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Friday, 24 June 2016

Deal or No Deal

To my undying shame  I know little about Kent. I know it's the "Garden of England" and the "Darling Buds of May" is set in Kent, and its cathedral town Canterbury has been the inspiration of millions.

I also know  that it was at one time home of the backbone of the British Navy, the British fishing fleet and promenade Variety. Yet a Sussex born boy like me had never been to Kent before I was fifty.

On Tuesday, I made up for that. I went to Canterbury and Deal. I went to the funeral of a work colleague.

My pilgrimage did not start that well. Some bloody railwaymen on Southern Rail were on strike. My train from Victoria was likely not to run or run so late I'd never see off my old mate. Fortunately, a call to a mate in Tonbridge (it's in Kent!)  elicited the fact that a train from St Pancras, run by South Eastern Railways (who weren't affected by the strike) went to Ashford and Canterbury. I faffed around on the Internet trying to get a ticket, except I'd left so late that I could buy one for the train I needed and it appeared the next train would mean I didn't arrive in time for the wake in Deal.

I thought about driving - I had time but didn't fancy getting lost in the fastness of Kent. I decided to go to King's Cross ( I'd misread the train details) and catch a fast train.

As I travelled on the Victoria Line to King's Cross/St Pancras, I checked my e-ticket. I was issued not as I thought by Southern but by South Eastern Railways. I could use my ticket at Victoria, except by now I was running late. I reckoned that by the time I got to Victoria I had 5 minutes to key in my e-ticket details (always stressful), find the platform and the train. It was too much of a risk so I decided to get off at King's Cross/St Pancras and catch a fast train to Canterbury.

I went to King's Cross only to be told the trains went from St Pancras. I finally found where the South Eastern trains left from and joined a queue to buy at ticket. I already had a ticket from Victoria - except I would have missed the train - so didn't feel I could insist on an upgrade so paid the full fare to Canterbury.

I took the first train - to Ashford, there to change to a branch line to Canterbury. Bloody hell it was quick. Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International in 30 mins. I waited 10 minutes and caught a short three carriage train that trundled across the Kent countryside to the cathedral city.

The train was quite busy, I sat nearly opposite a young man with a baseball hat on back to front ,wearing shorts and "bother"  boots. Across the aisle was a young couple, clearly in the throes of a new romance. He rabbiting on about this and that and she listened intently to his words of wisdom gazing into his bloodshot eyes.

My travelling companion decided to stretch out his legs by putting his boots on the seat opposite . The sign "Please do not put your shoes on the seat" seared into my brain. I was tempted to chop his legs off or at least suggest that he consider the effect of his shit encased boots on the seat and on some traveller unfortunate enough to sit there.

I thought I could deal with him if he objected to my suggestion. I then counted how many years differentiated us. I said nothing. This mental tussle passed the time and there I was at Canterbury West.

Canterbury is not big. 50,000 souls? yet it has two stations. Canterbury West and East. Canterbury West is in view of the cathedral and is fairly central. I can't imagine why anyone would alight at Canterbury East. I was at Canterbury West because the widow had said that, because so many people wanted to attend the funeral, she's hired extra taxis from a local firm, and they'd be waiting there.

There was only one other person at the station who looked dressed for a funeral. Initially I didn't approach - he could have been a church dignitary. After a while I summoned up the courage and asked if he was going to the funeral. He was, and almost immediately loads of people heading for the funeral arrived. We headed for the taxi rank and piled into the waiting cabs.

The crematorium was quite a way outside of Canterbury - on the French border.  Out of politeness, on arrival I asked how much we owed our driver, thinking it had been pre-paid by the family of the deceased. It hadn't. Dividing £23.70 between 4 each with nothing smaller than a tenner proved that civil servants are nothing if not creative.

The chapel overflowed. We went to the upstairs gallery and stood cheek by jowl such was the press of bodies.

Apparently, the authorities in charge of these sort of things don't trust the mourners to be able to carry a tune. The chosen hymns were accompanied by an organ and a choir - pre- recorded - piped into speakers suspended right behind my left ear up in the gallery. I was able to let rip without fearing my dissonance would be a distraction.

Lots of nice words were said about my old work mate. His humour - extra dry, his intelligence - sharp, incisive, - his distrust of Ministers and their lack of understanding and how happy he had made his partner. His courage as the cancer wore him down. How he'd be missed by many.

The wake was to held in Deal, a few miles away from where we were. People with cars were married up with people without cars and collectively we set off for the sea side: except those who decided they'd rather get back to London asap.

The Germans are known for their technological skill. They're proud of their Bosch, Siemens, Porsche and  VWs. The car I travelled in to Deal was a 2013 VW Passat, so pretty up to date. It had an on board satnav. Our driver started off by keying in postal code of the crematorium we were at, so we were entertained with the "You have arrived at your destination" chime for a few minutes before the error was corrected.

The postal code of the hotel in Deal we were heading for was eventually entered and we confidently turned left as instructed by the satnav lady....except the backseat driver shouted "You've turned the wrong way!". Sure enough the satnav lady corrected herself and we executed a 180 degree turn.  This happened at least 3 times on our journey. The satnav lady would say turn this way, the backseat driver would say no and the satnav lady lost out. The satnav guide had a nasty habit of hesitating. She would say " At the next roundabout take exit right." This didn't instill confidence in VW's ability to mesh metal with data.

We arrived at the hotel and I spent much time talking to people I knew from way back but couldn't recall their names. Except one guy who I last saw in 1998 - immediately his name came back to me. He looked the same, except he'd filled out a bit and was no longer working in the City. I chatted with my ex boss, a  grade manager of 30 years ago and I said my farewells to the widow.

I had time to walk around Deal. It is a delightful place - in places. Lots of lovely Georgian, early Victorian sea side residences. The air smelt of sea and salt and gulls hung in the air. As a Hove boy it brought back memories of days on the beach, swimming for hours on end and turning almost milk chocolate brown under the summer sun.

Behind the seafront and the promenade was the High Street. It had seen better days and by 5 pm on a Tuesday most of the shops were closed. The pubs were open but even in a seaside town food wasn't served until 6 pm. So I headed for the station. A small Victorian relic incongruously set against a bog standard Sainsbury's supermarket and a huge car park.

The connecting train went to Ramsgate. Some people caught the fast train to St Pancras. I had pre booked on the slow train to Victoria. 2 1/2 hours it took stopping at 23 stations, including Broadstairs, Margate, Westgate on Sea, Herne Bay, Whitestable,Faversham, Gillingham, Rochester , Chatham, Meopham and Bromley South. I learnt more about Kent during that journey than in the previous 60 odd years.

I first worked with J over 30 years ago. In 1998 I joined his team in the Treasury and I had a brilliant time. It was early in Labour's first term and there was much to do. Intense meetings, working late and drinking a lot. If we wanted changes to be made it was important that we worked well with the then Department of Trade and Industry, the Competition Authorities and the various industry regulators. J managed to get on with all the important people in those organisations and that meant it made our job that much more effective.

He had a cancer scare years ago - he smoked hand rolled fags - but he'd got  over that. The cancer had returned two  years ago.

When I saw his widow on Tuesday she looked much younger than I recalled. It affected me. I thought of all their plans, all those moments together in retirement, curtailed. And I wondered how much longer my wife and I have together before the curtain falls and we are separated forever.

In the meantime, I'm counting my Euros and reassessing my portfolio - after all life goes on.

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