Europe 25 – The Holey Roaming Empire

I know the story. You know the story. Charles Babbage invented machine computing, but the technical sophistication of the time wasn’t up to realising his dream. Alan Turing worked out the theoretical basis for computing during the day; while cracking Enigma, and incidentally laying the foundation for the hardware, at night. Then the Americans invented the transistor, the mouse, gooey skeuomorphism and the internet. In that entire time, the country that invented the automobile, made rockets practical, produced Siemens and BASF did – nothing, right?

Ha. Who writes history?

Until yesterday, I had never heard of Konrad Zuse. I had no idea that he built a Turing-complete machine in May 1941 and designed the first high-level programming language before 1945 was out. His company survived into the 1960s. The Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin has a reproduction of his first machine, the Z1, built by Zuse himself. The original was designed and built between 1935 and 1938. He didn’t call it the Z1 at the time, he called it the Experimental Model, or VersuchsModell 1 – V1 for short. After the war, not so much. Whatever it was called, and however well it worked (the Z1 was, apparently, unreliable, unlike his later machines) it was the first programmable machine using Boolean logic and floating point arithmetic. It was also, at least its reproduction is, absolutely beautiful (see above). The original was bombed to bits in 1943.

We met Cara at the Technikmuseum. I enjoyed it. The boys – Seb particularly – found a display in which one formed the binary equivalent of various decimal numbers fascinating. They weren’t much seized by the rest. I wish I had got to the space part, because space. But the kids wanted to move on to the Spectrum Science Centre, because they so very much want to have another experience like Questacon in Canberra. In vain. The centre attached to the Technikmuseum here is bright, modern and all hands on. But, in the boys’ opinion, it lacked the magic of Questacon. Perhaps it just lacked a vertical slide.

I had left it too long after breakfast to get some food into the boys, I think, because the next step was a long sulk from Seb after he interpreted (correctly) that his brother (pretending to) play a game on his tablet was designed to tease. He clocked Raf and then wouldn’t eat. It was a long and very tedious negotiation to bring him back to us. We got there eventually.

Across town to Museum Island, me pestering our native guide at every unfamiliar sight (which was, of course, all of them). I ridiculed what I saw as the antiquated ticketing system, depending on semi-legible stamps from a machine that is always at the wrong end of the platform. Cara advised that inspectors regularly prowled the train, and they did not wear uniforms. As if summoned by incantation, two young men in severely fashionable haircuts, tight jeans and an energetic – even muscular – physical presence appeared and demanded to see everyone’s papers. The one who approached us was bearded. I half expected to be told that while my ticket was adequate, it was inferior to a more difficult to obtain one handwritten by a poet I’d probably never heard of. When I mentioned my impression of hipsters to Cara, she frowned, and suggested that gangsters might be closer to the mark.

The architecture of the city leaves me with a lingering sense of the unusual. The large Lutheran cathedral loomed over the Lustgarten, as ornate and domed as anything in Rome, the new German Protestants apparently at ease with the grandiose. Schinkel’s Friedrichswerdersche Kirche looked like someone had described a gothic cathedral to a 19th Century industrial engineer who had never been in one, given him a pile of red bricks, and told him to have it ready by Friday. Its clean lines look towards modernity, but it also looks squarely backwards, as chimerical a building as I have ever seen, and as ugly as all two-faced things. One might admire it, but I cannot imagine anyone worshipping an awesome God in it. Apparently the Berliners felt the same, for I have since learned that it was deconsecrated and later closed indefinitely due to structural damage from building works nearby. They are rebuilding the Stadtschloss, knocked down by the DDR in the 1950s and replaced by the Palast der Republik, knocked down in its turn by decree of the reunified parliament in 2003. Disney Berlin, Cara calls it, with what sounds like amused contempt. If there is also anger, she keeps it to herself. 

So we were standing in the former East Berlin – a place that for the first 20 years of my life was, in my mind, a prison camp stuck in a slightly twee and embarrassing past – a sort of 1950s German Scarfolk. Now it was a boring bus stop. I realised that I must have wandered across the former border a dozen times and never noticed, and despite what the guidebooks say, I had not noticed the change in architecture, or not attributed it to political history, because even in the western parts of the city that I had seen, it had felt like a patchwork that didn’t quite fit together. Potsdamer Platz the day before had been a soulless wasteland, its shops merely low rent versions of the ones I was to see the following day in the Mall of Berlin, about 100 metres away. Unsurprisingly, there was no-one there. We could walk sterile blocks in the centre of the city on a workday afternoon and see no-one, nor get any sense that pedestrians had been factored in to any plans. Other parts of the city were as messy and organic as sex, or a migraine. At the time it made no sense. I would really only see the border – the real border, or one of them – the next day, this afternoon, as I write. 

The Neues Museum was our last stop, and only a short one as Raf had had enough. Negotiating a too brief visit and agreeing a meeting spot with him, the rest of us dashed into the museum, headed like an arrow for its party piece, the bust of Nefertiti. Like an arrow, that is, which is shot, bounces off a wall, drops to the ground, is picked up by a passing child, carried to another town and finally sent back to its original target by mail. Getting lost was our good fortune – we saw, albeit briefly, much of what the museum had to offer, the most interesting of which was a range of bronze and early iron age artefacts from central Europe, creations of the so-called Hallstatt Culture and its predecessors. Helms and weapons, of course, but also domestic implements, torcs, symbols (and stores) of wealth and signifiers of status. My first sense of a real people for whom the rise of Greece and Rome was distant news, and occasionally trouble on the southern border.

In, at last, to see the bust, and it is breathtaking – quite a different experience in reality from the impression you will receive from pictures. The sense of a real person, so much more than any monochrome marble, is overwhelming – intelligent, confident in her position both as a semi-divine ruler of a great people and, certainly, a very beautiful woman – that more common condition but no less transcendent. The gap of time over which those eyes stare back at her audience is 3,300 years, and never to me has such a gap seemed so tissue thin.

Europe 24 – Everything is Awesome

A day for the boys, at least the first twelve hours of it. Their pick was Legoland at Postdamer Platz – which is exactly what you think: a Lego shop with a Lego exhibition and a café attached. Two full hours for the boys to run around and play in an all-plastic, primary colour, indoor setting. The coffee was adequate, sold to me by a Sydneysider who is “stuck here, because my girlfriend is German”, which may or may not bode well for the relationship.

The highlight was definitely the “4-D movie”, a fifteen minute short with the characters of The Lego Movie triumphing over whatever we’re supposed to triumph over these days – copyright infringement and the gig economy, by the looks. Unlike at the Centrepoint Tower, their claim to the fourth dimension rested not only on occasionally turning on the sprinklers but also flashing lights in our eyes and, on one occasion, spraying us with spume. The movie was, natch, far too loud and in German (“ohhh, man, das ist nicht gut”). Accordingly, if you closed your eyes, the experience was of someone shouting at you in a foreign language while lights – clearly visible through the eyelids – flashed on and off for no obvious reason and at random intervals you were sprayed with a range of substances until you were moist. I found the whole thing strangely relaxing.

Further observations of Germans (or at least Berliners and their city):

Contrary to previous observations, in fact they smile and laugh just like normal people, regularly and uninhibitedly. It is possible that they just don’t smile at ignorant foreigners who are approaching them, obviously about to ask for help in their only language – one the native Berliner learned the hard way, in school.

Berlin, or the parts I’ve seen, is not a rich city. The Hauptbahnhof is the anomaly – the rest of the city is not clean and free of graffiti and does not look like it teleported in from a utopian Star Trek-style future. It looks very lived in indeed. When it rains moderately heavily, as it did today, the U-bahn walkways flood with muddy ooze, which they try to vacuum out with equipment at least 20 years old. The U-bahn itself is probably a shade grubbier than in London or Paris.

The former East Germany pops up in the unlikeliest places. Tonight we ate with Andi’s friend Cara, her sister, Eva, and Eva’s young daughter. Eva works with a political foundation connected with the Left Party, a coalition of western radical leftists and the successor grouping of the former ruling communists. On its staff, she tells me, are former academics and politicians of the old East, including the last communist premier, Hans Modrow. Also survivors from the east are the Ampelmännchen – the little green men who indicate when it is safe for pedestrians to cross a road, which is weird, because they’re oddly anachronistic in their gender specificity and headwear, and have only one, disturbingly oversized, arm apiece. Astonishingly, also a former communist innovation since adopted in unified Germany are green traffic light arrows allowing right turns against the prevailing red light – remembering here that Germans drive on the right. Apparently the idea that people might safely nip round while not interfering with other traffic simply never occurred to the people who have, for scores of years, built most of the best known quality motor vehicles on the planet. Clearly, whatever their shortcomings on the economic management front, and the not turning your country into a secret police-ridden paranoid shithole front, East Germans knew a thing or two about traffic signals.

Dinner was at the Markthalle Neun, on Eisenbahnstrasse – my first look at Kreuzberg. This feels like a real place lived in by real Berliners, no souvenir stalls or kitsch bars, the graffiti complaining of gentrification. But my impressions are limited by the need to form them through rain-obscured glasses, trying to leap the deepest puddles while dodging cars, because the forecast showers have made themselves at home and become a steady, soaking drench. By the time we get there we’re all squelching as we walk and Raf very sensibly kicks his sodden shoes off altogether. It’s wonderful to have some adults to talk to, and I shamelessly bribe the children with an extra dessert to buy myself another hour. They nearly keep their end of the bargain, too, but too soon we have to wrap things up. Plans are made to do the Technikmuseum tomorrow and that is that, save for a further squelch back through the fading light, towards Schöneberg and bed.

Europe 23 – On ICE

And now it’s the boys’ time – Anna is off to the south of France while the merry men head east. Gare du Nord is surprisingly familiar – I had completely forgotten that we were there about 65 hours earlier as we got off the Eurostar. We’ve packed a bit into those hours.

In any event, Thalys 9437 takes us out of Paris and, in short order, out of France, into and out of Belgium and into Germany – Brussels, Liege, Aachen and Köln, and while I trust I’m not the sort of poseur who goes on about Firenze or München when they have time-hallowed names in English, calling it Cologne just seems weird because that’s not English, it’s French, and the city isn’t. It matters little what we call it anyway, because we’ve just time for a traditional slice of cheese-crust salami from an authentic little charcutier called Pizza Hut before dashing onto the Deutsche Bahn’s Inter City Express, which is German for “inter-city express”, service 953, to Berlin, via Wuppertal, Hannover and a couple of other cities which would be big enough to have English names if anyone felt the need.

Our seat-mate on the first leg was Daniel (I believe – I gleaned the name from a friend of his addressing him), a Canadian marine biologist of perhaps 70, recently in Australia in connection with an adjunct professorship he is taking up at one of the Perth universities. On the second leg we were in a row by ourselves, not round a table, and thus made no new friend, to my regret.

Eight hours travel has never been so easy or comfortable. I am already regretting that I booked a flight to get us back to France in a few days. Clinging to my aim on this trip of turning the Germans, in my mind, from a bunch of clichés and stereotypes into real people, I worked resolutely to ignore the businessman in the row in front of me who kept looking around to see who had the temerity to be on the phone in what he, erroneously, believed was the quiet zone of the carriage – his mistake being explained to him when he sought to raise the matter with a passing uniform. It was thus, I thought, simply unfair that the man who served me in the dining car – after fawning revoltingly over the blonde 30-year-old ahead of me in the queue – stared at me with open hostility while I tried to order in English, told me that coffee was no longer available, and did so while bearing a truly remarkable physical resemblance to a certain famous Chancellor of the 1930s and 1940s, needing only to trim his moustache to complete the effect. All of which made his subsequent and quite unexpected production of a pair of toy trains and kids’ magazines, handed over with a mumbled “for the boys”, downright disorienting.

Another shock is the language. While I do not speak French, I can stumble along in it and, more importantly, I know its cadences and tones – I can often guess at meanings by catching a few words or even syllables, combined with expression or gesture. With the exception of one of the cabin staff, a round, friendly woman in her thirties who wished us an enjoyable stay, I am yet to see much in the way of facial expression from any German. This robs me of clues that I desperately need, because, to my surprise, the language is so much white noise. I expected to know few words, but to be unable to guess more than a few vowels is to find myself drowning. The problem is shown up acutely when I am, in fact, addressed in English – I must concentrate closely to make any sense of a language – one in which I have been fluent for forty years – seemingly unmoored from the phonemic pilings with which I am familiar.

No doubt I will get some linguistic bearings in the next day or so. While I do so, a familiar task awaits – to become conversationally fluent in the local transportation system. Berlin Hauptbahnhof is impressively clean, modern, spacious and attractive – eclipsing the previous titleholder on this trip, St Pancras International. Its space and seeming efficiency may have intimidated me slightly, and I found myself lost trying to turn Google’s advice for getting to our hotel into action. In my defence, no other city has presented options including three different train networks (local rail, S-bahn and U-bahn) and a bus system, all for getting 10km across the city centre. I asked for help, and was given it, in English, efficiently and unsmilingly. I was sold the appropriate tickets, went to the platform directed, and looked about for the machine with which I was advised I needed to stamp the tickets. At that point, a kindly man took pity, and indicated the small, unmarked, wholly non-descript little box into which I was required to insert the slips of paper. Once on the train, the confusion on my face as I studied (more accurately, scanned without taking anything in) the rail map must again have been obvious, as he politely asked if he could assist. In response to my enthusiastic encouragement, he showed me how to find Berlin Hbf, the Zoologische Garten (where we were required to change to the U-bahn) and Nollendorfplatz, our eventual destination. He guessed my nationality as English – the first person to do so on this trip. I gave him the ten word version of my autobiography. We chatted about his work as a lobbyist in the area of environmental policy and he informed me, as one might tell a friend about a piece of lettuce in his teeth, that Australia needed to do more to reduce its very high per capita carbon emissions. I muttered something about the dispersed nature of our population, but he was right, of course, and I conceded as much, producing another first – the only time so far that I’ve felt called upon to apologise for the embarrassment that is the Australian government. This must be what Americans – those who can count and spell – feel like much of the time.

While still on the ICE, Raf looked up our hotel, the Sachsenhof on Motzstrasse. The only review we could find giving it less than four stars was from one punter who complained that it had “clean and spacious rooms … RIGHT IN THE GAY DISTRICT”. Said punter is absolutely right. Our room is airy and full of character while having everything we could want. The leopard print carpet is gorgeous. It costs less than half what we paid for our cramped attic in Paris. As for the district – “gay” is a fairly timid appellation. Right across the (broad, tidy) street is a bespoke tailor, whose sign says they specialise in leather and rubber but whose (chic, expensive-looking) shop window includes a number of items in very finely worked chain mail, to be worn, apparently, over a G-string. Leaving Raf to unpack, Seb and I go out to find a bite. When we do, it’s a plate of sweet-and-sour, basic but just what he needs, for €5, and I’ll repeat that, five fucking euros.

I have a good feeling about this town.

Europe 22 – Rain in the Marais

I don’t really remember the Place de la Concorde from my childhood visit, or if I do, it was filed under “incomprehensible”, because it’s enormous. I take one photo from one corner, and then flee. Up the Champs-Elysées to the statue of Charles de Gaulle, an opportunity for a history lesson on the subject of “France in the 20th Century”, number about 4 in a series, some syllabus overlap with “Germany in the 20th Century”, a series of which we’ve had the introduction, the later lectures to be delivered in Berlin. Along the way we pass Avenue Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lesson 5. I hope Raf’s taking at least some of this in. If we get home and he denies all knowledge of la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, I will pout for days.

Audio: Station République, Paris

Before we get to within decent photographing distance of the Arc de Triomphe, we’ve all had enough, frankly – kids bickering and Anna and I snapping at each other. I try to negotiate the purchase of some telecommunications with Orange, and fail. In the end, we buy a €10 phone for Anna and a cheap SIM, and hope that’s enough. Then to the Marais, where the Museum of Magic has been recommended by a friend. Unfortunately, it’s not open, but the area round the Rue Saint Antoine is pretty and fun until it starts to rain. To escape the rain, we jump on a bus which I think is heading back towards the centre. It isn’t, because north is that way, not that way, and by the time I realise the mistake we’re well on the way to the suburbs. Pas de problème – off the bus and onto the metro to the Île de la Cité or, as we know it, Gaulish Lutetia. Round the corner and that, lads, is perhaps the most famous cathedral in the world. Yes, inside it looks pretty much like every other Catholic cathedral we’ve already dragged you into and no, we won’t make you stand in line to have a look. Alright, one Orangina, and then we can go back to the hotel.

Everyone crashes, so I take a walk, down to the Rue de Rivoli, to see if I can find the hotel in which my mother and I stayed in 1984. I find one near where it must have been, just past the Hôtel de Ville – the Hôtel de Nice, which may or may not be the place. Back to our hotel on the Rue de la Ville Neuve to gather the gang for dinner. Seb demands sushi and nothing but, so he and Anna head off thusly. But I, on my ramble, have discovered Rue des Petits Carreaux/Rue Montorgueil, a cobbled strip of café life, so Raf and I get a pizza among crowds of the fashionable and the sociable.

Once back, everyone crashes again, but I can’t sleep, so I sneak out for a final look around Paris. A walk to the Seine, the Eiffel Tower striping the sky with its lighthouse beams, the Palais du Louvre, then back on the metro. Nearing midnight, the true nature of the neighbourhood is more apparent – I am propositioned twice by professional women within fifty metres. My first would-be friend is an attractive Asian woman in chic clothes who backs off at a shake of my head. The second encounter is with a couple of solidly built black women, both dressed so as to leave no doubt as to their intention, who head towards me quite agressively. One tries to take my hand, and it takes a repeated, stern “non!” to shake her off. As I turn the corner into the street where our hotel – quite a fashionably turned out place, certainly no flea pit – nestles, I notice that the little cinema a few doors down is of a specialist variety I had thought rendered extinct by the internet. But then I thought that of streetwalkers, too, which shows how little I know. What I do know is that in this neighbourhood, a lonely man might find it very easy to have that loneliness sharpened exquisitely, at the cost of a few euros, and some human dignity.

Europe 21 – Amazing Stories

The next time you, a fan of 1950s Science Fiction magazines, are in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, I recommend a visit to Le Cosmos, a café on Avenue Emile Zola, near the corner of Rue de Théâtre. They have a charming collection of framed covers of Galaxy and Nebula et al which, with an attitude I am coming to expect, they have just leaned up against the wall, because hanging is for neurotic foreigners, or something. They serve the best croissants I had in Paris, and you can, too, because they buy them from the boulangerie next door.

Some alternative accommodation for the remaining two nights sorted out, if not yet moved into, we tramp the Left Bank streets looking for Gustav Eiffel’s most famous construction. It, perhaps alone of things encountered on this, my first visit to Paris since 1984, has not got any smaller in the interim. Presumably there is a size above which the child mind simply files things as “enormous”, and as long as they remain enormous in the years between first encounter and adulthood, they do not shrink like childhood homes and primary school playgrounds. There may be a psychology PhD in that for someone.

Once inside the area under the pylons I have a look for Guy de Maupassant, who famously ate lunch there every day after it was built because it was the only place in Paris from which he couldn’t see the bloody thing. It would appear that he has got over his issues. A moderately long queue at the bottom for the stairs is more attractive than a horribly long one for the lifts, but still enough to test the patience of the kids in the hot sun. The climb is, at least, shady. I try to be smart and tell Seb to count the steps, hoping thus to keep him mildly engaged and to delay the inevitable demand for a shoulder ride. In fact, every tenth step is already numbered, and all I achieve thereby is to slow us down.

We reach the summit with only one major meltdown when I separate squabbling kids in the queue for the final elevator, unjustly singling out one as the wrongdoer when the true blame, as always, lies elsewhere. Eventually, we reach the top, where my discomfort with heights seems to be at a local maximum, which rather prevents me from enjoying the view. Raf amuses himself by wondering what would happen if the phone with which I am taking the pictures were to fall and hit someone below. I absorb myself by wondering how often that must actually happen, and why we never hear of the deaths that would surely result.

After the tower, it’s time to find our new hotel. The location seems good – the 2nd arrondissement. The room itself is four weary floors up (no elevator) and in a garret – the ceiling over my bed threatening to brain me if I sit up suddenly. But it’s clean, the bathroom is modern (and I can stand up in it) and we are beggars, so it’s home. The boys and I head to the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle for dinner, and they are thrilled to find a brasserie that serves “nuggets avec des pommes frites”. Relaxing to the inevitable, I have a burger. My gourmet’s trip to Paris will have to wait for another time.

Europe 20 – Stéréotypes Interdits

I’ve moaned before that a couple of hours travelling takes up a whole day, but anyone who wants to cram more excitement into such a day would be advised to come to Paris, which offers that combination of insouciance and incompetence that is the envy of the rest of the world. Having Eurostarred from St Pancras to Gare du Nord, we metroed to République, then footslogged to 2, rue Sainte Elisabeth to pick up our key from our intended hosts at Short Stay Group Paris. Remember that name. The key obtained, we slogged and metroed and slogged some more – now about 8. 30pm and Seb visibly flagging under the weight of his bags – to the Eiffel Village Apartments at 17, rue Fondary. Which turned out to have one bed in its one room. I rang our hosts. The woman who answered excused herself and said she’d call back. Five minutes later she did, to advise that it was a clerical error, that they had nothing else to offer us, and that we should look for a hotel. Just managing to keep my temper, I told her that it was totally unacceptable simply to dump us on the streets of Paris at 8.45pm, that I expected them to find alternative accommodation and send a taxi to take us there at their expense. She said that she quite understood my position and would speak with her manager, call you in 5 minutes. Nothing. Twenty-five minutes later I rang again, to be told that the office was closed, and the man speaking to me was there only to deal with late arrivals. He could do nothing to help. I could actually hear him shrug.

Fortunately, Raf and I were able to get a room a few doors down at the Amiral Fondary, where the night concierge Camellia could not have been more helpful. Our room on the courtyard is simple, cheap and perfectly adequate to our needs. The cat’s name is Hermès. I am sorry that, unless there is a cancellation, we will be forced to move on tomorrow, and I recommend it to anyone wanting a place in the 15th arrondissement (just round the corner from the Eiffel Tower) for €80. In contrast, you would be well advised to shun the Short Stay Group like a case of herpes. Tomorrow, I suppose, I will have to spend a slice of one of only two days that we have in Paris ensuring that we get a refund and dealing with people I would be very happy to learn have all burned to death. Not to mention making alternative arrangements for the remaining two nights. But, as I believe they say around here, c’est la fucking vie.

Europe 19 – Shopping

Parking the kids with Steven & Louisa, Anna and I went shopping in London. We bought a t-shirt for me and some books for the girls.

Good to spend time just with Anna, who was, throughout, brilliant, witty, elegant, always knew exactly where everything was, familiar with the public transport system, impressive in her knowledge of art, patient with crowds and, of course, effortlessly beautiful.

Audio: Carnaby Street, London

We managed about half an hour in the National Gallery, obligatory pilgrimage for me to the shrine of Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA. Also saw some of Cannaletto’s views of Venice, resonant because of recent visit. In, out, and back to Bray for a burger and bed. I lay down to read a book, next thing I knew it was hours later. In the end, I must have gone close to 12 hours kip. Must have needed it.

Europe 18 – God Has Been Kind

Warwick Castle is impressively preserved and impressively active, for a week day during school term. An it savour, forsooth, of a certain tackynesse, well, what do you expect, for a week day, during term.

The Castle Dungeon show manages to scare Seb into something I’ve never seen in him before – an unwillingness to admit his fear. Affected, I think, by the “volunteering” of his mother to be disembowelled in shadow play by a plague doctor, he repeatedly demands to be allowed to leave, a tremor in his voice, on the grounds that it is boring. Until the torturer shows us into which proverbially unsunny orifice he would sometimes fit his spiky hook, at which terror is chased away by mirth.

After the castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, where we nod towards Shakespeare but spend almost all of our time at the Museum of Mechanical Art & Design, a small but terrific display of Heath Robinson devices and marble run whimsy. The kids settle in for a play.

And they need and deserve it, for the next step is the 90 minute drive back to Henley and my sole surviving grandparent, 101-year-old Audrey. I have phoned ahead several times in the days since we reached the UK – twice this morning alone – without getting hold of her. It is clear that she is spending much time sleeping. As she is when we arrive. When awoken, we try carefully and repeatedly to explain who we are, and it seems at last to sink in. She cannot believe it is possible, and says so, repeatedly, along with her conviction that she has led a fortunate life. By the time I leave after half an hour or so, she and I have been able to talk of my mother – her daughter – and the other members of my family, and I am satisfied that she grasps her relationship to me and to her two great-grandsons. She asks me to write it down, which I do. We admire her letter from the Queen. Anna and the boys leave us alone for ten minutes. At last, I say goodbye, and slip out to join them before making our way to Steven and Louisa’s, which after two emotional days away, feels quite a lot like a homecoming. Curry for dinner. All I need now are some slippers.

Europe 17 – The Past Is Another County

Thrifty had nothing. Enterprise Rent-A-Car had nothing. Starting to panic now. On the phone to Europcar, who cheerfully take my order for a small hatchback. Ten minutes walk to the outlet later – they don’t have any either … at least not in that class. For the car we do have, Sir, the hand-painted Mercedes with the platinum rims and the satnav voiced by the actual Duchess of Cambridge who is physically present in the car – that would be mumblety-mumble pounds for the two days. I say, Sir, what a remarkable colour – are you unwell? Roger, a chair for the gentleman, quickly.  Something you ate, perhaps. I was about to say that, as it is a change to a booking we can’t honour, I will be able to offer a discount on the upgrade fee, and perhaps Sir will not need to sell both of his kidneys.

For sure, it’s a nice car. I’d still rather be in my Subaru – sneer all you like. It gets us to Coventry, anyway, and I suppose one shouldn’t cavil at the cost of any car capable of transporting one back in time forty years. Up the M40 we go, pausing only to order a medium-sized coffee at a roadside pseudo-town, which is served in a bathtub, leaving me to wonder at the enormity – and here I use the word strictly in its traditional sense – that a large one must represent.

Steven has come with us, back to what is, after all, his native town as well as mine. The first thing we see, from an odd angle, is the sports centre, which he has spent an hour, and will spend another, trying to convince me is in the shape of an elephant. We end up googling images that might show it to best effect, but it turns out that all angles for viewing the building are odd. I remain unconvinced of its pachydermicity. 

Next, up the tower of the old cathedral. This year’s half-season of football has stood me in good stead and I’m not breathing too heavily as we summit. The views from the top allow us to see much of, well, a depressed Midlands city of no particular beauty or distinction. 

Down to the statue of Godiva and the famous, or at least somewhat memorable, clock, which hourly re-enacts her celebrated ride via the magic of clockwork. That is, it used to. Some locals of a recognisably English cast – a history of poor dietary choices and an innocence of remedial dentistry obvious – tell us it hasn’t been working now for eight months. 

Lunch, at least, is acceptable. I am quietly impressed with the home town boy nonchalance with which Steven, a discerning gourmand in daily life, orders the fish finger sandwiches. The shade of my father compels me to the beef and Stilton pie with mash and, crowning glory, mushy peas. 

And then Allesley. We’ve kept Sheila Staples waiting too long. But she’s there, and very welcoming, albeit tied to the phone, waiting for a call from her solicitors in connection with the sale of her house that never comes. But she has alerted Dick and Jean Skinner, current owner of 13 Allesley Croft, my childhood home, who are waiting for my knock. So we go, and knock, or rather press the button. Jean practically pulls me inside like a long lost child, and we get the full tour, no room barred to us, happy for me to snap away with my camera. Much changed, of course – the grass in the back garden gone, all the fixtures very modern, an inkling that the door to the living room has been moved sometime in the intervening decades, but the same house I mistily recall, the kitchen in which my father made tea every morning, the same stairs up to the same bedroom I last slept in 41 years earlier.

From there, Steven and I walk down to the entrance to the croft and round the back on my once familiar walk to school. The thought springs into my head that on this turf (open then, populated with blocks of flats now) there used to be daisies – the first flower whose name I positively associated with the variety. Five paces later, I bend and pick one, my head spinning. 

The school is next. From the proper, actual gate where I used to enter we’re forced to traipse around to what Yeoman insists on calling the front entrance, on the flimsy basis that that’s what it is. As if reality is sufficient support for any proposition, on this of all days. School’s out, but there are still a few people about. One teenage lad, just off the sports field or something, holds open a door for us, which he almost certainly shouldn’t do, and we nip in and try to find a responsible adult to turn ourselves in to. We run across Adele, one of the staff, who believes our story and with great generosity gives us a guided tour of the junior school where we both spent our first few years. To both of our utter astonishments, the assembly hall is practically unchanged, right down to the parquet floor. It’s only shrunk a bit. 

Also little altered are the junior rooms – Adele calls them Core Stage 1 or some similar modern jargon. The same rooms are still in use for kids the same ages as we were in 1974/5, and the doors lead out to the same asphalt yard edged with the same concrete flagstones. The sense of chronological dislocation was vertiginous. Memories didn’t flood back, but instantaneously and delicately came into being, one following another, like a movie of soap bubbles popping watched in reverse. Snatches of play in the second courtyard, dreams – perhaps experienced after emigration but still, certainly, before the age of eight – of searching for things in the assembly hall, the spelling test in which I was robbed of a mark by attempting humour rather than accuracy. Both Steven and I walk away from the school in a state of some emotion.

A short walk (from the so called “front gate”) takes us to Steven’s old house in Anglesey Close, but he feels no need to disturb the current owners – he has been inside far more recently than I in Allesley Croft. Down to the Birmingham Road – coincidentally passing Anna and the boys who have ducked out to find a drink and, no doubt, relief from all of the nostalging. Reconfirming our deal to meet up back at Sheila’s place, we Allesley Old Boys peep into the building that once housed our play school, now half a dance school and half either an abandoned shell or, if the sign on the front is still current, the grimmest youth activity centre I’ve ever seen. Which is, of course, saying something.

After a final cup of tea with Shiela, we’re off towards our rest for the night in Wellesbourne, near Stratford. Anna is driving, as she has done the whole time, but this time it is necessary as for most of the drive I cannot see for tears.

Europe 16 – Sex and Death

Early, with Louisa this time, to Paddington, leaving the rest of the Harvey Fryer clade still snoring. A 9am meeting with Acb, our first face-to-face for several years. As I mentioned to L on the train, every time I see him I look in vain for the first signs of ageing. This time, perhaps, for the very first time, I can see just one or two lines, a hint of grey. Which leaves only me now, of all the world, still looking exactly the same as I’ve always done. Well, I knew this day must come.

We are off somewhere – a special Somewhere, Acb’s pick and a secret, my only clue being that there is a minimal dress code (shoulders covered, no knobbly knees). A mosque, I guess, and am nearly right. The tube is overstretched, so we find a bus, and in the left front seat of the upper deck we catch up – his sister’s death, some health issues for us both, lovers come and gone. Plenty of smiles, some moments of reflection. And then, there it is, in the uncharted wastes of Neasden, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest Hindu temple (for the time being) outside India. And it’s a delight – the ideal palate cleanser for a trip full of cathedrals, a hand-carved confection of fractalising marble. The locals are models of hospitality, thanking us for visiting, answering questions patiently and at length, as gracious as any Good King from a story. We do our honest best to be the guests they deserve, and only once sense that we have forgotten ourselves sufficiently to talk loudly enough to distract one of the worshippers. At the end, with honest regret, I plead that family commitments prevent us from staying for the prayer service which we are invited to join.

Those commitments are waiting for us back at Paddington Station, two excited boys and Anna, who is off to see her ex, Mehmet. I am relieved to see that her nerves at that forthcoming meeting, in evidence over the last 24 hours, seem to have abated. Wishing her a fulfilling day, Acb and I steer the boys in the direction of the Science Museum, where Uncle Acb quickly turns into the sort of uncle that nephews adore. All three get told, more than once, that if they don’t behave, none of them will be getting any ice cream.

The museum has something for us all – some ancient computers, several of which I have used, a reconstruction of Crick and Watson’s 1953 model of DNA, rebuilt in the 1970s using several of the metal elements that appear in the famous photograph, Stevenson’s Rocket, the Command Module from the Apollo 10 mission. We watch a short 3D movie about the Apollo 15 mission, in a cinema fitted with chairs that jolt us about in synchrony with the events depicted. Seb, in particular, is delighted.

Goodbye to Acb and back to Bray to leave the kids with the babysitter, Steven and I then back into London on the train. Our (fairly minimal) efforts at presentability are undone by a carriage like an oven, the air conditioning completely overwhelmed by the numbers and the conditions. We squelch into the Southbank precinct to find our womenfolk at a riverside Mexican joint. A text from Anna on the train tells me, mystifyingly, that “Member still with [her]”, which utterly defeats me, so I am unprepared when I arrive at dinner to find her ex-husband sitting at the table. Unprepared but, I discover, unsurprised and certainly unshocked. We don’t have time enough to make proper acquaintance, but the meeting is a happy one for me and, I trust, for Mehmet. I hope we will manage another hour at least before we leave the country on Sunday.

After dinner, next door to the National Theatre, and Yaël Farber’s reimagining of the tale of Salomé. The production is astonishing, visually a dynamic Renaissance painting, the mood intense, the almost ceaseless singing heroic and beautiful and a core element of the work. Together, those elements make a stunning impression. If some of the actual words sounded more like the study notes on the text rather the script one might have hoped for, while others flirted with pretension, one could overlook such flaws in the overall emotional experience. A memorable night.