March is an expensive month in the Stanbrook household, as I find myself presented with, well, presents on the 6th to celebrate my increasingly incredible age. These presents included the obligatory DVDs of The Office (first series), another Lord of the Rings partwork and, in a delightfully eccentric gesture from Ella, David Bowie’s John, I’m only Dancing. I now have a small DVD collection the likes of which, if I saw the same combination in anyone else’s house, would lead me immediately to make my excuses and leave. I was also given a shirt, some authentic hiking sticks (from Alli, which coincidentally would be useful for Alli as well), and some packets of exotic tea. Ella and Gwen made a delightful card each. Ella’s card incorporated pictures of the five singers she had calculated were my favourites: there were photos of David Bowie, Neil Young, James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Eric Bibb. Not a bad guess at all. I mentioned that maybe Ryan Adams would perhaps have got there ahead of Eric Bibb (who is rather a late entry in my personal all time hall of fame), but she said that she had in fact thought of that but had not been able to find a picture of Ryan Adams on the net. March is also, of course, the month of Mothering Sunday (thankfully not celebrated at this time in Switzerland so the flowers are still at reasonable prices throughout the preceding week) and our wedding anniversary (16 years, if you are that curious).
Although the end of this month has introduced the first breath of summer to Basel, the first ten days provided a good imitation of the deep mid-winter, recording a heavier collective snowfall probably than any other month so far. The Swiss snow is not, in general, much of an irritant, although the snowfalls, coupled with the extreme cold weather, finally broke my resolve of going into work on the bicycle in all weathers, come rain come hail etc. It just is not possible to bike 8 kilometers into work in the dark at a temperature of 15 degrees below zero, with hardened slush lining the bike lanes and irritated Swiss drivers whose intimate style of driving, in sleek dark-windowed mercs, does not improve in such conditions. I now understand completely the rumour that Grace Jones’s Pull Up to the Bumper track is not about unconventional entry at all but actually about Swiss drivers in Basel in March. Fascinating stuff. So it was in March, paradoxically, that I lost the record I was trying to set up – always cycling to work except where incapacitated by beri-beri, stupidity, foreign trips or a lack of bike.
The snow has been a revelation, especially for Gwen, who has created more snowpeople in the last four months than I have in 48 years. She has in particular been playing a lot with our neighbours’ daughters, often making excellent snowmen and adorning them with scarves, carrots and gloves. One afternoon was particularly memorable. After a session in the garden making a group of snow people, including a small snowgirl that I mistook for a cat, I took Ella and Gwen swimming at a local pool. Afterwards we had a drink in the pool café, where we were served by a surly and irritating old man who seemed unable to understand our requests or even to be remotely civil. I was thinking seriously of chinning him. We came back home via the shops in Binningen, where we bought some wine in the supermarket. Suddenly the weather turned in thirty seconds from weak sunshine to an apocalyptic hailstorm with a massive Old Testament attitude. We ran for shelter from the shards of ice slicing down from the sky. Gwen said that she was really hungry so we took shelter in the shop next door, Lang the butchers, and I spotted some sausage rolls in the window and asked for one of these. Evidently the sausage rolls, despite being in the window, were no longer being sold. Even though the shopkeeper was aware that I was not going to make any other purchase, she offered us one each to eat. We all accepted. This was a piece of serendipity and I reminded myself when getting back into the car as the hail battered the roof that this generosity more than made up for the appalling man at the swimming pool café.
In the same evening Alli and I went over to our neighbours to watch the Swedish nation pick their Eurovision song contestants on television (Sky’s Swedish package). One or two of the entries were really very good indeed. Yes there were some Abba lookalikes and soundalikes. Luckily the Swedes, in their phone-in millions, did not pick them, opting instead for some dreadful number called “Las Vegas” sung by a bunch of complete idiots. So not to worry lads, I’m fairly sure that our bunch of complete idiots, whoever they are, will beat the Swedish entry. Alli pushed hard (but unsuccessfully) to get everyone else to come over to our place for the European final in May, but Edith our Dutch friend insisted that it was her turn. So we’ll have to miss Auntie Terry Wogan and listen to Van der Valk. It occurs to me that a Dutch commentator might even be funnier, but then it also occurs to me that I would not know how funny because I would not understand what he she or it was saying. We also briefly discussed dressing up in national costumes. Yet again we will have to go as B. O. Gumby from Monty Python, faute de mieux.
I have been on a Leadership Development Programme. It lasted an entire week and has made me a Leader of Men. However I am still a Follower of Women, but nobody’s perfect.
We have also been in England for a week, where I went on a computer course and visited a company site near Cambridge, remembering, as I struggled for hours through London on public transport and waited for hours for trains that never started or arrived on time, one of the reasons for not living or working in or around London. Alli and the girls stayed in Burgess Hill and we were feted, wined and dined by all our friends. This was nothing, however, to the reception accorded to the girls when they went back to their old school, Burgess Hill School for Girls, for a morning. Gwen was mobbed immediately as she went in through the gates, with tiny girls fighting each other, eventually forming a long unruly line just to say hello, and Jessie and Ella were saluted and hugged by tearful multitudes of girls dressed in funny blue clothes that looked a bit like uniforms. I just carried on in my new task of leading Men, marching onwards and upwards.
Did I mention Nirvana? We all like Nirvana now. They’re on Jessie’s band’s playlist. I missed them the first time around. What the hell is that bloke saying on the last chords of “Smells like Teen Spirit”? Whatever happened to him anyway?
PS Back copies (to January 2005) of this monthly letter to all and sundry are available on request by means of asking nicely