Saturday, August 12, 2017

50 Years or so with HCPT - The Pilgrimage Trust

After careful discussion with some other long term  helpers  we in HCPT Group 729 decided that now would be a good time to retire from the Trust after so many fulfilling, interesting and not infrequently exciting, years of traveling as pilgrims to Lourdes with HCPT.

Immense gratitude first and foremost to the many children we have been privileged to have in our care over so many years; also to the many helpers  friends and other pilgrims  met over that time and to those who have had the task of coordinating such a great  group of travelers.

Very many happy, sad, exciting and even frightening events occurred over the years of pilgrimaging but this blog post will only mention a few.

In the early years HCPT was organised by a parish priest from his presbytery in Sutton Surrey. Then the organisation was that of a small London based charity with no groups from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe or the USA or other international groups as there are today. 

Boys from Beaumont College (which closed down 50 years ago) were encouraged to help with disabled children at Lourdes. So successful was that encouragement that some 6 or so HCPT groups were and still are led by Beaumont boys or their children and friends and there is even an HCPT London Beaumont region.

In the early days travel was  to Tarbres Airport by somewhat shaky turbo prop aircraft.

I recall one early flight when some children from Newcastle had to be escorted by Group 35 after Lourdes on a flight back from Gatwick - the huge aircraft was almost empty with just half a dozen children and helpers - no other passengers  on the round trip. Since then of course  several HCPT Groups based in Newcastle have been formed. 

On another occasion  when one of the plane's propellers span to a stop in mid flight, many in HCPT and the Group began to think of alternative means of travel and the result was the chartering of three HCPT couchette trains each with an ambulance car, traveling overnight from Boulogne to Lourdes. This form of travel  many of the children found exciting although from the helper's perspective was usually tiring. 

As one might expect a number of memorable travel incidents occurred on the trains. One involved a French national SNCF railway strike which started one year  just as we arrived a Bolougne sur Mer. A couple of thousand young children and their helpers were stranded on platforms after the cross-channel ferry had docked. What was to be done? 

As it happened one helper Yvonne who was half French and half British and had fought with French resistance colleagues during WWII.  One of her WWII resistance colleagues was now  a senior SNCF union official based in the town. He was on the platform  for the strike and was confronted by Yvonne. An argument ensued on the dockside but the outcome was that he agreed personally to drive the train from Bolougne to Lourdes overnight, which was a great relief to all. The only train to run  that day and night, in the whole of France. 

Another year I recall at about 2am as the train stopped at a small village station,seeing gendarmes  in mid fight with some louts drunk in the station bar; the gendarmes then fired tear gas at a few men misbehaving there - absurd over reaction in my view. The tear gas missed the louts but hit our couchette carriage promptly causing three asthmatics to wake and  vomit. I lept out of the train to confront the gendarmes but the train driver too came out and kept the peace by saying "moi asthmatic aussi!". 

In another year, a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk held a party in the ambulance car for helpers not needed at that time for child care.

Initially as 15 year old Beaumont College boys, Brian and myself joined HCPT Group 24 as helpers but then after a few years we started our own group Group 35 which Brian led for a couple of years until he became a Trustee of HCPT. Sadly Brian died in 2007 see:
Brian Burgess R.I.P. 

Happily  during the April  2007 pilgrimage, while walking back alone at about 12:30am from the Lourdes  Grotto to  the hotel  Alba, I met with  Brian quite by chance. He walked back to the hotel with me although it was in the opposite direction from his own hotel. We talked about life and our years together with the HCPT, going back to school days in the 1960s. Alas he died hardly three weeks later.

There were of course also many memorable happenings with Group 35 children. One involved 4 teen aged girls who were initially very difficult to manage,  partly I believed because they were trying to imitate the Spice Girls pop-group . Some devout pilgrims on the Lourdes Torchlight procession complained loudly that I was not doing enough to make them behave themselves! 

Matters improved fairly quickly though. Indeed during the Group 35 reunion at Wimbledon College  after the pilgrimage that year, the girls detailed  more about their family lives which sounded very difficult  and probably explained some of the earlier difficulties we had experienced. It was great that they then asked if they could join the Group as helpers in the years ahead.

Another case is   amusing. There was in the group a great boy who had Downs Syndrome and who loved swimming. One morning he wished to go for a swim supervised by our then young Jesuit helper Mr Bishop. He banged on an hotel door near his own room which he believed was  occupied by Mr Bishop but was then quite unfazed when the door was opened by a Diocesan Bishop but immediately said "oops  wrong bishop!". 

The  child in question has long since become a man and on occasion goes out to a local pub for a drink with one or two people who came with him as helpers when they and he were children, including maytrees max.

In the early days we stayed at the Ste Suzanne Hotel the water tanks of which at the top of the 7 storey building, frequently flooded the hotel. When this occurred water poured forth flooding the ground floor and bar, so much so that on one occasion I recall two small children from another group staying there, coming out of the ground floor lift with water all over the place and informing  Paul,  Group 35's deputy leader and myself, when we were visiting from our new Hotel (The Alba) that umbrellas were needed inside as well as outside, the Ste Suzanne.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected events involving the HCPT and   Lourdes was in preparation for the 1991 pilgrimage. One of the great Group 35 helpers was Bernadette from Baghdad. She told me at that time that her young nephew and niece had been visiting her from Baghdad when Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait. Their father who had been due to join Bernadette, was stranded in the Middle East leaving her in charge of his two very young children who could not speak a word of English. 

To make matters far worse, the two children were declared enemy aliens in both England and France. Bernie said that that meant she could not travel with Group 35 to Lourdes that year. As we had a number of children who needed helpers like her, I asked her to bring her nephew and niece as well and that we would sort out their travel arrangements. In fact they came and by  dropping a pile of passports as they were being checked by immigration officials on the coach we managed to sneak them into and back from France without further difficulty. The niece who married at the Sacred Heart Wimbledon a couple of years back, after leaving uni. worked for the UN and today  speaks impeccable English

Of course there are countless   other happy and sad moments which took place over the years but which must remain private.  

Many many people young and old, have brought so much happiness and love to each other and it is a privilege to have been part of HCPT for so long.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Venezuela - President Maduro's Alleged Constituent Assembly

The apparent political views of President Trump of the USA tend to be rather different from my own but one view he holds with which many appear to agree, is that the new 'constituent assembly' created by Venezuelan President Maduro, is "the illegitimate product of a flawed process designed by the Madura dictatorship". 

Having said that it is perhaps noteworthy that  a supporter or at least a former supporter of Venezuelan regimes, namely the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn, has not so far joined in the widespread international opposition to President Maduro's actions in Venezuela.

According to The Times newspaper,  His Holiness Pope Francis made a last minute appeal for the constituent assembly to be suspended with the Vatican issuing a statement urging President Maduro

 "to suspend initiatives such as the new constituent assembly, whiich rather than fostering reconciliation and peace, encourages a climate of tension and confrontation and mortgages the  future."

The pleas of Venezuelan expatriates living in the UK, to Jeremy Corbyn to speak out against Maduro's regime appear so far at least, to be falling onto deaf ears. There are  dire food shortages in that country and another Venezuelan exile, a lawyer, urging the Leader of HM Parliamentary Opposition, to join the protests, is recorded (The Times) as saying:

"Silence is very dangerous. Silence is complicity. This is not communism. It's dictatorship, tyranny. Who wants their party to be the friend of a dictator? People who kill protesters are not your friend."

Leaders from over 40 countries have condemned Maduro; sadly the leader of Her Majesy's opposition in the UK is not yet among them.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Member of Parliament

Having recently been swindled  of a modest sum by some men in tree cutting and gardening mode, my wife and myself decided to refer them to the police fraud squad. 

This being C21 the way to do this turned out not to be a visit to the local police station but on-line to police action fraud. 

I gather that fraud occurs frequently on-line these days. There are apparently a large number of people about in the UK and abroad, who use their undoubted intelligence not to further mankind or even themselves legally but to attempt by dishonest means, to persuade others to part with some of their personal assets.  

In our case the fraudsters took their money  promising to do the job when the equipment became available after the bank holiday. Sadly we did not see them again so reported the matter on-line to police action fraud. Endeavouring to speak with someone to update our  online report, was extremely difficult though could with patience be done.

Although legal proceedings through the civil courts remains a firm option I was concerned that not only had we been swindled but also by the fact that the fraudsters had pamphleted a large swathe of Wimbledon with their leaflet advertising their tree cutting etc "services", meaning presumably that other people could or would be swindled as well. 

The rogues in taking our hard earned cash also took back their brochure making them much more difficult to trace. 

I then visited every house in the street in which we live, to enquire as to whether they had retained their copy of the rogues' pamphlet which would I felt assist the police. A positive outcome of this was to meet all our immediate neighbours which in crowded London is not necessarily straight forward. Unfortunately, although everyone reported receiving the brochure, none had retained a copy.

The next port of call was the local  on-line neighbourhood community, called "next door worple". An email to other users of that community, produced a copy of the brochure delivered to another home in the area. My wife and myself were able gratefully to collect this that same evening, from a German couple who were very sympathetic.

While  word from action fraud was awaited, we decided to refer to our local Member of Parliament who is Stephen Hammond MP  - one of the few Tory MPs left in London following the recent UK general election. 

Not having referred a personal matter to an MP before, I wondered how he would react and how quickly. In the event his reaction was very positive and  speedy within 24 hours.   After 5 or 6 weeks from first reporting the incident on-line, we infuriatingly, simply received an email from  action fraud, saying that no action could be taken. Following the disappointing reaction of action fraud, Stephen Hammond MP, referred the matter to a local police inspector. 

We were then visited again within 24 hours by two very helpful local police officers who took down full details. They said that the police would try to assist but of course could not promise that the outcome would be positive. The local police reference and other details, were a day or so later, received by email and we were told that the investigation might take a month.

Whatever the result of the police action, I must say that the local MP's willingness to intervene upon request, is very encouraging and in my view, says much that is positive about the UK's parliamentary system.

On the other hand, I gather that the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (Labour) is proposing to close 50% of London's police stations. Given that the sale of police premises in central London over recent years, must have raised £billions, I cannot see that such closures are justified, quite apart from the law and order issue but that is for another time.

Hopefully the eventual outcome of the above  will be confirmation that crime does not pay but one can but wait and see.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

BBC News July 2017

In previous years the BBC Radio 4  News  at 10 pm was headlined by recently occurring important issues of the world, followed by other  news-worthy reports and then by interesting though often difficult analysis and comment. Radio news has tended to be more serious than news on TV.

Sadly this style of  BBC Radio 4 news reporting, is being relegated in favour of items that are hardly reasonably described as newsworthy, and more and more of what is really little more than gossip is featuring as "news".

The BBC Radio 4 headline yesterday concerned the resignation of some American adviser to President Trump and this was followed through today with more on the same virtually irrelevant to UK listeners, topic. 

Why the BBC feels that   American domestic political staff are  so newsworthy is a complete mystery - at least to yours truly. 

The Russians are deploying more and more warships in and through the Black Sea including those that shadow a British warship in the region; Poland is passing laws which diminish the independence of their judiciary and which are causing the EU to become restless; the refugee crisis especially those fleeing or in some cases traveling over the Mediterranean Sea,  from North Africa, is impinging very heavily upon Italy yet other neighbouring continental nations are really failing fully  to assist their Italian friends; in Rome, significant differences are emerging between Pope Paul and some of his colleagues, over issues such as permitting divorced Catholics to receive Holy Communion and the Chinese government's control of family sizes in that vast country, is apparently being relaxed to some degree.

Some of the important issues exemplified above, may appeal only to a minority of listeners and the BBC may fairly argue that such listeners are catered for on their more specialist programmes such as its religious affairs programme broadcast very early on Sunday mornings but all of them surely, are more significant (and as it happens) interesting than the resignation of a PR type person  working in the USA even if for that country's President?

Much of the criticism of the BBC especially from political parties, relates to perceptions that its news and comment programmes are not as politically neutral as they are expected to be although this criticism has just been added to by another namely the disclosure of some only, of the huge sums paid to higher profile men and women who work for the BBC. The latter issue has now caused a sub-text about the apparent over payment of the BBC men concerned compared with their women colleagues, which issue was resolved some time ago elsewhere eg Wimbledon Tennis.

Surely for the BBC to retain its state supported position in the UK, its news programmes should  seek to prioritise the important over the trivial and maybe even to educate rather than pander, to the population at large?

Saturday, July 15, 2017


The UK referendum result  that most of the population of this country wish to leave the EU, so far seems to have caused EU countries to become antagonistic. 

Instead of considering the genuine concerns felt many many in the UK and making offers to ameliorate some of those, other European countries immediately commenced  competing with one another, to take over the EU institutions currently based in the UK such as the central medical centre, financial and banking operations. At the same time the EU civil servants overseeing the negotiations, started banding about absurd numbers of Euros that the UK will have to pay to leave. 

My own view  is that the EU civil servants' tactics to date though quite wrong and amounting to the extent of  "bullying", are proving successful in worrying ordinary citizens here. That view was amply illustrated by the UK general election result giving no party an overall majority.  

Nonetheless Brexit is bound to be to the detriment of the remaining 27 EU member states so the EU's  failure both before and so far after, the referendum here, to offer some concessions even if only of the olive branch variety to the UK, is surprising. 

Squabbling over which EU country is to receive what spoils from the UK, tends to add weight to the opinion that UK EU membership is hardly beneficial to the country which pays an huge amount each year by way of membership fees -  at c.  £13bn pa - is the second largest.

Add to the huge payments made by the UK, the likelihood that the Brexit vote  not only resulted from   concerns about existing unlimited immigration from other EU countries to the UK but also from the likelihood that the population of these Islands, the geograpical area of which is far smaller than the nations of Germany or France, will in a few years time, exceed that of even Germany, one can understand the UK people's concerns. 

If the 27 are truly concerned to retain the membership of the 28th, the 27 would and in my view should, offer to permit the UK to control or at least restrict immigration to these islands.

 A substantial new offer, perhaps to the effect that EU citizens seeking to live in the UK should if they are below retirement age, generally have employment to attend to here, could be sufficient to cause a further referendum in this country, the result of which would then in my humble opinion be likely to be to Remain.

The disadvantage of a second referendum if one takes place, is that the likely Remain outcome would essentially mean that leaving the EU proves to be not just difficult but impossible, after joining that organisation.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Prize Giving Speech

Being asked to give  a speech to boys age about 6 and their parents, on the last day of their Jesuit school term, when the boys' headmaster is also retiring after 20 years, is slightly difficult for someone about twelve times older than the boys. Thus this blog practice run seems apt:

A few days ago on a very hot day the headmaster was speaking to a parent and myself on the Donhead school lawn. The parent was accompanied by her 4 year old daughter in Ursuline Prep school uniform.  You are all about 50% older than that little girl. The girl decided that cooling off was more fun than the conversations of the three grown-ups. She suddenly let go the hand of her mother and darted over to the lawn sprayer the Donhead gardener had turned on for such a sweltering day and splashed in the water right under the lawn sprayer in full uniform. 

Mother,  Mr McGrath and myself all laughed and the little girl was cool though a bit wet.

Possibly by the time you are 6 years old, jumping into spraying water in full school uniform, would still be such a cause for laughter but  as a Jesuit once famously said" Give me the boy at age 5 and I will give you the man at age 12" so 12 is probably the age at which growing up really takes place and when anyway, your mums and dads would not be too pleased at.a soaking in school uniform.

Growing up does  take place very quickly; time flies but one of the greatnesses of
 a Jesuit school is that it teaches you to make the best use of  time for others and yourself. Look at what some old Donhead boys have achieved or are achieving  with their time -

Nicholas Hudson is now a bishop
Christian Barraclough is a brilliant trumpet player many of you will have heard at Mr  McGrath's farewell mass last week.
Tom Holland is Spider Man
Danny Cipriani has played rugby for England
HCPT The Pilgrimage Trust - many boys from Jesuit Schools help disabled children on this week away in Lourdes.
And so it goes on.

My own school Beaumont College, was also Jesuit school before it closed 50 years ago. St John's Beaumont which you all know through sports matches there, was its prep school. 

Donhead has many of the same traditions as Beaumont. Indeed David Fettes who was in my school class, has visited Donhead several times, to show boys here some of  the many photographs of wild life and animals he has seen around the world. 

Sadly though some hundred boys at Beaumont died for their country in WWI and II and even now mass is said for them all at the huge war memorial at the old place  each Remembrance Sunday. Hopefully you will all lead your lives in times of peace though some of you may join the armed forces to help others who are less fortunate.

Perhaps a true story from Beaumont will illustrate to your parents and yourselves one of the greatnesses and difficulties of being a boy at a Jesuit school. 

Many years ago  Queen Victoria  was alone driving a horse and carriage through the streets of Eton. By chance two Beaumont boys were nearby, having broken the school rule forbidding boys to leave Beaumont's grounds. The Queen's horse and carriage then became stuck in the railway line just as a steam train was travelling towards her at speed. The two boys dashed over   and pushed the carriage out of the path of the oncoming train, in a nick of time. 

Upon the boys returning to Beaumont they said nothing, because the punishment at that time for breaking bounds. would have been a beating - twice nine ferulas - (beatings with ferulas or canes thankfully have long since banned!). 

However Queen Victoria came up to the school gates shortly afterwards to say thank you. In C19  the Queen was not allowed by law to enter Catholic properties so the Jesuit headmaster was called to meet her at the foot of the drive to Beaumont College, where she expressed her gratitude for what had occurred. After the Queen left the two boys were called to the headmaster's study where they were given their tough  2 X 9 punishment for breaking bounds.

Many  years later  in C20 when the silly rule  rule about the Queen visiting a Catholic school had gone, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria's great great grand daughter, visited the school again but this time went up the drive to the School's main door to thank Beaumont College and boys for that life saving act so many years previously.

So boys, whatever your life holds, go for it with courage and to the best of your abilities. 

Keep in mind though nothing really worthwhile comes without pain- look at Andy Murray's or Paula Radcliffe's battles, and even though thankfully, punishments like ferulas have long since gone, you should still accept that difficulties  like being laughed at, or examinations,  or illnesses  or hurts, will occur but always work your way through them as best you can.

50 years after leaving my old Jesuit School, all those in our year are to meet there again in November this year  for  dinner in the old higher line refectory and a laugh. Let us hope that you too will in the years ahead, remember Donhead:

"Ad Majorem Dei Glorium   Long Live those Donhead days."

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Unusual Childhood Memories

An email from  my oldest sister in line with this post's title, set many in the family thinking.

Many memories from the '50s and '60s concern matters which are unusual or gone altogether today, though common then. Some are of happy occasions others terrifying or poignant. Personal memories from those times include:

When living in an RAF Nissen hut in Lytham-St-Annes being amazed at a bucket of tadpoles outside the hut being transformed overnight,  to a bucket of small frogs trying to jump out.

Actually the  ever open RAF canteen at the same base was also for some reason memorable.

The RAF was very much part of post WWII early childhood, so another memory this time in Germany, where the family was based for a while, was of the heaps of rubble in Cologne streets near to the still standing old cathedral.

An abundance of red squirrels in and around St Mary's Primary school Carshalton yet none at all are to be seen today in that area.

In 1963 the Thames froze over at Windsor and two boys drove a car onto the ice. They then hooted at a stranded house boat- very foolish and dangerous of course but quite a sight none the less. Alas there is no photo of the car but the Thames at the time looked thus:

The most terrifying memory is that of the Cuban missile crisis where the fear in 1962 was such that in the Beaumont dormitory, boys with a Jesuit scholastic, said the De Profundis prayer before lights out, given that  outcome of the stand off between President Kruschev of the USSR and President Kennedy of the USA meant that overnight there could be a nuclear holocaust. Thankfully of course that never happened and life moved on.

The early days of traveling by train overnight to Lourdes with the HCPT pilgrims, involved a number of unusual memories, one of which is of the train being driven from Boulogne all the way to Lourdes  during a difficult French national railways strike, by the French SNCF union leader, who it turned out had been in WWII resistance with an HCPT group leader. The only train to run in the whole of France during those two days.

Earlier as a child one traveled unaccompanied to school on a local trolleybus:

Or by one of the last steam trains to London Bridge:

In fact the steam trains were probably one of the contributory causes of the great London "pea-souper" fogs that were really caused by the burning of coke and coal in the capital so for that and many other reasons the switch to modern electric trains was a blessing.

The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 is sadly memorable though the cowardly 9/11 massacres and   more recent  killings by political or quasi religious  thugs are as bad.

Many memories are superlative and happy but less straight forward to describe. However the sight of early spring blue bells in a wood, the perfumes wafting over when walking in wild countryside and  the sight of shooting stars in the night sky, are simple to describe and as free and as moving today, as they have always been.

50 Years or so with HCPT - The Pilgrimage Trust

After careful discussion with some other long term  helpers  we in HCPT Group 729 decided that now would be a good time to retire from the T...