THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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September 2015

The abbey road home

The Navigator is a Roman Catholic. The "famous on TripAdvisor" breakfast at our B&B this morning was therefore not for him as he doesn't eat before Mass. I ate alone before we took to the road to head for the Abbaye St. Paul, Wisques.

We had an open-topped motorised saunter in bright sunshine through Belgian and French countryside. The Navigator drove and said he enjoyed it as much as yesterday's full-on charge through Germany.

Abbaye St Paul-1
The Abbaye was beautiful. I am not religious and so was a mere spectator but the mass – sung or rather chanted – was beautiful too. The monks went about their business in dignified solemnity but I ultimately found the experience distressing. I knew I did not belong there and I couldn't understand why any modern would feel they did.

I knew I would never have had this experience were it not for my late wife's conversion to Catholicism (with which the Navigator helped her). I would like to understand why she took that path. I would like to believe she was right and that – somewhere – her spirit happily lives on. I have enormous respect for her intelligence and am quite prepared to believe that my failure to understand her faith means something is lacking in me. Whatever the reason, I just don't get it. If she was right, Hell beckons.

I upset the Navigator by answering truthfully when asked how Mass had made me feel. I had realised the question was inevitable and felt so sorry for the hurt I knew an honest answer would bring that I had bought him a gift of monastic honey from the Abbaye's shop as a sweetener.

I took the wheel again and we drove to the Eurotunnel. We had lunch at the "Flexi Plus" lounge before catching our train. Soon we were back in Britain "enjoying" the fruits of successive governments' monumental incompetence when it comes to things that really matter - like the transport infrastructure of the country's economic heart.

The weather was fine and Speranza's roof remained down all the way to London but the contrast with our brilliant experiences in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium could not have been more stark. We seemed to spend almost as much time sitting in traffic on the accursed M25 as we did with the wind in our hair. Still, we have our memories of a whimsical, brilliant trip.

From Frankfurt to Poperinge via Ghent and "Wipers"

We skipped breakfast at our mediocre hotel on Saturday morning; reasoning that €18 each would buy a better frühstück en route. I drove Speranza out of Frankfurt onto the autobahn and we found a suitable place within 20km. We breakfasted Teutonically on rösti, eggs, sausage, bacon and coffee.

Then the Navigator belied his nickname and took the wheel. He had driven Vittoria back in the day so had some prior experience. This was his first drive in a Ferrari however and it was straight out onto an unrestricted autobahn! In his first 20 minutes, after acclimatising himself to Speranza's controls and the road conditions, he hit 150mph.

He found the concentration involved tiring. There are lots of other performance cars driving at high speed on the autobahn, but there are also more modest vehicles popping in and out to overtake. One needs one's wits. Still I don't think his stress compared with my own; sitting by his side while he gave my pride and joy a thrashing! I am no natural passenger.

We took the northerly route to our overnight stop near Ypres. This was to avoid the congested Brussels ring road, but also to have more chance for autobahn excitement. We switched seats at a fuel stop and I drove the last few (speed-limited) German kilometres to the Netherlands and then on to Belgium.

Ghent and Ypres-1 Ghent and Ypres-2   Ghent and Ypres-6  Ghent and Ypres-7

We took an afternoon break in Ghent; a pretty town I had never seen before. We found a central parking place and – after I had drunk a local coffee with inexplicable fruit puree in the bottom – strolled through the pedestrianised centre and along the river. Some of my photos are above. Don't ask about the shoes suspended above the street. I have no idea what that's all about.

We then continued to our home for the night, making another stop to visit the Menin Gate. I am old enough to have had long conversations with a British soldier who probably passed through Ypres ("Wipers") on his way to the front and lived to tell the gory tale. He was my late wife's grandfather and one of my favourite humans. He was shot going over the top during the first Battle of the Somme and lay for hours in no man's land until the daily truce to recover bodies. He was found still to be alive and - after a bottle of whisky as anaesthetic – had a bullet removed with a bayonet.  He was the happiest man I ever knew (as well as one of the kindest) because he decided that day – at the tender age of 16 – that every subsequent hour of his life was a gift to be enjoyed.

Ghent and Ypres-8 Ghent and Ypres-9
I had not expected to be much moved by the Menin Gate. The Great War's warriors are gone now. It is as thoroughly history as the Napoleonic or Boer Wars. However, I thought of Mrs P's granddad Joe as I stood at the massive memorial with its hundreds of thousands of carved names. I thought of how they died and shed a surprising tear. Then I realised he would have laughed and told me to enjoy my wonderful life.

After refuelling for the first stage of Sunday's run home, we drove to our B&B. It was an eccentric but friendly little place in the hop-growing village of Poperinge. While I freshened up for dinner, the Navigator enjoyed a beer from hops grown in the field across the road made in a nearby brewery. 

It astonishes me that little villages in France and Belgium can sustain serious restaurants, while my own home town in Wales can only support a chip shop, an Italian, an Indian and a couple of Chinese take-aways.  Our restaurant had two Michelin "macarons" and a chef – Franky Vanderhaeghe – who is a slightly mad genius.

We threw ourselves on his mercy and ordered the "degustation menu". He combined flavours I would never have expected to work and left us in a culinary ecstasy. It was a perfect end to one of my life's best days. I could wish you nothing better, gentle reader, than that you should have many such experiences. I bet you have never heard of the village of Elverdinge until this moment. I suggest you sear its name into your memory and build a stop at the Hostellerie St Nicolas into your next continental journey!

Love is the drug

So this mad idea reached fruition. After a few beers and a schnitzel, the Navigator (for it is he) and I went to the Old Opera House and saw Bryan Ferry perform. The support act was a young lady from Berlin; musically-educated in London. Her name, implausibly, is Femme Schmidt and she was pretty good. I rather pitied her as a partisan audience of a certain vintage was clearly waiting for the main event but at 25 it was probably a good step forward for her.


The Navigator is a big fan and enjoyed the programme of his later songs. I, like most of the hall, was waiting for the even older stuff. Love is the Drug was the highlight for me, though he saved Jealous Guy for his encore. He took a while to warm up. He's 70 years old and his voice - inevitably - is not what it was but eventually his vocal chords loosened and the sound improved. He seemed to me to be buoyed by the support from devoted German fans in the hall.

It may be bizarre  to drive to Frankfurt and back just to hear a man sing, but it has been a brilliant trip so far. Tomorrow the Navigator gets his Ferrari driving spurs and I will sit in the passenger seat for at least part of the journey. Rather than return by the same route through Belgium which will take us onto the horribly congested Brussels Ring Road, we are heading north to take in the pretty town of Ghent before hitting our bizarrely-named B&B in Belgium.

The map of my tour is here

On the autobahn

I had just one day at home after my Scotland trip before hitting the road again for my next adventure. I was on my balcony in a jolly mood with a friend after we had shared a bottle or six of good wine one evening a few weeks ago. He was regretting the cancellation of a Bryan Ferry concert at the Albert Hall because Ferry had a sore throat. In my drunken haze I googled the location of Ferry's next performance, logged on to the website, set myself up with an account in a language I can barely speak when sober and bought tickets. The next concert happened to be in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt tonight so that's where I now am.

Luxembourg-1 Luxembourg-2 Luxembourg-3 Luxembourg-4 Luxembourg-5 Luxembourg-6

Yesterday I drove from London to Luxembourg, taking the opportunity to visit an old friend who now lives there and to tick off my first new country for a while. I have shepherded many clients' money through Luxembourg over the years, but have never visited. It's a quiet, cute, Disney-ish little place that takes itself quite seriously but has some public art that looks as though it was made by a certain Belgian cartoonist! Luxembourgish taste tends to the twee, it seems.

On the other hand it has, as befits the EU's centre for the management of tax liabilities (and where it is rumoured  - I am sure scurrilously - a certain French President shelters his family's money from the taxes he introduced) some splendid restaurants and bars. My friend and I took full advantage.

This morning I drove to Wiesbaden and had lunch with lawyers from one of my former client banks, before heading on to Frankfurt and my hotel for this musical night. I had some serious Ferrari moments on the unrestricted sections of autobahn but although driving conditions were perfect there was too much traffic (and too many roadworks breaking up the run) to surpass my personal best of 178mph last year. Maybe tomorrow?

The map of my tour is here.

Our final day of shooting

Saturday was our last day together as a group. We have been through a lot this week and have bonded remarkably well. Photographers are not natural herd animals but we have helped each other a lot more than I have experienced at other such events. At one very educational dinner without any of our tutors present, we tried out our new portraiture skills on each other and the restaurant staff - deploying flash guns, soft boxes, large diffusers and reflectors at table to much amusement.

Final-9 Final-10

Our final shoot was in the New Town and our assignment on a muted, rainy morning was to demonstrate with our photographs how softer light saturates colour, whereas the harsh light we have experienced all week bleaches it out.

Our final critique was in the afternoon, following which Joe made himself available for an "ask the oracle" session while his colleagues put together a final slideshow of our week's work. Several of us took advantage of this and I plucked up the courage to ask him to review my portfolio. This was about as impertinent as asking Shakespeare to direct your school play, but he was gracious, helpful and encouraging.

At 5pm we reconvened to see the slide show, which for copyright reasons I sadly won't be able to post here. We then set off to a restaurant for our final dinner together followed by drinks at a lively Edinburgh pub. I rolled home in a very jolly mood and made a first draft of my previous post but was as least wise enough not to hit the "publish" button until I had revised it while sober.

I really enjoyed my week in Scotland and learned a lot in the process. Now I am off to Wales to visit my parents and have a new tyre fitted to Speranza before returning to London to prepare for a road trip to Germany next week, during which I hope to max her out on the autobahns. Of which, more anon.

The map of my tour is here and all of my photos are here.

In and around Edinburgh

I have never spent much time in Edinburgh before. I love the Highlands and Islands and have always regarded this city as - at best - a staging post to the North. I may have been wrong. It's a jolly University town with lots of young people having a good time among the grey stones. Their purchasing power and that of the tourists ensures lots of pleasant entertainment, only slightly spoiled by shops selling souvenir tat. The Royal Mile should be Scotland's Bond Street, but instead is full of shops selling tam o'shanters with built-in ginger wigs, kilts and other such frippery.

On Friday we photographed Edinburgh Castle to death; trying to provide Joe with images that had not been shot before. That's not easy in a popular tourist spot but we did our best. The best image I had to offer for critique however was a portrait I made at dinner on Thursday night of Victor; a fellow student.

We encountered the childish pomposity of the British state at the Castle. Every visitor was wielding a camera of some kind but our diligence and the quality of our equipment led to several approaches by officials telling us we needed a permit as we were shooting "professionally". The course leaders are professionals of course but three of them were not shooting at all and Joe was not shooting for publication. 

I approached three employees in their Castle sweatshirts and asked if I could make a group portrait of them. Two of these ladies were Scottish and seemed happy enough with the idea but one of them was French. She drew herself up to her full height and said that as they were in uniform and "representing the castle" it would not be appropriate. We had a brief discussion of English law pertaining to photography and the correct attitude of public servants to their employers, but she held firm and I moved on.

Final-5 Sunset-1

In the afternoon we shot the Royal Mile and in the evening we went up Calton Hill to await the sunset.

The map of my tour is here and my photos are here.

My journey is almost screwed up

We stayed one night at Culcreuch. The next morning  we had a tour planned at Glengoyne Distillery. However I had a problem. I had noticed the pressure was down in one of Speranza's rear tyres at the beginning of my tour and had put in some air on Wednesday. On Thursday morning as I prepared to set off to the distillery however, I noticed it was almost half deflated. I drove gently to the nearest petrol station, which fortunately had a repair shop. The young man there tested the valve, put in some air for me and gave me directions to SMS Stirling. This was fifteen miles away but the pressure held for that distance.

The guys at SMS were friendly and helpful. Within 15 minutes the tyre was off and a two-inch screw removed from the treads. They attempted a repair but the damage was too severe. Naturally, they had no stocks of Speranza's specialist dancing shoes but could order one for Friday morning. 

SMS - 1
However the boss there came up with a better idea. He remembered they had recently put a complete set of new tyres on the Ferrari California of one of the directors of Celtic Football Club. They had kept the old tyres knowing that there is no spare in the car and thinking they might come in handy as short term replacements. One of these - still legal and with plenty of tread to get me home - was duly produced. All this work for the cost of a couple of lattes in London!

I am visiting my parents in North Wales on the way back to London. I called my dad who went to the local tyre specialists and placed an order for me. That tyre will be fitted on Monday. This was a remarkably good outcome. Any issues with supercars and their specialist parts usually involve them being trailered away! I recommend SMS Stirling to you with a glad heart. They could easily have sold me a new tyre at greater profit to themselves. Instead they focussed on getting me out of my predicament and I am very grateful.

We caught up with the group at the distillery in time to watch Joe do a publicity shot for them of their senior still man, Duncan who has completed 39 years of service with them. You can see a photo of them together here and no doubt the portrait will appear at the distillery's website in due course.

From here it was back to Edinburgh to dine and rest before the final two days of our course. The map of my tour is here and my photos are here. Forgive me that there are still many rejects to be eliminated on that page. I will get around to it when I have more leisure!

Glencoe, Callendar and Culcreuch Castle

On Wednesday we hit the road again. The plan was to drive through Glencoe, stopping wherever Joe thought there was a good spot for a photo shoot. This meant that I could not race ahead in Speranza and meet up at agreed locations. I have driven through Glencoe many times before in Speranza, Vittoria and Claudias I and II (the Mercedes CLK 430 and 55AMG cabriolets I used to have) and always found it exhilarating. This was a plod by comparison but I had one of our group riding along so conversation - and the magnificent scenery - relieved the tedium.

I am not keen on landscape photography. It's a solitary, miserable pursuit with more disappointments than successes. You are often up at dawn or sunset only for the sky to be too clear or a mist to wreck your day. I simply don't enjoy walking in nature enough to consider the photography a bonus. I particularly did not look forward to this excursion as the rules of the workshop forbid all the modern techniques that make a great landscape shot possible. We were required to hand in "straight out of camera" files with no post-processing. So we couldn't sandwich together bracketed exposures, using the underexposed one for a vibrant sky and the overexposed one to bring out the dark foreground.

Joe is old school and wants us to produce the best exposures we can in camera. That's fine most of the time as a better capture makes for less work. But for landscapes it's going to lead to the kind of shots he later critiqued for their blown highlights, lost detail or flatness. I tried to dodge that bullet with a shot of a thistle, but it got the "meh" it deserved.

Steven3a-5 Steven3a-6

We had lunch at a posh chip shop called Eat Mhor Fish in Callender. It was funny to watch our mostly American group encounter fish and chips, Irn-Bru and deep fried Mars Bars for the first time. Actually it was my first time for deep fried Mars Bars, which I had half believed to be an urban legend. I enjoyed mine to a dangerous extent. The last thing I need is another unhealthy habit.

I made another "face in a place" shot for my assignment in the sweet shop / candy store near our restaurant. The delightful owner Maggie, a Glaswegian lady with a highly photogenic face, patiently endured my "working" the situation as our tutor has been urging us to do.

It was on then to our beds for the night in the Castle of the traitorous Galbraith Clan. The Laird gave us a sob story about how much of their estates was lost in fines and confiscations. I feel his ancestors were lucky to escape these islands with their heads.

Joe did a model shoot demonstration with Natalie, the dancer who had been his model at last Friday's flash lighting seminar in Edinburgh. He had asked her to find some period costumes and she appeared to be emulating the look of the beautiful young widow of the Scottish Widows advertisements.

Our increasingly bonded and rowdy group ended the day happily in the hotel bar.

The map of my trip is here and more photos are here.

Cruising Loch Ness at speed

On Tuesday we were still in Fort Augustus and faced our first critiques. Joe McNally is a nice guy but unapologetically channels the New York photo editors of his youth on these occasions. I am not complaining. It's very largely what we are paying for on this workshop. He can - and does - offer advice and do demonstrations but there is far more to be learned from his critical observations on our photographs so I looked forward to the critique with a nervous eagerness. It turned out not to be so bad. He made constructive observations on most of my shots and really liked the portrait of Colin the bagpiper I posted yesterday.

At lunchtime we wandered Fort Augustus on a quest to photograph "a face in a place", which was our assignment for the day. I asked Becky, a waitress in the cafe where I had lunch, if I could photograph her at work and she kindly consented.

Loch Ness-1 Steven3a-3

In the afternoon our group divided into two. One group cruised Loch Ness in a comfortable boat with a cabin. The more hardy of us went out on a large inflatable that sped across the loch, occasionally becoming airborne. It was a brilliant experience but a photographic challenge. I had thought a wide angle lens would result in shots that were mostly water so I took my telephoto zoom. It was hard to hold that steady on our fairground ride of a "cruise". The shots here are of our party out on the "soft" boat and of Joe McNally on the bridge of the "hard" boat.

Our experiences on the water brought our group together though and the day ended with a fun evening in the hotel restaurant.

The map of my trip is here and more photos are here.

Narrowband with passing places internet

Internet access has been an issue on this trip. Our hotels by Loch Ness and in the Trossachs had it in theory but the photos for my attempted blog posts would not even upload overnight. So let me catch up on the last few days, starting with Monday.

Our first shoot was in Pitlochry; a little town with some interesting architecture. At some point there appears to have been a war to decide who could put the biggest and most ornately pointless spike on their roof, for example. The sun was blazing in uncharacteristic fashion for Scotland which had the educational benefit of forcing us to improvise. Photographers would normally go to the pub when the weather is so - in our terms - bad. Such harsh light does our subject matter no favours.


We then headed to Fort Augustus where we had no sooner put our bags in our rooms than we were off up a hillside with a local bagpiper, Colin, in tow. We occupied a road, using our bus as a "flag" to screen the harsh sunlight and setting up a studio flash with a huge white shoot-through umbrella. Joe McNally, our famous teacher, talked us through the set up and then gave us the flash controller so we could all have a turn. The results inspired confidence and gave us a goal for the week - to make all our shots look so good. The outing also introduced the Scotland-newbies on the trip to the downside of all this wild beauty; midges.

While all this was being set up, I had a chat with a rather bemused Colin. He was clearly not accustomed to being told he had an "awesome" face by famous American photographers, though apparently such modelling assignments are a regular source of income for bagpipers. His expression in most of the shots rather nicely indicates his sceptical attitude, but I was rewarded for our conversation by (if you can believe it) a slightly less dour expression.

I am busy shooting (and having my shots critiqued) until late today but will try to catch up with blogging tonight after a few wee drams.

The map of my tour is here and I will set up a page with more photos later.