Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

Cannon

A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

My London Marathon Journey

Supporter sunglasses

My London Marathon journey began, of course, some time prior to 23 April 2017, the date of the event. Preparations included plotting the route, packing supplies, wearing the right gear, and liaising with supporters. My outfit was a bright orange T-shirt sporting the word Sense on it. Sense is a UK-based charity that cares for deafblind children. I was very happy to wear the colours of such an organisation. I also wore giant sunglasses to attract attention. These red plastic toys were nothing compared to what other runners wore: Darth Vader outfits, giant beer bottles and, yes, a 25kg tumble dryer. The kitchen appliance man (Ben Blowes) set a world record. Despite such competition I was very proud of my four-and-a-half-hour finish time.

It was a challenge to make my way through the thousands of people (there were 40 000 runners and I don’t know how many supporters). But the impressive work of road marshals and police men and women was a big help. They shepherded runners and supporters across roads, and channelled patient crowds into public transport stations. I maintained a good time, slowing towards the end, but was definitely hampered by a race-day toilet that held the promise of space-age efficiency but didn’t deliver. It gurgled through its automatic self-cleaning phase so slowly that I hopped about while waiting, anxious to return to the race.

The pace leading up to the 14-mile mark was the most stressful. I wasn’t sure I would be seen by those who knew me and I took so long to decide where the best vantage point would be that it took a hard sprint to get me there at the projected time. I must say that the timing chips given to runners and the mobile phone app they connected to were excellent when it came to tracking progress and therefore heightening excitement.

Spotting my loved ones through the crowds was hardest at the 19-mile mark and by then my calves were shaking with the effort of keeping me on my toes. But it was all worth it when we were reunited post-finish at our chosen meeting point.

Pre- and post-marathon

My London Marathon journey was a tiring (and expensive) one but lots of fun. I barely needed the energy bars we’d packed, so thrilling was the travel by train and by foot to the four spectator points our family had decided upon. I saw my dedicated, disciplined daughter at three of the four stops, and simply yelled her name as loudly as possible at the first as she ran past. She heard me, us, and saw us in our bright orange T-shirts, and said it really helped her to keep going for the 26 miles.

At last count Robyn had raised GBP1480.00 for her chosen charity Sense. I’m so proud of you Robyn Turton, thank you for letting me be your supporter (and for getting me a free supporter’s T-shirt)!

Robyn (front, centre) flanked by her supporters at the finish

Speeding Around New York City

‘Quick, only ten seconds to get across the intersection,’ said my husband to me over his shoulder. And there we were, at it again, chasing the lights on foot from West 43rd Avenue to 5th Avenue and our destination: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Haring around Manhattan’s very long blocks for the past day or so had proved to be good exercise, but exhausting too. ‘The countdown on the pedestrian traffic light isn’t a challenge,’ I protested in my effort to slow him down, ‘it’s just a warning.’

‘But if we keep moving we’ll stay warm.’ He did have a point; strolling in 1

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

degree Celsius temperatures would have been chilly. Nevertheless, I was grateful when, on this occasion, we decided to catch a bus most of the way. The trip, which cost 75 cents each (in exact cash, no change given), took us along Madison Avenue. The bus driver and a helpful passenger were attentive in their directions, telling us which stop to get off at, and I enjoyed looking at the big fashion houses as we travelled along. The Met is in an imposing building that looks onto Central Park. In fact the uncluttered view of the snowy park from the coffee shop in the museum echoed the clean and spacious layout of the exhibits and felt like it was one of the framed displays.

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

We made it across the Met’s threshold at

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

10.30am, just in time to join the free ‘Highlights Tour’. Entry fee to the museum is actually discretionary, a ‘suggested’ amount of $25 per adult (quite expensive when you consider the number of huge, free museums there are in other major cities). The one-hour tour was delightful. It was a journey through different eras, continents and styles. I particularly enjoyed the guide’s explanation of a Congolese warrior ‘judge’ sculpture. She spoke of this ugly, aggressive-looking god statue with respect, explaining how effective it was as part of that ancient culture’s legal system. Her deferential tone was in contrast to the angry political ‘Trump’ rhetoric so evident in the newspapers and TV news broadcasts I had read and watched in our hotel room that morning.

Luckily for me there were no urgently flashing traffic signs in Central Park. And, so, after our museum visit, we slowed our customary gallop to a canter through the park, enjoying the squirrels, and the clumps of dogs herded by dog-walkers. We emerged further down 5th Avenue where we sped up again, hastening past Trump Towers with its barriers, policemen and photographers in attendance.

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Undressed: a brief history of underwear

Boobs up, hips out, bottom in! Wait, boobs up, yes, but hips in, bottom out…Actually, boobs flat, waist tiny, hips and bottom streamlined. Hold on, I’ll have bigger chest area, round waist and big thighs. Nah, stick it, I’ll go with boobs up, good cleavage, tiny waist and… concealed everything else.

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An explosive evening in London…nearly

by Roxanne Daniels

I had been working in London for three weeks and was finally able to pay my gracious hosts back and keep a bit of pocket money. After a failed and cancelled Berlin trip (which caused me to nearly implode, but let’s move swiftly on from that) I decided to go into the city and buy a last-minute ticket at a reputable ticket office in Leicester Square. As I joined the queue at 4pm, I hurriedly chose Half a Sixpence. The process was a breeze and I had a decently priced seat at the Noel Coward Theatre for the musical. I had three and a half hours to kill, so I wandered around and stumbled into the shop of my dreams – Stanfords. I was absorbed by stories of adventures and world maps in so many different forms that this took nearly an hour of my time.

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Experience Theatre in London’s West End

On 22 December 2016 I went with family to see the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. What I would describe as “3D” extras made the play interesting to watch. These included lighting that danced across the walls, audiovisuals that reflected the main character’s state of mind, a moving model train to simulate a journey and (spoiler alert) a real live puppy that elicited uninhibited “aahs” from the audience. A lovely experience.

But the actual act of going to London’s West End at that unimaginably

The wonders of underground station advertising. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The wonders of underground station advertising. Photo: Brenda Daniels

busy time of year was also part of our atmospheric evening out. The theatre at which the play is being staged (until June 2017) is the Gielgud in Shaftesbury avenue. To get there from home we took a tube (or three) and stepped up onto the heaving pavement of Charing Cross Road. Being London’s bookshop street Charing Cross’s first offering for us was Foyles bookshop. We squeezed into the store and wormed up and down six storeys, just managing to get a coffee before staggering out again. I can’t understand why some writers support the notion that writing in coffee shops is romantic and inspirational. I found it completely distracting.

A gingerbread city we stopped to look at in Knightsbridge. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A gingerbread city we stopped to look at in Knightsbridge. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Next up on our journey was dinner – McDonald’s (limited budget you see) which is apparently on the site of the original bookstore of 84 Charing Cross Road. After our feast we crossed the road and passed the Palace Theatre at which Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is being performed. Theatregoers enjoying a feast of their own had come out onto into the open for a breather; the play is in two parts and, together with two intermissions, runs for a whopping five hours and 55 minutes. I read in The Telegraph that marathon theatre sessions like these might catch on as a new trend. Phew.

We turned off Charing Cross Road and jostled our way to the Gielgud

Christmas lights at Knightsbridge in London, December 2016. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Christmas lights at Knightsbridge in London, December 2016. Photo: Brenda Daniels

passing Christmas lights and “Mulled Wine” signs. Our booking was for the cheapest seats in the house (budget, remember) which had warnings like “obstructed” view and on the computer seating plan looked like we would need opera glasses just to see the stage. No fear of that. The Gielgud is quite small and spacious and the “obstruction” was merely a roof overhang which really didn’t spoil our view at all.

Back out into the cold air after the show we fought our way back to the tube station, past runners in Father Christmas gear, buskers in the underground and pedestrians everywhere sporting Christmas jumpers. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was for us an entertaining theatre event indeed.

Book Time: Ancient & Old

On a single day in London in December 2016, the written word and time formed an interesting theme for our tourist travels. The first port of call for my daughter and myself was the British Museum which was founded in 1753 (according to britishmuseum.org this museum was the first national public one in the world).

img_0076The museum’s clocks and watches gallery was for us a fascinating account of the development of timepieces. I was amazed that this one (see picture), dating from as long ago as 1763, ‘goes for one month on a single wind’, and has a ‘central disc that rotates back and forth throughout the year to show true solar minutes (sundial time)’. The aperture at the top shows the date.

 

Next, a free tour of the Ancient Iran (Mesopotamia) section of the museum revealed a culture, sadly unlike today, that had centuries of peace and therefore the continuity to develop a rich cultural life. This picture below shows a section of an ancient stone library which, thanks to the translation of cuneiform, is now able to be read.img_0077

 

From the British Museum we walked ten minutes to Charing Cross Road. This road houses a number of book stores. (I noticed elsewhere the practice of putting similar stores together in one place; in Southgate for instance I walked along a whole section of road full of dentists and orthodontists; and in one part of the East End was a supply of hairdressers and barber shops [see this one below in the famed Jack the Ripper area]).

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Of the five shops we visited in Charing Cross Road my favourite was ‘Henry Pordes Books’. Displayed in the window was the book 84 Charing Cross Road. This delightful book comprises a series of letters written between American writer Helene Hanff and an English bookseller. The story captures the nostalgia of the 1940-1950s era and is well worth a read. When I asked the book enthusiasts in Henry Pordes Books if this store was the original number 84, they replied in the negative. The ‘real’ site was now – gasp – a McDonald’s. But Henry Pordes was most like the original they claimed. Whatever, the shop was full of ancient editions, first editions, books I remember from my childhood (such as Beatrix Potter), and a whole section of J R R Tolkien books I didn’t even know existed.

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img_0079img_0075As the sun set before 4pm on the eve of the winter solstice I pocketed some of the books I had felt compelled to purchase. I was delighted with the feeling that I had stepped into 84 Charing Cross Road itself, and into my childhood memories. What a wonderful time we had enjoyed.

All photos by Brenda Daniels.