Written in 2004 and published in my first anthology, Idle Thoughts, in 2009, I cannot help but recall these words tonight:
The stench of religiosity
Dogma and prejudice;
The cause of wars and holocausts,
Bigotry and venom;
When satan dons the robes of a priest
And plays the role he loves the most
- a priest!
But beware the trap of fundamentalism,
That has us believe that most priests are apostate.
Most are genuine
And I’ll argue that
‘til the cows come home.
And have I changed my view? Well my faith is as resolute as ever and I will always follow the principle of the late Anthony Flew, that we follow the evidence to whereever it leads us.
At the moment I am standing on verse two and surveying an enormous divide that will take great effort for me to leap and alight verse three and thence a swift superman effort to verse four.
The battle lines are drawn. Let the action begin.
In trying to understand the birth of Christ it has to be seen in juxtaposition with the Crucifixion. A span of some four months between the celebration of birth and the commemoration of a life but the glorious proclamation of eternal life through resurrection that spans a lifetime of some 30 years.
It does not matter what beliefs are held.
Someone once said to me that Enya is all things pagan. The voice of extremism is always strident. But in watching the utube clip of Enya – Angels I personally am left in no doubt as to where my salvation lies, when the Roman Centurion lowers his helmet after the immortal declaration to the Universe, It Is Finished!
I have had the privilege of standing alone in The Tomb in Jerusalem.
And I have walked the Garden of Gethsemane. On the other side of the city wall it is a loud and vibrant city; but within the Garden there is an incredible peace and tranquillity that is as stark in contrast as the silence of Auschwitz, where to this day no birds sing.
In the Tomb one can almost see and feel the grave clothes neatly folded where once He lay.
Do not lose faith in these difficult times.
Don’t get tied up with denominations and religious hocus pocus. Just believe on Him. That is the central message of the Gospel. Enjoy the great Christmas Hymns, and listen to the Proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Glory to the New Born King. Peace on earth and mercy mild. GOD and sinners reconciled.
Just another Christian
First published in Idle Thoughts in September 2009
9th August 2003
Jerusalem. A little past midnight, slightly cooler but the heat from yesterday lingering so that with the day now dawning, the temperature will be well over 32c.
The wide open windows invite the sounds of the city, still teeming with life, the occasional siren, bins being emptied in the street below, the noise of the street cleaning cars whirring up to the 5th floor balcony; a gabble of Hebrew and Arab chatter below as Jew meets Arab, ‘It’s your turn tonight to get the drink Benyamin’. ‘I know, I know, give me five minutes. I’ve got them; just want to finish this kerbstone off’. Each wave to the other, banter and chuckle and move on. Alexi lies there, wondering about how stupid all of this is. The whole world thinks that Jews and Arabs are at each other’s throats and yet here’s two workmen doing the same work and meeting nightly for a diet coke!
A highly successful international gay movie star, Alexi finds that ten years down the line he occasionally meets resistance; sometimes outright hostility, but he refuses to let it detract from the happiness he now feels lying here on the bed in the city he has come to love even more than his native Moscow.
Videos and DVDs live on – they endure beyond the actor’s lifespan. He recalls a phone call from Dmitri, a lovely guy he has done over 20 films with now. They’ve arranged to meet next month when he flies over to Los Angeles to do another film run with some of his friends in the amazing Kjærlighet av Menn Studios and he’s promised to sound out Sebastiane on how Dmitri should deal with the hate mail he’s been getting.
Occasionally, guys run into the problem of their DVDs catching up with them, usually because someone feels slighted, discovers the video or dvd and sends it, or a clip, to the employer. Not nice. Alexi too has experienced some of that, but he’s been able to ride through it because of the professionalism of the people he works for, films with and generally loves in a way that, he giggles, many so-called straight folk just don’t seem to be able to come to terms with.
As Aaron stirred and rolled over, he stroked him gently and pulled the loose sheet up over Aaron’s arm, to shield him from the sudden Mediterranean temperature drop. Aaron murmured a soft thank you and squeezed him before sleeping on.
He picked up his thoughts about Dmitri again. He must do all he can to help him. Just as Aaron has been here for Alexi, so Alexi knew he must now be here for Dmitri. This is what friends are for. Many of the guys in his world famous studio now hold highly responsible posts, some in the professions, some in the services, several now decorated, husbands, fathers, boyfriends, partners, wives and girlfriends too, greater responsibility and contributing to the good of the country overall; certainly not the apparently ‘debauched’ lives that narrow-minded people insist on seeing.
And occasionally the director pulls them all together again. They have friendship and fun. And for countless people, their work is a lifeline, an expression of their sexuality that has missed them because they were born at the wrong time or in the wrong place to a society with different views.
Those early days were fun, lucrative and incredibly rewarding once the crap studios were spotted and advances and so-called lucrative contract offers politely ignored.
For a few, that early excursion had become something of a ball and chain preventing public office, the limelight, getting into the real world of professional acting, positions of responsibility, even though one or two have certainly made it; but he’d come to realise that where guys had gone wrong it was often their own fault anyway…what he called the diva divide, for silly actors and so-called ‘stars’ would ponce around and throw a wobbly if their every whim was ignored. The industry was full of divas and it was a damned good producer or director who spotted them early on, weeded them out and despatched them before they became a public liability and constant financial burden.
Dmitri though was not one of them. Now a qualified architect back in St Petersburg, he was being blackmailed. So Alexi lay there working out how to get Dmitri to see Seb in LA next month. The Russian authorities could at times be so difficult; “bloody-minded”, Aaron called it.
Alexi wondered just how many lose it?
And for those who have made it, how many receive that horrid call at the midnight hour, not from the police but from some seedy tabloid seeking to capitalize its market at their expense, peddling so called belief in the nation’s morality, but in truth some hard up journalist desperate to keep their salary and to do anything to curry favour with the editor.
How many die prematurely either through sexually transmitted disease or suicide or even of a broken heart and crushed soul?
What becomes of them all?
High minded, educated, cultivated, VGL as the pundits write, full of life, Alexi leading star, internationally sought after, the holder of a PH.D, 32 but looks and physique of a 20 year old, or as his friends joke, the Pravda-Pavel-Sergei look, has been in over 200 films with his favourite Studios, Eagle LA, the last 45 of them as the ‘lead star,’ starting films as soon as he hit 19 when he wanted money to subsidise his Uni education.
From there it just snowballed; for others though, just a cannon ball into oblivion because they only had their eye on the fast buck for the least effort, and presuming their good looks would last forever. Alexi was shrewd. Sure, there has to be an element of luck in everything, but mostly he had applied himself to his work conscientiously and, to be candid, lovingly. And it was that quality that jumped out at producers and directors.
Of course, he’s had girls too, is great with them; but his preference, natural leaning and yearning is for guys and has been since he can remember; he sees nothing wrong or unnatural in this and indeed is forceful in his arguments supporting this view, and many stand with Alexi. And many who dare not say so, stand equally so, secretly.
He’s flirted with most religions. Christianity had left him cold – rituals and dogma – creeds – prayer schools and vigil circles; denominations at war with each other. So he declared himself an atheist but needed to fill the spiritual vacuum – more accurately, the spiritual void. It tipped him over the edge and into paganism, itself ironically a form of religion.
A brief flirt with Islam led him to the Dome of the Rock – a pilgrimage of sorts but cold, uniform, uninspiring, even more demands and rituals, prayer mats, obligatory fasts, Ramadan, and being required to listen to what was to him a tuneless incantation and never getting a straight answer to his one question from any of the clerics who just shuffled and waffled and sent him on his way with a meaningless blessing.
‘Why does it say round the Dome of the Rock that Allah is the God that has no Son, when the Old Testament in the Bible tells us God has a Son and His Name if you know it’?
‘Until I get a satisfactory answer from Islam and Christianity and Judaism on this pretty basic point, you can all go and get lost! Now beat it!’
After he had fired off that email he felt somehow that he’d acted out of turn, and as the days passed he dismissed his misgivings.
But once back in Jerusalem - the City of the Great King – Alexi encountered Judaism full face, which in turn led him to the Garden Tomb; standing alone in there one beautiful summer’s day. The Garden of Gethsemane was like nothing he’d experienced anywhere. G-D does indeed touch each of us in a way and at a time of His choosing that, when He does, causes the most diehard atheist, in a moment, the blink of an eyelid, to throw aside a lifetime’s so-called doctrine. Something clicked for him – Alexi’s conscience was pricked. And it was this thought that chiefly occupied him now. Pressing gently against the warm smooth thigh, he drifted into peaceful sleep, his hand resting quite naturally beneath Aaron’s thigh.
He woke up in a cold sweat at 3am on that hot July night in the Mount Zion Hotel.
Wrapping a bathrobe about him and looking again at Aaron, smooth as silk in the moonlight, naked and fast asleep beside him, he kissed the shoulder and breathed gently on the back of Aaron’s tanned neck. It felt good. In sleep, it felt to Aaron like a warm wind in his dream.
He smelt wonderful. Not just the bath oils. This beautiful Israeli was the epitome of manhood. This felt good. This was good. Everything about Aaron was delicious. And they had become part of each other. Joined. Wholesome. Holy.
What, though, was calling him? No sense of guilt, no admonition – an incredible warmth from deep within his soul - almost as if he were being enveloped from inside – why did he feel so clean?
Was this G-D? Was this His Spirit, The Ruach HaKodesh? If so, what was He sharing with him? Why won’t He show Himself literally? How can Alexi live and get real fulfilment? How can he help Dmitri?
And all the old clichés are meaningless – sitting on the veranda overlooking the Mount of Olives, he was angry – “I want substance answers NOT religious rhetoric and Scriptures rattled off like probationer policemen rattling off their legal definitions with hardly a clue of what they even mean!
Aaron stirred again and rolled over. Alexi’s warm back was not there. He walked on to the veranda and felt the coldness of his fiancée’s skin.
“Come on Alexi. Come back to bed. I know what’s troubling you. Let it go. Otherwise you’ll drive yourself insane. It’s not right. We’re not doing anything wrong! We both love each other and we both know we are meant to be with each other. Come on. That’s why we’re engaged to be married. Okay, I know that Moscow and Jerusalem seem a world apart, but we can cope. Don’t’ get hung up on all the petty dictates and doctrines of religiosity; of the endless contradictions of my own people, our scribes and Pharisees, and on your own equally screwy Russian Orthodox priests. Let them have their thoughts! Let them worship their rituals. These things need not, and should not, come between us. We are two halves of one whole. He paused with that deliberation that brings a feeling of universal acclaim.
“Alexi... ... I love you!”
So beautifully whispered. Alexi slowly nodded.
He did not want to return to Moscow.
“Look Alexi, why don’t you fly back via Liverpool. Stay with Ian a couple of days; I know he’ll give you perspective on all of this stuff. He always does, for both us. And, like us, he’s military. He understands our perspective, our vision, our hopes, our fears. And tell him of your concerns for Dmitri. I know he’ll help us all.”
He shivered and was glad of the warmth he felt through the palm of Aaron’s hand. He nodded. Yes. It would be cold, but it would be good to walk the beach again by the Lighthouse, to meet up with Daniel and chat all these things through. To have the inevitable laughs, puddle jumping and then dashing to Fort Perch for that great mug of steaming hot tea they always made, and then meeting up with Liam and Ben too just up the road again in New Brighton. Yes!
His heart was settling and he smiled in that way that always made Aaron go weak at the knees, because when he smiled, not only did the one corner of his beautiful mouth slightly upturn – the hint of the beam that was about to come – but his eyes too just seemed to light up and glow with warmth. In no other did he see this.
Aaron soothed Alexi’s beleaguered mind, his troubled conscience. Was this from guilt of wrongdoing or a false accusation under which he was labouring?
How had Aaron put it earlier?
‘Look, you’ve given tremendous love and friendship and been life giving to countless people just through the medium of a DVD recording. Boot the bigots into touch.’
Slowly turning, Alexi missed a beat as his heart caught those deep dark Israeli eyes, “eyes darker than wine, teeth whiter than milk”, as it is written; Messianic, and something flickered in his mind.
He remembered being reassured many years earlier when a white feather floated down on his schoolbooks just when he was ready to give in and run away from the Russian Academy. It was like as if an Angel had passed overhead.
Was this his, Alexi’s Passover? Was it His – G-D’s - way of communicating? As he looked into those eyes a solitary blackish grey feather drifted down out of the star-studded skies of Jerusalem. His heart knew a sort of ‘peace’ he had not felt in years.
All seemed to fall into place. He would not abandon Aaron. He would not abandon his way of life. He had dreamed of this union, this marriage, and now he had it within his grasp and no whispering serpent was going to take this freedom from him now.
That night he lay again with Aaron and he slept soundly, safely it seemed, for the first time in years. The warmth and security was all enveloping.
That same night in King George Street Jerusalem the Angel of Death passed over too and took a restaurant and a nightclub out in a sudden violent planned explosion. The shrapnel, fragments and nails flew like lightning bolts through the night sky, the people, acacia trees and buildings spattered by what remained of the suicide bomber and those who had been stood in the queue by her.
He awoke instantly, and shot bolt upright.
The carnage across the way was unbelievable, sirens, flashing lights, smoke, burning cars, deafening helicopters overhead, the weeping and wailing so peculiar to middle eastern peoples, and he thought for a few moments just how lucky, no, how blessed he and Aaron were. Surely was his old faith returning, and he glimpsed in his mind’s eye a page in Ecclesiastes – Rejoice in thy youth, O young man!
“Aaron. Aaron. Look. Come on, we’ve got to get down there. We’ve got to help.
Why wasn’t he moving? He’s in the IDF, goddamit; he should be attuned to the battlefield. He’s seen enough of it – these thoughts amid a myriad others flying through his brain in an instant, like the home-made bomb seconds earlier.
“Aaron. Come on, for goodness sake mate, com........e............o.........n.
Fear gripped him. He paused, daring not to allow the thought now knocking on the door of his mind.
“Oh no. Oh please, please, please no. Aaron. Aharon. AARON!”
His eyes blurred, his vision went, the shaking returned again uncontrollably. He shrieked out for his Mum even though he had not seen her since his last return to Moscow.
“Oh don’t do this to me!” He shouted sobbing unseeing into the ceiling above him.
Aaron had not moved. He was sleeping. Yes. He was sleeping. Had he taken drugs or what? No! He knew he hadn’t. He hated them!! It was Aaron who’d weaned him off his own drug addiction.
He looked again. His hand was wet.
He felt the bed and saw the crimson mark, tracing it back to a single wound, a pierced heart by one single six inch nail, like the hole in the hand he had seen in the church at home that he sat alongside every Sunday as a choirboy, the end still protruding. He hated that effigy then, he detested its recall now.
He tried resuscitation, he tried everything, he even prayed. He held Aaron’s hand. He could feel the pulse. But it was feeble and he could only sit as the most important life of all - the only life he had – the only true family - slipped slowly away and left him bereft and alone, abandoned.
And in the early hours the Angel of Death passed over again. Alexi screamed out at the dark shadow and someone in the street below looked up.
When the bodies were buried by sunset the following evening, the Jerusalem Times reported that two young men, an Israeli off-duty soldier and a Russian, a junior member of the Russian diplomatic corps, had also died in the hotel, near the explosion even though a quarter of a mile away; Aaron Levisohn had died of a single piercing to the heart by a 16 centimetre nail from the nail bomb that had claimed the lives of fifty three people at the scene, and also the death of Alexi Shostakovich of a massive coronary seizure, which, the Coroner reported, as being a massive heart attack attributed to a sudden and fatal shock, evidenced by the witness recounting the terrifying chilling scream she had heard from the window above her in the street.
But in the days and months ahead to the countless people who knew and loved Alexi in all manner of ways, and to four friends meeting quietly at the Lighthouse off the Wirral Peninsula opposite the Port of Liverpool, it was not that at all, but of a broken heart.
Initially penned in August 2003
and concluded 10 July 2010
on a quiet day
when the Liner AIDA lay alongside Pier Head
 Proverbs 30:4 Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name if you know? (NKJV)
 King David, Christ Jesus – The Messiah – Yeshua HaMashiach Melek Yisrael (Jesus The Messiah, King of Israel) – YHWH – I AM
 The Holy Spirit
 Genesis 49:12 (NKJV)
 44 Ecclesiastes 11:9 (NKJV)
 Israeli Defence Force
Cleeve Hill above Cheltenham
The beautiful backdrop to the world famous Steeple Chase
Walking over the escarpment it is good to feel the wind straight off the edge as it glides the formations from south east England – great cumulus clouds that must be sixty thousand feet or more and, I guess, somewhere over Oxford or may be a little further.
Where I am, there is a long diagonal line that mirrors itself so that what I see is a depiction of Angel’s Wings. They stretch from their tip high above Cheltenham down over the south Wolds of Gloucester and their apex somewhere over Bristol.
The light is remarkable. As I glance back I turn to gaze across the great plains of the Mid Lands but as we now say, ‘the midlunds’, the Vale of Evesham to my right, Tewkesbury crowned by its Abbey just ahead and to the right of me Winchcombe down in the hollow of the valley with Sudeley Castle nestling gently within the deep, steep contours of the Cotswolds.
These Angel’s Wings catch my eye again – for that’s how they appear to me – awesome, wondrous, and colossal – and I can easily imagine the figure into which those wings are knit – beautiful, and very assuring.
Of course it’s all in my mind I know, nothing more. But it gives me faith. It gives me hope and gives me a vision.
We all need these three essential ingredients of life – faith, hope and vision. All of them are intertwined. They cannot stand singular. Even if you only have hope, I guarantee the framework of faith and vision will also be there. And that’s a mathematical equation for me. Certainty.
So there you have it; the component parts of Certainty – faith, hope and charity.
So as I see these wings my eye catches a glint of silver, or is it mercury? Or is it liquid silver as one sees being poured onto an anvil or in the thin channel of a metal mould from which will be fashioned a beautiful ring, amulet or brooch?
It is the River Severn. And geographically in my mind’s eye, perfectly equidistant between the landfall of South Wales and its counterpart the Mersey landfall, on the rugged and tempestuous coastline of North Wales.
And shimmering in the haze is one of the new wonders of the world – well that’s how I saw it when, as children, we watched its construction – the Severn Bridge – joining Wales and England and making it less exciting as we journeyed to this far off country on the one hand, but staring in wide-eyed wonder the first time we used the bridge and wondered too whether it would hold all five of us, our luggage and the dog, up! Happy days indeed!!
As we walk – you and I – over the escarpment, we see large horse chestnuts nestling into the hillside – grassy, very uneven – crater like almost. And that is actually a quite accurate description, though caused not by falling asteroids or meteorites millions of years ago but the point of impact of a Halifax Bomber that came to its final resting place around 1943-44. I think the crew was killed but I’m not entirely sure. I must check this out.
So we now continue our walk past the stables and the house that enraptured me as a boy and certainly influenced my purchase of Abbots Croft in Leckhampton in 1989 – a schoolboy’s classic drawing of a house – a door in the centre, windows either side and three windows across the top and over a beautiful gabled arch and porch doorway.
Yes I was indeed blessed to own such a beautiful home and I realise now I should not have sold it. How foolish we are on the moment, how wise we are in hindsight!
A piece of practical advice to single people who have no dependants, no partner, no spouse, no girlfriend or boyfriend – and it is this.
Do you really need to own bricks and mortar? There is no stigma in not owning realty. In today’s age of high rise apartments, conversions and city dwellings at reasonable prices – why be shackled by a mortgage?
If you’re single, unattached and no dependants, an interest only mortgage means in reality double. An £857 mortgage interest only is, at current rates (2009-2010) £1,697 and rising. Yet I can rent a top apartment for a thousand pounds a month all in, and fully furnished to the highest standard, and for £600 a month or not much less either.
It’s sage advice. Don’t automatically buy into the old idea that you invest in bricks and mortar. That is a bygone age. It’s different, sure, if you envisage marriage or partnership and a family. But think it all through.
Come let’s resume our walk.
We’re on the top now and gosh it’s windy. A gale more like and I’m glad I’ve got my sweater. I’ll leave it off as long as I can and thereby enjoy it all the more.
I’m walking round the escarpment on what is now a public path, well worn, and with very pleasant mossy grass either side, but which is rooted in an old sheep path. Large flocks still dot Cleeve Hill, and so in a way this is a dual-purpose path, with the occasional clump of wool or droppings.
As we traverse the southwest face, the wind is strong but not unpleasant; we still have the warmth of high summer and in the high cumulus clouds we have wonderful contours – greys, blues, yellows, ochre, all blending so incredibly beautifully, they are nothing less than in symphonic harmony.
When I fly, I love following the contours of these great mountain ranges, hills and valleys of the sky – this other realm – haha – who said that? How does it go? “...this other Eden, demi paradise.”
As we climb the gently listing slope to gain the high ground two trees and a smaller third one – a sapling – come in to view.
“The Three Sisters”, and legend has it that in the dark past of warped Christianity and silly fundamentalism three sisters in Prestbury Village at the foot of Cleeve Hill were accused of witchcraft, and found guilty. As befits that warped society they died horribly. Then, as so often happens, the spirit of enlightenment – or is it a guilty conscience indicted by None Other than the Holy Spirit – the Ruach HaKodesh – discovers maladministration of justice. Shock – horror! Weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, beating of breasts and then remorse of a sort. Vicious, spiteful tongues are, for the moment, quieted.
So three trees were planted in their memory on the very edge of Cleeve Hill immediately above Prestbury like three Sentinels standing guard and as a warning to all, especially I guess to those who are perhaps just a tad too literal and dogmatic in their faith. And even now 300 years later there are still plenty of those benighted souls around!
And I grew up in their mystical powerful other world embrace.
As kids and teenagers and latterly adults – always we seemed to have this impromptu pilgrimage. And still do to this day.
In the early 1990s, the weakest of the three finally succumbed to the elements and I’m glad and relieved that it took the townspeople a decade at most to plant a sapling. What’s more they placed a seat there. I’ve used it many times. And from there I would look beyond to Leckhampton and find the largest tree in Cheltenham at the end of Asquith Road. And that tree was like the sound of the sea to me from the veranda of my beautiful home in Churchill Road. I’d be happy to transport it up here I admit. Warm and cosy, spacious in the winter, airy, light and cool in the summer.
So as we look over the common with our backs to the escarpment we see just a few yards away a copse – some trees within a fenced glade – a natural sheep pen. Incredibly warm there too. Many times have I gained protection there from howling winds, rain, hail and snow – all seasons it offers some form of protection even when on military exercise – but in summer it is bathed in the beauty and glory of luscious green leaves; shades of all colours, an artist’s dream of textures and delight.
If you look closely on the main trunk in the south-west facing corner there are some carvings in amongst the hearts and forget-me-nots of true love and adolescent cravings. Two in particular are a statement – a Proclamation – faith, hope and vision again:
Hebrew for YHVH
are known as the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God.
They are pronounced in Hebrew “Yod Hey Vav Hey” when you read them in the Hebrew manner from right to left.
Hey Vav Hey Yod
In other words God’s name is actually inexpressible in human voice and can only be represented in language when it is considered more of a visual representation of what His Name means and the Name above all names – YESHUA. Or in Hispanic, it is pronounced ‘Hey-zoos’ but spelt ‘Jesus’.
I’m glad they are still there. It must be getting on for twelve to fifteen years at least.
It was on a very fast ride across the Gallops, a famous part of the Common above Cheltenham Racecourse (and with which countless TV watchers will recognise as the hills and skyline on TV commentaries as they contemplate their winnings or more likely losses), that my horse and I temporarily parted company!
I remember jumping the gorse bushes (all those yellow flowers) and the next instant flying through the air.
And, upon crash-landing, looking up to see the bellies of the other horses jumping over me; I remember the noise too!
I actually found my horse down on the escarpment below ‘The Three Sisters’ we’ve just been visiting, grazing. But little did I know what lay in store. Concussion, Epilepsy and discharge from the police force, reinstatement on appeal. Then discharge again on the same grounds but this time final, a wrecked career.
But It didn’t stop me riding. Riding is in my blood, and though I have never said this to the family, on all the countless wonderful rides I’ve had up here, (and elsewhere on the Cotswolds) I would imagine Granddad, a very fine horseman, riding beside me, encouraging me, teaching me to sit tall and straight in the saddle, to push the heels down, to ride with one hand to keep the saluting hand free to pay compliments, to go ‘with’ not ‘on’ my horse, and to not fear as I then leaned down and in towards the neck, streamlining as we went into the full gallop. Yes, truly marvellous times.
I digress. Oh what a horrid day that was in a bleak January morning, wandering around Cirencester town centre realising that I no longer had my police warrant card and that by the month’s end I would never again be the holder of that ancient office of Constable.
But we must move on; for a career change and a whole new life that had not been planned or prepared for, beckons.
So often we are at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control. Think alone of the hundreds of British servicemen and women who’ve lost their lives in the war in Afghanistan; the wreckage to entire families and circles of friends that will never be fully healed.
As we walk on, heading due south with our backs to Cheltenham and in the distance behind us the Malverns, that line of hills running south to north that seems for all to be the very backbone of England, we approach the police wireless masts.
We are now right at the top of Cleeve Hill; to our left is the trig point and it’s like being in the middle of great moorlands. And yet when Graeme 51flew me over Cleeve Common I was amazed to see just how small it is. Is THAT where we held all those military exercises?
The winds are strong as we head up to the trig point. Today we have clear skies and cumulonimbus – but many times the clouds come right down to the ground – and then it’s very unpleasant, wet, dank, and miserable; and that is what makes Cleeve Hill so unusual. For it takes on the character and personality of places like Cadar Idris, Helvelen, Snowdon and Ben Nevis or the massive Pennine Range.
People are easily lost on Cleeve Hill – I’ve been lost several times but because we spent so much time as kids up there – we always found markers and got our bearings – but for the unsuspecting visitor it is a different exercise altogether. It is not the first time I’ve found a familiar wall only to walk its length convinced I know this wall, but find it is a different one and I’m more lost than ever! Or that having the right wall, I’m walking on t’uther side and eventually to my dismay in the opposite direction to that which I thought!
Cleeve Hill somehow adds mystique to the character and personality of Cheltenham over which it dominates and casts a lofty glance at its smaller, flatter sister, Leckhampton Hill above the heights of Cheltenham on the other side of town on the way out to Swindon, Newbury and the rolling landscape of Wiltshire, The Downs and on hence to that gorgeous county, Hampshire.
Sweeping into Gloucestershire on the M5 from Birmingham it is rigid and proud – a sharp contrast to the Malvern Hills 28 miles away and running parallel. And of course, as I’ve said, it’s known to millions who watch the Cheltenham Gold Cup every March, the herald to Liverpool’s Grand National the following month and all the other meetings throughout the year.
And across the top, cutting a swathe through the moorland and in places so smooth one would think it is a runway for light aircraft, are as I say, the Gallops.
And I’ve had great joy and privilege riding hunters, at the trot, the rolling canter, the fast canter and then (remember, Meriel, at the full gallop!! Wow!!! ?) Or ambling along at the walk on a loose rein, our leather riding boots shimmering in the heat, chatting away, our helmets in our laps and the swish of the tails, laughter, fun. Oh happy times indeed, and now the priceless gems in the vast storehouse of my memory.
Mmmmm. That’s why the name Fleming will always have a special place in my heart and even more so, this beautiful name, Meriel. How I loved to speak it, and still do albeit only to myself now. But in my family both names are very important and make up an essential element of what will, one day after I’ve long passed on, be my history.
Riding, as I say, is in my blood – inherited from at least three generations of professional horsemen to my own knowledge, not to mention the many generations before and in the distant past.
Another exciting discovery at the age of 18 as a police cadet was the sport of scree running long before the days of skateboarding and the modern sports that now thrill young and slightly older people alike. The Scree is a rockface equivalent to sand dunes; a five to seven hundred feet near vertical descent, but which felt like anti-gravity. “Lean back, lean back, leap, leap, but lean back as you take each stride.” What an incredible joy to traverse the steep contours that lead down to the famous Sheep Dip just above Winchcombe and Sudeley Castle.
It has water in it, the sheep dip that is, clean and fresh. I remember a Christian baptism in it. This is the joy of writing, for until four lines ago, I’d not recalled the sheep dip in 15 years and only remembered it because you and I are experiencing the excitement of the grey slate scree slopes.
So having pondered the dip, imagine the hundreds of thousands of sheep that have been dipped even to this day. We are at the lowest point of Cleeve Hill and now begin to climb back up the leeward side that eventually brings us to the Quarry Car Park and the views of Bushcombe and Nottingham Hill and tea in the golf club – or is it still members only?! Knowing the golfing fraternity I’d say yes it is. Funny lot, golfers! An unjustified generalism I know but we all have our oddities and prejudices.
It’s windy again here. We’ve come full circle and are now atop the escarpment again but at its commercial end – car parks, dogs, prams, cuddly toys, screaming kids, wellies, anoraks and “how much further? I’m tired!”
I don’t like this end. But I use it often enough. Of course it’s nothing quite like what I’m used to in Liverpool city life. But it bridges the gap between city boy and country lad as I adapt each working week to the Fylde of Lancashire, the twisting lanes, fields of wheat, grazing cattle, enormous tractors down single - track lanes at a snail’s pace and already running late for the free will review for Mrs Smith whose been waiting for a week for this most important appointment – the first appointment in years putting aside her daily career.
But on Cleeve Hill there are many happy memories – a family of successive generations traversing its slopes – that famous 1930s black and white image of two sisters in summer frocks, big hats, clutching handbags striding and leaning into that ever present wind and in most earnest conversation. I often wonder what my grandmother and great aunt were speaking of. I know they didn’t always see eye to eye - a little like two sisters two generations later.
But that’s their hassle. It’s family life. I’m in the middle, and each knows too well than to try and make me take sides. I love them equally and that’s that. Their squabbles are their own.
Up here I can see the Severn Estuary on a very fine day. But I still can’t see the sea. So that’s where, for me, Cleeve Hill must take second place.
I must always be by the sea. I don’t know where this comes from. Is it a generational thing? Genetic? In the blood in the same was as my natural love for riding lay?
So I’m glad I’m now up north. I’m glad I can write about my former life in Gloucestershire, and to go down memory lane, for I do have many happy memories. But that is a lifetime away now and there is no turning back. And out of sight and sound of the sea, quite frankly, I’m bereft.
So let us stand one more time on the escarpment on “favourite rock” – that piece of incredibly ‘dangerous’ rock jutting out and with nothing underneath it except freefall. It’s amazing. We all regarded that as our personal private rock – and no one else ever seemed to be on it – and no doubt countless other families lay rightful claim to it too.
Up here it’s gale force as we tip-toe to the edge of Favourite Rock.
Somewhere in the loft at Albemarle Gate is a pencil drawing – part of my school artwork, I recall. I have not thought of it until now in 40 years. But I can see it as clear as if I had seen it today. How extraordinarily awesome, powerful and wonderful is the brain!
If I leave Cleeve Hill now in my mind’s eye I can drive through Prestbury Village – that same village that sealed the fate of those three hapless and no doubt totally innocent sisters – over to Leckhampton, calling off at Morans in Bath Road for coffee and then proudly onto my drive by the red Japanese tree from Carol and Rog (now I think in Rectory Cottage Garden), and walk around to the front gate, into the black and white porch, and through the front door – that ancient front door of Edwardian days and into the kitchen that spans the house; its imitation beams adding strength and history and the amazing fireplace with the great oak beam - blackened – and which looks like an old railway sleeper complete with the bolt marks now softened with age and rain. To the left is the climbing wisteria – now right up the wall, across the ceiling and intertwined in the miniature bell chimes.
As we boil the kettle and make a pot of tea, and from there, with a slice of Mum’s fruit cake let’s retire to the lounge - quite beautiful, very peaceful – burgundy sofas and armchairs and a scent and the streaming beams of sunlight through the original windows, and the open Dale Forty Piano, built by Mr Betteridge in 1938 when he worked at Dale Forty in the Promenade opposite Neptune’s Fountain; and lovingly restoring it fifty years later when I bought it and was looking for a piano tuner and who should come to tune it but Mr Betteridge; a remarkable day, and even more so to hear him play. There is no such thing as coincidence!
I love this room. All of it is in place. And so, in the mind’s eye, we relax and ponder and call it a day.
A longhand Journal Entry in Fountain Pen Thamasha,
24 August 2009
Squadron Leader G P C Harris RAF – thank you Graeme for this most fantastic birthday gift – a day never to be forgotten when you pulled one over on me and had secretly got the Cessna ready and up we went!
An English Country Garden
A Quiet Corner of Southern England from a Northerner’s Perspective
I normally sit on the lower lawn just to the left of the pond.
If you can imagine sitting on top of the Cotswolds and looking across a deep valley far, far to the other side where great trees still stand along a leafy country lane, you can get an idea. For that is what I actually have the joy to look at. It sweeps down steeply several hundred feet to the rooftops and farm-buildings below which, at this time, are all but concealed by the horse chestnuts and beeches and ferns.
This is no ordinary garden. It is a true cottage garden – an English Country Garden – the type we all dream of owning or even just having the chance to visit and sit in – may be at some National Trust property or English Heritage.
The best time is when the sun bathes the lower lawn, the breeze moves across the pond causing the lily leaves to slide into each other, or one of them to lift gently and reveal a wonderful world underneath where all manner of life harbours, safe and protected.
In front of you of course is a table with a pot of tea, and provided the wind is not too strong, a large green sunbrella beautifully designed and more like the roof to a marquee.
You are surrounded by a most incredible display of colour and design. To your left and running the full length of the garden is a beautiful Cotswold stone wall built afresh by the family – on the garden side some three feet high, but on the other side more like six feet high! From its foundation line runs a steep field where horses graze. A long time ago I can remember sheep grazing there.
But my interest is in the garden. Remember Wordsworth’s line?
“And behold, a host of golden daffodils beside the lake,
beneath the trees fluttering and dancing in the breeze...
And oft when on my couch I lay,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
Well, this garden is the same. To my left are foxgloves, in front of me is clematis, to my right are roses, before me are hydrangeas. Surrounding them all are a host of herbaceous flowers and borders, and gorgeous bushes and foliage with little kerbstones poking out here and there as if by accident but in reality, designed to perfection – deliberate.
If you look carefully you will not only see the occasional little armadillos scurrying hither and thither about their business, but a frog or toad watching and enjoying the sun and blending in with the rocks so well that you really do have to look carefully, and without moving too.
And the butterflies! I have no idea how many species of butterfly there are in the world, but just the few I see here during the summer months, is quite enough to make me realise that there is Someone greater than me.
To your right is one of many birdbaths – this particular one, close to the pond has its own history because it comes from a house in Leckhampton where it used to be the central attraction in a tiny, ever so tiny, garden but which was equally a ‘cottage garden’ of sorts, although very accidental if I can put it like that!. If you look carefully you can see where pebbles used to decorate its base – a record of visits over the years to sea shores both here in our own island and from the Middle Eastern shores – a hint of those azure blue skies that are peculiar to the Mediterranean. It doesn’t hold its water so well for some reason these days – but it is still beautiful.
And round its base is a wonderful collection of cacti - they really are amazing. And if you look back upon yourself toward the conservatory, you will see the ‘intensive care unit’ – where flowers and shrubs are being nurtured back to life after suffering the ravages of some suburban philistine! “Oh, did I have to water it too? I thought they did that at the shop!”
And as you move to look at them you just have to step up one step to the upper lawn. Now this is the posh part for it sits proudly in front of the cottage itself and is often to be found the home of two lovely canvas chairs, themselves now well over ninety years old and lovingly restored – family heirlooms from the very early 20th Century – and which carry the memories of at least five generations in their seats. Here, you get a grand view of the lower lawn, the pond and the trellis that separates you from the vegetable garden which we’ll visit in a while.
In the meanwhile, there is the wonderful sound of the great and high trees that surround the lane and the cottage and form a perfect backdrop to where we now stand – all colours, a great vista of beauty – the whole of which is like a visual symphony.
And to sit there listening to the birds singing, and the blackbird, above all, who sits high on the gable of the cottage leading and conducting the chorus, is just something out of this world.
I’m told he takes his perch there every afternoon and sings. It is quite wonderful because you don’t hear any traffic. Nothing. Just the unspoilt sounds of the countryside.
To sit quietly, all your favourite music comes to mind. All your favourite thoughts.
The beauty of it all belies the endless toil and hours of backbreaking work – day in, week out, month in and year out. And this is not the townsman’s idea of work either – just an hour here and an afternoon there. No. This is constant work, eight hours and more a day and in all weathers. Muddy boots, wet necklines, floppy hats and for them, just the occasional opportunity to sit down together to have a drink and just take in all their endeavours and to truly understand that oft quoted phrase, ‘the fruit of their labours’.
I often wonder what they think as they recall their arrival here on a journey that started over 32 years ago – and longer still if you count the fact that they first met in the 6th form of the old Technical High School where she was Head Girl and he an ‘outsider’ from Charlton Kings but who became a prefect nevertheless. Let no one say that there is no such thing as true romance. I’ve seen it for sure even if I haven’t actually experienced it.
The Ivy across the wall is a deep green and beautifully harmonises with the grey stone.
Now getting up from the canvas chair you can swing round and take a fascinating walk along the path to the front gate. What you see on your left is sheer heaven. A glorious array of colours. Different shrubs; sonar lights that must make the garden look fantastic at night, and on the first step two real, yes real, leather boots that are filled now with soil and plants growing out of them. Boots that I have seen worn. Boots that have walked a million miles here at Rectory Cottage, and over in Siddington and down at another lovely garden in Charlton Kings too – a garden that has boat houses and little covens and hideaways that are the dream of generations of children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren too.
Now if you back track and walk back into the garden, cross the upper lawn and make your way to the pond, you are invited, nay pulled by a natural inquisitiveness, to go through the gateway into what I call the working garden. Immediately to your right is the greenhouse where figs and grapes grow. To the left are rows of vegetables, all covered from the elements with some sort of Hessian cloth, regimented, perfect. A barrel of water. A watering can – one of many dotted around the land. To the right is a partly hidden path to an old shed that is bedecked by three large tin bowls – the double handled type – and which is an artist’s dream. You can almost feel the brush strokes across the canvas in the mind’s eye.
Wandering deeper into this part of the garden, you come to a tiny orchard under which are some beehives although I don’t think they are in use any more. But I do hear bees. In fact I hear so many insects that I get lost in time. To be truthful, time goes out of the window when I’m in this garden.
As you return to the lawns, there lies Brandy, over here lies Jessie and over here lies Blister. Mother, daughter and grandson if my memory serves me right, three beautiful golden retrievers. Oh what a day that was when I lost my balance, slipped over the hay bale that protected the litter and next minute eight little bundles of fun, discovering the world, bounding across the soil to the cottage, all paws, bums, ears and tails.
Returning to the lower lawn, over by the wall there is actually built into it (on the path that leads to the kitchen door and the little church bell that rings upon the chain pull) a small slate slab to form a seat. Now that is a marvellous place to perch because then you can look right across the valley and also immediately in front of you straight across to the far side of this valley too. At dusk you can just occasionally see a badger for there is a set there.
In the conservatory the binoculars are always to hand, for you never know what you are going to see whether it be summer, autumn, winter or spring. Each season brings its own Act and Scene in this garden!
Living up north is where my home is and where I want it to be. But it does not alter my feelings for this particular English country garden. It is a haven of peace and tranquillity, a place to meet one’s Maker, or just to be alone. It is a place of frivolity, laughter and fun on the one hand, and on the other hand deep discussion, politics, and village life.
This short note just does not do it justice. There are so many things of interest and wonder there – including the stone cast of the old Volkswagen Beetle on the wall.
I remember eighteen months ago driving up there with a mug of coffee just to sit on the lower lawn even though I knew I’d be alone. It is where I feel closer than anywhere else to the family and when you live far away from all of them, I now truly appreciate this.
Best of all is sitting there with a good straw boater on or a Roosevelt hat on a fine summer’s day, the peak cheekily turned up in front in the way that that great man used to do when he led civilization back from the very edge of hell.
Even better, is just to sit and listen and rest. It is the most incredible working achievement to my sister and brother-in-law – Carol and Roger.
Penned on 30th June 2004 in Southport, North West England, Great Britain and first published in "Idle Thoughts - An Anthology of Poetry and Prose Volume I" in September 2009 by Spiderwize Publishing.