Those were the days, my friend

London & Frankfurt, 1969

Until 1969, I had been muddling along in the ‘old technology’ of Quantity Surveying or Estimating, as it was known in the US and Canada.  It was Singer Sewing Machines in London that gave me my opportunity to enter the relatively new world of computer programming.  And I have never looked back.

Our office was in West London, on the Uxbridge Road, in Ealing Broadway.  and it was there that we did our program design and coding on paper.  As a recently inaugurated European division, we did not have our own computer; for program compilation and testing, we went to the UK Guildford office.  I spent as much time in Guildford as I did in Ealing Broadway.  And it was there that I first met Bob Baylis and ‘almost’ met Mark Samuels; our paths were to cross again in 1978, at P-E International, where Bob was employed and when Mark was the Managing Director, but that is a story for another day.

Now I won’t attempt to explain the intricacies of programming in the 1960’s; our world was one of coding sheets, punched cards and tapes, large air-conditioned computer rooms, and one or perhaps two compilations or tests a day.  For the successful programmer, acute attention to detail was mandatory.

I thrived in the environment and was part of a small team sent to Germany in the summer of 1969, to test and install our new inventory system in the German head office in Frankfurt, near the central station and a few minutes stroll from the river Main.  Our hotel was between the office and the station.  The red-light district was adjacent; it took us perhaps one hour to completely orientate ourselves.

We could only have access to the German computer systems after daily production had been completed, so we started late afternoon and worked to very late every evening, rarely finishing before midnight.  We usually met for lunch in a nearby restaurant and on the first day the waiter recommended a local white wine from Rüdesheim.  It was #28 on the menu and we soon learned to order additional bottles of achtundzwanzig.  It was delicious, and day after day, it contributed greatly to the eventual success of our project.

On one weekend, we decided to go to the source of achtundzwanzig.  We took a local train from central station to the nearby river Rhine, and then travelled on a boat down the river to Rüdesheim.  After ample ‘refreshments’, we took the local gondola to Niederwald.  Almost silently gliding over the vineyards, gradually ascending, was an experience I will never forget. I was in love with life; nothing new there.

At the summit was Niederwalddenkmal, a patriotic monument, 38 m tall and finished in 1883.  The view across the valley was stunning and the weather was idyllic.

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The Niederwalddenkmal

On one of our last nights in Frankfurt, when the project was almost wrapped up, we went to a nearby striptease show called ‘The Dolly Bar’.  It was luxurious, compared to the normal seedy dives that I had previously experienced in Toronto, the US and London.  The girls were stunning, but what struck me most was experiencing the wall-to-wall sound; I had never heard such wonderful acoustics before. And it was the first time that I had heard Mary Hopkin singing, ‘Those were the days’.

That was 1969, and the sun had arisen and set many times before I was once again back in London; it was late-1984 and I was on my way to the wedding of my good friend, Laín Burgos-Lovece, in The Wirrall, south of Liverpool. I had a room in a hotel on Half Moon Street, just off Piccadilly.

That evening I went around the corner to an old familiar pub in Shepherd’s Market, a pub that I had frequented many times over the years.  I bought a pint and sat in my usual corner.  I had not been there since those bitter sweet days of the summer of 1978; bitter, because my personal circumstances at that time were a mess, but sweet, because I had been deliriously happy with the prospect of an exciting new relationship.

And then the juke box started to play…

Gabriel García Márquez

I can recall the morning in 2012 when I read in a BBC report that Gabriel García Márquez was suffering from dementia. His brother, Jaime, spoke of it in Cartagena, where he was giving a lecture to students. It is true that García had not often appeared in public in recent years and there had been several unconfirmed rumours of his ill-health, but the latest news left me feeling quite saddened to know that there would probably be no more writing from the great man. He was then 85, and according to his brother, he would write no more.  He died some two years later in Mexico City.

I first came across Gabriel García in 1996, when I was participating in a French course at Alliance Française in London.  I was brushing up my rudimentary French, with a view to starting a venture in Europe, or at least obtaining a senior European position.  As it turned out, it was the latter, as MD of a small Swiss company.

In the class we were asked to frame a general knowledge question, in French, relating to our country of birth.  A young Colombian student asked us to name the Colombian author who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.  None of us knew the answer.

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Gabriel García Márquez (1927 – 2014)

The first of García’s books that I read back in 1998, when I was based in Neuchâtel, was El General en su Laberinto (The general in his labyrinth), recounting the last days of Simón Bolívar. Years before I had been to Bolívar’s home in Caracas and the story left me with a lasting impression of how even the great can end in ignominy.  Later I followed on with García’s collection of short stories, Doce Cuentos Peregrinos (Twelve Pilgrim tales), his great love story, El Amor en Los Tiempos de Cholera (Love in the time of cholera), his masterpiece, the mystic Cien Años de Soledad (One hunded years of solitude) and several others.

When I later learned of his death, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be picked up, was Vivir para Contarla (Living to tell the tale), the first part of his autobiography, covering his early years in Cartagena.  When I eventually read it, I recalled that I once knew a Señora Garbàn and her family in Caracas.  She was a talented artist and I attended one of her exhibitions in the late 1970s.  I am almost certain that she was from Cartagena.  And I sometimes wonder if she ever knew García, for he was a journalist of her era.

When reading García’s autobiography, it is obvious that many of his writings were based on his own intimate experiences: the small town, Aracataca, where he grew up, both his close and extended families, local and national historical events. For a ‘wannabe’ writer like me, there are rich lessons to be learned from his work.

But what a pity that the sequel to his autobiography will never now appear.

 

 

South African Sunset

As I sit at my desk in our apartment on the hill above Green Point, I can see over an apartment complex below. Further back is another slightly elevated building, which does nothing to intrude on my overall view.

To the right is the clock tower of Reddam House, a rather exclusive private school, the clock of which recently only told the time accurately twice a day. And slightly further to the right there are three elevated palm trees, whose fluttering of fronds would indicate to me the wind force I could expect on my daily walk through the park and along the coast. When the trunks of the palms thrash and bend, I know that I will have to brace myself.

Below, all day long pass huge tankers, container ships and smaller vessels, pass on their way to and from the Cape Town harbour and around the Cape of Good Hope. If they are early for their berthing, they anchor just off the coast.

The sun sets to the left of the apartment complex, behind the steep slope of Signal Hill.

On a frequent clear day, the sky is a piercing blue. It reminds me very much of the sky that I used to experience in Sydney, so any years ago. It is a blue that one seldom, if ever, witnesses in Northern Europe.

I am usually at my desk in the early evening and I am a frequent witness of the setting of the sun. The line above the blue of the ocean first starts to turn a mellow yellow that gradually become more golden. And it spreads across the sky. When there are light clouds around, the sunset can become quite spectacular.

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The sun setting behind the opposing building
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And further up the hill…

It is dark now and I draw the curtains on another beautiful African day.

111

I was 42 when my first son was born and six and a bit years later, my fourth son took his first breath.  I felt myself to be a very fortunate man, a feeling that persists to this day.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that if I ever had grandchildren, it was likely that they would not remember much, if anything, of me and my ancestry.  I decided to write down what I could remember of my parents and their history, of my own travels, of people that had been a great influence on me, of places where I had lived, of some of my experiences.

But how to go about publishing it without boring the pants off a poor reader.  I recall discussing my aspiration with my good and learned Chilean friend, Laín Burgos-Lovéce.  He suggested that I write it as a blog.

Do you know the meaning of the word ‘blog’?  I certainly did not, so I looked it up.  It turned out to be a web-log, or a form of shared on-line diary.  I learned something new, but I still did not have a clear idea of how to go about formally writing my memoirs.  My aspirations marked time.

It was later, when I read Camilo José Cela’s classic, ‘La Colmena’, that I realised that I could write my thoughts in stand-alone articles, and later piece them together in chronological order.  It is a lot like a seanchaí, a traditional Irish story teller, comfortably seated by the fireside, a drink in hand, entertaining his audience with his tales.

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Ireland’s greatest poet

Initially, I restricted publication to family and close friends, but eventually, I opened it up to the public; it was pointed out to me that somebody that I once knew, but with whom I had lost contact, might stumble upon my writings and contact me.

And that has now happened several times and I am so grateful for the opportunity for the renewed acquaintances.  With each has come a flood of nostalgia.

It has now been two years since I published my first article, and to date there have been 111 of them.  And there have been viewers from 46 countries.  It is humbling to evidence the power of the internet to connect people.

So what’s next?

Well, I still have more than 50 articles that I have yet to write and no doubt there are a plethora of others that have not yet surfaced.  Every time I finish writing one, I get at least two new ideas.  Sooner or later, I will put then into a book form, to gift to those of my relatives and some friends who have no access or no desire to access the internet.

So, now for number 112… 🙂

Four Generations

I have traced my father’s ancestors back to the late 1600s and without exception, all were born in Norfolk.  My father’s grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), was the first Norfolk Blackwood to be able to read and write.  In his youth he worked as a labourer in a mill in Hapton, but he somehow ended up owning a windmill in Harlesdon.  Prior to William Blackwood, all our Norfolk ancestors were agricultural labourers, and many died in the workhouse, as paupers.

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The windmill in Harlesdon

So, it never ceases to amaze me that, with that background, my grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood (1881-1965), was an organist at age 19, as listed in the 1901 census, and spent his life as a music teacher in Harpley.  I have no idea of what or who it was that inspired him to a musical career.

His musical interests were classical, and he subsidised his teaching income by serving as organist in local churches.  For some years he was the resident organist at Sandringham, the Royal residence.  And his church responsibilities included training the church choirs.  He ended his career in his early 80s, as organist at the church in Bushmills, near Portrush on the north coast of Ulster.  But he continued to practise every morning, afternoon and evening until the night in 1965 when he permanently fell asleep.

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My grandfather conducting a choir c1950.  My grandmother is in the front row, second from the right.

It was my grandfather who taught my father to play the piano and instilled in him the music-reading skills that stood him so well.  But my father had no real interest in classical or church music and when he was 16, in 1935, he moved to London, to take up a position as a trainee-manager with Sainsbury’s, which in that era was an upper-class grocer.  It was in the evenings that he found his true musical love – big bands, such as those of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Joe Loss etc.  He used to go to the ballrooms in North London, not to dance, but to listen to the bands, to observe, to study their technique.

It was during the early years of the war, when his regiment was stationed in and around Portrush, that my father established himself as a pianist, most nights playing a few numbers with the local bands.  After the war ended, he returned to Portrush and joined the Ernie Mann band.  But I have covered much of this history in a previous article, so I will not repeat myself.

To many, it might come as a surprise to know that for most of his professional life my father never had a piano.  He bought the sheet music, turned up at a venue and played.

He retired from his dance band in the late 1950s to concentrate on his farming business.  But music was his great love, and in the late 1960s he bought an electronic organ, an early version of modern keyboards, and soon was employed 2-3 times a week, playing in local hotels.  For friends and acquaintances, he made numerous recordings on a little tape-recorder.  Following is an example:

He died suddenly in late 1995; he would have been 77 the next day.  We found his music case packed and prepared for a performance that night.

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A clipping from a newspaper article, published not long before his death

In my turn, I had no musical training when I was young.  We had no piano at home and neither the primary nor secondary schools that I attended gave any musical tuition.  But I had enough rhythm to fill the role of drummer in a group with some teenage friends. We were pretty awful, but we had fun while it lasted, and when I left school in 1963, Bill McKeown invited me to join the little group that he was forming.  I wrote about it in the previous article that I mentioned earlier.

One of my friends, Raymond Lyttle, who played lead guitar, had real talent, and he went on to join the Delta Showband.  Sadly, he was killed in a car crash in England in 1970.

All my four sons studied the recorder at Lyndhurst Primary School, with some success.  And for a time, John played the cornet and Philip played my old clarinet.  It was only Andrew who continued to study music at secondary school, ending up with an ‘A’ level.  For one of his exams he had to submit his own composition and thankfully I managed to make a recording of him playing it.  He called it ‘Springtime’ and every time that I listen to it, I can hear his interpretation of the four seasons…

 

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Andrew playing at a wedding in March 2013

During his school years, my youngest son, Philip, became very much involved in amateur musicals, both in school and with a local junior operatic society.  For a time, he flirted with the idea of pursuing a musical career.  I suspect that one day he will return to the stage, albeit in an amateur mode.

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Philip in a local production of Tom Sawyer

So, from humble Norfolk roots, to date four generations of the Blackwood family have studied music, have entertained, have acted.  I write these words so that future generations of my family will be aware of their historical roots, and in the hope that some of them will be inspired to carry the baton for one more lap.

For music is very much in their genes.

 

Procrastination

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.

Seneca – 4 BC (Córdoba) – 65 AD (Rome)

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That line comes from Seneca’s essay – ‘De Brevitate Vitae’ (The Shortness of Life), written in 49 AD.

And as Wayne Gretsky, the former Canadian ice hockey star, once said – ‘Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy.  You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’.

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I well remember a Qantas commercial from the early 1970s when I lived in Australia.  It started out with a young man saying that when he finished school he was going to travel.  Then it was after he completed his studies.  One saw the young man looking a little older, saying that when his children grew up, he was going to see the world.  Then the man looking much older, salt-and-peppered and conservative, saying that when he retired he was going to travel and see the world.  Finally, there appeared a very old grey bearded wrinkly saying – ‘One of these days…’.

For me, decisions involving my own money – buying a house, shares, a car, a phone, a computer etc. are relatively easy.  I know what I want, I have a reasonable idea of the cost, and when I find it, I buy it.  I really don’t care if I later find that I could have bought it for less somewhere else, or by waiting I could have had a better deal. The deal is done and I move on.  For me the old saying, that ‘time is money’ very much applies.  I very much believe that it is important to know what your time is worth and not to waste it in trying to make relatively insignificant savings.

In a similar manner decisions involving where I live and/or work have also been relatively easy for me and have always been because of what I wanted to do next in life. We have no choice of parents or of where we are born and raised, but we certainly can decide where we want to live.  Consequently, I have left a trail of cities behind me – Toronto, Sydney, Los Angeles, London, Lagos, Caracas, Miami, Panama, Lima, Camberley, Neuchâtel, Paris, Uppsala, Chamonix, Montevideo and now Cape Town.  One of these days I may settle down… 🙂

At work the major decisions are usually much more complex and involve many variables.  Making 5 out of 5 profitable decisions hardly seems possible.  With 4 out of 5, promotion is just a matter of time.  With 3 out of 5, one may remain employed.  Anything less usually results in ‘adios’.  And procrastination on a difficult decision rarely wins respect.

Where I have often struggled is with the negative decisions involving people, for example in terminating a relationship or someone’s employment.  With some, I would certainly never win a popularity contest.  And yet, once the decision is made and communicated, I have usually felt an overwhelming sense of relief.  As is written in the bible, and frequently misquoted, ‘the truth sets you free’.

Life is too short to waste on regretting what could have been…

In the words of Edith Piaf – ´Non, Je ne regrette rien’.

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Edith Piaf – Non, je ne regrette rien – (original)

Shit

I grew up on a farm in Ireland and from the age of crawling, I was exposed to shit.

There was cow shit, horse shit, chicken shit, pig shit, sheep shit, goose, duck, goat, dog and cat shit, and other shit that I have trod on, but not noticed.  And more than once a passing bird has evacuated its bowels on my head, which Irish logic would explain why I have been exceptionally lucky all my life.

And there was the manure heap, with the daily contents of the piggeries and the chicken houses, together with the remains of dead animals and birds.  It was a veritable soup of bacteria, constantly stirred by an army of rats.

Of course, we kept ourselves pristine clean: my mother made me have a bath once a week, but only if I really needed it.  Now to some of you that may sound a little extreme, but one should remember that we had no running water until I was eight or nine years old, and then no heating.

The only times I ever had to take a precautionary medical measure, was when, on occasions I cut myself and went to the doctor to have a tetanus injection.  And of course, there was the ringworm infection that I had on my forehead, probably from wiping my sweaty brow on a warm day.  It started to spread towards my hair and I had to have treatment.

I still have most of my hair, albeit not as lush as formerly

When I migrated to Canada, I first heard of allergies.  It was a new word for me.  If it existed in Ireland, I had never heard of it before. So many people in Canada seemed to be allergic to something.  And there was the modern infliction of stomach ulcers and haemorrhoids.  As an innocent Irish immigrant, I was on a steep learning curve.

Some years later, on one of my last nights in Lagos, with some of my friends, I went to my favourite little French bistro in the city.  It rained heavily while we ate and when we emerged, the streets were flooded, and the parking lot, where I had left the car – I was driving, was a lake.  The sewers had regurgitated their contents, and the water was putrid.

I took off my shoes and socks –  I was already in shorts, and waded to the car and managed to start the engine and exit the car park.  When my friends got in, they were nauseated by the smell that rose from my legs.  When we got back to my apartment, to my amusement, one of the girls (a very city girl) insisted on dousing my legs with disinfectant, despite that I had already showered.

Once in Chamonix in recent years, with Lotta and some of my sons, just about to start dinner, Andrew mentioned that the toilet in his room was blocked.  ‘Leave it to me’, I said, and I leapt into action.  Sure enough, it the  toilet was filled to the brim and solidly blocked.  I plunged my arm up to the elbow, pulled and pushed at the blockage, and with an enormous sucking noise, it all disappeared.

Was I treated as a ‘hero’ for my heroic action?  Not at all.  ‘Yuk’, ‘OMG’, ‘how could you do that? etc.  And once again I was doused with all sorts of disinfectants. And dinner was a rather subdued affair.

Sometimes being Irish is no fun… 😦

When it comes to gardening, I can understand women wanting to protect and keeping their ‘hands soft and smooth´, but I have never understood why men wear gloves.  To me, gardening in gloves is comparable to sex with a condom:  to feel and assess the moisture content and the texture of the soil, one has to get one’s hands dirty.  I could never imagine my father or his workers ever wearing gloves in their work.

I remain totally convinced that exposure to germs, bacteria or whatever they are called, from a young age, helps to build a resistance that lasts a lifetime.

I appreciate that my view is diametrically opposed to that of the product propaganda of the cleansing and pharmaceutical companies and most city people.

But then, what do I know?