Saturday, February 28, 2009


Today was one of those extremely rare Saturdays when the calendars are empty, mine in particular.  I had no meetings, appointments, writing deadlines, and not even a phone call to answer.  It was an empty delight.  To celebrate this rare jewel I cooked a full brunch with linguica, Irish bacon, grits (well, Sandi did those,) mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, scrambled eggs with chives, and rye toast.  And so the day meandered on ...  As did I.

Sheila is, not merely a parishioner, but a friend, confident, and a most renowned artist.  Not one of those "struggling artists" of the Hamptons, but one whose latest exhibitions have been in Moscow and Miami.  Her husband, Hayward, was once the U.S ambassador to many places, including the Soviet Union.  (I am privileged in that, next week, I will begin proof reading his manuscript memoirs, for publication.)  Sheila and Heyward, by the way, are both in their 80s.

Sheila had a "showing" in her Southampton studio today.  I had seen the works before but out of duty went along to support her.  One of her visitors was Peter, who had known her for 59 years.  He had also been recently praised by the Financial Times for his essays on wine.  Yet Peter was the CIA station chief in the mid 1950s - in Berlin.  Let me repeat that. In Berlin. When it comes to espionage and running spies, in the Cold War, this man, with whom I was sipping tea, was in the absolute, and incredibly dangerous, front line of the world which today, fact and fiction celebrate.  And which  Peter and I will soon discuss some more.   Over dinner, and wine.  Of his recommendation, of course.

Friday, February 27, 2009


I may have very few gifts, but one of my unlikely personal attributes is the ability to attract or find the most eccentric, vocal, manic and downright worrying taxi drivers around. Faced with an entire street full of cabs, and selecting one at random, I would find myself sitting with a man (and it is invariably a man) who has an addiction to speed, an axe to grind, and hopefully not an axe to use.

Alighting from the train at Union Station DC, the taxi system is well organized. Quite simple for people like me. You stand in line, and take the next cab that comes to the rank. So there is no selection process. Yet why do I feel that, like the magician who forces me to take the card he wishes, that there is more than serendipity at work here?

I’m a fairly relaxed passenger, but this silent and somewhat sullen driver took me by surprise. Hitting 80 mph through one of the longer underpasses leading out of the city I glanced to my left (yes, I was in the front seat where the G-forces are surely stronger) and noticed that this man was opening the window with his left hand, tuning the radio with his right hand, and steering with his knees. To add to my (unfounded?) concerns, my feet could feel the heavy vibrations of both a shaky tie-bar and a wheel bearing that was playing a different tune to all the others. I involuntarily pushed down with my feet in a moment of passenger stress, and then decided that this was a bad idea. Any more pressure and they would go straight through the thin and rusting metal into the, no … it doesn’t really bear thinking about. There was nothing to be done except enjoy the feeling of weightlessness, and notice that the driver had on his dashboard a small crucifix, an icon of the Blessed Virgin, a voodoo skull and a prayer card to a saint that I did not recognize. Now that’s comprehensive drivers’ insurance.

The following morning’s taxi journey from Alexandria back into DC convinced me that there really is a flashing neon sign above my head that reads, “Talk to him! He really does like it!” Before we had turned out of King Street the hot-button topics of politics and national economics had begun, naturally with a scathing criticism of Barack Obama and the corporate bail-out. I was worried less by his views and more by the fact that he spent most of the time looking at me when talking. A thirty second respite as we moved into slow traffic on the freeway. Then the seductive beauty and pleasures of Cuban cigars, and what did I think? Ah, at last my opinion was being sought, but as I can’t stand cigars I felt unable to contribute. There wasn’t time anyway as he launched into the story of how he was shot in the leg while driving on Madison, but gave his assailant, the passenger, a bloody nose. It was a sense of relief and release that we pulled up outside the Cannon House Building.

Add to this catalog the next day’s driver who couldn’t take us because one of his rear doors was falling off; the one who was too obese to wear a seatbelt, which meant that a loud and shrill warning beep went off every thirty seconds; and finally the Greek driver who skillfully threaded his way through the Manhattan streets extolling the virtues of olive oil. Finally a subject I was interested in, but the journey was too short to enjoy the detail. Sipping a glass of Stella Artois in Docks, waiting for the Hampton Jitney, I really couldn’t wait to get home and behind the wheel of my own car once more.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Two powerful motives brought me to Borders today.  The want to be there, and the need to browse books about George Washington, and the French/Indian wars.  (Yes, I know, my recent trip has affected me!)

The American history section is pretty comprehensive, and I spent some twenty minutes picking up and putting down excellent volumes that I would like to see on my own shelves.  Too short a time, however, to make decisions.  It was then that two women walked past, behind me.  And the one commented, "American history?  That's really for college students."

I ordered, then sipped my cappuccino, looked at my favorite seat in the cafe, but went outside to wonder.  Even despair.  

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The first thing that struck me about the House of Representatives was the unpleasant smell.  Perhaps I had high expectations of the chamber that by its very constitutional title represents the popular voice within the United States of America. After all I have visited the British Houses of Commons and Lords, the Irish Dail, the States General of the Netherlands, and the Assemblee Nationale in France, and all of these august bodies had one thing in common.  They had a good smell.  Difficult to describe yet was common to them all.  It was linked to old leather, and the years of polish that had been applied to the seats of power.  It was floor polish, and the generations of cleaning that each chamber had demanded, day after day.  It was also the visual detail.  The smartness, the sharpness, the attention to that detail.  All bore witness to great nations, great senses of traditions, and an enigmatic feeling of being in a truly historical place.  Like the richness and timelessness of the old clubs, where polity and indeed entire empires were decided from well-cared-for armchairs and tables.

Within seconds of passing the disinterested security guard, and sitting in the gallery of the House, my wife whispered that the place smelt like "that carpet we bought in a pub" all those years ago.  A rug that despite all attempts to purge, still smells like the place in which it was hawked.  Musty, soiled, shoddy.

And so it was in that House.  Sniffing and looking around it was musty, soiled and shoddy.  The furniture was falling apart, the fabrics were fading and the whole demeanor of the chamber reminded me of a failing downtown movie theater.  What a great disappointment.  Is it a reflective judgment on that singular stratum of American government?   Who am I to say?

Monday, February 16, 2009


These columns will be a little quiet these next few days, on account of the Lewis/Nunez adventure.  Washington DC by train, and a ton of galleries, museums, restaurants, Obama cabinet posts to fill,  and much else besides!  Hopefully there will be a chance to update online, but even if there isn't there will be so many stories and pictures to post.

Be well!

Sunday, February 15, 2009


It's a chilly evening, but the fire is blazing in the hearth, and there's a one-pan Italian dinner bubbling away on the range.  Polla alla birra.  Chicken with beer, but actually with much more than that.  Please note that this is Italian Italian, as opposed to the menus of those, in this part of the world, who believe that "eating Italian" involves main course plates of pasta (with copious sauces) five evenings a week. (Yes, I know, I haven't written that column yet.  It's all a matter of confidence - and fear!)

Tonight's meal has its origins in the cold mountain communities of North East Italy, bordering on what used to be called Jugoslavia.  Tough communities, great people. I've been there, albeit covertly. It is a peasant dish, and so perfectly suited to my kitchen, and my social status right now.

Take the best and freshest chicken pieces you can find.  Quarters and legs etc.  Now on a Sunday in Bridgehampton that restricts ones options, but we must all do our best.  Southampton?  Even worse!  Hampton Bays?  Well, under cover of darkness you might raid your neighbor's coop - but please don't get caught.  They take a dim view of such things in Hampton Bays, as they do of most things, come to think of it. Now - where was I?

2 Carrots

2 Sticks of celery

I Leek

I Onion

Chop them all up into tiny bits.  Get the biggest pan you have. I have a 14 inch (3 inch deep) All-Clad pan, but improvise with whatever.   Pour yourself a large glass of white wine - this is your cooking drink.  This evening I slurped on a white Burgundy.  Relax!  Now start to cook...

Put the chicken pieces in the pan.  Throw the chopped vegetables on top.  Salt and pepper, plus some dried thyme.  Then pour two bottles of the best beer over it all.  I used Southampton Brewery's Altbier, but don't tell Don Sullivan as it might go to his head!

Boil up and then simmer for 45 minutes.  Remove the chicken, keep warm, then reduce the sauce to a minimum, then stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter.  Plate up the chicken, pour the sauce over , and serve with brown rice (Yes!  That is very Italian.  Remember we're in the mountains with this meal!)  Now drink buckets of Chianti! 

Buon appetito!


In my grandparents' house, a small cottage high up on the hill in Fishguard, overlooking the harbor, there used to be a small framed copy of a watercolor that (to be honest) few people outside of Wales have ever heard of. It was entitled "Salem," and depicted an old woman in traditional Welsh dress leaving a chapel, clutching her Bible. Her face is hard and grim, and the scene itself is grimmer - for it shows the rigors of Welsh puritan religious nonconformity that was at its peak at the end of the nineteenth century. No joy, no warmth - just a duty to God whether one liked it or not.

The painting was so popular that it spawned tens of thousands of prints, but its popularity was less to do with it being a piece of rustic nostalgia - and more to do with its notoriety. Because the belief grew that the face of the devil himself could be seen in the picture.

As a young child I would stare at this scene for what seemed like hours, but could never see that face. And my grandfather would point at the picture and then at me and say in Welsh, "Gofal! Mae'n gwylio!" ("Be careful! He's watching you!") But child psychology was never his strong point.

It was years later that I returned to this painting, this time the original, and saw the face for the very first time. And should you ever look upon this scene I will not spoil it for you by giving away the secrets of the artist. But the face is there, all right - and so clear and obvious that now every time I see this painting it is the first thing that leaps out at me.

In ways very similar we may consider two scenes from today's readings. The cleansing of Na'aman, the great and famous military supremo, and the making clean by Jesus of an unknown leper.

Both are very familiar stories, one ancient in origin and the other first century, and both lead us on first, second and even subsequent readings to focus on the primary action in the stories - which is the making clean of two individuals.

But the stories are not there simply for narrative purposes. There are greater things concealed within them, but often so difficult to see. Until, that is, we visit the scenes afresh - and then it all becomes so clear.

Who was Na'aman? He was the field commander, a five star general, of Aram, the king of Syria, and had just defeated an Israelite army in battle. And how odd is this. "The Lord had given victory to Aram." In other words he was the enemy, and to add insult to injury this enemy was now to be healed, made clean, at the instruction of Elisha, one of the Lord's prophets of Israel.

Look at the implications of the details of this story.

1. God appears to be working outside of Israel.
2. God seemed to be working against Israel, and
3. ... now a foreigner is about to be blessed with wholeness.

All these things run counter to the traditional Hebrew understanding of a covenant with God - because they lie outside its boundaries. They demanded a new and wider understanding of God's presence and purpose - because traditional boundaries had now been crossed.

So it also was with that brief encounter between Jesus and the leper. The most powerful image in that story is not the healing of the leper, but the fact that Jesus touched the leper.

For in doing so he ran enormous risks. He put himself at risk, and put his community at risk - because remember that public health involved keeping lepers at a distance, outside of a possible infection zone.

But more than that. In touching the leper Jesus broke the law. What he did was not only against the Law of Moses, it also rendered him ritually unclean and therefore outside of conventional religion and practice.

Yet there was no hesitation. In touching the leper Jesus crossed a boundary, and in that single act challenged barriers of ignorance, fear and superstition that had for centuries clouded people's perceptions of God and what it was to live as the people of God.

Jesus gave - he gives - a new insight into our relationship with God, with one another, and what it is to truly live within a community of faith.

He touched, as we also are called to touch. Touch those who are outside of the boundaries of fashion, power, politics, religion and respectability. To reach out, to heal, to restore, to unite with them.

You see, the pictures, the story, the scene, becomes divinely clear.

In one single act.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Getting ready to leave the Commons, Bridgehampton, this morning, I walked past a car with two kayaks strapped to the roof bars. Hmm. In mid February. Still, the ice on the ponds has melted this week. I thought. My 4mm suit is hanging up, the boots and gloves are clean, and there's that new outer-skin I haven't tried yet. It was then the icy gust of wind hit me and brought me to my senses.

No, no and no! Too early. But March is just around the corner...

Thursday, February 12, 2009


EARLY SUMMER 1992: Again a chance to swing the lamp. One of my Squadron ships, F171 HMS ACTIVE, was deployed down the West Africa coast en route to the Falkland Islands. It was one of those trips not to be missed. We had briefly put into Senegal for fuel, giving me the opportunity on the dockside to barter an old pair of tennis shoes for a “Rolex”; then the Gambia for three days, but that is another story. And now we were on a high profile diplomatic visit to Ghana – a delightful country and people whose warmth and generosity I will never forget. It was also a good year to visit Ghana, as a new constitution had just been adopted, the economy was bubbling, and the people were in an ebullient mood.

On our second evening the officers were to dine ashore with officers of the Ghanaian Navy at their Eastern Command Headquarters in Tema, which is where ACTIVE was parked – sorry, for the benefit of civilian sail-boaters, berthed. It was but a short military bus ride from the ship to the barracks, and as we were only fifteen in number it was easy to arrange transport.

The setting was superb – rustic wooden tables under the stars, and an amazingly sumptuous meal of fish soup and dark, chewy local bread, a hot and hearty goat curry, and bowls of local fruits to end – and washed down with the local brew, Star beer. The company and table conversation was wonderful, considering that we were strangers to each other, the speeches as predicable and boring as any, and we all suffered together, and the coffee quite awful, as we all agreed. Yet the evening passed too quickly, as new naval bonds and friendships were made. It was one of those incredible times and situations that could never be deliberately staged or created.

Then the Ghanaian naval commandant stood up. “Gentlemen of the Royal Navy! Our highly honored guests! Your gift to us is your coming here. Now in return we offer our gift to you, to do with as you desire!” And he clapped his hands. Out of the trees came some thirty young, beautiful, heavily perfumed women, all with one offered intent. “Hospitality.”

Despite the wide eyed protests of the junior lieutenants we left hurriedly, as in within ninety seconds, yet not impolitely, and hopefully without diplomatic injury. As for the girls, well the upstanding officers of the Ghanaian Navy were clearly pleased to do their duty. So all were satisfied! And this we agreed over large brandies and coffee, in our own wardroom, safe and sound.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


ABOVE: 1911 postcard, Smithtown Main Street. (Image is in the public domain.)

I visited Smithtown, New York, today. Now that’s no great news story in itself, and neither is the fact that my wife’s Saab continues to languish in a Smithtown repair shop, awaiting a new fuel pump that today, having made the journey, we were told was on “national back-order.” By any stretch of the imagination that is a serious situation for owners of those cars that were “inspired by aircraft.” Now clearly grounded. No matter, a courtesy rental car was graciously provided.

But Smithtown? (Breathe deep) – Smithtown is a place in which to spend slow time. By that I don’t mean the Smith Haven Mall, or the strings of auto dealers, plazas and vacant lots to the east. Rather the old town itself, which despite the ravages of de-urbanization and recent recessions, impatient traffic, peeling paint and store buildings which appear to have hosted five businesses in as many years, still retains a great deal of old-small-town charm and interest. There’s a wealth of history packed into just a couple square miles, and I feel a definite urge to spend a day there, poking about with notebook and camera.

So a passing suggestion: Forget the ghastly corporate carbuncles that have sprawled along the Long Island Expressway. Head just a few miles north to Route 25, find the old towns, buy a coffee or two, breathe deep outside of restaurants and bakeries, eat well inside them, and have fun exploring!


I know it happens at some point every winter, but this year's early sudden thaw has made us all feel a little better in some respects. No, not our coughs and colds, but rather those days, even those brief and precious moments when the sunshine seems less watery, the ice on the driveway disappears, and it is possible to walk the dogs without looking like an overloaded coat-rack (with hat.) And as we sip our coffee, listen to the melt-water running through the gutters, watch the cardinal feeding, naturally we feel a gradual sense of improvement. After the constant freeze of late we all deserve a break, and so we award ourselves a small one, and the countryside comes back to life a little bit.

I'm not suggesting that there are lambs gamboling in the luscious meadows just yet, but there are many signs that, if not pointing to the end of winter, remind us that the wheel of nature continues to turn at its own pace. They are cleaning up the dead growth on the vines at Wolffer in Sagaponack; contracts arrive from irrigation companies reminding us that the heat of summer is just around the corner (yeah, really!); The Home Depot, and I have this on good authority, are building their greenhouses for early season display; and Eric has been digging in his garden. Now this last piece of the almanac is pure rumor at the moment, for there was but the mention of such a possibility last weekend. We really must have a glass of wine this week, and foolishly toast the expectations of springtime. Foolish in the extreme. For does anyone remember Presidents' Day 2003? And the twenty-two inches of snow? I thought not!

Sunday, February 8, 2009


PRESENT DAY, AND THE FALL OF 1991: Recently I have been deeply troubled reading reports in the U.S. media of the huge increases in the number of suicides among military personnel over the last few years. In some sectors I believe it to have quadrupled. The actual statistic is secondary to the fact that something, somewhere, is drastically wrong. Whether it is in the sphere of training, screening, pastoral and family support – I do not know. I merely hope and pray that the official enquiries recently launched (and why does that fill me with a sense of institutional foreboding?) will identify, if not a solution, at least a direction to follow.

For those who have never served in the military may I gently say, no – teach you – that a suicide inflicts infinitely more damage on the unit in which that man or woman served, than any other form of death or injury. Be it in the field of battle, or at sea, or in the air, even when severe casualties are being received, a trained battalion, ship or squadron will continue to fight, pull together and function normally under adverse circumstances. Yet on news of one of their own taking his life, such a professional team will start to falter and fail. Never underestimate the negative power of undermined morale in both peacetime exercises and combat operations. And, yes, I can speak here from experience. Not merely dealing with such tragedy within the operational unit, but also having to inform the next-of-kin and close friends that their loved one took his, her, own life.

My first encounter with a suicide in the Royal Navy (and the first of quite a few. And why did they always call me to go and “deal with it?”) was in October 1991. Once again a late phone call. The ship? HMS GLOUCESTER. Where? Grand Cayman. Usual procedure. Royal Air Force shuttle to Washington, pick up tickets for onward flights etc, etc. (Pieces of trivia and confession here. I flew the last ever Pan Am flight from Miami to Grand Cayman. The whole outfit was going bust. Buckets of champagne were served in Club and First – in fact we didn’t care about seats, but just partied, cabin crew included. My head on arrival was unclear, to say the least!)

Despite glorious island surroundings, the ship was in somber mood. On arrival I discovered that the customary “day one” cocktail party was about to begin, with invited local political and military dignitaries and, as one scurrilous captain who remains a friend once put it, “those taken up from trade!” Jeez! Not more alcohol?

It was not a good moment to pay my visiting call on the ship’s Captain, so I had to nurse a glass of wine through uncountable and indescribably dull cocktail party conversations on that flight deck, before we all retired, and I was given a chance.

Now I will refrain from mentioning this Commander by name, but although he was a splendid fellow and respected by all in his ship’s company, he did love to close his cabin door and signify that he wanted to be alone by playing opera recordings at various volumes. The higher the volume, the worse the crisis.

I was greeted in the flat outside his cabin by his Secretary. “ It’s pretty loud. How bad?” I enquired. “Bad.” He looked at me, “And it’s Wagner.” We both understood.

The following meeting took place without Wagner, but with coffee and a decent port, and the facts. A young artificer (naval apprentice) had been found hanging in an engineering section. No note, no clues. Yet so many questions. So many distraught members of ship’s company.

Now I will not bore you with detail about how I met with whole messes, and yet quietly with individuals, and the content of those conversations, for it is unhelpful history, but somehow, as the ship sailed slowly north to the Bahamas, many accepted a sense of being able to move on, even with unanswered questions. It was from those islands that I flew home, with the singular task of burying this young man. Which I did, near Brighton, on a sunny autumn day, and with family that wanted answers that I could not give them.

Since that day I continue to carry many such young people in my memories. And yet, despite their wasted lives and their unheard anguishes, I have no answers. Simply tears. And even more questions.

Official government enquiries? Please be diligent.  You see, some of us have been there.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I think I may have written something similar to this elsewhere in another column, but a monthly visit to Leo’s barbershop on Main Street, Bridgehampton, is not merely about getting a haircut. From the beginnings of conversation, either with Leo himself or another waiting customer, to the hot foam, towel and neck shave at the end of the procedure, this is a time to listen and learn about everything that is going on in our local community. For apart from the fact that there are very few people here that he does not know (and most local men have sat in his chair at some point over the past sixteen years of his business) Leo is also an authority on most things. This morning the subject was potatoes, followed by the ridiculous one course $19 Prix Fix at Bobby Van’s restaurant. Apparently most people have to order more, or else leave hungry.

It seems that in some places the price of Yukon Gold exceeds one dollar per potato. Surely not, I challenged! Leo fixed his eye on me, all the while running a cut-throat razor along the side of my ear, and explained in a heavy Russian accent that at $4 a pound in his local market, and you get about four potatoes in a pound, that means … Well even I could get that math. Unbelievable, and a crazy world, we both agreed as he went into the small back room to puff briefly on a small cigar and return with a handful of hot shaving foam. A crazy world indeed.

Leo shortly goes to Florida for a few weeks’ warmth. I will miss his counsel and conversations in early March, but upon his return we will no doubt solve another global issue, after, of course, he asks me about where I got such a bad hair cut when he was away.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Comments about local Italian cuisine - coming soon, and guaranteed to create debate, and perhaps even lose me a few friends!


Coming very soon!

Sunday, February 1, 2009


This article has been pulled by the author, and filed for future revision!