If - Joni Mitchell


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBuqy9oLISA

Another of my father's ski-ing companions from that first trip to Zermatt was the Englishman Leander Philip Jameson - or possibly Philip Leander Jameson - all I know is that everyone apart from his wife Doris called him Pip, but he answered the phone with and expansive "Leander here". He was older than my father by about fifteen years, but they hit it off and kept in touch. In 1965, Dad received a letter from one of their ski-in buddies saying Pip was about to have serious heart surgery and my father, because he thought it was the right thing to do, sent off a telegram wishing him all the best with the operation. Pip was low in spirits and convinced his number was up so when, by chance, the telegram arrived on the morning of the op it was credited with giving him the boost that gave him the strength to get through what was ultimately a successful procedure. Pip certainly thought so. So much so so that a couple of years later, when my parents were looking to for a home in the UK for their retirement and Pip heard about it, he deliberately put off latter day crooner Max Bygraves, who was trying to buy it for his favourite niece's wedding present. Bygraves wanted her to have the house as it was within walking distance of the prestigious Walton Heath Golf Course, so that he could visit her whenever he fancied a few days on the greens, but he forbad Pip from telling her this. When Pip decided he wanted us to have it, he rang her up and accidently-on-purpose let slip the proximity of the golf course, she figured out the rest and, thinking that while favourite uncles were all very well, she didn't want them moving in for half of the year, put an end to the deal. My parents got it for just over half the price he was offering and that is how we wound up living in a house we couldn't afford, half way between Reigate and Dorking, high on the North Wield with a townless view that stretched all the way to the South Downs. On a clear day you could see Chanctonbury Ring and the Shoreham Gap. Mount Hill is an old country house, split by a developer into four parts and we were at number 3. After we moved in the artist, Robert Micklewright, who lived at number 1, told us many anecdotes about Pip, and the best were about ski-ing. When he was working in the city, which he did until well into his sixties, if it had snowed he would ski cross country the three miles to Reigate Station whereupon he would hand his skis to the Station Manager and change into his suit, neatly rolled up in his back pack, in the train toilet. At the end of his day in the City, he'd pick up his skis and take a cab back to Mount Hill, all ready to go again on the morrow. Doris had arthritis and a bad hip and could only walk with the aid of two sticks, and, as the years went by, resented Pip's outdoor pursuits more and more. But whenever the papers reported the snow was good in his beloved Zermatt, he would fly out to Switzerland for a fortnight on the slopes. On one occasion, Doris called him at his hotel and complained that the garage doors were open, whereupon he caught the next train from Zermatt down the valley to Brig, there changing trains for Geneva where he cabbed it to the airport, flew into Gatwick, commandeered a taxi from there to Mount Hill, had the cabbie wait while he closed the garage door, before making the return trip to Zermatt without even entering the house. We he got older, his doctor, an old friend who lived nearby, forbad his skiing, but that didn't stop him. His neighbours would recall that when he put on his skis, Doris would ring up this fearsome medic who would obligingly drive up to scold him and they'd watch Pip, through their windows, ski's and all, hiding behind a tree while the Doctor yelled abuse as he trudged through the snow looking for his patient.

When he left the house, he gave me his skis, sadly opining that he wouldn't need them any more. For months after he'd gone we'd find half drunk bottles of Scotch secreted away in obscure corners of the garden that he knew Doris couldn't reach, and blank, signed cheques sellotaped to the walls inside cupboards and wardrobes for Doris to find in case he collapsed and died suddenly.

My father told me that Pip's father was a famous guy from history but had a bad name thanks to a dark moment in South Africa's history known as the Jameson Raid. I thought this must have been some atrocity wreaked upon black South Africans - I was living in the era of anti-apartheid protests after all - but later found out more about this extraordinary man. Leander Starr Jameson was one of those legendary British adventurers that got up to no good in Africa in the 19th century. Born in Stranraer, Scotland, he was named after an American, Leander Starr, who saved his father from drowning after he had fallen into a canal on the day of his birth. A doctor, in the 1880's he treated and subsequently became advisor and close friend to Logenbula, King of the Zulu Matabele tribe. In 1895 his knowledge of the area induced factions in the British government and Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the British Cape, to persuade him to lead a small army into the Boer republic of Transvaal, intending to spark the overthrow of the government and result in British rule, gold mines and all. It failed spectacularly and an embarrassed British government had him tried and jailed for fifteen months in Holloway for his part in the failed coup. At the trial he refused to divulge the details or names of the important people who had put him up to it and was considered by many to be an honourable scapegoat. It is astonishing how many people admired him for this, and he was thought to be the embodiment of the values of a British gentleman. Rudyard Kipling said he was the model for the poem "If-", published in 1910, and addressed to his own son, John.

In 1914, John, perhaps following this exemplar, tried to enlist but was turned down from both the navy and army on account of his shortsightedness, but Kipling was able to use his influence with army high-ups to get his son a commission after all. 14 months later, he was killed at the Battle of Loos at the age of 18.

Perhaps only Joni Mitchell could have recorded a version of "If-" that successfully embraces the noble, civilised sentiments of the poem while freeing it from those complicated and often harmful relationships between fathers and their sons, replacing the words

"Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it

And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!"

with the soothing

"Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it

but more than that, I know that you will be alright - you'll be alright".