Wheelchair Days – Chapter Two

Always Unstoppable

Arthur 2005-13

Every day, if you were actually not away on an assignment or a conference, you got up in our main home in Bedford at the dot of six, without any alarm, full of passion for life, even in the holidays. No fun morning chats for us in bed, except in the Christmas break.

Standing in the bathroom on a typical Monday morning you opened the little wall cupboard that late Mummy had given us when I bought the house in 1978, shaved your reddened face at its edge-spotted mirror with your mechanical razor, gave a minimal lick under your armpits with a wet right hand and plastered yourself with roll-on deodorant, the thick sixties sort that Victoria Wood made comedy of. You might also have put a comb through your remaining few head hairs. You considerately stepped over the loose floorboard that banged on the ‘landing’, then went into the spare bedroom, formerly daughter Rosie’s, to dress in your polyester-mix thinly striped blue and white shirt, black trousers and thin, out of fashion blue and red diagonally striped tie.

You were beginning to colonise that room, as well as the attic conversion, with boxes of papers, and second hand books. This grated on the rest of us (son Peter, Rosie, son Sam and me). We needed a decent guest room for the children to bring their friends to stay in. It was OK to have things in a room where guests sleep, but they must feel comfortable, not surrounded, and the room must be cleanable.

You trod quietly down our wide bannistered staircase, which we’d re-carpeted for the third time – cheaply because son Sam had been at boarding school due to his dyslexia and this had to be paid for.  You boiled the Tesco kettle in the kitchen, found a church or library conference mug, made your Tetley’s tea, added a spoonful of sugar; ate your cornflakes with their 6% sugar, and followed this with four slices of wholemeal bread, butter and jam. In some seasons there was ‘Colledge Strawberry Conserves’ made with pounds of pectin and a mere smidgeon of sugar. You listened to the Today programme on Radio 4. You had no worries about work to make you rush through breakfast or study documents while eating.

On working days by six thirty out you exited, wearing your sports jacket, money in the inner pocket, a, maybe grubby, hanky in the outer one and your stuffed black briefcase. The beautiful bent door, with that high circle of stained glass which you were so attached to and which we’d tried to have mended, banged, often waking me up. I wanted a new door and your response was ‘Only if you keep the old one in the garage.’ You were off to the train station and London. As an institute library digitisation manager you liked to get to work before your deputy.

You would be using the journey time to edit one of your articles, perhaps one on the radio frequency tagging project that you cleverly obtained funding for, to stop books being stolen by students. You’d pick up an 81 bus from the little suburban station up the hill to work. Your thoughtful administrative assistant made you coffee with sugar half way through the morning.

You worked long hours: 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. getting home to Bedford at 7.30 p.m. But we also had a flat in London. You occasionally went to there to Tufnell Park on the 143 bus. But as we had a lodger in one of the two rooms for a year, then Rosie for another; then Sam, our youngest for three more, you, considerate as ever, didn’t really like to go. If you did, we’d run into each other: I stayed there three nights a week for my work as a lecturer at a nearby university. Sometimes you and I met only like ships in the night.

Or you might have been abroad on one of your assignments – in your admired Alexandria in Egypt where they were creating a modern shiny round library to rival the ancient classical one. You had a special interest in it because of your Degree in Classics; or in 2005 you were in Syria which had not yet descended into civil war – you visited dark little Ananias’ house where St Paul became a Christian; or you could have been in one of the ex-Soviet States in one of the concrete universities: in Uzbekistan, or Georgia where you, and the librarians you networked with from British and EU libraries, were training staff.  Being on the move, imparting knowledge and acquiring information about peoples and countries were your main pleasures in life.

You would step off the airplane and be met with great passion and respect, ‘Welcome, Professor Arthur’ or ‘Welcome, Sir.’ Your title had been upgraded! Then you’d work on your lecture in the evening with your little laptop, and go for a walk round the monumental area of each capital city. Or a librarian would come and take you to dinner where you’d stuff yourself. This was even though you had always been new-food-shy, avoiding pork, fish, venison ‘because of Bambi’, and especially eggs! Whenever I’d cooked eggs for the children, you had done a runner from the beech-coloured kitchen, making retching noises. You came back from beautiful Tashkent with its double blue-domed mosque, proud that you’d eaten horse-meat.

Cheapness was your hallmark. Sometimes you went to conferences and gave a paper. Then you’d stay in the recommended accommodation for the first night and find something better value after that.

On every trip you booked your return flight to make time for a day’s outing at the weekend: never mind about the ‘housekeeper’ mother at home. Usually you were away in October, February, or May when I was – finally, after over twenty years of child care and fifteen years of only part-time work– happily submerged in my university teaching and article-writing. I angled for you to go at a time of year when I could go too.

Finally in 2009 you managed it. We flew to Yerevan, the capital of land-locked Armenia. You had so enthused about their alphabet and language. And then there were even pieces of weathered wood, which could have been a boat, found on Mount Ararat. Here was yet another language and culture for you to delve into  – you who, as a teenager, had learned Welsh while your brothers played football. And you waxed lyrical about Armenia having been the first Christian country outside the Middle East.

When your host, P. collected us at the airport, he was celebrating the Turkish and Armenian governments’ agreement to open the road that winds round Mount Ararat into Turkey, after nearly a century of closure. This was going to be good for trade and lift Armenia out of poverty. It hasn’t happened. The government would have fallen, as the populace will not forgive the World War 1 genocide where the Turks drove the resident Armenians into the desert, forcing most of them to die of starvation.

You did two days’ work in the uni, tutoring the students who were taking the Masters in Librarianship and Digital Learning which you led, while I bought sun-dried apricots and mulberries piled high on the colourful stalls in the covered market, and then explored the streets with their thick-trunked vines ascending to the first and second storeys of the houses, shading the windows.

Then it was time for a journey: it wasn’t quite ‘plying’  (doing a circle by bus), as we were going and coming the same way, but it was better. We were off to Nogorno Karabakh, a tiny disputed breakaway territory that had been allocated by the Soviet Empire to Islamic Azerbaijan although its inhabitants were mainly Armenian Christians. In the rather dubious Hyur Travel bus were expatriate Armenians from France, Canada, and Cyprus and a priest from the Holy Nativity Church at Bethlehem. They and I sang in the bus. They and I danced in a restaurant at lunch. You, as usual, were stationary.

The mountains were steep, the road had no made up edges. The nearer we were to the frontier, the more potholes there were. It was only then that you let slip  to me how you and your Greek colleague Mrs K had been chauffeur-driven from Armenia to Georgia for the second leg of one of your tours. I shuddered.

It was at dusk just before the frontier where we had to get out in the rain for passport checks, that we spotted the light-coloured spotted Eurasian lynx standing tall on a rocky outcrop. That was my highlight of the trip.

Next day driving through pouring rain we were shown the steep-sided gorge with Christian graves that the Azerbaijanis had aimed at with their guns. Then we were bussed to the domed church where the remains of St Gregory who brought Christianity to Armenia in AD 301 are buried in the crypt. The utmost reverence and silence was requested by the old priest when we stepped down into the holy crypt.

We understood why this little Christian ‘country’ refused to be part of Islamic Azerbaijan. We were told that in the recent war their administration had set up a sperm bank for fighting soldiers in case they were lost to the enemy.

We came to a huge statue of St Stephen, high on a hill. Suddenly you had slipped on the wet grass and fallen on the floor.

You added this tiny ‘country’ to your list of those visited. There were seventy of them visited, and fifty worked in.  I didn’t look over your shoulder, but I think you were competing with other like-minded ‘counting types’ on-line.

On the way back, well into Armenia, we stopped at a sedate Russian empire spa town built in neo-classical colonnaded style, but with no usable public toilets… When the bus broke down, we ate sukhuj, walnut dipped in flour and grape juice, while a temporary repair was done to get us down the final hill to Yerevan.  All grist to the adventure mill! We arrived at the terminus in Yerevan at 11.30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., but your host, P, had stayed up and out late to meet us.

Next day we were driven to meetings about future funding possibilities and plied with fruit tarts, which I didn’t dare refuse and which made my gluten-intolerant body ill. Your work was improving the world: giving young librarians access to higher academic study, and furthering the reach of the European Union in Eurasia and Southern Europe. We also fulfilled ourselves as travellers. What you had wanted in your marriage above all was ‘a travelling companion’.

The customs officers at Heathrow rarely search bags for non-EU agricultural produce, or we’d have been in trouble for the mulberries.  I stored them in an empty orange and blue tin of your favourite Gondoliers wafers in a cupboard in tiny white kitchen of the London flat, but a silk moth caterpillar hatched from each mulberry and there was delicate silk in the tin. Sam and I thought we’d caught them all, but we hadn’t. White silk moths kept exiting the woodwork for another two years.

….

In January each year you would receive librarians to London from the Commonwealth, India, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, under the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. Then you’d be meeting them at the weekend at Heathrow airport, taking them on the Piccadilly line to various bed and breakfast landladies you knew through your networking. I put in that you could delegate that job. You were rarely either in your office or at home in the later years.

Take Sanjay: We met Sanjay together one Sunday at Heathrow airport.  You took him to a traditional Indian landlady of the diaspora in Acton. Being a young modern generation Indian he didn’t like it there at all. He didn’t worship Indian gods, and he didn’t want a curfew.

Sanjay was promoted after his three months scholarship and later invited you to give keynote speeches in Delhi at conferences he organised.

 

Dear Arthur

 

Hope this email finds you well.

 

It is my pleasure to update you that next ETTLIS 2013 will take place at JIIT on Jan. 6-8, 2013. On this occassion, we wish to bring a Festscript Volume as discussed with you during my fellowship at the Illustrious Institute, London.

 

Now, I look forward your complete CV and some pictures from college days to present and i will be happy if you can write your biography starting from your childhood, education days, your professional life and personal life. I am going to invite papers from all past commonwealth fellows and professional friends.

Yours

Sanjay

 

 

….

During the period 2005 – 2013 you gave ten keynote speeches, wrote seventy articles in total, a huge output and you chaired two international committees.

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