This blog outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.
I had begun to study Alan Mitchell’s ‘Trees of Britain and Northern Europe’ while still at Military Vehicle and Engineering Establishment (MVEE), but I found tree identification tricky. I recall signing up to an evening class in tree identification at a school in Farnham. This was led by Alan Mitchell himself. On the first evening I was a few minutes late for the class and as I walked along the corridor I could hear, faintly, the talk from the classroom. I reached the door and listened. Someone was talking about trees, ‘Taxus baccata’ is all I remember hearing. That Latin name was enough to turn me on my heels, heading back out the way I’d come. I never went back; intimidated by the scientific name for a yew tree. Thank goodness my arboricultural career survived this early setback. I still use Mitchell’s book, which I think is the best single ident book for trees.
In autumn 1979 I rolled up at Merrist Wood College and enjoyed my time there studying about trees. Blondie’s Parallel Lines was the stand out album, and I remember buying Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. I don’t recall any books from that first year. I do, though, recall thinking I ought to begin collecting tree books for a personal library. For the sake of convenience I moved back in with mum, dad and sister, Brenda. They had moved to a mobile home just two miles from the college. My room, though, was an elongated wardrobe, not much space for a library there. Still, I wasn’t home much.
Everyone on the course had to do a year working in preparation for the final year back at college. I wanted to have an adventure, so I volunteered to work in West Germany as a tree surgeon. I thought everyone would go for the couple of jobs offered, but I don’t remember there being a lot of competition. So, in the summer of 1980, I headed to Bonn, the capital of West Germany to work for Berliner Baumdienst (Berline Tree Service).
I travelled by train from London to West Germany, and it seemed to take ages. Eventually I stood on the railway platform in the centre of Bonn on a Sunday afternoon. I was some hours late to meet my boss. All I had was a scribbled instruction note of his phone number. But I didn’t have any German coins. Never mind, there was a cafe at the station. I approached the counter, but couldn’t understand the menu or communicate with the man standing there. I managed to get a cup of tea, but it was weak and fruity, not what I expected, and it didn’t need the milk I asked for. It was wet and warm, so things were looking up, I suppose. With the change I’d been given I was able to use a telephone kiosk to phone my boss and ask for instructions. Unfortunately, Bernd was not in. I spoke to his wife whose English was fractionally better than my German. She spelt out to me the address of the bed and breakfast (‘pension’ in German) I was booked into for me to hand to a taxi driver so that I could get there. Did you know that German letters are different to English ones? Obvious, right. So, even though Mrs Draeger was slowly spelling out the address letter-by-letter I had trouble interpreting what she meant. I’d never heard of ypsilon, and I was heading for Pension Ley. I asked several times for clarification, then I ran out of money and the line went dead. There was nothing for it, but to throw myself on the mercy of a taxi driver. I sat in the back, a bedraggled heap of sweat and tension and freaked out as we drove down the wrong side of the road! Soon I was able to crash out in a room where I was expected and the tree surgery team (Brits mostly) were able to find me on the Monday morning.
While in Bonn I read a bunch of espionage thrillers, such as ‘The Eagle has Landed’, ‘The Eye of the Needle’, ‘The Fourth Protocol’, and ‘The Devil’s Alternative‘, which were deliciously atmospheric from an expat perspective during the Cold War. I joined the local library that had an English section, and I remember reading a tale of mediaeval outlaws. I thought the story of two friends (I’ve forgotten their names, the title of the book and the author’s name) driven to a life outside the law very intriguing and I was enchanted by the way one friend’s sister initially resented the other friend but was slowly won over by him and they married. Theirs was not a long, happy life, however. I didn’t like the ending at the time but thought it true to life: The two friends were finally caught and the last scene is of them standing on the scaffold. One of the outlaws fantasises that Matilda has brought all their comrades into town to save them just in the nick of time. But it was just a dream.
Significant music included Dire Straits’ album Communique and some Alan Parsons Project stuff. With friends at the YMCA in Bonn, I enjoyed Tony Phillips’ The Ghost and the Geese. Very atmospheric, in a weird, mediaeval way. Also atmospheric was the bar I used to visit with my tree surgery friends. I remember playing chess and listening to Frank Zappa's music. It was excellent.
I remember where I was when I heard the news that John Lennon had been shot. I was in my room in Bad Godesberg, waking up, and getting ready to go to work. That must have been Tuesday, 9 December. Lennon was killed on the Monday evening in New York. But the Beatles songs weren’t in my head over that autumn. The song I recall clearest is Woman in Love, by Barbra Streisand.
I’m not very good at learning languages. I had tried to learn German before I went there, but that was a complete failure. Once there it was easier to pick up the language because I was immersed in it. I needed help, though. As well as friends teaching me their pet phrases, I checked out a children’s bookshop. I figured I’d improve my vocabulary like a child. The picture book I selected was called ‘Riesen sind nur halb so grosse’ (giants are only half as big).