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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Bliss. I woke up at 0615h feeling… cold. It was a wonderful feeling. It’s 59.9 degrees outside, and I have put a sweater on. I think that’s the coolest morning in four or five weeks. Back in Yorkshire we might be moved to say ‘It’s a bit back-endish’, the ‘back end’ of the year being our phrase for ‘autumn’.

Yesterday I baked. I’m not referring to the weather, which was pleasantly warm, rather to affairs in the kitchen. Last weekend, after I’d cancelled my visit to Alliance,  Kitty told me she was going to Chadron and asked whether I wanted her to pick up any groceries. Sure, I said, and told her two or three items I needed, including bananas, which I like to eat with my breakfast cereal.  ‘How many?’ she asked. ‘A few,’ I said. ‘Maybe six.’

Next day when I went up to the house she came out with three huge plastic bags containing my various bits and pieces, and six bunches of bananas. ‘Well yeah,’ she said, ‘I did think it seemed a lot – but then I figured it was good that you were eating so much fruit.’

No problem. I sent home for a recipe, assembled the ingredients, multiplied everything by three, and yesterday produced enough banana bread to satisfy my sweet tooth for the next couple of weeks.

Talking of teeth… I lost half an upper left molar yesterday. This was before I even looked at the banana bread. It seems as though another visit to my good friend Gordon Dental is on the cards.

I’ve now been through – mostly skimmed – just about all the travel journals I brought with me. Here they are, spread out on the floor.

I’ve been finding a number of interesting threads, and I did mention one the other day, namely my familial connection with Frederick W Cody, plainsman, scout, Indian fighter and showman, better known as Buffalo Bill.

When I was very small we had a number of interesting artefacts around the house, many of them relics of our various ancestors’ travels. We came from interesting stock, including more than one ship’s captain. There was a stone pagoda – presumably from the Far East -  made of several segments that had to be balanced, one on top of the next. It stood by the hearth and was always toppling over. There were bits and pieces of what looked like Indian brass, including an ornate rose-bowl. There was a set of ivory elephants, all different sizes, right down to one as small as a finger-nail. There was a Bible written in Chinese. There was my father’s solitary memento of the war, other than his campaign medals, that is: the base of a four-inch shell-case which he used as an ash-tray. He liked to tell me the story of how, when he was in North Africa, his unit came under attack from a German aircraft. He dived for cover under a tree and fell flat to the ground. Turning to look up, he saw a plane screaming towards him and deliver a bomb. It hit the branch of his tree and was diverted a few yards away. He loved to recall that after it had exploded he was able to reach out and touch the edge of the crater. ‘And if that branch hadn’t been there,’ he would say, ‘you wouldn’t be here now.’ The centre-piece of the ash-tray was a jag of metal from the exploded bomb.

I’m getting off the subject. Among all these bits and pieces were two photographs he would get out from time to time, each one autographed by the subject. One was Annie Oakley, the other Buffalo Bill. They had come into the family’s possession, as I understand it, from our sea-faring great-great uncle, Captain John Wiltshire. He served on the State of Nebraska, the ship which brought Cody’s first Wild West show to the U.K. for a tour that started in April 1887 and lasted right through until the following spring. For some years I assumed that he had been captain, and told people so. I especially remember telling people that that was the case when I set out on my trans-Nebraska bike ride. And I think it’s safe to admit, after seventeen years, that that’s what I told the dealer who loaned me my bicycle.

I was bitterly disappointed – not to say embarrassed - when I later read through the reports in the London Times and elsewhere, and discovered that the master of the ship was one Captain Braes. Then it occurred to me that Cody took several shows to Britain and Europe over the next fifteen to twenty years. Perhaps Capt. Wiltshire had sailed with one of those.

Not so, I am pleased to report. Just yesterday I had an email from my sister, who long ago made it her responsibility to research and conserve our family history – and it’s a fascinating one. She said that she has a book about Annie Oakley in which there is a photograph of the whole Wild West Show ensemble that sailed on the State of Nebraska, and that Capt. John is mentioned. He apparently received a copy, as did all the ship’s crew, as well as a set of individual photographs. But sadly, like all those other artefacts I’ve just mentioned, the ones in my father’s possession disappeared from his  flat before he died. Nobody knows the circumstances. My sister adds that  there is a similar set of photos in Osbourne House, on the Isle of Wight, a gift to the late Queen Victoria. I may have a word with my brother, who is about to attend a garden party hosted by Her Majesty (Elizabeth, not Victoria). ‘Excuse me, ma’am, but could my brother drop in and have a butcher’s at your photo album?’  [A ‘butcher’s’ is a ‘butcher’s hook’, Cockney rhyming slang for ‘look’.]

I have long been intrigued by all this, and the quirk of fate that sparked my interest in Nebraska. The 1887 tour, of course, is the one from which Black Elk went missing in the spring of 1888. Somewhere between Manchester, the penultimate engagement, and Hull, where the party performed before embarking for the States, he simply disappeared, showing up the following year in Paris. There is scant reference to it in Black Elk Speaks, and no real explanation. I have often thought that it would make a nice speculative piece of fiction, to trace his imagined adventures.

Well, I reckon it could soon be coffee time. Coffee and banana bread. Cheers, Kitty!

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