A Travellerspoint blog

End of a Whisky Era

Yesterday, Saturday June 17th, I decided to get rid of my whisky bottles. Empty bottles, let me hasten to add. A momentous event, the end of an era. Allow me to explain…

These were no ordinary whisky bottles; no, they were single malt whiskies, most of them bought by me in Phnom Penh and carried home in a rucksack. One of them was purchased at HCMC Airport Duty Free, one at Bangkok Airport, and several were donated by friends.

Being a connoisseur of single malts (to paraphrase J. Alfred Prufrock, I have "measured out my life in whisky bottles"), I decided to exhibit the empty bottles after the amber nectar had gone ("bare ruined choirs where late the whisky sang"). So I placed them on top of the display cabinet (which is such a feature of my apartment), where they stood as a permanent record of this man’s drinking tastes. They were eye-catching and a talking point for visitors.

At first the bottles were arranged randomly, but then I put them in rank order. For several years the great Islay malts – Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin – occupied the first three positions. Then, some months ago, my Swedish friend, Jonas, introduced me to another Islay malt – Octomore - which has an intensely peaty flavour, and, until yesterday’s clearance, Octomore occupied pride of place on my shelf.

I decided to keep one empty bottle, because it was a memorable dram, and I doubt if I’ll ever buy it again. This is the Glenfiddich 21-year-old Gran Reserva, matured in Cuban rum casks. When I read about it in Ian Banks’s whisky travelogue ‘Raw Spirit’, I decided I had to buy it. Very shortly afterwards – almost as if fate were playing a hand - I spied it in the otherwise unexceptional HCMC Airport Duty Free. It cost me $150 – the most I've ever paid for a bottle of anything but worth it. Banks rated it as the finest malt he tasted on his Scottish tour. It is not from Islay, so it doesn’t have the peaty flavour I so love, but, outside of Islay malts, it may be the best whisky I’ve tasted. My friend Chris Henry, who was fortunate enough to visit me before the bottle was emptied, rates it as his all-time No 1 whisky.

Anyway, back now to my whisky bottle purge. I got rid of the bottles because we are putting our stuff into storage before finding a new abode in September. It would be ridiculously cumbersome to put the bottles (over 30) into boxes and transport them. And I will surely build up a new collection in the near future.

Before putting the bottles outside the rubbish chute opposite my apartment, I had to take an important precaution. HCMC is full of rogues who will seize upon empty whisky bottles, fill them up with inferior hooch, then pass them off and sell them as whatever the label proclaims: Johnny Walker Blue Label, Glenfiddich 21-year-old etc.

I've had personal experience of such chicanery. Years ago I bought a bottle of ‘Macallan’ from a liquor store in HCMC, but from the first sip I knew it was fake – whisky certainly, but inferior blended whisky. I took it back to the shop and, through a combination of broken Vietnamese and angry body language, succeeded in getting a refund. Since then I've been wary of discarding expensive whisky bottles. The logical solution, the way to break the whisky cheats’ hearts, is to deface the labels. So, yesterday, I spent 30 minutes scratching holes in the labels of the whisky bottles. When I deposited them next to the rubbish chute, they were worthless.

I look forward to displaying my bottles again sometime in the future. I doubt if I will ever have a display cabinet to match the one in my present apartment, but I will surely find some way of showing the world my exquisite taste in malt whiskies!

To immortalize my bottles, before dumping them, I shot a video. Replaying the video, I can see them again in order of merit: Octomore (in its unique jet-black bottle), Ardbeg (Oliver’s discovery), Laphroaig (the malt I have drunk the most of), Lagavulin (according to Brian Cox “the cognac of whiskies”), Talisker (from Skye), Glenfiddich 21-year-old (enough said), Solist (from Taiwan), Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban and so on. A litany of sacred names.

Posted by Mulqueen 21:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged whisky malt Comments (0)

36 Hatherley Road: My Childhood Home

August 18th 2017

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire…

This is from Thomas Hardy’s poem The Self-Unseeing where he revisits his childhood home in Dorset. It could just as well be me today. Here I am, back at No. 36 Hatherley Road, the house where I grew up between 1955 (when I was 3) and 1970 (when I left for university). Like Hardy, I am in the presence of ghosts – the ghosts of my dead parents, the ghost of my younger self, the ghosts of old furniture. The house has been modernized since my mother’s death in 1988, but it is still essentially the same as it was all those years ago when I was a schoolboy.

I have returned from Vietnam, where I have been living since 2001, to sell the house (or “the family silver”, as my friend Maurice puts it). The house became wholly mine in 1991, when I bought my sister’s half share. Since then it has had a variety of tenants, who have treated it with varying degrees of respect.

I will be inhabiting the house for at least two months – the time needed to finalize the sale. My tenants – my last ever tenants - have moved out, and now I have the place to myself. Just myself and the ghosts.

It is a bitter-sweet experience to be back in the old home for the last time. I wish I could hang on to it forever, but I am not wealthy and need the cash. I am filled with nostalgia for the old days. It gives me great pleasure to look at those features of the house – doors, walls, shelves, a cupboard, a mirror, a hook – which have remained intact since the 1950’s or 60’s when my parents were alive.

In the following paragraphs I will describe each part of the house and the memories it holds for me.

DOWNSTAIRS

When my father bought the house in 1955, for £1500, there were 3 downstairs rooms: a kitchen, a living-room and a ‘front room’. The kitchen had, and still has, an old-fashioned larder. Adjoining the kitchen were a toilet and a shed.

My father was a consummate handyman, a carpet-fitter by trade, well able to mix concrete, build cupboards and do electrical jobs. I used to call him “a master of the ad hoc”. One of the first things he did was construct a new shed at the end of the garden and lay a concrete path from the house to the shed. The old shed was levelled.

UPSTAIRS

There are now 3 bedrooms, but there used to be a bathroom too. The small bedroom at the top of the stairs was mine before my sister came along. My parents slept in the front bedroom, overlooking Hatherley Road. The other bedroom was for lodgers and guests and later became mine. The original bathroom was an extension of the small bedroom until we had a new bathroom built downstairs.

The Kitchen

The old kitchen had a back door to the garden and another door leading to the toilet. I will always remember my mother doing the washing by hand over the sink and putting the clothes through the mangle.

She was forever cooking and baking. I was very partial to currant cake and mince pies, and Mum kept me well supplied with both. I also remember her delicious apple tarts (made from windfalls into our garden) and not quite so delicious rhubarb tarts. In those early days we had no fridge – very few people did.

The old kitchen had a small window. We decided sometime in the 1960’s to have a much larger window installed. Victor Tosh, a family friend and a builder, carried out the improvement. Victor was a bit of a cowboy, and my father had to give him instructions. I remember my mother praying, as Victor knocked a huge hole in the wall, that the house would not fall down

The bare wooden (oak?) doorstep between the kitchen and the living-room is a time capsule. It was already worn when we moved in and was obviously part of the original house – circa 1900. I remember sitting on that doorstep as a small boy, eating tasty titbits given to me by Mum.

There are two kitchen cupboards, head high on the walls, both built and fitted by my father. On the wall, near the living-room entrance, is a row of old hooks. I’ll wager these are from the 1950’s.

The Larder

Underneath the staircase, following its slope, is the larder. Modern houses do not have larders. This lovely old-fashioned larder is a time capsule from 1900. It is separate from the kitchen, exactly as it was in 1955 – except for the produce now displayed on its shelves. The shelves are the original shelves from 1955. The lower shelf is still covered in the red linoleum that my father put there around 1955. One wall – the wall between the larder and the living-room – consists of thin wooden slats, which is proof of the house’s antiquity, because nowadays all walls are made of plaster.

I have two special memories of the larder. When I was very young, Dad put a ship’s intercom or speaking tube in my bedroom (the small bedroom), which was over the larder, enabling me to communicate with downstairs. The tube went through the larder ceiling to the person down below.

My other memory concerns the family cat. The dustmen used to come every week and could be heard approaching from the distance. When the cat heard them, he buried himself deep among the paper bags and assorted rubbish at the back of the larder and didn’t reappear until long after the dustmen had gone.

The Original Toilet

When we moved in, in 1955, there was an outside toilet – where the ‘lobby’ is today. It had a head-high metal cistern and a hanging chain. I remember the maker’s name on the porcelain toilet bowl: Adamsez. The toilet was unheated, so going to the loo in winter was a distinctly chilly experience.

The New Bathroom

Sometime in the 1960’s my father had the bright idea of installing a new bathroom downstairs. We were the first house in the terrace to do this, and soon other houses followed suit. I think the new bathroom cost £500.

Having a bathroom downstairs, complete with toilet, was a luxury. We had a paraffin or electric heater there for the cold weather – a vast improvement on the old cold outside toilet. With the demise of the upstairs bathroom, the small bedroom was now more spacious and had a window view of the garden. The age of the shower had barely dawned, and my parents were old-fashioned, so the bathtub was still where we washed our bodies. Later, when the house was inhabited by tenants, I had a shower installed over the bath and, after that, as far as I know, nobody ever used the bathtub again.

The bathroom contains two examples of my father’s handiwork – the mirror cabinet over the toilet and the sliding door. The bathtub today is the original one, perhaps even the same one we had upstairs in 1955.

The Living-Room

This was where we ate. The dining table, four wooden chairs, the sideboard and two armchairs were the main pieces of furniture. There was also a pouffe, a round box on legs containing my mother’s sewing materials, and a Singer sewing machine. I remember vividly the family meals: Dad on my left, facing the window; Mum opposite me; Elizabeth opposite Dad. We always said grace before eating. My dad sometimes used Irish at the dining table: if he wanted butter, he would say – “a thabhairt dom an t-im”; milk – “a thabhairt dom an bainne”.

All the original furniture has gone now except for the chairs. These are plain brown varnished chairs, elegant and extremely well made to have lasted over 60 years. My father used to refer to these as ‘Polish chairs’ because, presumably, they were made by a Polish craftsman, either in Poland or in Reading. In Reading, when I was growing up, there was a community of Polish Roman Catholics.

The old fireplace from 1955 is still there with its original mottled brown tiles and wooden surround (now stained black). In the early days we had an open coal or coke fire with a fireguard in front. Sometimes it took ages to get the fire going; no amount of newspaper and puffing and blowing would get the coal to kindle, so we used firelighters to speed things up. I remember the chimney-sweep coming to clear the soot. My mother put newly washed clothes around the fire, on a clothes horse, to dry out. Then we changed to a paraffin heater (which gave off a horrible smell), later to electric and gas fires and, finally, after my mother’s death, to posh central heating.

A relic of the 50’s or 60’s is the living-room door, which has two old-fashioned features: a ball-bearing door catch and a red-and-silver plastic door handle.

The radio, or wireless, was perched in the corner nearest the window. Favourite programmes were the news, Mrs Dale’s Diary, Workers’ Playtime, Children’s Favourites, Letter From America (my Dad’s favourite) and Pick of the Pops (after 5pm mass on Sundays). It was from that wireless that I first heard The Beatles. Their single Please Please Me made a great impression on me, and I remember asking my mother if she knew the name of the band playing it.

We had a TV in that corner too for a while, until the front room became the TV room. I watched Sunday Night At The London Palladium there; Bruce Forsyth was the host, and one night the surprise guests were The Beatles.

There was a window looking into the back graden. I remember Monty, the family cat, beating his paws against the window at night when he wanted to come inside.

My father had his favourite armchair, opposite the window, where he liked to sit with a bottle of Guinness diluted with tonic water. On Sunday evenings he always listened to the radio programme Your 100 Best Tunes, presented by Alan Keith, while the rest of us watched TV in the front room.

After my father’s death in 1976, my mother used to sit in the same place, in her special orthopaedic chair (she had osteoporosis), watching TV.

In the 50’s and 60’s the dining table, when we were not using it for meals, became a vehicle for card games and monopoly. I enjoyed playing lexicon with Dad, who loved the English language, and I remember his delight one evening at putting down the word TURQUOISE. He occasionally used this table to show off his one and only magic trick: the four-cork trick.

When I became interested in art during the 1960’s, I hung my favourite pictures on the living-room walls. There was The Mona Lisa (whom Dad passed off as his mother to a silly woman who used to visit us), Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and The Rockeby Venus by Velazquez. This last picture, a splendid nude, scandalized the nuns who used to visit my mother.

After my mother died in 1988, the front room and living-room were knocked into one, and something was lost. The new larger space, with the TV in the corner near the back garden window, was a vast improvement, but I missed the intimacy of that old small living-room.

The Front Room

Until my mother died the main living area downstairs was divided in two. There was the living room, where we ate and listened to the radio, and the front room, where we watched TV, where our first telephone sat and where special visitors were entertained. After my mother’s death the wall separating the living-room from the front room was knocked down, and the front room door was filled in, creating a large living-room with a single door from the hall. With hindsight, we should have merged the two rooms earlier. The front room had been used mainly for TV-watching in the evenings and so was a waste of space during the day.

Anyway, for many years we had a rather sombre and formal front room separated by a wall from the living-room and kitchen. The TV was in the corner to the right of the window. I remember the front room as the place where I watched Grandstand, Dr Who, Dixon of Dock Green, Juke Box Jury, The Billy Cotton Band Show, The Black and White Minstrel Show, Grandstand with David Coleman, the FA Cup Final and the European Cup Final of 1967 (Celtic v Inter Milan). There was a settee and an armchair. We bought the settee for £5. My father spotted it for sale in Nobby’s shop in Hatherley Road. It was plastic and greyish. How I wish I had photos of all the old furniture.

Next to the alleyway wall was a cupboard with a gas metre inside where we kept bottles of beer and tonic water. It was a very cool cupboard, a natural refrigerator. It has long since gone. In its place today is a wooden case specially designed to house a video-player and a TV.

The Stairs and Landing

How many thousands of times have I climbed those narrow dimly lit stairs? It is an intimate and familiar experience, as natural to me as breathing. Unchanged since 1955 – the same wooden banister on the left, the same wooden railings along the landing. The wallpaper and the carpet have changed, but the experience of climbing those stairs is very satisfying, a link with my childhood.

On the landing is a wardrobe, made by my father.

The Façade and the Roof

The original brick façade is unchanged from when the house was built – around 1900. The front door has been replaced twice. The front windows – indeed all the windows in the house – have been modernized. In 2004 I finally got rid of the old sash windows and had them replaced with double-glazed. The ropes and lead weights that the sash windows relied on only became visible when the modernization was taking place. Although the new double-glazed windows are far superior, I miss those rickety draughty vertically sliding windows that were part of my life from 1955 onwards.

The roof is the original roof from 1955 - and for how many years before that I can only guess. In the 1960’s my father had a protective coating put over the slates to prevent them falling off during gales, and it remains there to this day.

The brick chimney stack on the edge of the roof has four cream-coloured pots (which, apparently, indicates that there used to be four fireplaces in the house - two downstairs and two upstairs). Until four years ago the chimney-pots were open to the elements, but thanks to an enterprising tenant they are now all capped.

The Front Garden

There has always been a tiled path up to the front door and a small garden next to it. In my mother’s day, this garden was floriferous with a patch of lawn in the centre. She took great pride in keeping it tidy and attractive.

After her death, the front garden went to the dogs. The tenants were uninterested in keeping it tidy, and it began to look a mess. So I hired a gardener to lay a cloth over the soil and cover it with gravel. It now looks respectable and no longer needs tending.

The garden is bounded on one side by a brick wall. The other two sides consist of metal railings with alternating arrow-headed or hemispherical tops. These must have been part of the original house. Years ago, whenever I returned from overseas, I used to spend the best part of two days repainting the rusty old railings. I haven’t bothered now for over ten years, but the railings are still strong and perhaps good for another century.

The Front Door and Porch

The front door has been replaced twice since 1955. The original door was solid wood. It did not have a fancy lock, just a simple old-fashioned Yale that could be deadlocked by pressing down a tab on the inside. In addition, there were two heavy bolts that we used to slide across at night. When burglars entered through this door one night, it was because the tenants had not bothered to bolt it. The second door had a large glass panel and was penetrated by burglars. The latest door has a small glass window, is sturdy, is fitted with a good lock and is burglar-proof. Originally there was an old-fashioned bell connected by wire to a battery in the larder; nowadays there is a wireless bell.

The front door is set back into the house, creating a porch. In the old days, during sunny summer weather, my mother used to hang a curtain in front of the porch to protect the door from the sun. This tradition was abandoned long ago, but the original curtain hooks are still there.

I have one outstanding porch memory. In the 1960’s I returned in the early dawn from one of my hitch-hiking holidays. I didn’t want to wake up my parents, so I huddled up in the porch. I will never forget the sound of my father’s snoring from the front bedroom – it was ferocious.

The Hall

The entrance hall to 36 Hatherley Road – stretching from the front door to the foot of the stairs – is unremarkable except for the semicircular ornamental arch next to the living-room door. The arch is made of plaster and lends a classical touch to the hallway. It echoes the semicircular arch above the porch. Over the living-room door is a pane of frosted glass, which has been there since 1955.

In front of the arch, on the right, screwed into the wall, was a metal coat and hat rack. Dad’s raincoat and trilby hat, Mum’s overcoat and my school blazer were always there. For some daft reason I replaced the original metal rack with an inferior wooden one.

For years the telephone was situated in the hall at the foot of the stairs. It was convenient and quite private, but cold in winter, to sit on the stairs while talking into the phone.

The ‘Lobby’

After the new bathroom had been built, Dad christened the narrow passageway between the back door and the kitchen the ‘lobby’. It used to be the toilet area. At the time I didn’t appreciate my father’s ironic wit. A lobby is a large impressive area attached to a hotel or theatre, whereas our ‘lobby’ is nondescript and tiny. I remember my mother’s best friend, Patsy Powell, chuckling at Dad’s little joke.

We used to enter the garden through the lobby door. I used to manoeuvre my bicycle through the lobby from the garden into the house. There was a rack in our lobby – still there - where boots and shoes were kept.

Before we replaced the living-room window with a garden door, the only entrance from the house into the garden was through the lobby. The old back door was flimsy, and after a burglary I had a new stronger door installed.

Today the lobby is a no-go area. My tenants have filled it up with their stuff, making it impassable. In the unlikely event of burglars penetrating the back door, they would have a hard job getting through the miscellaneous junk.

At one end of the lobby, next to the bathroom door, are shelves installed by my father. These have always been a storage space for tools, nails, screws etc.

The Back Garden

When we moved in, the back garden was an overgrown tangle of mainly gooseberry bushes. We cleared away the bushes, my father built a concrete path, and now there was a flower-bed on one side of the path and on the other side an area where I could play. My father built a swing for me and my sister, but this did not last long.

At some time in the 1950’s my father experimented with growing potatoes and mushrooms, but these projects came to naught. The potato plants grew strong and tall , but the potatoes themselves were little bigger than marbles. My father used manure for his mushrooms, and the manure was supplied by the horse which pulled the milk cart that trundled down Hatherley Road every day. The horse used to defecate in front of our house, and when it did, my father would rush out with a bucket and shovel to collect the free manure.

A feature of the garden in the old days was the coal and coke bunker. For a few years, before we switched to paraffin heaters, we relied on a coal and coke fire in the living-room. The men who delivered the coal and coke would heave their merchandise through our house before depositing it inside the garden bunker.

At Primary School I fell under the spell of my teacher, Mr Price, who was a keen naturalist. He used to lead school expeditions to local ponds, where I caught newts and tadpoles and waterbeetles in my net. Every spring I used to bring home frogspawn from Whiteknights Lake and watch the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs. My father built me a little pond in the garden – a car tyre covered in polythene – in which the frogspawn matured. I never fed the tadpoles, naively thinking they would survive on pond weed. In fact they were starving. It was a common sight to see a tadpole swimming with its guts hanging out – the victim of cannibalism.

Our garden was truly a little nature reserve. There were ladybirds galore: two varieties – the common orange one with black spots and the less common yellow one, also with black spots. There were bees, butterflies, beetles, woodlice, spiders, wasps and ants. I used to enjoy putting red ants and black ants together and watching the ensuing battle, which the red ants always won. My father frightened me by saying that the king of the ants would come to my bed during the night and take his revenge. In the late summer we used to put out jamjars to catch the wasps. They would enter through a hole in the lid to feast on the scraps of jam inside, where they were trapped and slowly died. Our garden had all sorts of birds – house martins and swifts in the summer skies, and in the trees sparrows, starlings, greenfinches, blue tits, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, dunnocks and wood pigeons.

Bordering our garden were the gardens of Mr & Mrs Wiggins, our next door neighbours, and the Jennings family in Addington Road. The Wiggins’ garden, separated from ours by a low wall, was filled with beautiful flowers and had two apple trees, one of which yielded cooking apples, the other delicious Cox’s Orange Pippins. The Jennings’ garden had a big cooking apple tree which overhung our garden and gave us plentiful windfalls. My mother used the windfalls to make her apple tarts. One year my father used them to make cider. He crushed the apples in a vice, the juice poured down a polythene chute into bottles, and the resulting brew was very drinkable.

The Jennings family had two beautiful daughters, Rosemary and Caroline, who used to lean over the garden wall and tease me. They were older and smarter than I was.

Sometime in the 60’s, my mother got the idea of having a proper lawn. She dragooned me into removing all the stones I could find, and then the grass seed was planted. From then on the main area of the garden became a passable lawn, where, during the summer, we would sit in our deck chairs. I loved listening to music and one summer blasted The Dubliners through my bedroom window to the garden below.

My father was very kind to the family cats (we had three over the years). He built a ‘cat flat’ or cubby hole in the garden where our pet could sleep during the night. It was a pile of bricks with an entrance and a comfy insulated space in the centre.

The Shed

One of the first things my father did after buying the house was construct a shed at the end of the garden. He laid a concrete foundation and built a wooden shed on top of it. Inside the shed was a work bench with a vice attached, innumerable tins of nails and screws, various tools and all manner of potentially useful junk. My father, a very private man, spent a lot of time in the shed, pottering about, sometimes making things. He once made me a very fine catapult, but as soon as I broke a window, he sawed it up into little pieces. He adored opera and could often be heard singing his heart out in the shed.

Our favourite and longest-lived cat was named Monty (after Monty Python). My father paid Monty the compliment of building him a little wooden staircase up the side of the shed to the garden wall – to spare Monty the trouble of having to leap up from the ground. The wooden staircase has now disappeared, ravaged by time and encroaching ivy.

The shed was also the resting place, the stable if you like, for my beloved bicycle. It was a Raleigh racer that my father bought for me round about 1967. He knew all about bikes and attached hooks to the shed ceiling so that my Raleigh could be suspended in mid-air with no pressure on the tyres.

The Small Bedroom

This is at the top of the stairs. It has a sloping ceiling, following the contours of the roof, and it was where I slept until my sister came along. It was cosy, but its great drawback was the adjoining bathroom (see below).

Later, after the new bathroom was built downstairs, it was more spacious and salubrious. It became my sister’s bedroom, her sanctum sanctorum as a rebellious teenager. My father insulated the ceiling with tiles of expanded polystyrene and built a cabinet where my sister exhibited her doll collection. The old bathroom wash-basin remained for some years until my father, who believed it might lead to an increase in the rates, had it removed. I remember my disappointment, because now I could no longer piss in the sink – I had to trek all the way downstairs.

After I left the UK for overseas, I put all my stuff into this bedroom and locked it. It was a no-go area for my tenants, who had to make do with the other two bedrooms. The doll cabinet became a storehouse for my books. Whenever I‘ve returned from abroad, this little bedroom is where I’ve slept. I am sleeping there now, awaiting the departure of my tenants and the sale of the house.

The Original Bathroom

The original bathroom was upstairs, accessible only through the small bedroom. It was tiny, containing only a bath and wash basin. In 1955 showers were unheard of. After I had gone to bed, Mum and Dad often used to pass through my room in order to do their ablutions. As I lay there, waiting for my mother/father to finish bathing, the steam and condensation must have been unhealthy. A wall separated me from the bathroom window and fresh air.

My mother liked to towel me down after I’d had a bath. I remember the last time she ever did this. My friend Tony Mrowicki was downstairs, and mum wanted to hurry me up. I was embarrassed in case Tony found out and thought I was a baby.

The Front Bedroom

This was where Mum and Dad slept in a - by today’s standards - small double bed. There were a couple of wardrobes and a dressing table. Over the dressing table was a picture of the Sacred Heart. Dad was a communist and an atheist, but he tolerated the religious picture because Mum liked it and because it was a link with his native Ireland. It always tickled me that Dad had a bust of Lenin over the bedroom door, just a few metres away from Mum's Sacred Heart picture.

When we had visitors, I occasionally had to share the double bed with my parents – my head down between their legs.

My great memory, however, of this bedroom is of Sunday mornings, when Mum and Dad allowed me and my sister to come in and snuggle up with them for a short time. I used to love this. My parents, especially my father, seldom openly expressed their affection for me, so this intimate Sunday morning bonding was very special.

When my mother died, we got rid of the old-fashioned wardrobes and had a built-in wardrobe, with mirror sliding doors, installed along one wall.

The Second Bedroom

This bedroom faces away from Hatherley Road, looking out at the houses surrounding the garden. It has an old fireplace, covered over with a panel and never used by my family. The door, with its two panes of frosted glass at the top and matching wooden panels below (identical to my parents’ bedroom door), is the original door from 1955, perhaps even from 1900. This bedroom was where our lodgers stayed during the 1950’s. I remember the German bachelors, Winfried Weber and Peter, who were very kind to me and who made such a good impression on my parents. This was not long afer WW2, and in England there was naturally some animosity towards Germans. I have no idea what these Germans were doing in Reading at that time. And there was another lodger, a cyclist, whose name I do not remember, who was always taking his bike apart in our back yard.

But the lodgers who made the greatest impression were Osmond Nixon and Steve McCabe. Steve was a Glaswegian who used to drive his car up to Scotland. Osmond was a bachelor and a ladies’ man, a smoker and a drinker. I remember him bringing a girlfriend into our front room. My sister had a speech impediment when she was very young and could not pronounce ‘Mr Nixon’; she called him ‘Mick Nick’ instead.

When the era of the lodgers ended and my sister arrived, this bedroom became mine. It was where I slept throughout the 1960’s, until I went to university, and after that whenever I returned to Reading. My father constructed shelves to house my growing book collection and gave me a built-in wardrobe with a sliding door where I could hang my clothes.

It was cold upstairs in those days, especially in the winter. To keep warm we relied on electric fires and hot water bottles. Later I had the luxury of an electric blanket. Under my bed was a chamber pot. It was a long walk down to the toilet during the night, so I frequently pissed in the pot and hid it beneath my bed. I sometimes forgot to empty the pot the next morning; indeed it was not uncommon for me to leave it there, full of stale piss, unemptied for a week or longer.

I remember one Xmas morning being woken up by Dad, who pulled open the curtains and announced: “Look out at the best Xmas present you could ever have.” It had snowed overnight, and the garden was beautiful to behold.

As a schoolboy I often used to get ill (bronchitis or pleurisy as a rule), and in those days it was normal for the family doctor to visit the patient at home. I remember Dr Gledhill and Dr Walford coming to visit me in my sick bed in this bedroom. I also remember having a terrible cold, being given a glass of punch (whisky and hot water) by my father and waking up the next morning, my bed and pyjamas absolutely drenched with sweat, but cured.

The Alleyway

There is an alleyway running between our end-of-terrace house and 36A next door. It has a door, which is sometimes bolted. It belongs to three houses in Addington Road. In the 50’s it belonged to the Bruces, the Holmans and the Coxes. We have never used, or been allowed to use, this alley, but I have some memories of it.

As a schoolboy, and not possessing a front door key, I used to climb over the alley wall into our back garden when my mother was out. It was a high wall, and scaling it was quite an effort.

One Bonfire Night, in the 60’s, we were setting off fireworks in the back garden. Unbeknown to us, some boys were spectating from the alley. One of them shouted “What a bird!” (referring to my sister), before they all scarpered.

After my mother’s death I had a gas fire installed in the new large living-room. A hole had to be knocked in the alley wall to create a vent to the outer air. Over the hole, protruding into the alley-way, was a protective metal cover. I worried about possible vandalism. In the event, there was no vandalism, but the gas fire did not last long before I had central heating installed. Then the vent to the alley-way was bricked up once more.

I will end my little essay with another quotation from Thomas Hardy, from his poem Old Furniture:

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
But well I know how it is with me
Continually.

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying…

That is exactly how I feel sitting in the old family house for the last time, waiting for contracts to be exchanged and the buyer to take possession. This is a watershed in my life; it is as if an umbilical cord has been severed. Unlike Hardy, who sees the ghosts of several generations, I see just one set of ghosts: the ghosts of Mum and Dad and of my younger self. The original features of the house – the fireplace, the kitchen doorstep, the larder, the stairs and landing – are all wonderfully evocative of my childhood days. I was a contented boy, loved by my parents, happy at school, happy to live in the old-fashioned, cramped, sometimes cold, sometimes smelly (that paraffin heater!), forever dear end-of-terrace house that was No. 36 Hatherley Road. I daresay I will never see it again after I return to Vietnam, and I daresay the new owners will modernize it, but the old house, especially as it used to be from 1955 until my mother’s death in 1988, will always be part of my heart.

Posted by Mulqueen 21:10 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged road kevin 36 mulqueen hatherley Comments (0)

RIP Ken Stebbing

I first met Ken Stebbing when I arrived at BISC (the British International School of Cairo) in 1985. He'd been the Headmaster of BISC the previous year but had resigned (he told me later he hated dealing with the Board) and was now the Secondary School English Language teacher. I was the Secondary English Literature teacher. A bizarre division of labour! During my interview with Leslie and Eleanor Casbon – in a hotel near Exeter station – Mr Casbon openly queried Ken’s reasons for relinquishing the headship after only one year. I remember his comment: “I don’t know what Ken Stebbing is playing at” – or words to that effect.

Anyway, Ken and I were the two English teachers, and we got to know each other very well.

He was a decade or so my senior and was the most respected teacher in the school. He was a small man but had a natural authority and, when roused, a temper. I once witnessed him laying into an employee at the Marriott Hotel because of some silly hotel rule. He was a passionate man – passionate about books (especially Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet), about Egypt (especially the antiquities), about Alexander the Great. Ken was intensely serious and private but also a bon vivant who loved to talk and drink alcohol. The night before my first day at school, I went to his flat, and we stayed up till a late hour making merry.

As a teacher (he taught both History and English), Ken was adored by his students. This was mainly because his lessons were so interesting. He employed the old-fashioned anecdotal approach to teaching, mesmerizing his students with tales of adventure and derring-do, planting unforgettable pictures in their minds. I came across a comment about him on the internet – from a man who said that Ken’s stories about Shaka Zulu had inspired him to direct films.

Soon after my arrival in Cairo, Ken drove several of us to the Pyramids – the Giza Pyramids and the one at Saqqara – for a full-on dose of Egyptian history. He was a superb guide. I still remember Ken's story about Imhotep, the architect of the Saqqara Pyramid, boasting that his tomb would never be discovered (and, so far, it hasn't). Ken was fascinated by Tutankhamun - especially the circumstances of his mysterious death. I think he had written a short play on this subject. Ken planted in my mind forever Howard Carter's reply to Lord Carnarvon when asked if he could see anything in King Tut's newly discovered tomb: "Yes, wonderful things." And, for some reason, Ken was obsessed with Alexander the Great and the whereabouts of his corpse (Alexander's tomb has never been found). He had written an article on the great man, published in an Egyptian magazine. When I visited Alexandria for the first time, Ken lent me E. M. Forster’s famous guidebook to that city.

Ken was not, as far as I know, particularly fluent in Arabic, but he worked hard at mastering it. When I arrived, he gave me a list of the most useful Arabic words and phrases. The one bit of Arabic I remember Ken uttering was “Ya, Mohammad!” He repeated this phrase one night many times, in a loud voice, accompanied by much banging on the school gate, in an attempt to wake up the boab.

The Deputy Head at BISC, Neil Richards, revered Ken, and the affection was mutual. Neil was particularly impressed by Ken’s ability to deliver short telling speeches at school assembly, and he strove to do likewise. When the new Headmaster, Alan Rowland, wrote Neil a nasty letter, Ken sprang to Neil’s defence and showed me the letter Rowland had written.

What a character Ken was! The life force incarnate – upbeat, dapper, debonair in his prime, never boring, witty and wise, animated, trademark pipe in hand, trademark military moustache, always toting his Leica on the off chance of a photo. In his cups he was wonderful company. I remember one Ramadan when a few of us, including Ken, were sitting outside El Patio restaurant in Zamalek, desperate for a beer or three. Drinking alcohol in public during Ramadan was strictly forbidden, but we had a brainwave. We asked the waiter to fill a teapot with Stella beer, which was the same colour as tea. Never was so much ‘tea’ drunk in such a short time! A memorable session of banter and camouflaged beer!

Ken was not as widely read as I was, and he knew little about English poetry. When he accepted the headship of a school in Kota Kinabalu, I visited him one summer, and he showed me the book of poetry he was using with one of his classes. He asked me to pick out any poems that I could teach with enthusiasm, and I obliged. I remember Ken’s surprise at my choices. He had never considered these poems to be any good, but I persuaded him of their value. One of them was Blake’s A Poison Tree. As I talked about each poem, Ken took notes. Ever modest; ever the student.

In Kota Kinabalu Ken was a perfect host. He drove me around the countryside and the beaches, and we spent many hours drinking beer and putting the world to rights. And he revealed to me his greatest fear as Headmaster of the school there. It was nothing to do with enrolment or the Board or with money; no, it was coconuts. Ken was scared stiff of a coconut, from one of the many coconut trees on campus, dropping down on to a child’s head during recess!

Ken’s great hobby while he was in Cairo, and for some years afterwards, was photography. He was very proud of his two Leica cameras (he had two in case one broke down) and was constantly shooting black-and-white photos. He was old-fashioned in his use of a hand-held light meter. When Cairo was put under curfew in 1985, following riots by army conscripts, Ken took a taxi into the Heliopolis danger zone – where a tourist hotel had been torched – in order to take pictures. The school magazine which Graham Burgess and I produced at the end of our first year contained Ken’s fine photos of BISC students. Ken introduced me to the great photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith. I remember him telling me how delighted he’d been to visit the V &A Museum in London and actually touch the originals of some Eugene Smith masterpieces. At BISC Ken taught photography as an extracurricular activity and produced a little booklet which exhorted would-be photographers to get as close as possible to their human subjects. When Ken returned to his native Liverpool, I occasionally rang him up. He had two telephone numbers – one for the house, one for his dark room, where he would invariably be closeted developing his black-and-white prints.

So many other memories of Ken. His generosity to Cairo taxi drivers at night – he insisted on tipping them because it was after dusk. His love of the Alexandrian poet, Cavafy. His chance meeting with the movie star Gene Hackman in Kota Kinabalu – apparently Hackman asked him about his camera. Ken’s farewell party – organized by Rifka, who obviously adored him. His letters – written in a distinctive style and peppered with the unusual words ‘anent’ and ‘ach’. His macho side – he enjoyed target-shooting, and I think he had a pilot’s licence. His lovely tongue-in-cheek intro to the blues (an outrageous anti-feminist blues that would surely have got us into trouble nowadays) that four of us – me, Neil Richards, Tony Blakeley and Chris Charleson – performed in front of BISC Secondary School. Ken was savvy enough to ensure that the extravaganza be preserved for posterity by having a student (Kevin Farnes, I believe) record it on the school video camera. Ken gave me a copy, which contains the only video footage I possess of the man. A priceless artifact..

Ken came to my house in Reading once, when I was between jobs and living there alone. I also invited Tony Blakeley and Ivan Sayer, and we had a Cairo reunion. After that I lost touch with him. I have little idea of what he did in the years after Kota Kinabalu before his retirement to Presteigne on the Welsh border.

I visited Ken in Presteigne when I returned to England in the summer of 2015. Hugh Sowden met me at the train station and drove me to Presteigne, where I divided my time between Hugh’s mobile home and Ken’s flat. Ken lived in a spacious first-floor flat up an alleyway off the main street. He referred to this alley as 'Fagin's alley', which made me chuckle. I was astonished when he told me his rent was only £270 per month. As usual, Ken was a great host. He cooked me bacon and sausages under the grill, and we drank wine and swapped stories until the small hours.

I was all set to see Ken this summer. He emailed me, saying: "the deal is, as for all the good folks who stay, I do all the food and cooking, you do all the washing up, and we have a joint-kitty for all the booze! " I could have visited him in July or August, before he was taken seriously ill, but I was busy seeing all my other UK friends. When I telephoned Ken – in September – and said I was ready to travel to Presteigne, he told me he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer, had various hospital appointments and could not meet me. He was as sharp as ever on the phone, making light of his infirmity and saying that he had, perhaps, “two more years” left. I reassured him that cancer is treatable and offered the example of Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist, who recently underwent surgery for lung cancer. I phoned Ken once more, just before I left for Vietnam, and urged him to keep in touch.

Today, September 25th, I received the shocking news – in an email from Graham Burgess - that Ken was dead. He had been admitted to Hereford Hospital, where they found a cancerous tumour in one lung and emphysema in the other. His lungs were full of fluid and he had difficulty breathing. He died quickly and peacefully with his best friend, Derek Hepworth, in attendance. Ken had requested no funeral and that his body be cremated.

As soon as I read Graham’s initial brief email, I asked him to send me more info – which he did later – and rang the number Graham had given me – Derek Hepworth’s number. Derek was busy on the phone, so, for some daft reason, I rang Ken Stebbing. His voice greeted me from the answering machine – the familiar jaunty tones: “Hello! This is Ken …” Eerie. I then phoned Derek again, who gave me the full story.

Another good man gone. My friend Mark Wilson also died of cancer this summer. I will always treasure my memories of Ken: a thoroughly decent human being, a charismatic teacher with outstanding leadership qualities, a great conversationalist and public speaker, a deep thinker, a lover of life. I predict an outpouring of grief when news of his death reaches the BISC community. So many grown men and women today will remember Ken when he was their teacher – firm yet gentle, champion raconteur, father figure, an altogether remarkable man.

September 25th 2017

After writing the above tribute, I wrote the following blues:

Blues For Ken Stebbing

Woke up this morning,
Nothing on my mind.
Well, I woke up this morning,
Nothing on my mind.
Read through my emails
To see what I could find.

Good lord almighty -
It surely can’t be true!
Yes, good lord almighty,
It surely can’t be true -
Ken Stebbing’s dead,
Finest man I ever knew.

Ken Stebbing, O, Ken Stebbing,
A teacher beyond compare.
Ken Stebbing, O, Ken Stebbing,
A teacher way beyond compare –
He mixed wisdom with compassion,
Good humour with great flair.

Ken will never be forgot
By those who knew him well
No, he’ll never be forgot
By those who knew him well.
Wherever Ken is now
May he in peace forever dwell.

The world’s a whole lot poorer
Now that old Ken has gone.
World’s a whole lot poorer
Now that Ken has gone.
But that’s just the way it is –
The world must carry on.

Mississippi Kevin Mulqueen 06/10/2017

Posted by Mulqueen 21:09 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged ken stebbing obituary Comments (0)

Peaks and Troughs in the UK During Summer 2017

Peaks:

Meeting my old friends: Paul Crute (in N. Ireland), Steve Clayton (in Scunthorpe), Derek Evans (in Reading), Freer Magnus (in London and Reading), Maurice Bradley (in Birmingham), Graham Burgess (in Reading), Mark & Beryl Wilson in Canterbury, Patsy and Maureen in Egham, Chris & Yvonne in Wokingham & Reading, John Sparry (in Wall Heath), Dave and Sheila Ansell (in Stourbridge and Birmingham), Jim Merris (in Stourbridge and Brierley Hill), Andrew Derham (in Reading and Bath), Tony Blakeley (in Buckinghamshire), Angelo & Dagmar (in the National Gallery), Dave Cooke (in Reading), Stephen Bywater (in London), Ivan Sayer (in The Swan and in my house)

· The smell of malted barley from the Rebellion Brewery, Marlow. It reminded me of the smell from the Courage Brewery in Reading when I was a boy

· Meeting former Cairo BISC students Mona & Reem Tawfic in a London restaurant

· Learning that Reem specialized in Thomas Hardy at university

· Reem’s pleasure at receiving my gift of 1st edition of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Late Lyrics and Earlier’

· Receiving rapturous emails from Reem and Thuy

· Birmingham Jazz Festival (Lower Broad Street Philharmonic, Simon Spillett, Lithuanian jazz singer)

· Bathams beer at the Bull and Bladder

· Refamiliarizing myself with the streets and places of Reading

· Chatting to John Wyeth in Hatherley Road

· Sitting with Rhada and Eddie in their house at 31 Hatherley Road

· Listening to Test Match Special on the radio in my house (England v West Indies)

· Listening to Joni Mitchell on Youtube – especially ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (and especially ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ and ‘Harry’s House’)

· Watching the Test and football on Steve Clayton’s TV

· Bird-watching with Steve Clayton (bittern and hobby)

· Bird-watching with Derek Evans in Whiteknights Park and by the Thames (he taught me the calls of wren, jay, magpie, jackdaw, buzzard)

· Sitting in my garden with Derek in the sunshine and reflecting on the eerie absence of human and bird noise

· Giant’s Causeway (walking, sea, rocks, gannets)

· Bushmills Distillery

· Titanic Museum

· Sitting in Paul Crute’s garden in the sun, drinking wine

· Paul’s excellent Blanton’s bourbon (with a horse and jockey on top)

· Walking the dog with Paul Crute

· My abscess popping at Belfast airport

· Traditional English breakfast at The Briar Rose, off New Street, Birmingham

· Meeting Dave & Sheila & Michelle in The Briar Rose one afternoon

· Michelle telling me that her favourite Rolling Stones track is ‘Gimme Shelter’

· Birmingham Art Gallery

· National Gallery with Angelo & Dagmar

· Tate Britain

· Selling ‘The Haw Lantern’ (£160), ‘Black Dogs’ (£60) to Blackwells in Oxford

· Selling a translation of ‘The Leopard’ (£140) to Peter Harrington in London

· Selling ‘Acts and Monuments’ by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain (£48) to Peter Ellis in London. After he had given me £8, he looked the book up, then chased after me in the street, took me back to his shop and thrust £40 in Scottish £20 notes into my hand.

· Selling 55 books to Alex from the Hungerford Bookshop for £150

· Buying and reading ‘Four Kings’

· Shopping at Aldi (and Lidl) – wine, Henney’s cider, smoked mackerel, yoghurt, Camembert cheese, sausages, hummus, coleslaw, potatoes, marmalade, honey, cornflakes, chocolate

· Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway bridge over the Kennet in Reading (walks with Derek and Freer)

· Living alone in my parents’ house after the tenants had gone

· Sleeping in the bedroom I slept in as a Primary School kid

· Visiting Reading Museum with Freer

· Looking at the Maiwand Lion in the Forbury (with Freer) and then reading McGonagall’s hilarious poem about the Battle

· Getting my OAP bus pass and Senior Railcard

· Buying and eating punnets of raspberries from Smelly Alley

· Red kites overhead, especially at Caversham Catholic Cemetery

· Email from solicitor confirming the date of completion of house sale (Tuesday September 12th)

· Phone call from solicitor confirming that money from buyers had been received

· Writing my nostalgia essay about 36 Hatherley Road

· Talking to Thuy on the telephone

· Staying in ‘The Great Expectations’ hotel after quitting 36 Hatherley Road. I felt liberated.

· Meeting Andrew in Bath.

· Reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant description of the Ali v Foreman fight on the train to Bath.

· The delicious dosa I had on my last night in the Indian dosa restaurant next to Jackson’s Corner.

· Reading Donald McRae’s brilliant boxing book ‘Dark Trade’ – especially his portrait of Don King and his essay on Eubank v Watson.

· Completely hassle-free journey from Reading to Heathrow and then Heathrow to HCMC. Absolutely no problems at HCMC airport.

Troughs:

· Missing Thuy – her warm body in bed, her cooking, her caring for me in general

Difficulty in telephoning Thuy

· The cold English weather

· Abscess near tooth

· Sitting alone in the house waiting for developments in the house sale

· Meeting cancerous Mark Wilson for the last time

· Learning that Ken Stebbing may have lung cancer

· Absence of starlings – not a single sighting anywhere all summer

· Disease affecting horse chestnut trees (leaf miner moth from Macedonia)

· Having to get rid of my books

Posted by Mulqueen 21:06 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged uk kevin mulqueen Comments (0)

Of Civet Cats and Coffee

Yesterday, as I was waiting for Sao, my xe om (motorcycle) driver, to lock up his mobile cigarette kiosk and give me a lift, I saw that he was holding a strange creature. It was like a cat with a pointed face and a very long striped tail. ‘Raccoon’ was my first thought, but, of course, this is Vietnam, not North America. The creature was completely docile, and Sao was stroking it affectionately. I beckoned my wife over, and she told me the creature’s name: ‘con chon’. Before departing, Sao opened a compartment in his kiosk and locked the con chon inside. Poor thing! I thought. It would be in the dark, in a tiny space, until he returned an hour later.

I was unsure what ‘con chon’ was in English, so I googled it. ‘Ratel’ came up. I knew it was not a ratel – a completely different animal that does not exist in Vietnam. I then googled ‘con chon Vietnam’, and there it was in the picture – Sao’s pet. A civet cat.

I decided to do a little research and made an interesting discovery. Civets are the animals responsible for Vietnam’s famous ‘weasel coffee’. They love to eat coffee cherries, which are partially digested and then defecated. The faeces are used to make weasel coffee - at $600 per kilo, one of the most expensive coffees on the planet. I have tried it (at a coffee plantation in Dalat), but the taste was, to my mind, nothing special, and the price exorbitant. In Vietnam, this coffee is known as ‘ca phe Chon’. According to Wikipedia, it is all the rage in Indonesia and the Philippines.

What, you may ask, is the attraction of this bizarre coffee? Well, it’s all about taste. The coffee experts would have us believe that civets select only the best coffee cherries (eschewing unripe or inferior specimens), and then the digestive process imparts a distinctive flavour to the cherries before they emerge from the civet’s rear end.

Fascinating stuff! Even more fascinating is the explanation I read of how weasel coffee originated in Vietnam. The French added Vietnam to their colonial empire in 1887 and introduced the natives to a brand new drink – ca phe. Previously the Vietnamese had been a nation of tea drinkers. In those bad old colonial days, the Vietnamese peasants grew and manufactured coffee but were forbidden to drink it; that was the privilege of the French ruling class and of the Nguyen Dynasty nobles. However, the peasants found a way around this. They noticed that civet faeces consisted largely of coffee cherries – stuck together in a solid block. Miraculously, coffee made from these faeces was smoother and more aromatic than the coffee drunk by the French. So, unbeknown to their masters, the peasants began to harvest civet droppings, and weasel coffee was born.

Now, in 21st century Vietnam, weasel coffee is big business. Farms, where civets live in cages and are forcibly fed coffee cherries, are widespread. Apart from the obvious cruelty, detractors also point out that because these battery civets do not select what they eat, the coffee they yield is inferior to coffee derived from the faeces of wild civets.

The next time I see Sao, I will ask him about his pet. What does he feed it on? If he feeds it coffee cherries, does he use the faeces to make weasel coffee? Perhaps he will give me some, and the taste will grow on me. But I am set in my ways and rather squeamish about imbibing faeces, albeit flavoursome ones, so this is unlikely. No, I will stick to my usual coffee – Trung Nguyen No 5 – which is delicious despite having had absolutely no acquaintance with a civet’s ass.

Kevin Mulqueen 27/10/2017

Posted by Mulqueen 21:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coffee civets Comments (0)

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