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All about the people . . .

The only time John Gillies feels at ease in a room full of people is at the pictures. But at 61, on a trip to Britain, he was reminded that pleasant company is the caramel sauce on the pudding of experience.

My best Christmas present last year — with all due respect to those who gave me chocolate — bore the title Happy Snaps.

“Write the names in before you forget,” my sister Elaine (Clark) said.

“Yep,” I said, and put the album in my bedroom where I would see it every day.

In one go, I named the people in the first 12 photos, then put the task aside, secure in the knowledge that I would get around to it some time. Twelve down, 72 pics to go.

Leafing through this photographic record of the four-week stay Elaine and I had in Britain last September-October, I was struck by the dearth of holiday scenes, historic buildings or stunning vistas.

What I have instead is a series of group shots of the people we met on our travels, usually with one or both of us in the middle with our arms around our friends and relatives. Sometimes the background is unusual. More often, it is a living room, with pictures on the wall, cushions on the couch. And perhaps just as often, four or five faces fill the frame, crammed into the restricted view of a selfie.

Elaine and I spent two weeks in York, where my mother and I were born. Elaine had never been to Britain, so she was my travel buddy on the Rotary Friendship Exchange that was the spur to our UK adventure.

We were billeted separately, which added to the interest, because — apart from the activities we did as a group — we had different experiences that we could talk about when we got back together.

Wikipedia tells me York was named European Tourism City of the Year by European Cities Marketing in June 2007; safest place to visit in the 2010 Conde Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards; and, in 2018, overall Best Place to Live in Britain by The Sunday Times in a piece highlighting the city’s “perfect mix of heritage and hi-tech”.

Its Roman, Viking and old English history, York Minster, the city walls, narrow streets, snickelways, museums, confectionery history and railway meant we had an abundance of sightseeing options.

We had excursions to the Yorkshire Dales, Whitby, and stately homes.

In the countryside, we visited Castle Howard (the setting of the Brideshead Revisited 1981 television series and 2008 film) and Beningbrough Hall; on the outskirts of York, the Bishop’s Palace, official residence of the Archbishop of York; and, in the middle of the city, Fairfax House (“the finest Georgian townhouse in England”) and Treasurer’s House (with its story of ghostly Roman soldiers trooping through the cellar).

Impressive as all this was, I find it impossible to think of York without also thinking of the people I spent time with there — our group (Elaine, Bill Wilson, Jan Lawrence, Rod and MaryAnne Calver, Ivan and Kae Petch, and Dennis and Pamela Jackson); the York organiser of our stay, a retired news executive called Stewart Gilbert, who made the exchange happen, and his wife Eileen; and my billets (Cliff and Jayne Gladwin, Leighton and Moira Davies, Colin and Ruth Perrott, and Mike and Linda Harrison).

York and Yorkshire provided the scenery and backdrop; the people provided the warmth . . . for example, my billets.

Cliff was retiring at the end of the week of my stay. He’d changed direction mid-career, from information technology to financial advice. He answered an advert placed by an American company offering rich rewards for hard work. They were true to their word on both counts. Door-knocking, cold calls and three years of study at nights were part of the training, and it worked. Cliff was set on retiring, yes, but he had promised some clients who wouldn’t deal with anyone else that he would keep an eye on their finances.

“I used to think I was lucky,” said Cliff, who came from a big, working-class family in Wakefield and made good.

“Then I thought about those early years. It wasn’t luck; it was hard work.”

Getting to know the backstories

I can thank Cliff for a greater understanding of British politics. In the time it takes for a cup of coffee to go cold, he gave me a potted political history of the past 45 years.

Jayne, also from Wakefield, had retired from her administrative job in doctors’ rooms and was enjoying more time with grandchildren. It was thanks to her that I discovered a book on the “snickelways” of York. She put it on my bedside table, and I bought a copy for Mum.

Leighton had worked in the pharmaceutical industry, travelling long distances by road to call on clients. A Welshman, Leighton had played rugby for Llanelli in his youth, though not in the first team. He played at No.8, and still bears some of the scars of his rugby days. He remains a keen supporter of the Welsh national team, and he and Moira combined to put on the best full Welsh breakfast in York.

Colin left a job in information technology to manage the optometry practice of Ruth, whose innovative treatment of some types of vision problems had far-reaching benefits.

While he drove us to the meeting point for a day’s outings, Colin explained how sight peculiarities often contributed to social and educational barriers that could be overcome with visual aids and exercises. This approach was regarded by some as being on the fringe of optometry, but Ruth had the results to back up her methods.

The work was something of a speciality for Ruth, and as she and Colin approached the twilight years of their working lives, they were considering how they might ensure it continued in York once they retired.

While preparing this story, I googled Ruth and found a November 2016 piece about her in The Press, York’s local daily newspaper. At that time, it said, she was one of only 50 accredited behavioural optometrists in the UK, specialising in working with people who had dyslexia or colour blindness, or who had had serious accidents or strokes. The aim was to help rehabilitate their vision.

The article also described the work she had been doing – and continues to do – in Africa since 1991. Typically she would spend two weeks in a remote area, providing eye care in makeshift clinics in countries that have included Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Senegal, Tanzania and Sierra Leone. Colin’s Rotary club, York Ainsty, sorted, washed and measured the unwanted glasses collected for distribution at the clinics.

Mike and Linda were a Scots couple with a background in the hospitality industry. Mike had worked his way up the management ladder until he owned his own hotel in York. He sold it and is now semi-retired, running a golf tour business to keep his hand in.

When I stayed with them, Linda was the driver for all of us, as Mike had had a health scare that was serious enough for him to be warned off driving until six months had passed without incident. He was counting the days.

Mike gave me one of the take-home messages of my time in the UK. He had been interviewing applicants for a job at his hotel, and said the interviews came down to one question: Do you like people?

Those who did not like people did not belong in the hospitality industry.

Good point.

The Shambles in York. Pictures supplied
Ruth and Colin Perrott.
Elaine Clark, brother John Gillies, and Moira and Leighton Davies.
Elaine's billet, Jane West, and John's billet, Jayne Gladwin.
John Gillies, left, and former group news editor Stewart Gilbert at Bolton Castle in the Yorkshire Dales.
John (left) and host Cliff Gladwin.
John with hosts Mike and Linda Harrison.