Gentleman's Portion

A good helping of life, love and whisky

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Nigel, Diane and Gina at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake for the Blessing of the Fleet

Nigel, Diane and Gina at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake for the Blessing of the Fleet

Our friend Gina Mallet has died.

What a loss to the writing community and what a loss of a truly interesting person.

As two single British women, Gina and Diane were friends and from time to time Gina asked her to be her guest when she went out incognito to do her devastating restaurant reviews. Later I tagged along – she jokingly dubbed us the OMC: old married couple.

Here are links to some of our favourite reviews. We went with her to Morgan’s on the Danforth, where she was kind to the neophyte chef. We accompanied her to The Hot House on Front and Elle ma dit, on Baldwin. We discussed the merits of fresh truffles at the Niagara Street Café and there were more over the years. Always we were amazed how she could write such plangent reviews, with a few notes scribbled on the back of an envelope. Her memory for what she had observed was impressive, considering how much fun we always had – and how much wine we finished off. We loved her for her quirky British humour and her vast intelligence. There wasn’t a subject she couldn’t tackle and write about like an expert. And about food she really knew her stuff. A true journalist.

She came sailing a few times, and always brought home-made sandwiches. In later years she found it hard to get on and off the boat. We always imagined she was a contemporary, not one much older than us, but already her strength was fading. At her house, at one of her inimitable dinner parties, where a dozen of us crammed into her Rosedale bachelor flat around a makeshift table on mis-matched chairs, she passed around a photograph of herself as a young woman. The picture was taken by her former school chum Lord Snowdon. She was heartbreakingly pretty. I wonder if she ever broke a man’s heart, for as far as we know, she never married. We mourn that girl of long ago and our wonderful writer friend of later years. She was my inspiration and we will miss her sparkling company.

Here’s a link to her National Post obit.

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Memorial 3When my Dad’s regiment set out for war they were 5,000 young men eager to get to the enemy. They were all captured by the Japanese in the surrender of Singapore and enslaved. Barely 500 survived. As far as I know, no memorial to these men exists, their graves lost in the jungles of Burma, beside the railway they were forced to build, their simple bamboo markers long since rotted away. Dad, who was good with his hands, made many of the markers and carved officers’ names and numbers on them in the hope these Burma Railway cemeteries would be found. On his last trip abroad, before dementia slowed him down to a crawl, he and his POW camp friend Robert went to Burma at the behest of the War Graves Commission to see if they recognized a cemetery that had just been found. Alas, it all looked just like jungle. Dad and his best friend were the last two regimental survivors when they died a few years ago. Both were 80.

As a teenager, when we lived for a few years in Libya, Dad took me to several World War II cemeteries near Tobruk, scene of some fierce battles between the Allies and the Axis. In those fields no poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark their place, just desert sand blowing along the avenues of the dead.

Copley Plaza, Boston

Copley Plaza, Boston

A few days ago, in Boston, I stood in front of a more temporary memorial in Copley Plaza. The personal tributes to those who perished or were injured on April 15 this year, during the running of the Boston Marathon, were touching. By leaving a flag inscribed with a remembrance, or a stuffed animal, or flowers, or sneakers, those who remain are trying to offer comfort where perhaps none can be given. Certainly the lives of the families of Krystle Marie Campbell, 29, Lϋ Lingzi, 23, Martin William Richard, 8, killed in the bombings or MIT police officer Sean Collier, 27, killed three days later, will ever be the same again. I look at the crosses adorned with their images, messages and mementoes. I walk around and try to find some meaning in the wall of running shoes from marathoners, offering solace to the other 264 who were injured, 16 severely and three very severely. The lump in my throat becomes tears coursing silently down my cheeks. I’m sure others feel as helpless and outraged as I do.

Tributes to the four who died

Tributes to the four who died

The moment was made more poignant by someone playing Amazing Grace on a harmonica, until I turned round and saw it was an obese man in a wheelchair, with a sign asking for change for a disabled war veteran. Perhaps he was genuine, but his begging bucket cheapened the moment for me.

It is the spontaneous outpouring of support and grief epitomised by the temporary Boston Marathon memorial which touch a chord, rather than the ponderous official statues of the fallen standing in heroic positions, so beloved of fundraisers and politicians. I was heartened to see that the finish line for the marathon has been quietly painted in and I hope it stays there forever.Memorial 6

In Washington, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall inspires similar emotions with its quiet dignity.  Walking down one ramp and up the other, considering the  58,195 names of fallen service men and women inscribed in the black marble, and watching the faces of those seeking the name of a relative, or stuffing a flag or a flower into a crack, I am again overcome with sorrow at the sheer waste and stupidity of the American nation’s loss.

In New York, at the site of the World Trade Centre bombing and shortly after the site was finally cleared, I look for a friend’s son’s name inscribed on the temporary memorial, the only person I actually have a link to in any of these tributes. As I stare at his name, my sense of his father’s personal loss is overwhelming, and yet there are names stretching out to the left and the right into the distance, and I feel their absence too. My eyes merely leak. It’s not crying, for as we know, there’s no crying in baseball, or life, for us guys. It’s just sadness, yes, and anger too, at the waste of lives young and old. And frustration that the perpetrators of this grief cannot be brought to any justice that will help us heal.

Memorial 2I suppose there will always be a foe and we will continue to send young people into battle to fight them. Misguided fanatics now bring the foe to us and more will die. As poet Lawrence Binyon wrote long ago: They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: / age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning, / we will remember them.

Or that other great WW I poet, Dr. John McCrae: Take up the quarrel with the foe / to you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break the faith with us who die / we shall not sleep, though poppies grow / in Flanders fields.

We’ll carry on as best we can; messy, slipshod, imperfect humans that we are, and try to keep the memory alive of those who have left us too early.

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Lewes Castle 2

Built in 1069, still partially standing

Lewes Castle looms so high above the historic market town of Lewes in East Sussex, it’s hard to believe it’s constructed on an artificial mound, made of chalk blocks. It was built only three years after the Normans arrived, by William the Conqueror’s brother-in-law, also William, and 1st Earl of Surrey. The last of his line died in 1347 and is buried in Lewes Priory, another local crumbling ruin, except that one was torn down by Henry Tudor during the dissolution of the monasteries. Although the town was sacked by the French in 1377 and the castle damaged, worse destruction was to come in 1620, when parts of the fabric were removed and the stone sold off. Since 1846 the castle has been owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society which is responsible for restoration, and running the museum and tours. For a ruin, it’s in pretty good shape.

It was my father who first took me to the top of the one remaining tower, a hearty climb, with the reward of a spectacular 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. I was at a boy’s boarding school in nearby Battle, actual site of William’s defeat of the English. It’s hard to go anywhere in Sussex without bumping into history.

Lewes Castle 1

Early 14th century extension

All around one can look down on ancient buildings clustered in the castle’s shadow, built right up to the walls along Castle Ditch Lane. Leading away from the ditch are a number of steep narrow alleys called twittens, used in the defense of the castle, when large boulders could be rolled down on the surprised attackers. Climbing up one of these lanes from the car park, one can imagine the invaders going down like bowling pins, when the rocks came roaring down, bouncing off the cobbles and banging off the flint walls.

The Barbican is the gate house and in much better shape, with a road to houses behind running through it. The small museum has interesting highlights of the history of the area, the ubiquitous video and a room with dress up clothes for the kid in all of us.

The area draws me back again and again when I’m in England. Mostly because my 96-year-old mum lives there, but also to renew Sussex roots. Mum’s maiden name is Lush (not a reference to her daily medicinal Scotch) and when she signed up as a motorcycle despatch rider during the mid-century disagreement with the Germans, she was known to one and all by her last name. Lieutenant Dad came back on home leave in 1941 and they were married, but Lush stuck as a nickname. In her 10th decade, she drives a Smart car around town, and works a few days a week as a volunteer at the local Red Cross charity shop, where everyone still calls her Lush. She has a town house down by the River Ouse, which occasionally floods, the water so far stopping short of the front door, and a postage stamp garden, where there are always chores for me to do. Lush is that indomitable type of Englishwoman exemplified by Mrs. Crawley in Downton Abbey, and I’m proud to be her son.

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Tudor living space

My late father’s grandparents had a farm only four miles from Lewes, in Glynde, now famous for the opera performances at the Glyndebourne Festival. We have never been able to discover the exact location of the farm, but I sometimes visit my great grandparents graves in the tiny dilapidated church in Bedingham. The churchyard has seen better days and someone has been sensible enough to put a flock of sheep in there to hold back the grass and weeds. The ancestors are in a corner surrounded by an almost impenetrable thicket of nettles, so I bring gardening gloves and clippers and hack them back. The legend carved into the stone has almost disappeared, but years ago I brought two of my kids here, so the location will not be completely forgotten.

Glyndebourne is an excellent reason for a visit to the area, if you like classic opera at its finest. The Christie family opened the Festival here in 1934 and 75 years later it’s still a family enterprise. Originally only Mozart operas were presented, but since then the repertoire has expanded to include Britten, Verdi, Rossini and more. The theatre has expanded from the early 300 seat affair to a 1,200 seat opera house 20 years ago. Guests still dress up and come by train from London to Lewes, where there is a coach service to Glyndebourne. I always found it amusing to see the toffs in their tuxes in the early afternoon, hauling picnic baskets off the platform. But the performances are timed to have an extra long intermission so a repast and champagne can be enjoyed in the gardens. The curtain calls last only long enough for the crowd to catch the train back up to town.

The spare room at mum’s is tiny, with a narrow single bed, even worse than the ones at boarding school, so now we elect to stay in a B&B or a hotel when we visit. Recently Diane and I have discovered Pelham House, in a lane off the high street. It’s a gorgeous Georgian mansion with extensive gardens and a fine restaurant. In the friendly bar we’re offered a glass of local sparkling wine. Apparently the area has a similar climate and terroire to the Champagne area of France, and Breaky Bottom winery seems to have got the process down just fine.

We’ll also be back in November to celebrate bonfire night, which in Lewes is a very big deal. The bonfires and fireworks not only commemorate the traditional Guy Fawkes Night, but more importantly the Lewes Martyrs, 17 Protestants who were burned at the stake by “Bloody” Mary, Catholic daughter of Henry VIII. Over the centuries six major bonfire societies have developed to dress up, parade through town, light a huge bonfire on the Downs around the town, and set off the biggest fireworks display. Mum watches the parades from her upstairs living room, but Diane and I will be in the thick of it, to enjoy the throng of smugglers, Mongolians, Greeks, Romans, Tudor nobles, maidens, monks and more dragging burning tar barrels through the ancient streets and carrying burning crosses advising “No more Popery.” Pelham House has a very good bonfire package and we’ve had to book almost a year ahead to take advantage of it.

We support the Waterloo Bonfire Society which meets at The Lamb of Lewes, a traditional pub, though more popular with the young and noisy music loving crowd than I would like. This year, Diane and I will dress as smugglers, the original costume adopted by the once illegal Bonfire Boys to avoid being recognized by the forces of law and order. The Waterloo crowd wear wide red and white striped sweaters to distinguish them in the parades. A local lady is going to knit ours this summer.

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Anne of Cleves cook’s collection

Another of my favourite pubs is The Snowdrop Inn, over the river in Cliffe. It’s name doesn’t celebrate the tiny spring flower but a disastrous avalanche in 1836, the worst ever in English history. Cliffe, not unsurprisingly, has a huge chalk cliff, visible for miles around. An unusual accumulation of snow slid down onto the cottages nestled below and crushed the occupants. The pub had become a bit run down over the years. I recall one winter visit where the ice machine had broken. Insisting on ice for my Scotch, the bartender just went outside and broke an icicle off a drainpipe. However, two chaps from Brighton bought the place in 2009 and have brought it back to life, winning awards for pub food and beer in 2012. Tony and Dominic source all their food locally and even raise their own pigs on a local farm. Not your usual pub fare. The beer is excellent too. In addition, they host gatherings of the South Street Bonfire Society, founded in 1913. This is their 100th anniversary and we’ll be looking out for their brown and cream smuggler’s uniforms in the parades.

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Espaliered quince tree

A further Lewes link to the Tudors is to be found at the Anne of Cleves House, a 15th century timber framed hall. The house was given to Anne by Henry VIII after their unconsummated marriage was annulled, due to her ill-favoured looks. It’s a good name to bring in the tourists but she never actually visited her property. Nevertheless, the house provides a great snapshot of life in those times. I love the kitchen with its collection of weird iron implements. In a back area is a fascinating display of cannons and cannon making equipment. The garden features a few rare trees from Elizabethan times and an espaliered quince tree. If I ever find a quince at the fruit market, I’ll make some quince jelly.

Pells Pool

Contemplating dad by the pool

The Pells Pool, built in 1860, is the oldest freshwater lido in England. It’s been rebuilt since then, but the water still comes from a freshwater spring. There’s a gentle walk down to the river and along the banks that takes you between the lido and a decorative pond, fed by Pell Brook, where ducks and moorhens roost on little artificial islands away from predators. My dad loved to walk this way and a commemorative bench in his name has been set up at the north end. I always sit there and take a quiet moment to remember him, though his ashes were scattered thousands of miles away off the tall ship Tenacious, in the Atlantic near the Canary Islands. That’s a sailing yarn for another day.

PS: Please leave a comment if you found something useful or interesting in this story. Or please add your own experiences with these destinations for others to share.



Oliver loved the country life and his dogs

Oliver loved the country life and his dogs

Tomorrow, February 13, would have been the 75th birthday of my late cousin, the actor Oliver Reed, famed for his tough-guy roles and his hard-drinking ways. Sadly he succumbed to a heart attack on the floor of a tavern on the island of Malta, in the arms of his wife. While on a hiatus from the gruelling shoot for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Ollie had fallen off his self-imposed wagon and taken on a bunch of sailors in a drinking game. He won the contest, but lost his life-long battle against alcohol.

David and Oliver with my father before his departure for Singapore, the last we were to see of him for four long years

David and Oliver with my father before his departure for Singapore, the last we were to see of him for four long years

Ollie was born in our hometown of Wimbledon, also known for tennis, which took place just down the road from our granny’s house, where we could sit of a summer afternoon and hear the sound of the crowd at Centre Court. His mother was my Aunt Marcia, who led a turbulent life herself, with several husbands along the way. As a result Ollie, and his elder brother David, were often between parents and frequently stayed at our place, a rented cottage on the then private estate of Cannizaro. Being a few years older than me, they thought it great fun to tie me to a tree during pirate games, then abandon me, while they hid nearby to see how quickly panic would set in. I remember that early incident very well, so I can only assume it was truly traumatic.

The inseparable brothers with baby Nigel

The inseparable Reed brothers with baby Nigel

Equally traumatic was an occasion when I was staying with them, still a very small boy, at a rambling country house. In residence was their father Peter and their step-mother Kay, both of whom were very kind. Skylarking around in the vegetable garden, I put my foot through a cucumber frame and immediately started squirting copious amounts of blood. Ollie, not yet a toughie, passed out and it was David who read me a story, to distract from the application of stitches. I have the scar to this day. It goes half-way around my ankle. So went our childhood from scrape to scramble and with many happy memories of afternoons spent chasing around on Wimbledon Common. In those days kids were sent out after lunch to play and told not to come home until supper.

Many years later, my father had purchased a mews cottage off the Portobello Road, for use during home leave. While Dad was abroad for years at a time, in Benghazi, or Nairobi, or Johannesburg working as an ex-pat, the house stood empty. Ollie, just back from army service, was offered the place, with the caveat that he would have to look after me (or possibly just put up with me) during short holidays from boarding school. Ollie, who was at the time trying various jobs and attempting to break into modelling and film work, taught me some very interesting life lessons. On one occasion, he borrowed sixpence from me to buy a single razor blade from Boots, the chemist, so he could shave for an audition. He landed his first, non-speaking and uncredited part in a movie as a result, and often told the story of my role in starting his movie career. Ollie was already a hard-drinking chap and proposed that we head out from our mews for a beer at the Six Bells, Chelsea, a mere five-mile walk … via every pub on the way. The first one was The Portobello Star, the second was The Earl of Lonsdale and the third was The Windsor Castle. Then I forget. By the time we arrived at our destination hours later Ollie was in fine form and I could barely stand. I’m not sure he was a great influence on me, but I loved him like a brother. At 18, I went travelling and our paths crossed less often as he went from success to success.

I was heading for Canada on an assignment for BBC television, and stayed. Ollie was heading back from filming The Trap. Our planes passed in  the sky. We later met when he was in Toronto filming David Cronenberg’s The Brood. This was the occasion for more high jinks. We planned a family lunch in Yorkville, attended by my then-wife, her sister, my sister and myself. I got them settled down and left the party at a few minutes before noon to direct a live daily television chat show at a nearby CBC studio. Returning just after one, the show over, I found they had not yet eaten but had consumed several bottles of wine. I went in search of Ollie, who had disappeared to the loo, but missed him somehow. In the men’s room I found his clothes and fearing the worst rushed back to the table, where he was sitting calmly drinking a glass of wine, buck naked. The maitre d’, who clearly knew his stuff, had put screens around our table. We got Ollie to put on his shorts and shirt before we left, explaining that it was snowing outside, but he refused the rest of his clothes. We got his shoes on but his socks had vanished. The staff eventually saw us off in relief, though he paid the bill and tipped them with a handful of hundred-dollar bills. On the way back to the hotel, just steps away, we passed a police car. The officers completely ignored us staggering down the sidewalk, arm in arm.

Sarah and Oliver at The Millcroft Inn

Sarah and Oliver at The Millcroft Inn

There are two follow-ups to this story. The first is that I have had exaggerated versions of the  incident recounted to me countless times by people who claim to have been there. Sorry guys, none of you were. The second is a stunt we pulled after we were back in the hotel, giggling our heads off like schoolboys. In a mischievous mood, I phoned the late Sid Adilman, then entertainment editor of The Star. Sid loved a scoop and I told him a much fictionalized account of our lunch, leaving out the detail that Ollie had put some clothes on for the walk back to the hotel, and ending with the fabrication that Ollie had been bundled into the police car, which had actually ignored us. Sid checked the story out with the police, who refused to confirm or deny that Ollie was incarcerated, which to a reporter hot on the trail of a story, meant he had indeed been arrested. Sid got the front page the next day and the story went round the world. The only interview Ollie gave was on The Bob McLean Show the next morning, myself directing. When Bob asked him why he’d done it, Ollie replied: “A few weeks ago I was in Barbados walking down the beach in my overcoat. What’s the difference?”

A not very tasteful souvenir from Malta - but at least he's remembered

A not very tasteful souvenir from Malta – but at least he’s remembered

Ollie came to Toronto a few more times and we always had a splendid reunion. He came with Jacquie and his daughter Sarah, who as a young girl bore an amazing resemblance to my daughter Rebecca. He came with his new wife Josephine, whom we immediately liked. A hot summer afternoon in the garden of our house was spent chasing baby grass snakes. Our cat had found a nest and insisted on bringing Ollie souvenirs. I received numerous late night calls from Ollie over the years, usually pretending to be someone else with an absurd story. I recognized his tricks, but the give-away was always some partner in crime giggling in the background.

I phoned Ollie the year before he died, to wish him a happy birthday. Josephine said he was out walking the dogs, but would pass on my good wishes. I never saw him in life again. I watched Gladiator alone in a cinema in San Francisco. It was the best role of his life and I shed a silent tear when the credits rolled. The film was dedicated to his memory.

PS: Please leave a comment if you like this story, or have any memories of Oliver you’d like to share.