My Glory Is I Have Such Friends

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City » District Two
November 3rd 2020
Published: November 3rd 2020
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In his poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, W. B. Yeats revisits the Dublin Municipal Art Gallery and contemplates the portraits of people he has known – Augusta and Robert Gregory, Hugh Lane, John Millington Synge and a few others. He concludes:

You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends' portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland's history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.

I have always liked this poem, especially the idea that a person should be judged by the quality of his friends. It reminds me of what my mother used to say: ‘Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are’.

Well, my HCMC bedroom is a bit of a gallery – festooned with pictures and photographs of places and people dear to me: my Reading house, Hayling Island, my Cairo apartment, The Great Pyramid, Abu Simbel, Victoria Falls, the Cambodian temples, Roraima, The Bull and Bladder public house, my parents and my friends.

I’m especially fond of the blown-up portraits of my parents and friends. For the purposes of this little essay, I will concentrate, as Yeats does, not on family but on friends. Now let me describe them in detail.

The greatest concentration of portraits is on my bedroom door. This door is permanently open and against the wall, so I have plastered one side of it with photos of people. Morning, noon and night, like portraits in an art gallery, they stare out at me. I miss these people. Having their photos permanently stuck on my door is much better, I think, than hiding their images away in some drawer.

Going clockwise from the top left-hand corner, my friends are: Hugh Sowden, Dad, Mark Wilson, Maurice Bradley, Ken Stebbing, Pamela May, Mum and Dad, John Sparry, Dave Cooke. And in the centre of the ‘clock’ are lovely photos of my parents on the cross-Channel ferry during their honeymoon circa 1948 and of Mum holding the family cat.

Not being able, like Yeats, to write in deathless verse, here are pen portraits of my friends written in club-footed prose.

Hugh is probably 72 years old. I haven’t seen him for years, and he’s an irregular correspondent, but he is alive and well and living in Egypt. Hugh is a gifted painter and, as far as I know, relies on his artistic skills to earn a living. I have four of his paintings on my living-room walls: scenes from Egyptian life bought from him when he was teaching art in Cairo. I worked with Hugh for six years in Cairo and used to visit him during the summer holidays at his parents’ picture-postcard cottage in Spetchley, outside Worcester. Hugh is a born artist. He has dedicated his whole life to art. He dresses immaculately and lives in artistic splendour surrounded by his paintings and other objets d’art. He is the personification of style. He is also a very generous host. When I stayed with him once in Worcester, I was ill with bursitis, and I'll never forget his kindness.

Next to my photo of Hugh is a splendid black-and-white photo dating from circa 1930 which portrays the ‘Chain Gang’ – the cycling club that my father and uncle belonged to in Limerick. Uncle Tommy is second from the left, and Dad second from the right.

Mark Wilson is one of the nicest people I have ever known. This is apparent, I think, from the photo I took of him in Canterbury a few years before his death; his gaunt face radiates gentleness and courtesy. We worked together as teachers in Dar es Salaam, and I visited him in Canterbury just before he died of cancer, aged 67. I never saw him bad-tempered or angry; he was the most sweet-tempered of men, even when his son was behaving very badly. He was a Latin scholar, and I asked him to translate for me several times. Mark is an eternal reminder to me of the arbitrariness of fate: we do not get what we deserve.

Maurice Bradley and I go back to 1975, when we met in Stourbridge. Even since we have been fast friends. When I left the U.K. in 1985, I began a correspondence with Maurice which has lasted to this day. He is old-fashioned and has no truck with modern technology; therefore all his letters to me have been hand-written. They are priceless, full of references to the things I miss most: English beer and pubs, plays and concerts, jaunts in the countryside. The photo depicts him sitting in our favourite pub, Doris Pardoe’s, drinking a pint of bitter. Maurice is 92 and mentally as sharp as a tack. A lifelong bachelor, he lives by himself. His terraced house is sparsely furnished and old-fashioned – the same today as it was when I first went there in 1976. Maurice is a culture vulture who, if given the chance, will talk endlessly about Peggy Ashcroft and Wagner’s 'Ring Cycle'. After retiring from his job as an accountant, he took an Open University Arts degree and devoted himself to the things he loves best: opera, classical music, theatre-going and reading. He is an encyclopedia of theatrical knowledge, having seen on stage such giants as Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and his beloved Peggy.

Beneath Maurice is Ken Stebbing, clutching a pint of bitter in Presteigne, where he spent the last years of his life. Ken was my fellow English teacher when I arrived in Cairo in 1985, and we kept in touch until his death in 2017. He was a remarkable man – charismatic teacher, brilliant speaker, great photographer and bon vivant. He was fascinated by Tutankhamun and all things Alexandrian - Alexander the Great, Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’. He liked his beer, and we had many excellent drinking sessions together – in Cairo, Kota Kinabalu and Presteigne - discussing literature and putting the world to rights.

Under Ken Stebbing is a beautiful photo of me at Pamela May’s birthday party circa 1959. The photo was taken by Pamela’s father, a professional photographer. I am in occasional email contact with Pamela whom I haven’t seen since I left Redlands Primary School in 1963. I remember the names of my other Redlands classmates in the photo: Jill Gardiner, Philip Rhys, Elaine Pullen and Diane Nicholls.

Above the photo of myself and my parents (circa 1954) is John Sparry standing next to his fireplace. John lives in Wall Heath in the West Midlands and is a local legend. He is now in his 80’s, as spry and mentally acute as ever. He lives in a time capsule, because his house has not changed since the 1950’s. Compared to John's house, Maurice's is ultra-modern! You can see from the photo that John boils his kettle on a coal or wood fire. He does not own a computer or TV or mobile phone. We communicate by letters, and I occasionally ring him up, the phone in his living-room being his only concession to modernity. He values friendship and talking to people far more than technology. John is a Renaissance man: a lover of jazz and accomplished jazz vibraphonist, an expert on Black Country history, a fine writer, a reader, a wonderful conversationalist and a champion tea-drinker. One of the things I miss most about England is visiting John in his little secondhand bookshop.

Finally, we come to Dave Cooke. The photo was taken by me in a favourite Reading pub, The Fisherman’s Cottage, that used to sell pints of delectable Fuller’s London Pride. Like me, he is of Irish descent and from Reading. I have known Dave since the late 60’s, which makes him my longest-standing friend. He is a scholar, a linguist and an excellent poet who deserves to be better known. We communicate on an almost daily basis, usually about literature and politics.

There are four more friends I wish to talk about: Chris Henry, Freer Magnus, Derek Evans and Graham Burgess. Their portraits grace the walls next to my writing desk and my bed.

Chris and his wife, Yvonne, are standing on the balcony of my old apartment in HCMC, against a vivid red sunset. Chris and I go back to the early 1970’s when we frequented a Reading pub called The Three Tuns. We lost touch for many years but then became fast friends after meeting by chance in 1985 in Turkey. While I was working in Egypt, Tanzania and Venezuela, Chris visited me, and I once travelled to Miami to visit him. He worked for years as a computer executive with British Airways before accepting a golden handshake and moving to Australia, where he now lives with his Brazilian wife. Chris is a master of witty repartee and a writer of self-published novels, which have had no success. I admire the way he makes light of this. He writes for the sake of writing – because he enjoys it. Chris and I are kindred spirits because we agree on many things, such as the folly of Brexit and the abominable antics of Trump. Chris is great company and hasn't a bad bone in his body.

I met Freer Magnus (lovely Icelandic name) in Swansea in 1974 when we were training to be teachers. Then we both got jobs in the West Midlands and used to see each other all the time. Freer was a history teacher and is now retired in Welwyn Garden City. He loves his music – classical and jazz – and is a staunch Labour Party supporter. He is also fond of a beer or three. I photographed him in a London pub. Funny how, in my photos, so many friends are holding a pint of beer!

Derek Evans came to Cairo in 1986, and we taught English together for several years. He is a fine writer, a great reader and an even greater bird-watcher. He retired early from full-time work to teach privately in Phuket, Thailand, until a heart condition forced him to return to the UK, where he now lives with his mother. Derek is a very modest man with a strong personality. The last time I saw him in the flesh was when he visited my house in Reading in 2017, just before I sold it. My photo of Derek shows him in a spice shop in Aswan circa 1987.

Graham Burgess and I travelled to our new school in Cairo on the same Egypt Air flight in 1985. After Cairo he worked in Malawi and once drove all the way to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to see me. He now lives in Yorkshire, from where he visited me in Reading just before I sold my house. There he is, standing in my old house, in the doorway between the kitchen and the living-room. I enjoy reading his blackly humorous emails.

There you have it: the friends whose portraits adorn the sanctum sanctorum of my bedroom. I apologize to those friends of mine whose photos are, for various reasons, not on display; they should not feel insulted, because my little gallery is somewhat random in nature - not a definitive statement of who I like best in the world! For the record, my wife, Thuy, is my best friend, and I adore my parents. Outside of them, I count myself lucky to have a small circle of boon companions. As Yeats said, “You that would judge me … / Think where man's glory most begins and ends, / And say my glory was I had such friends.”


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