The Art of Deipnosophy

cube houses

Rotterdam’s Cube Houses

One of life’s greatest pleasures must surely be sitting round a table enjoying good food and conversation, and I discovered recently that there’s a word for this—deipnosophy. At its best, the participants learn something about one another whilst gathering new inspirations and gaining a deeper understanding of the world. The oil that’s so vital to this process is the knowledge on both sides that to be interesting it is necessary to be interested. But the magic formula can be elusive.

A couple of weeks ago I had to go to a semi-formal dinner and I was placed next to a retired RAF pilot. First impressions were positive, and he greeted me warmly. I settled down at the table looking forward to a few hours of stimulating conversation. “So what did you enjoy most about flying?” I opened with, innocently. “Well,” he said,
“I—and I— and I—and then I—” (Insert a number of jolly japes plus an awful lot of technical detail). After about ten minutes he paused for breath. I opened my mouth to say something but before my vocal cords could engage, he was off again. “And then I—and then I—and you’ll never guess what happened when I—it was quite incredible—” (Insert more jolly japes, skin-of-the-teeth engineering exploits, and a liberal splash of Far Eastern derring-do).

He paused to take a gulp of wine but this time I was too quick for him. “It’s been a difficult week,” I said. “My father-in-law died on Wednesday”. “Oh dear,” he said brightly. “I remember when my father died. I—and then I— and then I—” By this time I was properly glazed and for the next hour or so, his voice boomed in and out of focus. A couple of times I heard him say, “Now, you’ll be interested in this—” At the end of the dinner, he pumped my hand enthusiastically, bade me farewell, and said, “Well— that WAS an interesting evening.”

keukenhof

A few days later I set off for a week of travelling around The Netherlands on my own. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and I soaked up various experiences, mostly centred round water, flowers and architecture. The trains and buses ran with spot-on efficiency and I darted all over the provinces of North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht with spontaneity and freedom. I loved Edam’s canals, the millions of spring flowers at the Keukenhof gardens, the Leiden University Botanical Gardens with the extraordinary jade-green pendulous plants, and the breathtaking free spectacle of tulip fields viewed from the upper-deck of an Intercity train—broad stripes of red, yellow, purple, fluorescent orange, and palest pink.  At the Zuiderzee Museum I learned about floods and dams, and sat in the thin sunshine eating freshly smoked herrings. Rotterdam’s Cube Houses provided a mind bending highlight. I went inside one and saw the challenges of living with sloping walls. The UNESCO-listed Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht was another revelation—like a Mondrian painting on the outside and with sliding walls on the inside for flexible living.

riedvelt schroderhuis

No doubt many of these images will stick with me but overall it was people that made the greatest impression. I chose AirBnB accommodation because it brings surprises and you get to meet the locals. I’ve stayed in all kinds of places doing this, but on this trip I left dry land for the first time and slept on a Dutch sailing ship, moored in a small harbour in North Holland. Glossily wooden and over a hundred years old, it made a surprisingly comfortable home. My cabin was snug and my host provided a fabulous breakfast. It was just me, her and the ship’s cat. We talked easily and I learned about living on the water in Holland, and her childhood in East Germany. She told me what a shock it was when people had to adjust to new economic challenges. There were hardships during the Communist era, but she called it a ‘safe prison’ where people didn’t have to worry about losing their job or their home. Once the Wall came down these became everyday concerns and she described the effects on a generation raised by parents who are scared. We talked a lot. I listened. She listened.

jadebloem

Jadebloem in Leiden

In South Holland I stayed with a charming man. I arrived dishevelled and slightly sweaty after a busy day and he welcomed me politely and asked why I was travelling in The Netherlands. I told him about my past mid-life troubles, the treats and the book they triggered. He listened patiently and asked interested questions. On my last evening he offered to cook me dinner and prepared a meal of basmati rice and tender broad beans, made fragrant with saffron and a large bunch of finely chopped dill. It was delicious and he explained that it brought back fond memories of his native Iraq.

We sat at his dining table and chatted—to and fro like a tennis match. He reminisced about growing up in Baghdad where his father was a successful baker, and his family enjoyed holidays in Switzerland. He talked of Iraq as a clean, beautiful country with many cultured people and a great respect for books. But things started to go wrong when he was nine. Iranian planes flew over Baghdad, bombing nightly for weeks during the Iran-Iraq war. Later came the Gulf War and Baghdad was bombarded again, this time by the US and allied forces, and with even greater destruction.

After his father was killed my host knew that even though it would be very dangerous, he had to escape. All the borders were closed but a sympathetic Kurdish restauranteur helped him into Turkey. Then followed many months in Istanbul where he worked as a waiter for fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. His employers allowed him to sleep on a wet basement floor with many others, all the while saving up the money to go westwards into Europe. Eventually, he made it to The Netherlands with the help of a paid ‘sponsor’ who provided a fake passport and knew how to bribe airport staff. His journey onto the plane was nerve wracking, and when I said, “What if you’d been arrested and sent back to Iraq?” there were no words necessary. He made a quick throat-cutting gesture and that said it all.

After months in detention as an asylum seeker and countless interrogations, my host was granted Dutch citizenship and went to university. The man I met twenty-six years on, is a model member of society, a hard-working professional, a perfect host, and a devoted father to his little daughter. “I am grateful for every day”, he said. “And I feel very lucky”.

We talked about all kinds of things—parenting, happiness, food, travel—such different lives but so many points of agreement. “Well—that WAS an interesting evening,” I said at the end. For the sake of deipnosophy, I hope my host agreed.

floods

Floods on the Zuiderzee

An Early Birthday

frank army

This week I had a curious misunderstanding. I was chatting to a woman who’s a similar age to me, and she mentioned that she was ‘going up to Cheshire to do a bit of Granny duty’. As she said this, I imagined her with an elderly mother. It was only as the conversation progressed amidst considerable confusion, that it dawned on me that she is the Granny—and the recipient of the care is a child. This says something about where I am in life. My four children are all adult, but as yet, grandchildren haven’t impinged. The opposite end of the generational scale has, however, been a big part of my world for the past couple of years.

Sadly, that phase came to an end four days ago when my father-in-law, Frank, died. It was not exactly unexpected as he was ninety-seven and frail, but it was nonetheless sudden and we, together with the rest of the family, are still coming to terms with the loss. He lived with us for fifteen months up until last September, and whilst an unconventional start to our married life, we gained so much from that time.

frank gin and tonic

I’m grateful for what Frank taught me. ‘Old age is not for sissies’, he would say often, quoting Bette Davis. And I saw how true that was in his case. Failing vision, hearing and memory all conspired to diminish his grip on life and to make him feel vulnerable. Last year, I realised to my astonishment that I’d lived well into my fifties with virtually no exposure to this world of extreme old age. My own parents didn’t live that long and so it was all new to me. There was a lot to learn about fragile skin, special support shoes, memory lapses, bedrails, podiatrists, hearing aids, and many, many other things. It was challenging for all of us, at times, but it was also a privilege to be exposed to it because it’s so often hidden away. I stepped into a world that moves at a different pace, and which had previously passed me by. And it wasn’t just me. My children, too, learned a lot and I’m grateful that in the midst of their fast-moving lives, they were able to be patient.

Despite his trials, Frank kept his sense of humour. Often, we’d sit together at lunchtime with our bowls of soup and there would be long, companionable silences. But at other times he’d come out with wry, random memories. One of my favourites was of being a sergeant major in Rangoon at the end of the war. The officers would disappear into their office at nine in the morning and he would then be responsible for eighty soldiers in the raging heat. “If I let them go,” he said, “then they’d go straight to the brothels and get syphilis.” So he marched them up and down for as long as he dared before they all started passing out. It was a fine balance and he never did explain how he resolved it. There are many things that we’ll now never know. He told me in a recent lucid moment that when he was about seven he would go by bus from Walsall to Birmingham with his mother on Saturday mornings. She took him to see a doctor every week for months but he couldn’t remember why.

All kinds of childhood memories would pop up and even the mundane details revealed a different world. It had never occurred to me to wonder what people did before they had dustbins. But Frank remembered people piling their rubbish up and then contacting the council who would send round a couple of men with wheelbarrows. They’d load up the rubbish, wheel it down the alley and put it into a cart.

frank and sue

Sue’s visit from Australia

One of the difficult things about these past few years with Frank was realising that we simply could not solve his problems. We did what we could to help, but in the final year  he was in a lot of distress and repeatedly said that he wanted to die. It was very hard for him. Hard too for his children overseas—Sue and Barry in Australia, and John in South Africa. Sometimes the confusion could be positive, though. About a month ago, he had his ninety-seventh birthday but kept telling everyone, ‘I’m a hundred, today.’ After a few attempts at correcting him we realised that there was no point. He’d forget what we said anyway, and if he wanted to celebrate being a centenarian then that was just fine with us. I’m so glad now that he was able to have his ‘hundredth’ birthday.

frank birthday

One of the many things I value, is that he rekindled my interest in poetry. Despite a lifelong love of words, I’ve been put off poetry by the obsequious tones in Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’. Frank, however, could recite reams of verse right up to the final weeks of his life. And he did it beautifully, with no hint of obsequiousness. ‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield, ‘The Vicar of Bray’, and many others were all delivered in his lovely voice, laying bare the sensitivity locked into an old man’s body. That’s a memory I will treasure and the poem that he loved above all others is ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

You were no fool, Frank, though you certainly weren’t averse to a bit of silliness. I know, too, that you weren’t a religious man. But you did say that if anything could convince you that there’s a God, then it would be the sight of a magnificent tree. Wherever you are now, then I wish you peace after your long life, and am grateful for the time we spent together. Thank you too for letting me share your ‘hundredth’ birthday cake.

frank haybale