Love is joyful. Love is kind. Love is precious. Love is blind.
But let me tell you this, My friend. It’s always painful In the end.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of losing my beloved wife, Kate, to breast cancer. Hard to believe. It was so difficult back then to comprehend that the woman to whom I had been bonded for forty years, no longer existed. Life without her had been beyond the bounds of my imagination. But there is life after death, or at least after bereavement. It has been a tumultuous and very happy fifteen years. As always, I count my blessings.
This year, 2020, sees the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in which some 80 million people died. That means that only citizens over the age of eighty have any real memory of Britain being under attack. This lengthy peace has not happened by accident or luck. We have been living under a nuclear umbrella known as Strategic Nuclear Deterrence, formerly known as Mutually Assured Destruction. Initially, our deterrent posture was maintained by the V-Bombers of the Royal Air Force but in 1968, with the advent of intercontinental-ballistic-missile-firing, nuclear-powered submarines (SSBNs), the Royal Navy inherited the role. These submarines have now maintained continuous deterrent patrolling for over fifty years - there's one on patrol right now - but does anyone ever stop to think of the human beings involved?
PEACE BE WITH THEM
In the bowels of a beast with a heart of steel, in Neptune’s black abyss, stand sixteen silent sentinels on watch o'er Britain's peace. And through the black abyssal deep, each day of every year, the Reaper ploughs the ocean, and sows the seeds of fear.
In the bowels of the beast with the heart of steel where the nuclear cauldron boils, a hundred brave submariners attend their awesome toils. Whilst snug in quilted feather beds, full fifty million sleep, and spare no thought for those at sea nor pray their souls will keep.
This poem, first published in my book On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, was broadcast on United States radio by Donna Seebo, a book reviewer. (See under 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service').
I have the good fortune to live in the country and my cottage is like a hide for observing my fellow creatures. I have now observed some sixty species of bird as well as the usual crop of mice, squirrels, hedgehogs, plus the odd fox or deer. However, my life has just been enriched by a new neighbour, Mr Hare. He arrived one afternoon in front of my kitchen window and, completely unaware that he was being watched, began a thorough grooming before settling down for his afternoon zizz. He was completely relaxed and utterly free. Wonderful, a real feel-good experience. Why would anyonewant to kill him?
PS One year later. Just spotted a young hare in my garden. Mr Hare must have started a family.
On Saturday 30th March, I appeared at Glasgow's 'Aye Write' Book Festival in the iconic Mitchell Library, one of Europe's largest public libraries, and it did feel good to be 'on stage' for something I had written. Even better, I had a full-house audience of about sixty in my venue. That may not seem a lot but the organisers were thrilled as a very well-known TV sports personality, flown up from London specially, had achieved an audience of only eight.
A particularly pleasing aspect of the event were that a young university graduate (Nottingham, I think) who had applied to join the Navy and had read my book, turned up to meet me. How wonderful to think that an old git like me can still connect with a very much younger generation. (The young man has since been accepted into the Royal Navy and is currently undergoing officer training at Dartmouth). After my presentation, I was asked to autograph books sold - all very humbling. (Waterstones were selling the books).
PS At his invitation, he invited me to be his guest at his Passing Out Parade at Dartmouth where I meet his family. Wonderful!
As I am accustomed to public speaking, facing an audience held no terrors for me. My only anxiety was whether or not my Powerpoint audio/visual slide show would run on cue on the Library's system. It did. Phew! I have nightmares about technical hitches in the middle of carefully constructed presentations. (I'm trying to find out how to put this slideshow into my website; watch this space).
Sometimes phone calls bring good news. In early November, I received a call from the Secretary of the Maritime Trust, an organisation which spans all aspects of maritime activity ranging from fishing, commercial shipping, cruise liners, research vessels, yachting, lifeboats, harbours, wreck hunting, ship design, marine nature reserves and marine conservation through to the activities of the Royal Navy. In short, everything to do with the sea. My book, On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, had just been shortlisted to the last four out of thirty-eight entries for the Mountbatten Best Book Award 2108. 'Could I attend the Awards Dinner in Drapers' Hall in London. Of course I could!
This was truly a grand event with lords and ladies, MPs, industry VIPs and no less than three First Sea Lords in attendance, one being Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Boyce who joined the Navy with me and provided the Foreword to my book, though that was pure coincidence. In the event I was runner-up to a brilliant book called 'The Wreck Hunter', and had to take the stage to receive a Certificate of Merit from the current First Sea Lord. I have to thank my old submarine colleague Commander Rupert Best for having nominated the book.
(See section on 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service')
In June, I was invited to be Chieftain of the Helensburgh Pipe Band Competition, which involved fifteen bands, four of which were school bands. My duties involved leading the parade at the start, presenting prizes and taking the salute at the end as the massed bands marched off. I have often been thrilled by watching the massed pipes and drums at the Edinburgh Tattoo from high in the stands but this time I was at eye level as the bands marched straight up to me and about turned within touching distance. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
As I was not a clan chieftain and not entitled to wear eagle feathers in my hat, I decided to wear my submarine beret with my Submariners' Association cap badge. That seemed appropriate as the Submarine Service is in effect the local regiment in Helensburgh.
By coincidence, a few weeks later, I happened to be visiting Aubigny-sur-Nere, near Orleans in France. This is where the Stewart kings lived in exile and the town is more Scottish than most Scottish towns. It was the weekend of their annual Fete Franco-Ecossais and the town was throbbing with people in all manner of kilts, including traditional plaid versions, but none of them were Scottish. This was the French end of the Auld Alliance. There was also a parade of seven pipe bands, none of which were Scottish. There were four Scottish-style bands from Paris, Geneva, Britanny and Aubigny as well as two traditional Breton bands and one from Asturias in Spain, the latter winning my prize for elegence as the ladies wore long skirts and seemed to float up the main street rather than marching. I was please to note that one traditional Breton band had pipes that were clearly 'Made in Scotland'.
Circa 1950, my father, grandfather and I climbed Goatfell on the Isle of Arran in the Clyde estuary. This year, I climbed it as the grandfather with three of my four grandchildren, having climbed it in the interim with both my sons and my eldest grandson. (I've also climbed it with my sister and both daughters-in-law).
As my grandfather was born in the nineteenth century; I was born in the twentieth century and my grandchildren were all born in the twenty-first century, this family experience spans three centuries - and I am the link. I was so keen to complete 'the set' and most grateful to Isobel, Morven and Alfie for agreeing to climb it with me. (Alfie, aged seven, didn't actually agree. As a boy, he was given no option!)
Goatfell is just under 3,000 feet and therefore is not a Munro - but so what? One climbs every single foot of it from sea level whereas in some Munros the climb begins at a much higher altitude (1,400 feet in the case of Bienn na Lap). Goatfell also offers one of the most spectacular views in Scotland, which is not obvious from the main road. I love it. It is my holy mountain.
I find this age thing quite disorientating. My elder son will be fifty next year but doesn't seem that old. When I was fifty, his late mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The President of France is still in his thirties and his wife is in her sixties.
In old age, one sees life retrospectively as if through a lens backwards; time is compressed. My thirty-seven years in the Navy seem to have the same storage space in my brain as six years at Coatbridge HIgh School. Thirty-eight years of married bliss seems like a brilliant one-night-stand - not that I would know anything about that. A twenty-five year old lad now seems like a teenager yet I was charge engineer of a submarine at that age - and the Battle of Britain pilots were younger..
The good news is that, as President Macron has so ably demonstrated, a sixty-year-old woman seems like a twenty-something but with much greater depth. I have now reached the age when I can fancy a great-grandmother.
So, why the hell do people regard their fortieth birthday as a doomsday; it's only half-time. You may go on to extra time and penalties. Sixty is the new forty.
An aged Scottish spinster cousin (who dressed like the Giles' cartoon of grandma) once said to me: 'You know, Eric, there is an old Japanese proverb which says: 'When your garden's complete, it's time to die.' That hit me hard at the time as my late wife, a keen gardener, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
When I had calmed down, I grasped it's profundity. One should never stop pursuing an aim. When one has no further aims in life, it really is time to die.
In similar vein, when I was a teenage paperboy delivering the morning papers, I read the headline in the Daily Mirror: SLEEP WITH BRENDA. It was the winning entry in a reader's challenge to identify what one would do if one was given the Four Minute Warning of nuclear armageddon from the newly opened Fylingdales Early Warning System. (In the nineteen-fifties, one really did worry about nuclear incineration). Ever since, I have made a habit of asking myself what I would do if I knew that I had only four minutes left to live but a good fairy would grant me a final wish.
The point is: if you know what you would wish to do in your last four minutes of life, why not do it now while there's plenty of time?
Whilst at St Denis, now a suburb of Paris but once a town in its own right, I had a private tour of the magnificent Stade de France, built to host the FIFA World Cup in 1998. (France beat Brazil 3-0 in the final). It is a thing of beauty. The separtely supported roof weighs more than the Eiffel tower.
Things I never knew:-
1. When the French won the World Cup, the team's communal bath was filled with champagne.
2. There is a prison within the stadium for holding rowdy fans.
3. Beyonce required both team dressing rooms for her wardrobe during a concert.
4. Madonna refused to perform unless all the blue, bleu as the French say, carpets and paintwork were changed to pink. (They were).
5. President Sarkozy got stuck in the lift beacuse he was too small to reach the emergency button (an apocryphal tale, I suspect).
The stadium is certainly worth a visit.
Photos top to bottom: The stadium; players' communal bath; police cell in stadium prison; me taking the field
Whilst visiting the Stade de France, I also visited the magnificent Basilique de St Denis, the patron saint of Paris, on the outskirts of the city. St Denis is now a downmarket suburb but was once a town in its own right with huge historical significance for it is here that all but two of the French kings are entombed. Of the two missing kings, one died in Spain and the other, Philip 1, is buried in the Benedictine abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire.
Amongst the multiple tombs in the basilica are the humble sarcophogus of 'Queen Berthe Big Foot'; the majestic marble tomb of Henry 4 and Catherine de Medici, the latter being immortalised in what appears to be an erotic pose; and the superlative but sobering marble statues of Louis 16 and Marie-Antoinette who were guillotined by the French revolutionaries.
Philip 1 chose not to be entombed in St Denis alongside the other kings because he had repudiated his queen, another Berthe, and taken up with another man's wife, for which misdemeanours he was excommunicated by the Pope. Philip therefore considered himself unworthy of being entombed beside his fellow kings and asked to be entombed beside Saint Benedict (Benoit) as he knew that the good saint would forgive him his sins.
There is a lesson here for HRH Prince Charles who has also divorced his queen-to-be, Princess Diana, and taken up with another man's wife, Camilla. As Charles is not a Catholic, the Pope cannot excommunicate him for this but when his time comes, there may be a question to answer over his entombment. He may have to be sent to Coventry - the Cathedral of course.
In terms of tourist value, the Basilique de St Denis is virtually off the radar but it should be up there with Notre Dame, Versaille and the Eiffel Tower as a top four must-visit attraction. Apart from the tombs, the stained glass windows are breathtaking - and there are no queues.
Photos top down: Rose window; tombs of French kings (some of); tomb of Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette; tomb of Philip 1 in the abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire (on the right)
Here I am in France, sitting under a parasol quoiffing a Martini and Perrier when in comes a most distressing e-mail from Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron. He has resigned; nothing abnormal in that except for his reason. Tim is a devout, orthodox Christian who during the recent election campaign was hounded by the media to admit that he considered homosexual sex to be a sin. That is what the Bible and the Quoran teach, as I understand them. At least, it is what the Christian and Muslim faiths have traditionally taught. For him to adhere to such a belief whilst leader of a modern, mainstream, political party would have been, he thought, political suicide and so he has resigned. He simply cannot reconcile political correctness with his faith. What nonsense. Had he been a devout Muslim, the media woud not have dared to hound him over his faith beliefs.
Tim and I are Liberal Democrats. He is a Christian; I am an atheist. We share a belief in liberal democracy, tolerance and co-operation with those who do not share our views. He has never attempted to impose his religious principles on Party policy. In mainly Catholic France, religion has long since been separated from the State. All Tim needed to do was include in his public biography, Wikipedia or such like, that he was a practising Christian - end of.
So what were the motives of the media in hounding him? I suggest that either they sniffed some lurid copy on homosexual sex or wished to undermine him as a political opponent or else gay activists were at work. Whatever the reason, it was immoral, illiberal and anti-democratic.
For my own part, I don't give a monkey's over what another's faith or sexual practises are - as long as they don't impact on me. Tolerance is the key word.
For some years now, SNP has portrayed itself as the voice of Scotland. The recent Council elections and Theresa May's snap General Election have thoroughly demolished that notion. SNP have won more seats in both elections than any other party and congratulations to them for that, but they have not won the popular vote. Indyref2 would be suicidal for Nicola Sturgeon and she knows that. She would lose again. SNP speak only for SNP.
I was listening to a feminist debate on the radio last night. What a load of piffle! Apparently the female leaders of our political parties - Tories, Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour, Scottish Nationalists, the Democratic Unionist Party (Ulster) and the Green Party - are doing badly because their female leaders are trying to emulate male role models. Eh?
Margaret Thatcher should be remembered as the ultimate icon of female success in a male dominated world but feminists have never identified with her nor she with them. Theresa May on the other hand, has worn a T-shirt with the motto, 'This is what a feminist looks like' - and they don't identify with her either. Today, we have Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany, the most powerful person in Europe; Christine Lagarde as Head of the IMF and Cressida Dick as Chief Constable of the Met etc etc. The glass ceiling is well and truly broken.
Women of ability succeed; women without, winge. Actually, ladies, exactly the same is true for men but men who don't succeed can't wave the shroud of feminism. As a man, I fear it is young men who need to be worried. Women seem to be taking over.
The older one gets, the more fascinating life seems to become. I happened to be in France today and watched the inauguration ceremony of the new French President, President Macron. At thirty-nine he is the youngest President since Napoleon and is clearly a man on a mission. He created his own centrist party, En Marche, only a year ago - most impressive.
Two things marked the difference between such a ceremony in France and the equivalent in the United Kingdom. The first is that France being a Republic and having decoupled the state from religion, there was neither the serried ranks of aristocrats who would pack out Westminster Abbey at a coronation nor was there even a church service. This was a purely political ceremony with the military very much to the fore - the President is their Commander-in-Chief - with pride of place being given to military veterans.
The second peculiarly French difference was that of the President's love-life. The outgoing President Hollande had not believed in marriage. He had four children by a female politician from his own party but dumped her in favour of a Paris Match journalist when he moved into the Elysee Palace. Then he two-timed her with a young actress, his infidelity being exposed when he was caught riding pillion on a scooter, like a pizza delivery boy, to his secret love nest. (Goodness knows where the nuclear button was)! President Sarkosy before him, divorced his wife whilst President to marry Cala Bruni, an Italian pop singer. Before that President Mitterand had a mistress and a secret love-child etc etc.
President Macron has brought a new dimension to the presidential love-life saga. He has married his former drama teacher, a schoolboy crush. She is twenty-five years his senior and divorced her husband to marry him. She arrives as First Lady at sixty-four. So that's one up to the cougars! However, it seems to me that the Macron marriage is one of the great love affairs of history; I don't see him having a-bit-on-the-side; he is clearly madly in love with his wife. I heard one Frenchman proclaim unkindly that he was the first President to take his mother to the Elysee Palace.
No one batted an eyelid over seventy-year-old President Trump having a wife who is twenty-five years younger than he; so why is it so strange the other way round? Older woman are so much more interesting.
In an earlier blog, I mentioned the uplifting sight of a lamb being born in front of my kitchen window. There are now about twenty lambs in the field and tonight they were joined by a fox; I saw it from my window and phoned the shepherd.
So who is for the fox and who for the lambs?
I eat meat and cannot deny that animals are killed to feed me (occasionally) but I cannot comprehend the mentality of people who take pleasure out of killing animals; who even call it 'sport'. That to me is sick.
This fox was shot. Alas, it was only wounded and escaped to die a slow death somewhere else. Would it be better had it been pursued by a pack of hounds and ripped apart? I think not.
On Saturday, I visited a friend who has just had major open-heart surgery at the Royal National Jubilee Hospital at Clydebank, the national centre of excellence for heart surgery in Scotland. The operation involved sawing open the rib cage, pulling it apart, removing veins from the arms and stitching them into the heart in place of weakened arteries. There, that just rolled off the tongue. The operation, although 'routine' in that hospital, is simply miraculous and a superb example of NHS professionalism at its very best - and many operations like that are carried out daily. To put this operation into perspective, wounds like that sustained on the battlefield would be fatal.
Therefore, it pains me to hear almost nightly on the BBC TV News that the NHS is about to collapse because elderly folk in need of care have to wait on trolleys in Accident & Emergency units etc. The BBC seems to specialise in picking out flaws in the crust of an enormous NHS pie and can always find a victim to support their case. Balanced reporting is required but '10,000 successful operations today' does not make a headline. 'Old lady wets pants while left in trolley,' does (distressing though that is).
So, how good is our NHS? Who knows? How long is a piece of string? The NHS, along with the military, is one of the few remaining nationalised industries. It is mind-blowingly enormous, has a budget greater than many countries and has the inescapable problems of any state-run monopoly. It is a political sacred cow so large and sensitive that no political party dare attack it. Three of its greatest problems are over-expectation by the public, abuse of the system and the endemic instinct to cover up mistakes. Heaven help an NHS whistleblower. (I know. I once blew the whistle).
So is privatisation the answer? This week we learned of a surgeon in private practice who was conducting on an industrial scale, unnecessary mastectomies on cancer-free women, his motive apparently being to make money. That could not have happened in the NHS, one hopes. But the offending surgeon had worked in the NHS and had been under some sort of scrutiny there for his medical peformance. His escape route was private practice where scrutiny seems to be less rigorous.
'Quintessentially' is a hugely over-used word, a veritable adverbial cliché, but yesterday I had a quintessentially Scottish day: a train journey from Helensburgh to the fair city of Perth via Stirling and Gleneagles; Queen Street station in Glasgow flooded with rival Aberdeen and Hibernian football fans heading for the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden (Aberdeen won); a convocation of the Scottish Association of Writers in Perth, a sort of gathering of the writing clans from as far apart as Elgin and Ayr; and on return to Glasgow, the annual concert of the Caledonian Fiddle Orchestra.
The fiddle orchestra is uniquely Scottish but remains below the tourist's radar (another cliché). It is the orchestral version of a Scottish country dance band. Forty fiddlers from all over Scotland had assembled plus twenty other musicians. The music ranged from wonderful Scottish slow airs through waltzes and hornpipes to marches; all strict tempo, foot-tapping, hand-clapping stuff. The fascinating thing is that much of this popular music is very old. Neil Gow, fiddler to the Dukes of Atholl, wrote his slow airs in the middle of the eighteenth century - such was his fame that Robert Burns, also a fiddler, journeyed to meet him. Pipe Major Willie Ross joined the Scots Guards in the late nineteenth century and fought in the First World War. Yet, one of the most moving slow airs of the evening was written to commemorate the Panam 103 aircraft disaster at Lockerbie in 1988. This is truly ancient and modern music to a common recipe.
A particularly uplifting moment was the guest appearance of the virtuoso young traditional fiddler, Ryan Young, from Cardross. As compere for the Helensburgh and Lomond Fiddle Orchestra, I have introduced Ryan as a soloist since he was eleven. He is now in his early twenties, has graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has twice been a finalist in the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year awards and is now carving out a successful career in the traditional music world. He is the Nicola Benedetti of trad music. If you want to hear traditional Scottish fiddle music at its best, you can contact him at www.ryanyoung.scot
Visited Breac Macdui nam Beann, the Collie pictured in my Welcome section. I'm his 'uncle' so to speak, and we play wild games together with a chew bone. The fascinating thing is that not only does he park his natural instinct to attack anyone trying to steal his bone but he also recognises a game and sets his own rules. When he wins the bone, he trots off to his basket to score a goal. Having done that, he returns with the bone and drops it in front of me ready for the next kick-off. His big problem is that he can't count how many goals he has scored; so I always win. Don't tell me that animals don't have similar emotions to humans; we are just more complex.
Working dogs are so keen to be involved. I love them. My first dog was forty kilos of Alsatian called Parahandy. Standing on his hind legs, he could put his paws on my shoulders and look me straight in the eye. We played ferocious games together and he would really crank up the growls, terrifying if you didn't know he was playing. It was Parahandy who taught me to speak Doggerel - I have his whole vocabulary. I acquired him to provide security for Kate and the boys when I was away at sea. One night when there was water hammer in the pipes, he was so scared that he sprinted upstairs and jumped on to Kate's bed for protection. But be in no doubt, he would have attacked any intruder coming into the house.
My second Alsatian, Raffles, was similar in temperament. He came running with me when I was training for the Glasgow marathon (2hrs 55). When I saw he was slowing up, I examined his paws and found that he had worn holes in all his pads but he was still bravely trying to keep up with me, no doubt in agony. They are so utterly faithful.
Do I prefer dogs to cats? My first cat, Purdy, came as a kitten when Raffles was a puppy and they grew up together. They even slept in the same dog basket, Purdy curled up inside Raffles' legs and enjoying the free central heating. They must have been a like a husband and wife when they shifted position during the night. But the cat was the boss. They are such arrogant little creatures. They assume that everything is there purely for their benefit - and they are definitive control freaks. It was from Purdy that I learned to speak fluent Catteral. You may laugh but it is an international cat language. I once spoke to a feral cat in the Azores and she brought her kittens across to meet me. How's that for communication?
One has entirely different relationships with dogs and cats. Both are so rewarding but cats are easier to manage; one can leave them to their own devices. One feels flattered when a cat can be bothered to come to you. A dog, on the other hand, willl sit begging to be taken walkies, and dogs have to be put in kennels when you are away or else taken with you, which is not always possible. A cat on the bed is pure pleasure; an Alsatian requires a bed to himself.
Currently, I have no pets and, boy, do I miss them.