TALL TALE FROM TORONTO

When the man in Toronto asked if I would like to visit  what would soon be the tallest free-standing structure in the western world I said yes; that would be very nice provided that we could pop up and down about 10.30 a.m. as I had a rather important appointment an hour later. At the site, little dust storms were eddying among the air compressors. The Project Director looked critically at my newly valeted grey pin stripe and carefully brushed brown suede shoes and said something would have to be done about my clothes.

Having read and signed a form which said that I did thereby release C.N. Tower Limited, its contractors, subcontractors and agents from all claims and demands for loss, damage or injury sustained or suffered, etc. etc., I pulled on a pair of overalls that might have fitted an outsize basketball player. The trouser bottoms  came in useful for filling the generous space around the ankles of the safety boots that I was also required to wear.

“You might like to have a parka,” suggested the Project Director, as I fitted the strap of my hard hat under my chin.  “It may be a bit breezy up there.”

Picking our way through assorted hardware, we entered the base of the tower and what, to my mounting concern, I recognised as a manifestly temporary lift. Fleetingly, I glimpsed again the means employed by my brothers and me to reach our  childhood tree houses in the woods. Except for a fibreglass hat, the operator’s garb put me anxiously in mind of Sir Edward Lutyens’ sculpture of Shackleton at the South Pole.

After five minutes or so the lift rattled and groaned to a halt and I followed the Project Director into a gloom of bare concrete, hoses and electric cables. “This is where the lower observation ports will be,” he said, indicating wide, chest-high apertures. Stepping gingerly around squares of rough planking that were, I feared, the temporary covers for other such observation windows, I ventured as near as I dared towards a high-flying bird’s eye vista of Canada’s premier business city.  The wind moaned as I have heard it in caverns measureless to man far underground.

The art of convincing small talk about very large artificial or natural contrivances is one that I have never mastered, and after what I judged to be a silence eloquent in both respect and gratitude, and assuming what I hoped was an expression of excited wonder, I turned towards the PD in expectation of a welcome return to base and my more conventional appointment. It was an injudicious move.

“Come on,” said my host impulsively, much as an adult will introduce an already-excited child to an extra and unpremeditated pleasure. “We’ll go all the way to the 1,500 ft level. Only take it easy; we’ve 300 feet or so to climb.”

We climbed. Up rungs resembling the companionways in a ship’s engine room, over plank bridges, up arrangements of rude timber, we climbed within that concrete tube, one of us tremulous, never daring to look downwards, both of us pausing every few minutes to rest our labouring hearts. I had never thought to see the day when I would have recourse to the expression “breathtaking”; but then, I had never thought to emerge on to what seemed to me an infamously narrow, 1,500 ft-high platform in a gale-force wind.

“Great view!” shouted the Project Director, one hand in the pocket of his parka, the other holding the brim of his hard hat. “Great!” I screamed, feet placed firmly apart, the sticky palms of both hands striving for a frictional hold on the concrete pile behind me. Recently, I had read Bonnington’s Annapurna South Face and tried now to recall what he might have said about the early symptoms of pulmonary oedema.

Far, far below; beyond the low, circular, temporary wooden perimeter of the platform (shortly before my visit, as I heard only later, a daredevil steelworker had successfully parachuted from the same vantage point), Toronto had become a Lilliputian village in a landscape bounded only by the haze of distance. Light aircraft moved like flying insects halfway between our celestial selves and the blessed bonds of earth.

“See that chap painting the mast? He’s really high.” yelled the Project Director enthusiastically, now standing nonchalantly with one hand on the fence. For a fraction of a split second, all the while straining my body back against the concrete wall, I dared to glance up to where a figure was silhouetted against a background of nearby cloud.  When my companion shouted the suggestion that he and I should change places so that he might use my Leica to take a snap of me looking down at the city I could only shake my head.

It was past noon by the time we had regained the administrative office and the ruins of what had earlier been the knife-edge creases of my trousers and the once-immaculate collar of my shirt had emerged from the overalls. “Get a picture of him?” I overheard the Project Secretary ask as I recovered my shoes from the next room. “Afraid not,” said her boss apologetically. “That’s a pretty expensive  piece of equipment he’s got there and he keeps it kind of close to his chest.  In his business, I guess I’d do the same.”


CHRISTMAS ’44: When the dancing had to stop.

On 16 December, code-named “Autumn Mist”, Hitler’s last great offensive was launched by three German armies in the Belgian Ardennes. Falling on the weakest part of the entire Allied front and its unprepared American defenders, more than eight thousand of whom surrendered in the initial assault, it was the beginning of what came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge.

 At this time we were still “resting” in Bocholt, Belgium, and I was writing to my elder brother, who was a pilot in Atlantic Ferry Command, thanking him for the marvellously welcome gift of a pair of sheepskin-lined flying boots which were, I told him  “worth their weight in gold”.

Four days later, the northern sector of the “bulge”, nearest to Antwerp, was put under British  command and a diary entry recorded “Slow move south through Malines and Louvain to position on high ground about 20 kms south of Brussels. Then, move south again in dark to position near Waterloo.”

SOMETIME DURING THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 23rd, in a large and picturesque thatched cottage near Maransart, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo, our arrival disturbed a 55-year old Belgian artist , his wife, and their 21-year-old daughter, Denise. The family had moved there from Brussels in 1939 and was now awakened by the noise of heavy motor vehicles in the lane that skirted the property, then of their manoeuvering on the partly open ground near the cottage. British voices could be heard, shouting orders.

It might have been the beginning of a novel such as might be written for those famous publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon. In the morning, a young British officer appeared at the cottage, asking where the nearest water supply point might be found. Right there, if only moderate quantities were needed, Madame said. The young officer was invited to take coffee. Thus I met the enchanting Denise for the first time. “All right for some!”, one of my troop sergeants remarked sardonically when it later emerged that at night I would be sleeping on a divan in the cottage instead of being obliged to bed down in the makeshift command post. But his imagination ran far ahead of reality. Romance there would be in plenty, but almost heartbreaking in its innocence. We were many years and a social revolution short of Philip Larkin and the Beatles’ first LP.

As Hitler had hoped, on the Ardennes front atrocious flying weather kept the Allied air forces grounded. Such news as we heard on public broadcasts (there was little or nothing from respectable military sources) was of continuing enemy progress and of confusion on the part of the American defenders. At regimental level we were given to understand that our rôle was the defence of the capital and the blocking of the way to Antwerp. Histrionically – as we assumed – rather than seriously, there was mention of the artillery’s traditional die-where-you stand order of ‘last man; last round’.

“You’re welcome here whenever the fancy takes you”, Madame said, meaning in particular the four or five of the battery’s junior officers they now met. Brussels had been cleared of the enemy less than a month before and on the part of the Belgians the joy was still of liberation; on ours, literally and metaphorically, it was that of coming in from the cold. A large open hearth and a plentiful supply of wood kept the cottage wonderfully cosy. The family insisted that we eat meals with them. Judiciously and deliciously we did. There were hot baths. Mending and laundry was done.

My troop position being significantly closer than any of the other three, propinquity, that most powerful of advantages, was on my side, and I was able to spend more time in the cottage than anyone else did. No less of a head start, and equally fortuitous, my French happened to be more confident than that of my battery colleagues. The artist and his wife spoke English fluently, but their daughter’s command of the language, though unforgettably endearing, was rudimentary. Finally, as the youngest of our junior officers, I was nearest her in age. “You children” was how the artist’s wife was inclined to address us when we were together. There was an unmistakable wistfulness in her maternal affection for both of us. She had been a young woman in another war and seen other hardly-fledged young men in uniform holding hands with other starry-eyed girls of twenty-one.

On 23 December Louise, one of Denise’s many cousins and “Mac”, her unofficial fiancé, arrived from Brussels.  I was legitimately off-duty all day and the four of us went to Mont St. Jean and the ridge from which Wellington had directed his troops in the decisive stages of the battle on 18 June, 1815. The weather cleared. While I strove to picture the events of 129 years ago, Allied aircraft heading for the “bulge” and the devastating erosion of the Panzer invaders, crowded the otherwise unblemished blue sky. Absurdly, we waved and cheered them on from the steps of the Lion of Waterloo.

Though it had never for a moment occurred to us, their newfound British friends, that the German offensive might ultimately succeed, it had been different for the Belgians. They lacked the blissful ignorance of our generation. The elders especially had adult memories of the First World War and the barbaric destruction of Louvain. They had lived through the blitzkrieg of 1940 and four years of occupation. They had not forgotten Dunkirk. Now, the sight of Allied air power flooding south immensely heartened them and that evening there was an almost palpable sense of relief as well as gaiety in the cottage. Champagne cooled in buckets on the frozen lawn and sparkled together with our eager chatter.

Next day, the troop was busy with preparations for a midday Christmas dinner to be held in a neighbouring barn. In the cottage a magnificent Christmas tree, decorations, things to eat and drink and armfuls of presents had arrived in two cars from Brussels along with an aunt and uncle, and more cousins – Christiane and Gérard. Tireless, ant-like industry, not least in the kitchen, turned the cottage into an Aladdin’s cave of colour, brilliance, and richly scented promise. In the Ardennes, the American 101st Airborne were surrounded at Bastogne and men were dying of cold in their foxholes. A legend (powerfully to be evoked 60 years on in Band of Brothers) was in the making, but we knew nothing of it. We drank more champagne, dined convivially and superbly by candlelight, rolled back the carpet and danced to Glen Miller. Denise said it was all “vachement chaleureux”.

In the very small hours there was a loud and urgent knocking at the cottage door.  Orders had come for a move before 10 am. The dancing stopped. The grown-ups went to bed. The “children”, energy abruptly dissipated, sprawled by the fire, too shocked and dispirited at first to talk, then sometimes murmuring the sort of endearments that are not dared among new acquaintances until high emotion overrules the inhibitions of convention. The candles burned low.

Shall I be believed when I swear that the taste of someone else’s tears is as real to me today as it was so long ago? I can hear Denise’s sobs immediately after the momentary, stunned silence that followed the arrival of the duty officer. Her cheek is against mine. With tenderness I am glad of, and which I hope provokes no embarrassment for the reader, I can recall the scent of her hair as later she slept in my arms there by the dying fire. Louise was sitting on the carpet, her cheek against the knees of one of my seniors. Christiane was sleeping on cushions, her head in Mac’s lap. There had been apple wood in the fire and in my fancy now I can hear it hissing. There was cognac in my glass and today the taste of cognac is remembrance of all those things.

Standing in my vehicle as we passed along the lane soon after 10 a.m., heading south to the battle for the Meuse, I waved at the little group gathered at the bottom edge of the artist’s steeply sloping lawn. As they waved back, Denise turned away suddenly and ran back up to the cottage. The others were still waving when a bend in the road hid them from view.


The Winter of ’44

CHRISTMAS is a time of good cheer, and all that; but also, perhaps, of more sombre reflections. What follows is the first of two posts to set against present light and laughter. How many of you out there (fathers? Grandfathers?) remember?


The sunshine in which we watched the first act of the ill-fated airborne operation, code-named Market Garden, did not last long. The defeat at Arnhem marked both the end of any bright hope that the war might be over by Christmas and the beginning of what, in the far and backward view, seems to have been a drama for winter scripted by Thomas Hobbes set in a landscape by Pieter Breughel or Hendrik Averkamp,

The crusade to liberate Europe, upon which many men of the Allied nations embarked with real idealism in June 1944, had degenerated into a series of sodden local manoeuvres”, says military historian Sir Max Hastings in his monumental Armageddon. “Far from the triumphant, non-stop advance that Montgomery, yearning for the victor’s laurels, had schemed for, the months went by in a savage and relatively parochial skirmishing where many lives were lost but not a yard of Germany gained”.

The enemy in the north of Holland, beyond the Rhine, were fighting with a ferocity that gave our own infantry their worst experiences since Normandy. Some were battle-hardened veterans. Enhancing the characteristic and unsurpassed military virtues of the German army was an awareness that ‘unconditional surrender’ was the declared policy of their adversaries and that they were part of the last line of defence of their homeland.

It was a different war from the one that had been fought in summer and a very different country from the one that we in the British 21st Army Group had left on the far side of the Seine. The civil population of occupied Holland had suffered far worse than that of France, and although they were neither indifferent to their liberation, nor slow to recognise it, those who had delivered it could hardly fail to be aware that real hardship, or worse, was never far away.

The history of my regiment of field artillery from the end of  September to the second week in December records the following different locations occupied for widely varying periods of time. Riethoven – Veldhoven – Eindhoven – Wintelre – Middelbeers – Nijmegen – Berchem – s’Hertogenbosch – Week – Kinroy – Bree – Swartbroek – Baexam – Heijhuijzen. Fourteen moves in eleven weeks. A night or two here. a few days there. The guns in action at this place but not in the next. A bed indoors on one night, but not on another. Lorry, jeep, motorbike, in daylight or darkness. A few days of sunshine, but overwhelming and abiding impressions of fog, mist, rain, mud and bitter cold. Trying to rouse a recumbent sentry outside the ruin of a thatched cow byre one December dawn, I found him dead.

There is  much wistful speculation about leave. The kind that will take us back across the Channel is beyond hope, but opportunities for 48-hour furloughs to Antwerp are meanwhile presenting themselves. Even without the menace of V1s, now targeted on Belgium’s premier port as well as on London, the prospect of spending two days and nights in a servicemen’s hotel or hostel in a foreign city has only limited appeal; consequently, there is no competition for passes. By contrast, I am eager. Back in September, when we were briefly in Antwerp, I had made friends with Léon and Yvette Namier, a Belgian professor of dentistry and his wife ,who had insisted that I would always be welcome to visit them. Their 13-year-old daughter, Jacqui, who played the piano beautifully, had taken a childish shine to the very young officer, cried when I said good-bye and flung her arms round my neck in a way that was as unsettling as it was innocent. “Promise you’ll come back”, she had sobbed. And as countless young men in uniform have done since war began, I had promised, but known that it was a vow I would probably never be able to keep.

Now I do keep it. One of my seniors is told by the colonel to have a rest and a change of scene. He, too, made friends when we were first in Antwerp and now proposes that we drive there in his jeep. The suggestion is as good as an order and one that I am not slow to obey. The other officer is almost 30 and  very good looking. Our Belgian friends will later always refer to him as le beau major. In Antwerp he will  be accommodated in the apartment of Simone, an independent and bounteously companionable young woman of twenty-three whose indulgent father owns one of the country’s largest breweries. I met her briefly back in September and fully understand the beau major’s enthusiasm for a reunion.

By now, Antwerp is under more or less daily attack from flying bombs and rockets, but, courageously, the brewer’s daughter and the Namiers are still there, so on an evening in December I am back with Yvette and Léon, drinking champagne. My hostess is a superb cook and supper is truly epicurean. Quite soon I am a little drunk with the joy if it all. Because of the bombs and rockets, Jacqui is now living with her grandparents in Brussels, to whose large mansion off the Avenue Louise Yvette and I go by train next day. There is a Steinway grand in the drawing room, so that still I cannot hear a Chopin waltz without seeing Jacqui perched on the piano stool, hearing her protests about going to bed at ten o’clock (“mais ce n’est pas toujours que Nigel est avec nous!”) and wondering if I could have been falling in love with a child of thirteen.

Only a few days later, our brief leave over, the beau major’s forward observation post is pinpointed by an enemy 88, fatally wounding his signaller and his driver, a V2 falls on a crowded cinema in Antwerp, killing some 600 people, several hundred of them Allied servicemen, and leave to the city ends.


Next post on Christmas eve: WHEN THE DANCING STOPPED


GOURMET IN THE GORSE

Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.

It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis  Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.

I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion.  It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig

And so to dinner.  To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just  common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular  product range with the endearing  brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.

‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets.  ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’.  It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better  and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey;  but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.

It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost.  So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.


A little of what I fancied

Winter in Champagne. The intention was this: starting from Vertus, I would follow the Côte des Blancs from one end to the other by way of  le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, and Cramant, cross to the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims by the bridge over the Marne down at Mareuil-sur-Ay, and so on up to Champillon, north of Épernay. It was an itinerary amounting to perhaps 17 or 18 miles; not a formidable distance, but the sky was threatening and the wind unfriendly. I therefore made a precautionary contract with myself and attached a penalty clause: I would complete the course on my own two feet or else would be obliged renounce wine for a month. You may be sure that socks and boots were checked with special care.

Every season in the vineyards has its pros and cons. In winter and early spring Champagne seems to me more beautiful than at any other time of the year. Later, the essential shape of the land will be half lost in a monochrome of green luxuriance; now, it is revealed in stylish austerity. The vines, generally trained low and almost parallel to the earth, have been rigorously pruned. In their disciplined rows, plot by plot, running now in one direction, now in another, they present a great undulating patchwork of browns and sepias and dark greys.

The church clock struck noon as I left Cramant on the way towards Chouilly and a heavy lorry sprayed me liberally with water that was streaming down beside the raised verge. The view out over the vines was far and wide and I thought how good it would be to sit up there on the hillside with a picnic on a fine day. As it was, I envied four men who were taking off muddy wellies before installing themselves for lunch in a camionette. Shelter from the rain was my concern as well. First, I needed to delve into my pack for waterproof over-trousers. More, I wanted the little flask of Courvoisier VSOP which was wrapped inside them.

But where to find refuge? To my right and ahead were only the vines, sloping down to the plain. To my left was the côte that forms the eastern edge of the Butte de Saran; very steep, but with woods at the top. In the edge of the trees I found a hollow made long ago by the uprooting of a tree in a gale, perhaps, but just as likely by a vigneron excavating for earth to replace eroded topsoil. Here, sheltered from the hostile little breeze, above a thick carpet of fallen leaves, I contrived a roof by means of the ground sheet that is never absent from my winter walking gear, for greater warmth pulled on the windproof trousers, zipped my Gore-tex overjacket up to the neck and unscrewed the flask.

My satisfaction with that modest cognac in the winter woods above the Côte des Blancs was as great as I have  had from any brandy in the world, though in my time I have tasted some of the finest that ever came out of Acquitaine. First, I had a good dram slowly and neat. Next, I drank cognac and ice-cold water, half and half. Then, with the recent example of the men in the camionette in mind, and considering that there were still 10 miles to go to dinner in Champillon, I thought that  un petit casse-crôute might be sensible. The Courvoisier-à-l’eau went very well with that too.


A night in the woods

It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that  if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.

Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.

In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag.  Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter;  needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.

In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet  as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.

Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.

But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.