PAUL K LYONS
JOURNAL - 1988 - AUGUST
Wednesday 3 August
Brilliant. Dad rushes off on Monday morning so as to arrive at Wickham Market auctions in good time to view before the start. But, by rushing off, I forget a few important items. First, I discover I’ve left Adam’s shoes behind so he cannot walk around - the ground is nasty gravel. Then, I find I’ve not remembered his feeding spoon, and giving Adam his lunch without it is impossible. We visit a pub for its facilities: a teaspoon. I buy a drink to justify the borrowing, but spill it all on the grass while feeding Adam. Third forgotten - a spare nappy. I suffer all this, and the heat, and the fact that we have hours to wait before the inside auction starts. We nip into Wickham Market village. I discover the post office sells children’s clothes, but not shoes. Back at the auction, I am excited about lot 165, and possibly 184. 165 is a three piece suite of tight compact design, half canework, would have been perfect for the front room. Lot 184 is a Lloyd’s Loom chair identical to the one we already have at the cottage. I open the bidding on 165 at £30 and drop out at £90; and the LL chair goes for too much also. Adam and I go home purchase-less. I don’t feel our trip is without value, there is always so much for him to see and watch.
I listen to so much radio, most of it leaves little or no trace in the memory banks. I do have two programmes to report. Anthony Clare returns with ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’, and Anthony Burgess is his first guest. He talks about one of his more enduring characters, Enderby, who is given to spending much time on the toilet masturbating. Clare managed to introduce the topic, and follow it up, I can’t remember how, but Burgess admitted a need to masturbate before creating, a need to ‘spend seed’ as he put it. He spoke of it as a well known fact, as a chronic problem to writers.
I have long harboured a sneaking admiration and furtive professional jealousy for Georgina Ferry. She writes mind stories for ‘New Scientist’, the sort I would like to write, about as close to academic depth that a journalist can get. I believe there is a great need for skilled and specialised writers to bring technical and complex science to the layman. Last night, Radio Three broadcast the first of four programmes - ‘The Darwinian Brain’ - in which Ferry talks to leading scientists working on mind mechanisms. This first one, though, was dry and technical, about the biological development of brains from foetus to adult. Dale Purves of Washington University concluded, from his work on the nervous system, that we develop a massive overcapacity of brain cells which we shed from childhood on, and that the brain hard wires itself increasingly through life, though there is evidence to suggest that changes (of increasingly fine detail) can occur even in adult life.
Sunday 14 August
Adam’s first birthday has come and gone.
I went to Paris in a hurry. Any action can be seen as the result of sufficient impulse to perform that action. I have not been to Paris for years, and when I used to go, there was sufficient reason (the expectant embrace of Jan, or the dynamic friendship of Harold). Since those days, there has never been sufficient reason to go. Last week, however, enough momentum built up behind the idea that I could not resist. I made the arrangements and went. My first stop was Boulevard Suchard, Roxanne’s office at the Nuclear Energy Agency. She shows me her latest publications. I sense she feels the job is beneath her; at the NRC in Washington her work was at a higher level. She takes me for lunch in the Bois de Boulogne, on an island in a lake. The restaurant is tranquil, not busy, spacious. We sit outside in hot sun, and eat chicken liver salad and fresh salmon, and drink Sancerre. Our conversation focuses mainly on family - Roxanne tells me about her wayward brother (and her kitchen).
I am over an hour late to meet Lia (sister to my Brazilian friend, Elaine), mostly because I choose to change metros at a station where there are no trains going towards the centre. How could I be so stupid? Either Lia has grown plainer and darker (for I remember her lighter than Elaine, and with clearer skin) or my memory is flawed. Perhaps out of context of seeing Brazilians every day, she looked darker compared to white Europeans. We sat in a cafe and discussed her family and her future. She studies French and lives in the house of friends of friends. She hopes later to study dance some more. My Portuguese is rusty, crude and full of errors. I gain the impression that she has already become a bit disillusioned with Europe, perhaps life away from home and family is harder than she expected.
Being late for Lia meant either being late for a meeting with Martin, or leaving Lia after only a very short time together. We had only met once before, and didn’t really have much to say to each another. It seemed most sensible to take Lia with me, to the Pompidou Centre where I was to meet Martin. The area outside seemed even more crowded and more commercial than when I was last here. Inside, too, it felt like a Brazilian supermarket the day before a price hike on food is due.
Martin studies French in the biblioteque. He has a ‘thing’ about speaking languages perfectly. Unfortunately, he does not speak the one language Lia and I have in common. So, I converse with him in English; he talks to Lia in French; while Lia and I speak in Portuguese. Neither have any suggestion as to what to do, so I drag them off into the suburbs to La Villette, the new and giant science museum. It is worth seeing to marvel at the scale of the construction and the surrounding buildings (especially the silver sphere cinema), but we didn’t get in for it was closed already. Lia had grown tired of walking and Martin had to return to Valerie’s flat for an engagement with friends. I made my way to Colin’s.
Hilde is working this evening. She works at a Thomas Cook Bureau de Change in Gare du Nord. Colin and I wander through Montmartre looking for a restaurant. He remains thoroughly depressed and dissatisfied with his job. In the morning Hilde offers me coffee with soya milk. I am stuffy and prefer black. Colin has converted Hilde into a tofu consumer. I go to meet Martin at San Michele and we walk to the new museum at Quai D’Orsay. This too is impressive in concept and realisation: a big project completed with style and confidence. Standing inside the old railway station fairly takes one’s breath away. There is an exhibition of photographs by Gustave le Gray, one of the pioneers of French photography. It has come from Chicago! I have no time to see it, but buy a book of the work (also produced in Chicago and thus in English).
Next on the agenda is an appointment with Lionel Walsh, publicity officer at the International Energy Agency. We talk about the Oil Price Report which FTBI produces and markets, but which he provides the information for. He couriers a disc with the data from Paris to London where we jig it around before sending it to the printer. He says I should talk to him when I’m writing an energy profile as the IEA specialists might be able to help.
My final meeting is with John Lauressane and John Hunter. They take me to a crowded bar where we eat a delicious mixed salad. I am stunned by John’s appearance, he looks like a Dr Spock replica. He is completely bald but has ears that stick out.
Two days here, two days there, how I wangle these trips. I must ask myself this question - have I ever been on a purely business trip, with no thought of either tourism or seeing friends? There were the petrochemical conferences in Monte Carlo - I always went to Dad’s flat in Antibes at least for a few days. There was another conference in Berlin, and another in Venice, both just excuses to be a tourist in those cities I’d never seen. Then of course I went to Rio de Janeiro for a conference. With FTBI I’ve been to Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Paris. Apart from Belgium, I’d say they were more for the travel than the work. And now Iceland. Well this is the real perk of the year. For it is an expensive place to visit. I have interviewed five people, which is sufficient, and I will now travel to the north on a tour. Ireland was a bit of a perk but a cheap one, and Finland was free. But Iceland. This is a once in a lifetime chance - it would be hard to find another reason to come to this remote place. I would never do so just to see - there is not sufficient mystery.
So Reykjavik. The tourist brochures gaily tell the reader he should ‘wait a minute’ if he/she doesn’t like the weather. I first heard the pithy synopsis of local weather variability in New Zealand, that other place of geothermal tourist sights, and almost directly at the antipodes of Iceland. In fact the sky has been full of fast changing cloud formations, sometimes, briefly, allowing the sun through, and sometimes bringing rain. As I look out of the window of this guest house, I perceive nothing unusual about the light, most of the trees and bushes are leafed in a dark tough shade of green, they are a bit dingy and go well with the dingy concrete of many of the house blocks. Yet people do say the light in Iceland is special. It is - late at night and early in the morning. I think it is just an extended twilight period, when colours take on an enhanced tone, the light seeming to etch images rather than just illuminate them. There is a metallic eery quality to everything. Tonight I shall try and catch it with my camera. And if I can’t, I shall try again tomorrow even further north. Chasing the midnight sun.
Reyljavik does not startle. It feels like a large village in some respects, an outpost that’s grown into a town. It’s hard to tell where is the centre, near the row of shops by the post office or the small duck. I’ve found one shopping street, albeit long. The shops are largely small and specialised - clothes, shoes, books, jewellery, nothing unusual. I found quite a few children’s stores but no toys made in Iceland. The banks, interestingly enough, have small child seats around a play table with lego. Whether this is out of consideration for the mothers or a sign of how long people have to spend in banks I cannot tell. Also, I have noticed a liberal sprinkling of brightly coloured playgrounds around the centre.
There might be plenty of lego in the banks but Iceland has always suffered from a shortage of building materials. I have not seen a brick. All houses are built of concrete and/or corrugated iron, sometimes painted all sorts of colours. Brick red is common but many lighter, almost pastel, shades are used, and it is the combination of colours for the metal and colours for the window frames which give some charm.
I spot a few lilies and hardy geraniums, rambler roses growing as bushes, and pansies all in flower. In general, flowers are scarce, forced, and small in size. Who can blame them, the wind yesterday (mid-August) was sometimes so bitter I thought it mid-winter. Windows encourage cactus life which, through dirty double-glazed windows, also looking dingy.
The plant life might be dingy but the people are bright-eyed and very blond. Very blond indeed. Many of the women die their hair blond white if it isn’t already. Curls are common. Some women have fiery red hair. The women are often pretty in that blond Scandinavian way, but there is little sexuality, either in dress or manner.
Right at the end of the three hour flight Reyljavik the lady in the next seat leant over and asked me if it was my first visit to Iceland. When I said yes, she offered me a lift into Reykjavik, some 40km, with her husband. I accepted. It turned out she was a nurse who had accompanied a heart patient to London for surgery. They are a jolly pair. We jog along in his old car, as he tells jokes about the government. Two years ago, he says, there was a boom in the economy, the income of the government increased so much it wanted to find a way of giving some of it back to the people - various unions etc. were lobbying for this. In the end, they all agreed to a reduction in the price of cars. Now, there are so many old cars, and people have several cars because they can’t sell the old ones.
My flight to Akureyri is delayed due to low cloud. In this tiny, tinny, over-hot domestic terminal I sit next to a poster of a Geysir. How many times have I read in brochures that Geysir gave the name to the phenomena. Shame that it has become inactive, and guides must take their clients on to another, more regularly-erupting spout. I miss out on this, and the spectacular waterfall that goes with the tour. But how to decide what sights to see, what adventures to partake of in a limited time? Unlike Auden and Louis Niece, I do not have three months in which to explore the remoter aspects of near-Arctic life. I have three and a half days, two of which are for work. I thus try and pack in as much Iceland as I can. By flying north, I say to myself, I am intensifying the experience of being in such a northern country. I will also gain an impression of the country’s hinterland by flying above it. A tour from Akureyri to Myvatin will mean I spend the bulk of my free time tripping to the volcanic regions. Pretty fishing villages, islands and waterfalls, I’ve seen plenty of, but geothermal activity and volcanoes are not so common. I’ve seen them in New Zealand and in the Galapagos and in Bali. I expect to be profoundly disappointed - a 10-11 hour round trip to a see a dull lake.
I still sit next to Geysir. An employee races round placing ashtrays on all the tables. He does so as though he were at the circus, trying to get them all to whirl around at the same time. They make a racket as they settle.
No updates on the cloud situation in Akureyri.
I stayed at Flokagata 1, a registered guest hours not dissimilar to a B&B in the UK, only twice as expensive. The room was adequate, except for the paper thin wall on one side which allowed me to hear the chat and jokes of two Luxembourg airline employees getting up at 4am. Breakfast was served in the upstairs part of the house where the family live. To get there I had to pass along the main corridor where the rest of the family were going to and from the bathroom. The lounge and dining area were a hotch-potch of decorations, a garish, if lived-in, ugliness.
In the cinema. I thought the Brazilians were bad. The theatre was full of young chattery Icelanders, hands full popcorn and coke. The popcorn munching goes on, well into the film, about half way I’d say. Then, a few minutes after the last popcorn munch has been heard, the film fades, and the lights come on. Almost everyone rushes out, jamming the exit. A few minutes later they stroll back in twos and threes and fours, all with a look of satisfaction on their faces.
Right plum in the middle of town is a restaurant! I ate a red fish dish with nut sauce. The red fish was white, similar to cod. The nut sauce made a change. For desert, I at a yoghurty cream (massive portion) with raspberry sorbet (tiny helping). The restaurant was smart, too sophisticated for most of its clientele, including me. The tablecloths, in light blue, looked attractive against the ever-so pale green walls. All the waitresses (not a man in sight) served all the tables. Like ice maidens, they wore bleached white dresses and aprons. From behind, you could see through the material to the shape of their underwear. For a single man dining alone these ice maidens whetted the appetite for a meal of a different kind!
Flight to Akureyri. Within minutes, we are beyond the city, below only scattered houses betray any life, but even these give out soon. We fly above high flattish land pitted with lakes and ponds and hollows. Much of the rock or earth is covered in a dull greenish covering - grass or moss. Now I see four plumes of smoke, steam, and a larger lake. This must be the new geothermal field being tapped by Reykjavik District Heating Services. I have seen aerial photos of it. And, yes, there is the crater by the lakeside along which the cold water pipeline will run to the power house. Heat exchangers will be used for the water rising from the bore holes which is over 200 degrees C.
Further on, now, it is just a desert landscape below, a few mountain ridges as well as glaciers. In the distance, the sun glints off a collection of lakes turning them golden.
We have flown above clouds. There is nothing to see. The stewardess brings a welcome cup of coffee and biscuit, both of which I have to pay for. It must be the first time I’ve ever paid for coffee on a flight. But it was only Kr30, less than half the price in the airport.
We begin to descend.
I sit in the Saga Class bar at Keflavik Airport. There are good views from this modern cubist airport building. I look out over an immense desert plain, flat, with a light covering of dingy green grass. In the foreground there are one or two flags flying, in the distance the sun lights up what must be water tanks like giant golf balls. I could imagine I was on the moon. It is five o’clock, they have just announced final call for boarding the five thirty flight. No airline I know shoves its passengers on a full half an hour before take off.
I took a final turn around Reykjavik this morning, thinking I might spend the £50 I had left in Icelandic krona. But all the stores were shut. Nothing for it but to make my way to the swimming pool! Swimming. I have swum each day. Once in the Blue Lagoon, twice in the Reykjavik municipal indoor pool.
The Blue Lagoon, in particular, was quite the most stunning experience to come my way for a long time. On my first evening in Reykjavik, I took a local bus about 40 minutes ride out of the city to Grindavik, I think it is called. The way lies through a lava desert that separates Reykjavik from its international airport at Keflavik. From afar, one can see the plumes of steam rising slowly into the sky, and vapourising into nothing. The so-called Blue Lagoon lies by the side of the Svartsengi geothermal power plant, itself rather stuck in the middle of the lava. The bus detours off the main track to take me into the site. It will return in two hours time on its regular route to the city.
I walk through the gate in a wire mesh fence and find myself standing on a mini and man-made beach, upon which mini waves lap. Here is the lake, so blue it seems it must be artificial, a translucent sky blue. It is almost completely covered in mist as the rising hot air condenses into the cold atmosphere. Across the other side of the lake, giant cauldrons boil away, or so it seems. Series of chimneys, often obscured by the mist, eject torrents of high pressure steam.
A newly-built changing hut and coffee bar looks oddly out of place, its wood contrasting with the blue water, metal fence and silver chimneys. A surly female robs me of 200 Krona for the privilege of taking a dip and using the changing rooms. (The municipal baths cost just 80 Kr about the same as in England.)
The blue water is a translucent temperature too, warmer than luke warm but not as hot as a hot bath. I can barely see if there is anybody else in the water, the mist is so thick and swirling. Occasionally, a gust of wind blows the mist away for a second, but never enough to see the other edge of the pool. All the while, too, there is the intense noise of the plant steam outlets, an incessant full-bodied hissing. After a while, it begins to rain hard, and a colder wind arrives, causing the mist to thicken. I am afraid to swim too far for fear of losing my bearings; and I never get an accurate impression of the size of the lake.
The geothermal water is supposed to be good for psoriasis. Doctors say they notice distinct improvement in patients that bathe regularly over months, and use the mud for a kind of skin mulch. I do not expect one dip to help me, nor would I expect one week of dips to do any good, but, sure enough, there was an American sitting in the cafe in a dressing gown of the nearby hotel (also newly-built) who was staying a week. Though I didn’t see any psoriasis on him. The algae on silica I think is what gives the blueness and the water’s supposed healing powers.
I swam and floated in this exquisite blue water for forty minutes or so, while the storm of weather raged and the storm of steam hissed. Occasionally my feet touched the bottom, I didn’t like that (I imagined foul monsters of the not-so-deep, as usual) although it was just smooth lava. At one point a geothermal mermaid appeared from nowhere, all of a sudden, with a mane of fiery red hair, a metallic blue swimsuit, and a body from Playboy. She disappeared equally fast. The plant is operated by the local district heating utility. The very hot (over 200 degrees) geothermal water is fed through heat exchangers and delivered to the town and villages in the Keflavik area. It also produces 8 MW of electricity. The Blue Lagoon is artificially created by mixing the geothermal water with cold water.
All the municipal swimming pools ‘run’ on geothermal water. They are an excellent temperature for bathing, warmer I think than London pools. Next to the swimming baths are sitting pools - jacuzzis - some at about 40 degrees and others at a slightly higher temperature. These are quite brilliant. They have submerged ridges for sitting on, and can hold about eight people comfortably, or twenty in a crowd. Some Icelanders just come to sit in these warm baths, not to swim, but most switch between a bout of swimming and a longer bout of sitting. Often, after sitting, they will stand or sit around in the cold, bitter air, to cool after the last bath. So civilised the swimming routine. For a start you leave your shoes at the entrance on special racks. You then take a key, on a rubber ring, for a cubicle or box. There you store your clothes, before walking naked to the showers with trunks and towel. At the shower area, there are special cubicles for towels. Bold notices tell you to wash carefully hair, armpits, genitals and feet before entering the swimming pool. On exiting, then, you shower and dry before returning to your cubicle. Furthermore, at the Reykjavik indoor pool there were two separate terraces where men and women can sunbathe or cool off after a hot bath, in the nude.
Perhaps because of the swimming, I feel fresher after the trip to Iceland than I usually do following aeroplane journeys. Adam will arrive shortly, and I shall probably go south to Raoul’s for lunch. But I have more to record about Iceland.
From Akureyri airport a coach took me and another dozen or so tourists - French, Italian, German, American - across the country’s largest fjord up into the hills and lake Myvatn, pronounced Miva. The lake Myvatn area is renowned for its bird life and its geological activity. Our coach driver wore a cap and our guide, a young woman, had a ponytail. She delivered her information compentently, and without giving the impression of being too jaded at saying the same things every day to the same schedule. She tells us that Akureyri is second at everything in Iceland, except perhaps shipbuilding where it excels as the chief yard in the country. We drive over moors and across valleys, through basalt formations. She points out rivers and streams, with their length to the nearest metre, and lakes with their depths. A flood of useless facts, but I do not drown. Interesting information - driftwood - keeps me afloat. We see ridges formed by glaciers on the sides of valleys, and the hillocks left where glaciers have pushed and shoved silt. We learn how farmers own the rivers that cross their land and can sell daily fishing rights (salmon/trout) for as much as $1,000. One or two valleys have fairly extensive farming activity but most of the land is fairly barren, a scrubby grass growing perhaps. We see lambs, some cattle and the Icelandic ‘dwarf’ horse. Near Lake Myvatan we see some famous ducks with their goslings. At risk of sounding like a tour guide myself I shall also point out a couple of boarding schools which are stuck out in the middle of nowhere, usually near geothermal hot water sources, but double as hotels in the summer months.
Our first real tourist attraction is a waterfall - Goðafoss - whatever ð is. We stop for half an hour (not just a photo stop, very popular with tourist guides) to really drink in the sight of the raging torrent and spend lots of loot in the cafe-tourist shop.
I find it so hard to take pictures when everybody aboard is doing likewise. A waterfall, what more can I capture, why record the event of my passing here. But I do, I do. For the life of me, I can’t remember why. Maybe it was to do with getting near, very near to the fall of the water, and I felt I might be able to capture movement in the foreground of water against the backdrop of the rest of it. More interesting than the waterfall, was a plant I spotted on the lower river bank by a black sand beachlet. Without more time and without getting dirty, I couldn’t climb down. The flower had a large spherical head, still green I think having not blossomed. It was the size of a grapefruit. Later, I found it in the lovely botanical gardens at Akureyri and took a photo. Not because the plant or flower is particularly attractive but because its name is Angelica Archangelica. (The encyclopaedia tells me it is considered a vegetable in Iceland. The roots and flowers are also used for Angelica oil which is utilised in perfumery and liqueurs, and the tender shoots are used in certain types of sweetmeats. Now, if I was a guide I would know things like this, so that I could tell interested clients.) Another grass-like plant caught my eye by the road sides. The ‘grass’ blades were solid, fleshy and pointing up giving it a top heavy appearance. A strange plant altogether. I found this specimen too in the botanical gardens: it is called Barbarae stricta and belongs to the winter cress family. One other flower, I noticed, in clumps on the banks of rivers - common cotton grass
After Goðafoss, we next stopped on the shore of Lake Myvatan to examine ‘pseudo craters’, formed by hot lava meeting water and somehow rising up into this crater form. It is was our first meeting with volcanic formations which were to take up the rest of the tour.
I never got bored on the tour, so that must have been a good thing. At the hotel, where we stopped for lunch, I read my book, Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’. It seemed an appropriate book to bring to this wild wasteland of a country. We all ate chicken soup and Lake Myvatan trout at a long table. The food was good, reasonably priced. I chatted to my neighbours, felt quite lively and communicative, but my ironies and sarcasms tended to fall on deaf foreign ears. Near the hotel, tourists are directed to the remains of an old church. God, the locals say, protected it when a lava spill destroyed much of the town: the lava streams split in two, and went either side of the church.
So - the guide prefixed every phrase with so - so we visited four places during the afternoon. First we drove right up to the Krafla region passing the National Power Company’s geothermal station. The whole valley is filled with twirls of steam coming from the ground, whether barren, rocky or even grassy. Some parts are scorched to a myriad of browns, oranges and reds. We trek up to a ridge to look into a large water-filled volcanic crater, about 2,000 years old. Three major periods of volcanic activity have left visiting cards in the form of tourist attractions: that of 2,000 years ago, another about 200 years ago, and the most recent eruptions of about 10 years ago. Along with the others, I got out of the coach to take a picture of the valley looking down on the Krafla power station and its spider’s web of steel silvery pipes spread across the landscape.
Perhaps the most extraordinary sight of my visit was the boiling mud pools. I’m not at all sure that I saw boiling mud pools in New Zealand. I might have done, near Rotorua, but I can’t remember exactly. The ones here are not very big, ranging from two metres in diameter to just six inches. The larger ones are more impressive, circular pools of grey viscous liquid gurgling away as though there were a bunsen burner beneath them. We are warned to only walk on the darker patches of earth: light or light yellow means there is a possibility of stepping through a thin crust and scalding the feet. We are shown one baby mud pool which formed only a few weeks ago; and another, with a more contorted shape and several colours in the earth walls, is said to be the oldest. A sulphurous smell pervades the air. As well as mud pools, there are steam outlets. One in particular is vicious, with steam hissing out under great pressure from what would otherwise be an ordinary boulder or rock outcrop. Standing near feels like a dangerous thing to do, as though it might explode.
On our way to the so-called ‘lava park’ we stop for a few minutes at a natural hot pool in a rock formation. We must descend a few steps, through a small entrance, to see the perfectly still, if dark, bath. Not very large, just big enough to splash around in. A little scary though. Ten years ago, in midsummer, the local youth would dive here for a swim after a party. But recent volcanic activity heated the water to temperatures above that which the body could stand. Since then, it has been slowly cooling again but still remains too hot.
Well, I should be in Belgium by now had the weather not defeated us. Instead, we ended up in Woodbridge Tide Mill marina by about midday, so it seemed sensible to come home. Hitching was quick and easy, but I don’t know how easily I’ll make it back to Woodbridge. I must be there by 10 in the morning, for that is the earliest the tides will let us out. This is my first sailing experience since Brazil. The idea of spending three days couped up in a yacht with three strangers from Andrew Sewell’s night class did not exactly excite me. There are a good number in the class that I actually dislike, but then there was also the possibility, however vague, of making a new friend. Mostly, I wanted to go out with Andrew one weekend so as to reinforce the learning from his class and to refresh my knowledge of sailing.
I arrived at Woolverstone Marina at about midnight, believing that we would be leaving for Ostende at 1am. From then, from midnight, until about 9am any thoughts I had of sailing as a long term hobby, or any confidence I had developed in such a hobby, were slowly eradicated. Firstly (my writing has become so journalistic, full of such deadly dull constructions), I was disappointed (both actively and passively) because we weren’t leaving until 3 or 4am, and, in any case, I wasn’t on watch until 7am. Within minutes of me arriving, we were all bedding down. Me and Ed, who has the look of a shy gayboy, in the forehead bunks. I had taken a nap during the day, and rested in the evening, thinking we would be leaving directly. I was all tensed up to do so. Lying down in a small airless bunk cabin, with six inactive hours stretching before me, was the first disappointment. Sleeping was difficult. Initially because I wasn’t tired, then at 3 or 4am, it became impossible because there was so much activity on deck, as the others prepared to leave the marina. I must have stayed awake at least an hour listening to the hum of the engine, and feeling the sway of the boat. For a while, I was worried I might feel sick as I remembered times on Tuna when I went below in rough seas; but, as the boat swung to and fro, I only felt a relaxing rock. Half past six or so, with the light, I awoke. Initially, we’d motored miles down the Orwell during the night, but by then we were under sail. At seven I took the tiller. We were still in sight of Felixstowe. Somehow, I’d thought we’d be half way across the Channel by the time I got up. The sea was very choppy, about force 3 Andrew reckoned.
I’d forgotten how to handle the tiller. Most of the time, closehauled as we were, one is pulling the tiller into one’s chest, in an effort to keep the wind from blowing us away. At first, with the wind at force 3, this was no problem, and although I managed reasonably well, I didn’t keep us on as good a course as I could have done. When my first half an hour was over, I felt an immense relief. It was tiring and taxing. The thought of doing this for another 18 hours to Ostende did not fill me with joy. My second turn at the tiller was hell. I hadn’t enough experience to call for a reef to be put in the mainsail, and so struggled to hold the tiller firm and in direction. Furthermore, both Charles and Andrew disappeared below. I was scared. And terribly disappointed. I think I must have expected a lot from this weekend: something different, new people, the fantasy of spending much time sailing in the future. At the tiller, tired, scared, over-stretched, unable to control the yacht, nothing in sight, and all these hours stretching out before me, that fantasy looked so hollow that I felt hollow, of no substance. ‘We are the hollow men.’ I thought of Vic Peeke’s boat, how could I possibly look after it when he goes to the US, I must be mad to dream so. Both the short term holiday and the long term hobby were thus undermined in minutes.
At one point, with both Andrew and Charles down below, I did very nearly lose control - which might have meant the boat broaching - and shouted for assistance. A reef was then put in. And, a little later, already on the way back, Catherine had another reef put in, but by then the wind was less if anything. I suppose Andrew, once having given up on Belgium, was not so concerned with speed. I was relieved when he decided to turn back. I had not fully appreciated how much work it would be to get across to Belgium and back in three days. There would have been little time for practising anything, let alone navigation - he would have done it all.
Now, a day later, having recovered from the exhaustion of such physical exercise, I think the overall experience was not terribly satisfactory. What little sailing experience I have is very rusty, and I had been hoping for a certain amount of instruction. Andrew could have helped me learn, for example, how to handle the tiller on the way to Belgium, and then again through the gusts on the final return to Orwell. Indeed, as far as sailing itself, as opposed to navigation, he didn’t seem to have much knowledge. There was no ‘fine tuning’ of the sails - all so very different from my experience with Stan Haynes and his crew on Tuna. For them sailing was sport, craft and art combined. It was unfortunate for me that I only had this comparison to make.
Having aborted our trip to Belgium we headed back to the coast and wended our way up the river Deben to Woodbridge. Navigation here consisted of checking buoys with the chart. The crew did this with great relish and zeal (I too, on the return, for then I was navigator - great privilege!), however it would have been no problem to arrive at Tide Mill marina, the limit of navigable water on the Deben, without reference to the chart. It certainly helped for peace of mind, but it no ways was it necessary. Once at Tide Mill we were trapped by the tide until the following morning, which is why I decided to hitch back to Aldeburgh. We’d docked at the old rather quaint and rickety marina before 1pm and eaten a greasy shepherd’s pie by 2pm. By 3pm I was back here.
Because of the tide, we didn’t leave until about 11am, and it took us the rest of the day to get back to Woolverstone, and that was with motoring down the Deben, until we hit the sea. The best bit of the entire weekend came on Sunday night ashore, after another greasy meal. I walked the mile down the coast to Pin Mill and The Buck and Oyster pub, famous to all sailing men on the east coast. Charles and Ed went by car, Andrew and Catherine bedded down early. The last of the twilight disappeared, vanished, as I strolled through the wood along a windy path. A full moon pink and orange, enormous, hung just above the horizon occasionally visible above or through the trees, and fully visible once I’d left the forest. It shone across the river, glowing in a broad beam reflection, silhouetting several small craft. It was one of the most beautiful moonscapes I could ever remember seeing. Having to sit in the pub, crowded, full of east coast sailing men, and make polite conversation with Charles and Ed as they drank three pints, was a cheap price to pay indeed.
On Monday we made an early start. What do we do? We sail further up the Deben which is so clearly marked with buoys a bat could navigate. We have a look at the big boats and sail back down. We run out to sea in an attempt to make Walton-on-the-Naze or somewhere similar. Where Woodbridge was the first place north, Walton is the first place south. Is it worth owning a yacht, if all the places you can visit are these? He must get bored. But, as I began to realise, he gets quite a good deal. Not only does he make £400 out of the three days, but he also enjoys himself - talking, endless jokes about smoking cigars, recycling the same stories about ex-students, or about places visited, things seen. We are a captive audience hanging on his every word.
Tidal stream and wind are against us reaching Walton in time for lunch, so, when a ring on the beam snaps, allowing it to swing right out, Andrew abandons the attempt again, for he is worried about his chilli con carne lunch. I am steering, and am told to run with the wind in the opposite direction so that lunch can be prepared. After lunch we tack to a buoy or two, and then make our way to Woolverstone to arrive by 5pm. Once we have berthed, Andrew dismisses me - says I can go, the others won’t mind (i.e. clearing up without me). He knows I am happy to be away though not the reasons, but this is a strange parting. Suddenly I am stepping off the boat saying good bye, a smile from Ed, from Charles, but Catherine does not even lift her head. But I care little.
The wind blew and blew yesterday. If it was this strong on land it must have been blowy out at sea. There were many gale warnings on the shipping forecast. The overcast sky throws a dim light on the world, signalling rain perhaps.
I heard Adam move about in his cot but I think 6 is too early. I like to get him up at seven, then give him his milk and breakfast. He continues to be such a good-natured child, although B thinks he is learning to be deliberately naughty. I wonder if this is possible. He does understand some concept similar to ‘no’, and sometimes reacts to it. So, when he doesn’t stop, B thinks he is being deliberately naughty. There is no doubt that he wilful, but it’s a will driving him on to explore. If he carries on when we say ‘no’, this maybe naughty by our terms, but to call it deliberate is stretching the limits of what a conscious deliberate act is for a toddler. However, all language is a compromise, a sort of shorthand technique for communicating vagueness of mind from one person to another. If B perceives Adam as deliberately naughty then that is what she perceives.
He is on the edge of associating me with the words Dada and Daddy, and nearly to the point of saying Mummy, but, although he garbles a lot, he seems a long way off recognising other words. Show him a banana and he goes Ma. If he is hungry or thirsty he will draw in his cheeks. He takes to pointing often when being held. He points up to the ceiling, and B says ‘ceiling’, but I think his pointing is fairly aimless, he’s just emulating us - something he will do more and more from now on. Yesterday, he found the mop, and tried to clean the floor. He has learned to climb up unto the sofa and low chairs.
He negotiated a two foot drop in the pebbles on the beach yesterday with great perseverance. The tide and waves had left quite a steep ridge, and every time he wandered over to it, I thought he was going to fall and tumble down. But he stopped short each time. Finally, he decided to give it a go. He clawed his way down head first on his stomach, pushing pebbles before him as he went. Then he turned round, and tried to climb up. I really thought he wouldn’t manage because the pebbles would just give way as he pressed his feet into them. But, he kept on trying and trying, and clawing his way up, bit by bit, and finally made it. I was so proud of him. I gave him a great big kiss. He promptly went and repeated the adventure.
Paul K Lyons
Copyright © PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG