nichollsretirementproject

What is the point …

… of shaving?

Some men do it every day!  Why!  What is wrong with them?

What is the point in spending time every day scraping your face with a sharp blade until it is as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom, only to find that six hours later it feels like sandpaper again? And the next day you have to do it all over again!  Crazy!

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As you might have guessed, I’m still grieving for my lost beard.  And with good reason.

I started growing it when I did VSO for the first time.  That was in the Sudan in 1972.

Now that I am old and grey, I can confess that, when I got the letter from VSO informing me that they were going to send me to the Sudan, I wasn’t even sure on which continent the Sudan would find itself.  I had opened the letter in the canteen of my university hall of residence where I was having breakfast.

I showed the letter to a fellow student who was sharing my table, and asked him casually if he knew anything about the country.  I will never forget his prophetic words.  He raised one eyebrow, passed the letter back to me and said “It’s bloody hot there, mate!” And so it was!

Khartoum, where I was based, was so hot that you sweated all day and sweated all night.  Shaving and sweating at the same time just resulted in a nasty rash, so I left the beard to grow.

I shaved it off once for a play in the 1980s.  I was taking part in a production of “Oh What a Lovely War,” and I had to play about six different roles, including Field Marshal Douglas Haig, an army lieutenant and an American war profiteer. The beard was considered to be too ‘defining’, so it had to go.

I then shaved it off once for a job interview.  I had obviously concluded at the time that I didn’t want to run the risk of the interviewer being a ‘pogonophob’, a person with an irrational fear of beards.  Now I can’t even remember which job I was applying for.  All I can recall about the incident are the stunned expressions on the faces of my wife and daughter when I came out of the bathroom with an exposed lower face..

As soon as this play is over, the beard will be back!

The Cultural Event of the Year.

… well, of July at least.  Well, of July in Brighton, at least.

Yes, I refer, of course, to the Brighton Little Theatre’s long-awaited, forthcoming production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.

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When I say, long-awaited, I should perhaps add that no-one has been more eagerly awaiting next week’s opening night than me. We seem to have been rehearsing for ever!

She Stoops to Conquer was first performed in 1773, but, surprising, much of the humour still works today. It is a comedy of manners and mistaken identity and I play the part of Mr Hardcastle, a much put-upon, North country squire with a daughter to marry off, hopefully to the son of his wealthy friend, Sir Charles, thereby achieving the double aim of successfully marrying off a daughter and gaining access to a higher social circle at the same time.  Mayhem and confusion ensues.

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Much of the comedy comes from the interactions between Mrs Hardcastle, my wife, and her errant son, by her first marriage, Tony Lumpkin. The poor actor who plays Lumpkin is subjected to a level of physical abuse that would, in more modern times, attract the urgent attention of Social Services.

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Subtle, it isn’t, but good knock-about comedy it certainly is, and given that the text is now 250 years old, it is still remarkably accessible.

After much misunderstanding and a good deal of social comment, all is happily resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, particularly Mr Hardcastle and Sir Charles.

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Production note:  Apparently, in Georgian England, only sailors and army officers wore beards, certainly not country squires in the North of England.  So mine had to be sacrificed on the altar of high art.

I look forward to its speedy return once the show is over! Shaving is such a pointless and futile activity!

Who is this fine fellow?

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Every inch the Eighteenth Century country squire, I’m sure you will agree.

The name’s Hardcastle, Richard Hardcastle, at your service!

Beware the mixed metaphor.

When we were in school we all learned that a good metaphor can enrich a piece of creative writing.  We might even have been introduced to the mixed metaphor, which we were always taught to avoid because they often don’t make sense.

It may be true that they don’t make sense, but they can sometimes convey ideas that ordinary speech just cannot do.

One mixed metaphor that Linda came up with many years ago has become part of our family lexicon.  In a philosophical moment, as she mused on the meaning of life, the universe and everything, she said.  “You just have to take advantage of every opportunity in life.  You only get one innings and it’s not a dress rehearsal!”

Very profound, if a little confusing, especially if you don’t understand the finer points of cricket or amateur dramatics.

But last week I came across a mixed metaphor that literally left me speechless and struggling to maintain my composure.

I was a formal meeting where some very weighty matters were being discussed.  The person leading the meeting was a woman who, at one time in her career, had been a senior nurse and she was relating some of her experience from that time.

I first started to lose my grip on the discussion when she announced that, at one point in her career, “Leg ulcers were my bread and butter.”  Once that image gets into your head it is difficult to concentrate on what people are saying.

Eventually I regained my mental equilibrium and started to catch up with the debate in hand.  No sooner had I re-joined the discussion than the same person, in an attempt to encourage us not to shy away from difficult situations, said “Sometimes, whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to have the balls to grasp the nettle.”

That was it!  I was lost to the meeting. All my energies had to be diverted into maintaining my serious demeanour, as a stared fixedly at my shoes and desperately tried not to giggle.  The more the image settled into my brain, the worse it got.

It was agony, not dissimilar to grasping a nettle in the manner suggested.

I have no idea how the meeting ended!

The Vatican was awesome… sorry … awful!

The highlight of any first visit to Rome has to be the Vatican, surely.  At least that is what I thought. So we booked our tickets and presented ourselves at 10.0’clock, full of expectation.

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Even before we got close to the walls of the Vatican itself, we could see the problem, and once inside it just got worse and worse.

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Now, I am not agoraphobic, and I don’t suffer from claustrophobia but the Musei Vaticani brought me pretty close to both.

We became part of one long human snake that slithered its way through one gallery of magnificent paintings after another. The snake never stopped, so it was a bit like watching scenery go past when you are sitting in a train.P1080374P1080379

It was a pretty grim experience!

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Every so often, the human serpent would suddenly grow spines like a giant porcupine as it briefly bristled with selfie sticks.

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And then we reached the world famous Sistine Chapel, where the head of the snake stopped to admire the ceiling, while the rest of the snake carried on walking.  The result was inevitable.  I’ve never travelled in a cattle truck, but I think I know the feeling!

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We were so tightly packed together that it was impossible to stand and stare, much less admire.  People just had to keep shuffling slowly forward in whatever direction the snake decided.  If you stopped to look up, the people behind you would trample on you.  If you looked up without stopping, you risked treading on the people in front of you.

And then, to add insult to potential injury, as we were all apologising to the people we were trampling, a booming voice on the loudspeakers, sounding like the voice on God from the top of Mount Sinai, intoned, in English and in Italian, “Silence! This is a place of prayer!”

This was the point when I decided that I had seen enough and needed to get out of the building.  I am not a religious person but it seemed to me that the Sistine Chapel did not resemble any ‘place of prayer’ that I had ever seen before.  It seemed to me to be a highly decorated room into which hundreds of people were packed after paying a large number of euros for the privilege. A massive fundraising machine with paintings.

Neither a spiritual, an uplifting nor even a pleasant experience.

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I know how he felt!

A Forum full of atmosphere.

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One added bonus to visiting the Colosseum is that your ticket also gets you entry into the area that used to be the Forum, the commercial and administrative heart of Ancient Rome. Just wandering around these ruins is a truly spiritual experience.

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You can imagine yourself rubbing shoulders with stall-holders selling tomatoes and Roman Senators out on a shopping trip to buy new daggers.

You can read some of the history displayed on rather wordy signboards

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Similarly at the ruins of the Temple of Vesta with its famous virgins.

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Well worth a morning’s exploration.

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But spare a thought for the poor benighted men and women who work for Rome’s Urban Planning Department.  It must be quite a challenge to plan any substantial building work in Rome, because every time you put a shovel into the ground, you are likely to discover another priceless archaeological site!  They are currently trying to extend the Rome Underground and building a station right next to the Forum!  It must be a nightmare!

Making a living.

From my vantage point up high on the walls of the Colosseum I could look down on the crowds of tourists milling about outside. Of course, wherever there are tourists there is money to be made so there were people selling souvenirs, selfie sticks, headscarves, umbrellas and, like the fellow in the picture below, hats.

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Well, it was Rome, it was sunny and so people needed hats, didn’t they? And commerce abhors a vacuum.  So there was a man selling hats.

And then…              P1080204

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Hats?  What hats?  No, Officer, not me!  No, I’m just delivering these for a friend.

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No, I’m just delivering these for a friend.

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And. finally an uneasy peace is restored and the Colosseum can go about its business.

The Colosseum was awesome!

For our mini-break in Rome we rented a small apartment through Airbnb.

Look what we found at the end of our street.

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We couldn’t resist the temptation to go inside so we signed up for a guided tour led by a young woman who turned out to be an art historian.  There were about twenty of us in the group and we were each given what looked like an ipod to hang around our necks.  The tour guide then had a small transmitter and was able to talk to us without shouting and without us having to follow a flag.  If we strayed too far from the group, the commentary in our ear-pieces started to disappear so we would make sure that we caught up with the group again pretty quickly.

One question that I was dying to ask was why the walls of the Colosseum were full of holes.  I could see no reason for them to be there.

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The guide explained that originally the Colosseum  was covered in marble, but that the Catholic Church had stripped it all out, declaring the Colosseum to be a pagan monument, and then used the marble to decorate the many churches that are scattered liberally around the city.

I’m not sure if the explanation was true, but it was a good story!

Apparently, some of the holes were made to anchor the original metal banding that held the great stone blocks together, but that’s not anywhere near such a good tale.

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Being on an organised tour, we were able to go to areas of the building that were not open to the general throng. Amongst these was the huge area beneath the actual arena itself, where, two thousand years ago, the slaves, gladiators and wild animals were kept before being hoisted up into the arena above their heads to face whatever uncertain fate awaited them.

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The stench in these cramped corridors and alleyways must have been appalling.  Perhaps being hauled up to the surface to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowd would have been a relief!

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Part of the arena floor has been rebuilt and there are proposals to complete the rest of the floor so that the Colosseum could be used for concerts and other entertainments.  (Apparently, the original arena floor could be sealed so that it could be flooded to enable mock naval battles to be staged.  What fun would that have been?)

Two myths were exploded by our very well-informed guide.  Firstly, that Hollywood lied to us in the film ‘Gladiator’, where we saw Russell Crowe battling tigers.  Can you believe that Hollywood would lie?

Apparently, Gladiators did not fight with animals.  That was below their station.  They only fought with other gladiators according to a strict set of rules.  The people who fought with and were torn to bits by wild animals were hunters, not gladiators. I don’t suppose it made much difference to the animals.

Secondly, the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ signal to determine whether the vanquished gladiator would be put to death or not is not true.  Oh Horror! Are there no certainties left in life?

Apparently if the emperor, or the crowd wanted the poor defeated gladiator to die, they would hold out their fists with the thumb showing in a horizontal position, perhaps representing a blade that should be drawn across the victim’s neck.  If they wanted mercy to be shown to the victim, the thumb would be tucked inside the fist.  (Interestingly, in Germany, a closed fist with the thumb tucked inside is the sign for good luck, the equivalent of ‘fingers crossed’. I’m sure a vanquished gladiator who saw such a signal would consider himself very lucky indeed.)

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Gladiators were trained in a special gladiator school some distance from the Colosseum.  They would come to the arena though underground tunnels like the one pictured above.

There is something really special about being in a building that is two thousand years old. When it is just at the bottom of your street, it’s even more special!

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I know nothing about football.

Well, that’s not strictly true.  I do remember one of our venerable football commentators saying that football is a game where twenty two men chase a ball around a field for ninety minutes trying to score goals and then the Germans win, but that is the extent of my knowledge.

Imagine my surprise therefore when we were wandering around the backstreets of Rome and discovered a game of football that just did not match the above description at all.P1080351

Firstly there seemed to be three teams playing at the same time, each team had three players and there were three goals.

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There was a proper referee who was dressed for the part and had a whistle, and a notebook, and socks …

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… and the competition was fierce.

Every now and again, someone was awarded a free kick, (for reasons I didn’t understand),  but instead of being allowed to just kick the ball, the player had to shut their eyes and be spun around by the referee!

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Once the player was completely dizzy, she had to try and kick the ball.  Results were, to say the least, mixed.

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And so the game went on, to the obvious delight of the spectators and to the absolute bafflement of your correspondent.

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Amazing what you see when you travel.

Well, it amused us…

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… and it solved the dilemma about where to have dinner.

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