Ulster Rugby

It was in 1960/1 that the South African Springboks undertook their fifth tour of the British Isles, Ireland, and France. Between 22 October 1960 and 18 February 1961, they played 34 games, drawing two and losing one, the latter to the Barbarians. In that era, rugby union was an amateur sport with rules that differed greatly from those of today. And what a difference to the modern-day international tours of just three or four weeks.

On Saturday, 28 January 1961, the Springboks played Ulster at the Ravenhill (now called Kingspan) ground in Belfast. I was but fourteen years old, there with a small contingent from my grammar school in Coleraine. Of the day, I can recall little, except that it was very cold, and we were in standing room only. The Springboks won 19-6. That was the first and only time so far that I have attended an Ulster game.

The years rolled by, the rules changed quite radically, and in 1995, after the World Cup in South Africa, rugby union turned professional.

In 1999, the Welsh-Scottish league was formed and the next year it became the Celtic league, with the inclusion of the four Irish provinces. It became the Pro-12, when two Italian teams joined in 2011, and in 2017 was renamed the Pro-14 with the addition of two South African teams.

Many times, I have considered going over to Belfast to see an Ulster game, but the cost of the airfare, transportation, hotel, meals, ticket etc., has always put me off. I am very careful with my money. It is for good reason that I am known to many as ‘Uncle Scrooge’. So, I managed for many years to follow the fortunes of Ulster Rugby on my laptop, via free-to-view sports channels!

In 2020, Covid-19, travel restrictions, together with lack of funds, ended the involvement of the two existing South African teams.

But a British & Irish Lions tour was planned for mid-year 2021 and the enhancements to the Cape Town Stadium were already under way, to provide two hospitality areas, which were not included in the original development.

Construction of the hospitality enhancement, with the scaffolding reaching half-way up the stadium wall

At the same time, the Cape Town team, the Stormers, would move their base to the Stadium. Their old headquarters at Newlands had been sold to property developers.

Newlands as it used to be

And then came the news that four of the top South African teams – the Stormers (Cape Town), Sharks (Durban), Bulls (Pretoria), and the Lions Johannesburg), would join the Pro-12 European league of four Irish, four Welsh, two Scottish and two Italian teams.

The initial tournament was to be called The Rainbow Cup. There were to be two pools of eight teams, each with two Irish teams, two Welsh, two South African, one Scottish and one Italian team, with a final to be played between the pool winners. It was to be a prelude to a full league program in the autumn of 2021.

So finally, it seemed that I would be able to walk the short distance down the hill in Green Point to the stadium and witness my second Ulster game. I even considered buying a season ticket, when they become available.

Cape Town stadium, as can be seen from Signal Hill

But alas, it was not to be, at least not for now. Covid and UK travel rules have killed the possibility.

But I continue to live in hope…

My Paris

Gosh, I find it hard to believe that it now almost fourteen years since I left Paris.

I first went there in 1968, just after the student revolt, when I was hitch-hiking around Europe. I was somewhat inspired by the movie, Two for the Road, starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, and the scenery in Sound of Music. I was not disappointed.

The next year I had the good fortune to be involved in a European IT development project with Singer Sewing Machines. For a short time I was based in Paris for system testing, near Place d’Italie.

In May 1985, I ran the Paris Marathon in 2:59 and for a couple of years in 1996-98 I was responsible for a Swiss company, that included a small office in Paris, in La Defence.

And then came my pièce de résistance; based in Paris and responsible for the European IT and later Operations for a global company. For me, it was Nirvana.

So, for some seven years, I had a small duplex apartment on the fourth floor of a renovated building on rue de Lille, a short block from the Seine, opposite the Louvre. The apartment was perfect for an undemanding tenant, like me, with no ambition to cook or entertain; the kitchenette had only a small hotplate and a tiny fridge, nothing more.

In reality, my little apartment was but a place to sleep and leave my clothes, when I was in Paris. I travelled a lot. I had projects running in several of the European countries and most months I visited many of the others. With my laptop and Internet, I was a true road warrior. I loved the new way of working.

But I did have a lot of control over my itinerary, and I tried to make sure that I was able to spend at least a few days every other week with my family in the UK.

In that era, I was still an enthusiastic runner, and after work I would run loops of Jardin les Tuileries. On Sundays, the road alongside the river was closed to traffic and open to the public, and allowed me to have a longer run.

Some evenings I would make myself a sandwich, but more usually I would go to La Frégate, on the corner of rue du Bac and quai Voltaire, where I was well known, and had a table in the far corner of the restaurant. I became good friends with the maître d’, Patrick. We were both rugby enthusiasts. Every time that he welcomed me, he would insist on reading out the menu du jour, but I almost always ordered une omelette au fromage or une salade mixte, much to his frustration. Eating the remains of bits of former living things has never appealed to me.

La Frégate, on the corner of rue du Bac and quai Voltaire

On weekends, especially in colder months, I would often head to Pizza Vesuvio, just off Boulevard Saint-Germain, across the street from the church. On the way, I would almost always stop in the bookshop, l’écume des pages. I could never resist browsing there. Floor to ceiling with ladders and books, tables piled high, no two books the same. For a lover of literature, it is a paradise.

l’écume des pages

Next to the book shop are the Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots, famous for their connection with the aristocracy of literature in the 1930s.

Originally Les Deux Magots was a novelty shop, founded in 1812, on nearby Rue de Buci. It moved to Place St-Germain-des-Prés in 1873.

In 1885 it transformed to a café.  ‘Les Deux Magots‘ are two figurines from the original shop.

For a time, Paul Verlaine and Rimbaud, famed young poets of the late 1800s, were regular clients. Later, in the 1930s, Les Deux Magots became a regular haunt of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, J Scott Firzgerald, James Joyce and many others. These days, it is the haunt of tourists, with elevated prices.

Les Deux Magots

Across the square is Saint Germain-des-Prés, first built in the 6th century, raided by the Vikings in the 9th century, and over the centuries since, evolved to its present state.

Saint Germain-des-Prés

Across the street from the church, there is a statue of Denis de Diderot (1713-1784), one of the most powerful writers of his day. It was Diderot who wrote:

‘Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’.

Given the scandals in the surviving royal families and in the various religions, there are many of us who have an increasing sympathy for Diderot’s view.

Denis de Diderot

On a corner from the statue, is Pizza Vesuvio. After I had been there a couple of times, I found myself being welcomed as a local, rather than as a tourist. There were seven reserved tables behind the pizza oven, just after the entrance, arranged in an ‘L’ shape. If I arrived before 19:30, I almost always was given the table on the end.

Two of the tables in the corner always had a reserved sign. One was for a tiny elderly couple. Even in their advanced years, they looked beautiful. They must have been stunning in their prime.

The other table was reserved for a portly eccentric-looking man, always immaculately dressed in a tan-coloured suit with waist coat, white shirt, and bow tie. He must have had a physical problem, for he moved slowly and deliberately, and sat on a cushion. When he arrived, he always went to a picture hanging on the nearby wall, and removed a book of puzzles from behind it. When I first saw him, I could have sworn I had seen him before in the movie, La Bicyclette Bleue, based on the novel by Regine Deforges, and playing the part of Raphaël Mahl. I never did find out if it was him. The actor, Jean-Claude Brioly, died in 2007.

P

In 2007, I left Paris. Due to ill health, I was deemed to be not capable of performing my former multi-national role. Perhaps I could have challenged that decision, but in my heart, I was ready for the next stage of my life. I have no regrets.

But now I am ready to return. I plan to walk the camino from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, as soon as it is feasible, given the Covid situation.

But before I set out from Tour Saint-Jacques, I hope to have been able to have met up with some old friends and visited my old haunts.

Life is what you make of it. And I have some great memories.

The Missing Link

Until very recently, if I were to have been asked to name a deceased person with whom I would most want to spend a short time, without hesitation it would have been Robert Blackwood of Wreningham in Norfolk, England.

Who was he?

He was an agricultural labourer who married a Mary Watts in 1756, in the adjacent parish of Hethel. They had nine children.

Extract from the Hethel parish records documenting the marriage of Robert Blackwood and Mary Watts

It is significant that Robert Blackwood could sign his own name, in an era when most people could only make a mark, as did Mary Watts and one of the witnesses. None of the Blackwood children were able to sign their own name.

Robert died in Hethel in 1782 and his wife in 1800. They were my 4th great grandparents, and I am descended from their son, John.

Given the opportunity, of all the deceased people I could spend with, why would I choose him?

Because he has been my genealogical ‘brick wall’. For about 35 years, on and off, I had been trying to find his birth record, without success. My father had never heard mention of him, but he did say that his father had once told him that the Blackwood family was from Bungay, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.

It was later, when I was researching in the Norwich archives, that I decided to take a side trip to Lowestoft, where I was told that there was a copy of the Suffolk records. It proved to be a worthwhile trip, for I found evidence of a Blackwood family residing in the Bungay area in 1688-1700 – James and Elizabeth Blackwood, with children James, John, Elizabeth, and Robert.

So, my grandfather’s claim proved to be true, but which of the three Bungay sons was the father of my 4th grandparent, Robert of Wreningham. Over time I carefully searched all the parishes in a wide radius, but the missing link eluded me. I found the marriage of Elizabeth, but no sign of the sons nor the birth of Robert.

Until one day last year when I received a mail from a lady in Australia. She had come across my blog, when researching information on Blackwoods in Norfolk. She was also descended from Robert of Wreningham and had hit the same ‘brick wall’. But using a genealogical site, to which I did not have access, she found the birth of a Robert Blackwood (born 1723 in Bixley), and his father James, that approximately matched up with dates and the names of my families in Wreningham and Bungay. As the Blackwood surname was relatively rare in Norfolk in that era and in that area, I am convinced that we have found the missing link.

Then, following up on my knowledge of the Bungay family, the lady found a copy of James Blackwood’s will in the Sussex archives and transcribed it.

So, what do we now know of James, Robert of Wreningham’s grandfather?

From the record of his death, we estimate that he was born about 1668, and his wife was called Elizabeth. We don’t know where he was born, nor where he was married. He owned a public house, The Crown, in Bungay. He left a will in 1700 and he died shortly after.

An extract from the will of James Blackwood, written not long before his death

I am not certain of the location of the public house. There was a pub called ‘The Crown’ at 24 Cross Street, but it closed sometime between 1925 and 1930. On 22 February 1777, the Ipswich Journal advertised a ‘Crown’ for rent at the end of Cross Street, on Market Place and that pub appears on the Ordnance Survey map of 1905.

An extract from the Ordnance Survey map of 1905

The Crown Inn was at 24 Cross Street, Bungay, but the business no longer exists. The building now houses retail shops

So my Blackwood ancestral linenow looks like the following:

James Blackwood (c1668-1700) = Elizabeth?

-> James Blackwood (1692-?) = Elizabeth Smith

-> Robert Blackwood (1723-1782) = Mary Watts (c1733-1800)

-> John Blackwood (1764-1848) = Mary Harvey (c1764-1847)

-> Robert Blackwood (1809-1867) = Susannah Ringwood (1811-1889)

-> William Blackwood (1847-1927) = Lucy Ann English (1846-1934)

-> Leonard Clive Blackwood (1881-1965) = Agnes Pilgrim (1883-1958)

-> Harry William Blackwood (1918-1995) = Beatrice Elizabeth Stewart Douglas (1924-1985)

-> Leonard Douglas Blackwood (1946-)

I doubt if we will ever uncover any more evidence from Bungay, so now we now have the challenge of finding the birth of James Blackwood, his marriage, and the identity of Elizabeth.

As always in genealogy, when one door closes, two more open.

And I wonder what ever happened to that silver tankard…

Load Shedding

Do you know what load shedding is?

Before I came to South Africa, four years ago, I had never heard of the expression. If I had been asked its meaning, I would have probably guessed that it meant reducing the load on a truck that had become stuck, or removing cargo or passengers from a plane, in order that it could safely take-off.

In South Africa load shedding refers to the forced reduction of demand for electricity by means of rolling blackouts.

Why is this drastic measure necessary?

Due to equipment failures and essential maintenance, the supply of electricity is often not sufficient to meet the demand. New power generation is being constructed but is years behind schedule and way over budget.

To manage the power cuts, the entire country is divided up into areas, as in the map showing the areas of Cape Town. We live in Green Point, in area 7.

Once you know your area number, you need to find the load-shedding stage. There are eight stages defined, ranging from minimal impact load shedding stage 1, through to stage 8, which would entail an almost complete black-out. The highest we have experienced so far was stage 6, in mid-December of 2019. Each increase in the stage, implies an additional 1000 MW needs to be removed from the system, so in the following example of stage 4, 4,000 MW will not be available.

Part of the load shedding schedule for stage 4

In the example I have given, if it is the first or seventeenth day of the month, then in area 7, stage 4 will mean that there will be no electricity during the hours 04:00-06:30, 12:00-14:30 and 20:00-22:30. It is important to be aware of the approximate scheduled times; it would not be much fun to be stuck in the dark in an elevator for two and a half hours. And be warned; never get in an elevator in South Africa with a full bladder when load shedding is imminent!

Of course, load shedding has a serious negative impact on the economy. To function, many larger businesses have had to install emergency power generators, but that increases their operational costs. Most small businesses cannot afford the extra cost of generators, so their income can be severely impacted.

ESKOM, known as the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) is the utility that provides about almost all South Africa’s electricity. In Afrikaans it is also known as Elektrisiteitsvoorsieningskommissie (EVKOM). It was founded in 1932 and is the largest producer of electricity in Africa. It is the largest of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises and at one time South Africa had ample power.

But after ten years of government under the corrupt presidency of Jacob Zuma and his cronies – 2009-2017, ESKOM has become a financial and operational basket case. It has been saddled with excessive debt that it may never be able to repay. It is grossly overstaffed, yet the unions and the governing ANC refuse to allow sensible re-organization. The generating plant is constantly failing, mainly due to historic lack of maintenance, which is worrying, when one considers that ESKOM has Africa’s only nuclear power station, just along the coast from Cape Town. It could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Apart from about 5% of electricity being supplied by nuclear energy, South Africa’s energy needs depend on coal fired power stations. Despite being rich in sunshine and coastal wind, the ANC government has made no effort to allow the introduction of renewable energy. No doubt the coal mining unions will continue to resist any change to the status quo and coal fired power stations will continue to pollute the South African atmosphere.

Despite the long lull during most of last year, load shedding has again returned, with many power station failures. In addition, Covid-19 has been blamed, with many maintenance workers having been infected and repair work being impacted

So, with a continuing curfew from 21:00-06:00, a renewed ban on the purchase of alcohol for the third time, the closing of schools, no access to beaches or the sea etc., and now more load shedding, public fatigue and rejection of the imposed regulations is almost inevitable.

And with no sign of mass vaccination on the horizon, this year threatens to be a repeat of 2020.

Alesia

The A6 motorway leads south from Paris, past Auxerre and Beaune, where I used to turn east to take lesser roads to Pontarlier and the Swiss border. For ten years around the millennium, I was based for two years in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and subsequently in Paris.

I often drove that route between Paris and Switzerland, and between Auxerre and Beaune, there was a sign pointing to Alesia. I never understood the significance of Alesia, until a French friend explained to me that Europe, as we know it today, resulted from a battle between the Gauls and the Romans, that had taken place there.

In that era BC, Gaul consisted of most of modern-day France, parts of Belgium, Western Germany and Northern Italy. But there were very many tribes and Vercingetorix, a young chieftain from Gergovia (present-day Gergovie) managed to unite many of them in resistance to the Romans.

In 52 BC, under the leadership of Vercingetorix, the Gauls had defeated the Romans, under Julius Caesar, at the battle of Gergovia, near Clermont-Ferrand. After indecisive skirmishes, Vercingetorix had moved his forces to Alesia.

Alesia is just outside the present-day town of Alice-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy.  It is equidistant between Beaune and Chablis, a short distance from the A6. The site of Alesia was on a plateau about 200 m above the valley floor.  It was protected by cliffs and a wooden wall.  It is thought that there were 80,000 Gauls there at that time.

Location of Alice-Sainte-Reine

When the Romans arrived and laid siege to the city, in only a few weeks they build a 15 km ring of fortifications around the city, and outside it, an additional ring of 21 km, to defend from attempts to relieve the siege by reinforcements. The fortifications must have looked like a huge doughnut. It worked. The relief forces were unable to breach the outer defenses and the city forces were unable to break out.

To spare his men their inevitable defeat, Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, and he was eventually imprisoned in Rome. After one of Caesar’s ‘triumphs’, five years later Vercingetorix was paraded around Rome and then strangled in his prison cell.

Thought to be one of the only busts of Julius Caesar, made in his lifetime

The Vercingetorix monument at Alesia

In his Commentarii de Bello Galico, Caesar described the battle and the events leading up to it.  It is the only account of the battle that exists, for there has never been one written from the Gallic point of view.

Three years later, in 49 BC, having conquered Gaul, Caesar arrived at the Rubicon, a small river south of present-day Ravenna. It was the former border between Gaul and Italy.  He had been explicitly ordered not to lead his army across the river, but he ignored that. His action precipitated the Roman Civil War and he went on to defeat Pompey and become dictator of Rome.  He was assassinated in 44 BC.

How would Europe have looked today if Caesar had lost at Alesia and not eventually crossed the Rubicon?

Inés de Suárez

It was in the autumn of 2015 that we arrived in Cáceres, in western Spain. We had set out walking from Sevilla in the south, following the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, but the weather had turned quite cold and we were not adequately equipped for the conditions. We decided to take a break and return another day; the path would still be there.

But little did I know at the time, that if we had continued walking for another four days we would have reached Plasencia, the birth place of one of my heroines, Inés de Suárez.

‘Who on earth was she’, I can hear you thinking. So let me enlighten you.

Apart from being born in Plasencia in about 1507, as far as I know nothing more is known of her early life, until she married an adventurer, a Juan de Malaga, in about 1526.  Not long after, he left her to go with the Pizarro brothers on a speculative venture to South America.

I have no idea how she supported herself in the interim, but after some ten years of not receiving any contact from her husband, she decided to go to South America to find him, or at least to find out what had happened to him.  In that era, it was not acceptable for a Spanish woman to travel on her own, but she eventually received permission to go, providing she took a niece with her.  I don’t know who her niece was or what happened to her afterwards.

She never did find her husband. It appeared that he was dead, but I am not sure how.  One report was that he had died at sea, another that he was killed in the battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco, between the Pizarro brothers and a rival fighting for control of the city.  In any case, he was presumed dead and she applied for a grant as the widow of a Spanish soldier and was given a small plot of land in Cuzco.  And it was there that shortly after she became the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia.

Valdivia was a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro and he was authorized to lead a small contingent of Spanish soldiers to establish a colony far to the south of present-day Lima.  Somehow, he managed to get permission to attach Inés to his expedition, as his domestic servant.  In 1539, he started with only eleven soldiers, but as they preceded south others joined.  At one time there were about 150 of them.

Pedro de Valdivia (photo from internet)

They travelled south for almost a year, until they reached the valley of the Mapocho River, the site of present-day Santiago de Chile, originally named Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura.   They suffered incredible hardships in travelling through some 1600 km of the Atacama Desert. In the chronicles that have survived the journey, Inés had a significant part in boosting the morale of the soldiers through caring for the sick and wounded.

The site that they eventually chose was already populated and and initially the natives were accepting of the newcomers, or at least they pretended to be.  But when Valdivia was absent on another expedition to the south, the local population revolted.

The Spanish were severely outnumbered, and it seemed inevitable that they would be wiped out.  From a previous negotiation for food supplies, they held seven of the Indian chiefs as hostages.  Inés advised the soldiers to execute them.  When the commander hesitated, Inés herself took a sword and decapitated the chiefs one by one, and had their bodies thrown over the wall.  Or at least that is how the legend recounts it.  In any case it appears that the Indians were so shocked and confused by the action that they withdrew.’

Perhaps it did not happen quite as I have described it, but there is no doubt that she was a heroine in the defense of the settlement.  At that time, she would have been the only woman.

When Valdivia finally returned, they continued to live together openly.  The hierarchy in Lima did not approve of this ‘illegitimate’ union and Valdivia was summoned to attend a hearing in Lima.  The issue was resolved by Valdivia agreeing to summon his wife from Spain and having Inés married off to his lieutenant, Rodrigo de Quiroga in 1549.

Rodrigo de Quiroga (photo from internet)

But all did not happily ever after. Valdivia died before his wife reached Santiago.  He was captured by Indians in a battle in the south and eventually executed. 

Inés settled down to a quiet life as wife of Rodrigo de Quiroga, who eventually became Governor of Chile, not once, but twice.  They died within a short time of each other in 1580 and were both buried in the Basicila de la Merced.

Inés survived all the original conquisadores.

It was not until 2015 that I finally visited Santiago de Chile. Of course the city today bears no resemblance to the original settlement that Inés would have known.

In the Plaza de Armas, there is a statue of Pedro de Valdivia, her old lover, and the church, La Basilica de la Merced, where she was buried, is but a short walk away.

Statue of Pedro de Valvidia in the Plaza de Armas
La Basilica de la Merced

For me, Inés was a remarkable woman. Not only was she tenacious in seeking out her husband in what must have been frontier conditions, but for months on end she survived the crossing of the inhospitable Atacama desert. And shortly after she showed tremendous courage in the face of death. Her example is one for all women.

I don’t know when we will continue our pilgrimage north from Cáceres, but when we do, we will pass through Plasencia and walk in the footsteps of Inés.

Four Weeks

22 May 2020

There was nothing about that day four weeks ago that would have foreseen what was going to happen that night. It had just been another frustrating Cape Town total lockdown day.

I went to bed at my normal time and fell asleep almost immediately, as is normal with me. I woke in the middle of the night, lay for a time thinking, then got up for a sip of water and a visit to the bathroom. Again, nothing strange about that; for as long as I can remember, even as a child that has been my routine almost every night. But that night, four weeks ago, was different; instead of returning to bed, I found myself on the bathroom floor, half-propped up against the cupboard, with Lotta shouting at me to raise my arms and to tell her my name.

It appears that I had aroused her when I got up and a few minutes later she heard a thump and some moaning. She went to the bathroom and found me lying on the floor, jammed between the toilet and the wall, with a lot of blood on the toilet bowl, sprayed across the wall and a pool of it under my head.

She dragged me out and propped me up against the cupboard. She said that my eyes were white and rolled up in my head and she immediately thought that I was dead. But I regained consciousness and eventually responded positively to her stroke tests.

The two toilet accessories left nasty bruises on my side

With some difficulty, she managed to pull me to my feet and half-carried me to the bed. There she took my blood pressure, which surprisingly was not any immediate cause for alarm. I had a nasty gash on my forehead, which she patched up with some surgical tape, and cleaned up my face, which was apparently quite bloody.

By this time, I felt somewhat recovered, so she decided not to call an ambulance, and instead, to contact our doctor first thing in the morning. At that date, Cape Town was under curfew and with the virus circulating, she wanted to avoid the hospital if at all possible. But she was concerned that I might be concussed, so for the remainder of the night she would not let me sleep; if I started to doze off, she would ask me questions to test my awareness.

Our doctor was able to see me at 09:00, so leaving ample time to descend the 600 meters down the hill, we arrived rather early at the surgery and were seen immediately.

Lotta explained what had happened. The doctor took my blood pressure and spent what seemed like a long time listening to my heart. He wired me up to an electrocardiograph and then called the pharmacy to get details of my prescription.

He said that my heart was very irregular and he decided to replace one of my four pills with a beta-blocker. He said that the pain in my ribs would take four weeks to clear up and as to my concern about my leg being numb, he said that it was not connected to my fall; it would be connected to my lower back.

He then cleaned up my head wound, stapled it and sent us off with instructions for me to have complete rest for two days and return in ten days to have the staple removed. He also complemented Lotta on her nursing skills!

And four weeks later, with no scar on my forehead, on the 29th night since my fall, I finally managed to lie on my injured side for the first time and with no discomfort.

We think that our Dr Waynik is magic. We have had nothing but excellent experiences with him and if we were to leave Cape Town, he would be a very hard act to follow.

Now perhaps I should have him to take a look at my numb leg.

Tour Saint Jacques

If you have ever been to Paris and passed by Notre Dame or the Louvre, you may have seen the Tour Saint Jacques. It stands alone in a small park, near the right bank, a block from the river.

The first time that I saw the Tour Saint Jacques was in 1978, when I was looking after the apartment of friends on rue Tiquetonne. On my daily training run to and along the river, I used to pass the Tour. At that time I was not aware of its history.

Many years later, I was based in Paris, with a small apartment on rue de Lille, one short block from the river on the left bank and opposite the Louvre. It was during that era that I read many of the books of Alexander Dumas, several of which were based in the area in which I was living. Many nights I wandered the streets of the old city, imagining what it may have been like in the era of Dumas’s novels and searching for landmarks that may have still existed.

The Tower of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was built in 1509-1523 on an existing church, during the reign of Francois I, and funded by rich butchers of the nearby market of Les Halles. It became the departure point for pilgrims setting off on their potentially difficult journey to Santiago de Compostela, some 1,500 km away in Galicia, in north western Spain. According to legend, Charmagne founded the original church to shelter a relic of James the Great.

During the French Revolution, the church was destroyed. Eventually the remains were sold as building materials, on the condition that the 54m high tower was preserved.

In 2003, restoration of the Tour was started and finally completed in 2013. I have never seen the completed work, as I left Paris in 2007 and have not since been back.

For several years during the restoration, the tower was covered (photo from internet)
The restored Tour Saint Jacques, as seen from Rue Nicolas Flamel (photo from internet)

This morning, locked down for the 63rd day of the Covid-19 virus in Cape Town, walking my umpteen lap of our basement garage, longing to be on another Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I suddenly remembered Paris and the Tour Saint Jacques.

And a new ambition was conceived…

First Light

Until the completion of the harbour in 1835 and the arrival of the railway in 1855, Portrush was but a tiny insignificant fishing village, with but a few families huddled under the headland, separated from the mainland by a range of sand dunes.

With the harbour and the railway came investment, development, and the creation of a popular holiday resort. But in the late 1800s, Glenmanus remained a rural village, separated from Portrush by a belt of agricultural land.

In the centre of the following photograph can be seen a large white farmhouse, with an attached dwelling. That was Seaview Farm, the ancestral home of my mother’s ancestors, the Douglas. They lived and farmed in Glenmanus from the late 1600’s. It was there that my mother saw first light and where I spent my earliest years.

On the right of the photo, is the corner of a field, opposite a small group of farm buildings. It was there that my parents lived for a few years in a tiny wooden hut, while my father worked on his fledgling poultry farm across the road during the day and on his dance band at night.

Today, Glenmanus and all the fields have disappeared under an ugly carpet of council housing, caravan parks and private dwellings, and there is not a green field to be seen.

Glenmanus, as seen from Loquestown, circa 1900 (photo from internet)
Seaview Farm in the 1930s

I was not born in Glenmanus, but I saw my first light in the Mary Rankin Maternity Hospital, in nearby Coleraine, as did my brother and sister. The Mary Rankin was on the Castlerock Road, opposite the Court House. I passed it every day that I went to school at C. A. I.

The Mary Rankin Maternity Hospital (photo from internet)

Like Glenmanus, the Mary Rankin has long since been demolished and replaced by yet another ugly two-story apartment building. Gone are the lawns, the ivy and the trees, replaced by bricks and asphalt.

Perhaps it is pure nostalgia on my part, but I prefer to remember Glenmanus and the Mary Rankin as they once were.

La Peste

La Peste, a novel written by Albert Camus, was published in 1947. Camus was born in Algeria of French parents and in 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I read La Peste when I was based in Switzerland in 1997. I found it to be one of those books impossible to forget.

Albert Camus 1913-1960

The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran and tells the story of an imaginary plague that hit the city and follows its effect on a wide range of characters. It documents the apathy of a local government in denial, followed by the panic when the reality of their situation hit and the city was blockaded with nobody allowed to leave. Then followed the numbness and resignation.

The story of La Peste very much reminds me of what is probably happening today in Whuhan and many other cities in China. In La Peste, blockading the relatively small city was not a challenge. But how do you blockade a city of some eleven million, a population the size of London and several similar other Chinese cities? By the time the government realised the seriousness of the situation, the virus had already spread to other parts of the country, and in some isolated cases to other countries. And what effect will freedom of movement have on the Chinese and world economy?

No doubt the western media will fasten onto this situation and keep us current with their constant ‘Breaking News’, with their breathless reports and speculations from the bedside of the hospitals of the infected.

But we have to remember that epidemics and pandemics have always been with us, some extremely serious, as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19: by the end of 1919 at least 50 million people had died, about 3% of the world population at that time.

With the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, it seems to me to be quite probable that we will one day experience another pandemic. Let’s hope that it is not that which is bubbling in China.

Stay safe…