Monday, 27 January 2020

A week of mixed fortunes

A little out of order, the previous Sunday was strange. We went to St Ives, intending to eat at the Dolphin Hotel overlooking the river, but after heavy rain the surrounding fields and carpark where deeply flooded, so we had to go round and park in the town to walk across the old bridge. We got there just after 3pm, but all the food had already been cleared and the place was deserted. Other hotels in the town were too full to find a table, so we went to an old haunt from our boating days, the Lazy Otter which generally serves all day and is never full, but it was closed for refurbishing, so we moved on to the Five Miles From Anywhere, but this was packed and rowdy even at 4pm, for they were holding a dirty shirt contest. We moved on to Finally we cut our losses and made for the Cadogan Inn near Bury St Edmunds.

In the middle of the meal, the phone went and it was our sister-in-law, Chris, to say her brother had died suddenly. She and Richard phoned him as they were leaving for a w/e in Wales, but getting no reply she insisted they turn round to check on him. He was only 65 and has lived alone since his partner died, so they used their key to get in and found him lying on the settee, still warm. He had been quite well, even going to a Wassail evening that week to celebrate some new apple trees, so the death had to be reported to the coroner and they are still waiting to hear when the body can be released. Our meal was terrible anyway, with no decent vegetarian options, and that call put a final damper on a fruitless day.

Step Children
I have done my best as a step-mum
to go gently on my way,
never stepped on the toes of real mum
or had over much to say.
As the months have turned into years,
the children have since grown,
they have shown me much love and kindness
sometimes even more than my own.
They say blood is thicker than water,
and that you can't get blood from a stone,
but love is tasted in sorrow
and love is what my step children have shown.
On the domestic front, we had a take-away supper party on Friday with friends, with fish-'n-chips as the chosen menu. It makes for a simple supper which all enjoy, with minimum preparation (just put out plates and cutlery). Drinks flowed freely, and the talk followed, speculating about the Chinese flu and putting the world to rights as we all love to do.

Saturday was Burns' Night, and Ann arranged a wonderful Burns' Night supper to honour her Scottish heritage. Ann carried in the  vegetarian haggis on a silver platter while we had bagpipes music blaring out from Siri, and I read the poem Address to a Haggis. We then each had to read a poem of our choice, then a quiz followed. First prize was a bottle of Timorous Beastie whisky. To my annoyance, Edwin won! but it was well deserved - he'd been swotting up on the Bard all afternoon. Later, he did allow me to sample a dram.
Edwin shows his spirit

In Clare walking the dogs, the woodpecker was again hammering his song invisible in the trees above, but across the river a female woodpecker was attracted enough to fly across and perch upright on one of the fence posts to listen critically. She gave a thumbs down and flew off, leaving her forlorn lover to hammer alone.

On a more cheerful note, another wonderful poem from Ann, I have had another paper accepted for a journal called Galaxy, and today came a remarkably well-written letter from grandson Luke. He has just won a school physics project for the British Physics Olympiad, and will be advanced to take part in the National  6th-form finals, with a chance to present at the Royal Society. Good luck Luke!

Friday, 24 January 2020

An ambulance next door

Following Ann's haircut yesterday, we agreed to meet in the Swan. I was delayed by a slow customer in the post office, so she entered alone, and asked the barman, "Nick, have you seen my husband?"

One of the drinkers asked, "is there a reward for him? We'll all go looking for him if there is."
Ann disappointed him, saying there was no reward.

Then another said, "I lost my wife twenty years ago." Ann said she was sorry. "No, I was glad to see her go. I didn't offer a reward either."

A third added, "I lost my wife twenty years ago too. It cost me half a million."

Finally, another said from his bar stool, "I can see him coming now!" so when I entered, everyone was looking at me and laughing, and one said, "well that's the first time I've seen a man come into a pub looking for his wife!"

Getting up this morning, I saw an ambulance drawing away down the road. The curtains are still closed next door, so I suspect our neighbour David has had another stroke, or an episode of fainting again. Happily, it turned out to be another minor episode of cerebral anoxia, probably from turning his head too sharply, and he returned home this afternoon.

Edwin was back for a couple of nights while his partner Andre is away, so drove directly to UEA in Norwich to deliver his lectures. He is getting more and more work, to the point where his supervisor is wondering if he will finish his PhD, but Edwin is a very hard worker, and continues to chip away at it.

Ann is planning a Burns Night binge for tomorrow, with vegetarian haggis and neeps. She has bought a bottle of whisky called Wee Timorous Beastie, to offer as a prize for a Burns Night quiz she intends to organise. Lucy said she wants to enter it by Skype, to win the whisky. Ben said he hopes I win, so he can taste it when he next visits. It is clearly going to be a popular prize.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Johor Bahru

Wednesday 8 Jan 2020
Strait Swimming

Ann was feeling a little stronger, and anxious to see something other than her bed, and Edwin was keen to see another country. I was tired after much walking over the last two days, so they went together by road over the bridge to Johor Bahru, just over the border in Malaysia. It was an interesting town, with many old cafes and little shops. Ann usually reads avidly of places she intends to visit, by only later when they got back was Ann finally able to do her research. It made sobering reading. Malaysia has made it "up there" with countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela and South Africa as among the world's most dangerous countries, and in 2013 Johor Bahru was ranked the fourth most dangerous city in the world. Edwin had been waving his iPhone about to follow the maps, but now they learned this was especially dangerous and he was lucky not to be mugged. He is very tall and muscular compared to the average Malay, and perhaps this gave them second thoughts before marching boldly through the city. Although they didn't see any specific examples of crime, but they would definitely not have visited had they read the reports first. We all went for an Indian on their return, to unwind and celebrate their survival.
Practising the dance

Thursday 9 Jan 2020
A robot eyes Ann
Our last day, so Edwin and I walked the mile to the beach for him to swim in the Straits of Singapore. Edwin commented that Singapore Straights was a bit exclusive, but later he saw a Baptist church flying the rainbow flag, with a sign outside: "Don't just come out, come home" which looked a bit more inclusive. Opinions in Singapore are slowly changing. The beach is huge, with regularly spaced picnic tables and places set aside for barbecues. I watched a girl practising her Indian dancing while I waited, looking smooth and beautiful. She kept consulting a phone and then doing a new move, as though following a DIY procedure on YouTube. By the beach too was an array of gymnastic equipment for public use, which Edwin worked through systematically. He is determined to stay fit.

Edwin works out
Our flight was not until 23:00, but we left for Changi airport mid-afternoon to admire the newly opened Jewel, a multi-story shopping mecca with a roof garden, walkways and mazes for us to enjoy while waiting. On the way in, we were scrutinised by a security robot, patrolling the pavement outside the entrance. It spun its eye round to give Ann a special once over, but decided to let her leave.

We read of the news of the downing of the Ukrainian  Boeing 737-800 over Iran. Edwin remembered it was the identical plane we had flown on for our visit to Kiev to see the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. We had been scheduled to overfly Iran, but following the crash, we were rerouted over Pakistan and Afghanistan, clearly considered much safer. Next day, waiting for our luggage on the baggage carousel, Edwin lunged for his case but missed his footing, and landed on his back on the carousel, where he proceeded to go round with the bags. He jumped off again quickly, but no one seemed to notice or offer to help. Our case finally came off; it had been squashed flat and badly damaged, so Edwin went to customer complaints. They said they will send someone to our home to assess the damage. Finally, we were through customs and glad to see our Charlie and our taxi to get home.
Ann at the Changi Jewel ready to fly home

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Visiting Indonesia and the zoo

Monday 6 Jan 2020

Grandad John with eye belt
Ann was forced to spend a few days in bed, feeling too ill to dress or travel, but the chance of a trip to Indonesia was too great to ignore. Indonesia is an island nation of 17,500 islands strung out over 5,000 km, with 6,000 inhabited. Great Britain in contrast has 4400 islands of over 0.5 acres, of which only 210 are inhabited. From the harbour, ferries ply the seas regularly enough not to be concerned with booking, so we could turn up to buy return tickets to Batam, the most northerly island of the group.

Singapore uses thumb prints to enter and exit the country. Edwin put his thumb on the glass and sailed through, but mine was not recognised. They tried several times and on different machines, but I was marched off by armed border police to a private side room to be sat down at a much grander machine which eventually agreed I was me.

The boat trip was amazing, shearing through blue seas under a bright sun sky on a fast hydrofoil, spraying high sheets of water to either side. Formalities on Indonesia were slight, and we were soon in another country, where poverty, dirt and non-existent pavements contrasted starkly with Singapore.

We entered a huge modern shopping mall designed to entice rich Singaporeans to buy cheaply, and Edwin bought new Nike running shoes and a singlet to further his ambition to be more energetic in the New Year. Meanwhile, I saw an old fashioned looking barber's shop, advertising: "Premium Haircut. Haircut, Wash, Tonic, Hot & Cold Towel, Head & Face Massage, Masker Aloevera Vitamen, Eye Belt, Line up beard, Shoulder Massage." There was no queue, and they warned me it would take nearly an hour for the premium haircut, but I went for it. I may not have looked much better, but I certainly felt it. The whole experience cost just £6. Labour is also clearly cheap in this country.

The panda enjoys her bamboo
On Tuesday, we saw the zoo. I am not usually a fan of zoos, although I appreciate they do good conservation work, but the zoo here is outside all my experience. It is a vast site reclaimed from the original tropical rain forest, a considerable area of which has been retained. Dense, impenetrable and mysterious, it offers a glimpse of how once the whole island was forested, as once was much of Europe. The loss is symptomatic of the destruction wrought by an ever increasing and demanding world population, with what is happening in Brazil (deliberate) and Australia (indirectly man-made). No end is in sight, but surely nature will fight back; this unsustainable population growth will be decimated by our own destruction, and one day, the forests and oceans of the world will recover without us to see it. After mass destruction, new species will arise, perhaps in millennia, as they always have.

A leopard dreams of leaping for its prey

Giraffe stretches for food

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Ann ill

Ann had been felling low yesterday, and had a poor night coughing and hoarse. On Sunday morning, she felt terrible, hot, achey and nauseous, and we knew she must be ill when she agreed so readily to see a doctor. The local one was closed on Sunday, but we got a taxi to the nearby Katong clinic, registered Ann, and joined the queue. We had to wait about an hour to see Dr Jack Lee, who'd training in London at King's then married a fellow student, Sarah Packer, from UK. Both wanted to be GPs, so the easiest thing (and the warmest) was to return to Singapore and set up a joint practice. Between them, they are open for 7 days a week, from 08:30 each morning until 9:30pm, except for weekends when they only work till 12:30.
Ann's flu medicines

After an examination, Dr Lee pushed a fine probe down each nostril, then dropped the contents into a small immunosensitive slide to test for flu. This was negative, so he prescribed a series of decongestants etc, and Ann and Edwin left for a drink in the cafe next door while I waited for the medicines to be dispensed. A short while later, Dr Lee came out and drew me into the surgery to show me the result of the diagnostic screen - one of the lines had turned blue just as Ann left the room, suggesting she has Influenza strain B, possibly caught on the flight over. He immediately added Tamiflu to the regimen to fight the virus, and said Edwin must have a course as well, as he'd not been given the flu jab. I had, so was spared treatment.

Ann returned to the hotel, thankful to get back into bed, achey, coughing, and dosed high with the combination of six prescribed potent medicines. We both wish her a fast recovery and hope she looses not too much of the holiday.

Saturday, 4 January 2020



We felt compelled to visit to Raffles, that bastion of colonialism and testament to the spirit of our materialistic age, newly refurbished and reopened. It stands as spotless and brilliantly white as any mosque or temple, with its grand balconies, marble floors, and extravagant chandeliers. We had pre-ordered their tea, but like so many places, the quality of food and service fell short of the expectation generated by their high prestige. We have enjoyed many high teas at various spots in London, and so often it is the smaller, less pretentious places that provide the best quality.

Afterwards, we enjoyed the authentic Singapore Slings, a cocktail disguised as a fruit drink originally developed to allow women to drink while pretending to be virtuously teetotal - true hypocricy never ages. We approached the Long Bar which was crowded and filthy from the habit of throwing peanut shells on the floor, but chose to sit in the warm sunlight downstairs, where we could be served at the table and sit on clean floors. I must admit the drink is delicious, and could become my favourite cocktail. Ann was feeling off colour, hot with a sore throat, and had been unable to manage much of the tea, but she did enjoy being a colonial lady enjoying a surreptitious drink.
Ann and the Singapore Sling

Raffles has a famous link to a friend and neighbour from Clare days: Pauline's father was manager up until the Japanese invasion, when his services were no longer needed, and he languished and died under Japan's rule.  Also, Ann's father was a Chindit, serving behind Japanese lines after the fall of Singapore in 1942, and may have passed through the island, although his exact history is now vague.

Leaving Raffles, we headed to Merlion park to view the famous emblem of the city,  a majestic beast that like the whole of Singapore is spotless in its cleanliness and working to perfection, with a huge fountain jetting across the bay.
Ann and Edwin at Merlion
John's Sling

Friday, 3 January 2020

Orchids galore

The Orchid Gardens
Princess Diana Orchid
They have been days of development, with each event merging into another like rain running down a window. On Thursday, Edwin bought Golden tickets for the cinema next to the hotel to see Star Wars, The Rise of Sykwalker. It had reclining electric armchairs, blankets, and a button to summon the butler for service. There were barely twenty seats, but for the late show it was almost empty, or perhaps it reflected the eagerness of Singaporeans for Star Wars movies and all the affectionardos watched it on the day of release.

On Friday, we visited the botanic gardens and the  orchid gardens - the world's largest. I have been to orchid gardens before, but always in indoor hothouses in the UK. Here, we are almost on the equator, and all were outdoors with daytime temperatures of low thirties, falling to high twenties at night. They were banked up in a profusion of colour, following the contours of the hills in the garden, part of which was still pristine rain forest not yet smothered by the skyscrapers of the city. At the very top of the hill was the VIP garden where specially developed hybrids are named after visiting dignitaries. In dazzling, gaudy wedding white was Princess Diana. That dedicated to Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her royal visit was small and dowdy. Others were to celebrate visits by Margaret Thatcher, and many other heads of state especially from the commonwealth, but we couldn't see any to an American president. Possibly Singapore is counted as beneath the dignity of so mighty a power to pay a state visit, but they do the island state a grave misjustice. It contains within its frame a secure and prosperous peace that many states might emulate.
The Queen Elizabeth Orchid

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Singaporean New Year

Drone sky sculpture 
Landing in Singapore on New Year's Eve, we went to the waterfront to catch the celebrations. An unbroken crackle of explosions and smoke-drenched sky filled the hour up to midnight, as most of the display occurred before the big moment.  One remarkable innovation was "drone-art" - a coordinated flight of 500 drones fitted with extrordinarily bright multi-coloured lasers, that could build multiple sky pictures with the touch of a computer button. This included running athletes, flying swans, and all manner of imaginative figures and geometries. Finally, as the critical time approached, the drones took on the form of a giant sky-clock, counting down the minutes and seconds to local midnight with we in the large crowd adding audible accompaniment with skillful subtractive arithmetic. The fireworks reached a brief crescendo that would not have been out-of-place in Mosul. Finally the new decade had arrived, and with a delay of just an hour or two, we were able to reach the hotel and crash out to recover.
Happy New Year 2020 Singapore

Paulo's Spanish Evening

Edwin and Sarah perform the Nutcracker
Paulo Lopes was Edwin's piano teacher, before work pressure forced Edwin to drop the lessons. He is Portugese, and always holds a lively end-of-year party to which we're all invited. The theme was a Viva EspaƱa evening, with casternets and hats provided, and song-sheets for some Spanish songs to lend flavour, aided by Paulo's Punch, a leathal cocktail sold as Sangria, but spiced with bottles of spirit that proved so devastating for Ann last year (see Paulo's ABBA party).

Paulo's partner has an ancient Juke Box that always belts out non-stop loud '50s classics, Roy Orbison being a favourite. Then, with Tchaikovsky being belted out on the pianos and ballet moves by Edwin and Sarah, the party seemed to draw to an early close. We had to leave early to finish packing for our flight in the morning, but everyone else seemed to wind down too.
...while Roy Orbison performs on the Juke Box

Next day, our friends Rae and Malcolm came to look after the dogs, and our taxi came to take us to Heathrow. An unfortunate accident meant a two hour wait on the M11, behind a recent accident from which we could not escape, with all traffic backed up to the previous junction. We had hoped for a couple of hours relaxation with a little late shopping, drinks and snacks, but it was not to be. We were among the last to check in for the flight, and were forced to move at speed through the airport to join the long queues to board, stressed and annoyed that the holiday had been frustrated at the start. But at least we did get there, and did catch the plane, so it could have have been much worse.