Sunday, 6 January 2019

Unusual Friends - #17 The Others

Ending the Unsual Friends series with #17 and all the others who may not be easy to classify.

I am fast coming to the conclusion that virtually everyone I know is perhaps Unusual. We are all individuals after all, and unique thanks to the 23 times 100 of millions of DNA data points that each of us carries in each cell. However diplomacy and decency dictates that I am discreet and do not offend anyone. You may have noticed that I have to keep personal details out of these stories, and where it was necessary I have asked for the blessing of the people involved. I apologise to anyone who may feel betrayed.
My Chromosome 1 - Self Portrait
To finish I will mention briefly 'friends' or acquaintances, who I came in contact with who were unusual in some way but could not classify. Take the example of one colleague who happened to be looking for a place to live after he arrived from Ireland to a new job in London. Marisol and I had moved to a house and had a spare room. He was very happy to accept our offer to have him stay with us. When I enquired if he needed any help with moving, he said 'Not necessary, I have been living in my car for the last two months'.
Then there was the American man who came to work in the company where I worked, and he had a small side business to make wiring circuits for American cars, which were difficult to obtain in England. So he set up a wiring board in our garage and would spend hours constructing the complex wiring bundles, and by way of compensation would bring an Indian takeaway meal for all of us to have. My son began to call this cuisine 'Max food'. This man was (perhaps still is) a books enthusiast, and introduced us to Hay on Wye, a small sleepy Welsh borders town, which is famous for about thirty book shops. Apart from the proper shops the town is littered with book shelves in the open where people can leave or take books as they wish. There is usually a box (with a lock) into which you can deposit the price of the book sometimes marked on the inside of the book (usually 10 pence or some such small number). These go by the name of 'Honesty Bookshops'. Most of the proper shops are cavernous with millions of books all arranged by categories, and bought  in bulk around the world. In one of these our friend disappeared in to the bowels of the shop and emerged with a specific book about the American student riots in California and showed me a picture in it, which showed him taking part in the riot.
Hay on Wye Bookshops
Moving on I would like to mention a couple of people who surprised us with their addresses. When we lived in Venezuela, a friend from London moved to Papua New Guinea. In 1982 there was no email and mostly we communicated by surface mail, so when December came we wanted to send him a New Year greeting. It took us a while to find the post office, but when we did get to it, it turned out that they had no stamps on that day. Usually it was a ploy to make some extra money, but we decided to come back the next day to find that some small denomination stamps were in. I showed the letter we wanted to post, and the woman at the counter looked at the address and said 'Where is that'?
They had absolutely no idea where PapuaNG was! The small denomination stamps covered the entire envelope with just a small window where the address was.
The other friend with a strange address turned out to be an American friend (who may well be reading this) who took a job working in IT for the American Embassies. Again, we asked him for his address which should have been in Germany, and it came as a bit of a surprise. It went something like:


We joked about it often with him, and he liked to give the impression that they were spies and that their mail was dropped off in the bushes outside their offices and they had to go and retrieve it after dark.
I think it will be amusing to share also a curious contact with an Indian young man, a flowers seller in the streets of Barcelona, who got very interested in finding out how I happened to be here in Spain. There appeared to be a lot of these, with sad faces and looking to make a Euro or two with these often wilted flowers. Cutting to the end of the conversation, after the usual 'where are you from' and all that, when he discovered that I was living here in retirement:
He: Do you get a Pension?
Me: Yes
He: How much do you get every month?
Me: So long (end of conversation) 
Ironing Man 
Another person that comes to mind was the 'Ironing man' who looked after the needs of the street where my parents lived in Delhi. This is a very carefully calculated and organised profession so that there are strict limits to the territory of each man. They usually erect a shack somewhere in a corner on the street, usually close to a lamp post, and proceed to carry out their service and perhaps live under the ironing board and the iron that is heated with live coals. He came every evening and took whatever needed ironing and returned the clothes ironed from the previous day. And he would time his visit every evening with the start of his favourite TV program, and would sit near the TV and watch the show.
And so the list goes on and I have to catch a plane. 
I should end here with a heartfelt thanks to all of the personalities who have contributed to the varied experiences and interacted with me at various levels. As they say, nothing in this life is by accident, of which I am not a firm believer, but perhaps.. perhaps all these people were put in my path by a grand design by the powers that be, to make me the person I am.
Here is looking forward to who I meet next!

Friday, 4 January 2019

Unusual Friends - #16 From the seventies in London

Continuing the Unusual friends series, this is #16 about the curious bunch of people from 70s London.

When I got to London in October of 1971, for the first time I had to fend for myself. One of my father's friends had got me a place to stay and I called him from Heathrow to get the address, which was in Sinclair Road. Fortunately for me this friend of my father has passed away and I can now reveal that the address to which I made my way turned out to be a thinly disguised brothel.
I was a naive young man and at night the girls would come and show you their catalogue of photos, and I realised that I had to find somewhere else to live.
After a week or so I moved out to a place up the same road at number 109, and there I spent the next five years, during which time I came across some interesting people.
Sinclair Road - London
In no particular order, let me first name Mr Jesus Christ who lived in the same building, a young man who dressed in flowing robes and long hair and called himself JC. He firmly believed that he was the reincarnation of JC himself and was to be seen often on TV or in public places handing out dry fruits and 'preaching' his philosophy. At home he often tried to engage me in conversation, but more often than not would depart in a fit of rage when I remained unconvinced or offered alternative theological arguments. What made me a sceptic had something to do with the way he treated women and how he tried to harass them in those very pre #metoo days.
Also in the same building lived several Philippine boys and they were a breed apart, because I don't think I ever saw them speak English, which is not to say that they could not, but it is possible. They were often to be seen shouting a word which sounded like 'seppo' from an upstairs window to all passers in the street, and I have yet to figure out what that might have meant after all these years. They were also pranksters and would play with the lights in the stairway at night by switching them off if anyone happened to turn them on while leaving or entering.
Another curiosity was the landlord, who came to collect the weekly rent, and I am pretty sure he accepted sexual favours from young girls in lieu of the money owed, since the walls in that building were pretty thin and you could pretty much hear everything that went on in about five of the adjoining rooms.
Jerry Garcia II (AKA Gerardo)
Then there is the story of three Spanish boys from Laredo, who showed up one day looking for a place to stay (one of them a spitting image of Jerry Garcia), and famously flushed Marisol out of her shower, when they sang 'Las chicas de Laredo' in her street, not knowing the number of the house where she lived. My 'room' measured about three square meters. I will be forever indebted to them because they brought Marisol with them (that makes five in case you are wondering) and we spent two months strolling the streets of 1973 London together.
Moving further, a young lady moved in next door who was from Barcelona, and we met her by pure coincidence when some friends of her came to visit and she was not at home. Someone told these folks that there was Spanish girl living next door, so we met the friends and entertained them while our neighbour returned. I wont name this lady because she knows who I mean and she is a very good friend of ours. She was (is) unusual in many respects. She introduced us to a young man who lived in the neighbourhood, who went by the name of Joaquin Sabina. The year was 1974 and Gen Franco still ruled Spain with an Iron fist. Joaquin and our friend worked in a Spanish bar where Joaquin also played guitar and sang. No one had heard of either of these two.
Came the wind of change in Spain in 1975 when Spain finally emerged from Franco's rule and these two returned to Spain to glittering careers. Joaquin became a rock star and our friend became a much sought after figure in Spanish cinema winning several Goyas (Spanish Oscars) in the process. Over the years we met our lady friend many times to visit film studios and special screenings, while we occasionally met Joaquin Sabina in Madrid while he was still trying to establish his music career.
Sometime around 1995, when we came to Spain on an annual visit in the summer, we were told that Sabina was going to do a concert in Laredo. We obtained tickets and at the entrance sent a message to Sabina. Suffice to say that he was spectacular, and at the end of his concert announced that the final song was dedicated to friends from London in the audience. Afterwards we spent some time with him back stage where a journalist from El Pais was feverishly taking notes. A couple of days later, we were woken early in the morning with phone calls to say that we had been mentioned in an article about Sabina's tour in the El Pais newspaper.
70s London - Portobello Road
There are two other groups of people who I can mention from the 70s London who were very unusual and the first of these were a bunch of men from the same University where I studied (London), of middle eastern origin, all with Masters and PhDs who introduced me to the curious world of Jazz and Poker. One of them made a hit with our Spanish friends (the second group) because his name was Khoder, which is awfully close to the Spanish word for F##k. The Spanish friends introduced me to a hazy smokey world full of marijuana and cigarettes (Gauloises, Gitanes and Ducados), and although I never smoked, I am convinced that my lungs suffered terribly by keeping their company, even if it was curiously liberating and enjoyable.
I arrived late in London and the 70s were for me what 60s were for many a Londoner.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Unusual friends - #15 People on the Camino de Santiago

Continuing with the series about unusual friends, this is #15 and the people I have met on the Camino de Santiago.

As many of you will be aware I have been slowly doing the Camino with a set of friends for the last few years, but in the course of the walking that this has involved, I have met a lot of interesting people.  The Camino is not everyone's cup of tea and it is a roller coaster experience, with many highs and a few lows. On the whole it is a remarkable spiritual experience and you find people of all races, religions and beliefs who do this centuries old walk for a variety of reasons. One thing is for sure. If you get to the end of your planned segment, in my case usually a 150 km segment, you are guaranteed to want to carry on, health and time permitting.
So, back to the people I met during my walks, there were so many that I had to go back through my notes to remember.
First I should mention the Sikh man from my own part of the world, who I met in Santiago. I have to say that earlier while we were walking, someone mentioned that they had seen another Sikh man who was ahead of us.
With Amrit at Santiago de Compostela
When we got to to the Cathedral, our group spotted him in the crowd. Indeed I met the man at the foot of the stairs leading up to the cathedral entrance. We felt like long lost friends, and had a long chat. He was also with fellow walkers including a seventy year old lady from San Antonio, Texas. I had been in San Antonio, since Manjeet lived at the time in Austin. Amrit and I exchanged contact details, as he was interested in doing the coastal Camino, which passes through Laredo, and we agreed to stay in touch and to meet in Laredo when he came by. However he has failed to show up in the six years which have now gone by.
I came across other Indians too, like the Young man from Bangalore who was with his Korean companion. He was walking fast, and as he went by he happened to say the customary 'Buen Camino', and he stopped to say 'You are Indian, right?' and we walked together for a while and I inquired how he came to be on the Camino. Like me, he was of the opinion that the pilgrimage was equally interesting for people of all faiths.
As much as I have enjoyed doing the Camino, I can imagine that for some people it can become quite difficult. One of the difficulty is the loneliness if you happen to do this alone, specially if you decide to do the entire Spanish part in one go, which can take as much as a month. At one point I came across an Italian lady who happened to be at a nearby table as we had breakfast at one of our overnight stops. She was on her own and as she got up to leave she came over and asked me if I was from India. She had been walking for two months having started in Zurich! She had been doing pilgrimages in India and told me that she found the Spanish pilgrimage much less spiritual. I disagreed.

 The Hindi speaking Russian

A lot of people come to mind when I play back my inner movie from the Camino. People like the man who had a donkey for a companion, played music on a guitar, and who shared the Camino with us for a while. The Russian who spoke several languages and who tried to impress me with his knowledge of Hindi. The rather large Australian who arrived totally unprepared with a friend and found that his friend had to depart after a couple of days when he twisted his ankle.
There was a Canadian retired professor of Engineering, an American lady from Charlotte, a Californian young lady recently graduated who was at the same hostel where we stayed, full of foreign pilgrims run by an enthusiastic Spaniard and his curious bunch of volunteers from all over, including an Israeli cook and a Californian yoga teacher.  At one point we met a group of cyclists from Mexico who were doing the Camino as part of a wider trip which included France, Germany and Italy. The owner of a hostel who had done the Camino eleven times with whom I had a long conversation and then the old man who wore two rings, his own and his recently departed wife's, with whom I shared a tear or two.
And many others who contributed to a feeling of shared happiness and well being who would be too numerous to mention, but let me say that one of the best experiences of doing the Camino is to be in the warm glow of people who want to share the peace and spirituality with all people they come into contact with. I have no recollection of anybody who might have wanted to annoy anyone or had any intention to cause any harm or steal or any kind of ill feeling towards fellow pilgrims.
My Camino fellow pilgrims at Santiago
One exception comes to mind. An old lady in a small town where we stayed, took a fancy to a young Dutchman who was being very polite but trying to evade the amorous advances. He decided to join us for dinner hoping that the woman would leave him alone, but she came over and carried on her quest at our table! Later we walked around the town, and she could not move as fast as us or the Dutchman and we lost her in the dark.
Our group of pilgrims still have about a hundred kilometres to complete the Camino.
Lets hope we can do that and meet more people in the process.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Unusual Friends - #14 Teachers & Profs

Continuing the series about Unusual friends - #14 Teachers and Professors

My earliest recollection of a teacher is when I was in primary school. One day I had a test at school and the teacher asked me 'What colour is a dog?' (In Hindi of course) This question has affected my personality in no small way. It is right up there with the Koan 'Can a dog achieve Nirvana'.
I was puzzled by the question, and wanted to respond that dogs came in many different colours, but in my eagerness to respond I chose the wrong word. 
I responded 'Dogs are multi coloured'.
Now one would have got away with the mistake with perhaps a lower mark in the test, but in my case, when I got home the family (united for an evening tea) asked me how was the test and what did the teacher ask me.
I was eager to impress (not knowing that I had got it wrong), and when I came up with my question and answer, the whole family, even the kids, fell to the floor laughing! ROTF 
And to  my embarrassment, they still do when we remember this anecdote, which is far too often.

From that point onwards it was plain sailing in comparison, with many memories of wonderful teachers who taught me everything that good education demands. However there are some events which will always remain fresh as the day they happened.
One physics teacher in particular (when I was fifteen) was responsible for the following two gems. First 'Come here both of you three' and the second 'What kind of this exercise book is'. The latter particularly rattled me because at boarding school I never had the right books or writing materials, so my homework was always presented in (shall we say) creative ways. Perhaps my love of computers started with that, but I digress.
I later realised that the 'exercise book' statement was in fact a literal translation of the same statement in Hindi. But at the time this was a source of great hilarity among my classmates.
The University at Kumasi
Some years later in 1967 the professor of mathematics at university did me a favour for which I should forever be grateful. He correctly identified me as a student who would benefit from learning about computers. I had not heard the term before. Someone from IBM came to show a few of us how this big machine worked and showed us elements of Fortran. By the time Mr IBM left two weeks later I was the only one with any interest. I was entrusted with the key to the University Computer System.
Thus started a lifetime association with these amazing machines.
IBM 1400 similar to the one at University

Later in London I came across Prof Dowling, an Irishman who knew a thing or two about complex mathematical simulations and adopted me for one of his interests in research. He also initiated me into the complex world of Irish Jokes, but I won't go into that. (Just drink a pint of Guinness and Google 'Irish jokes')
I have to say that when I finished my studies I was down to Zero in my bank account, and I applied for a job in desperation. To my complete surprise when I revealed that Prof Dowling was my supervisor, the interviewer said 'when can you start'?

Monday, 24 December 2018

Unusual Friends - Artists

Unusual Friends #13 - Artists
Marisol and I know hundreds of artists and many of them are very unusual. I will try and pick out some examples but I can tell you that this post could really be a book in itself.
Trolley Tea Parties
To start with there is Trolley, who names himself after a tea trolley because one of his art works consists of having a tea ceremony where ever he is invited (and I think he has done this in all parts of the world). He brings along hundreds of ceramics teapots, cups, saucers and a large collection of rare teas and invites the public to take part.
Museum Man
Then there is Adam, and one of my favourite in his work is the Museum Man. MAN also happen to include his initials. The way I heard the story behind this museum is that he rented an apartment in Berlin where he discovered a big treasure trove of photos and objects that belonged to some previous resident. This gave him the idea to live in a museum, and he proceeded to collect a huge quantity of objects, have them displayed in his apartment, live in it and open it as a museum to the public. And I heard that it gave Adam some benefits when paying his Council Tax.
Trolley and Adam were members of the London Biennale, a group that was (and still is) initiated by our friend David (more on him later) and Adam (already mentioned above). Marisol and I were also part of this group in the early part of this century. This is a big group and without upsetting anyone I can pick out some very unusual people.
The Green Lady
There was a lady who liked to paint herself green and tell stories at group meetings.
Worn Paintings
There was one artist who liked to wear her paintings and walk around the exhibitions.
Cyril on a bed of (cough)
Cyril whose sensual art had people mesmerised.
Sumer setting fire to a cardboard oven
Sumer who always produced unusual performances.
Reynolds' Puki Procession
Our friend Reynolds from Brooklyn whose Puki Procession could bring traffic to a standstill by parading her paintings as flags on poles, with the help of other group members.
Marko on a bed of nails
Then there was Marko who liked to think big, and once created a fakir's bed on which he laid for 20 minutes during a performance at an exhibition. I tried it but lasted only a minute or two.
Katie's Longshore Drift at Brighton Beach
Katie, who liked to invite everyone to a beach for a day of total mayhem in terms of art and performance.
mmmmm Action Art
The action art couple known as the MMMMMs, whose performances were centrepieces of many an exhibition.
David - Impromptu Performance
Then there was David himself, the orchestrator of the group whose performances were legendary for their simplicity, participation and imagination.
Before I get into trouble, I think I will move on to another set of unusual artists who I have come across who have sketched portraits of me. There are many of these, but some of them are proper friends. The unusual ones are those who made quick sketches when I was not aware, and gave me the work as surprise gifts.

At Maraven in the eighties
The ones from my days at Maraven in the eighties are particularly interesting because they were made by colleagues who were not really artists.
The restaurant portrait
On another occasion someone who sat at another table near us at a restaurant, came up to me and gave me a sketch and introduced himself.
The accountant portrait
Then recently the business partner of one of my friends, saw me one day at their office and asked if he could make a portrait. He was an accountant.
The Botin sketch
Finally the other day I was showing some people around the Centro Botin in Santander and a young man handed me a sketch which he made as part of a project to get local artists to liven up the day for the visitors.
I am very flattered.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Unusual Friends - #12 - Thieves

Thieves come in various guises. The corrupt politician, the scheming banks and large companies all have the respectable face of thieving. Then ordinary citizens when given half a chance are likely to succumb to this temptation. In the seventies when I lived in London, we occasionally came across people who needed to do this to survive. But there were also those who may be classified as seasoned kleptomaniacs. There was one young lady who almost killed the budding friendship between me and Marisol. I had just met Marisol and a couple of months later I invited her to dinner at a restaurant that both of us knew.
I showed up all spruced up and waited for Marisol to arrive. An hour went by and Marisol was still a no-show. Well I had dinner alone and went home wondering why? There were no mobile phones and I knew that Marisol had no way to contact me. Later in the week I saw Marisol again at our regular bar where jazz played. She was most apologetic (thank god) and told me why she did not make it to our date.
Some girls (friends of friends) were visiting from Spain, and she had shown them around town. The evening of the dinner date, she received a call from the local police station, and the officer told Marisol that he had some ladies in detention who spoke little english, and that they had given them her name and address as a local reference. The girls had been picked up stealing at a local store, (Biba in Kensington if my memory serves me) and were going to be held until Marisol could go over and help them.

Marisol was very concerned and ignoring all else, made her way to the police station. Here she spent the next several hours being the interpreter and negotiator. The girls came from well to do backgrounds and need not have stolen at all. By the time the girls had handed over all their funds to the police and got their freedom back, it was two hours past our agreed time for the dinner. Needless to say all was forgiven, we pooled resources to get the girls back to Spain, and we made a new attempt to get together soon after, this time with some success.
I am sorry to have to say that people trying to steal your belongings is more noticeable in Spain then anywhere else that I have been (there are a few exceptions like Mexico and Nigeria). Many of our friends and family have lost wallets and iPads and coats etc when not being vigilant. I was once accosted in Barcelona in daylight when a well dressed man walked upto me, tugged at my bag, failed to get it off and then coolly walked off as if nothing had happened. I was with my mouth open, frozen to the spot yet relieved that I still had my bag.
In Venezuela and before that in Ghana too, you had to protect yourselves against violent crime as well as robbery. In Maracaibo it was popular to steal a car or to steal the wheels and leave the car on bricks. My boss had his driver's seat stolen once from a rare car (Barracuda I think it was called) and we were all ROTF laughing when he showed up the next day with a dining chair held up with ropes in which he sat while driving. 
The Plymouth Barracuda 
In Africa once a policeman showed up at my Dad's house, where we were selling some items in a garage sale before moving house. He liked a transistor radio, but had no money on him. My Dad told him how much it was worth making it clear that he was not going to get it for nothing. 'OK, just a minute' he said. We saw him go out to the street and stop two cars, both drivers were made to hand over some cash, and he returned and paid for the radio. 
When I was younger a story used to do the rounds in India about a rich man with an American car who had one of his shiny wheel hub caps stolen. Now these were not obtainable in India, and someone suggested he try the local Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) where they could find you anything. You all probably know this story but sure enough someone at the bazaar agreed to find him the missing wheel hub cap if he could wait a few minutes. After a while the lad came back and surprise, surprise, he had the very item needed. A large sum of money changed hands, the cap put on, and the content car owner drove off. The next day he discovered that he was still missing one hub cap, this time from the other side of his car!

There were thieves at our offices in London too and I had my wallet stolen from my jacket from my office. I would like to believe that these were outsiders but still you can't but help thinking that one of your colleagues was the culprit. Expense account stories were popular among the frequent travellers, and this involved what was permitted (or not) in a travel expense account. One such tale had it that the boss informed one employee that he could not charge for buying an umbrella on his company expenses. Disgruntled, off he went and came back the next day with his 'new' claim, which was for the same amount as the previous day, but with a handwritten message 'Now try and find the umbrella'!
As I said, there are many different ways to steal.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Unusual Friends - Airline and Airport workers

Continued series about unusual friends #11 - Airline and Airport workers

Over the years I have flown a fair deal, and one could tell many stories over a long time, but a few relate to being treated well and smiling airline or airport workers. When we used to fly to Delhi in the eighties and the nineties, there was always special treatment because my Uncle had connections (He was the Engineering director for the new IG Airport). There would usually be someone waiting at the exit from the plane with our names and we would be ushered through VIP lanes. On departure too they would let us use the Airport Manager's spacious offices and other facilities.
In the sixties when we lived in Ghana, where again my Uncle was an authority at the airport, we could access the airport and flights without too much fuss. Once HM the Queen (of England, no less) arrived for a state visit (I think 1961). My Uncle put all of us in his car and drove us through tight security and a million people, almost to the foot of the stairs where HM alighted. I have a fantasy where in a Netflix movie the Queen arrives in Accra and at the top of the stairs asks the Duke, 'What are those Indians doing at the foot of the stairs? Are we in the right country?'
See that line of airport people in the back? I think we were there!

There was a time around 2008 when I had been going to visit my team in Pennsylvania so many times that Virgin Atlantic staff at the check in and their VIP lounge began to remember me. There were two or three of us from my office, that had many facilities to make the flights from London to Newark as painless as possible. The Virgin gold frequent traveller card allowed us to go through security in a private queue, straight through to their VIP lounge where restaurants, bars, entertainment, massage, and jacuzzis awaited. I would often go to the airport an hour or two early. Once my flight was delayed which brought a smile to my face. If it was an upper class flight, sometimes when I had to fly long haul, for example Shanghai, they even sent out a limousine to pick me up at home. It was a hard life!
Virgin at Heathrow - A second home
On many occasions when I sat in economy a hostess or steward would show up with a glass of champaign and 'Arvinder, compliments of the airline'. Fast exits through security at US immigration were a special treat. You walked through a machine which recognised your hand print and let you through, no queue or anything. Then you walked out to your rental car and drove off to your destination. 
There came a time that I had accumulated enough air miles to buy business class flights for my parents from Delhi to Newark via London. It took ages for my Dad to come around to accepting this gift, and then to arrange visas and to fix a date. We kept postponing the travel dates until about a year after initiating proceedings the trip happened. 
Now, I had read somewhere that there was a time limit to how long you had between the time of reservation and the date of travel if you paid with air miles, and it was pretty close to the limit when my parents started their trip. By the time of their return they were definitely past this limit, and I suspected that they might face some hassles on the return flights. So I decided to coincide one of my own trips to coincide with their return from Newark to London on their way to India. 
As a precaution I called the Virgin reservation and explained that my senior citizen parents were travelling and could they check out their reservations and if all was well for their return flight. As an extra precaution I asked the agent for her name (Sally, if my memory serves) and direct phone number in case we had any problems at check in at Newark.
We all met up at my sister's (who lives near the Newark airport) and got to the airport together. At the check in, sure enough, the Virgin check in system would not accept my parents' tickets. The agents took ages but could not tell what the problem was. I suspected I knew the problem but did not say, except that I had been assured that all was well. By the time the flight was almost on the point of departure and my parents resigned to having to dish out a large sum to replace their free tickets, when I asked the agent to call his colleague (Sally) in London.
From that moment it took five minutes and we were checked in. I asked what had happened, and they had been instructed to bypass the checkin and let us on the plane because our reservations had already been accepted by the London staff! 
They even upgraded me so that I could sit with my parents.