We stopped at Ely, and went in to explore. Rae and I had been before, but only to the cathedral, which is lovely.
What you see here – a bit blurred, which will make sense in a minute – is The Drayman’s Son, a ‘micropub’ in Ely that is dog friendly and brews its own magnificent beer.
I’ve not drunk real ale for a while, because most pubs near me don’t know how to keep it. It’s a shame, because our local brew, Rebellion, is excellent. But it’s in the nature of real ale that it requires love if it is to be at its best. Like all of us. At The Drayman’s Son, there’s a true love of good beer.
We sat and played with the Trivial Pursuit questions on the table, and Max read the Calvin and Hobbes book on the shelf next to him. A lovely time.
I nipped to the gents – a pint and a half takes me that way these days – and there on the wall was a lovely photo of a Spitfire. It was taken from below, with the aeroplane at a slight bank, which shows off R J Mitchell’s (didn’t look it up) timeless design perfectly.
The image provoked wonderful memories, including a very recent sighting near home, which was a rare chance to see a Spitfire cruising by at that rakish, ineffably beautiful angle. It called to mind another treasured memory, of a man who was part of my life even before Pink Floyd woke me up.
Ron Peters was my dad’s best friend, and I loved him too, in my own way.
Dad got to know Ron when they both became founder members of High Wycombe Junior Chamber of Commerce. Ron was a bank manager (they were still decent people then) and Harry – my dad – was a rising star in the paper industry.
We often visited the Peters’ house, and Steve (brother) and I would hang out with Janet and Kate, the two Peters daughters. In the hot summer of 1976, we all went on holiday to Scotland together and I fell in love with Kate. I’m not sure she fell in love with me, but she humoured me for a while until she realised I’m a total idiot, devoid of honour, and dumped me like nuclear waste (Frasier).
It was while in Scotland that Ron explained to me the meaning of the line ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’ in Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’. Ron, like my dad, kind of enjoyed dwelling in quiet desperation. There’s a picture of the two of them taken at a character-building outward bound course run by John Ridgeway. I think they went to become better managers. The shot shows the two of them, after about four days, looking absolutely spent, and wondering why the hell they had bothered. It was a study in quiet desperation.
During that Scottish holiday, it was decided (without consulting me, or disregarding my reasonable objections) that we would go pony trekking. Back then, I had a fear of horses (and dogs, cows, almost any sentient creature) that I had inherited from my dad. I badly didn’t want to go, and neither did Ron, who shared my distrust of large animals. Dad, of course, was going to keep Ron company, and I had to make the trip.
But before we left, another horse bit my mum’s horse and she fell off. She was fine, but I was convinced; I was not prepared to spend another moment among such demonstrably savage and uncontrollable beasts. So my dad climbed on my horse and Ron and I were left to explore the locality together.
Well, he was very decent about it. Knowing what I know now, he was probably cursing his luck at being left with this bumptious, yellow-bellied oik, but he took it in his stride. Before heading off into the Scottish countryside, we nipped into the gents – perhaps it started then – and stood in that distinctly male way alongside each other.
“Magnificent views around here,” ventured Ron, ever the polite conversationalist. One of my great regrets in life is that I choked back my reply: “Bragging again!” (I was going through a smartarse phase that has so far lasted 50 years…). My dad later told me that Ron would have have been highly amused.
We pottered about the fields and along a river that ran near the trekking centre. To our dismay, the route took us into a field of highland cattle. They even had the temerity to wander along the banks of the river among the trees. I nearly tripped over one before we discovered our plight.
For two arrant cowards like Ron and me, they might as well have been lions. We froze, then crept away, treading like native American scouts to avoid provoking the unpredictable creatures. Then we came to a gate, with a path that clearly led to safety. Except that in the field, close to the path, was a splendid highland bull. Shaggy coat, massive horns. I swear it pawed (hooved?) the ground, and blew smoke from its nostrils, like the bull in Bugs Bunny.
I honestly don’t remember how we got back. Perhaps it’s one of those memories you blot out, from shame, or fear. But after that, Ron and I definitely shared something of a bond, a bit like Bruce Willis and the gangster guy in Pulp Fiction, when they’ve battled the Gimp. We never spoke of it, but we both knew.
The Spitfire thing actually happened before all that, when I was still at primary school, I think. Wycombe Air Park – locally known as Booker Airport – used to put on an air display every year, which was pretty good for a local aerodrome. It included a Piper Cherokee formation team, Tiger Moths and other cool stuff. But pride of place went to the Spitfire, which was the last show of the day.
My memory is that we were leaving to avoid the traffic – my parents’ generation were that kind of cautious – when the Spitfire turned up, so we missed a fair bit of the actual display. But at one glorious moment, it flew right in front of us, banking at that supreme angle. The curve of the wings, the sleekness of the fuselage, the roar of the Merlin.
Ron had a voice made for such occasions. Slightly Kenneth More-ish, with a hint of John Le Mesurier. Proper RAF. As the Merlin faded gloriously into the distance, I saw a look of wistful rapture on his face. “That’s an aeroplane,” he murmured, simply.
He was right, it was. And when you see one now, it still is.