Thursday, 3 November 2011

War and Priest

In the time I've taken off this blog (nearly two years, bar a snow-dazzled Xmas special from Germany), my cousin Peter Fiennes has researched and written a whole book, his first. It's called To War With God, and it's rather good. Here he is at the launch on 27 September in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which I was privileged to attend (Angela had to stay in the UAE for work, but had visited family in Wales a month before).

The backstory is fascinating: in the way of most war veterans, our grandad Monty Guilford (Brad to Peter and my other cousin Toby) didn't say much about his time as an army chaplain at the Western Front. We sort of knew that he had sat up all night with a condemned deserter, and that he may have lost his faith, but the details were missing. (He did go on to a career as a loved and respected country parson.) But nearly a hundred years on, Peter's son Alex needed info for a school project on the First World War, which led to an attic search and the discovery of a forgotten trove: this old suitcase full of WWI memorabilia, including Monty's diaries.

The book demanded to be written, and Peter (long-term editor and director of the Time Out Guides) did Grandad proud. Read it to see how, and to learn a bit more about the Great War than we did from the estimable Blackadder IV.

And the launch (held at St Martin's because Monty ran a youth club in the crypt straight after the war, at the invitation of the charismatic Rev. Dick Sheppard) was a special occasion because for the first time in decades, us three cousins (Toby all the way from NZ) and our aunt Biddy (third daughter after my mother Ruth and Toby and Peter's mother Jacq) all got together. I'm kicking myself that in the intense atmosphere of the gathering (crowded with long-lost relatives and friends to catch up with) I forgot to get the group photo.

So these must make do:

(L to R above) Biddy, Peter, Toby, Peter's wife Anna; and (below) me, Peter, his daughter Natalie (sorry, Alex got missed out altogether, but younger daughter Esme stars further down the page).

I am fated to visit the UK at Indian-Summer-time - it was even hotter than when we were in Wales in Sept 2009, a record 29.7deg! in London, ideal for frequent walks on the nearby Commons (Wandsworth and Clapham) with Bonnie the dog.

Then to Hove for a few precious days with Biddy, my flu only partly to blame for hardly managing to keep up with this indefatigable octogenarian favourite aunt at such things as cryptic crosswords and going for more walks on the beautiful South Downs, only minutes away and panoramically viewable from my window.

Here we are on an old Roman road (Hove and the Channel in the background)

leading to popular (very on a day like this) National Trust beauty spot The Devil's Dyke, from where you can gaze across most of Sussex.

Those magical English summers are what memory conjures up from my time in Cambridge in the 80s, so reliving that feeling, however briefly, was hard to top. But I did manage to squeeze in some more treats in my three remaining days back in London. Failing to spot any handy gig by a suitable music legend, Peter and I instead made a beeline for the South Bank, taking in a tour of the Globe Theatre - just missed the end of the play season by a week, Hamlet or Dr Faustus would have been nice (perhaps next year, with Angela accompanying?), but it was superb just to be there (looking a bit Falstaffian) even if it was full of scaffolding and we didn't see backstage.

Then on to the Tate Modern - again, it was between major exhibitions and we only had time to see a few rooms (some fine photography) but I can report that it is indeed Very Big and Full of Art. I can't wait to be slightly less overwhelmed by the (comparatively boutique) revamped Auckland City Gallery.

And, by good fortune I did spot that the Barbican was hosting, on my last night, a performance by the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company on their farewell tour before disbanding (MC having died last year). Those who know what a fan of John Cage and the flavour of the New York avant garde I am will appreciate that this was a serendipitous lightning strike - and it turned out to be affordable, so off Peter and I trotted. Not disappointed - such purity of movement seldom seen, scores by Cage and Eno too. So cool to have caught it.

And there was one more amazing and faith-in-humanity-boosting tale, a real antidote to seeing the odd boarded-up shop in the local high street from the previous month's mass mayhem: while I was at Biddy's, Misty the much-adored kitten absconded from Peter and Anna's house. The family put Missing Kitten posters all over the neighbourhood and doorknocked comprehensively, but several days later, any news was still gloomily lacking. Then - result? - someone phoned to say he had seen a circular delivery man picking a kitten up and taking it away in his van. Instantly the house became an operations room, with calls to the Borough council, leaflet delivery companies, and more visits to homes in the street in question.

And - result! - all these good people took the quest on board, pulled strings, and did indeed call back; the cat-rescuer was identified and ordered to interrupt his rounds and scoot back home and return the prodigal - who did indeed turn out to be Misty. Who was of course quite unruffled, but appeared happy to be home.

So let's hear it for The Neighbourhood, true English (of numerous nationalities) pet-lovers all. The Tories' Big Society fantasy may not be how to run a country, yet the pull-together spirit of the Somme and the Blitz can still be found in the leafy streets of south London.


  1. Nice post - I look forward to reading the book.

  2. Great post! Great updates of lots of stuff followed up with some interesting culture and capped off with human interest! You should write for the six o clock news..

  3. Great to see you back again. Nice post with pictures of people I've met and a kitten adventure.