Last post before Dragon Year

I am spending the week in a small, distant town so obscure that, when you Google its name, you get the name of moderately successful band named after it. I am here to say a final farewell to a loved one, but the mood is not one of moroseness or grief so much as resigned annoyance at the impertinence and unpredictability of nature.

By coincidence, this is the town of my birth. Just a few hundred yards away, past the frozen fields overlooking what passes for sea, I find the long-abandoned tennis court of my first school. The establishment was run by nuns for ‘girls and infants’ until, just as I arrived, it became hard up and the Belgian order had to let repulsive boys join their straw boater-wearing angels.

Around the corner and up the hill, I find the school has vanished. The convent, far smaller than the mighty and mysterious edifice I remember, is boarded up and covered with graffiti. Not before time. I will never forget the incredibly disgusting food: cabbage that smelled of something more like carrion and could have been sucked up through a straw after being cooked by arc-plasma device. One dish – allegedly a cheese tart – is so indelibly etched upon my consciousness that I can induce myself to vomit within seconds just by imagining its rancid smell and its shimmering, orange surface covered in tiny beads of sweat.

This windy part of town lies on the crest of a ridge and includes aging suburban development, with identical homes with numbers. The house I was born in is in a world apart, downhill and thus inland, with no hint of the coast. It was a gently sloping, winding road where every house and cottage was different and identified by a name. Its feel was that of a village, right down to elderly women looking like Margaret Rutherford wearing hats and carrying shopping baskets.

I have a long-recurring dream in which I am at the top of this tranquil lane where it turns and the last houses give way to hedges and trees. Within a few paces the greenery on either side is so tall that it joins at the top, turning the road into a dark tunnel. I think you can get to the top of the hill where the convent and more urban neighbourhood are, but the farther I press on, the more difficult it gets. The lane narrows, twists and looks impenetrable. Sometimes it gets too steep or too overgrown to carry on; other times it leads to a tiny ledge perilously high on a cliff top. There is no getting through.

Today, awake, I am coming in the other direction. After the last of the 1930s semi-detacheds, I pass a few small rough fields of sheep and horses, and there, off to one side, descending into shrubbery-shrouded gloom, I see what I am looking for. The exit. I always knew I wasn’t imagining it. Making the journey backwards is surprisingly quick; everything has shrunk when you have grown up. After a few minutes strolling down the dark, narrow lane – you are actually going into a valley – a long-forgotten row of cream cottages appears, and I turn down past the Joyces, past the Wilcoxes and past my own old home (now valued at around 150 times what my parents paid for it, not counting inflation). Even a Margaret Rutherford-type makes an appearance.

Later, I stop off for lunch in a pub. Retirees line up to take advantage of a two-for-one offer, and the barmaid is patiently tailoring their orders to suit their requirements. “Would you like peas with that?” “No, no peas, dear.” “Would you like the salad on the side?” “Oh, no thank you.” God forbid any non-starch plant matter should blight their platters. These people are a generation ahead of me and for all I know were even more badly traumatized by inedible school lunches than I was.

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14 Responses to Last post before Dragon Year

  1. Guess says:

    Ryde, on the isle of Wight?

  2. Henry says:

    Must be Portishead……

  3. Real Tax Payer says:

    Nostalgia……. of the bad kind, and yet bitter – sweet.

    Strange how school dinners stick in one’s mind. For me it was butter beans – a vegetable that even now makes me want to puke e even at the thought of them

    Thank goodness for the day when we were allowed to bring our own sandwiches for lunch at school: henceforth Marmite and lettuce will always be better than caviare for me

    And yes, the lanes that once seemed like monstrous roads are indeed just… little lanes .

    I hate going back to the UK and were it not for my parents I would never step foot on those shores ever again .

    The big lychee has become my home, for better or for worse.

  4. Walter De Havilland says:

    Ah yes, nostalgia … not what it used to be. On the subject of the UK, I can think of nothing better then cycling down a country lane on a sunny summers evening for a few pints at the local. Of course in Hong Kong I could cycle to a local bar, but on route I would take on board a year’s worth of foul particulate-heavy smog that passes for air in this international city!

    Kung Hei Fat Choy to one and all.

  5. Joe Blow says:

    haven’t been ‘back’ since 2002 and I don’t miss it for a second.

    the grey weather and trainstations -and train travel in general- stand out as the most depressing memories….

  6. Ann says:

    Good grief – that house in the top left of the series of photos looks exactly like the one I lived in from ages 8-18. But as the other locations mean absolutely nothing to me, I’m guessing it’s not my home town (and to which I will never return now the parents are both gone).

    But there’s no mistaking England in winter. Thank god I got out and never intend to live in every again.

  7. Old Timer says:


  8. Civil Servant says:

    Whatever happened to Robert Van Eker?

  9. Real Tax Payer says:

    Talking of clean air……… has anyone noticed that the govt seems to take it is normal these days that they should do f**k all about cleaning up the air and that they should set new standards based on what little they intend to do rather than what should be done ?

    Wierd. It”s as though it’s water off a duck’s back. And even stranger – even though the SCMP carried such a strong front page an and even stronger op-ed, somehow I feel that the govt will just bin the lot and carry on doing NOTHING , as if they don’t give a rat’s ass about any opinion of any person any more these days .

    And as a final thought for the Year of the Rabbit: has anyone considered the irony of the estimate for the 3rd runway : HK$136.1 Billion – or whatever – the point being that it was quoted to FOUR significant figures, when ever public work project I can ever remember has overshot by 200 – 300% and the our dear old decrepit FS gets his annual budgets wrong by 100% ++ year after year.

    Ah well – enter the Year of the Dragon and may it swallow some of these buffoons that pass as policy-makers alive

  10. pcrghlll says:

    I’m guessing Portishead, but do I get a point for Tredegar?

  11. Mary Hinge says:

    It’s surely Portishead. Readers of the old Hemlock’s Diaries will remember references to “the Big, Little City” (always accompanied by photos of Bristol), and the family home (Stonegallows Hall) being “out west”. (And, on this incarnation of Hemmer’s blog, there were photos of a funeral establishment which I recognise know to be in the West Country too.)

  12. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Also, the sea which is not entirely sea can apply to a big estuary.

  13. Real Tax Payer says:

    As a postscript: in case anyone is still reading this thread….

    There is life beyond whatever…. and it’s in China

    I have now officially lived more than half my 60 – odd years in HK, most of which time I have spent working in China

    Whatever the press may say, I can only say that I am thrilled beyond belief at the changes in China which affect the common man , with whom I deal daily

    Diss me as you will, but I still vote Modern China as THE best country in the world , both for its leadership ( in the face of immense challenges ) and – much more so – for the truly warm hearted and all-embracing attitude of all Chinese people to outsiders.

    That’s why China will one day rule the world, and deservedly so

    OK …it’s Chor yi … and I am emotional

    Bujt fact is fact : China has a GREAT thing going for it and one quarter of the world’s population

    Long Live Modern China !

    Cheers RTP

  14. Real Tax Payer says:

    It’s Chor Sam ( day 3 of the New Year) and I am deep in China , where life is just wonderful

    And digging into Julia Lovell’s ” The Opium War ”

    Just based on the intro I emailed Ms Lovell to commend her : many happy hours ahead of reading

    And if you have not bought THE north Korea book, then buy it now ” The Cleanest Race” B.R. Myers

    Cheers RTP

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