Little to say for myself

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Sergeant Pepper

"It was twenty years ago today" that I first arrived in Ottawa, an excited young man entering a new world. I remember stepping out of the airport into an amazingly crisp, cold night, and thinking "so this is North America". I was really nervous, and the excitement of having a big, new, American car at my disposal (all I had back home was a bicycle) and the prospect of several weeks of all-expenses-paid comfort (I'd been renting rooms in various shared houses for over 8 years) were both tempered by the fear of losing sight of the car driven by my colleague, who had come out to meet me and lead me back to our hotel.

I'd been in my first career-type job for about 16 months, after nearly 7 years as a student. Over the next 5 months my life transformed. I'd been getting by, trying to live on a modest salary and keep up with the interest on a four-figure overdraft. By the time my stints in Ottawa came to an end in August 1984, I had a four-figure bank balance that was actually paying me interest! I'd been living well within the per diem expense allowance (mainly because I was working too many hours to spend it), had a salary uplift for foreign working, and generous shift and overtime bonuses. For example, for one weekend, in which I clocked 41 hours of work, I received nearly three weeks' extra pay. When I got home to Portsmouth I was rewarded for working all the ridiculously long hours in Canada with a 31% pay rise that I hadn't even asked for.

But all this is nothing compared with the best thing that happened to me that year.

On about the third day in Ottawa, we went for lunch to a local bar at Bell's Corners, called the Corkscrew. It was the regular haunt of a couple of the local guys we worked with - Geoff and Guy, bless 'em. It was comfortable, we sat at the bar and ordered beers and steaks. The staff seemed friendly, and there was a relaxed banter between us all. I could see this was going to be a regular lunchtime venue. On about our third visit, I was bemused to see that we were served green beer. What? The barman explained that this was a bit of fun, it being St. Patrick's Day. I explained that this was something that generally passed us by in England. That bit of green food colouring sparked up a conversation that has now gone on for 20 years and counting.

The barman's name was Jim, a ruggedly handsome local-born man of 23 who was earning a buck while working to follow his cousins into the Fire Department. Over the next few months, we spent many a lunch-hour chatting about our different cultures and the Canadian wilderness (a passion handed down to Jim by his recently deceased father), and Jim became a good friend. He introduced me to his sweetheart Karla, and took me to football games and weekends at the lake with his friends.

The following summer I was invited back to Ottawa for Jim and Karla's wedding - on the same day as Live Aid - and was privileged to share those last few days of his bachelorhood as if I were a life-long friend. I spent a few days at his sister Kim's ranch up in the Gatineau Hills, riding horses (for the first time) at dusk through meadows full of fireflies. I'll never forget the canoe-camping trip that five of us went on, a few days before the wedding. We set off at dawn from Jim's cousin Jerry's house, immediately after his stag party (at which I got stoned, again for the first time) with canoes strapped to the roofs of two cars. We were barely buoyant with all the beer on board as we pushed off from the bank, and I can't remember two days when I've laughed more.

A couple of weeks later Jim and Karla appeared on the doorstep of my new girlfriend's house in Kingston-upon-Thames, on their whirlwind honeymoon tour of "The Old Country". This (in two weeks) took in Cornwall, Loch Ness, the Lake District, Robin Hood's Bay - oh, and a day trip to Belgium - all in a Ford Fiesta.

Two summers later I was back in Ottawa with my now wife, marking our first wedding anniversary, and had another memorable three weeks of cottage-dwelling, swimming, water-skiing, barbecues and songs around the campfire (Jim had also earned money strumming and singing in bars before becoming a firefighter).

Four and a bit years ago I got a job in Montreal for a few months, and was able to renew the friendship that had persisted for the intervening dozen years or more (most of it without the benefit of email) despite the distance between us. I shared many winter weekends with Jim, Karla and their two children (the same ages as mine), and inevitably was invited to bring my boys over there to meet them, which I did in July/August 2000.

Jim and Karla packed a whole lot of magic into those three weeks, and now, whenever the subject of holidays comes up, the boys plead with me to take them back to Canada.

Jim, I couldn't let this milestone pass without letting you know what you have contributed to my life. You have this uncanny knack of relating to me as the best person I can be, and I want you to know that you can count on me to ensure it continues for at least a couple more twenties. Here's to you and all yours, mate.

posted by Plig | 15:09 |

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Forget the sentimental notion that foreign policy is a struggle between virtue and vice, with virtue bound to win.
Forget the utopian notion that a brave new world without power politics will follow the unconditional surrender of wicked nations.
Forget the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world in its own image.
Remember that diplomacy without power is feeble, and power without diplomacy is destructive and blind.
Remember that no nation's power is without limits, and hence that its policies must respect the power and interests of others.
Hans Morgenthau

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts
Bertrand Russell

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one
Albert Einstein

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative
Martin Luther King Jr.

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man
Bertrand Russell

I think it would be a good idea
Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization

There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun
Pablo Picasso

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others
Groucho Marx

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it
Mahatma Gandhi

Always make new mistakes
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