ground it commands an extensive view for miles around. These towers were built to house and protect the locals from those who would invade the territory, thieving and murdering if they got half a chance. Using my basic video gadget, which has no optical zoom, it's not possible to show Mellerstain House - other than a smudgy light gap in the trees. The digital zoom feature is next to useless, but heigh-ho - you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear This old folly, Hundy Mundy, is now the centrepiece of a woodland or natural burial site, known as Hundy Mundy Wood, but still owned by Mellerstain Estate.
The front of Mellerstain House looks north. An expanse of parkland and a good variety of old trees create a peaceful panorama when viewed from any window in the main house.

The east and west wings were designed by William Adam and building started in 1725. A corner stone in the east wing has the date carved into it. The west wing, the home of the 13th Earl of Haddington and his family, was originally used as stable blocks and home for staff.

Work on the main mansion house did not begin until some 45 years later. William Adam's plans for this were not implemented. His son, Robert Adam, was commissioned by George Baillie to build the main house; George had been on "the grand tour of Europe" and, as he'd inherited Mellerstain, thought Robert Adam was the guy to do it. There's a fuller bit of history here: http://tinyurl.com/kpmp4b

Friday, 28 August 2009

Hello, How Now, What Cheer - What's in a Word?

Stephen Fry had a thirty minute program on BBC Radio4 a few days ago, all about 'Hello'.

I like Mr. Fry; he's an entertaining erudite chap, both on TV and radio. He recently did a sort of tour of America.

Surprised that a small word like 'hello' could fill half an hour so well.

Is it just a greeting? Oh no. It can be an exclamation of surprise. Or a shout.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most used words, worldwide, has only been around since about 1830-something. Before then Shakespeare used the word Holla, a dog shout (holler?) or the greeting then was "How Now" and "What Cheer?" which turns into the cockney 'Wotcha'. My brother used to phone me and say "Wotcha", and I sometimes use it when meeting an old friend. I didn't know, until listening to Mr. Fry, that it was a sort of corruption of Shakespeare's 'what cheer'.

There's an old song which includes the verse:

"Wot cher!" all the neighbors cried
"Who yer gonna meet, Bill
Have yer bought the street, Bill"?
Laugh! I thought I should've died
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road

The last line above is the title of the song from the movie "The Little Princess" (1939) starring Shirley Temple!

I was surprised also to learn that 'hello' was probably first used in North America and imported into the UK by none other than Charles Dickens! It seems that in a play about Davy Crocket he says: "Hello, friend, don't forget that vote."

Dickens toured American around that time and in his "Christmas Carol" he uses the phrase "Hello, my fine fellow..." So, like the grey squirrel, we imported the word from the U.S.A. - according to Mr. Fry!

Then came the telephone. Bell invented it in around 1876. He apparently wanted the word "Ahoy" to be used when answering this amazing new invention. However, Edison, who also had wished he'd invented this before Bell, voted more for the word "Hello" to be used. And quite right too! Just imagine answering your phone "Ahoy there".

According to Mr. Fry, George Bernard Shaw once did a spell on a telephone exchange, as an operator and answered all calls with "Hello, what is wanted?" Well I never!

In 1913 a well-known song was written:

"Hello! Hello! Who's your lady friend?
Who's the little girl by your side?
I've seen you with a girl or two.
Oh! Oh! Oh! I'm (I AM) surprised at you."

Here the word "Hello" is used as a greeting, then as a word of surprise!

Then of course we have the famous "Hello, hello, hello.. what's going on 'ere then?" used by policemen! (in the UK I hasten to add)

A joke:

A policeman arrives home unexpectedly and finds his wife in bed with three strange men.

"Hello, hello, hello ..." says Mr. Policeman, whereupon his wife bursts into tears.

"Why are you crying, my love?" asks the husband.

"You never said hello to ME" sobs his wife! Boom, boom.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Formal Gardens at Mellerstain on a Windy Day.

Took a snap video of the formal gardens at Mellerstain. It is a blustery and dampish day and the noise of the wind in the mike is unavoidable with this little handheld gizmo.

It'll get better in due course (or so I kid myself!).

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side on a Wet August Day

I went for a walk around Mellerstain House this afternoon with my new toy, a Flip video thingy. After traipsing all round the main gardens, looking for Gordon Low, the gardener, I eventually found him in the old tea-cottage.

This tiny two-roomed cottage was built in circa 1840 and at one point housed one of the house-keeping ladies!

The Flip Ultra video is cheap and cheerful. It is very, very simple to use. Just a big red button to push when you want to start and stop. Plugs directly into a USB port to transfer clips onto the laptop/pc. Basic editing stuff included.

I may be trying to upload a few more clips later on. OK, OK, you don't have to watch! It's not compulsory. ;-)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Jacques Brel: Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me)

This is my favourite song. I discovered it just a few years ago. Jacques Brel puts so much pure emotion into this version it really gets to me.

I don't speak French. Yet I love this video. I think it cannot be bettered by any other recording. The Brel lyrics are superbly poetic. The French language is so beautiful, even to a muppet such as I, who cannot speak it.

Brel was born in Belgium but lived half his life in Paris. He died in a Paris suburb of lung cancer; he was a very heavy smoker, giving up near the end of his life - far too late.

Jacques Brel died in 1978 aged only 49. His death was widely mourned in both France and Belgium. He is buried close to the painter, Paul Gauguin, on the Island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands.

I have most of his recordings; he sings with such passion. His recordings of "Amsterdam" and "Jef" are great, but Ne Me Quitte Pas is superlative, in my opinion.

There have been hundreds of different recordings of Brel's works. The English version of Ne Me Quitte Pas is "If You Go Away", recorded by numerous singers such as Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey. This version is very good, but you just cannot beat the original French version, especially the Jacques Brel rendition above.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Freedom of the Town of Echt, Holland

Click on the above photos to enlarge.

I took the above two snapshots on a beautiful Sunday in August 1955. All the RAF personnel at Bruggen, W.Germany, had been given the freedom of the town of Echt, a lovely small town on the Dutch/German borders.

One evening, some weeks earlier, the Mayor of Echt arranged for a concert to be given by the Echt town orchestra in the RAF Bruggen camp cinema/theatre. It was a great evening and introduced me to some lovely light classical music.

Our commanding officer was asked by the Mayor if the pipes and drum camp band would return the compliment and entertain the people of Echt. Now, some of you might well consider that a bagpipe band is not in the same league, entertainment-wise, as an orchestra. And I would agree with you.

However, many others will say that the bagpipes stirs the emotions, especially if you are a Scot, (which I am not). Our commanding officer was a keen bagpipe man - and he was not a Scotsman either! He was only too pleased to arrange for our band to play in the town square of Echt and the Mayor then said that all the RAF chaps who attended would be given the 'freedom' of the town.

Saturday came and the C.O. was upset to learn that one of the bagpipes had been damaged. He immediately ordered that one of our jet fighters fly from Germany to Scotland to pick up either a new set or a replacement part; I cannot remember exactly which. This was speedily carried out. All was now well.

The parade through Echt was a great success. It seemed that the whole town turned out to watch and applaud the pipe band. We were all treated with great friendliness; I've never yet met a Netherlander who was unpleasant. Many speak excellent English, putting most Brits to shame.

The Mayor gave a 'thank you' speech that day, during which he said how grateful the town was to the RAF during world war 2. Not one brick was damaged throughout the war. No person was killed or injured by our bombers as they roared over the town, seeking out enemy targets day and night. It was a genuinely emotional speech by a man who had been through those terrible years.

A day in my life that remains vidid. I wonder what's happened to all the bag-pipers?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tree Planting at Mellerstain

Mellerstain house

Planting a Hornbeam tree.

Planting a tree in recognition of the work of volunteers working for Guide Dogs of the Blind in the east paddock at Mellerstain. This was one of the charities supported by Lord and Lady Haddington.

These snapshots I took show Lady Jane Haddington shovelling compost into the hole dug by Gordon Low, the gardener at Mellerstain. The picture below right shows Lord John Haddington watching the ceremony of the planting in readiness to take a photograph when he feels the time is just right!

The smallish lady in the centre is Miss Kay Brownlie. She was president of the local branch of the Guide Dogs for the Blind at Mellerstain for many years and has now retired from that post.

John Haddington is, in fact, a first class photographer and used to run a business as a pro photographer when he was Lord Binning, before acceding to the title of the 13th Earl of Haddington.
The first son of the Earl is always given the title of Lord Binning. The present Lord Binning is George Edmund Baldred Baillie-Hamilton, the only son. He is now 23 years of age; I've known him since he was about 9 years old. He is a great lad, now at Glasgow University after being at Eton.
We went to his 21st birthday party a couple of years ago and it was a truly happy affair. One of the tenant farmers gave a little speech as he gave young Georgie a new fishing rod. Tom S., the farmer said: "Young George, I wish you a very happy birthday and many, many happy hours of sitting in the wind and rain on the banks of the Tweed with this rod..."
What next in the chain of events? Well, hopefully in the not too distant future we shall hear the whisper that Georgie has popped the question to some nice young lady. Then the wedding. Then, with fingers firmly crossed, Lord and Lady H will have a lovely little grandchild. What a wonderful event that will be. Mellerstain

Monday, 17 August 2009

A Snapshot of the Two of Us

My only grumble about this cottage is the amount of grass cutting I have to attend to. This shot is of our 'front' garden. I have another area of grass to keep under control in our 'back' garden!

The above was taken about a couple of years ago my wife, Pat, was still smoking cigarettes. A month later she gave up the nasty weed, with the aid of nictotine patches. It's not easy to quit this habit but she was ordered so to do by the medics. She succeeded, with just one minor backslide, and has now been nicotine free for virtually two years. I gave up in 1972. Just stopped it; felt so enslaved by it and hated it.

I need a gardener. One who would tend the grass, the plants, and the weeds!

No takers for the 'Pick you own' weeds even though I asked no fee. Can't understand it. I have some of the best weeds in the Scottish Borders.

Friday, 14 August 2009

A Child and Understanding Death

On the 14th December 1995 Lord Haddington's mother, the Dowager Countess, Lady Sarah Haddington, died. She was a few months short of 100 and had been quite frail for some time.

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain for just a couple of months. The winter snow blanketed the countryside; pristine white and beautiful.

Lord Haddington's mother, Lady Sarah, was brought back to Mellerstain from the Nenthorn House nursing home. Her coffin was laid on trestles in the centre of the library. She laid there facing south, looking towards the serene snow-white back gardens.

Here she would stay for a few days; her many friends and relatives would come to say their final goodbyes.

Four large candles were at each corner of the coffin. I would light them at about 8 a.m. and douse them at 8 p.m. each day.

On the second morning Lady Jane Haddington came into the library just after I'd lit the candles. With her was little Isobel, aged five. Isobel (full title Lady Isobel Jean Baillie-Hamilton) is the youngest of the three children.

The two of them stood there quietly for a moment or two, Isobel holding her Mum's hand. It was very quiet and Isobel was looking up at the coffin.

She then looked at her mother and, pointing to the coffin said: "Is Grandmama in there, Mummy?"

"Yes dear." That was all that Lady Jane said. There was a pause for a few moments.

Isobel then said: "Well, can I see her Mummy?"

"No dear." And another few moments went by.

Isobel: "Well why can't I see her?"

"Darling, it's only her body in there; she's gone to live in Heaven."

Isobel was still unsure. "Yes, but why can't I ..." and with that Lady Jane headed for the door, still clutching little Isobel's hand.

I can remember that episode as though it were just today. I went to the west wing in June this year to give Isobel her 18th birthday card and small gift. She is still that young pretty-faced girl to me. I retold the above story to her; she had no recollection of it. I am not surprised. So much has happened in the intervening years; prep school and then boarding school down in the south of England.

She had recently returned from a few months in South Africa, working at a Lodge in her gap year. She will soon be going to uni, reading philosophy. How fast this tempus fugits!!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Dowager Countess, her Sister, and the Lady's Maid

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain House for about a year or so. The mother of the 13th Earl of Haddington was living in a private nursing home at Nenthorn. She was almost 100 years of age.

Her sister,who had never married, about 2 years older than old Lady Haddington, also lived in this same nursing home.

A third elderly lady also lived in the Nenthorn nursing home. This was Chrissie Crombie, old Lady Haddington's personal maid.

At the top of the east tower there is "the Crombie flat". This was once the home of Chrissie Crombie; it is still called the Crombie flat even though it has not been occupied for a good few years now.

My wife and I used to visit the nursing home on Sundays. We used to see the three old ladies. Two of them were always asleep in a chair when we called in. Chrissie was always awake and she loved to talk about her days "in service".

Chrissie was now wheelchair bound. She laughingly blamed her clapped out knees on old Lady Haddington! Traipsing up and down the many stairs to and from her flat at the top of the east tower had been the cause of her knee problem.

She laughed as she told us this. In fact, it was really a fall she'd had that had caused the damage. Chrissie was a cheerful soul. She said she'd loved her job as the lady's maid and she meant it.

We never did get to speak with old Lady Sarah Haddington, nor to her sister. They were always having a nap when we called. They both died before Chrissie.

The Nenthorn House home was closed down soon after the two old ladies died. Chrissie was moved to another home, much to her dismay. She too died soon after the move. She was about 95.

Chrissie's reminiscences about her 'lady's maid' days made the tv series "Upstairs, Downstairs" seem so true to life in those long gone Edwardian days. In Chrissie's case she was the 'upstairs' one; in the tv series all the staff were the 'downstairs' ones.

A totally different world now though. Fewer servants, butlers and even gardeners compared to only 60 or so years ago. Apart from the Royals that is; though I think perhaps the Queen is cutting back to some degree!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Off to Lincolnshire for a long weekend.

On Friday 31 July we shall be driving down to see my youngest daughter Clare and the two grandchildren, Jake and Ellie. It's a long car journey but will be worth it.

And another thing: our private water supply has sprung a serious leak! We are reduced to using bottled water for drinking and cooking etc., as the normal supply has to be fixed. It may take a couple of days.

So, off we jolly well go to Lincolnshire for a short while. Looking forward to seeing Clare, Jake, Ellie and the man of the house, Andy.

By the way, my daughter is a great artist and makes her living by sculpting one-of-a-kind fantasy dolls, such as faeries and things. She sells on commission and via eBay. If you care to see some of her work check out her website: fairytasia.co.uk and see what a clever and talented daughter we are blessed with.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Earl and Countess of Haddington

Mellerstain House is the only large country mansion built solely by Robert Adam. His father, William, built the east and west wings in the early 1700s but the main house is by his more famous son Robert.

Robert Adam built a large place in London called The Adelphi Terrace but this was largely demolished some 80 years ago. Robert Adam's main works were extensions and alterations to existing houses therefore Mellerstain House is unique. It is also most beautifully designed inside. Exquisite plaster-work, especially on the ceilings, needs to be seen to be believed.

I still can't believe that this place became our home for a few years. I think the word serendipity applies. Life just happens, does it not? No matter how clever we think we are we have no control over the way life treats us.

OK, we all end up in the same way, sooner or later, but what happens along life's highway is, more often than not, luck. Well, that's my story - and I'm sticking to it!

It was pure luck that my wife and I ended up here in the Scottish Borders, living in part of Mellerstain House, the family home of the Earl and Countess of Haddington. Two of the nicest people on God's earth. Two of the best people I've ever known.

Above is a recent snapshot of them, taken from part of their website. The Earl is holding one of his chickens. He is extremely fond of birds and has an aviary in his courtyard with various and colourful examples. Elsewhere there are the free-range chickens and cockerels and on the lake there are two resident swans.

The swans produce up to eight or so cygnets each year. Swans are said to be lifelong mates but this year it seems that there are two female swans now residing on the lake. Ménage à trois mayhap?

One of the great pleasures when living here is meeting people from all over the world who come to the UK and discover Mellerstain House. The vast majority fall in love with the place. Some of them have become friends of ours. None of this would have happened without Lady Luck holding my hand for all of my life.

I don't know if there are ghosts. Or if there is a God. Or if there are leprechauns, fairies and angels.

But I do know Lady Luck exists - for all of us.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Ghost of the Rose Bedroom

Whether or not you believe in the paranormal - and I do not - one often experiences strange happenings.

Have you ever been certain that you know exactly what is about to happen at a particular point? Do you understand what I mean?

Sometimes I've been having a conversation and I know precisely what is going to be said, just before it is said. The surroundings are exactly the same, everything is just as I know it will be. It's as though I'd experienced this whole scene and conversation some time in the past. Déjá vu is, I think, the term we use.

I cannot understand this phenomenon; I just know I've experienced it more than once.

Well, certain other inexplicable things happen all the time. Not all the time to me, but occasionally - especially since I came to live in Mellerstain House. This is just one of those 'strange things'.

It's now about six months since my wife and I came to Mellerstain House. I've studied the history of the place, its origins and inhabitants over almost three centuries. Fascinating stuff too. I need to know all about its history so that visitors touring the house can get answers to their questions.

Easter, 1996, and we are open to the public. I have a group of 20 Dutch tourists to take on a conducted tour. Most of the group speak perfect English; they put we Brits to shame!

Mellerstain has a strong connection with Holland. Lady Grisell Baillie, the eldest of 18 children of Sir Patrick Hume, were in exile in Utrecht, Holland, for some time, owing to Sir Patrick's alleged involvement in the Rye House Plot. Grisel took care of all the family whilst in hiding in Holland. She is one of Scotland's great heroines.

During this conducted tour I took the group of tourists into the Rose Bedroom. This is the only north facing bedroom in the house. Although it is a pretty room it always has a chill feel to it. One could possibly expect this, after all it does face north.

After a brief chat about the room and its original hand-printed rose-pattern wall-paper, the group filed out of the room heading for the first of the south-facing bedrooms, the Manchineel Bedroom. As the final member of the group entered the Manchineel room I looked back towards the Rose Bedroom. I just caught sight of a woman entering the Rose Bedroom. I asked the group leader to stay with the group whilst I nipped swiftly back to the Rose Bedroom.

As I approached the door I called out "Excuse me madam, but we've been in this room already ..." No reply. There was nobody in the room. I looked behind the black Chinese screen - nothing. I opened the door to the en suite bathroom; nothing, nobody there either. There is only one way in and out of the bedroom and the bathroom. Both were completely empty.

Yet I was certain of what I'd seen. Strange, but the tour had to go on.

Later that day Lord Haddington asked me how I'd got on with the house visitors. It was most enjoyable I said. I also mentioned that I thought I'd seen somebody go into the Rose Bedroom but found nobody there.

"Oh, that's Lady Grisell doing her rounds I suppose." he said. "Was she dressed in grey?"

"Yes, I think so - but it must have been a shadow or something; there was definitely nobody in the room or the bathroom." I replied.

The Earl said: "You're not the first who have seen her. She's our resident ghost!"

Lord Haddington has a great interest in the paranormal. He was, until a couple of years ago, president of a Crop Circle group and still likes to investigate new occurrences of these things. He is a most interesting and knowledgeable chap in many areas.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy ... (to quote the Bard's Hamlet).

Thursday, 16 July 2009

In the Mood for Love - A brief encounter ...

I thought I'd offer just one of my favourite film clips and theme music, just for something completely different, as Monty Python's Flying Circus would say.

This film came my way via a free DVD with a Sunday Newspaper. It is Chinese and it took years to get right. It is a story about two people who have unhappy marriages and they find comfort in each other, well, sort of. The music is totally hypnotic I feel. The acting is superb, as is the direction by Wong Kar-wai. The two main characters are played to perfection by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Maggie Cheung said that this film took so much out of her that she declined to take part in the subsequent film "2046".

Anyway, I think it's one of the best films I've ever seen; I play it at least once every three or four months and love it more each time.

Monday, 13 July 2009

It'll All End in Tears - Floods of Them

And the days dwindled down, October, November ... and these precious days were spent in peaceful learning of the history of Mellerstain and its occupants over the years.

We all learn something new every day. Often inconsequential things, or even silly things; but we go on learning. I'd say that this is what most humans try to do: keep on learning.

It's a bit like blogging. You read one and it interests you. From that one you link to another. The web expands. It seems endlessly interesting. That started me off writing this potted biography.

I delved into the archives of Mellerstain. Spoke with the Haddington family to get some personal history. Many people I spoke to seemed only too pleased to impart nuggets of interest concerning the house, its history, former occupants and the Scottish Borders generally.

The Borders certainly has a history! Quite bloody for a lot of the time, especially concerning "The Reivers". I learnt quite a lot in a couple of months.

Each year, in December, the Earl and Countess throw a Christmas party for all the staff: the gardeners, the tenant farmers and workers, the cleaners and house-keepers,the gamekeeper, the house guides and some retired people. This December was our first Christmas party at Mellerstain and it was just great.

We got to know all the people who help to keep this wonderful estate in pristine condition. Everybody is invited, including wives and children. Towards the end of the festivities one of the Haddington children would delight in handing out the carefully wrapped Christmas gifts. A genuinely warm and pleasurable time.

And this December we had an abundance of snow! Scotland and snow go well together as you probably know. The whole area was blanketed in virgin snow. For days and days, sheer white. And it was cold. Never mind, we had the boilers going full blast and cosy log fires blazing away in the sitting room. Almost a fairytale situation.

December 31st, 1995 and we were still snowbound. We retired at about 1 o'clock, having spent a while seeing the New Year in. Three months had flown by.

Next morning I got up and looked out of the south-facing window of the bedroom. And the first thing that struck me was patches of green showing through the long sweep of lawn down to the frozen lake. A thaw had set in. Much as we liked the snowy scenes all around us it was good to see some colour at last.

But what was that odd sound I could hear in the background. Sounded a bit like a splashing fountain, a waterfall even. Got dressed quickly. Went downstairs to the Stone Hall. The sound of rushing water increased. Unlocked the door from the Stone Hall into the east passageway into the main house and I stood aghast!

Water was pouring through the ceiling, from the electric lights. Gushing down; the carpeting was sopping wet. I rushed down to the basement. It was swimming in water! A good inch or so was swilling away on the stone floor. It was a nightmare on New Years Day!

I phoned across to the Earl. He came running through the basement area from the west wing. We placed buckets under the water but they filled up so quickly it was hopeless.

The Earl had no idea where the stopcocks were; neither did I. Oh! this was calamitous. And the water kept flooding down. I phoned the now retired security/caretaker, Brian Ellis. He told me to find a door in the basement, next to the wine cellar and shine a torch inside. There I would find two iron wheels, like steering wheels. These were the stopcocks!

Shutting these down was fairly easy, but the water still cascaded down. The whole supply comes from an elevated supply about a third of a mile from the north front of the house. It rises to large storage tanks in the central tower. This central tower then feeds two other large storage tanks: one in the west tower and one in the east tower. It would take a while for the east tower tank to empty when the water to the central tower was cut off. But stop it did, eventually.

All this on New Year's Day! In Scotland this day is a regular holiday. Hogmanay the night before so today would be a getting-over-it-day for most Scots. The Earl and family were the only other occupants of the house today and we all spent hours mopping up as best we could. Fortunately it was only the east tower tank that caused the problem. The supply pipe had frozen during the cold spell and expanded the joint leading into the tank. This pipe was where the water was gushing from.

The next thing was to see the full extent of the damage, get the insurance people involved, and the plumbers, electricians and other necessary people.

There were many other flooding problems reported that day. A bank in Kelso was badly damaged and other homes and businesses suffered likewise. We were not alone, but that was cold comfort, so to speak.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Enter the Dragon - And the Police

Peering into the far darkness of the night waiting for the flashing blue lights and headlamps of the cops car. The immediate surrounds of Mellerstain were now bathed in bright white lights from all the floodlights triggered by the alarm system.

A few minutes had gone by and then the fast-moving headlamps came snaking through the pitch darkness from the west gates along the driveway leading to the main house.

Scrambling down the well-trodden stone spiral stairs in my slippers and dressing gown I opened the front door of the Stone Hall. A sergeant and a constable entered. Two minutes later another car arrived with two more officers.

If there were any intruders they would soon be sorted out.

"Which area caused the alarm?" asked the sergeant. "The east basement area." I replied.

We all trooped down to this area, unlocking a series of doors on the way. This basement corridor is a lengthy one. Running from the old east wing, through the newer Robert Adam main building and ending at the home of the Haddingtons in the west wing. Probably about 300 feet or more long, with various rooms on the south side and stairways on the north side leading up to the ground floor.

Everything was securely locked still. All doors and windows intact down here; better just check the ground floor though. It took about twenty minutes before we were confident that it was sweet F.A. - or a not so welcome False Alarm.

What caused it? Who could say. These things happen the sergeant said. That may be so I thought but it's not something I relished.

We were retracing our steps through the basement corridor, locking doors on the way, when something flashed by our heads. Then another!

"Bats!" yelled a policeman. "You've got bats in the basement!"

Well I never! I'd heard of bats in the belfry, but bats in the basement? Yoiks!

"That's probably your problem." said sergeant policeman. "They can be a bit of a menace when it comes to these sensitive movement sensors. You need to get the Chubb security engineer to see if he can do something about it."

Next day I rang the security company and the engineer arrived that afternoon. He said that this had happened now and again. "We've adjusted the sensitivity as much as we dare. We cannot decrease it further I'm afraid."

Not a happy outcome as far as I was concerned. Bats are a protected species in the UK and must not be removed or disturbed, even if you found where they were hiding. It seemed that I'd just have to live with the problem, but I wasn't too keen on that.

The security engineer explained that a bat flying close to the sensor could set the alarm off, as we'd just experienced. He then came up with a possible solution: fit a second sensor, close to the original one, programmed in such a way as to only set off the alarm if both sensors were activated simultaneously.

This would not guarantee a solution but it would certainly go a long way to curing the problem of false alarms in this area. A bat passing close to one of the sensors would not start the alarm; it would need two bats to simultaneously trigger each sensor and this was pretty unlikely. However, if a person was in the area then this would definitely trigger both sensors immediately.

After discussing this with the factor it was agreed that additional sensors would be worthwhile. This made me a lot happier! No doubt it would also make the police a lot happier. So it was quickly carried out and hopefully my sleep would not be disturbed too much in future.

A few days later, as I was locking up in the basement area, I noticed something like a large leaf on the floor. On closer inspection, as I went to pick it up, I saw it was, yes, a bat. It wasn't moving; I thought it must be dead. Bats don't usually go to sleep on the floor, do they?

I went upstairs and put on a pair of gardening gloves. Down to the basement and the bat was still lying there. Gently pick it up. It moved slightly. Took it into the east courtyard carefully placed it on the side of an old stone wall. It didn't fall off; it just seemed to cling there. I left it to its fate. No doubt there were other bats in the vicinity and hopefully it would survive.

I wondered what further discoveries would come my way in this lovely old place.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A Rude Awakening

Slept soundly on our first night in Mellerstain. Strong blustery winds blitzed riotously through the plentiful trees but it actually seemed to lull me to sleep.

The Pickfords van arrived at 9.30 next morning and the unloading of our stuff began. It was not a simple operation! The entrance to our first floor quarters was via a stone spiral staircase. This east wing was built by William Adam, father of Robert Adam, in 1725. The ancient stone spiral was well worn. Each step was concave in the centre eroded by hundreds of shoes traipsing up and down over the centuries.

Romantic it may be, but strenuously difficult for the removal men to negotiate. Heavy work and not something I'd enjoy doing day after day. They completed their task efficiently and without mishap, either to our furniture or the building!

With bags of space in the flat we were soon sorted out. There is a large living room in the centre of the flat, about 24 feet long by 16 feet wide. We never used this room! The grandkids would have it as their playroom when they came to stay later on. We chose a cosier sitting room, about 17 x 18 feet. This had a lovely fireplace as well as oil-fired central heating. The kitchen/diner was a very good size too.

The main bedroom had all the necessary alarm sounders installed, intruder and separate fire systems. All of the bedrooms had handbasins with hot and cold water.

Lovely views from each window - so waking up to see such abundant beauty was a totally new experience for both of us.

So far, so good. The Countess, Lady Jane Haddington, came to introduce herself that first afternoon. She insisted that we had dinner with them in the west wing later on which we gladly accepted. She is a genuinely kind spirit; a hard working mother of three children too.

Dinner was great, and a couple of glasses of wine made it perfect. We made our way back to the east wing, tired but very pleased with life.

Soon we were in bed. I was fast asleep almost immediately.

I got up at 3.30 a.m. Not by choice, but by the wailing and shrieking of an alarm! It was excruciatingly loud. I didn't know if it was the fire alarm or the intruder alarm. I felt a bit like corporal Jones in Dad's Army: "Don't panic..don't panic".

Dressing gown on I found the control panels: it was the intruder alarm! Then the phone rang; it was the police. "Your alarm has been triggered" the police kindly informed me - as if I didn't know! "Officers are on their way - please wait until you see their headlights. OK?"

OK it was. But I wondered whether it was really OK...

Thursday, 9 July 2009

An Englishman’s Home in a Scottish Castle

October 1995 and we are off to a new life in the Scottish Borders. Everything’s ready for the journey; the Pickford’s Removals van has just set off for the journey northwards with our home packed in it. The furniture will be unloaded the next morning as it will be too late for the same day delivery of course.

The plan is to drive to Mellerstain House and hopefully arrive there before 10 p.m. It will be dark when we arrive and we are not overly familiar with the roads, even in the daylight! Fingers crossed.

The head gardener, Gordon Low, has agreed to wait for us to arrive and to guide us into Mellerstain House. I just hope he hasn’t forgotten!

Our route was along the A1 until we reached the branch road A68. It was dusk by the time we turned left onto this road. Perhaps we should have stayed on the A1 for many miles more, passing Newcastle and other towns. However, the map showed that the A68 cut across country and looked to be the shorter route.

The A68 is not a road I would recommend, especially for night driving. It is like a never-ending roller-coaster. Twists and turns, rolling countryside, hidden dips and pitch black! Even if one knew this road intimately it is still very daunting to negotiate at night.

We stopped twice on this road. I was feeling tired and stressed and my eyes just wanted to close. A ten minute rest, Pat having a coffee from the flask and me having a brief shut-eye.

Eventually we reached Jedburgh, the first Scottish town on this road. From there we travelled on until the town of Earlston. Here we turned right, into the town; we were just five miles from Mellerstain.

Gordon Low was waiting for us in his cottage, as previously arranged. It was just before 10 p.m. We met his wife who made us a cup of tea which we were glad of. Gordon had a large torch which he brought with him in our car and we made our way to the east wing, our new home. It was quite scary. It was so very dark and the wind in the trees made a whooshing ghostly noise.

He had a bunch of keys and opened the door of the wing. Our route inside the mansion house had been isolated from the alarm system but even so I tended to flinch as little red lights started to flash as we went through a very long basement corridor. Gordon explained the system just enough for me to re-set the alarm. He showed us how to get into our new flat and finalise the setting of the system and then he left, walking home to his cottage about half a mile away.

There were two camp beds in one of the ten rooms. These had been set up for our night’s sleep. There was no other furniture at all, apart from carpets. It was good to have a sleep at last. It would be another busy day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Lording it up

Interview over. We left the curator's office in the east wing of Mellerstain and entered the east courtyard. The tea-room was open; we went in and had a coffee. It would take us almost three hours to drive back to Lincolnshire and I was in no hurry to set off.

We were just about to leave the tea-room for a stroll around the gardens when the factor came in. "Oh, so glad I caught you before you go; we haven't paid your travelling expenses. How much are they?"

I hadn't considered it. Nobody had said we would be re-imbursed. "I don't really know ... " I replied.

"Well, here's £50 for petrol. Should cover it don't you think?" said the factor, handing me five ten pound Scottish notes. "If it's any more just let the curator know before you leave. Oh, and by the way, Lord Haddington says that if you want the position it's yours!"

I was so surprised. Totally unexpected to be offered the job in this manner.

"Well yes" I replied, after recovering my speech. "Yes, we'd certainly love to take the job."

"When could you start?" asked the factor. "The present chap and his wife will be retiring in September, when the visitor season is finished for the year. October would be a good time for us.." he went on.

"And for us too!" I replied.

So that was it. It would be a hectic two months or so before we took up our new life in Scotland but we were certainly up for it.

We drove back home; a home that would soon be history. It was almost dreamlike. Everything was happening so speedily and yet so smoothly. Yet it was all real. Not a dream at all but something I'd often dreamed of was actually happening...

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Sh-Shh Shangri-La

Reading my wife's magazine, "The Lady", I saw a small ad for a security-caretaker. Hmm, sounded interesting. Showed it to my wife.

"What do you think?" I asked. She wasn't sure. Not enough detail in the advert. Well, faint heart never won ... whatever, so a letter was sent off. Brief CV included. Reply received a few days later, asking me to telephone to arrange an interview.

Phoned the writer that day. "When can you come for interview?" she asked. "Any time you like." I said. "We'll get back to you soon ... goodbye for now."

Few days later, letter arrives: Please attend for interview at 11 a.m. on Monday next. Oops ... cannot make that day! School summer holidays were on but on that one day I'd been asked to complete the budget reconciliation with Lincoln County Education staff. I could not let them down.

Telephoned the lady who'd given me the interview date. I was pretty sure she would not think well of me having said "Any time you like..." Well, I was wrong. When my explanation was given she said she would consult the Earl to see if he could see me some other time.

Yes, the job was to look after the home of the 13th Earl of Haddington and his family in the Scottish Borders. A week later another phone call: "The Earl will be available to see you next Wednesday. Can you make it then?" I could, and did.

We drove up to Scotland from Lincoln on the Tuesday, stayed in a B&B overnight. Next morning we found Mellerstain House, situated twixt Kelso and Melrose in the Borders.

Fabulous looking place. Acres of parkland at the front and lovely acres of gardens at the rear. Large castellated central building and east and west wings either side.

My wife and I would live in the east wing quarters with the earl and family living in the west wing. The central part was now open to the public for part of the year and was no longer occupied.

The interview was in the curator's office. Present were Flora T,(curator), John H(factor) and John George Baillie Hamilton, 13th Earl of Haddington.

Wife and I were greeted and we sat down to be grilled. It was a friendly enough grilling. Interviews have never really bothered me. Relaxed and just happy to see this wonderful place.

Towards the end of the interview the Earl asked me if I had any family in Scotland or any friends or relatives. No, none at all I said. In fact, Scotland was about the only place in the UK that I'd never even been to!

He seemed a bit puzzled and said: "Well, tell me why I you want to come and live here?"

"To be perfectly frank" I replied, "I've always dreamed of living in a place such as this - but I've never had enough money. So, I thought why not join somebody who already has one."

My wife looked horrified. The Earl laughed. We were thanked for coming and the curator said: "We'll let you know..." The usual brush off line; or was it?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Survival of the Weakest

In 1987 life was killing me. At times I dreaded the approach of dawn. I was weak. Not physically you understand; more like a car, a good car, but with spark plugs fouled up and a flat battery.

The solution was simple: re-charge the battery and change the spark plugs.

Leaving a secure job might seem madness to many. To me it sparked a new lease of life and restored the power needed to drive on.

Most people resist change. It's sometimes easier to leave things as they are. Even though we might be uncomfortable we at least feel secure in the status quo. But when the nettle is grasped firmly its sting does not hurt.

Once I'd accepted that my job was the problem my problem was solved. Another job was soon found. Not as well paid but a million times more enjoyable. Some adjustments had to be made to fit our new circumstances. That was easy; like changing gear down a bit. Stop speeding and just cruise along.

We moved house, from Southend on Sea to Lincolnshire. That was a good move. I applied for a job as finance officer in Caistor Yarborough School. The interview was friendly and I felt relaxed. Two days later I got the job.

The Principal of the school was one of the nicest men you could wish to work with. One of nature's true gentlemen. He was quite amazing in so many ways. For example, I attended one of the morning assemblies and he knew each of the pupils by name it seemed; there were about 450 of them! He was always at his desk before any of us, and he was usually the last to leave at the end of the school day.

The job itself was to manage the annual budget and the budgets of each school department. Placing orders for goods and equipment and making the payments. It was something I felt at home with. All the teaching staff were great to work with and my two office colleagues, (the school secretary and the Principal's secretary), were efficient and friendly too.

Compared to my job as a Customs & Excise VAT man this was nirvana. Changing lanes and changing gear was one of the best moves I'd ever made. Could things get any better?

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Fastest 15 Years of Life - Very Taxing

I could spend yonks detailing my Customs and Excise years. Instead I'll compress it into this one posting.

OK, OK, don't overdo the cheering and applause! I'm still bound by the Official Secrets Act of 1911, as amended, which prevents me from spilling the beans about my work in HM Customs & Excise.

What I can say is that it taught me a lot about accounting, programming (in COBOL), management (of time and staff), and human nature.

After a year working on the remnants of the old purchase tax I moved into Value Added Tax which went "live" on April Fools Day, 1973. I was involved initially in educating "traders" in the ins and outs of VAT. A "trader" being anybody running a business that was subject to the new tax.

I moved about the country during those fifteen years. Sometimes as a VAT control officer, or as a trainer, or as a programmer. I worked in London, Southend on Sea, Ipswich, Norwich, Derby, Liverpool, Swansea, and various places in between.

At times it was hectic and frequently stressful. By 1985 I was feeling the strain more and more. I did not realise how hard I pushed myself. I gained promotion to Higher Executive Officer. This was, I suppose, a reward for hard work. I must have achieved some pretty good annual reports from my superiors.

This "success" came at a cost. By 1987 I was dreading going to work. Anxiety and depression were my constant companions. Little blue pills were prescribed. They seemed to give me nightmares. I would wake up in the dead of night flailing my arms to shoo the huge black moth that was zooming down on me.

Sweat on my forehead and in the palms of my hands. I had to get out of bed and sit downstairs with a glass of water to calm down. It had to end. At times I hoped that tomorrow would never come.

For the sake of my sanity and my family I had to "retire hurt" from this mad world I'd made for myself.

When this decision was reached a glimmer of light and a touch of serenity eased mental pain. Soon I was feeling relaxed and in control again. How many of us go through such crises in life? Far more than is ever admitted, of that I'm sure.

There is a stigma, a taboo about mental breakdown. I think it can be seen more clearly by those around us than by the one who is so afflicted.

If you have experienced such suffering then I hope you came through it as I did. You have my understanding and sympathy. If your work is causing you too much stress then you have to ask is it worth it? In my case the answer was a definite NO. Life does not end if you ditch a job that has become unbearable. Life may end if you don't change course.

I know we have to work; we are not owed a living. But we are entitled to life - and if work is killing you then change your work. You know it makes sense!

Until next time, take care - and let the sunshine in.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Wanted by the Police - A Shock Phone Call

Soon after the start of my new job the police rang me. Just looking forward to my first cup of tea (well, I am a civil servant now!)when my phone rang. It was the police, phoning from Guildford.

The policeman asked me to confirm my full name and address. Satisfied with my reply he said: "I'm sorry to have to say this but your brother, John, is in custody. He has given your name as next of kin."

At first I didn't understand what I'd just heard. John has been arrested? Must be some mistake. John, about six years younger than I, was a colour sergeant in the Queens Own Regiment. Married with five young children, John joined the army as a boy entrant at age 16. He'd steadily worked his way up the ranks to his present position. No, definitely a big mistake by the police.

"What's this all about officer?" I asked.

"Well sir, your brother shot and killed his wife last night. He walked into the police station and gave himself up. He wants you to come to the station please."

After a few seconds I recovered my senses enough to say that I'd get there as soon as I could. I had no car; I get to work by train from Norfolk to London so I had to get to Guildford by train. My department boss said I could go immediately. What a terrible start to my first few days in the new job!

I'll keep this tragic tale as concise as I can.

John was an armoury instructor. His regiment was based in Guildford, where he lived in married quarters. He was posted to Northern Ireland during "the troubles" and did a six-month tour.

On return to Guildford he heard that his wife, Doreen, had been having an affair. He went to the armoury, took out an automatic rifle and six rounds of ammunition. Went back to his house and fired the six bullets, killing Doreen instantly.

I visited him in the cells at Guildford. He seemed strangely calm. He simply told me what he'd done. His children had been taken into care. He was alone in this cell and it all seemed unreal, a dream ... a nightmare.

There was little I could do. He was remanded in custody, in Brixton prison, until his trial at the Old Bailey in London.

Social Services asked me if I could look after the two young sons of John until other arrangements could be made. My wife and I agreed. One lad, Geoffrey, was 7 and his younger brother, Stephen, was 5. We had seen them infrequently in the past as we had moved about a lot. They came to live with us in Norfolk.

I visited John on remand in Brixton a few times. On my final visit he said he wanted me to adopt his two boys. I said no. Out of the question. I had children of my own and more were planned. John angrily condemned me for refusing. He told me he didn't want to see me again. I felt hurt, but had to make allowances for his state of mind. However, he was adamant and refused to see me when I applied to visit him again.

His trial opened. I did not attend. A member of the Queen's Own Regiment told me that the judge accepted a lesser plea than murder. The judge said that the army had taught John how to kill; that was true. John served under two years in prison. He was automatically dismissed from the army. What had been a successful career, with good pension prospects, was quashed.

Geoffrey and Stephen were taken back into care; they were fostered but we lost track of them. John's three daughters were similarly fostered. One of the girls is now married and living in America. That's all I know about this tragic affair.

This was a difficult phase in life for me and my family. It was not a good start to a new career but needs must when the devil drives. We are all driven to make a living - well, almost all of us. And that means work.

Whom was the wit who said "If work was so bloody marvellous then the gentry would have snapped it all up years ago!"

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Defecting to the Enemy - Vodka and Tonic

When I left school at the tender age of 14 the "careers" chap asked me what I wanted to do. No idea said I. He pressed me for an answer. OK, I wouldn't mind your job I said. He chuckled and then gave up. I had a succesion of jobs, including apprentice plumber for 6 months. Laundry worker, 6 weeks. Van boy, potato selling. Working as a car number plate maker for the White Metal Company, Croydon (a one man band).

Actually, this was quite an interesting job, using dampish sand and white hot metal. I would press the template letters and numbers in the sand mould and pour the molten metal in. Quite liked this experience other than having to get to work at 7 a.m. to get all the coke fires going!

Moved on to working in West Croydon Railway station booking office, mainly in the left luggage department. When posted to a lonely spot at Redhill, doing a boring rolling stock returns job, I jacked that in. Went to work in an office of a brewery firm (Charringtons) and then into the RAF.

Next it was the bookie business and a bit of selling. Not a marvellous CV as I'll guess you'd agree. So where to next?

Who was "the enemy" of the title of this post? The taxman is the answer. Yes, I had plenty of dealings with HM Customs and Excise during my bookie years. We had the betting levy and betting tax to pay and the Customs were the collectors of the betting tax. I got to know our "collection officer" during his inspection visits. In fact I think I taught him all about bookmakers and their various shennanigans in those days.

I thought he had quite a decent sort of job. He said he was virtually his own boss. He went into his office maybe once a week, otherwise he worked from home. Not bad I thought. Wouldn't mind that way of life.

In 1972 Customs and Excise were recruiting executive officers in readiness for the dreaded VAT, due to be launched on 1st April 1973. Yes, April Fool's Day no less! I applied, ignoring the fact that I had no GCSEs of any description.

Called to a mass civil service examination in Whitehall. Large room crammed with desks - about 60 or more. Sat down at 10 a.m. with a scary-looking female and assistants glowering at us from the front desk.

Scary-face then said: "Before we start are there any objections to smoking during the exam?" Not a murmur in the hushed room. Slowly a lone hand was raised. Just one solitary objector, a young lady. A brave young lady I'd have to say!

"Right then" boomed scary-face, smiling faintly, "No smoking!" She seemed quite pleased with that single objection to smoking. "You may now turn over your paper and begin."

After the first exam, (English), we were told we could have a ten minute comfort break. On resumption of the exams there were quite a few empty desks. Either the exams had defeated the examinee or the no-smoking had!

After a few weeks I was informed that I had passed all the exams which were said to be of GCE standard. I was then invited to interview, again in London. This was to be somewhat more difficult than the actual exams.

The interview board comprised five senior people, with a mature-looking lady in the centre whom I assumed was the principal interviewer. I fielded their questions as well as I could; some easier than others.

On the far left of the interview board sat a rather ruddy-faced mustachioed chap. An ex-military type I guessed. He seemed to take a dislike to me for some reason. Maybe he didn't like bookie types; maybe my accent wasn't plummy enough. He seemed to snort disgruntedly at my replies to his questions.

The other board members seemed very friendly, especially the chair-lady. She smiled encouragingly whenever I looked at her. She brought the interview to a close by saying: "Thank you very much Mr. Harfleet. May I say that I think you handled your fences very well. We shall write to you soon."

She might have been either a lover of racing or of horses. I smiled back at her, saying "Thank you" and left the room. Her reference to "handling your fences ..." gave me encourgement. Eventually I was offered the post of Executive Officer, to work in Adelaide House on London Bridge. Not in the VAT department but in the remains of the old Purchase Tax department!

There were two things wrong with this offer. Firstly, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new tax system; secondly I was living in near Diss, in Norfolk!

I rang the personnel department and asked if I could have a posting nearing to Norwich. The answer was a firm NO. Take the offer or decline it. There are no other options.

The distance from Diss to London was around 100 miles. The train journey would take about two hours or so - that is, four hours travelling a day. And this is if there were no holdups or breakdowns on the railway.

Oh well, take it or leave it. I took it.

Bought an annual season ticket from Diss to Liverpool Street station and began my new career in Her Majesty's Customs and Excise - the oldest and proudest of the tax gatherers.

My daily schedule started by driving to Diss railway station (a lovely little station in 1972) and boarding the 6.40 a.m. train to London. Breakfast on the train, and very nice it was too. Fortunately the civil service operated a flexi-time system which enabled me to get into the office at any time before 10 a.m. and to leave after the required 7.5 hours later. I usually caught the 18.40 train from Liverpool Street station, sometimes waiting for it in "Dirty Dick's" bar close to the station.

Dirty Dick's bar was supposedly owned many decades earlier by a man who was jilted by his love. He vowed never to clean the floor of the bar until she returned to him, (or something like that). In keeping with this legend, sawdust is strewn on the floor and there were a few other less-than-pristine effects. Must try to visit this place again before shuffling off this mortal coil.

So that's how I became an E.O. in HM Customs & Excise. The bookies would call me a renegade I guess. Never mind, somebody has to do the job.

Enough for now ...