The idea of a leisurely tour of southern middle England took shape after I was presented with four separate and fortunate opportunities taking place within two weeks of each other. These were the celebration of my niece Fleur’s wedding to husband Almero in the Temple Church (see masthead); the kind offer of my cousins Diane and Brendan of their Holland Park house to stay in after the wedding; an invitation to join my ex-boss Henry Plumb for a 30th anniversary reunion of his European Parliament office staff; and the unique ticket gifted last Christmas by my daughters to see Neil Young and Bob Dylan in concert in Hyde Park. Kismet (as in “Kismet, Hardy”) had therefore done the difficult bit, so it was much easier to fill in the gaps. Life occasionally offers such gratuitous but disparate sequences of opportunity, jigsaw pieces hurled at us jumbled and incomplete. I’m sure it’s our job to try to fit them together, if we are able. I duly started to prepare a grand tour of long-standing friends over two weeks. It was to be unhurried but purposeful since it was, after all, a rare holiday in England. But it started badly when I failed to gain overnight access to a friend’s offered flat while on a Lisbon stopover, then I lost my luggage en route in Casablanca to striking baggage handlers.
Family gathering at the Temple, London for Fleur’s wedding, July 2019
I could therefore be seen sporting an unusual choice of clothes for my niece’s wedding celebration in the august Temple Church in London, although no one seemed to mind my flowered shirt, chinos, and seersucker combo, which stood out somewhat from my dark-sharp-suited relatives. It was nevertheless another enjoyable family occasion, providing an opportunity to see my sister-in-law Julia and all her expanding family again (niece Isabella providing clear evidence of an imminent addition) and to rejoin my own family, with all three daughters now living and working in the UK, making a powerful case for Alli and I to consider moving there, despite the increasingly unpleasant politics, rather than to West Africa, Monaco or Medellin. Afterwards, Alli and I, joined by Ella and Gwen, visited Jessie and Jurrat in their new and compact Gipsy Hill flat and we took a walk and lunch together in Crystal Palace Park, one of London’s 3,000 parks that I have never before visited. After some sampling at the local brewery, we had a roast dinner in a welcoming local pub. The following day, we all travelled west to see Ella in her flat in Richmond, visited Richmond Common, which produced a herd of deer as soon as we arrived, and took a picturesque walk along the Thames before having lunch by the river. I then hired a car to drive to Coleshill near Birmingham for the gathering of Henry Plumb’s staff from his Presidency 30 years ago. I booked in at a very English hotel (with Faulty Towers tendencies) in Coleshill before having dinner with several of my ex-colleagues. The following day, we visited in Meriden, England’s claimed geographical centre, and toured Henry’s son’s farm which had become a demonstration centre for groups interested in farming and food issues. After the reunion I drove from Warwickshire to Henley-on-Thames via a visit, conversation and lunch at the grand house of friends Andrew and Emma in Abingdon.
Plumb Cabinet 2019, 30 year reunion, Coleshill, England
My first job after leaving university was in Henley-on-Thames in 1978. I was a copywriter for a publishing company for a salary of 2,500 pounds a year, and I am still in touch with people from that time, including friend Ian and his wife Lesley. I stayed a night with them before taking an early morning walk with the neighbour’s dachsunds by the river meadows and having lunch together in Shiplake. Henley was in the middle of Regatta week, teeming with oarspeople and international gangs of angular male models, perfumed ladies, boaters and bulking cars. I spent the next night in London after seeing Adam, Angela and their daughter Eleanor and eating with them in Chinatown, and saw a recruitment consultant the following morning at the ultra-fashionable Boulestin in St James’s Street. I then returned to Henley on the slowcoach train, then drove to Horsley in Surrey, where Paul and Elise lived with their sons Toby and Leo. The last time I saw their sons they were baby and toddler. Now they are boisterous boys and I found myself playing energetic football with Leo on the raised sunlit lawn the morning after an evening heavy with fond memories and good wine. We also walked to nearby Horsley Towers, an architectural masterpiece designed by Lord Lovelace and Sir Charles Barry, where the mathematician and first-ever computer programmer (also daughter of Lord Byron) Ada Lovelace lived. It was a short trip to even deeper Surrey to be welcomed by Fionnuala, Andrew and Evelyn in Enton Green for the weekend. I witnessed the finale of a quintessential village cricket match in Lurgashall, visited a food market in Godalming, and toured the impressive Watts Gallery, built to display the Orientalist works of G.F. Watts (“England’s Michelangelo”), and the Watts Chapel, a unique work of religious art designed by his wife Mary Watts. Back in London, I dropped off my hired car (Surrey’s narrow roads and overhanging hedges cost me very dear in scratched paintwork), and had lunch with ex-colleague and friend Mike in the posh Santini in Ebury Street. I had a change of pace in Burgess Hill with my ever hospitable parents-in-law, nephew George, and daughter Gwen before catching up with Debbie over a Lebanese lunch in Battersea, then enjoying a Thai dinner in Richmond with Jessie, Jurrat, Ella and Sam. The week finished on a political note with a visit to my friend Lionel, an influential and determined Conservative fixer and Brexiter; and to Mark, one of the fast disappearing Conservative pro-Europeans. Their reflexions on the UK political situation were intelligent, insightful, and completely contrary to each other.
After Jessie, Ella and I lunched at the Dishoom off Kensington High Street, we walked over to Hyde Park to see Neil Young and Bob Dylan in concert, fulfilling my daughters’ Christmas present to me. 50 years ago, when I started listening to their music, I could not have predicted that they would still be going strong, well into their 70s. Dylan’s voice has marginally improved since the last time I heard him, although he still hides his best songs, as we failed to identify many until he got to the chorus. Young played a medlay of his popular songs mostly on his Old Black and was as grungy as ever but his long crashing codas of feedback could have been shorter. His three stomping encores (including the lesser known delicate vignette “Piece of Crap”), went on for over half an hour. Dylan’s encore was a funky three minute “Blowing in the Wind” before he and his band lined up, bowed once, and filed out to end an unforgettable day.
Leaving the UK, I travelled to Brussels by Eurostar to see my friend Brian. We have been firm friends since 1982, meeting as unplugged stagieres in Brussels. After dinner, we sat in his garden in Rhode St Genese talking and drinking wine and wild strawberry liqueur as his dogs rushed around the garden barking at the lengthening shadows, owls and rustling hedges. It was 5 am when I went to bed, itself now a rare experience. We spent the remains of the next day watching cricket and tennis on TV, although I missed the final dramas of each. Since I was just hanging around, Brian indulged his passion for cooking, sending me dish after dish of vegan delicacies to eat, including a delicious rhubarb crumble. I had to leave just to stop him, and he graciously drove me to the airport, where I returned to Abidjan, pensive, back to a different life.
I arrived to sad news that Michel, the owner of my local pub, who had been so welcoming when I moved to the district, had died of a heart attack. But I also read the ubiquitous news that Kay, my mother-in-law, had become an internet sensation, with over 2 million views of a video taken by my daughter Gwen of her ecstatic reaction to England’s tumultuous last-ball victory in the cricket world cup final. Both are now unintentionally famous, and Gwen has thousands of new Twitter followers to satisfy.