Saturday, 9 August 2008


I sat down on what may well be the last milestone on the long, dusty and frequently high road that has been my life and considered the journey.

Although I own neither house, nor car; can boast no gainful employment; no hobbies or, alas, no longer any vices , I seem to have gathered a great pile of luggage.

I have read all the books, heard all the music and seen all the pictures I need. I have visited most of the major cities in Europe and, more important, eaten in them.

Paris? Hostile. Rome, Florence and Verona? Overcrowded. Brussels? Boring and untidy. Amsterdam? Diffuse, unable to make its mind up what it is. Venice? A raddled old Queen of the Adriatic, throbbing with catarrh.

Some good things about them, forbye. All have superb art galleries and fine restaurants. Allards in Paris on the Rue des Beaux Arts for the duck smothered in olives; Ranieri’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome for strawberries marinated in good red wine; Sasso di Dante by the Giotto bell tower in Florence, the home of good cooking; Five Flies in Amsterdam for good, no nonsense food in giant portions Red Rum couldn’t jump over and dozens of Indonesian bistros serving exotic delicacies in a bewildering array of dishes. Brussels? Any stall that sells chips, though hold the mayo.

For many years my favourite cities, I thought, were Bruges and Vienna, which both have superb Christmas markets and excellent restaurants. Sacher in Vienna of course for Weiner schnitzel and lovely young green wine, where Franz Josef wisely said: “I am Emperor and will have dumplings.”. The Palace of Schonbrun where my .Hapsburg moustaches were venerated and where in search of the marionette theatre we found ourselves in a conference of Japanese businessmen and were sent on our way with a gift of costly perfume to the Orangerie, where the marionettes were cancelled but we were consoled with another gift - champagne and a video of a puppet Magic Flute. The Rathaus where the stained glass windows become an advent card

The Austrians, of course, are an unsuccessful attempt to make a German out of an Italian. Apart from the Koreans, they are the cruellest race on Earth. In the romantic Vienna woods there is an underground lake which is boosted as a delightful tourist attraction. They show no shame in selling postcards of it from photographs taken during the war when it was used as an aircraft factory where hundreds of slave workers died.

Bruges old town has a happier history. Ice skating on a rink that is set up in front of the Town Hall, my two favourite art galleries, and a bar with a hundred beers on tap. The Golden Basket restaurant, which when we visited was owned by a devastating beauty, serves symphonic variations of mussels

So it came as a surprise to discover that of all the cities I have visited my total and absolute favourite is - Peterborough.

It has a delightful Italian restaurant, a medieval cathedral, in which two queens were buried, with the finest fa├žade in Europe. A wide boulevard runs through the centre of the city, quite the equal of the Ramblas in Barcelona, more parks than London, four theatres, a lovely pastoral riverside and shopping malls of considerable elegance.

Clearly, whatever it does to the waistline, travel narrows the mind

I do regret not visiting China. The country has fascinated me since, as a young soldier, I read Lin Yutang’s delightful book “The Importance of Living”. That led me to its poets and painters and scholars, to marvellous novels like the Monkey Epic., Six Chapters in a Floating Life, Before Midnight Scholar

It was an obsession shared with my much loved father-in-law Dr Joe, who in his sixties learned Cantonese so that he could deal with his patients in Chinatown.

Through him, I made many Chinese friends. One couldn’t speak English when he arrived in this country, aged 14. By the time he was sixteen he had gathered a harvest of “A’s” in his “A” Levels and at 23 he had a mathematical theorem named after him.

His great grandfather had been a bureaucrat in the court of the Manchus but had fallen under the spell of the opium which the British introduced. As a result, he became so poor that he could not afford to buy the classics which his son needed for school. His solution was to come out of his opium induced semi-coma to write out the entire canon of Chinese classics from memory.

I had another friend who served on the China squadron in the Thirties when public beheadings were a daily occurrence and the peasants were treated like animals.

The Tiger of Chi’n who unified China decreed that the world started with his reign and ordered that every manuscript and painting be destroyed. Nothing changes. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution had similar aims,

There are four Chinese languages: the ancient style in which the classics are written, the literary style, the business style and the colloquial.

China’s system of law was formulated in the time of Yao (2357 to 2255 B,C.). It has been described as “if not the most just and equitable, at least the most comprehensive, uniform and suited to the genius of the people for whom it is designed, perhaps of any that ever existed.”

To a Chinaman, the civilised world is China. Anything or anyone beyond its frontiers is barbarian. Perversely, they also have a sense that the West wishes to humiliate them.
In 1924, Sun Yat-sen wrote that China had suffered decades of economic oppression by the foreign powers and was being transformed into a colony,
In his 1947 book, China's Destiny, Chiang Kai-shek wrote:
“During the past hundred years, the citizens of the entire country, suffering under the yoke of the unequal treaties which gave foreigners special ‘concessions’ and extra-territorial status in China, were unanimous in their demand that the national humiliation be avenged, and the state be made strong.”
And when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao Ze Dong declared, "Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We...have stood up."
The Chinese are different.

The Chinese see nothing wrong with slave labour; they believe Tibet is part of China. They are suspicious of the West with good reason. We did our best to wreck the country by flooding it with opium; we invaded Tibet, a country that has suffered under a dictatorship of monks and aristocratic families throughout its history.

Whatever our views, by agreeing to hold the Olympics in China we have become complicit in their system of government.

I am not a friend of exertion. I think the desire to run faster than the next person or to pummel a complete stranger is the harvest of a limited intelligence and the art of spear throwing became redundant at Rorke’s Drift. Certainly I do not wish my world view to be influenced by practitioners in these curious activities. But it does seem to me that if those 40 athletes disagreed so passionately with the Chinese way of life they should have stayed away from Beijing.

Nor do I see why two supposedly intelligent undergraduates should think that by dangling a banner they would change the purpose of the Chinese leaders. That their exploits, which they did not undertake without first discovering they would not be harshly treated by the authorities, should attract such a storm of fawning publicity is beyond me.

It is a pity that equal publicity was not given to the announcement that the Dalai Lama has been invited to Beijing to take part in an important ceremony.

It has taken China twenty years to move from the Middle Ages to leading the 21st century world. Perhaps smog does hang over their capital. Very much like the Potteries in the Sixties, in fact.

Off hand, I cannot remember the Potteries producing a spectacle anything like the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
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One of the few R4 “Flagship” programmes worth listening to is “You and Yours”. Last week it carried an interesting item on the way Llandudno is allowing its links with Alice in Wonderland to decay.

Alice was the daughter of the Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, who had a holiday home on the foreshore. Once a hotel, it is about to be demolished to make way for a block of flats. The statue of the White Rabbit nearby has been vandalised and the Rabbit Hole, a wonderful “museum” of Aliceobilia, is to close.

Predictably, a “save our links with Alice“ movement has been launched which endearingly dismisses the sad truth that Charles Dodgson is unlikely to have visited Llandudno, and certainly the book was neither written nor inspired there

One might just as well celebrate Arnold Bennett who set in Llandudno an exciting part of “The Card” where Denry is launched as an entrepreneur.
The truth is that the Alice link has long been an embarrassment to the nationalists who now run the country.

Quite out of the question for a country where holidaymakers are handed leaflets saying “Enjoy your holiday but don’t buy a house here.”

Without its tourist industry North Wales would collapse. But nationalists are still uneasy that their homeland’s fame rests on an English Second Home as does the greater part of its economy.