Late in the evening before my 60th birthday I was sitting morosely in my small studio flat, watching the 25th episode of the 3rd series of House of Cards on Netflix when I got an email from my daughters and wife attaching a 2gb video file entitled Happy Birthday Dad.wmv. After some fairly predictable complications I managed to play the file. Over the next hour I must admit that I was utterly overcome. The girls had written, edited, filmed and produced a video compiling old, part remembered, and recent photos, film and video of bits of my life from pram to bathchair. The narrative went all the way from March 1957 (yes, and baby photos as well as shots of my christening party in Oxford) to the present day, interspersed with comments from seemingly hundreds of actual friends and relatives young and old, near and far (well, most are far at the moment). These friends had taken the trouble and time to record their own messages to me and, incredibly in many cases, to send these messages back to my daughters to be incorporated in the birthday video. I hardly knew what to say even to myself as the clock struck midnight when I finished the viewing: the whole idea, the message, the intent, the emotion, the sheer creativity… I had a feeling of being in the centre of a big warm cosy collection of friends and family, all together in a semicircle around me, rather as if Eamonn Andrews himself had leapt into my small flat from the balcony behind the curtain and told me that This Was My Life with a cheeky grin and a gold embossed photograph album. It was the best present I have ever received in my entire life, beating even the shiny red pedal car I was given when I was three. The video is instantly my most treasured possession. I was wondrous and amazed as all came together at the witching hour to prove how friendly, helpful, and encouraging people can be when put under pressure by one or more of my daughters. I am very lucky to have such friends, from old and wrinkled to new and smooth (you know which you are). Alli and I are so fortunate to have such thoughtful and imaginative daughters in Jessie, Ella and Gwen. It all makes for a wonderful life.
The next morning it was back to business – I was to go to London, and I flew the first leg of the flight in the evening to Accra, Ghana, which also happened to be celebrating its 60th birthday that day. It was a stopover for the overnight flight for an event in London Bridge. A dour affair, it comprised many of the foreign investment community, dozens of journalists, cameras and hundreds of break-out sessions (why is it that break-out sessions feel so incarcerating?) and the almost obligatory bomb warning and “lock-down” in the late afternoon, and plenty of talk about African development. We had arrived in Heathrow in the very early morning, and were whisked to a swanky hotel in Pall Mall, pitching up before our rooms were even ready. As a result of the enforced wait, and after flooding the bijou white-towelled keep-fit suite by taking a power shower with the door open, I did some shopping around St James’s, where I bought my favourite Taylor’s Shaving Cream and a cream linen jacket from Jermyn Street. I then went to see my brother Clive, who was staying on the Marylebone Road. We had a very good chat, also mostly about African development, before I had to get back to the hotel in time for our stately Presidential procession to London Bridge through unforgiving lunchtime traffic around the Infanta and Castilla. The late evening was spent in celebratory drinks with Ella and Sam in the bar of the previously mentioned hotel. This had been carefully arranged some days before. What had also been arranged but not shared with me was that Alli was also there as a big surprise. We had time to celebrate and then for Alli to naughtily spend the night with me, smuggled into the official delegation as if it were an illicit romance. We hardly saw each other the next morning as at sparrow’s I had to fly back to Abidjan. Alli told me the breakfast was delicious and that she felt guilty eating it in my name before going back to Basel.
My next visit was to Dakar in Senegal, where I stayed for two nights in a dark, grand and damp seaside hotel named after King Fahd. The mission on the day in between was to assist in a complicated ceremony featuring the combined educational establishment of Senegal and several helpings of official but unsynchronised confabulated protocol. The Presidential motorcade was hilarious – the lead outrider had obviously once worked as a flamboyant orchestra conductor on a trampoline for his bodily movements to force the oncoming traffic to swerve and halt as Our Importances swept through were a rare sight to behold. Holding, twirling and pirouetting with both his arms aloft above his helmet while riding a mean police Harley Davidson using only his clenched thighs at around 80km/hr through the city centre was a virtuoso performance, deserving a stallsworth of bouquets. The performance was a cross between a drunken airport ground staff signaller and a ballerina going through the dying swan’s throes in the arms of Nureyev. I held my breath partly in awe of his flagrant display of monomania but also because I thought that he was about to suffer a gruesome head-on crash with some other police nutter doing the same thing, or just with a drunk driver who wasn’t looking at the road. On the Government event itself, there were many speeches and even more missed cues, and our brave delegation finally made it back to Abidjan after a series of occurrences more closely related to the Keystone Cops or a Brian Rix comedy than to any Government Hospitality or Official Protocol.
The foreign visits took up time and effort, but I just about managed to keep up with the avalanche of writing commissions. I had to because the last week of the month featured my first ever days of holiday leave taken so that I could usher Alli around Abidjan and the environs. She emerged from the airport bushy-tailed from the flight, and we drove to a small villa that I had rented in midtown Cocody. My studio flat, I considered, was not appropriate due to its similarity to a cupboard. In the first couple of days, we visited the best restaurants in Abidjan (according to the unreliable TripAdvisor ratings), an artisan market largely for tourists, and a bustling food market in Cocovico featuring every vegetable, pulse, meat, and fish known to the African landscape, where Alli posed with an African snail (about six times the size of its European counterpart).
The first weekend featured our 28th wedding anniversary as well as Mothering Sunday and we celebrated in style, also opening some very thoughtful cards and letters from our daughters. On the first night we went around the corner for fish and chips, wrapped in newsprint and beautifully cooked with the right batter. We also spent a couple of hours at Grande Bassam (Abidjan’s Southend) and staggered around the sand with about five thousand fleet footed Ivorians dashing in and out of the waves, before retiring to a beach bar and sinking a few beers. On the following day we moved to Assinie, playground of the rich and famous of the Ivory Coast, and we probably saw several of them.
I was suffering from food poisoning during our stay but the conducive prospect of a foreground calm lagoon against a background aquamarine sea was a very acceptable curative. Returning to our villa in Abidjan found that the water had been cut off by the municipality. We therefore had a micro-view of the next global challenge, that of water access. We hardly suffered (wi-fi being Alli’s principal concern) but the unexpected discomfiture of having no water at all for more than 36 hours with neither explanation nor alternative was a third world reminder to the first world that we take far too much for granted. On our way into town that same morning, unshowered and unshaved (that’s me, of course) it was significant to see groups of patient women with big jerrycans. I didn’t know if there would have been that much patience in the Harrow Road or even in rue de la scierie, where cut-offs do occur regularly but generally with warning and apology. Alli and I also spent a very agreeable day lounging around, having lunch and swimming in the pool and sea at the Coconut Grove on the Ile Boulay, a large island off Abidjan. For the final two days we returned to Grande Bassam, which on a Friday was emptier and calmer than on our first visit, and while it filled up through the weekend, we were in a perfect location for the last two days of Alli’s brief holiday, designed to give her a glimpse of the delicious possibilities (and some of the grim realities) of life in the Cote d’Ivoire. We managed to get out of the hotel to have a fascinating tour of the National Costume Museum and a last evening as the only visitors to the best-rated restaurant in Bassam before an overnight tropical downpour washed the beach clean. There was time before the airport for an authentic African meal at a maquis in the Angre district, an unwinding afternoon back at the villa, and early dinner more locally in the ever comfortable Jardyland.
Last month my friend Paul died. I had known him for nearly 40 years. He was a very good friend to me when I arrived fresh-faced from the dreaming spires to live and work in the urban jungle that was Henley-on-Thames (don’t get fooled by the tweedy ladies). He helped me with his wise advice, ready friendship and massive musical knowledge. He introduced me to ley lines and Johnny Winter. I didn’t see him often enough since I left the UK. I am sorry that I won’t see him again. RIP Paul.
You might know that our daughter Gwen, who joined and filmed an impressive initiative to clean up Brighton Beach and also completed the Brighton Half-Marathon last month, is running in this month’s London Marathon, following in the footsteps of her sisters in doing so. She needs to increase her sponsorship to benefit the PDSA, the UK’s leading veterinary charity, helping sick and injured animals, and has been working hard to do so with bake sales, car boot sales and so on. She still needs a push to get across the line. If any are so moved, please help her on http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fun…
Gwen running in the Brighton Half-Marathon, Brighton, March 2017
Anyway, Alli’s brief West African sojourn is almost over – the taxi’s waiting, he’s blowing his horn.
PS: To those who assisted or featured in my birthday video, as well as those of you who tried and understandably failed, and others who may have forgotten or perhaps were not invited in the first place, a very big Thank You to all, the some and sundry for my biggest, best ever, most surprising present EVAH.