Tuesday 31 December 2013

Alice in the Oven

The second excerpt from my forthcoming book, Left Field,  is a snapshot of shopping in Bromley High Street in the 1950s: 

Can I stay at home, please?'

'Rattling around in this house all on your own,’ my mother said. ‘Don't be silly. Go and put your coat on.'

I have always hated shopping and blame my mother for that.
The long wait while she sat at her dressing table, which was itself dressed in starched crochet frills. I would watch as she powdered her nose, rouged her cheeks, then the five-minute search for her hat, sometimes a scarf.

First stop: Mr Thomas, the shoesmith above the station. I say above as there was a row of small shops built on the bridge. The trains shook the stacked shoes and jangled the blank keys waiting to be cut for the thief and the thieved. 

My mother handed him my Clarke's school shoes. 'I don't know what he gets up to,' she told him as though I wasn’t there. 'He's always running everywhere. Why he can't keep still I don't know.' She looked at me, her face a brief smile, 'You little rascal.'

'Keeps me busy. Wednesday morning all right for you to collect?'

On to the grocers, on the corner of Masons Hill. 'Good morning, Mrs Douglas-Wilson. May I have your list?' 

My mother sat on a wicker chair at the far end of the counter while Mr Roberts, in brown overalls, climbed a ladder which ran on rails along the line of shelves and called down, 'Would you like two tins of sardines today? These ones in brine are very good. Only half a pound of sugar this week? How’s the doctor? Saw him on Masons Hill on Saturday. Appeared to be having trouble with the motor. It was coughing a bit on the way up. I'm afraid this corned beef has gone up a ha'penny.'

Then to Importers, the coffee shop at the top of the High Street with a cafe at the back. I liked the aroma of roasting coffee revolving in the drum in the window. 'Half a pound of Continental please, Mr Barraclough. Ground two and a half,' my mother said. 'I’ll go and have my coffee and pick it up on my way out.'

I had to sit listening as my mother chatted to Naomi Peters, Dorothy Somers and Patty Masterson, her three friends, who were always there and always talking. Occasionally they smiled in my direction through their unbroken words, 'The tennis match has been cancelled with this rain. My daughter is so upset.' 'My husband gets home so late. It’s hard keeping dinner warm for him.' 'You must go to Greigs. They have some excellent fresh salmon in today and their eels are always good'

The local library was just across the road. Literature was my escape from my mother and her nattering friends. 'Can I go and get a book?' 'Yes, but be careful how you cross the road. Be back in fifteen minutes.'

My favourites were Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows and Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, an illustrated and probably abridged version. The first was a rural escape from the suburbs, but safely English, while the second took me as far away as you can get.

As much as I could find of Lewis Carroll so as to escape logic altogether: 'and the moral of that is—Be what you would seem to be—or, if you’d like it put more simply—never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'

In the winter flu season my mother would place Alice and her Wonderland friends in the oven for an hour, 'to get rid of the bugs, dear.' I always had a warm feeling when I read these books and I'm grateful to those talking women at Importers for encouraging my love of literature.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Dinner with Mandela

Welcome to the first of my blog posts. I have been boring my friends for years with my 'Did I tell you?' stories. To shut me up, they encouraged me to write a book. After 10 years of scribbling, I now have a manuscript that has been endorsed by people like Brian Eno and Tom Stoppard. It is scheduled to be published in a year's time. The title: Café Slavia 

I'm going to come clean. To launch interest in the book, I'm going to do a Dickens. Mr D published many of his novels in instalments to get a readership. So I'm going to copy the master. "Dinner with Mandela" is an excerpt from one of my chapters. Others will follow over the coming weeks and months. So here goes . . .

The embossed invitation said, 'Mr and Mrs Nicky Oppenheimer request the pleasure of your company at Apsley House on Friday, July 12, 1996, at a dinner to celebrate the work of the Nelson Mandela's Children's Foundation.' The guest speaker—Mandela himself.

There were thirty-six guests. They included the Duke and Duchess of Westminster, Lord and Lady Montagu, Lord and Lady Sainsbury. Bankers Rupert Hambro, Bruno Schroder and Oliver Baring and prisoner-in-waiting, Conrad Black.

I arrived in style with my War Child co-director and our partners in an ancient Volvo. The epauletted valet tried to hide his disgust as he steered the banger away to join the Mercedes, Daimlers and Rollers in the underground parking lot. I noticed that he took off his white gloves to drive.

My wife stepped out of our battered coach wearing a hired gown from Angels, the costumiers. I had borrowed a tie and hoped that no one would see the moths had got to my suit.

War Child had started in my living room only three years before and, though the support of Pavarotti, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Bono and other music celebrities had raised our profile, a regular salary was something myself and my co-director had only recently begun to receive.

The Oppenheimers welcomed us into the glittering chandeliered lobby. After delicate canapés and two flutes of champagne, we were ushered into the dining room designed for the Duke of Wellington.

I had just returned from South Africa as a guest of the Children's Foundation and was supposed to have met Mandela there, but he had been ill and the meeting had been cancelled. Now here he was in the same room as me, much smaller than I had imagined him to be. I am not someone who is star-struck, but here was one of my political icons, his face as recognisable as that of Che Guevara.

Looking around the table at the bejewelled and tuxedoed guests, I realised I had Luciano Pavarotti to thank for this dinner. He'd raised millions to help War Child build a music centre in the bombed-out Bosnian city of Mostar and, as I sat there in my divoré suit, I guessed that my invitation was in the hope that Pavarotti's generosity would extend to the Foundation.

I was talking to Ken Follet's wife when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Mandela smiling down at me. ‘I am so sorry.’ I started to get up. ‘Stay there. I can talk to you from here.’

The conversation continued, with me awkwardly looking up at him over my shoulder. ‘Very good to meet you, Mr Wilson.’ ‘It’s an honour to meet you, sir.’ ‘No, it’s an honour for me to meet you. I am sorry I was unwell when you were in my country. I hear you are doing great work in Bosnia.’

I was stunned that he knew about me and had been walking around the table, introducing himself to each guest, presumably with everyone as well researched as I had been. ‘Yes, we're going to open a music centre for young people.’ ‘I know. I have heard. You must keep us informed. We need similar projects in Africa. Music is a great healer.’

I told Mandela that I'd been one of the protestors who'd been arrested running onto the rugby pitch at Twickenham in 1969 to stop the Springboks match. 'Thank you,' he said.

When Nelson Mandela died, politicians fell over themselves to claim him as their icon. George W Bush said, 'Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.' Tony Blair claimed that Mandela 'was one of those people who was absolutely as good as you hoped he would be.' David Cameron said, 'Mandela's dignity and triumph inspired millions'. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said, 'He will be remembered as a moral leader of the first order.'

But, as late as 2008 Mandela was on the US terrorism watch list. He said this of George W Bush: 'a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.' Of Tony Blair he said, 'He is the foreign minister of the United States. He is no longer Prime Minister of Britain.' Did Cameron mention Mandela's 'dignity' when he visited South Africa while Mandela was on Robben Island, there as a guest of a lobby group set up to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa? And Netanyahu must have forgotten that Mandela said, 'Palestinians are struggling for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa.'

As we left Apsley House, I stood on the steps, watching the guests leaving in their limousines. I remembered an old woman I had met in Soweto who’d been the organiser of a day centre for the elderly where they were given meals and encouraged to sing and play musical instruments as a way to lift the huge difficulties in their lives. I recalled what she’d said to me. She described herself as being religious because it was the only way to guarantee the work she did was for the good of the people and not to satisfy her own vanity. 'God is a wall,' she said, 'and I have to throw the ball well to make sure I can catch it when He returns it to me.' I asked her if she received any government funding. 'Goodness, no,' she answered, 'the politicians used to be a bunch of white clowns. Now they have been joined by the black clowns.'

Mandela was no clown. When he tapped me on the shoulder that night, I found myself looking up at a political and moral giant.