Ken Peacock – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Wed, 14 Nov 2018 14:35:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ken Peacock – 32 32 The Boys Club Mon, 12 Nov 2018 14:33:08 +0000 Khinkali (fat Georgian dumplings), Khachapuri (cheese topped bread) and the grilled chicken with nuts and garlic, washed down with Georgian red wine. The Aragvi Restaurant at 6/2 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow opened in 1938 during the Stalin era as a State-owned restaurant. Stories suggest the Aragvi was built or opened by Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police and also from Georgia, to bring Georgian food to the capital. The restaurant was within walking distance of the Lubyanka and at night senior members of the NKVD (KGB), in their drab suits, filled the cellar bar drinking vodka and Georgian wine. It was their “Boys Club”.]]>

I missed the reopening of my favorite Georgian restaurant in 2016 after it had been closed for thirteen years. The restaurant changed owners and chef, brought back its famous Georgian dishes and replicated the interior to revive the Cold War image and recapture its infamous past. It has been forty-three years since I tasted the Khinkali (fat Georgian dumplings), Khachapuri (cheese topped bread) and the grilled chicken with nuts and garlic, washed down with Georgian red wine.

The Aragvi Restaurant at 6/2 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow opened in 1938 during the Stalin era as a State-owned restaurant. Stories suggest the Aragvi was built or opened by Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police and also from Georgia, to bring Georgian food to the capital. The restaurant was within walking distance of the Lubyanka and at night senior members of the NKVD (KGB), in their drab suits, filled the cellar bar drinking vodka and Georgian wine. It was their “Boys Club”.

Cellar of the Aragvi Restaurant, Moscow
Cellar of the Aragvi Restaurant, Moscow

My early visits to Moscow, in 1972 and 1973, were interesting but unsuccessful commercially. In 1972, the Cold War was in its twenty-sixth year, President Richard Nixon had travelled to the USSR for talks with Leonid Brezhnev and business opportunities were opening up in all the Eastern European countries. I travelled to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia for discussions with their Government import agencies about the sale to them of bulk minerals.

Before my visits to Moscow I was briefed on things to avoid – exchanging US dollars for local currency and selling prohibited Western goods on the black market and visiting illegal night clubs. Foreigners and the few senior Russian officials who had access to foreign currency were able to buy imported goods at the State-run Beriozka stores and pay with US dollars, Pounds Sterling or German Deutschemarks but ordinary Russians were not. A thriving black market existed in the streets near hotels where foreigners stayed and outside the Beriozka stores. The popular items on the black market were imported liquor, wine, beer, cigarettes, food items, electronics, appliances, watches, shoes, denim jeans and foreign currency. I was approached many times in the streets with offers to change money at an attractive exchange rate and one night a waiter in the hotel dining room slid a US$20 note under my plate. He said his brother was in the Russian Army, loved American cigarettes but couldn’t buy them, so would I buy a carton of cigarettes at the Beriozka for him. I left the table with the $20 still under the plate.

Another piece of advice was to assume that all hotel rooms, apartments, offices and telephones used by foreigners were bugged. To test this I complained to the reading lamp in my hotel room that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. Minutes later the housekeeper appeared and handed me a roll of toilet paper. On another day, while talking to a contact at the Embassy from the phone in the hotel room, a voice interrupted to ask if we would hold the conversation for a few minutes while they changed the tape. We knew we were followed by men in black leather coats, our telephone conversations were recorded and attempts would be made to entice us into illegal activities. They were some of the games The Boys played.

Travel to and within the USSR in 1972 and 1973 was organized by the Russian Intourist Bureau. After arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport foreigners were escorted to a car for transportation to an assigned hotel. In 1972 I was sent to the towering landmark hotel Leningradskaya on Komsomolskaya Square. Travel around Moscow was arranged by hotel staff and use of local taxis and the subway was discouraged. All foreigners at the hotel dined in a separate restaurant to restrict contact with the local population. The hotels used by foreigners had a “hard currency bar” where only guests and visitors with hard currency could drink imported liquor, wine and beer. The local beer, liquor (except vodka) and wine was not drinkable. In the hard currency bars a good shot of Scotch cost US$5 and the customer slipped the five dollar note into a slot in a box on the bar. The staff did not handle the hard currency so no change was given. If the customer only had a $10 note then that was the price for the Scotch. I soon learned to buy two drinks each time.

Moscow, 1973: Photograph Ken Peacock
Moscow, 1973

After the unsuccessful business trip to Moscow in 1972 I returned the following year, flying from Vienna to Moscow on Austrian Airlines to avoid traveling on Aeroflot or one of the Eastern European airlines. I was assigned to a smaller hotel, the Metropol, near Red Square. Arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport was more interesting than the previous year. When I presented my passport, the same one used the previous year, the young Army officer looked at it carefully before asking me to accompany him to a room at the side of the arrivals hall. His English was limited but he made it clear he believed my passport was false and pointed to the number (H 80) printed on the second page. He then pointed to the number that was perforated at the top of each page (H 000080) and said “The number is different!” I tried, without success, to convince him that in the English language H 000080 and H 80 were the same. After half an hour of questioning about my real name and why I was visiting Moscow, and requests for the names of family in the USSR, a senior Army officer entered the room. He listened to the young soldier, inspected my passport, and whacked the soldier across the face with it before handing it back to me. As he opened the door for me to leave he muttered something that sounded like “stupid idiot”. The brief visit to Moscow was no more successful than the first but I became more adventuresome in exploring the city and its restaurants.

In June/July 1974 President Richard Nixon travelled to Moscow to meet with Leonid Brezhnev and in November President Gerald Ford continued the dialogue and met with Brezhnev at Vladivostock. President Ford met Brezhnev again at Helsinki in 1975, the Vietnam War had ended and the Cold War was slowly becoming warmer.

I visited Moscow again in late 1975, encouraged by a former Government trade official who had worked there in the Embassy before he joined a company specializing in trade with the USSR. He was Russian-speaking, had served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, his second wife was Russian and he had close ties to the intelligence organizations, perhaps on both sides of the Curtain. He was handsome, charismatic, always immaculately dressed and a generous host with a fine taste in food, wine and cars. “Bill” reminded me of the easygoing, charming character with strong social connections in John Le Carre’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which I had read earlier in the year.

Light snow covered the ground when the Pan Am flight landed at Sheremetyevo Airport. I passed through immigration and customs, after handing over my copies of Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker magazine, and walked into the arrivals hall where Bill was waiting. He had arranged a room for me at the National Hotel near Red Square, helped with the check-in and foreign exchange desk formalities, handed my bag to a hotel porter and ushered me to his office on one of the upper floors. He said we needed to talk before the guests arrived for the cocktail party. We brushed past a burly man in a drab suit leaving Bill’s office pushing a trolley with a new American-made refrigerator. Bill explained it was a gift for one of his contacts. The party, organized for government officials to meet me prior to our discussion the following day, included the female cabin crew from the Pan Am flight. Bill suggested after the business meetings next day he would show me some of Moscow’s nightlife.

It was bitterly cold the next evening when we left the National Hotel and walked along Tverskaya Ulitsa to the Aragvi Restaurant. The restaurant was in a building dating back to the early 1700s near the monument to Prince Yury Dolgoruky in Tverskaya Square. In the 1800s the building was converted into a hotel named the Northern and later the Dresden. It was extended upwards in the 1900s and government offices were established on level one. Lavrenty Beria had an office there and in 1938 the Government converted some of the offices and stores into the Aragvi Restaurant. It was the only Georgian restaurant in Moscow. In 1975 the Aragvi was still a popular meeting place for senior members of the NKVD and the Russians who frequented Moscow’s illegal nightclubs.

We passed a long line of men in heavy coats and fur hats waiting in the snow for a table or seat at the cellar bar and Bill knocked on the solid black wooden door. The door was partially opened by a surly doorman and Bill said something in Russian I didn’t understand. The man opened the door so we could step inside and another unhappy-looking man ushered us down the stairs to a small table along the limestone wall. The padded stools at the bar were occupied by men in drab suits, silently watching us as we were shown to our table. The air was thick with foul cigarette smoke and the smell of cheap booze. After the waiter left with our drink orders (vodka) Bill put a finger to his lips and with the other hand pointed to the lamp on the table. Like everyplace else, the tables in the restaurant were bugged.

The faces at the bar turned away from us and the noise level increased as conversations resumed. At the ends of the bar were men drinking and smoking alone. Kim Philby, who lived nearby, was often at the bar drinking alone. He was not there that night. Philby was a Soviet agent who worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS and formerly MI6) for thirty years. He was a member of the notorious “Cambridge Five” who passed UK and US secrets to the Russians from 1933 until he defected to the USSR in 1963. In 1968, Philby’s autobiography My Silent War was published in the UK but not in the USSR until 1980, eight years before his death in Moscow. Phillip Knightly wrote in the “Introduction to the 1989 Edition of My Silent War” that his interviews with Philby in 1988 were at Philby’s apartment “within sight of Red Square” and at a “secure Georgian Restaurant”. The secure restaurant was the Aragvi.

The menu was in Russian so Bill ordered dinner and the wine for both of us. He insisted I try the Khinkali, Aragvi chicken and the Khachapuri. After a few shots of vodka and a shared bottle of red Georgian wine I was happy to call the night quits but Bill had other plans. A short taxi ride took us to the rear of the huge Rossiya Hotel near Red Square. Bill knocked loudly on the solid wooden door and an eye appeared at a small peephole. Some money was slipped under the door and it swung open to let us in to a crowded and noisy room with a large dance floor and a bar. We had to shout to be heard. Bill asked if I was carrying any US dollars and when they appeared we were ushered to a small space at the bar. The dollars disappeared, replaced by large shots of vodka poured by a buxom Russian woman.

Moscow, 1973: Photograph Ken Peacock
Moscow, 1973

I returned to the National Hotel sometime in the early hours of the morning to get some much- needed sleep and prepare for the next round of meetings. On each floor of the hotel, near the elevator, a large person sat at a table with the room keys set out in front of her. I pointed to my key and she walked me to the room, unlocked the door and looked inside – checking that I was alone and had sufficient toilet paper.

The meetings with Government officials in their drab clothes at a drab building were long and polite but unsuccessful. The Soviets still did not have access to the necessary hard currency to cover regular large shipments of raw materials and I was not interested in being paid in oil or in using an international trading company. Bill was no help as he imported meat, butter and wheat to the USSR and exported Stolichnaya vodka and other Russian goods. The visit in 1975 ended without success and several years later I heard that Bill’s trading company had failed and was wound up with a huge debt and unpaid tax. He had left the USSR to live in a secluded place where he could enjoy his lifestyle and luxury cars, and died in 1987 at the young age of 57 years.

Sheremetyevo Airport was snowed in and I spent the night sitting in the huge, empty departure lounge waiting for my flight to arrive. It was illegal to take Russian currency out of the country or into the departure lounge so my few remaining US dollars barely covered a warming vodka or two. The uniformed cockpit and cabin crew for my Aeroflot flight were enjoying themselves in the bar and by morning were barely able to walk to the departure gate when flights resumed. I watched them board the aircraft and was relieved when they sat among the passengers on the IL-62 to New Delhi and Bangkok where I transferred to a Thai Airline flight. The movie shown in the cabin of Thai Air was the 1975 Oscar winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It seemed an appropriate ending to my visit to Moscow.

The Boys Club still exists but meets at a different place, and it is no longer necessary for the KGB to bug hotel rooms, restaurants, offices and apartments; or try to catch foreigners selling hard currency and imported goods on the black market. As John Le Carre said: “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely….no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War. It worked then, it works now.” (New York Times, Sunday Book Review August 25, 2017. Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John Le Carre and Ben Macintyre. By Sarah Lyall, a writer at large for The Times). What has changed is the technology, the introduction of social media and use of the internet to compromise and manipulate people.

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The Return Journey Sat, 16 Dec 2017 16:30:04 +0000

It was about 6am when the passing trucks interrupted my sleep. I had turned off the air conditioning and opened the motel window to help me sleep after a long day driving the back roads and exploring the Monumental Cemetery. A hamburger washed down with a few cold beers in an Irish bar helped me go to sleep until the noise of the early morning traffic brought me back to reality. There was a lot to do and more roads to explore.


I started out early and headed for a narrow road that followed the railroad line past several unused stations before it reached a town about 25 miles away. Only one of the stations had been preserved, the other two were demolished leaving only crossings and old grain silos. Trucks were now carting the grain and the passenger trains passed through the area without stopping. I parked beside the road to watch a farmer riding on his tractor towing a trailer loaded with feed for his dairy cows. He didn’t see me as he went about his daily chores.

There was little to see along the train tracks except where the stations and gatekeepers’ cottages had been in the days of the freight trains. The activity was on the farms and the roads. I drove beside a long bridge over the river flats that vibrated noisily when a train passed by, drowning out the sound of the crows in the fields. I stopped to listen and pretend the train was being pulled by a steam engine. That too was no more.

I returned to the town and it had come alive since I left to find the back road. People were walking to work, coffee shops were open and the early morning shoppers were going about their business. I sat at a table outside a coffee shop so I could watch the people and look at the old building across the street. It was a court house, built around 1900, and would have been full of stories but wasn’t open for visitors.

View of the old Court House

The person who brought my coffee asked why I was photographing the old Court House. I said I was driving the back roads looking at old buildings, abandoned train stations, cemeteries and the town. Her quick response was: “It is not a town, it is a city of more than 60,000 people and I should see the new lawn cemetery, the local museum and the new rail heritage museum at the train station. I finished my coffee, crossed the road and walked past the Court House and two other heritage buildings from the 1870- 1880s that were once a bank and a post office.

The first church I saw in Church Street was St Michael’s. It was built in 1887, about 25 years after the first settlers arrived in the area, and was extended in 1922-25 into a Victorian Gothic sandstone Cathedral. Further down the street were equally impressive churches for the Anglican and Presbyterian faiths.

St Michael’s Church

Following the coffee shop’s advice I drove to the new lawn cemetery with its orderly graves marked by plaques set in the ground and surrounded by flowering bushes and tall trees. I walked along the rows of plaques, reading the names, ages and dates. The cemetery was neat and orderly, the plaques were all the same and if there were stories buried there they were sealed by the manicured lawn. It was a different experience to my visit to the Monumental Cemetery where the old, decaying graves were abandoned after the stories had escaped.

I drove back to the city to visit the museum and its new exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. It was an emotional journey for me as I thought about my visit to the Western Front battlefields and the many thousands of soldiers who were buried there in unmarked graves with headstones that said: “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God.”

There was more to see and more to learn so I headed back to the city and the “new” railroad station at the end of the main street. It had been built in 1879 and was the center of activity until the 1980s when over 90 stations in the area were closed. Once there were four hotels within a five minute walk from the station, frequented by the station workers and people waiting for their train, now there was only one hotel. The others had been replaced by a motel, stores and an apartment building. The train station had been restored and new technology installed for signaling and controlling the traffic, replacing many of the workers.

Train travelers were now so few the Ladies’ Waiting Room had been turned into a rail heritage museum, operated by a group of dedicated volunteers and retired station workers. They had rescued and restored a large collection of old photographs, station and communication equipment, telephones, lamps, lanterns, clocks, signal box devices, tools used by the station and track workers since the late 1800s, and the china and silverware used to serve hot tea to the ladies while they waited for a train.

From the station I took a 5 minute walk over an old footbridge, past the heritage Station Master’s cottage, to the other side of the tracks where two sheds had been built on the site of a worker’s cottage to display the trikes, handcars and tools once used by the track workers. I met some of the volunteers and we talked for hours about the good old days of the railroad and the hard life of the track workers.

rail heritage museum

It was late in the day when I returned to the Irish bar to continue my research into local history. Over a large dish of beer-battered fish and chips and a cold beer or two, I sought further advice from the staff on the things I should see on my way home.

Before leaving the city in the early morning I drove to a bend in the river to watch the early morning swimmers moving slowly upstream against the fast moving current; and to see the renovated Palm and Pawn Motor Inn, Tavern and Bistro north of the river. It was a local icon and would be crowded in the late afternoon. No longer did people have to drive ten miles from the city to enjoy a bar and bistro on Sundays.

Following the back road home I saw different things and things differently – carefully restored railroad stations and country churches, prosperous farms with their new houses, new vineyards and large trees with white clouds above them painted against the blue sky. If I had stopped there may have been some stories there but I decided to get back onto the highway for the high speed journey back to the crowded city called home.

Tom motivated me to “survey the wreckage” and “notice how many crows fly over the back road” (Wreckage Along the Back Roads. Tom Poland. Like the Dew, May 16, 2017). I did both and the inland town/city I visited was named Wagga Wagga, Wiradjuri words for “place of many crows.”

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Driving the Back Roads Thu, 07 Dec 2017 13:13:55 +0000 Tom Poland’s great stories about his travels on the back roads I decided to drive some country roads in search of a little piece of history. I didn’t want to go too far from the small inland cities and towns because I needed a little comfort at the end of the day. Camping out and cooking on an open fire no longer interested me, especially when alone. Unable to find someone to share the experience I left home early on Sunday morning to navigate the freeways and toll roads out of the city.]]>

Inspired by Tom Poland’s great stories about his travels on the back roads I decided to drive some country roads in search of a little piece of history. I didn’t want to go too far from the small inland cities and towns because I needed a little comfort at the end of the day. Camping out and cooking on an open fire no longer interested me, especially when alone.

Unable to find someone to share the experience I left home early on Sunday morning to navigate the freeways and toll roads out of the city. After three hours of high speed driving amongst the trucks I needed a rest stop so followed the signs, “trucks to the right” and “cars to the left,” to a secluded hilltop area and parked next to a large water tank. The sky was a clear blue, the trees were waving majestically in the slight breeze, the birds were squawking and field mice were running to hide from the early morning intruder. I took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air and walked along a concrete path towards the little building with signs “Ladies” to the left and “Men” to the right. It was a piece of country life, complete with a rain water tank and “outhouse.”

Beware of SnakesMaking sure I entered the right facility I hesitated outside the open door to read a faded sign painted on the concrete. It read:

Beware of Snakes.

There was a rustling noise in the long grass beside the path and as I turned towards the sound a truck driver emerged from behind a tree zipping up his jeans. Surprised to see me he called out: “A driver saw a six foot brown snake go in there this morning.” I turned and walked back to the car past the water tank with its sign: “Water not suitable for drinking.” It didn’t say what it was suitable for, maybe for thirsty brown snakes.

Safely in the car I used my phone to “Google” brown snakes. One website said they were: “fast moving, aggressive and known for their bad temper… their venom was the second most toxic of any land snake in the world (based on tests on mice); they thrive in populated areas, particularly on farms and areas with mice.” Another website said: “A large adult brown snake is a formidable creature. They may exceed 6 feet in length and on hot days can move at surprising speed… (They) are particularly prevalent in open grassland, pastures and woodland.” A third website said: “If confronted by a brown snake make sure it and you have a large open space to escape.” There was only one narrow doorway to the men’s room so a large tree seemed to be the safest option.

After another hour of highway driving I turned off into a single lane road where I knew I could take another rest stop at an old Irish pub I had visited twenty years before. Aptly named “The Shanty” the one hundred year old pub had been built 10 miles from town because the law then prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday within a 10 mile radius of the nearest town. The Irish had a solution to that problem and built The Shanty Tavern and Bistro 10 miles from town where it became a popular destination on Sundays. When the liquor licensing laws changed, to allow Sunday trading, the pub and a nearby gas station/store closed to become targets for passing vandals.

abandoned railroad stationI sadly looked at the derelict building from the car before turning down an unsealed narrow side road and followed the signs to an abandoned railroad station. The train line had been built just after World War I to provide the farmers with regular transport for their produce and closed more than 30 years ago when large trucks replaced the freight trains. The area around the old station was overgrown with long grass and the railroad tracks were hardly visible. Local enthusiasts had preserved the old station and turned it into a museum but left the other iron clad buildings to rust away. I left the car to explore the station and the old train line. The museum and rest room were not open on Sunday so I returned to the car and continued my journey on the back road. It was a slow but interesting drive past the large farms, a vineyard, an old air base and a large industrial area just outside of the town, suggesting the town was doing just fine.

Monumental Cemetery

As I approached the town a small road sign pointing towards the “Monumental Cemetery” caught my attention. I turned onto the narrow road and followed it to an old cemetery located on the side of a hill. An old sign beside the entry said the cemetery was established on the site, after the early settlers first established a general store, pub and postal service, to replace a smaller cemetery by the river. The Monumental Cemetery, “first operated in 1857, had winding paths and gardens” and a walk around the cemetery was “a popular Sunday afternoon activity. Gravestones were beautiful ornaments to be admired, transforming the practical cemetery into an outdoor sculpture gallery. The simple flowers and icons on the graves are symbols with special meanings…. and tell a story about the life and death of a loved one. Shamrocks (Ireland), thistles (Scotland) and roses (England) are very popular and symbolize family ancestry. Lilies meant purity, and are often found on the graves of young girls. A life cut short was symbolized by broken columns or flowers with a broken stem. Christian faith was symbolized by grapevines, lambs and angels.”

The sign also said: the use of symbols on graves ceased after World War I when “the loss of so many young men…meant that the old practices of loss and mourning could not be carried out. The community became weary of death, and adopted simpler funeral practices and grave markers. The ornaments, symbols and verses were part of a world which had become unrecognizable after the war.” I was the only visitor when I parked beside the Catholic section to explore the rows of graves.

There were no gardens or flowers, the grass was dead and the previously “beautiful ornaments” had been damaged by time, weather, neglect, escaping stories and the deliberate action of uncaring vandals. The cemetery looked abandoned and forgotten as I walked past the broken headstones and once beautiful sculptures, carefully avoiding the sunken graves and stopping only to read the names, ages and few words about the life of the deceased.

Shrine of Daniel McNamara from MullaghAs I was leaving the Catholic section I noticed a very different structure sitting apart from the other graves. It was a small concrete hut with a tiled roof and iron gates that were partly open. There were no shamrocks. A sign above the doorway read:

The Family Grave of
Daniel McNamara
Mullagh County Clare, Ireland

I searched on my phone for a Daniel McNamara from Mullagh, a tiny village in County Clare near the Atlantic Coast of Ireland. The proud family had a small website which told me “Daniel was born in 1838”. He was 7 years old when the Great Famine devastated Ireland. One million people in Ireland died during the famine of 1845-1852 and about one million emigrated from Ireland to settle in England, Scotland, Wales, North America and Australia. By 1851 almost 25% of Liverpool’s population was Irish born, including my great-great-grandparents. I needed to know more about Daniel from County Clare and why he was buried here.

The website told me Daniel was 19 years old when he arrived in Australia as an immigrant on board the sailing ship “Ebba Brahe” on December 8, 1857 after a 108 day journey with 350 other passengers from Liverpool. It was during the gold rush. Less than two years later, at the age of 21, Daniel married for the first time and a daughter of the marriage was born in 1860. Daniel became a dairy farmer, married again when he was 35 years old, to a 19 year old girl, and fathered 16 children before dying in 1905 to be buried in the Monumental Cemetery, a long way from County Clare. He left a large family, some of whom were buried in the family grave in this remote place.

I continued my walk among the broken monuments and collapsed graves, sure there would be more stories to be discovered. I saw a large white marble headstone in the Anglican section, highlighted by the overhead sun, and maneuvered my way through the rows of graves to read the inscription.

It read:

In Loving remembrance of Henry Angel who departed this life 7 December 1881, aged 91 years. Also Mary Angel who died 29 September 1890, aged 78 years. Also Robert Angel son of the above who died 19 May 1870 aged 29 years.

Below the names there was an inscription:

Far from this world of toil and strife
They’re present with the Lord
The labours of a well spent life
End in a sweet reward.

The last two lines had been changed from a hymn that talked about a “mortal life” and a “large reward”. I was curious about why the family changed the wording and knew there was a story behind it.

Henry Angel had arrived in the colony as a convict in 1818 after being convicted of “highway robbery” in the Wiltshire Assizes on July 19, 1817. The term “highway robbery” reminded me of my youth and the many movies I saw with Robin Hood and his merry men holding up stage coaches in an English forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor. To be standing beside the grave of a highway robber in a remote cemetery with an inscription that referred to a “sweet reward” made the whole drive along the back road worthwhile.

The life of Henry Angel, who had a colorful life starting as a convicted thief in England and ending as a respected wealthy farmer on a large property in Australia, was the kind of story that made movies. Except Henry was just over five feet tall, which didn’t meet my image of Robin Hood. He could not read or write and as a youth worked in market gardens and dairy farms in the Hale area of Hampshire, England. In 1816, Henry and another young man worked for a farmer in Hale digging potatoes and bagging them for sale at the Salisbury market. When the farmer returned from selling the potatoes he met the young laborers at a local pub where, after several drinks, he apparently refused to pay them their wages. According to the court records, the young men followed the farmer along the highway and robbed him of “six pounds and nine shillings”. Henry Angel and his accomplice were convicted of highway robbery. Henry was sentenced to life in prison, converted to “transportation to New South Wales or nearby islands.”

In the penal colony Henry first worked in road gangs, then as a labourer on farms and a convict labourer on two inland expeditions. It was recorded that Henry was a hard-working laborer and had great ability in managing horses and cattle. In 1840 he received his Conditional Pardon and became a free man. Sometime during the 1830s he acquired or was granted 50 acres of farming land and in 1834 married twenty year old Mary Brooker, the daughter of two convicts. Mary had been married twice before to convicts and both of her husbands had died. She had two children from those marriages and had 9 children with Henry Angel.

There were many other stories about Henry before he became a successful cattle and sheep farmer, at one time owning a farm of 32,000 acres. He moved several times throughout the state, acquiring land and increasing his wealth as a property owner and farmer. It was a long way from his youth as a farm laborer digging potatoes in England, and he was buried a long way from home in the Monumental Cemetery.

I continued my walk through the cemetery looking for more stories but the long drive and hot sun forced me to seek the air conditioned comfort of an Irish bar to plan the next day. There were more back roads to explore and stories to find.

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The Boy Who Stoned Cats Wed, 05 Jul 2017 22:15:02 +0000

Our cat

Late in the afternoon a strange noise came from the vegetable garden beside the house, it was the sound of a bird in distress. The bird was squeaking, flapping its injured wing and hopping frantically around to escape from two large black birds attacking it. The boy grabbed a straw broom and waved it at the black birds until they flew away.

The little bird continued to squeak and hop around as the boy tried to catch it. Afraid he would hurt the bird if he grabbed it the boy took a piece of cloth from the shed and threw it over the bird as a net. The bird continued to struggle but couldn’t hop away as it was picked up with soft hands, carried into the house and placed under a plastic draining bowl. When the bird became calm the boy slid a saucer of water under the bowl. It was a yellow canary, sex unknown. The boy’s mother said: “You can’t keep that thing, it is probably someone’s pet and anyway you don’t have a cage.” Father agreed and said the bird would go in the morning.

The boy found a large cardboard carton, lined it with newspaper, cut small holes in the sides and top and set up a saucer of drinking water. From the garden he picked some strawberries and placed them in the bird’s new home. Tomorrow he could find out what canaries ate and ask if anyone had lost a pet. Tonight the canary would be safe beside his bed. It was his first pet.

Early in the morning the boy hid the canary behind a pile of wood in the shed and rode his bicycle to his grandparents’ house. It was only five miles away. Grandma was sitting out back in an old green rocking chair watching Papa dig the garden. She was surprised to see the boy and asked what he was doing there so early in the morning. In a trembling voice the boy said he had found an injured canary and wanted to keep it but Mother and Father said no, and he didn’t have a cage or know what to feed the bird. Grandma reached out took his hand and sat him down next to her chair. She said canaries were like finches, they would eat seed, corn, fresh greens, apples, cooked veggies like broccoli and spinach and an occasional hard-boiled egg. The boy was happy to give it his broccoli and spinach.

“So you don’t have a cage?” Grandma asked. “Well I am sure we can fix that.” she said. “The cage needs to have a perch and a nest, a swing, mirror and some bells to amuse the canary and water for drinking and for bathing. Also, you should put some shell grit in the bottom of the cage, keep the cage clean of poop and make sure the bird has space to fly.”

Overwhelmed by all that the boy said maybe Mother and Father were correct and the bird should be let loose to fend for itself. Grandma replied quickly: “If you let it go and it can’t fly then the cats will kill it. Maybe you should wait until the canary can fly again.” He said he didn’t know what to do, how to build a bird cage and get food for the canary, and was afraid to ask Mother if he could keep the bird or to knock on doors to ask if someone had lost a pet. Seeing he was close to tears Grandma stroked the boy’s head and quietly said: “I am sure Papa and I can help with the cage and the food but you will have to talk to the neighbors.” The boy said: “Then can I keep the canary? Will you tell Mother?”

Grandma smiled and called for Papa to come out of the garden. She said: “The boy has found a canary with an injured wing and wants to keep it but he doesn’t have a cage.” Papa said: “Well I think we can fix up something.” Papa was good at making things. He made horse shoes and a leather collar for his old draught horse Toby and hanging baskets for Grandma’s flowers which she kept under cover in her “flower shed”. Papa had built the flower shed too. “Come with me” he said, and walked towards the shed. It was next to the path that went to the outdoor toilet about 50 yards from the house. The boy had memories of trying to navigate that path on dark nights without a light when he was three and lived there during the war.

Inside the flower shed Papa took down a large square basket and carefully removed the flower pot. He said: “This was an old bird cage we had on the farm and Grandma has been using it as a hanging basket for her flowers. If we clean it up and put some wire mesh on the sides it will do until you can get something better.” Tears of joy came into the boy’s eyes.

The boy said to his Papa he didn’t know how he could get it home or what to say to Mother and Father about keeping the canary. Papa replied: “Boy, stop thinking about what you can’t do and think about what you can. We will hitch up old Toby to the cart, put your bicycle and the cage in the back and I will take you home.”

Late in the afternoon Papa took the boy back to his house, seated next to him on the cart while Toby slowly navigated the streets. Mother was out in the yard when they arrived and angrily asked Papa: “Where did you find him? I have been looking all afternoon.” Papa replied: “He and I have been making a cage for an injured bird and gathering some seed for the thing. Where can we put the cage so the cats can’t get it?” Mother sullenly said: “Well I suppose you had better bring it inside where it is warm.” Then she asked: “Have you talked to the neighbors to find out if anyone has lost a pet?” The boy said: “I asked everyone I could see and there were no lost pet signs on the street light poles.” Mother did not pursue the question.

They retrieved the carton from behind the wood pile and carefully put the frightened canary in the cage. Papa carried the cage into the kitchen and after they added food and water he placed it on top of the cabinet where Mother kept the glasses, plates and other things. Here it was safe and they could watch it eat, drink and take a bath; and listen to it sing.

Weeks passed by and the little canary became more vocal, chirping and singing, and trying to fly in the cage that was now too small. Mother actually liked the little bird but Father was firm that he would let it go when it was able to fly. The cage had been moved from the kitchen and hung in the wood shed. The boy cleaned the cage, fed the canary and talked to it. It still didn’t have a name except “Birdie”. Birdie had become more active, crashing into the wire mesh on each side of the cage as it tried to fly. It needed more space and Father agreed to build a larger cage where it could learn to fly again before he let it loose. They found some pieces of timber, two sheets of metal for the roof and bottom of the cage and a roll of wire mesh for the sides.

When the cage, now an aviary, was finished it was too big to keep in the shed so was moved outside to the yard partially protected by the overhanging roof of the laundry. Inside the aviary was a large nest, a perch, swing, an old piece of mirror, some little bells, a bowl for drinking water and a bird bath on the floor. There was lots of room for the canary to learn to fly again.

The little canary loved its new home but it was a lonely existence. By now the family knew the canary was a boy because of its loud singing. The boy asked Mother if he could get another canary to keep him company, then they could let them both go when Birdie was able to fly. Mother agreed as long as it was a boy. They went to the pet shop and came home with a six month old yellow canary that was to remain nameless.

At first the two birds did not get along, they squawked, flapped their wings, flew at each other and sat at different ends of the perch. Birdie was not happy with the intruder and his singing stopped. Nameless didn’t sing either.

They thought Nameless was a male because that is what they asked for at the pet shop. But after several weeks the fighting stopped. Birdie was flying and singing again and Nameless was sitting on four eggs in her nest. Soon there were six happy canaries in the aviary. Father was annoyed because release day was postponed again and there was more noise coming from the aviary as the canaries sang, flew from one side to the other landing on the wire mesh walls.

It was late at night when the boy heard the noise. The canaries were squawking and flying frantically around, crashing into the walls of the aviary. The boy rolled out of bed, grabbed a flashlight and ran outside without shoes. A large gray tabby cat was clinging to the wire mesh, trying to catch a canary as they flew into the wall in a frenzy to get away. Another cat was on the roof of the aviary clawing at the wire. The boy hollered at the cats and waved the flashlight but the cats ignored him. The boy stepped on a stone, picked it up and hurled it at the cat, missing by several feet but finding the laundry window. Throwing a stone, while holding a flashlight in the other hand to light up the target was never going to work. The cats continued to hiss, snarl and claw at the canaries.

Father, woken by the noise of the broken window, grabbed a broom and chased the cats away. He wasn’t happy and angrily said: “If you can’t look after your damn birds, then out they go.” The boy didn’t go back to sleep and at daylight went out to the aviary. The birds were huddled together in their nests, still shivering, and there was a dead canary at the bottom of the cage. It had been traumatized or clawed by the cats.

After school the boy gathered some large stones, about the weight of a baseball, from a vacant lot in the street, carried them home and set up a target the size of a cat on the fence. He practiced throwing the stones at the target from across the yard until it was dark and his arm ached. Mother asked what he was doing and he replied he was practicing his pitching. Still there was the light problem and the risk of throwing a stone through the wire mesh and letting the cats into the aviary. When father came home from work he moved the aviary closer to the house so when they switched on the light in the outside bathroom it would shine on the aviary. The boy marked out a place about 40 feet from the aviary, near the bathroom door and light switch, and piled the stones beside it.

At night when the cats returned the boy took up his position beside the pile of stones and switched on the bathroom light. The cats ignored the light and continued to harass the canaries. The first pitch was high and inside, hitting the side of the laundry. The second was high outside and thudded into the fence. The cats didn’t move. The third pitch was low and outside, bouncing off the dirt into the wood pile.

The canaries were frantic so the boy hurled more stones at the cats. They were wide of everything and Father appeared again with the broom to chase the cats over the fence.

After school next day the boy gathered more stones and continued to work on his pitching. It seemed so easy in the daylight with a target fixed to the fence. At night when the cats returned he took up his position by the pile of stones and turned on the light. The first pitch was outside, the second inside but low and hit the aviary; the third pitch was perfect and thudded into the cat’s butt. The cat let out a howl but continued to cling to the wire mesh. It wasn’t about to walk so the boy reached back and threw the stone as hard as he could. It missed everything except the house next door. Father appeared again with the broom, chased the cats away and turned off the light. Lights came on in the house next door but everyone had gone to bed. More work needed to be done on the pitching. The butt shot hadn’t worked.

On the fourth night the cats were more confident and showed up early, just after dark. The canaries went wild when they saw the predators again clawing at the wire with their huge gray bodies spread over the side of the aviary. The boy’s first pitch was high and outside, thudding into the fence. The second pitch was over the plate and thudded into the ear of one cat. It fell howling to the ground and stood there defiantly. The second pitch bounced in the dirt and into the cat’s private parts. The cat howled louder, ran to the fence and went home. Another stone hit the second cat just below the ear sending it hurrying home. The noise woke everyone in the house next door where the cats lived. The owner called out: “What’s up over there and what happened to the cat?” The boy replied: “I just went to the bathroom in the dark and stepped on it.” He knew he was in trouble when Father told him to get to bed and stay there.

The cats didn’t return again to harass the canaries. Not because of the boy’s pitching arm. When Papa heard the story he laughed and said: “I should have told you to cover the aviary at night with a heavy piece of canvas to keep out the light, rain and stray cats.” I was only nine years old.



Author’s note: No animals in this story were hurt or treated inhumanely.


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The Other Side of the Tracks Wed, 31 May 2017 09:10:17 +0000

Our house was only 10 yards from the railroad tracks and 50 yards from the end of the train station. It was a small rented cottage, one of five allocated to families of track workers. We had waited several years before the two bedroom cottage became available. The bedrooms were small and I was allocated a bed on the enclosed porch. There were no windows, only a wire screen to keep out the insects and a large canvas roller blind to keep out the light. It was cold and noisy.

The Railroad Worker’s Cottage
The Railroad Worker’s Cottage

My bed was no more than 15 yards from the tracks so I heard every train that passed by during the night or stopped to fill the steam engine’s tank with water. The only heating in our house was in the small kitchen at the back where a wood-fired stove kept the room warm during the winter. The kitchen was our family room and we talked, listened to the radio, played card games and had all of our meals there, huddled around the stove.

Hot water was available from a large cast iron kettle that sat on the side of the stove and from a wood chip heater in the bathroom, a separate building at the end of the yard. The laundry with a wood-fired copper tub for boiling the dirty clothes was in another small building. My job was to cut the wood into small pieces for the kitchen stove, the bath heater and the fire under the copper tub.

It was our first and only home as a family, we didn’t own it but we loved it. The cottage was near the town, the station where my father caught the train to work and close to school for me. We moved into the cottage when I was about six years old from a single room at the back of my aunt’s house. The extra space was heaven to us and as we didn’t own a car being close to everything was important.

There was no barrier or fence separating the railroad tracks from the narrow path in front of our house so each day I carefully crossed the double tracks, walked past the iron clad workers’ shed, and climbed over the back fence of the school. I could hear the school bell ring from our house signaling that it was time for me to get to the classroom before roll call. My mother watched me cross the tracks from our front gate. When I started high school I left the house by the back gate and walked 10 minutes up a steep hill where I could look back down into the yard of our little cottage. We could not have found a more perfect home even if it was on the other side of the tracks.

There were many benefits from living next to the railroad tracks. The freight train engine drivers threw lumps of coal for our stove onto the path outside the house. Carting them inside was easier for me at that age than cutting up large pieces of hardwood for the fire. The freight train drivers, who knew my father, would lift me up into the engine and take me to the next town. I loved standing there with the smell of burning coal, heat from the fire and smoke swirling around us. They let me pull the cord to blow the engine’s whistle as we approached crossings and to shovel coal into the firebox.

Riding the freight train was like driving the back roads across the country past old farm houses and machinery sheds, through herds of cattle and sheep, and past farmers riding on horses or tractors. Occasionally we would see a small airplane or crop duster flying low along the tracks for the pilot to read the name on the stations. It was their way of navigating.

At the end of my journey the driver would hand me over to another freight train heading back to our town where the new driver would lower me onto the tracks near the station. My mother did not know about these excursions.

Along the sunny side of our house, my mother planted beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, melons and strawberries. We had a grape vine that covered the side of the wood shed and a choko (chayotes) vine along the fence. At the front of the house near the railroad tracks my mother grew flowers and planted two fruit trees in the tiny garden. There wasn’t a piece of dirt that didn’t have something growing in it.

On the other side of the tracks near the school were larger houses, the railroad station and main part of the town with its 28 hotels and many stores. A short bicycle ride away was the river where we swam and fished in the summer.

Life was simple in those days. Get out of bed, have a quick wash under the cold tap outside the house and hurry into the warm kitchen where breakfast was waiting. When the school bell rang I grabbed my bag, checked there were no trains coming and hurried cross the tracks. After school I lingered in the school grounds to play football or race other kids to the fence and back until the teachers told us to go home as they were locking the gates. My mother was waiting for me at home to make sure I did my chores before dinner. We talked and spent a lot of time together as my father was away from home a lot, working and drinking beer at the local hotel.

We lived there for 12 years before I left home after my mother’s death. I returned briefly, after being away for several months, but it was not the same. The house was dusty and cold, the plants in the vegetable garden had died, the fruit trees and grapevine were bare and there was no wood for the kitchen stove. My father and brother only slept at the cottage, it was no longer a family home and I had no place in it.

It was almost ten years before I saw my old home again and another family was living there. The house looked smaller than I remembered. I walked around the house and stopped at the front by the railroad tracks to look over the fence. There were no vegetables, only untidy garden beds and bushes. The new family didn’t need to grow fresh vegetables and fruit as at the back of the house was a shiny new car, parked where I once cut up the firewood.

Train Station
Train Station

I crossed the tracks to peer over the fence into the school and two track workers shouted that I was to cross by the bridge. Ignoring them I walked faster to a gate that lead to the street next to the school. The gate was locked and with the men now running towards me I climbed over the fence into the school yard startling the children and a teacher who had heard the shouting. I walked up to the teacher, smiled and said: This was how I came to school when I was seven from that little cottage on the other side of the tracks. I had to do it one last time.

Before she replied I walked quickly across the schoolyard and through the gate into the street leaving the bemused teacher and the railroad workers behind. I drove up the long steep hill where I had walked each day to high school and looked down on my old home. I was happy we lived there as a family even though it was only for a short time. It was from the little cottage by the railroad tracks I went to school, learned to play football, basketball and baseball, and developed my interest in trains and travel. But it was time for me to leave as I had no family there.

It was many years before I returned to the town for a funeral. My old home was gone, replaced by a large iron-clad shed with a concrete floor covering the memories. I didn’t walk across the tracks to the school or drive up the hill to look down on where our house had been. I sat in the car across the street with a picture in my mind of the old cottage and the family that once lived there.

Before leaving the town I drove to the cemetery to thank my family for the few happy years we lived in the little cottage that was only a few feet on the other side of the tracks.


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Sacks of Mail Mon, 22 May 2017 12:33:34 +0000 The History of Airline Classes and Cabins: The Travel Insider) about some of the changes in the airline industry over the years...]]>

Recent incidents involving forced removal of passengers from commercial flights have highlighted how far we have moved from the golden age of airline travel. I started flying in the 1950s and have experienced the significant changes in the airline business, not all for the benefit of travelers.

Flying home recently, on board a new Boeing 717 aircraft, I read an article (The History of Airline Classes and Cabins: The Travel Insider) about some of the changes in the airline industry over the years. The article commented on the birth of passenger carrying flights when there was only one class and one passenger enjoying the fresh air in an open cockpit. It brought back memories of my first flight in an old de Havilland Tiger Moth. I sat in the single passenger seat at the pointy end of the airplane with the pilot behind, both wearing leather helmets and goggles. There was no rear view mirror so I was forced to turn my head, sometimes after releasing the seat belt, to make sure the pilot was still there and hadn’t fallen out during a maneuver. We flew beneath the clouds and followed the roads and railroad tracks to navigate.

Tiger Moth in 1989
Tiger Moth in 1989

The Travel Insider informed me that in the 1920s the largest airline in the world was operated by the US Postal Service, carrying mail rather than passengers. The airline made more money from transporting mail across the US than from flying passengers and carried either 100lbs of mail or one passenger. Passengers were not important. The article said:

Sometimes government subsidies for carrying the mail were so substantial that airlines would send mail to themselves to boost their earnings. An airline could pay 9c to post a letter, and then be given 18c by the government to fly the letter from one airport to another.

In the 1930s the airlines recognized the need to carry passengers and provide some comforts to compete with ocean liners and trains. The speed of the journey was not enough so the old flying boats provided bunks in first class for long flights and on-board toilets. Cabin attendants were added and meals were served in the air or on the ground at each stop. The first commercial airline to introduce flight attendants was reported to be United Airlines in 1930. I think I flew with some of them in the 1960s.

Varney Airlines Mail Carrier (Now United Airlines)
Varney Airlines Mail Carrier (Now United Airlines)

Varney Airlines Mail Carrier (Now United Airlines)
(Photograph: The History of Airline Classes and Cabins: Travel Insider, 29 September 2016)

After World War II the airlines bought hundreds of ex-Military C-47 transports, converted them into passenger aircraft and operated them as the Douglas DC-3. The airplanes were cheap to buy and operate, and many are still flying in developing countries. The DC-3 was faster, had longer range and carried more passengers with greater comfort. They were noisy but reliable, robust and operated with only passengers and no mail.

The DC-3 was the first commercial airplane I flew on in the early 1950s, and in recent years I have flown on them again in Papua New Guinea and South Africa. The noise, smell and vibration of the engines, the rough take-off and landing, and the steep aisle to navigate when boarding and leaving the airplane were part of the experience. There were no overhead lockers and all baggage went into the hold.

The door to the cockpit was always open so you could see the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and the instrument panel. If you were interested you could stand or sit on a jump seat in the cockpit and talk to the crew. It felt like flying and it was safe even when navigating through deep valleys and around the high mountains in New Guinea. There was no seat assignment, cabin service, food or wine and a visit to the on-board toilet was something only for the brave and desperate.

In the 1950s and 1960s the airlines recognized the need to grow their market by offering lower fares for flights with more stops on the old routes previously used for delivering the mail. You could pay higher fares for the faster non-stop flights across the US and internationally. In the 1960s and 1970s my flights to London stopped at Singapore, Bangkok, New Delhi, Karachi, Bahrain, and Rome. Each stop was an adventure by itself and welcome because the so-called “direct” flight was more than 30 hours.

In 1955, TWA introduced a two-cabin configuration on its Super Constellations. Some called it the golden age of airline travel. But that all changed when the first commercial jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, was introduced with rows of seats all facing forward and narrow aisles. There were no lounges and bunks.

In the early 1960s, first class was downgraded to the level enjoyed by today’s business class passengers and coach class became even worse as the airlines tried to squeeze in more seats and passengers. At the end of the 1960s the Boeing 747 revolutionized air travel, doubling the number of passenger on each flight, especially in coach class.

The 747 became my favorite commercial airplane and I used it like a bus for traveling the world on business, usually sitting at the back end. It was quieter, more comfortable and came with better cabin service, food and drink. The flight deck and cabin crews enjoyed the increased space, and that was reflected in their attitude towards passengers. There was enough room for new cabin configurations and on the upper deck some airlines provided tables for business travelers to use their laptops, sit on lounges, stand at the piano bar or sleep in real beds in enclosed areas.

I recall a memorable flight on a Lufthansa 747, standing up at the piano bar with some new friends most of the way from Frankfurt to Singapore; and a night flight to Tokyo on Japan Airlines sleeping comfortably in a real bed with my own little cocktail cabinet. It was the only time I really slept on a flight and was able to work the same day I arrived in Tokyo. Sadly Lufthansa removed the piano bar and JAL replaced the beds with more seats.

The major improvement in airline travel over the years has been the inflight entertainment especially for first and business class travelers. It started with movies on a large screen, that showed the movie to the whole cabin, and then video cassette players were provided to first and business class passengers who had a choice of dozens of movies to view at their seat.

Unfortunately, in “cattle class” cabin service, friendly flight attendants, free magazines, food, drinks and entertainment have almost disappeared, replaced by user pays electronic entertainment systems, WiFi, inflight telephone service, snacks and bottles of water. We pay for check-in baggage and are greeted by impatient flight attendants and surly security guards.

Passengers are jammed into tight spaces and ignored unless they complain or the aircraft is overbooked when they are treated as sacks of mail. I would willingly pay more for my own space, fine food and wine, a comfortable bed or even to stand up at the piano bar.


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It’s All Monkey Business Tue, 25 Apr 2017 10:28:43 +0000
Barbary Macaques – Gibraltar
Barbary Macaques – Gibraltar

There has been some strong language from some European Union representatives about Great Britain’s planned exit from the EU. Great Britain’s politicians have responded with strong words as both sides position themselves for the “Brexit” negotiations. Some of the 751 European Parliament members will be happy when Great Britain departs the scene because “they were never one of us!” Others will be concerned about Brexit because the EU will become more of a “GEU” with the weaker economies keeping the relative value of the Euro lower than the Deutschemark would be without it.

The EU’s economic performance has been poor for several years as it has continued to kick the can down the road instead of facing up to its member countries’ debt and other economic problems. It may have run out of road.

Great Britain is a major export market for Germany, France and Italy, a market they can’t afford to lose. Germany needs to protect its total export revenue, not just its exports to Great Britain, by hiding behind a Euro weakened by the economies of the southern European members of the EU. London is likely to remain the major financial center in Europe as Frankfurt is not a viable alternative. If it was Germany would have pushed for it years ago.

The EU has the weak economy, not Great Britain, and it will be even weaker after Brexit. Why then does Great Britain plan to leave the EU if it wasn’t for economic reasons? It couldn’t have been immigration because Great Britain has a long history of taking in immigrants from all over the world. Maybe it was the change in the mix of immigrants or the loss of sovereignty and their ability to determine who came into the country and when. Those decisions were made by the European Parliament and the Eurocrats, dominated by other countries, not the British people or their Parliament.

There are good economic reasons for the EU to want to discourage Great Britain, and any other of its member countries, from leaving. A smaller EU cannot support the large European Parliament and the 46,350 “Eurocrats,” principally from Belgium, France and Italy, unless there is a reduction in the size of their own governments and civil servants. When times are good countries usually don’t focus on the cost of government but when economies tank, as the EU has done, it is time to focus on the overhead costs.

On the sidelines some “bit players” have announced their intention to take advantage of the Brexit negotiations. The Leftists in Scotland want another referendum in the hope it will support their goals of becoming independent from Great Britain and remaining a member of the EU. They want to receive the revenue from the North Sea oil and gas fields but not contribute to Great Britain’s defense costs.

Spain with its floundering economy sees an opportunity to gain control of Gibraltar to benefit from its tourism, gambling and financial services revenue. In an earlier referendum the people of Gibraltar voted to remain part of Great Britain although they would like to remain in the EU. With Brexit they will have to decide which country they want to be dependent on, Great Britain or Germany because it will be “in” or “out.”

Other EU member countries will take the opportunity to redirect work into their own economies by excluding British companies from major contracts. The British will retaliate and a major trade war between some EU member countries and Great Britain is likely.

Gibraltar is an unusual territory/country. It has a population of about 30,000 people, significantly less than the number of Eurocrats in the EU, and 300 Macaques or Barbary Apes. This huge rock in the Mediterranean, attached to southern Spain by a narrow causeway, was settled by the Moors in the Middle Ages and like parts of North Africa was previously ruled by Spain.

Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht following the War of Spanish Succession. It was a strategic naval base and its people were protected by Great Britain during World War II. The main ethnic groups living on the rock are Spanish, Italian, English, Maltese, Portuguese, German and North African, and the main religion is Roman Catholic. There is tight border control between Gibraltar and Spain but over 7,000 Spanish workers cross the causeway each day to work in Gibraltar and about 13 million tourists visit the Rock each year.

The major tourist attraction in Gibraltar are the Macaques, referred to by the local population as the “monos” or monkeys, brought across to the Rock from Morocco and Algeria by British soldiers after 1713. Many of the monkeys live in the upper rock area of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve but their exposure to a large number of tourists, who feed and allow them to sit on their shoulder for a photograph, have made the monkeys dependent on humans and encouraged them to leave their habitat and go into town in search of food scraps.

Gibraltar Tourist with Barbary Macaques
Gibraltar Tourist with Barbary Macaques

The Barbary Macaques have become symbolic with Gibraltar and Great Britain’s rule over the territory, the two are inseparable. There is a well-known legend that says: as long as the Barbary Macaques exist on Gibraltar the territory will remain under British rule. It is taken seriously by the British and the inhabitants of Gibraltar, including the monkeys who have learned their survival skills from the tourists. Some of them have learned their survival skills too well. They pretend to be cute, cuddly and friendly but have learned to unzip bags and open pockets to steal food, cameras, passports and money from the tourists and the local inhabitants of Gibraltar.

The mischievous, devious little monkeys with no natural predators have expanded their domain and activities without really needing to go to work. They have been rewarded with snacks and other goodies, their photographs appear on social media and some have immigrated to Great Britain where their food, housing and medical expenses are covered.

In 2014, thirty of the most troublesome monkeys in Gibraltar were caught by local authorities and sent to entertain the tourists at the Blair Drummond Safari Park near Stirling in central Scotland. They have fitted in well with their skills at opening pockets and unzipping bags to forage for food and money. Although rumors were that Great Britain was behind the scheme to create a new legend: as long as the monkeys exist in Scotland it will remain under British rule.

What is certain, after Brexit the remaining EU “in” countries that were once called The Continent will be better known as “The Inkontinent” – uncontrolled and ungoverned, or as we once would say “unable to hold it together.” Without significant changes, to respect the sovereignty of its members, the EU will go down in history as a nice try that didn’t work. One of those changes should be to discontinue the European Parliament, find real work for the Eurocrats and return to being a free trade area along the lines of the old EEC or Common Market. But then Germany’s exports would be at risk as the Deutschemark is likely to be valued much higher than the Euro.

Ahsan Manzil: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Ahsan Manzil – Dhaka, Bangladesh

If the EU wants to continue without Great Britain’s financial contribution it will need to reduce the overhead costs to its remaining member countries. Many of its roles could be outsourced to the private sector, and the Parliament and Eurocrats relocated to a less expensive location. I have found just the place, the Ahsan Manzil. It was previously the palace of the Nawab of Dhaka and now is a museum. Dhaka already is a center of government, trade and culture, and has a strong manufacturing industry providing low cost clothing for major international brands. Labor is plentiful and wage rates are low.

All EU politicians and Eurocrats, who want to continue in their roles, could be offered a transfer to Dhaka to operate the EU Call Center, paid in local currency. The last time I checked one Bangladeshi Taka was worth 0.011 Euro. It is called the Bangladeshi test.

The EU is less than 25 years old and going backwards, the Macaques have existed and progressed on the Rock of Gibraltar for more than 300 years. The EU could learn a lot from those monkeys.


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My Catcher in the Wry Thu, 06 Apr 2017 10:45:55 +0000 Catcher in the Wry and former back-up catcher with the Braves and several other MLB teams, and J D Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. I haven’t read Uecker’s book but did see him catch Warren Spahn when the Braves lived in Milwaukee. The regular catcher was injured, tired or given a day off and Uecker, usually a reliable knuckle ball catcher, started the game. Uecker went on to become an excellent baseball commentator, actor and a funny guy...]]>
My grandson Gus catching
My grandson Gus

Apologies to Bob Uecker, author of Catcher in the Wry and former back-up catcher with the Braves and several other MLB teams, and J D Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye.

I haven’t read Uecker’s book but did see him catch Warren Spahn when the Braves lived in Milwaukee. The regular catcher was injured, tired or given a day off and Uecker, usually a reliable knuckle ball catcher, started the game. Uecker went on to become an excellent baseball commentator, actor and a funny guy who commented that the best way to catch a knuckle ball was to “wait until it stopped and pick it up”. You wouldn’t drive all the way to Cobb County to watch him play.

The only other thing I remember about Bob Uecker is his father, named Gus, was an immigrant from Switzerland and a good soccer player in his youth.

I read J D Salinger’s brilliant and controversial novel, The Catcher in the Rye (published in 1951) when I was at Columbia. It was required reading for one of my English literature classes. Salinger was a student of Whit Burnett’s short story writing course at Columbia, long before my time. But I resonated with his description of 16 year old Holden Caulfield’s struggle as a teenager in New York City and his use of the teenage colloquial language popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I got a bang out of that!” or “That killed me!” were commonly used when we “rubberneckers” sat around “chewing the fat” and “shooting the bull” in a bar in Yonkers before going to the ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

The 2017 MLB season is about to begin and life will resume its normal course for some keen fans. But not for Jeffry (Atlantans Prepare For Daring Conquest of Cobb County Braves’ Game) who is concerned about driving on the I-75 in rush hour to catch a Braves game at SunTrust Field. I share his concerns about driving the +10 miles home after the game and a few beers. There is a rumor that the Braves moved to Cobb County to get away from the memory off Bob Uecker but I think that is a bit extreme. Bob was a good guy and an entertainer. We need some more ballplayers like him.

Commuting to and from ballgames, especially night games, is part of the fun and excitement even though sometimes it is challenging or even risky, especially on the NY subway where there is no “can.” I never had to worry about driving, parking and drinking but no can on the subway was a challenge.

Jeffry has threatened, if provoked, to tell the whole story about his near incident involving “gun play over a cooler of beer and ice” some years ago. I had planned to provoke him by telling a story about driving from NYC to Connecticut in winter to watch the New York Football Giants play at Yankee Stadium when home games were blacked out on local television. We rented a motel room outside the blacked out area for the afternoon to watch the game while emptying a large cooler or two full of beer and chicken wings. After the game we drove merrily back to NYC on the icy I-95, without seeing another car, truck or probably anything else. But I won’t tell that story!

The ten mile drive to Cobb County to watch the Braves, in summer, should not be a challenge if you leave before rush hour to catch a night game, don’t drink or eat chicken wings so you can safely drive home after the game. Or you can stay at the Sheraton Suites Galleria and walk the ½ mile to and from SunTrust Park. Either one sounds a better deal than taking the subway home to Brooklyn from Yankee Stadium, with a break in the Village to go to the can, or driving to CT in the winter to watch the Football Giants on TV.

I need to tell my young friend Gus, a good soccer player, about Bob Uecker’s secret to catching a knuckle ball. He has never faced a knuckle ball pitcher but is master of the wry grin. The under 10-year old kids use a Zooka pitching machine and Gus can hit everything the “virtual pitcher” throws at him.

My grandson Gus getting a hit
My grandson Gus getting a hit

A Double to RF

The 2017 MLB season is about to start and the first home game at Cobb County, a Friday night game, is only two weeks away. That is plenty of time to pack the cooler with ice, beer and chicken wings for a practice run up the I-75 in rush hour, to find a parking space and check out the local bars and hotels. Let me know how it turns out.

I can’t be there to watch the opening games at Cobb County or Yankee Stadium. They will have to start without me this year. It is not the I-75 or NY subway that discourages me. It is the 28 hour flight to get from home to New York or Atlanta. So I guess I will have to sit back in my leather chair and watch the games on television, at 9am my time, while enjoying a beer and chicken wing or two.

If I want to see a live game I can always drive 15 minutes to watch the under 10-year old kids.




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The Journey of One Immigrant Mon, 27 Mar 2017 10:20:06 +0000

It was winter and Canada was in recession when I arrived as a new immigrant. Finding work when many Canadians were unemployed was a challenge because employers were looking for Canadians, not immigrants who may move on to someplace else. I was unemployed for five months, living in a boarding house, and had no money when I finally found work. There were no government unemployment benefits.

Learning to Drink from a Bota: SpainThe work was picking strawberries, digging potatoes, painting houses and manually hauling large boxes of fragile scientific equipment in a warehouse. By the end of the first year I was sharing two rooms in an old house with another immigrant, who slept on a sofa in the small kitchen, and I had some money in the bank.

It was twelve years after the end of World War II and millions of displaced persons had immigrated to North America from Europe. In Canada they were referred to as “DPs” and I was put in that category even though I wasn’t a refugee or from Europe.

The DPs I met in Canada were educated, skilled, willing to work and happy to be there. They quickly became assimilated within the community. Many had lost their family, home, possessions, town or city but not their dignity. There was little work in Europe except clearing the rubble and rebuilding the houses and factories. The DPs sought a new life in Canada and the USA, countries with similar values, ethics, religious beliefs and morals.

Everyone’s life has turning points when you change direction, later wondering if you had taken the right path and how life may have been if you hadn’t changed course. Turning points occur because of unexpected opportunities or events, changes forced on you, a need to get away from something, or you simply were in the right or wrong place at a particular time.

The first major turning point in my life that I recall occurred after the death of my ninety-two year old grandmother when I was sixteen. My grandmother had looked after me for two years during the war while my mother was in hospital and rehabilitation for tuberculosis. I started school during that time and my grandmother made sure I went every day and wore clean underwear. She told me about her life as a poor farmer’s wife and descendant of immigrants. A year later, when my mother died suddenly at the age of forty-nine, I had lost the two people who greatly influenced my life.

A period in the Army as a conscript convinced me I didn’t want a career in the military so I immigrated to Canada to start a new life and get away from the old. It was from there, one and a half years later, I decided to go to Europe.

After a ninety-nine day, ninety-nine dollar Greyhound bus ride, exploring the USA and sleeping most nights on the bus, I departed from New York on a ship to England to begin an eight month journey through Europe and Morocco. I traveled with friends from Canada and Australia, sharing the cost of an old VW Kombi Van and a tent, staying occasionally in youth hostels.

Learning history in high school, watching movies, reading books and studying maps did not prepare me for Europe. Today, Europe is a collection of countries trying to work together for their common economic benefit as part of the European Union. In 1959, it was a Continent of separate, highly independent countries. The only things they had in common were fear of another war, distrust of the USSR and suspicion of the motives of the USA. England did not see itself as part of Europe. Russia, which occupied Eastern Europe, and the USA with its huge military presence in Germany were vying to control or influence all of Europe. I see some of those things today.

It was ten years after the Berlin blockade that ended the Four Power cooperation and the unity of Germany and Berlin. The reconstruction of Europe was well underway but the vacant blocks, ruins of old buildings and the noticeable absence of young men, were stark reminders of the ravages of war. Germany was divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the Allied powers, USA, England, France and the USSR.

Berlin was a Four Power controlled city, 100 miles from the West German border in the middle of the Russian zone. Travel to Berlin from West Germany was difficult but once there it was easy to travel from the American, British and French zones to the Russian sector in East Berlin. Eight months before we arrived, Berlin was the scene of another major international crisis. Nikita Khrushchev had issued an ultimatum to the three western powers, giving them six months to turn West Berlin into a “demilitarized free city” or Russia would sign a peace treaty with East Germany.

We arrived in Berlin two months after the expiration of the Russian ultimatum, which marked the beginning of the long Cold War between east and west, when Russia’s intentions were still not known. It was two years before the erection of the Berlin Wall along the border of the old Soviet and Allied sectors.

Vienna also had been a Four Power city from the end of World War II until 1955. The 1949 Orson Wells movie The Third Man, had raised my interest in Vienna and provided an (Hollywood) insight into life under the Four Powers. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, brutally suppressed by Soviet troops, had forced more than 250,000 refugees to flee the country, most of them via the river crossing into Austria. Three years later there still were refugee camps in Austria, near the border with Hungary. We made friends with several young refugees who invited us into their camp.

Bullfight: Barcelona
Bullfight: Barcelona

Generalissimo Francisco Franco was in power in Spain, where he had been the dictator since 1939, and his authoritarian Government ruled the country with an iron fist. Franco lived in the grand Pardo Palace, outside of Madrid, while his Guardia Civil patrolled the city streets, country roads and the coastline in pairs equipped with submachine guns. They broke up any small group who had gathered to talk. The ruthless Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was still in power following a military coup in 1926 and he maintained tight control over Portugal. Movement across country borders throughout Europe was tightly controlled.

Morocco had become independent in 1956 and while the small Spanish-controlled international zone surrounding Tangier had been reclaimed, it was still an area of considerable tension between the new government and the French and Spanish authorities. Tangier was the center of crime, smuggling and the sale of illegal goods. We had no trouble buying papers to allow us to bring the old VW into Morocco. Casablanca was nothing like the 1942 movie and we did not find Rick’s Place, because it didn’t exist.

In the Maghreb villages, Maghrebis (Moors) and Berber horsemen performed their Fantasia (“gunpowder play”) at cultural festivals. Dressed in old costumes they charged in a line, stopping about 150 yards from the crowd, and fired their rifles into the sky to symbolize an attachment to tradition and opposition to change. I see a similar fantasy being played out today by politicians all over the world.

It was an exciting year to be in Spain. Ernest Hemingway was in the country writing for Life magazine about the mano y mano bullfights between Luis Miguel Dominguin and his brother-in-law Antonio Ordonez, two of Spain’s greatest matadors. Hemingway traveled with them across Spain to gather material for the story published in 1960 as The Dangerous Summer and we followed. I learned to drink cheap red wine from a goatskin bota, like the errant knight Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza. But did not become obsessed with the idea of destroying the wicked, bringing justice to the world and tilting at windmills, things we see today.

Fantasia: Morocco
Fantasia: Morocco

Living among the people in Western Europe and Morocco, before the tourists arrived and changed everything, was an experience beyond anything that could be learned at school. The experience changed my direction once more.

At the end of 1959, I returned to New York, determined to get serious about life and resume my education. I couldn’t immigrate to the USA as I wasn’t a refugee but I could study under a foreign student’s visa and work twenty hours a week. The friendly Immigration Department official suggested they had no way of knowing if I worked twenty hours or forty hours. He understood I needed to work to live and pay school fees.

Remembering my grandmother’s advice: “Nothing is too difficult if you try and work hard.” I walked the streets of New York until I found a job as a messenger with a foreign government. The job provided a work visa, so long as I worked for them, and later I transferred to a foreign student visa. My application for entry into Columbia University involved an entrance exam, a 3,000 word essay and an interview. I wrote about my interest in the economic development of Europe and Africa. Four years later my honors thesis was about the economic development of Appalachia.

I lived in Brooklyn above an Irish bar, bought my food at a Jewish corner store and had my hair cut by an Italian who spoke little English. We were all DPs who had come from different countries. They had disembarked at Ellis Island and I arrived in Manhattan on the SS United States with a bus ticket to Toronto, a 7-day transit visa and $25. By comparison to them and today’s immigrants, my journey was a simple one.

After six years of work and study in New York, during which time I married and our son was born, my student visa expired when I graduated. A work permit or green card was still not available, even though a major international bank offered me a job and sponsored my application. LBJ was President and a Congressman from New York wrote to him to support my application. The Immigration Department had different ideas and gave me 30 days to leave the country so I ended up where I started. I did not like the New York State wine anyway.


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Looking for New Friends Tue, 14 Mar 2017 14:05:19 +0000
Newman’s Under 14 Years Baseball Team
Newman’s Under 14 Years Baseball Team

I am looking for new friends to replace those who have fallen off the perch already and to increase my personal wealth. The new friends will need to share my values of honest hard work, democracy, freedom of speech, equality, love of the great outdoors, baseball, football and a passion for fine red wine.

For a long time I thought great wealth was the secret to friendship because the few millionaires I met had a lot of friends. Someone, probably an investment adviser, suggested if I wanted to increase my wealth I should follow the money trail. He meant that I should identify a successful person, like Warren Buffet, and follow his investment strategy. Another said: “Do the math, save to invest wisely, avoid debt that doesn’t earn, make your money work for you and be patient.” A third suggested: “Marry well.”

Unfortunately, all of this advice came too late after I was committed to a life of hard work. But I was satisfied that I could retain my values, my family and good friends while quietly building up the assets to maintain a certain standard of living in retirement. My good friends measured my progress by the time it took to move from drinking wine from a one gallon flagon to a bottle with a genuine cork. That was not the usual measure of wealth followed by economists and statisticians but it was understood by my friends and endorsed by an oncologist who suggested I start drinking better quality red wine.

But still the intrigue of how to become a millionaire remained so I hired a highly qualified investment adviser who suggested I diversify my portfolio to focus on Europe, Japan, China and the USA, the engines of global economic growth. Not just in blue chip equities but also in property trusts that invested in quality properties with blue chip tenants like government departments, shopping malls and major companies. The investments were to be in unhedged foreign currency to maximize the profit, and recommended by highly respected analysts.

I should have hired a wine expert and bought more fine red wine. If I had, things like the global financial crisis (GFC) and excessive company and government debt would have been observed from a happier distance.

While enjoying a fine red wine one evening and trying to forget the GFC my mind drifted back to the 1956 movie “High Society” and the song “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” written by Cole Porter. I recalled that Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm did not want to have “flunkies everywhere,” a “country estate,” “supersonic plane,” “gigantic yacht,” or a “fancy foreign car.” That was good enough for me too.

Recently I was reminded by a life-time friend that we were given some good advice on how to become a millionaire by his father when we were about 12 years old and had followed that advice for many years.

When we were boys we played lots of fantasy games like: “I betcha I can stand on one leg longer than you.” Or “My father is bigger than yours so if you don’t stop my father will come round to your place and beat up your father.” How we thought that would work I don’t remember. On another day we were arguing over whose father had the most money. One said: “My father is a doctor so he is richer than yours.” We didn’t dispute that because we were at his very large house playing with his train set. Another said: “Well, our house may not be as big as yours but my father has a more important job than that and he gets lots of money.”

They turned to me and asked how much money my father had, I didn’t answer. They all knew he worked on the railroad tracks and we lived in a tiny house for railroad employees. I clearly had lost the game. Then it was my best friend’s turn to be questioned about his father’s wealth. His father was the licensee of a local hotel called the “Terminus” because that was where a lot of other fathers ended up after they finished work each day. The hotel had lots of rooms, a large kitchen, a bar for male drinkers and a separate bar for women. In those days women were not permitted to drink in the all-male bar. The hotel and the licensee/manager, Alfred (George) Newman, was so popular that the hotel was better known as “Newman’s.” Surely George was a very wealthy man we thought but didn’t know how much money he had so decided to go ask him.

Four inquisitive young boys appeared at “Newman’s” Hotel late in the afternoon to settle the argument. We walked into the main bar, full of men, in search of George and were quickly ushered out with a stern warning that we were too young to be there. George took us to the quiet ladies bar, sat us down and gave us a glass of non-alcoholic soda.

“Now” he said “what are you boys doing here, you know I could get into trouble with the Police if they saw you in the bar?” His son Peter said: “Dad we were having an argument about whose father had the most money and we didn’t know how much you had so came here to ask. Alan’s father is a doctor and they live in a big house so he says his father has more money than you. But Rex said his father has more money. So how much do you have?”

George smiled and said: “Son, I am a millionaire!” Stunned we looked at each other as Peter jumped with joy hollering: “Yippee, I won.” His father grabbed hold of him and said quietly: “Son, I have a million friends and that is worth more than money. You don’t measure wealth or importance in money terms.” “What do you mean?” we asked. George replied: “Well boys, let me tell you how I became a millionaire. Thousands of people come into my hotel every month, most of them come after work every day. We talk about our families, work, our problems and anything else that comes into our heads. They are my good friends and I have over a million of them. They have made me a millionaire, so never forget it is your friends and their lifetime friendship that make you wealthy.” We left the hotel knowing who had won the game.

George was an interesting man and I took his advice seriously. He had many interests but his passion was for sport. George was a major sponsor of several sports in the area, including the local baseball competition. He organized a competition for boys under 14 years old and sponsored his own team, simply called “Newmans.” I was 12 years old and played outfield or third base for the team because I had a strong and accurate arm, developed by throwing rocks at the neighbor’s cat. We won the baseball competition that year and I still have the team photograph personally signed by George.

In searching, unsuccessfully, for a photograph of “Newman’s” Hotel I discovered a story that the local police objected to renewal of George’s liquor license in 1946 because he had been previously convicted of selling liquor above the fixed price during World War II. George reportedly had sold two bottles of beer for 50 cents each to an undercover policeman when the fixed price was 48 cents. George pleaded guilty for rounding up the price by 2 cents and paid the fine of $20 plus $6 court costs. His liquor license was renewed and the story added some new friends to his list.

Now I need to follow George’s advice and get on with making some new friends. I have fallen well short of a million.


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The Day the Shah Left Town Tue, 31 Jan 2017 10:03:09 +0000
Ruins of the Gate of All Nations, Persepolis
Ruins of the Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

In the 1970s Tehran was one of the few cities in the Middle East where alcohol was available for the local population and tired travelers. The city was cosmopolitan, the Persian people were friendly and the fashions were right out of Paris. Other parts of the country were different, more traditionally Persian and some opposed to the Shah.

Arriving at and departing from Mehrabad Airport on commercial flights was always interesting. The Iranian Air Force maintained a fighter base at the airport and commercial flights were constantly harassed by the F-14A Tomcat and F-4 Phantom jets flying on their wing tips and asserting priority for take-offs and landings. It was common for a commercial flight on final approach into Mehrabad to abort its landing to avoid a fighter jet taking off or landing in front, ignoring air traffic control.

There were many stories about the Iranian Air Force including one about a pilot who decided to test his ejection seat to make sure it worked. The aircraft was parked inside the hangar.

My second visit to Tehran was in late 1972 at the request of the government-owned company to investigate a quality problem with the material shipped earlier. The government withheld payment pending resolution of the complaint.

The meetings with the government were held at offices on Pahlavi (now Valiasr) Avenue and with the company on Takte Jamshid (now Taleghani) Avenue near the US Embassy. The technology was provided by a US company so discussions with the American management were more productive.

We traveled to the new industrial city of Arak, about three to four hours by car southwest of Tehran via QOM, the holy city and center of opposition to the Shah. From Arak we drove a further eight hours to the port of Bandar Sharpur (now Bandar Iman Khomeini) on the Persian Gulf. Bandar Sharpur had no facilities for handling or storing bulk cargo so the material had been shipped in large plastic-lined bags stacked on wooden pallets. After arrival the pallets were to be loaded onto trains for the long haul to Arak.

I inspected the shipment when it arrived at Arak. The timber pallets, valuable building materials in Iran, had been stolen so the loose bags were thrown into open rail cars; some torn open with their contents scattered everywhere, and then hauled to the factory storage facility by trucks.

There were no bulk handling or storage facilities at the factory and the bags were stored in a building 500 yards from the processing plant. When the material was needed workers climbed to the top of the pile and dropped the bags to the dirt floor where they broke open. The workers used shovels to fill their barrows with the material which they delivered to the plant for processing. There was little resemblance between the pure raw material that arrived at Bandar Shahpur and the contaminated material that was delivered to the processing plant. The government had to invest in bulk handling facilities to solve the quality problem.

Travel in Iran by car was interesting. My driver, “Johnny” from the Royal Taxi Service, spoke some English and we were able to communicate on most things. His driving skills while suitable for Iran sometimes scared the “bejesus” out of me. He had faith in Allah while I thought obeying traffic rules was important. I was taught that one-way streets meant all traffic flowed just one-way. In Tehran it was okay if the car was only going one way.

The road to Arak was a single lane with a line of trucks, buses and cars moving slowly in each direction. To get ahead Johnny pulled out into oncoming traffic, accelerated and passed as many vehicles as possible before forcing his way back into the line to avoid a smash with something heading towards us. A lot of shouting and hand waving was necessary to complete the maneuver. All drivers seemed to do this even when there was a bend in the road and drivers could not see what was coming in the other direction. As Johnny’s taxi did not have seat belts I moved into the back seat and hollered at him from there. His comment was: “If Allah wishes us to be killed then we will be.” I didn’t use him to travel over the mountains to the Caspian Sea.

Further visits throughout the 1970s were focused on resolving difficulties with the central bank and government over on-time payment in foreign currency. Iran was changing, becoming more industrialized but the banking system was traditional and always to their advantage. Other changes taking place were political and social.

My visits to Iran were for business. I was not an explorer, adventurer or tourist but sometimes curiosity led me to push the boundaries. Some of the places I wanted to see were the ski resorts in the Alborz Mountains, Ramsar on the Caspian Sea, Isfahan, the ruins of Persepolis and nearby Shiraz, the city of literature and the wine capital of Iran. It was a ten hour drive from Tehran to Shiraz so I felt Allah would be happier if I took my chances with Iran Air. Persepolis was about 40 miles from Shiraz.

I planned to visit some of the 300 wineries in the Shiraz area in search of my favorite red wine. Reportedly, Shiraz was a favorite place of the Persian poet Omar Khyam who also enjoyed a jug of wine and a loaf of bread.

To my disappointment I discovered the wines of Shiraz were not red, they were white and sweet. In my desperation to visit the wineries I assumed the wine would be red, of the Syrah variety. Like the mythical “moving finger having writ I moved on.”

No wine is officially produced in Shiraz today, only grapes and raisins, so I have no reason to go back just for the literature.

Karim Khan Citadel, Shiraz
Karim Khan Citadel, Shiraz

There was some rumbling below the surface in Iran from an increasing number of disgruntled and deeply religious fundamentalists, especially in Qom, who objected to the “westernization” of Iran, the political system and the lack of free speech, including by the media. They were kept under control by the SAVAK, the secret police established by the Shah with help from the CIA and Mossad.

For security reasons the company decided that if possible two representatives should travel together on future visits to Iran. I was happy to have a traveling companion and to share my new-found knowledge of Iran.

We arrived at Mehrabad Airport late at night and bought a ticket at the taxi booth in the carpark for the short ride to the Arya Sheraton Hotel. After circling the Shahyad the little taxi, with our bags stowed on the roof rack, headed towards the center of Tehran.

Shahyad (King’s Memorial) Tehran: 1971
Shahyad (King’s Memorial) Tehran: 1971

The driver said something we didn’t understand as he unexpectedly turned off the main highway and began to drive along narrow back streets, heading in the direction of the hotel. There was no other traffic except a car following closely behind. After several more turns I noticed the other car was still there, now without lights, so I alerted my colleague. Again I told the driver we were going to the Arya Sheraton Hotel and he seemed to understand.

The taxi turned down a dirt road with no buildings or street lights and the car behind followed. It was a dead end and our taxi stopped. The driver looked in the rear view mirror and shouted something in Farsi we didn’t understand. I told my colleague we were in trouble and to be prepared to run or fight.

As I started to open the door the driver reversed, turned the taxi around and raced back the way we came. The other car followed. We could see the lights of the Kordestan Expressway and the taxi headed towards them until a police roadblock stopped us.

I knew the Sheraton Hotel was on the other side of the expressway so we grabbed our bags from the roof rack and started running towards the lights, ignoring the shouts from the police. We reached the expressway and I could see the Sheraton on the other side less than a mile away. There was no traffic so we ran across the six lanes to the hotel, no one chased us. Exhausted but safe we walked into the hotel lobby and across the carpeted floor to the front desk.

The hotel staff stared at our shoes and the black footprints on the carpet leading from the front door. I looked down and there was a hot, tacky substance all over my shoes. It was bitumen from the Kordestan Expressway which apparently was closed for resurfacing. The taxi driver had been trying to find his way to the hotel through the backstreets of Teheran; and the other driver obviously thought our taxi knew where it was going so followed us.

In 1977 the Shah was in complete control but the following year things changed quickly as protests and unrest increased across Iran. The Shah was ill from cancer and was confined to his summer palace at Ramsar for treatment. He was losing control and the military brutally put down protests in Qom and Tehran.

Being risk averse I became more cautious where I went, especially at night. Trucks and cars loaded with young Iranians patrolled the streets of Tehran, shouting obscenities at any woman wearing western clothes. The head scarf and longer dresses were being worn more frequently. There was less laughter and more young people were leaving Iran to study in other countries.

On my last visit there were few people on the flight or in the arrivals hall at Mehrabad Airport. Entry into Iran was quick and I headed for the taxi carpark. The departure hall, areas outside the terminal and Sharyad Square were unusually crowded. It was a cold night.

There was little traffic heading into the city and I arrived at the Hilton Hotel just before sunset. The lobby was quiet and the garden restaurant and bar was closed. The man at the desk didn’t go through the usual “we don’t have a record of your reservation” routine and I found my own way to a room overlooking the Alborz Mountains.

Next morning I caught a taxi to Takte Jamshid Avenue for my meeting with the Iranian company’s chief executive.

As we passed the US Embassy there was a large crowd of people shouting and waving banners. I couldn’t read the banners or understand what the protesters were shouting.

At the company’s offices I asked for the CEO and was told he wasn’t in and they weren’t sure when he would be back. Annoyed that I had traveled so far for the meeting and the CEO wasn’t there I asked to see someone who knew what was happening. A middle-aged Persian appeared from a nearby office and said: “They have all gone!” “What do you mean they have all gone? Gone where?” I replied. “They have all gone back to America” he said.

We went into his small office where he explained the American management team had been warned by a contact in the SAVAK to leave because the Shah was preparing to flee the country. He suggested that I should leave too as it was not safe for foreigners anymore.

I returned to the hotel, packed and caught a taxi to Mehrabad. The airport was chaotic, with hundreds of thousands of people desperately trying to get on flights to Europe. Abandoning my Anglo Saxon willingness to wait in line I climbed over baggage and pushed people aside to get to the check-in desk.

I handed over my ticket and passport with $200 inside, and asked for a seat on any flight out of Tehran. I didn’t want to become part of the revolution… Single seats in first class were easier to get and I was handed a boarding pass for an Air France flight leaving in six hours. For another $50 my bag was weighed, tagged and put on the conveyor belt; and I forced my way through the crowd to the departure lounge where I waited for what seemed to be eternity until Air France arrived. I don’t remember where it took me.

The Shah and his family fled to Cairo on January 16, 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran on February 1 to lead the Islamic Republic. Two weeks later militants invaded the US Embassy and returned on November 4 to occupy it and hold the staff hostage until early 1981. Bans were immediately placed on alcohol, satellite television, social mixing of the sexes and western-style clothes for the women.

In 1979 I held meetings with representatives from the new Iranian Government in a London hotel. I was not willing to return to Iran and they were happy to fly to London. While everything else in Iran had changed, the discussions were still about payment of invoices. That is until we stopped doing business at all.




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A Year of Learning Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:51:50 +0000

It was an interesting year. OPEC was beginning to exert its influence over world oil prices for the first time and generate considerable wealth for its member countries to invest in new industries. My company decided to expand its exports of minerals to the Middle East.

I had some business experience in Asia but knew nothing about the Middle East. I was soon to learn. The first challenge was managing the use of two passports and not presenting the wrong one when I entered or departed certain countries. The second passport was for travel to Israel and China as it had no entry and departure stamps for Arab countries or Taiwan.

The Middle East experience started and almost ended in June 1972 with an overnight flight from Bangkok. We were about five miles from the runway when the Boeing 707 began its descent into Cairo Airport. The pilot lined up the approach with the lights below and cut back on power so the 707 could descend rapidly. I looked out the window and could clearly see street lights below us. We were about to set down on the road to the airport when the pilot realized his error, applied full power and slowly lifted the nose of the airplane for a low level fly past of Cairo Airport. He turned back over the city and tried the landing again.

The terminal was quiet when we disembarked, the first flight in that morning, except for the chatter of passengers walking quickly to the rest rooms to change their underwear. I had a five day visitor’s visa and passed through the immigration check easily. The foreign exchange desk was not open so I headed for the taxi rank. There was one cab parked at the rank so I walked over to the old car and tapped on the window to wake the driver. He slowly emerged from the cab and said something in Arabic I didn’t understand. He didn’t speak English but understood “Sheraton Hotel” as I stowed my bag in the trunk and climbed into the back seat. The driver walked away, came back with two others who helped push the cab until the engine started and we were on our way to the hotel.

As we approached the city the driver started talking again and I nodded but did not understand. He slowed the cab and pointed to various buildings, statues and monuments in the darkness. When we reached the hotel I called the doorman over to help me with payment of the driver and retrieve my bag from the trunk of the cab. The driver insisted the bag stay in the trunk until he was paid. The doorman suggested I go the front desk to change some money to pay the driver for the fare, airport pick up charge and the scenic tour of the suburbs of Cairo. I was not about to leave my bag in the trunk of the cab while I went inside the hotel so insisted the driver come with me.

After paying the driver we walked out to the front of the hotel to see the driverless cab moving slowly down the hill while the doorman watched in amusement. The driver, who had not turned off the engine, started running after his cab with me in “hot pursuit”. We caught up with the cab about a half mile from the hotel and jumped in, the driver in the front seat and me in the back.

The driver turned the cab around and drove back up the hill to the hotel where he asked for payment to cover his gasoline for the return trip up the hill. The doorman intervened and I retrieved my bag from the trunk of the cab and carried it inside. The front desk manager gave me a warm and smiling “Welcome to Cairo!” greeting.

The meeting with the Government was brief and friendly but they made sure I understood doing business with Egypt was different to western countries. I was given a copy of the tender documents and introduced to a local trading company who would act as a representative throughout the twenty year contract to make sure everything went smoothly and we received payments on time. The tender closing date was one week away and I needed time to prepare a proposal with the help of an English speaking person and have it checked by the company’s attorney. I declined the offer from the local trading company.

While I examined the tender documents and arranged for my travel out of Egypt I had some R&R time to explore Cairo. The Giza pyramids and the Sphynx were only about five miles southwest of Cairo so I arranged a taxi to take me there and to the jewelry souk. Beggars lined the streets harassing everyone who passed especially foreigners. One disgruntled beggar turned his monkey loose to attack me when I refused to hand over money.

I knew little about Cairo, except for the pyramids and Shepheard’s Hotel on the Nile favored by wealthy foreigners, writers, British, French and American military officers and famous for its “American Bar.” It had been rebuilt after being destroyed in the Egyptian Revolution in 1952. I had to see it and check out the bar just to say that I had been there.

After an infected ear, caused by the hotel swimming pool, and food poisoning from a local restaurant I was ready to leave Cairo. I flew to Tehran on advice that Beirut was no longer safe for foreigners and Tehran was the next best city to find English-speaking secretarial help.

The immigration official at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport politely advised me I didn’t have a visa to enter Iran. I said I believed entry visas were available at the airport. The official pointed to a counter beyond immigration and when I asked how to get there without a visa he smiled and handed back my passport. I was learning fast so placed $20 in my passport and handed it to him for further inspection. The gate opened and I walked to the visa counter paid $50 and returned to the immigration official. He politely stamped the passport and allowed me to enter the country.

It was a short walk to a booth in the carpark where I bought a ticket for a taxi to the Hilton Hotel. The taxi was called up, I loaded my bag into the trunk and handed the ticket to the driver. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t understand Farsi. We left Mehrabad Airport and entered the wide street that circled the Sharyad (now Azadi Tower) and followed the motorway across the city to the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Alborz Mountains. It was June but there was snow on the peaks.

I walked through the grand lobby of the Hilton Hotel, carrying my bag, and gave the front desk my name. The manager looked through the reservation book and advised they had no record of my booking and there were no rooms available. I produced my passport with $20 inside so he could check my name again. This worked and a room overlooking the mountains became available. A porter appeared to show me to my room. He carried the door key and I carried my bag to the room where another tip encouraged him to hand over the key.

After returning to the front desk to organize an English speaking person to type the tender response I decided to explore the huge lobby with its busy garden restaurant and bar. Western music was coming from a piano player, dressed in a dinner suit, and the fashionably dressed Iranian women were laughing and talking as they enjoyed French champagne and the caviar from the Caspian Sea. I wondered what the poor people were eating.

I turned to go to my room and begin work when I saw a stunning Iranian girl in a long, low cut black gown with sparkling jewelry around her neck walking across the lobby towards the restaurant. She held a heavy gold chain attached to the collar of a large cheetah walking gracefully beside her as she walked into the restaurant and joined a table of friends. After kissing everyone on the cheek she sat down and the cheetah silently crouched beside her. That was Tehran in 1972.

Alborz Mountains, Iran (1972)
Alborz Mountains, Iran (1972)

Tehran was a fascinating and cosmopolitan city with heavy French, British, American and Russian influence. The people were friendly, the restaurants were excellent, fresh caviar was affordable and the alcohol flowed freely. There were no beggars with monkeys in the street, the souk and carpet stores were fascinating and the smiling, happy women were immaculately dressed. The wealthy, the merchants, the middle class, the hotel and restaurant workers, taxi drivers, farmers and most everyone else were happy. Mohammed Reza Shar Pahlavi controlled the discontented Iranians with his secret police, the Savak. Each morning and afternoon as I worked in my room the helicopters flew past the hotel from and to the Shah’s summer palace on the other side of the Alborz Mountains overlooking Ramsar and the Caspian Sea.

After two days of work I had a draft tender proposal for the Egyptian Government ready for the lawyers to vet. Then I discovered there was no way I could securely send the proposal to my office for final approval, and international telephone calls had to be booked several days in advance. Quickly I flew to Bahrain, where I had business contacts, telephoned my office and finalized the proposal two days before the tenders closed. As I didn’t have a visa to re-enter Egypt or the time to get one I had to make other arrangements for the document to be delivered to the Egyptian Government. I called on another contact to help. He was in Lebanon the country I was advised to avoid.

Tension between Israel and Lebanon, and between the Lebanese Christian and Moslem population, was increasing. In December 1968, Israel had bombed the Beirut International Airport destroying fourteen civilian airplanes. In May 1972 PLO terrorists hijacked a Sabena Airlines flight to Tel Aviv; and on May 30 Japanese Red Army terrorists serving with the PLO killed 26 civilians at Lod (now Ben Gurion) Airport. Lebanon was expecting retaliation.

On June 11, 1972 I flew from Bahrain to Beirut on an early morning flight. My contact there had agreed to hand the tender document to the pilot of a Middle East Airlines flight to Cairo later in the day. Another contact would meet the flight at Cairo Airport and deliver the envelope to the Egyptian Government the following day.

My contact suggested we meet for lunch by the pool at the Phoenicia Hotel. His office was a short walk from the hotel on the Corniche but he thought it would be safer if we met elsewhere.

The flight arrived at the heavily fortified Beirut Airport and as I had no baggage I quickly passed through customs and found an English-speaking taxi driver. He agreed to take me to see the American University of Beirut and its huge gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, and show me some of the popular places for foreigners in the city known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. He happily agreed to stay with me for the day and be paid in US dollars.

After a short stop at the American University we drove to the busy Martyrs Square, the Grand Serail, along Rue Georges Picot and through the magnificent Raouche district with its wide streets, high rise apartments and magnificent water views. It was a favorite place for foreigners. He suggested I walk along the seaside pedestrian promenade (the Corniche) to see the spectacular Raouche (Pigeon) Rocks and the boat harbor, ending up at the Phoenicia Hotel. He would wait for me there.

The streets and the Corniche were strangely quiet, there were few boats. The sky was cloudless and the wind from the Mediterranean was strong enough to cool me down. As I walked along the promenade I frequently looked up at the sky searching for the Israeli Air Force jets. The few people I passed stopped talking to stare blankly at me, perhaps thinking I could call in the jets. I stopped to admire the Pigeon Rocks and found my way to the Phoenicia Hotel and the café by the pool.

The café was busy when he arrived and introduced himself. We talked about the expected Israeli retaliation for the massacre at Lod Airport and he suggested we eat quickly and I try to get an earlier flight back to Bahrain as the airport and the hotels along the water were likely targets.

Pigeon Rocks, Beirut by Paul Saad
Pigeon Rocks, Beirut

My contact left with the envelope containing the proposal for the Egyptian Government and I enjoyed the view a little longer before finding my taxi driver asleep in his old Peugeot taxi. There no earlier flights to Bahrain so I explored some of the lesser parts of Beirut from the back seat of the taxi. I didn’t want to hang around the airport so felt safer in the taxi exploring Beirut.

The now anxious driver dropped me off at Beirut Airport late in the afternoon. I checked in for the flight and went to the departure area to wait. There was nowhere to sit as the departure area was full of people waiting to catch their flights out of Beirut to anywhere. I walked aimlessly around trying to avoid the windows but wanting to check on the incoming aircraft to make sure Gulf Air had arrived.

After several circuits of the departure hall I decided I needed a drink. The bar was closed, only essential staff were on duty at the airport. Soldiers were everywhere, standing motionless but holding their automatic rifles ready as they studied the crowd. They made me more nervous as I walked aimlessly around trying to not appear nervous, looking for something to drink.

I found a vending machine, pulled some pounds out of my pocket and inserted a note in the slot to buy a can of coke. The can dropped noisily to the bottom of the machine attracting the attention of everyone in the hall including the soldiers with their menacing rifles. They were all now looking at me. As I retrieved the can from the machine it slipped out of my hand and exploded when it hit the floor spraying coke everywhere. Someone muttered “holy shit” – I think it was me. People moved away as the soldiers came running towards me. I slowly picked up the empty can, dropped it in the bin and smiled at the nearest soldier. As I didn’t want to reach into my pocket for more money, start the next war or become a martyr I walked slowly away towards the bathroom.

Three months later Israel bombed PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon in response to the Munich Olympic Games massacre. In 1975-76 the Phoenicia and the other hotels along the waterfront were destroyed during the Battle of the Hotels in the Lebanon Civil War. My Middle East visits for the rest of the 1970s were to Bahrain and Tehran, the new Paris of the Middle East. I preferred cheetahs to monkeys anyway.


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You Shouldn’t Rewrite History Tue, 13 Dec 2016 12:20:59 +0000
Castle Forbes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland by Gilbert Scott
Castle Forbes, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

It was a family story passed down to each generation and could have been made into a movie. In the days when the world needed more heroes my great grandfather quietly told the story of his survival from the Crimean War.

My great grandfather John Cobban was born sometime between 1823 and 1828 when he was christened at Keig in Aberdeenshire, named after his father who was a tenant farmer on a 6,000 acre estate beside the River Don. He worked at the Forbes Estate until he left Scotland to join the 93rd Southern Highlanders and fight in the Crimean War. The war between the Russian and Ottoman empires started in October 1853. In 1854 Britain and France joined the alliance to stop Russia’s expansion into Romania and protect the rights of the Christians in the Holy Land.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Battle of Balaclava and the courage of a young nurse called Florence Nightingale inspired many books and movies. I was proud to have a link to the Crimean War.

During the Charge of the Light Brigade my great grandfather was wounded in the head and left to die on the battlefield. It was customary then for the British to shoot mortally wounded soldiers on the battlefield so they died quickly and without pain. My great grandfather, with help from other wounded soldiers, escaped the “execution” and walked to a local hospital where a metal plate was inserted to cover the hole in his head.

After several months he was discharged, caught a ship to Australia and headed for the goldfields. It was as far away from Scotland as anyone could go.

He didn’t write to his family who thought he was dead and buried somewhere in Crimea.

The gold rush brought thousands of immigrants to Australia from Britain, Ireland and Scotland. One of them was a man from Aberdeenshire who recognized my great grandfather and wrote to his parents to give them the news their son was alive. They did not welcome the news because he had not written to them, was a deserter from the British Army and as an only son had left Scotland when his duty was to care for his parents in their old age. Several months later someone notified the British authorities that he was working in the goldfields. He was arrested, placed in irons and put on a ship for Britain to be tried for desertion.

As the ship was leaving port, the prisoners were allowed on deck without their ankle chains. Seizing the opportunity my great grandfather jumped overboard and swam to the shore where he disappeared into the forest. He changed his name from Cobban to Cobden, left the goldfields, accompanied by a young girl named Mary Jane, and became a farmer on a small piece of land. John and Mary Jane were not married until after their first four children were born, they were afraid the British authorities could still find him. It was many years before he told the story to his children, and it was after his death in 1895 that my great grandmother wrote to his sister in Scotland to give her the news.

A local historian had recorded some of the story in a book and referred to him as a “British soldier from the Crimean War.” I thought his story should be told more widely and not just lost as a small part of history. But I needed more information about his life in Scotland, where he was hospitalized, how he caught the ship to Australia, where and when he escaped from the British and what he did in the goldfields.

Parish births/deaths/marriages and census records in Scotland were surprisingly easy to access and I confirmed my great grandfather’s christening in Keig, and the names of his parents and two sisters. They were all listed in the 1851 Census as residents of Keig. When the census was taken ten years later my great grandfather was not listed with the family. This supported the story he had left Scotland to fight in the Crimean War but a search of the records for the 93rd Southern Highlanders didn’t produce his name. I shifted my focus to ship arrivals in Australia.

The Battle of Balaclava was fought in October 1854 so allowing for a long period in hospital I thought my great grandfather could have arrived in Australia sometime in 1855 or 1856. Shipping arrival records for that period were checked with no result so I looked for possible departure ports near Crimea where he may have started his incredible journey.

The Battle of Balaclava was fought near Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, a long way from the normal shipping route to Australia. There obviously was another story behind how he made his way from Crimea to Australia that could explain why his arrival was later than 1855 or 1856.

I needed to do more research so turned to the relatives who told me the story and asked if there any letters or diaries that may provide a clue to our ancestor’s arrival date. One told me she had some old letters written to my great grandmother by his sister in Keig.

The letters said my great grandfather was living in Keig during the Crimean War and was never a soldier. They also talked about his sudden departure, with two friends named Laing who “were responsible for the trouble” and he would have “felt the weight of the law” if he had stayed in Keig. My story of a brave soldier from the Crimean War was unraveling and I should have stopped the research and let his story continue as part of history.

I returned to checking ship arrivals and passenger manifests for different ports, scrolling through hundreds of microfilm records.

On April 27, 1858 the sailing ship Essex arrived from Gravesend near London with a 23 year old passenger named John Cobden accompanied by a John Laing (24) and Jesse Laing (21). Their nationalities were listed as “English” and professions as “merchants.” Their ages, nationalities, professions and my great grandfather’s name had been changed before they caught the ship from Britain, confirming the reason they had “suddenly” left Scotland. I returned to the library to search records and newspaper stories from the goldfields after 1858.

My great grandfather didn’t find gold but I found a story that said: A smart capture was made…on January 8, 1865 (when) John Cobden, a horse-stealer wanted by the police was chased and caught…ingloriously hiding under a bed. He was obstreperous at first, but on being handcuffed became as gentle as a lamb. A later story described his trial for theft and sale of the horses and the police hunt for over six months before he was apprehended, tried and sentenced to jail for four years hard labor. He served three years before returning to the goldfields.

Search of the jail records confirmed that the inmate was my great grandfather from Scotland. He was not a soldier from the Crimean War, he was a horse thief. Now I have to tell my grandchildren their great-great-grandfather was not a hero, just a story teller too. I could tell them that he worked at Castle Forbes on lands that were granted to Sir Alexander Forbes in 1411 for his part in the defeat of Donald of the Isles at the battle of Harlaw and give them the link:




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The Telegram Boy Fri, 25 Nov 2016 14:59:47 +0000

I have been away for a while, working on a secret project. You know one those “If I tell you I would have to kill you” kind of things.

It was a good time to be away, not reading or listening to the “making the news” reports. My digital newspaper subscription had expired, the light on the Wi-Fi modem router was blinking red and water had penetrated the internet cable so I walked to the store early in the morning and bought a newspaper.

After checking the football scores I went to page one to see if there was anything new happening that could threaten my bank account. There didn’t appear to be any significant change in the world, the sky hadn’t fallen, interest rates hadn’t gone up and the dollar hadn’t gone down. The weather report was good except for threatening storms in New York, Chicago, Seattle and all over California.

Seems the change in weather was affecting some people and they were letting their little world know they were not happy. I muttered something like, “get over it” or “get a life” and returned to the sports page.

It was light when I returned to my home; the sun had come up again.

Before I started the “not to be mentioned” project, my security clearance was reviewed by those “not to be mentioned people.” It was like reviewing my whole life or having a colonoscopy.

Their files contained things I had forgotten long ago but they expected me to remember like where I lived in 1960 and the names of my neighbors. I couldn’t remember but they knew. What clubs did I belong to in the 1970s, had I ever been arrested or taken drugs? Where did I go to school, what was my first job and was I ever a member of a political party?

I could remember the name of the school not my first job, and said I was no longer a member of a political party. “No way sir,” I said, “they have either moved to the right or to the left, and I am still in the middle.” When asked about my current interests, I told them, “Football and the weather.”

The process, as they called it, lasted about three hours. Unsmiling, they left without congratulating me or asking me to report to the local police station. They don’t give you feedback. I didn’t even know the names of my neighbors IN 1960 so there was no point trying to remember. But somewhere, stored in my pre-digital mind, was the file containing information about my first job. I just had to remember the file name.

It was my third job that came to my mind, because I was optimistic then I could work my way to the top and become the Postmaster.

The Telegram Boy's Bicycle
The Telegram Boy’s Bicycle

I didn’t know how long it would take but I had plenty of time because I was just sixteen.

The advertisement in the local newspaper said:

Wanted. Reliable boy to deliver telegrams. Full-time position. Immediate vacancy. Uniform provided. Must be over 15 years of age, be able to read and write and have own bicycle. Apply in writing, stating experience, to the Post Master General.

I had all of the qualifications so without telling my father I wrote to the Post Master General and applied for the position. It must be an important job I thought if they had a General heading up the local Post Office. Besides, if it was good enough for Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Walt Disney to work for the Post Office then it was good enough for me.

My father wasn’t happy that I had quit work at the saw mill after only ten months, because he was friends with the manager who had hired me to work as an assistant on a saw bench. There was no safety gear and I didn’t like the work, standing all day in a cloud of saw dust that worked its way into my eyes, ears and throat. At the end of the day I coughed all the way home.

It was the second time I had disappointed my father by not taking his advice on my career.

The first job he tried to arrange for me was with the railroad where they needed strong and diligent young men as stokers, shoveling the coal into the furnace on steam engines.

He didn’t like me working at the local market, carrying large wheels of cheese from the cellar to the deli and sweeping the floors.

I didn’t like the idea of being a stoker, breathing gas from the burning coal or joining the labor union.

My father worked for the railroad as a track worker and was a strong member of the union. He said it was an important job inspecting, maintaining and repairing the railroad tracks and bridges, and the union protected their rights, health and safety.

My father worked in a road gang across the state, sleeping in a tent beside the tracks and returning home for the weekend. He said the worst part of the job was poisoning the termites on the wooden bridges standing at the top of a long step ladder, with a dirty piece of rag across his face for protection from the poisonous mist.

During school vacation I often went to work with my father, sleeping beside him on my own cot in the cold tent and washing in half of a 44-gallon steel drum. The other half was used to cook our meals over hot coals, the only source of heat.

Coal was plentiful as the drivers would throw large lumps from their engine as the trains passed by in the day.

Passengers threw old newspapers from the windows of the trains so the road gangs could keep up with the news of the war, light their fires at night and have a supply of toilet paper.

By the time I finished high school, I had already decided I would not follow my father into a life as a railroad track worker, stoker or engine driver. I would find something else to do where I could enjoy the outdoors and fresh air. The advertisement for a telegram boy appeared at the right time.

The interview with the Post Master General at his impressive Post Office was brief, and as there were no other applicants, I was given the job.

The uniform provided was a shirt and cap with Post Office sown into the fabric. I was to supply the rest.

The training program was brief as I was instructed on the hours I would work, the time of the daily inspection to ensure I was properly dressed, how I should greet people, and where the telegrams were typed for delivery. A brief tour of the room where the telegrams were received by Morse code and transcribed by a group of serious-looking typists, and introduction to the other telegram boys in the waiting room took less than an hour. I was told no maps were provided and at Christmas I could work extra hours to help the regular mailman deliver parcels. A Post Office bicycle with a large basket suspended above the front wheel would be provided to carry the parcels.

the post office
The Post Office

After the brief introduction to the job as a telegram boy I nervously sat down in the waiting room with the other boys who laughed when they saw my long sox, gray shorts and the uniform shirt that was too large.

It was summer and I was visibly sweating even though the room had a large ceiling fan.

The oldest boy asked, “What is your name kid, and do you know the rules?” He told me the “rules” were the most senior boy in the room had the choice of taking the next telegram or passing it one down the line until someone accepted it. As I was the newest boy I could not refuse to take a delivery.

When I asked why someone would refuse to take the next telegram I was told, “It depends on where the address is, what the weather is like and what is in the telegram.”

I replied, “If the telegram is in a sealed envelope how do you know what it is?”

He said, “The girls typing the telegram know, and if they smile it is a good message, if they don’t it is bad news.”

I had a lot to learn about being a telegram boy and was destined to deliver bad news telegrams, in the rain to places that were the furthest away from the Post Office.

It was eight years since the end of the war and many people still associated the telegram with bad news. It was how the military notified the next of kin that a loved one had been killed. I recall one telegram received by a relative that said, “I have to inform you that … was killed in action on Fourteenth April 1941, and desire to convey the sympathy of the Army.”

In a few words the unsigned telegram advised the parents that their only son had been killed at Tobruk. The telegram was delivered by the bus driver, not a telegram boy.

I didn’t have to wait long before I was sent off to deliver my first telegram. It was a long ride uphill to a house about ten miles away. I knocked on the door and waited until a voice called out, “Who is it?”

I have a telegram for you I replied. “Go away, I don’t want a telegram!” the voice called out.

I knocked again and was told to go away once more. I couldn’t return to the Post Office without delivering the telegram or I would be sent back so I persevered, knocking on the door repeatedly, and pleading for the lady to open the door and take the telegram.

“Slide it under the door” she said.

“I can’t do that,” I called out, “you have to sign my book.”

The voice came nearer to the door and this time it was quieter. “Open the telegram and read it to me.” she pleaded. Desperate to get away I agreed to read the telegram to her if she would sign for it.

“Happy birthday Maureen,” I shouted, “and love from your sister Meredith.”

The door flew open and a large lady in a night gown pulled me close to her chest and thanked me several times. I struggled free, handed her the telegram, a pen and my receipt book for her to sign.

She invited me inside the house but we weren’t allowed to accept tips or gifts, even in kind, so I hurried back to my bicycle and pedaled furiously back to the Post Office, it was downhill like my career as a telegram boy.

The other boys were smiling as I returned to the waiting room and one asked how I enjoyed meeting Mrs. Robinson. “Just fine,” I commented, and walked to a seat in the corner as the whole room filled with laughter. I discovered later that Mrs. Robinson sent the telegrams to herself.

Life as a telegram boy was interesting as I learned the “rules of the game.”

At Christmas, when I was assigned to mailman duties delivering parcels, it became more challenging as I struggled to control the old Post Office bicycle loaded with heavy parcels. It had a mind of its own, like a supermarket trolley that wanted to go someplace different.

The regular mailman on my assigned route wasn’t helpful, he only told me to not “screw up” on his route because he expected to receive gifts from most of his customers. Apparently, the mailman was able to retain gifts at Christmas. There was no offer to share them or any advice on the hazards on the route, except Mrs Robinson.

On the first day, after falling off the bicycle just around the corner from the Post Office and scattering parcels everywhere, I headed up the hill to make my first delivery, which involved knocking on the door and having my little receipt book signed, just like delivering a telegram.

Half way through the day, as I was returning to my bicycle after handing over a large parcel, I heard a noise behind me and before I turned around the teeth of a small dog had sunk into my ankle. I jumped and hollered words that would not be acceptable in Church as I felt the pain and saw the blood oozing from my ankle. At the end of the day when I saw the regular mailman I told him about being ambushed by the dog. With a smile he said, “Oh yes, you should watch out for him because he ambushes any new mailman. After a while he will get to know you.”

The following week, after I delivered a parcel to the same house, I ran back to my bicycle with the small dog inches away from my ankle still covered with Band-Aid strips. He didn’t bark, just quietly attacked from his hiding place under the house. He obviously didn’t remember me.

I prayed for Christmas to come so I could return to being a telegram boy riding my own bicycle, even though it did not have gears or mudguards and the mud covered my back in the rain. I could ride to different parts of the town, not follow the same boring route of the mailman, and get away from the silent attack dog.

Two days before Christmas I stopped at the house with the dog. As I rang the door-bell I looked cautiously around but couldn’t see the dog. He was there someplace waiting for me to turn around and head for my bicycle.

After the old lady shut the door I turned around, checked the bushes and under the house but there was no sign of the dog. I thought maybe he was inside or had finally got to know me. As I headed for my bicycle I heard a familiar sound and turned around quickly to see the bare teeth of the little dog about to taste the flesh in my ankle once more.

This time I was prepared, bent down grabbed the dog by the collar and with a perfect hook shot hurled him onto the roof. Stunned he looked at me with a mournful face and I wished him a Happy Christmas, you could say that in those days. I didn’t tell the regular mailman because he was expecting a gift from the old lady.



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Lest We Forget Sun, 01 May 2016 11:25:30 +0000 Papa, why are you so sad? I replied that I was not sad but happy. The voice said: Well, why do you have tears in your eyes? They are happy tears, I said, Happy that I am here and with you today. It was April 25, the one day each year we remember and honor those brave men and women, relatives, friends and all of the others who gave their lives so we could be free to live and enjoy an open democratic country. We also remember those whose lives were irrevocably and permanently changed by the many wars...]]>
Fromelles (Photograph: Australian War Memorial) (In the public domain)

A little voice broke the silence and asked: Papa, why are you so sad? I replied that I was not sad but happy. The voice said: Well, why do you have tears in your eyes? They are happy tears, I said, Happy that I am here and with you today. It was April 25, the one day each year we remember and honor those brave men and women, relatives, friends and all of the others who gave their lives so we could be free to live and enjoy an open democratic country. We also remember those whose lives were irrevocably and permanently changed by the many wars, conflicts and peace-keeping activities over the past century. Not for the first time I was struggling to explain the meaning of something to my grandchildren; and tears always come to my eyes when I hear someone solemnly deliver the ode:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

We will remember them.

The tears rolled down my cheeks when the bugler played The Last Post and we stood silently for one minute to reflect before uttering the words: Lest we forget. Lest we forget. During the silence I remembered that on this day every year my uncle, who fought on the Western Front in World War I, marched with his few surviving comrades before joining them for a drink or more. He knew that he shouldn’t drink alcohol because of his ulcerated stomach, from mustard gas, but he didn’t care. It was only one day each year. I remembered my relatives who died 100 years ago at Gallipoli and Fromelles, and the sixteen year old boy who was killed by a high explosive shell at Pozieres. His body was never found. Twenty-five years later his nephew was killed in the defense of Tobruk. They didn’t live to marry and have children and grandchildren as I did.

Australian War Memorial Public Domain

The little voice returned, upset by my tears and puzzled by my inability to explain why this day meant so much to me. Searching for an explanation that could be understood I turned to a speech delivered a few hours earlier by a good friend at the Dawn Service in the country’s capital. His eloquence and ability to explain the meaning of this day to today’s generation moved many thousands of people to tears. It wasn’t just me. His story could have been told in many countries commemorating the loss of generations of men and women in the pointless wars of the past one hundred years. It would apply. He spoke from his heart, without referring to notes and said:

ANZAC Values Apply to Modern-day Australians:
(Speech by Dr Brendan Nelson, Director Australian War Memorial, Canberra at the Dawn Service, ANZAC Day April 25, 2016)

Australians all let us rejoice – for we are young and free.

With a sense of awkward humility, abiding reverence and overwhelming pride, we pause here at the Australian War Memorial – free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.

We gather in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.

Young Australians and New Zealanders gave their all at Gallipoli, forging in bloody sacrifice the bond within which our two nations now live.

It heralded the cataclysm from which we emerged proud – but inconsolably mourning 62,000 Australian dead.

Witness to it all, Australia’s official historian Charles Bean wrote at its end:

What these men did, nothing can alter now.
The good and the bad.
The greatness and the smallness of their story.
It rises, it always rises … above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men, and for their nation – a possession forever.

Bean’s account of a Digger arriving at the front trench before the assault on Lone Pine says it all:

“Jim here?”
A voice rose from the fire step, “Yeah, right here Bill”.
“Do you chaps mind movin’ up a piece?” asked the first voice.
“Him and me are mates – and we’re goin’ over together.”

A generation later, Sergeant Jack Sim of the 39th battalion endured the desperate struggle on the Kokoda Track:

Some prayed, some swore with fear – but you couldn’t show it in front of your mates.
One of the boys got shot fair between the eyes right alongside me.
It was a perfect shot … terrible to be afraid.
Yet it’s the brave ones that are afraid and still keep going.
That’s what they did you know.
Scared bloody stiff and still kept going.
They were so young
They were so young
I loved them all.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for broad brushstrokes, headlines and shallow imagery of history. Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name and devotion to duty.

102,700 Australians are named on the Roll of Honour. Like us, each had only one life, one chance to serve others and our nation.

They chose us.

No Australians have given more, nor worked harder to shape our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world, than those who have worn – and who now wear – the uniforms of the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Airforce.

They have given us a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

They – and especially physically and emotionally wounded veterans amongst us, and the families who love and support them – remind us there are some truths by which we live that are worth fighting to defend.

To young Australians – your search for belonging, meaning and values for the world you want ends here.

Enshrined in stained glass windows sentinel above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, are 15 values informing character:


Our Australia enshrines principle above position and values before value.

Our responsibilities to one another, our nation and its future transcend and define our rights.

Charles Bean concluded that what made the Australian soldier so special, “lay in the mettle of the men themselves”.

To be the kind of man that would give way when his mates were trusting to his firmness. To spend the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge he had lacked the grit to carry it through, was a prospect with which these men could not live.

Life was very dear. But life was not worth living unless they could be true to their ideal of Australian manhood.


A century later, SAS Sergeant “S”, reflecting on the battle of Tizak in Afghanistan, said:

To fail would be worse than death.
To let down your mates in combat … would be worse than death.
I don’t (even) know why I’m getting emotional about this…
Yeah, that’s it – that’s the essence.
You don’t let your mates down.

That is the essence.

The most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is hope – belief in a better future, a better world.

Hope is sustained most by men and women reaching out in support of one another – “mates who go over together” and though gripped with fear, don’t let one another down.

Their spirit is here.

This place, this day is not about war.

It is about love and friendship.

Love of family, of country and honoring those who devote their lives not to themselves but to us; and their last moments to one another.

After the bloodbath at Fromelles, Sergeant Simon Fraser spent three backbreaking days bringing in the wounded from No Man’s Land.

A lone voice pleaded through the fog, “Don’t forget me, cobber”.

He didn’t.

We won’t.

We never will.

For we are young, and we are free.

Lest we forget.

My grandchildren are too young to understand all of the speech, so I simply said: Today is about love and friendship. Everyone understands what that means.


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