. . . and a Happy New Year!

20th December 2018 |

Considering how much I have always loved Christmas it amazes me how little I can remember of the eighty or more I must have enjoyed, the plethora of presents that have been showered on me, and the sumptuous feasts I have gorged on. Christmas for me is a license to indulge in all my worst characteristics, laziness, gluttony and greed. And therein, perhaps, lies the answer. After three days of unremitting consumption how could I be expected to keep track of all the handkerchiefs, socks, scarves, ties, Ronson lighters, cuff links and cigarette cases, that were shared out between us.

The first Christmas present I can actually remember getting was a banana, a rare and precious object in war-time Britain, when I was 12 years old. The next Christmas that left a trace was in Germany, probably in 1948, when my aunts and my grandmother lived in a hut outside Hamburg, having been bombed out of the city. My aunts were given to loud and joyful singing and there were many cakes and biscuits baked with honey.
The next one to leave an impression was my first Christmas in the RAF. There were no presents, but by tradition the Ossifers – sorry, Officers served us lowly AC Plonks with our roast beef, Yorkshire pud and two veg. After that there is a great chasm of forgetfulness until I set off on my bike in 1973. Heaven only knows how many people I am wounding with these careless words, how much careful thought was lavished on objects that I have dismissed from my memory. I no doubt deserve what’s coming to me, which is puzzling because so far what’s been coming has been pretty nice. But there was one awkward Christmas on my trip around the world, that I can remember pretty well.

In late December of 1974 the high road across the parched foot hills of the Argentine sierras was hotter than anything I could remember, hotter even than Sudan. The views were spectacular. Foxes and armadillos crossed my path. There were also police checkpoints everywhere , playing their part in the army’s dirty war against left-wing dissidents. My papers confused them but they gave me no trouble. Then I came down to the main road to Tucuman where the sky turned grey and it started to rain.
The road into town was slippery with mud from tractors hauling sugar cane to the refineries, and the drivers looked tired and drunk, and filthy from the mud sprayed by car tyres, which soon covered me too. A tourist office in the central plaza found me a cheap hotel. I parked the bike outside and wandered around in the night looking for somewhere to eat. An immense open hall beckoned – lurid lighting shone down on billiard tables ranged down the middle, men playing dominoes down the right and a short order bar on the left dishing out steaks. A clamour of voices and the slap of dominoes on plastic table-tops echoed down from the ceiling. To me it sounded mechanical and joyless, a reflection of my own spirits which had been deflated since leaving Santiago and Malú four days earlier. The parting was as traumatic as it was inevitable. She retreated into her upper-class refuge and pulled up the drawbridge, and that was that. After being in the thick of love and politics, I was adrift.
When I got back to the hotel in Tucuman they told me a car had knocked my bike over, and they had picked it up for me. The boxes were slightly disarranged – nothing serious, but it seemed to fit into a pattern – and I took the bike into the hotel lobby overnight. I was generally nervous about the bike. I was riding with a new cylinder block and pistons, installed in Santiago, and I was afraid I might have pushed them too hard climbing into the sierras.

Christmas was just two days off and I had promised myself some relief from my worries. A few months back in Villaguay an autocratic elderly lady of the Anglo-Argentine tribe had promised me respite with her daughter Judy who was married to a colonel in the Ejercito del Norte – the Army of the North. They were stationed in Salta, just a day’s ride further north on my way to Bolivia. I had only to present myself at the barracks, she said, to be warmly welcomed and plied with the good things of life. Surely I could look forward to a few days of pleasant, undemanding distraction.
In the morning as I rode north the rain gave way to sun and stifling heat. I got to Salta in early afternoon and found the barracks quite easily. Everyone in Salta, it seemed, was very aware of the army. However, as I inquired at the gates of the garrison about the colonel’s wife I saw faces assume that peculiar stiffness people put on to hide embarrassment, because it turned out that the colonel was now Judy’s ex-husband.
Probably I should have sensed that the signs were not auspicious, but I was too invested in my dream of a Merry Christmas to turn tail and run. Calls were made and Judy eventually appeared. She was a tall, handsome woman with a friendly handshake but a distracted manner. It should have been obvious to me from the start that I did not fit easily into her plans but I couldn’t just let go.
“I’d better take you to my place,” she said, so I followed her car some way out into the country. The house was in a nice setting, but in a state of total disorder. I soon found out why.
“Tomorrow I have to move out to an apartment in town. We’ll have to find somewhere else for you. Will you be all right? I have to go back into town now.” And off she went.
I was beginning to get the message, but tomorrow could take care of itself. There was work I wanted to do on the bike so I took it into the garden and unpacked all my stuff.
We did our best that night to make friends. The maid cooked some good food, and I had rather too much Old Smuggler whisky which caused me to sleep late. I woke at eleven to find a note with a sketchy map telling me how to get to some people called Lloyd Davies for lunch by twelve.
There was no time to pack again. I rode the naked bike about half a mile along a dirt road when suddenly and implacably it stopped dead. At that moment Judy drove up wondering where I was. She did a good job hiding her irritation as I pushed the bike laboriously back to the house. Then in her car we went to lunch with an elderly couple of Welsh extraction, with a grown up son and daughter, Jeremy and Anne.

Eventually it was decided that I should stay with them that night. Jeremy drove me to Judy’s house where I started looking for the problem with the bike and after an inconclusive hour or two Judy drove up again to take me back to the Welsh house and in the car asked me what I thought of Anne because, she said, she and Anne were rival lovers of the same important newspaper proprietor in Salta.
When we got to the Welsh house it turned out that the Christmas Eve dinner was at another house belonging to a crusty old man called Tansley, so Anne drove me there and, on the way, asked me what I thought of Judy. I began to wonder what role I was expected to play in this amorous tangle.

Tansley’s house was big and splendid, but everything was running down. His most fascinating possession was an enormous billiard table, built around one huge and immensely heavy sheet of Welsh slate which he said had crossed the Atlantic three times. One time too many, apparently, because the slate was “sagging” and no longer served. I took it as a symbol of the way the whole Anglo-Argentine community, which had been so prosperous, was losing its grip. Conversation was stilted and archaic, and the young man, Jeremy, seemed particularly rooted in the world of P.G.Wodehouse.

On Christmas morning the Lloyd Davies invited a small group of Anglican missionaries to offer a service. Beaming relentlessly and evangelical to the core, they arrived with a little portable harmonium and performed a clockwork service in which the word of God was driven home with a sledge hammer. It did me no good. I was now completely without will or direction – no transport, no connection with my things, I just fell into a torpor.
Christmas lunch came and went. Then dinner. I assumed that sooner or later someone would either invite me to stay or drive me away. The parents were slated to leave for Australia the next day and the mother began to make it obvious that she expected me to leave the house too. I don’t think she thought me a proper influence. The daughter, however, insisted on the side that I take no notice. My uneasiness continued. The following day also passed in total inaction as the family saw itself off at the airport. That evening Anne drove me to Judy’s house to collect my things. It was too late to tow the bike but next morning a servant took me to Judy’s house to fetch it.
We had a long tow rope, and I fed the free end loosely round the forks to the handle bar where I could easily let it go. Just before we got back a woman in a small red car, obviously befuddled, drove straight over the tow rope. I told Jeremy the story, thinking it was funny.
“Of course, what you should do when being towed,” he said. “is to pass the line round some suitable central part and out to the bars . . . . “

I finally located the electrical fault – burnt out connections, as was often the case – and with the bike running again my spirits revived. We did eventually find ways to enjoy ourselves. I found other interesting people in Salta, including a geologist with a gold mine ,but I never met the newspaper proprietor.
It was good of them all to put up with me. Christmas is what you make of  it.