A Couple of Days After

Now the walk of 143 miles is over, our 11th walk! – the weather was kind to us – In fact it was perfect.

A couple of last thoughts.

If I am denounced for expressing my views, I shall of course demand ”counselling”: apparently it’s all the fashion these days.

I was told that my nemesis could come by twitter!

What an extraordinary world we are living in where we are seemingly unable to express our views and disagreements clearly to one another.

It would seem that little has changed since the early seventeenth century.

Trial by Twitter

On 11 April 1612, despite being given the chance to repent at his trial in Lichfield, Edward Wightman was burned as a heretic.

That was said to be the last time. Just think how enlightened we are today. How could our ancestors ever have been so plain stupid and wicked to kill people because their beliefs were contrary to our own?

Doomed!

Yet 400 years on we still are condemning people as heretics. At least Wightman had a trial… well, a trial of sorts. Today on social media, trolls are destroying people’s reputations, careers and livelihoods… without trial. Why? Just because the victims disagree with some arbitrary consensus – usually to do with race or gender – and because it’s such fun to sit in cruel judgement.

Look at what George Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It appears to have been junked…  

Today, we all have to conform – or else! I have been warned that my simple blog is a bomb waiting to explode, and if the social media trolls get wind of it, like Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!” It’s ridiculous. I find it hard to believe that we have regressed to the days of Savonarola. But the trolls believe that their “views” make them morally superior to everyone else – and that if you disagree with them, then you are not only lower than vermin, they will destroy your career and livelihood and as publicly as possible to show the world the fate of heretics, just as they did in 1612.

This is monstrous. Today, talented people are running scared of saying anything that could be distorted, because once it’s been weaponised by the trolls, employers will be fearful of employing them, commercial firms won’t sponsor them, and TV producers will be frightened of hiring them. Who can blame anyone with a living to earn for being terrified? Once careers are destroyed, they stay destroyed. 

What’s the motive? It’s a power play: a controlling minority are just as cruel and vicious and hungry for power now as they were in the days of the Spanish Inquisition. The trolls get their kicks by inflicting cruelty by Twitter: they tap away, anonymous and giggling with glee, safely hiding behind the narrow consensus of “the mob”.   

That’s what happened to actor Laurence Fox. He simply argued on Question Time that Meghan Markle may have had grounds other than racism for leaving the UK. He now worries he may never work again. Then the reputations of Germaine Greer, Toby Young, JK Rowling and the late Sir Roger Scruton – to name but a very few – have all been thrown under a bus. An article by journalist Kevin Myers in the Sunday Times was purposefully misunderstood: despite the fact he never said what was reported, he was denounced worldwide for misogyny and anti-Semitism, his career destroyed. 

At least the “heretic” Edward Wightman was given a trial. That’s more than Laurence Fox and the others were granted. 

Face Value

People take you at face value and life isn’t fair when it comes to faces. In repose, my beloved wife Jane has a face that clearly shows the world she’s a good and kind person; but in contrast, my face looks like an agitated horse and it’s not fair.

When they first meet me, people assume I’m a grumpy sort of guy, but in fact I’m just as nice as Jane. Well, I suppose not quite as nice, for that wouldn’t be possible, but at least a great deal nicer than I look. But people are bound to take you at face value; they assume that the way you look reflects character. Oh look, here comes that miserable old git. One look and its judgement day! And usually there’s no second chance to show a critical world my true colours.

But I’m sure that looking grumpy is better than being a continual smiler. The vicar of the church I used to go is an all-the-time smiler: every time you look at him, he’s grinning away as if he’s just heard some private joke. I find that irritating and it must be difficult for his parishioners. There you are, deserted and penniless with angina and fallen arches, and there’s old Fred grinning away as if he’s chorusing, “No worries!” Or you’re dying of the dreaded lesser-spotted lurgy and here he comes grinning like a Cheshire cat. Or you’re corpsed, the family’s in deep mourning, and there’s Fred again grinning like a ragtime band to spoil your misery.  

On balance, I’ll settle for looking like a horse!

Superstar Queen

Our youngest grandson, Raphael Benyon (Raph), took it upon himself to write to the queen as follows:

“Dear Your Majesty the Queen,

I am writing to you because I wanted to say “thank you” for being such a brilliant and superstar queen for such a long time.

My two brothers and our little dog Lotti have enjoyed playing and doing puzzles with my dad and riding my bike in lockdown. I wonder what you have enjoyed doing?

My family are praying for you in this very strange time. We hope you will be happy and full of hope.

Yours truly

Ralph Benyon, aged 7

Nothing else to be said really, is there?  

Day 15 – Blenheim

The last leg had us chasing around Stonesfield, through Blenheim and what a beautiful estate it is, particularly in September sunshine.

We talked about “racism”. What, we wondered, is a fair definition as the word is so often hurled about in argument as a terminal insult?

I like Martin Luther King’s hope that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. One walker wondered whether the Scots’ Nationalists should be accused of racism towards the English. It may sound bizarre, but what else can be the reason why so many scots are content to give some of their democratic freedoms to the EU but battle to escape the Union.

But maybe “ racism” is only white on black.

Factor X

It is alleged that Meghan Markle was chased out of the UK because of of racism.

Of course there is racism in the UK, but compared to all other countries, the UK is a benign and tolerant place in which to live. I suppose that is why the majority of desperate migrants want to come here and nowhere else.

No, the reasons Meghan left this country have nothing to do with racism.  

Femme Fatale

Will Meghan destroy her husband, Harry? Obviously I hope not but to my mind the omens are worrying.

Of course, it’s not the first time a man has given up everything for a dream that turns into a nightmare. Let’s start with Yeats’ “Poem to my daughter”:

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught

They’re great lines. I am convinced that the way to a happy relationship is not to chase factor X or a femme fatale. Marry a beautiful person, of course, yes, every time – but don’t pursue the type of beauty that Yeats warns us about.

We read a great deal about men’s power – the so-called “patriarchy” where women are dominated by men. But what about the potent power some women exercise over men? This is a power than men don’t have – put simply, the ability to drive a person mad, to derange them. Not just to destroy them but to make them destroy themselves. The sort of power than allows a young woman to target a man, often at the height of his accomplishments, and torment him, make him behave like a fool and wreck his life utterly for just a few moments of almost nothing.

’Twas ever thus. In the book of Proverbs (7:21–3), we read: “With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk… All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter…  little knowing it will cost him his life.”

So of course, nothing is new in the dance between the sexes. In ancient times, Helen of Troy was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. General Paris was so consumed by her beauty that he abducted her, thereby causing the 10-year Trojan War. Here’s an extract from Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” that captures the electric effect Helen had on poor old Paris:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!  

Paris went mad to get his hands on Helen. Yet when the war ended, she went back to Menelaus. The story could be on Netflix.

And what about Samson and Delilah? She pretended to love him and then she drove him mad with desire for kinky sex (see Judges 16). Delilah nagged Samson ceaselessly to find the secret of his strength. Finally, coldly and ruthlessly, she sold him to the Philistines, who blinded and destroyed him.

Now fast forward to the early 1930s. The power women have over men can’t all be about looks, for Wallis Simpson was no Carey Mulligan, yet she had such an electric effect on Edward VIII that he caused a major constitutional crisis by abdicating his throne.

Then in 1961, Christine Keeler sent Jack Profumo mad. I knew him a little in the early seventies when we both sat on the same committee with Lord Longford. He was a fine man but his brief liaison with Christine destroyed him and was in part responsible for undermining the Macmillan government. (Ever the name-dropper, I must admit to dancing with Christine at the 1962 Sandhurst spring ball – male ZANE donors, eat your hearts out! However, as apparently Christine was having sexual relations with both the Russian military attaché and the UK Secretatry of State for War at roughly the same period, she was somewhat above the pay grade of Officer Cadet Tom Benyon. I assure you, though, she had factors X Y and Z – and it took me some time to recover my equilibrium!)

Princess Diana had factor X in such quantity that she tried – and nearly succeeded – to create a Royal Court in opposition to that of the queen. And the majority of men, some admittedly of curious quality, fell helplessly under her spell.   

But for all that, factor X is an arbitrary quality. I know a family where a very ordinary-looking woman – to my mind with the looks of a genial horse – had, astonishingly, factor X. She could “pull” men on an industrial scale to the considerable detriment of many marriages in the surrounding district.

Trouble Ahead

And now we come to Meghan Markle. One of my old vicar friends is hard of hearing; when he heard on the radio that Harry was going to marry Meghan Markle, he told his amazed congregation that Harry was about to marry Angela Merkel: “It will do so much in terms of good will with the EC!”

I’ll bet Harry wishes he had married the German chancellor. She would never have towed him away from the job he was good at to a life of burning boats in the UK and who knows what in La La Land.

My worries about Meghan have nothing to do with race. It’s just that Meghan comes from a culture that is narcissistic and absorbed with identity politics, that of putting self-interest first at the expense of others. She knows little of self-restraint and the daily grind of duty. She understood nothing of the crucial constitutional importance of the UK monarchy and the unflagging duty of all those who are part of “The Firm”. She should have talked to Princess Anne who completes 500 events each year: she would have told Meghan that she now has to restrain her ambition, back the royal family and play a part in the often tedious grind of (for example) opening the Milton Keynes Health Authority’s new building. It’s often unglamorous, hard work and all participants must put duty first, themselves second.

Instead, Meghan appears wholly self-centred and set on serving her own interests at the expense of poor Harry and all he stands for. For it’s Harry who has lost out: Meghan has lost nothing. She has an even more glittering career that she had before as she is now a duchess and she is married to a very rich man. In short, she has won the jackpot.

Harry has lost more or less everything. When the gilt comes off the marriage and he sees that he no longer has a role, I think he will be desperate. Of course, I hope I am wrong. But I see trouble ahead and I think this is just the start of the saga.  

Back to Helen of Troy. A poet called Lord Dunsany – and no, I had never heard of him before either – wrote a short poem about the legendary beauty. It’s called “And Were You Pleased?” I fear it will become Meghan’s signature tune…

“And were you pleased,” they asked Helen in Hell.
“Pleased?” answered she, “when all Troy’s Towers fell;
And dead were Priam’s sons, and lost his throne?
And such a war was fought as none had known;
And even the gods took part, and all because
Of me alone! Pleased?
I should say I was!”

Day 14 – Cornbury Park (Charlbury)

Off we start. The penultimate day and with a delightful new group of walkers including one couple who have walked with us – and map read with great accuracy – nine times.

Two dogs with us again, so Moses runs at least twice the stated distance. More glorious weather.

The lunch at a middling pub: the landlord apologises for being “rushed off his feet because it’s Sunday! ”

But for goodness sake, Sundays occur at regular intervals, so why do they take him by surprise?

Pushing Him All the Way

The other dog gets randy and starts to ravish the nearest walking leg. We have a boy with us, aged seven – who walks us off our feet.

His weary father tries to explain what the dog was doing.

It reminds me of Noel Coward’s explanation to a Godchild of two mating dogs.

“The front dog is blind: his kind friend is pushing him all the way to St Dunstan’s.”

We discussed the mawkish cover of individual death in BBC reports on COVID.

We all think it overdone and in poor taste. But then, of course, we are an old fashioned bunch. The war generation dealt with death rather differently.

Mourning Sickness

Do you recall the answer given by the Duke of Edinburgh when asked by a reporter how he felt on receiving the news of the murder of his uncle Lord Mountbatten?

You can’t? That’s not surprising because no journalist dared to ask such a drivelling question.

In 2012, the wonderful Daily Telegraph journalist Cassandra Jardine – a good friend to ZANE – died of cancer, leaving five distraught children. Her husband, actor William Chubb, played his theatre role on the evening of her death. He knew the show must go on, for that’s exactly what sensible Cassandra would have wanted. The family could mourn deeply later and of course in private with close friends and colleagues. They understood the value of a stiff upper lip. To them loss and grief were personal matters.      

Recreational Grief

Fast forward to when I was chairman of a heath authority board. A number of staff decided they were too grief stricken to do their job because of the Twin Tower assassinations in New York. Not that they had family involved mind, they were just too distressed to work. I wondered to my chief executive what would have happened if the Battle of Britain pilots had been too distressed by the death of their friends to fight? But I was told that if I had summarily dismissed the absent workers – as I proposed to do – I would lose the sympathy of the entire 2,000 staff. On reflection, he was right not to be too hard on them; in recent times, we have been conditioned to believe that it is right, even proper, to indulge our emotions. They probably felt virtuous for having done so. 

Letting it all hang out is now the thing. But I am of an older generation, and I can’t bear to watch the ghastly sentimentality and unremitting vulgarity of today’s news. And it’s not just the token politicians with faces like broken bed pans reciting the mantra, “Our prayers are with the families” that appal me, it’s worse than that.

Today’s culture demands that for public titillation the media must squeeze the maximum amount of recreational grief from any disaster. And the deaths from Covid-19 present a glorious opportunity.            

Death is no longer a family matter but paraded as a public spectacle. So foot-in-the-door reporters nightly feed on the misery of stricken families and ask loved ones to express their “feelings” at the death of granny, or whoever it is that has died. They dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and they encourage its indulgence. The cameras probe relentlessly to uncover raw grief, pain, shock and as many tears as possible. The obscene intrusion is justified as “caring” and “compassionate” when in fact it’s the exact opposite. When the reporters have gone, the families are left empty and despairing.

The sadness is that the public have striven to accommodate the media’s desire to provide them with this sort of emotional pornography. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it. So the bereaved weep and lament and feel a flattering importance whilst enjoying their brief five minutes of fame. 

George McDonald Fraser – author of Quartered Safe Out Here – describes life as a private soldier under General Slim in nine section of the 14th army in Burma in the Second World War: violent death, of course, was an everyday occurrence. Fraser wishes we could be transported back in time to hear a modern television journalist ask members of his platoon for their “feelings” after one of their colleagues had just been killed. He would like to have heard their reply. 

And there’s still time to ask the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The Truth Will Out…

Jane is a gardener and rightly proud of her talents: to my untutored eye she has created a mini Sissinghurst. Woe betide any suggestions from me. I made the foolish error of proposing that one of our handsome Zimbabwe statues would look good in another part of the garden. She whirled round and rasped, “The trouble is that you’re a vulgarian!”

So true.

Day 13 – Stonesfield and Finstock

Happy Shambling

I shamble up to Stonesfield, as old as sin and not two pounds of me hanging straight.

Then the day looked up as the group gathered together some of my favourite people in my world, Darling Jane and beloved daughter Rev Clare Hayns; son in law, and ZANE close chum, John Hayns. I reckon Clare gives a regular MOT and state of health report about us to the rest of our children.

Then the lovely Alannah Jeune, an Oxford post-grad student who played the trumpet at the outset of our last walk in Canterbury comes too – not a good omen for on that occasion we then led the group resolutely 4 miles in the wrong direction. 

I am not allowed to mention this fact for fear of offending General Jane: even she has to admit that this episode was not her finest hour.

A glorious day: up and down paths that threaded us through sun-spangled woods from which we imagine Robin Hood and his men would confront us at any moment. To the left a glimpse of a small lake, on the right a small stream for Moses and Layla (Hayns dog) to splash in, both giving little squeals of pure delight: what more possibly could I possibly want than to be alive at this hour?     

Dames and Broads

We discussed that Sasha Swire has sold the details of private conversations with her political “friends” to the media for money. Seems pretty tawdry to me. Who can anyone trust? Who would be daft enough to risk going into politics? UK Ambassador to the US Tim Darroch (now Lord) finds his confidential report – critical of Trump – leaked, and his career destroyed. ZANE donors will recall that John Major was traduced by Edwina Currie when she sold the secrets of their brief romance to the papers.

You can only behave like this once: Do the likes of Swire or Currie – like Lady Buck (see past blog) – deserve any real friends?  

The great film actor Humphrey Bogart divided women into two camps: “Dames” and “Broads”. I reckon Swire and Currie to be “Broads” not “Dames”. 

I wonder whether her friends will ever forgive and trust Sasha again?

For forgiveness is a tough call: easy to say and hard to actually do. 

All of us have been let down badly at some time in our lives in various ways: perhaps financially; maybe by parents or family? What about being double-crossed by someone you trust? Maybe you have been the subject of abuse? Perhaps you have been the “innocent party” in adultery, or the so-called “guilty” party and find forgiving yourself really hard?  

But forgiveness can be found in even in the hardest of cases…

Amazing Grace

Those of you who have been to Robben Island in South Africa will have stood in the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela was locked up, and seen the thin mat on the cold floor on which he spent his nights. He was there for 18 long years.

Such squalid conditions usually give birth to enraged avengers, sworn to exact retribution on those who have ruined their lives and traduced their country. We can understand this embittered logic – indeed, we see the results of anger and retribution nightly on our television screens. 

The enormity of Mandela’s forgiveness towards his opponents is hard to understand for it’s all about the absurdity of Grace. We can hear the impossibility of this sort of forgiveness in the words of those being crucified as the executioners hammer in the nails. We hear about this sort of Grace in the voice of a daughter whose parents were murdered in Belsen as she forgives the man who slaughtered them – and allows him to admit, for the first time, his own heart-wrenching guilt.

Forgiveness through Grace comes without condition for the glory of God. Secular humanists – who can find no meaning in this kind of language – may conclude that on rare occasions our incomprehensible universe redeems its pain and conflict through the rare genius of extraordinary people who, for some mysterious reason and well beyond human understanding, are able to forgive the unforgiveable.

It is impossible, sadly, to codify this miraculous forgiveness in any systematic way to resolve the wrenching problems that inflict our times. We could of course pray for the arrival of a Mandela figure who might enable us to rise high above our miseries and violent hatreds. But history indicates that usually so complex are the conflicts that entangle us, and usually so unsubtle are the ways in which we respond to them, that all we sadly end up with is the mantra of an “eye for an eye”. Then we invent more weapons and recruit our armies as the problems morph and spiral helplessly into conflicts.      

Dare to Forgive

We should remember the healing power of mercy towards a beaten enemy. In a famous speech on conciliation with America in 1775, philosopher and politician Edmund Burke said “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom”. Of course magnanimity can break the cycle of revenge, but it’s rare. Yet after a great conflict, magnanimity can check the likelihood of further violence. In William Manchester’s book on Churchill, The Last Lion, he points out a clear example of failure of forgiveness.

In the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, Churchill was standing in his office waiting for Big Ben to chime to signify that the Great War had ended. Churchill listened to the cheering of the crowds but felt no jubilation. Since 1914, Britain had suffered 908,371 dead, 2,090,212 wounded and 191,652 were missing. Victory had been “bought so dear it was indistinguishable from defeat.”

Clementine Churchill suggested the couple go to Downing Street to congratulate Lloyd George, the then prime minister, on the victory.

Those already present were discussing calling a general election. Churchill interrupted by saying that the “fallen foe” was near starvation. He proposed sending a dozen ships crammed full of provisions to Hamburg: this proposal was coldly rejected.    

Manchester tells us that while Churchill’s suggestion was being rebuffed by his unforgiving colleagues, a twice-decorated German non-commissioned despatch rider, temporarily blinded by a gas attack on 13 October 1918, sat in a Pomeranian military hospital and learned the detail of Germany’s plight from a sobbing pastor.

Six years later the soldier wrote a description of his reaction to the event: “All was lost. Only fools and criminals could hope for mercy from the enemy. In these nights, hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for the deed…. and the more shame and disgrace burned my brow…in the days that followed, I resolved to go into politics.”

The soldier’s name was Adolf Hitler. 

Day 12 – Chadlington

A great day for walking and our company was blessed by some old friends and new.

We booked in to “The Chequers” in Churchill and what an excellent choice it turned out to be. Fresh, and an interesting menu of food.  

As we walked, inevitably, we talked about Brexit.   

Sound and Fury

Are you still worried that devastation – on top of the damage already inflicted by Covid-19 – will wreck the UK when we finally leave the EU on 1 January 2021?

Do you recall Y2K? This was the “Millennium Bug”, the terror we believed would befall us at the beginning of the year 2000. It was thought that flawed computer software would send civilisation into chaos at midnight on 31 January 1999. Computers would be unable to recognise the new date, and not only would Cinderella forget to leave the ball, but planes would rocket from the sky, hospital computers would wheeze to a halt, boats would do a Titanic and Armageddon would fall upon us!

And what happened? Nothing: plain zero! It was the biggest non-event of the last 25 years.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Now to Brexit. We British are good at muddling through and muddle through we will. Of course, we all know now that the EU oligarchs will do everything they can to make our lives as difficult and as uncomfortable as possible, so I anticipate 2021 will be a bumpy year.

According to philanthropist Miles Morland, we are, along with the US, one of the two great post-industrial powers to dominate the great post industrial industries – the intellectual-intensive industries as opposed to the capital-intensive ones at which the Germans excel. And our negotiating hand is a strong one. The EU has its fair share of worries: the Garlic belt of “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are facing bankruptcy due to suffering the effects of an overvalued euro. Germany prospers at the PIGS’ expense because for it, the euro is undervalued. This is unsustainable.

The euro is like trying to squeeze Kate Moss and Philip Green into the same pair of knickers. Meanwhile, poor old Macron’s plans to invent a new Europe lie in tatters. He has achieved the impossible by becoming even more unpopular than his predecessor, François Hollande.

The media is obsessed with trade agreements. But why are they so important? The countries that have exported over the last 50 years – China, Japan and Taiwan – have had few trade agreements with the countries to which they send most of their goods. The pluses and minuses of trade agreements tend to be more than offset by monthly currency movements. They are a red herring used to frighten the ignorant.

Brexit is the new YK2: full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing and soon forgotten.  

Sinners and Saints

In a previous blog, I wrote about the marriage of Sir Peter Harding. I have since discovered another part to the saga, and as there is a moral to the tale that should be learned by all ZANE donors over 55, perhaps it’s worth repeating. I should add that this story is in the public domain, so I breach no confidences.

Air Marshall Sir Peter Harding had a glittering career. In 1992, he ended up as Chief of the Defence Staff. One fateful day, at an innocent lunch, he caught the eye of Lady Bienvenida Buck who placed her hand on his knee and indicated she fancied him.

A few weeks later, at around 4pm, flashlights exploded as the couple were caught staggering out of the Savoy after an afternoon of illicit passion.  

The “lady” had sold the story for £100,000 to the News of the World using the services of the ghastly, now thankfully late, Max Clifford – who was later jailed for sexual assaults on underage girls and young women.

A humiliated Harding immediately resigned and told his wife, Sheila, his career was over – it was – and that the publicity would be horrendous – he was right. Then he braced himself to be kicked out of the house, his marriage over.

Sheila took off her wedding ring, laid it on the table, and then replaced it, gently saying, “Let’s start our marriage again!”

The next day Harding’s peers – disregarding the biblical story of the woman caught out in adultery and “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” – sought to persuade the then Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, to allow them to hold “disciplinary proceedings”. They wanted to publicly strip Harding of his rank.

Rifkind was astonished that Harding’s friends and colleagues wanted to give a broken man a good kicking. But the five-star officers – all retired marshals of the RAF – were insistent. “Harding has disgraced his profession. Only five-star officers can form the tribunal, for only five-star officers can judge other five-star officers”. I should add that these men did not have the support of the chief of the air staff or the chief of defence staff.

Rifkind is a QC and his legal training kicked in. He told the men they couldn’t proceed.

“Why?” they demanded hotly.

Rifkind replied, “It’s a firm principle of law that we are innocent until proven guilty. As you have clearly already decided Harding is guilty, your so called “tribunal” cannot take place.” The men were furious but had to accept the ruling.

Moral? If you’re a man, there are two. First, find a wife like Sheila Harding – a total star – and bind her to your soul with hoops of steel. Second, if you are over 50 and a lady places her hand on your knee and tells you she fancies your body, run for the hills. She is lying!  

Day 11 – Leafield

Slightly less humid and thank goodness for that. Three delightful walkers – two young women and their Mum.

The last mile was a chore for the greedy toad of a farmer had ploughed up the path, and you know how hard that can make walking.

Our friend David Cook turned up, which was a real treat.

True friendship is a considerable gift. But of course, not all of my friends survive happily in this difficult world.

Requiem for a Friend

Whenever I see someone begging, I give them something. Why? Because it could so easily be me.

A few months ago, I attended the funeral of one of our oldest friends. He died alone – from a massive heart attack – in a cold, remote cottage in Ireland, alienated from his family and friends. 

The Short Way Down

He started out so well. Good looking and charming, he went to a top public school followed by Oxford, then he worked in a famous bank. He seemed to make excellent progress, managing to forge friendships with leading politicians and bankers who appeared to be genuinely fond of him. Then he married a well-connected and lovely woman. What could possibly go wrong? 

Lots. Drip by drip, the wheels started to rattle and then grind. The bank “let him go” and he was forced to make deals by himself. But they were always the smaller types of deals, the dodgy ones that the banks didn’t want – the deals you have to make, whether good or bad, to keep the bailiffs away. Of course, these are the deals most likely to fail. Optimism shredded as confidence drained – and then the best of the deals that had to work somehow just didn’t.

At first other people were to blame, but as the list of failures grew, his buddies began to smell failure and backed away. Then the phone stopped ringing and his calls went unanswered. Money grew tight and my friend started to drink. His realisation at the size of the gap between what he had hoped for and what had come to pass hurt, and he wanted to dull that pain.

He was caught out in some scam or other – probably someone else’s fault – and he found himself in the nick for a six-month stretch. His wife left him for another man, and his adult children grew ashamed and became alienated.

His friends kept him off the streets… just. But you can’t live people’s lives for them, and pride made him strongly resistant to advice.          

It’s a tough life. In The Magnificent Seven, the leading bandit, played by Eli Wallach, says to the character played by Yul Brynner about the vulnerable villagers he was exploiting, “If God didn’t want them fleeced, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.” Some truth in that. And “dog does eat dog” – it is only the winners who get the prizes. Laugh and the world (does) laugh with you; cry and you (do) cry alone. All these sayings can be validated in this harsh, cold world.  

That’s why my friend died sad and alone. And “there but by the grace of God go I.”

A Matter of Taste

There is a Welsh saying that the harp should be played with a smile on your face or a tear in your eye – or not at all. I like that. It’s not just the harp: what about our response to poetry, paintings and music?

I have stood before the painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It evokes an acute sense of awe in the face of a genius that I could never hope to emulate in a thousand years. I can feel the same way about the glories of Handel’s “Messiah”, Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, or after watching Shakespeare’s King Lear or reading one of his sonnets.

The late American cartoonist Al Capp sums up abstract art when he wrote that it is “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”  

So when I see an unmade bed littered with fag packets and condoms, a cow’s intestine pickled in brine, a baked bean tin suspended from a skeleton’s neck, or an old sofa covered in women’s underclothes – and read the tripe uttered by the art experts – I wholeheartedly agree with Al Capp.

I am sure that there are some who genuinely find modern art wonderful – and good luck to them. But I want to encourage all who may not be confident in their own choices not to be bullied by the “experts” into an affection of admiration.

We all instinctively know whether or not something holds meaning for us. And forget what is fashionable – you don’t need a three-year degree in art appreciation to know if you like a piece or not.

So why not be like the boy who announced the “emperor has no clothes,” and believe in your own good taste? It’s good because it’s yours.  

Day 10 – Noke

Anatomy of a tiff!

Last night I told General Jane that she couldn’t map read for toffee. She told me that I was less than supportive – in fact, what she said was rather less ladylike than that. She referred to my ancestry and she listed some of my less than savoury habits. She then slouched to bed without saying “good night darling” as she usually does: she watched Downton Abbey on her screen while I watched Newsnight, both of us in a brown study. When I went to bed I turned over so all she could see was my right shoulder.

To my silent fury, Kariba, the cat, went and sat on her chest, not mine. That irritated me more than anything. The bloody cat knew what was happening and was taking sides!

On the Tuesday morning, we decided that as neither of us is going to leave the other – for who on earth would take us in? – we had no option but to kiss and make up:

I said, “sorry Darling, it was my fault entirely ”. Jane immediately agreed and so we stopped acting like children.

AGM?

Today was apparently the AGM of the ZANE branch of the “Otmoor and Islip Ladies WI and Golfing Society” who decided to walk with us. I have no idea how many people were there but I have made a note to ask Dominic Cummings where to go to in Barnard Castle to have my eyes tested.

A hard walking day.

Revolutionary Acts

I was asked by one walker why I was a Christian. I asked whether she had read the Book of Acts.

GK Chesterton wrote that atheists have to be careful about what books they read. They should certainly avoid the Book of Acts for it relates how 12 ordinary and randomly chosen fishermen, without formal education or training of any sort, morphed into courageous martyrs who ended up transforming the world.

Jesus knew from the start that his recruits were, to put it politely, not academic. In fact, they were all over the place, without a clue as to who Jesus was or what he was about. Running away, lying ineptly, sinking in water, hacking off an ear, deserting Jesus when the going got rough – they could have been any of us.   

It wasn’t until after Jesus’ resurrection and after his message had been tattooed into their flesh that these ordinary men grew into courageous giants, prepared to die for the truth. Wholly hopeless and ignorant small-time fishermen at the outset, they ended up being changed so profoundly that their words have tumbled down the ages to teach Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and today’s thinkers in the Church. Their transformation dramatically changed the world.

Yet if these 12 hadn’t met Jesus, they would probably have lived rather boring, workaday lives. I imagine them fishing, marrying and bringing up children – and then taking care of Granny and Grandpa before finally dying anonymously in their beds.

But instead, because Jesus marinated their lives with the word of God, they chose to live as penniless vagrants who were flayed, crucified or stoned to death.

It’s a truly terrifying story and not for the faint-hearted! Perhaps we all instinctively know, deep in our souls, that if we get too close to the real thing and realise that the Gospel is not about respectability and morals, our lives will undergo a dramatic upheaval. And thinking sceptics will have some explaining to do: if the transformation in the lives of these ordinary men was not a supernatural intervention, then what exactly was it? What could have brought about such a revolution?

The Great and the Good

On most days, I tip my hat towards Churchill’s grave, sited only 200 yards from where we live. There he rests under a simple slab with Clementine, his parents, his son, his brother and all his children. It’s just a simple country churchyard. But when your reputation is indelibly stamped on the memory of your country, you don’t really need a vast memorial, do you? 

And of course he will be remembered, for he is one of the rare ones, a giant who will be celebrated as long as our ancient history is told. But it’s a select club. We have of course the great composers and writers, names too well known to have to list. And then there are the outliers like Christopher Wren whose memorial in St Paul’s states, “If you would seek my monument, look around you.”

But most of us will be forgotten pretty soon. Even the once quite famous are destined for near oblivion. Can you list the prime ministers who served before the last war? Have a go. I’ll start with Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin, Asquith (what was his first name?), Henry Campbell-Bannerman – but are they in the right order? No cheating, mind! And who remembers the names of their foreign secretaries? No, neither can I.

The point is made by Michael Heseltine, surely the greatest politician in the past 50 years never to have become PM. Although he was deputy prime minister and held many of the great offices of state, he says, wisely, that in a hundred years time, the only thing that he will be remembered for are the trees he planted on his estate.

In the words of the hymn by Isaac Watts:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away.

Day 9 – Bourton on the Water

ZANE and the Art of Motorcycle…

Another red hot day: we were met by four delightful ZANE supporters who walked the entire route with us.

At lunch, we were greeted by Ralph Fergusson Kelly, who motor biked from Monmouth to meet us, bless him.

Hume Truths

Some of our walkers are Catholic. I reminded them of the teaching of Cardinal Basil Hume when he was a master at Ampleforth School. I have told this story to donors in an earlier blog, but it’s worth repeating.

There were roughly 100 boys present.

The leader courteously told Basil Hume that they were fed up with Bible teaching as it had no relevance to their lives.

“Sir, Henry over there is going into the City, Mike is to be a lawyer, Charles will inherit an estate, I am going into the army. We all agree we just don’t need God!”

Hume then said quietly:

Gentlemen, society estimates that at least 40% of you, when married, will suffer the pain of discovering that your partner has been unfaithful; 40% of marriages end in failure; 60% of you will find your children are in deep trouble with money or drugs; 30% of you will face acute financial difficulties; 10% of you will go bankrupt. 3% will face criminal proceedings, 1% will face prison (and I am looking at you, Henry!).

70% of you will face bereavement, 100% of you will face fatal illness, 100% will face death.

May I suggest gentlemen that at all these dreadful times you will be grateful for the Gospel of Christ.

Good afternoon.”

There was a stunned silence.

We Wondered as we Wandered

As we walked, we wondered why we listen to the so-called “left-wing” who talk down to the rest of us from a position of moral superiority? And why, if we are such an intolerably racist society, immigrants risk life and limb to come and live, not in the EU countries they pass through, but in the UK?

We wondered why on earth are so many of us ashamed of our past? Why do we listen to students who impertinently lecture us about whether our statues should remain standing or not? Why do we blame ourselves for all conflicts, past, present and future?

Best of British

Why do our teachers feed our young a thin gruel diet of misery, hatred and shame for our past so as to pox their present and future with negativity?

Why not teach children the truth? Of course, Britain has made plenty of ghastly mistakes, and our motives were seldom pure, but we are also the cause of much that is right in the world. We abolished the evil of slavery – practised throughout history by all other countries, including Africa – and are the pioneers of parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy and equality. The English language – our gift to the world – is used internationally in diplomacy, in commerce, in technology, education, government and invention. And our Magna Carta was the underpinning of global law, the foundation of order in the free world. Our judiciary is independent, and our property rights, labour laws and legal reasoning are the envy of the world. We are an honest place in which to do business: not many countries can boast that.

Our DNA is that of openness and fairness, and our well-founded laws and freedom mark us out as a special people. This isn’t elitism, rather self-awareness. Our patriotism is based on our love and respect for our institutions, laws, heritage and ideas. As a nation of under 70 million people, we outrank many larger nations in terms of scientific and medical innovation as well as rare achievements in sports, entertainment, the financial sector, tourism and art.

Today we lead the world in social reform and the development of hospital care; and our legacy of ethics, kindness and charity shows our country at its best.

Now is the time for us to stop saying we are sorry about being British. We still have much to teach.

Bean thinking

I don’t complain (much) in restaurants, and I’ll tell you why. There are at least 4 billion suns in the Milky Way. Many of them are thousands of times larger than our own sun, and vast millions of them have whole planetary systems, including literally billions of satellites. All this revolves at a rate of about a million miles an hour, like a huge oval pinwheel.

Our own sun and planets, which include the Earth, are on the edge of the wheel. This is only our small corner of the universe, so why don’t these billions of revolving and rotating suns and planets collide? The answer is that space is so unbelievably vast that if we reduced the suns and planets in correct mathematical proportions to the distances between them, each sun would be a speck of dust, several thousand miles from its nearest neighbour.

And, mind you, that’s only the Milky Way. How many galaxies are there? At least 100 billion in the known universe. Billions and billions of them are spaced at about one million light-years apart (one light-year is about six trillion miles). The scientists have found that the further you go out into space with the telescopes, the thicker the galaxies become. There are billions of billions that are as yet undiscovered by the scientist’s cameras and astrophysicist’s calculations.

So when you think about it, it seems silly to care that the pub has run out of ginger beer.

Day 8 – Chastleton

Benyon’s Rule

A scorcher of a day for mid-September. A great walk with four loyal supporters so we were just about legal! Our walk muscles are hardening as day by day we squeeze out some of last year’s evil living.

The validity of Benyon’s rule of pain is proving itself yet again: that is, if you ignore muscle pain and simply walk through it, the pain quickly subsides, and after a short time you forget it.

Who Wants to Live Forever?!

I read recently, during the COVID era, of an aged man seeking permission by letter from a care home manageress to visit his wife, ending the missive with a P.S.:

“I used to be a spitfire pilot!”

It was Penny Hastings – Max Hastings’ wife – who said memorably: “none of us is going to get out of this alive”. This needs remembering. We are becoming so sentimental and unrealistic, perhaps we are coming to believe that if we throw even more money at our NHS, a doctor will soon cry: “Eureka! we have cracked it: we are all going to live forever.”

Speaking entirely for myself, I have no wish to do that.

So what do I want?

I want to see old age, yes – in fact, I am probably there already, but I am good at kidding myself that it’s at least 2 years down the road from where I am today!

But not extreme old age. Of course, there are always outliers (H.M. The Queen). Still, as a generality, it sounds a pretty miserable end-game for most of us.

No one dares mention this in our marshmallow age, but it’s sad that Flu, once rightly called: “The Old Man’s Friend” has largely been cured.

I hope my children will want to see me, not feeling they have to from a sense of duty.

I want my grandchildren to remember me as a sparky and intelligent and fun-loving sort of person: not, bald, demented, babbling incoherently, sitting on a rubber mat and being fed through a straw.

It was Kingsley Amis who wrote: “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare.”

So in a few years time, I may just take up point-to-point racing, or try to climb Mount Everest…oh! and what about sky jumping to add to my bucket list.

Sparks Will Fly

As readers will know, I only discuss money, sex, politics religion and death in my commentaries, but not all are given equal coverage. A reader recently complained that it’s getting a bit unbalanced – “a tad thin”, as he put it – on the sex front. So ever willing, allow me to put this right…

You’ll remember that a couple of walks back, the pulses of intrepid ZANE supporters were set racing by my introducing them to the dating apps Tindr (for heterosexuals) and Grindr (for the LGBT community). Both offer “sex made easy”: all a customer has to do is flick through photos on the relevant app, choose his or her fancy, and then take a peek at the actual person in the flesh in a nearby pub. If sufficient mutual lust is generated, then off the couple charge to commit the capital act: boom! Just like that. No romance, no letters or flowers, no hand-holding. For goodness’ sake, not even a box of Smarties changes hands!

If you prefer your sex delivered in the same way you order a hamburger, then this is the system for you.  

HOT Off the Press

So what’s the next hot thing to boost a jaded marriage? You can rely on ZANE to do the research!

Is the wife spending too much time deadheading the roses? Is your hubbie addicted to scraping barnacles off the bottom of his boat? Yes? What can you do to recapture the sparks of the past?   

Buy some electronic underwear, that’s what. For 25 bucks, ZANE donors can buy a pair of boxer shorts or knickers – both if you’re bisexual – and pop them on when the mood takes you. Both come in garish hot pink.

Now this is the clever bit. Each pair contains a microchip that slots into a small pocket at the back.

So the scene is set. You’re up for it. Now there is your loved one, say, sloping out the loo. To attract her attention, just creep within five metres. An alert automatically appears on her smartphone inviting her to enter “love mode”. Then follows a playlist of romantic music. We are told she is bound to hurl away the Harpic brush and swoon at once into your arms.

Apparently, 1,000 pairs of these amazing pants sell in a month. And sorry about this – for the resolute, only – second-hand pairs are available on Ebay.

The inventor, Wolfgang Kamphartold – yes, he was bound to be German – claims, “Whether at dinner or in the bedroom… this is the best way to start conversations.”

Well that’s for sure: much more interesting than the Times crossword! ZANE supporters, how will your marriage survive without these pants? 

Remember! You heard about them from me first.

Day 6 – Rollright Stones

Already Arrived

A great gathering… old friends and new: one is Christopher Turner, 90 years old and very distinguished past Stowe headmaster.

A perfect day for walking through some of merrie old England’s finest Cotswold countryside. When such flawless beauty is right here, why does anyone want to crawl off in a muzzle in a crowded shuttle to the likes of Ibiza or Mallorca? They are furnace hot and packed with the well-padded and tattoed at this time of year: and squatting on a beach and getting sand where the blistering sun don’t shine fills me with gloom after ten minutes. So I am pleased the crowds have left our paradise walks for us to give God thanks for.

I recall the ancient Venetian Doge’s saying: “Why travel when you’ve already arrived.”

Public Grouse

Some publicans are funny – I mean in the peculiar sense, not funny haha! You would think in the midst of COVID they would be gagging for any business. But when we asked gently if lunch was being served, indignantly she snapped, “no”: when asked if we could eat sandwiches in the bar and order drinks she still refused.

Anthony and Clare Wells, walking with us – heroes both – kindly laid on a feast as generous as Ratty’s in Wind in the Willows in their house.

Coded Message?

I have just received a greeting from a buddy who said that Jane and my walking long distances once again was “very noble and courageous!”

Remembering “Yes Minister”, what he really meant was, “ you are barmy to be walking these distances at your ages!”

Interesting to note that both the US Presidential candidates are more or less the same age as I am.

Rage, Rage at the Dying of the Light 

Ageism is the last tolerated prejudice.

When you are old you lose interest in sex, your children ignore you and your friends drift away – these are some of the most obvious advantages.

When US President Reagan was fighting Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, he said, “I do not propose to make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s relative youth and inexperience.”

Well said, Mr President – who was by then a very “senior citizen” at 73.

Who Are You Calling Old?

The description “senior citizen” is often heard today but it’s one I hate. It’s patronising, and nearly as irritating as the road sign of an aged crone, curved like a hockey stick, who serves as a warning to cars that an aged person may try to stagger across the road at any given moment. Then there’s that ghastly term “over seventies”, or what about “the vulnerable”, an even more dreadful slur? I feel no more vulnerable than the Pennine Way!

“Oldies” – the very word conjures up laxatives, false teeth and incontinence pads. And what about nasal hair, invalid scooters, daytime TV, reused tea bags, bowls and bingo! Oldies are grouped officially under the HMG’s heading of “the retired”: in other words, yesterday’s folk, clapped-out and finished. All this twaddle bolsters the existing belief amongst the general public that the old should suck their toothless gums out of everyone’s way. 

I am in the over seventies group but neither Jane nor I have ever defined ourselves by age and we have no intention of starting now. Our doctors check us out as fine and we are a great deal fitter – and better looking, too – than many younger people who smoke, eat and drink to excess. We hiked from Edinburgh to London – covering 16 miles a day – when I was in my seventieth year and Jane wasn’t far behind. Since then, we have walked at least 2,500 miles round the UK for ZANE, and the only one in our party who ever gets over-tired is the dog.

Of course, we know we are lucky to possess great energy and enthusiasm for life, and a zest for new ideas and adventure. There are hundreds of thousands of others like us who feel the same way, and although we’ll all contract the galloping ab dabs and fall over one day, till then we intend to zip along like the bullets God cast us to be. Look at Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Judie Dench and HM the Queen. And look at the US presidents or presidential hopefuls – so many of them are well into their seventies but they’re still in their prime.

It is monstrous that ageism is a tolerated prejudice. But you can’t say a word against the obese! When we walk for ZANE, I am warned not to even mention that our blessed island is crowded with fatties waddling along pavements and barrelling us skinnies into the road. It has been proved that being obese – and that includes over a third of the UK population – is one of the major contributing factors to Covid-19 deaths. So, Fatso Boris, that’s why you nearly died of Covid-19 – get on a crash diet now! However, if HMG spokesmen had mentioned this ironclad fact, there would have been a chorus of denial and indignation.

We refuse to be thrown on the scrap heap of life because of ageism and neither will many of our friends.

Long live the silver hares!

Cattitude

Recently, our little tabby, Kariba, went missing for three days and I missed her dreadfully. Kariba and I have a routine: each night, when I am just in bed, she jumps lightly onto my chest, sticks her nose an inch from mine, and stares unwinking and relentlessly into my eyes. She waits until I have tickled her ears and stroked her throat, and then, when she has had enough, with a flick of her tail, boom! She’s away.

The routine is, of course, wholly on her terms. A random movement and she’s off in a huff. The real reason I treasure these sacred few minutes is because she ignores Jane completely. I like that. Jane says she only jumps on my chest because it’s bigger then hers. She claims cats don’t form attachments anyway, and she’s only ours because we feed her – but I know that’s a lie. Kariba loves me more than Jane, so there! Anyway, Jane gets all the affection and love from that darn stupid dog Moses. Of course, I pretend not to care – but deep down, I do. Quite a lot, actually. So Kariba is my favourite animal by a country mile and I love her unconditionally.

Anyway, when Kariba went missing, I was wholly distraught. We wrote a notice to be posted everywhere we could think of and were just about to smother the district when Kariba crawled through the back door. It was clear she’d been savaged by some damned dog: she was covered in cuts and her tail was bent. She must have been recovering in a ditch somewhere until she recovered her strength sufficiently to come home to me. I was overjoyed. Kariba is alive, and after a couple of hundred quid’s worth of ointment and pills – note to my grandchildren, become a vet! – she has recovered her bounce, is back squatting on my chest, and once again staring deeply into my eyes.

Kariba still loves me.