Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Uncle Ralph - 364 Day Marriage

The true story of Ralph's short-lived marriage.

My earliest memory was of him living in a basement flat at 16 Philbeach Gardens in Earl's Court (aka Kangaroo Valley on account of the number of Aussies who lived there). He lived with his girlfriend, Irene, "in sin" as it was described in those days. Very exciting and risqué for someone like me growing up in the very conventional milieu of middle England in the ‘70s.

They subsequently moved upmarket to a 2-bedroom flat at 28 Gainsborough Mansions, Queen’s Club Gardens in Barons Court where Irene’s mother tried to bribe them into marriage with the offer of a three piece suite as a wedding gift! No dice. Eventually Irene gave up waiting and left for Colorado where her sister and mother had relocated some years previously.

Ralph continued to talk to Irene by phone usually on a Friday night after an evening down the Colton Arms. One particularly inebriated evening he suggested they get married. Next day he got a call from Irene to say the date was fixed and he was to present himself at her home in Colorado on such-and-such a date which he duly did.

Apparently the sister and mother both wanted to have the preacher conduct the service in their respective front parlours and got into a heated debate. Exasperated, Irene rang up the reception venue and asked if they could also host the wedding, “Sure”. And so that is how Ralph ended up marrying in the Colorado Holiday Inn on 18 August 1979 when he was 48 years old.

Ancestry.co.uk were able to give me the date but wanted me to upgrade my subscription to research the US records hence the redacted detail. I'm not sufficient nosey at this stage to cough up.

Unfortunately for Irene the cheapest flight out to the States was in fact a one-year return deal. As the 12-month deadline approached Ralph wondered how the lads in the Colton Arms were getting on. "Shame to waste the other half of the ticket." So he returned to the UK and never went back!

Irene was not impressed to say the least.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Thirtieth Wedding Anniversary Meal

Penrith, Cumbria. Monday 30-October-2023.

Blimey! Thirty years!! Maybe I'll blog the actual day but for now I'll focus on the celebrations. Started blogging in 2004 so I have info on the last 20 years.

  • 0th (1993). Our honeymoon was in Egypt including a Nile Cruise and a stay at the Old Cataract Hotel, setting for Murder on the Nile.
  • 1st to 9th Anniversaries (1994-2002). We decided not to buy presents but take it in turn to organise mystery weekends away.
    • 1: 1994 - Bath (spa hotel)
    • 2: 1995 - Stratford (RSC production of Romeo & Juliet)
    • 3: 1996 - Matlock Bath (murder mystery weekend)
    • 4: 1997 - Bruges (mussels, fog)
    • 5: 1998 - Bosworth (tanks, trains and battlefields)
    • 6: 1999 - Cotswolds
    • 7: 2000 - London (British Museum, dance at QEH)
    • 8: 2001 - Dublin
    • 9: 2002 - Norfolk (mushroom foray with Peter Jordan)
  • 10th (2003). We did a Nile cruise. We went to Egypt for our honeymoon so that seemed a good way to celebrate 10 years. We visited Cairo which we skipped the previous visit and did the pyramids, the Tutankhamun museum and a second Nile cruise.
    We relaxed the no presents rule. Mary's engagement ring was an antique, hand-cut, half carat diamond solitaire. Some months before I had commissioned our local jewellers to source a pair of the same and had them made into earrings. I presented these to Mary on the cruise. She gave me a copy of  "The Rough Guide to Egypt". Oh how we laughed!
  • 11th (2004). Celebrations nearly cancelled because of the loss of our cat Oscar but in the end went for a Rare and Fine Wine dinner at BBR.
  • 12th (2005). Puglia with Sandra and May (mother-in-law).
  • 13th (2006). Puglia with a meal at Il Convivio in Osunti.
  • 14th (2007). Puglia and a meal at Ti Amo back in London.
  • 15th (2008). A trip to Casablanca.
  • 16th (2009). South Africa: Paarl and Hermanus.
  • 18th (2011). South Africa: Green Point Cottage, Cape Town.
  • 19th (2012). Padstow fish school and the Horne Section at QEH.
  • 20th (2013). Van Morrison at RAH Blues Festival followed by the Orient Express from London to Venice followed by a stay in Venice. Full report. Pretty special that. 
  • 21st (2014). Robert Cray at RAH Blues festival.
  • 22nd (2015). Neither of us can remember! But we were in Italy for the olive harvest.
  • 23rd (2016). Van Morrison and Jeff Beck at RAH Blues Festival.
  • 24th (2017). COYA Peruvian restaurant in Mayfair.
  • 25th (2018). Holbeck Ghyll weekend.
  • 26th (2019). One of Mary's bucket list items: a box at the RAH for Blues at RAH.
  • 27th (2020). Dog and Gun, Skelton.
  • 28th (2021). Winter Droving 2021, La Casita.
  • 29th (2022). Winter Droving 2022, Michelin starred meal at HRiSHi at Gilpin Hotel.
  • 30th (2023). Three weeks Interrail trip across Europe (blog posts to follow), Winter Droving 2023, Private chef meal at home.

All that said we still have a way to go to match my parents 60th. I'l be 100 when that happens!

When we got married we were two households alike in gadgetry. We had no need of electrical appliances or toast racks; our wedding list included luxuries such as bottles of Chateau Lynch Bages 1989 - the year we met. Our friends could buy as few or as many as they chose; we got up to ten so we bought the last two to complete the case. We are working our way gradually through them. By dint of great restraint we had saved the very last bottle for this anniversary!

This was the menu that Lee proposed for us.

Pickled quail, eggs, smoked trout, baby gem, and celeriac salad.

Pork and smoked chicken terrine, home-made piccalilli and sour dough crackers.

Local pheasant breast stuffed with wild boar and damson, olive and caper crushed new potatoes with a wild mushroom jus.

Panfried supreme of hake, spiced puy lentils, home-made lime pickle and pickled samphire.

Passion fruit meringue pie.

Warm, rhubarb and ginger crumble with almond creme Anglaise.

Altogether a splendid meal to round off a weekend of celebrations.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Winter Droving 2023

Penrith, Cumbria. Saturday 28-October-2023.

Winter Droving was one of the reasons we ended up living in Penrith. This is our seventh however we nearly missed it this year because it was our 30th wedding anniversary on the following Monday. Our celebration plan was interrailing for seniors: an extended railway trip from southern Italy back to the UK. The logistical challenge was where to spend our actual anniversary. 

Early plans included at night at the opera at La Scala in Milan, possibly the traditional romantic destination of Paris for a weekend, or ending up in London for a Michelin starred meal. However we realised that many class restaurants close on a Monday and we would struggle to find somewhere for a nice meal wherever we were. Another consideration was the challenge of having to cart posh clothes, shoes, etc. around Europe for three weeks. So we decided to come back for Winter Droving and had the inspiration to hire a private chef for a meal at home and a chance to drink some class wine from our cellar.

We invited my best man and wife, Pete and Amanda, plus Mary's sister and brother-in-law, Sandra and George, to stay for a long weekend to enjoy the festivities. Mary's Matron of Honour and husband were invited but unfortunately not able to make it.

Eden Arts are the brains behind this event and once again have done a great job. The event was up to it's usual standard. 

Mary, Sandra and I did Penrith parkrun at 9:00 then back for a shower and out into the streets where we wandered around looking at the various stalls, a mixture of arts, crafts and edibles. There were lots of street entertainers to keep us amused.

Drum Nation were excellent - Brazilian rhythms with African beats. We stayed and watched them for some time.

Stilt walker by the Musgrave monument.

Lunch was street food. Lots to choose from but unfortunately one of our favourites, the Jamaican stall, was not there this year. I went to Hallsford farm produce whose wares I have eaten in previous years. A generous helping of lamb merguez in a bun with chilly jam. Delicious!

After lunch it was a case of wandering from stage to stage having a bit of a listen to various bands.

The Drovers Cup is always on our watch list, the highlight is the egg throwing competition but the tug of war was fun as well.

As usual there is a giant lantern parade in the evening; parade participants getting ready.

The streets were so packed we could not get out of the pub so we watched the parade from the comfort of Fell Bar.

Fire twirling as it got dark.

We had wisely booked ahead for a meal in Grant's of Castlegate for an excellent post parade supper. We may well have gone back to Fell Bar afterwards for a nightcap but the memory gets a bit hazy.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Wine Tasting - Supermarket or Independent?

WASP (Wine Appreciation Society, Penrith), Roundthorn Country House Hotel, Penrith. Thursday 26-October-2023.

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since we went to a WASP tasting, but that’s what happens when you spend half the year in Italy and the other half with diary clashes which prevented us from attending. It was good to be back.

The topic was “Supermarket or Independent?” The presenter, Nick Shill, was an independent wine merchant, now retired. As well as presenting the wines, throughout the evening he talked us through the very interesting economics of wine. I knew about the contribution of duty, bottling and VAT that impact on the shelf price and how little of the cost of cheaper bottles is actually wine. 

What was less obvious was the effect of including the profit margin in that equation. Supermarkets can afford to sell wine at lower margins (around 10%) because of economies of scale and they have other products around the store that make up for it. If the only thing you sell is wine, then you do not have that luxury so independents tend to work on around 30% margin. Using supermarket margins, you would have to shift an awful lot of bottles to make an independent store economically viable.

The wines were in pairs each having one from a supermarket and one from Corney and Barrow an independent merchant.

Mary’s star rating and notes:

1. Organic Pinot Grigio Terre Siciliane (Lidl) 12% £6.99

  • v.light nose
  • not much flavour, thin

2. Sanziana Pinot Grigio Recas Cremele Romania (Corney and Barrow). 12.5% £9.50 

  • Richer, more full-bodied nose
  • Medium dry, appley, nutty
  • Good acidity, some length

3. Limestone Coast Chardonnay Australia (Aldi) 13.5% £7.49 

  • Minerally on nose
  • Rich, melon, nutty, minerally, ripe
  • Not much acidity

4. Nelson Estate Chardonnay South Africa (Corney and Barrow) 11.5% £19.50 

  • Powerful, oaky, tropical fruit, toffee nose
  • Rich, powerful, toffee, tropical fruit 
  • Good length, good balance
  • Paarl, barrel fermented, natural yeast

5. Il Caretto Sangiovese Puglia Italy (Corney and Barrow) 12% £9.50 

  • Cherry, green notes on the nose
  • Good fruit, balanced
  • Some length

6. Purato Organic Nero D'Avola Sicilia (Premier) 13.5% £9.90 

  • Slight mushroom, plummy
  • Some tannins, fruity, balanced, smooth
  • Good length

7. Belezos Rioja Crianza Spain (Corney and Barrow) ??% £14.30 

  • Deep red fruit, some spice, green notes
  • Powerful flavours, vanilla, fruit,
  • Soft tannins, v. good length
  • 100% Tempranillo

8. Cepa Allegro Rioja Reserva Spain 2017 (Sainsbury's) ??% £9.50 

  • Closed nose,
  • Some fruit (less than above)
  • Light, short

There were winning wines on both sides so no clear answer to the supermarket or independent question. One factor to bear in mind is that independents support small, interesting wine makers who do not have the scale to sell to the larger supermarkets.

At the end of the presentation there is a draw for the raffle. Prize are bottles of wine, no surprise there. We arrived just in time for the start and had no opportunity to buy raffle tickets. I must have a word with the organisers about capturing arrivals as they walk in or giving attendees a chance to buy later, before the draw.

There is a buffet included in the ticket price but we have learned to have a bite to eat before we head out so this is supper part 2.

As previously we drove up with the plan to abandon the car, walk home and retrieve the car the following morning. On this occasion someone on our table was being collected by their husband and so we were able to cadge a lift into town with a couple of very friendly and excitable dogs!

Looking forward to next next month’s tasting - theme to be announced. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Uncle Ralph - One-Armed Adaptations

For Uncle Ralph having only one arm required many adaptations, some simple, others harder or more complex.

Writing: he had to learn to write again using his left hand. It was a little shaky but perfectly legible.

Shoes: laces were out, it was loafers and moccasins or Velcro.

Scissors: you can buy left-handed scissors, right-handed are uncomfortable to use for a leftie. There used to be a fascinating left-handed shop near Regents street, now online only [Anything Left Handed] selling all manner of items. 

A friend of mine bought a left-handed corkscrew there and left it out at parties causing much confusion when people tried to open a bottle and couldn't work out what was happening. 

I used wonder where my left handed scissors came from but just now I realised that it could well have been from Ralph. Left- and right-handed scissors:

Chopping onions: he had a chopping gadget that you put the peeled onion into and banged repeatedly on the top.

Shirt buttons: another re-learn but rarely needed as he lived in t-shirts.

Nelson knife: named after Admiral Lord Nelson, another famous one-armed person. A knife designed for one handed eating. The blade can be used with a rocker action and the pronged end used as a fork. Ralph had a folding one for ease of carrying.

After he died I asked Mum for his as a keepsake.

Pinball wizard: At Ralph’s funeral one of his drinking companions gave a eulogy including a fun fact I had never heard before. Apparently he was partial to a game of pinball on the Gottlieb in the Colton Arms. The first time he went down for a drink following his amputation he went into the pub and looked thoughtfully at the table. Inspiration! He called to the landlord to bring him over a beer crate. He propped his right foot on the crate and proceeded to play with one knee and one arm.

Poker: Ralph used to join in regular Friday night poker sessions after the pub closed. He used to win some, lose some but generally held his own. After the accident he started losing more often. Finally one of the group drunkenly let slip that there was a vein on his stump where they could see his pulse. He may have had a poker face but the raised heart rate gave it away when he had a good hand. He switched from t-shirts to long sleeved shirts tucked in and started winning again!

Paper hanging: that is a whole separate topic...

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Uncle Ralph - Driving

As far as I know Ralph did not not have to re-take his driving test but he would have been required to inform the DVLA of his amputation and get the OK from his doctor.

As mentioned Ralph’s artificial arm had a cup attachment that would fit over a ball fixed to the steering wheel for driving so he did not require a specially adapted car. However as he didn’t bother with the arm he simply held the ball with his left hand and steered that way. He drove a manual so to change gear he steadied the wheel with his stump, changed gear and then swapped back. 

One of my more vivid memories was being in the car with him when he needed to change gear whilst negotiating a corner using the only stump to steer - can I open my eyes now? 

Ralph liked his beer at The Colton Arms in Barons Court. It was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually get done for drink driving. He was three times over the legal limit so the case had to go to court where the allocated solicitor saw the breathalyser report and, with grudging admiration, exclaimed “that is the highest level I have ever seen!”

I never was told the outcome of the court appearance but if it was a first offence and because of the high reading it could have been a lengthy ban. There could have been mitigating circumstances due to being amputee and needing his car for his livelihood. I do believe he learned his lesson. He still drank as much but didn’t combine it with driving. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Uncle Ralph - The Arm

How he lost his arm and what they replaced it with.

It was an icy winter’s day in January 1963 and Ralph slipped on a metal gangway at work. I presume it was on a British Thomson-Houston construction site somewhere in London. He reached out to steady himself and his arm went into an unguarded part of a cement mixing machine. 

The mechanism chewed off his arm which the doctors said saved his life. The ends of the blood vessels were twisted off which helped stem the loss of blood. If it have been a clean slice cut there would have been blood spurting out like a Monty Python skit. 

He apparently walked on in shock until he saw a colleague and only then fainted. Off to hospital for an emergency operation where they tidied up the stump to just above the elbow. 

After his discharge from hospital he was referred to Roehampton where they have a world class prosthetic and amputee rehabilitation centre. His artificial arm was mainly aluminium with a leather cup for the stump and leather straps to hold it to his shoulder. No carbon fibre back then so it was pretty heavy. 

Picture courtesy of Arm Dynamics.

It had two degrees of movement depending on which way he moved the stump. One way would bend or straighten the arm, the other would work an attachment at the end of the arm of which there were several. 

  • plastic hand for formal occasions and the thumb would move for a handshake
  • hook that would open out like two clawed fingers for all sorts of uses
  • pair of pliers for basic DIY
  • cup that would fit over a ball attached to a car steering wheel for driving

It was heavy and cumbersome so he only wore it on formal occasions. The rest of the time he tucked up his sleeve and adapted to a one-armed life.

Those one adaptations are a separate topic...

Footnote*: Roehampton operated a shoe sharing scheme whereby unipedal amputees could split a pair of shoes getting one each. Styles and colours limited.

* footnote - see what I did there!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Uncle Ralph - Introduction

Some pay-it-forward for my nephews about their great uncle who they probably don't remember but one day may be curious about their gran's louche brother.

Following an industrial accident my uncle became a one-armed paperhanger as previously blogged. Whilst doing some genealogical research I realised that there were great gaps in my knowledge of his life story. He managed to live under the radar for much of his life in a shady demi-monde of cash-in-hand, so much so that he was once called in to the local HMRC office for a chat about the lack of income tax payments. He never bothered to register to vote so the electoral rolls provide no information on his whereabouts. 

Ralph at my parent's wedding, June 1951, age 20.

He was working as a mechanical engineer when he lost his right arm. I tried the Institute of Engineers but they had no record of him. I asked Mum (he was her younger brother by four years) where he did his apprenticeship or who he worked for. She had little recollection of her younger brother’s life. I believe he worked in a copper mine overseas; he had a copper ashtray that was supposedly a souvenir of that trip. Again, Mum didn’t know where or when. 

He was born on 7 June 1931 and died of a massive stroke on 4 February 1993 at the age of 61. He was too young to see active service in World War Two but he must have been old enough to be eligible for National Service. After Mum died I realised that I was officially Ralph’s next of kin and could apply for his service records and learn more – which I did and a little conjecture filled in the gaps.

After three years, Ralph’s army records finally came through. From which I learned that he did indeed do national service - basically two weeks army camp every year from ‘52 through to ‘55. It also records that he went to Rugby technical college and did a five-year apprenticeship with BTH Co Ltd, engineering (1948-1953).  That would be British Thomson-Houston.

I am guessing these were contemporaneous on some kind of day release.  I am under the impression that he spent some time in Rhodesia in a copper mine. Given BTH’s global reach, it could well have been with them. Did he continue working for them and was that who he was working for when he lost his arm in January 1965? He was one for the easy life so I can’t see him switching jobs.

There are many tales to tell which will follow...