Rules and authority were not things that my dad took much notice of. He had a view that nothing should be accepted without question. I’m not talking about the type of authority which keeps our country from becoming a lawless state or that is there to protect people’s safety. More, rules for rules sake or authority that is assumed by those who have had the good fortune of a decent education, title or money.
What makes that person so much more deserving of our respect than the one who serves us our coffee in Starbucks or scans our shopping at the till in Tesco and what is the point of having grass if we can’t walk on it?
Headmasters – why should we take our hands out of our pockets and sit up straight while you are talking to us? Doctors – why is it acceptable that we have to be punctual for our appointment and you don’t? Environmental Studies teachers – this one is a bit of a personal gripe – what’s wrong with doing cartwheels during the field-trip lesson? I can hear what you are saying just as well upside-down. (I got two sets of ‘school rules’ for that misdemeanour, despite there being not one mention of cartwheels being prohibited).
Often when dad and I were out walking together we would frequently pass a “Keep Out, Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign without pausing to read, let alone obey its instructions. I can laugh about it now, but I when venturing into these prohibited territories with dad I was always on the lookout for an angry landowner.
“We shouldn’t be here” I would say.
“Why not?” Dad would reply.
“Because the sign says so” I would say.
“What sign? I saw no sign” he would reply with a grin.
Looking back I don’t know why I was so worried, after all we were just walking, no damage, was done …….. apart from the time he took out his wire cutters (that just happened to be in the bag he always carried with him in case he found anything worth picking up) to cut through a barbed wire fence that the conglomerate, who owned the land at the top of the hill, had erected across a public footpath.
My fear of being caught disobeying signs may well have stemmed from the time when I was 5 and dad took me on a day out to Battersea Fun Fair. This was a permanent fun fair which had been installed as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951[i]. The fun fair closed in the early 70’s after an accident on the Big Dipper that killed five and injured many more when one of the carriages became derailed.
When we arrived, we were disappointed to find the Fun Fair closed. That’s England for you. It might be a glorious day in the middle of summer, but if it’s a Monday you can bet half of the country’s main attractions will be closed! On this day, the fact that it was closed did not seem to deter dad. He had promised to take me on the Tree-Walk and that was what he was going to do, even if we did have to step over the: ‘CLOSED, NO ENTRY, YOU ARE DEFINITELY NOT ALLOWED IN HERE, YES THAT MEANS YOU PLISNER’ sign.
Having climbed over the forbidding sign we were halfway along the Tree-Walk, surveying the silence of the closed park below, when we were caught red-handed and commanded to return to the start (Do not pass Go and do not collect 200 hundred pounds) to be further admonished. My recollection is that we declined that offer and continued to the end of the Tree-walk, where said irate lady was waiting for us with her ‘how-dare-you’ face which, fortunately for us, had been rendered speechless by her anger. And that is one of my strongest five-year-old-me memories.
Another ignored sign that led to a memorable incident was the one in the multi-story car-park that said, ‘Height Restriction, 6ft 6ins’.
Dad was taking his 2nd year form on a day-trip to London and had taken my brother Peter and me along for the ride. The trip didn’t get off to a particularly good start; dad had driven the minibus, now full of noisy pupils, to collect one of the boys who hadn’t turned up at the school. He was backing out of the narrow cul-de-sac, having to rely on the boys at the back of the mini-bus for directions. He had hardly moved inches when the shouts of “you’re going to hit something” started coming in jest. Unfortunately, but the time that particular statement was actually the correct warning, dad had long stopped listening, choosing instead to rely on his wing mirrors who between them had completely missed the parked Volkswagen Beetle and whose nearside wing was removed quite easily by the minibus bumper. There was a short delay while the damage to the minibus was inspected and the owner of the VW informed, but about two hours later we were at Hyde Park Corner about to enter the underground car park. The sign on the barrier said ‘HEIGHT RESTRICTION 6FT 6INS’. “I’m sure it will be fine” said dad, “We are only six foot six and a half. What difference could half an inch make anyway?” Sure enough, we drove into the car park with no problems, parked the minibus and did the tourist thing in London.
Getting out of the car park, however, was a completely different story. We had hardly moved a couple of metres, when a scraping sound was heard from the roof of the minibus. A low concrete beam (most likely at exactly 6ft, 6ins) was hindering our exit. “Everybody come to the front” said dad “That will lower the bus a bit and help us through”. Having got the front of the minibus through, the scraping started again and we were encouraged to move to the back of the bus to get the rest through. Having cleared the concrete beam we were horrified to see several more at 5 metre intervals all the way along our exit route and spend the next 15 minutes or so running from front to back and back to front to get out of the car park. A loud cheer went up when we finally go through the barrier and onto the open road. It was only when we arrived back at the school we discovered the car park barrier, with its 6ft, 6ins label, still attached to the roof-rack of the minibus. Needless to say, dad was never let loose with the school minibus again!
Back to authority; doing as we are told and not making a fuss about it. There are some places where, when we enter, we somehow lose our usual confidence to question or complain. Take hospitals for example. Why are we so ‘kow-tow-ingly’ grateful when we finally get to see that specialist? Having been on a waiting list for months, we finally get an appointment. We arrive on time, even though we know we will be kept waiting. We sit in those depressing waiting rooms and watch as the clock ticks past our allotted time. We don’t mind too much because we have this great National Health Service and we should all be grateful (and of course we are). We sit and observe how well we look/feel compared to all the other poor sick people waiting beside us. On eventually getting to see the specialist/doctor we are dumbstruck in awe of this greater being, listen to the diagnosis and leave the room tripping over our obsequious thank-yous, ready to go on to the next waiting list for any necessary treatment.
Why don’t we ever complain? We wouldn’t put up with this type of service or treatment in any other walk of life. Because we are British and that’s what we British do.
WELL NOT MY DAD (well he wasn’t British for starters). While he was always grateful to somebody for giving him their time, waiting wasn’t one of the things he did very well.
(I’ve been in shops with him when, having waited for assistance for a few minutes with no success, he would gently start knocking things from the display shelves; nothing that would cause any damage, but just enough to make some noise and attract attention).
A few years ago, in his late 80’s he was in hospital after suffering a minor stroke. At some point he was taken in a wheelchair, by a porter, from his hospital bed to the x-ray department where he was promptly left for some hours (he says hours, but it was probably much less). When they finally came to call him for his x-ray he was nowhere to be seen, setting off a major search in the hospital for one 4ft 11ins, hard of hearing 87-year-old man, with an Austrian accent and, because of the stroke, a visible lack of symmetry. It was some time, after a fruitless search, that they discovered him tucked up comfortably in bed; the one place they hadn’t thought to look! Against all protocol he decided he wasn’t going to wait any longer and had wheeled himself through the labyrinth of corridors, back to the ward and into his bed.
On another occasion, having gone in through A & E with acute back pain and been ‘dumped’ in an inappropriate ward where he was told he wouldn’t be able to have a scan on his back for five days, he promptly called me to come and collect him and discharged himself. Even with a painful back, he had better things to do than wait in a hospital bed for five days.
In his book dad tells a story about a time when breaking the rules actually worked in his mother’s favour.
In 1938, after the German occupation of Austria, my grandmother Sidone, attempted to cross the border into France with her parents, her sister and her 14-year-old nephew Felix. They were all caught; their passports were stamped ‘refoulement’ and they were instructed to ‘return to Vienna and never show their faces in France again’.
They got as far as Basle railway station where Felix managed to slip through a hole in the fence into Switzerland and my grandmother, instead of returning to Vienna with the others, made another attempt at the border. Again, she was caught, but this time they couldn’t send her back because now, with the ‘refoulement’ already in her passport, she had broken the law. She was sentenced to one-month imprisonment and fined 100 francs for infringing article 8 of the decree of May 1938. It was also noted that her presence constituted a hazard to public safety (all 4 ft 6 of her).
After completing her sentence, she was instructed to leave French soil and given a ‘refus de séjour’ (refusal to stay) suspended for three days to enable her to make the journey to the border of her choice. She promptly made her way to Paris where the suspension of her ‘refus de séjour’ was renewed on numerous occasions – in fact she didn’t leave France until 1945. Breaking the law had saved her life. Not so fortunate were her parents and sister who returned to Vienna and in 1942, according to records now available online, were deported to concentration camps (Maly Trostinec[ii], sister; Izbica[iii], father; Treblinka[iv], mother) and were not heard of again.
For those of you have an interest in what’s happening with the Fat Nude (referred to in previous blogs). She now appears in all her finery (well no finery really, as she is naked and her knees are still uneven), on page 104 of the catalogue for Christie’s auction of “South Asian Modern Contemporary Art”[v]. She mingles with such art treasures as ‘Vehicle for Seven Seas 1’, Bronze casts of two airport luggage trolleys (guide price £70 – 100,000) and ‘Sans titre#13’ a piece of luggage cast in aluminium (guide price £30 – 50,000). They are part of a collection that are described as ‘overarching metaphors for the hopes and dreams invested in journeys as well as the psychological baggage borne by the immigrant migrant worker’. I do hope prospective buyers at the auction will appreciate the bargain they would be getting with Fat Nude with her guide price of only £3 – 6,000. To mark the grandness of the occasion Fat Nude is now more formally known as ‘Untitled Standing Nude’,and is labelled as ‘Property from the collection of Julie Plisner Haines’. It may be a collection of one, but hey, just for a short time I am going to enjoy the moment. That is unless she goes unsold and I have to carry her home on the tube, to face a couple more decades against the wall. Maybe I should take the bubble wrap with me just in case.