Just got a note from WordPress to say that my agreement with them runs out on November 5th. I may well renew in years to come and will be leaving the blog up. Excessively busy at the moment and for the foreseeable future so little chance of any blogging for the next 12 months and beyond. Here’s wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a splendid new year. And I’ll leave you with a recent scene from the Johnson kitchen.

All good wishes. Simonfullsizeoutput_26a8

Manifold Pleasures

First published October 2013

Reprinted with kind thanks to Pat Huxley and dedicated to my cousin Peter who is still enjoying the delights of the Manifold Valley and who I shall be visiting in the next couple of weeks. Very much looking forward to it.

My mother would let you know when a conversation was finished. She’d simply stop talking and start doing something else. Her sisters were the same. It could be quite disconcerting, and some people found it rude at first. A day in the Manifold Valley teaches me where the trait was born. My mother’s family left the valley in the early thirties, after the death of my grandfather. The valley never left them.


Pike Pool on the River Dove


Flowing parallel to The Dove, which it joins below Ilam, The River Manifold (from the Anglo Saxon manig-fald – many folds i.e.. meandering) runs for just 11 crow flown miles of The White Peak. If you take its constant turns into your yardstick then you can probably double this distance. If you take away the section that disappears underground then you are back to around 11 miles of rather lovely English river. In my childhood it was largely ignored by the walkers, who tramped in increasing numbers up and down the  Dove in search of Izaac Walton, (They searched in vain, not only was the old fisherman long dead, but, he never fished the Dove. That was Charles Cotton who completed the book). Today the valley has a fair smattering of tourists, mostly retired walking couples, but it retains the peace and tranquility of a rather forgotten place.


The River Dove

I’ve got the problem of a day out on a £4 budget. It is easily solved. I’ve got a small pack of streaky bacon in the fridge which makes two fine bacon cobs, with the bread I made yesterday. Once at my cousin Peter’s house, (a second cousin but he’s a credit to the family so, like my auntie Mary, (actually my wife’s mother’s cousin) he gets promoted into the closer ranks of family), I get served mugs of tea and a slice of fruit cake so large it keeps me going through contented hours of conversation and, later, miles of reflective rambling.

Peter lives in a unique cottage on the side of Ecton Hill. “It wasn’t built for living in,” he says. “These  were built as part of the mining.” Ecton Hill is one of the most important mining centres in Britain. Ore was dug here for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. It boasted Europe’s deepest shaft of its day, a thirty foot diameter underground water wheel  and an underground canal. It provided the copper and zinc that built the guns that fought at Trafalgar and the first cables to link Europe and America telegraphically. It’s profits built the Crescent at Buxton and I still remember being taken down into the hill by Peter and his brother David as a boy in the mid seventies.

Peter doesn’t go in much for housekeeping but I have rarely felt so comfortable and warm in a house. The smell of burning logs from the stove, the tea and cake and the dozing cats and the knowledge, insights and downright good common sense of a countryman make me feel both at home and proud to be there.


He worked on the roads for thirty years without ever taking a day off. After that, when Staffordshire closed its Hulme End depot, but continued serving the local communities of Alstonefield, Mill Dale, Wetton and Butterton assuming the ancient title of “Lengthsman”. He cuts and clears grass and takes down branches that grow dangerously over the roads. His knowledge and efforts (Peter is of a generation and family who know how to work!) help keep these places as near perfect as you’ll find. He also shares his knowledge of family history and tells me more about my grandfather and his family than I had previously gathered in 50 years.


Before I go he takes me round the two and a half acre garden that he, and his father before him, have made from the steep side of Ecton Hill. I leave laden with potatoes, tomatoes, sprouts and runner beans. Cooking apples, crab apples and grapes. He’s a fine gardener. He’s a fine man.

In Warslow church I slip the money into the donations box that I had saved since my Auntie Marie’s funeral. She’d been active in the church after returning to the village. She was another one who would let you know when she’d finished talking; though in my experience, she rarely had finished talking. I miss her. My grandfather’s name and that of my great uncle are on the roll of honour at the back of the church. All of the names of the village school boys who served all through the first world war. I sit and contemplate what they must have seen that I will never see. He struggled afterwards and was dead within fifteen years of the armistice. I never knew him but, just for a moment or two, sitting alone in that simple country church, I feel close to him.



I’m about to get into my car outside the village hall when an elderly lady approaches.

“I see you coming out of the church.” It might be a statement, but it feels full of inquiry.

“I’ve just been looking at my grandfather’s name on the plaque at the back.” I say.

“Which one was he then?” she asks and I tell her. “I remember him. Married to Maria. Had girls I went to school with. Yes, we all went to the village school.” We talk for quite a while. I tell her what I know which, as always doesn’t seem much. She nods and sighs, “Marie and Mary dead then?” she pauses, “and Peter in Canada. Oh, yes, I remember them. We all went to the school together. I’m Miriam, Miriam Gold as was. They’d remember me. Margaret was my twin.”


Miriam Gold


I mention meeting two relations, who were very nice to me as a boy. “Did you know Nelly and Emma?” I ask.

“Oh yes. They lived in the old school house with Tom (my great uncle…a big, well dressed man who I once sat with and talked about brass bands… he was in his 90s I was 9.) They looked after him alright.” And then, suddenly, in that Manifold Valley way, the conversation was over and she returned to sweeping leaves from around the village hall and I drove on to Alstonefield.


It’s a pretty, well kept village, but I don’t know any family connections. I follow Peter’s instructions and walk slowly past the rather splendid church; inside the Lord’s Prayer and The Creed displayed on glorious panels; and on down the steep winding lane to Mill Dale and The River Dove. It’s a little gem I hadn’t been aware of. The café is a takeaway only, “Else we wouldn’t be able to shift the walkers to let the next one sit down. Being a takeaway means everyone gets served.” I pour myself tea from a flask a listen to the river flow.


Alstonefield Church


At Hulme End there is a simple visitor centre in the old railway buildings and a rather wonderful café in a less than wonderful modern version of an engine shed. I haven’t spent any money so far, but I’m tempted. There are two other customers who have the easy presence of locals, though one, the talkative one, has home county vowels and nothing much to say. The other is Staffordshire, has much less to say, but much more worth listening to. The woman who runs it is true Staffordshire too. The cakes are exceptional. I have a coffee and walnut and blow my whole budget with the addition of a coconut macaroon.  Her macaroons are made without whisking the egg whites. They are sensational. We talk cakes and bake off; she doesn’t much care for it this year…”Just so long as that Ruby doesn’t win”. And just as I think I’ve been accepted as a local, the conversation shuts off and we don’t speak again. I will go back there though. It’s a belter of a café.


We Knew Not What We Did

May: Churchill or Chamberlain?

Principled politics has taken a bit of a backseat over recent years. Granted that the idea was always prone to wobbles, but I cannot remember a time when an entire chamber of the British Paliament was prepared and preparing to put forward a seismic change in our country, our international relationships, our prosperity and our sense of self-determination that went counter to what they actually believe to be best for the country. Principled politicians enter public life with a set of values which they sincerely hold will improve the life of the country. Some of these principles are less worthy than others. For some, such as Aneurin Bevan, there remain wonderful legacies of their foresight. For others the principle is to deceive poorer voters into believing that policies, that benefit the rich, will somehow benefit the poor, even though there has been scant evidence of any meaningful trickle down effect. And what evidence there is is of just that. The affluent receiving the flood while the deserving get the last oozings. At least we can say that they have principles even if they are only to advantage one section of the community over the others. Flawed or partial principles versus no principles? We’ll leave that for another occasion.

There is no section of the community that stands to benefit from the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The sight of those who are certain to be most disadvantaged, cheering the dawn of a new independent Albion is one of the saddest of recent years. Those who most adamently and sincerely voted for a return to some golden-age-independent sceptered isle are the ones who will be truly let down. Not by us that they have taken to calling “remoaners” (I quite like the badge, very British, I wear it with pride) but by the fact that what they voted for was never on the agenda. Never a realistic option. A few speculators will make a killing of course but that has never led to benefits being felt beyond the gravelled drive of the mansion (often not even in UK territory). There is no logic in the political acceptance that we must do what the people asked us to do regardless of the consequences. Chamberlain was cheered by the many on his return from Munich. First of all if the result of referenda have to be respected, come what may, surely we should be holding onto what 67% of the electorate voted for in 1975. Which is to stay in the European Community. The result was as clear as political votes can be. Scurvy politicians claim that the 2016 referendum gave us the same outcome. A clear result. Nonsense! The only clear result from a 52% versus 48% outcome is that there is no clarity. And there is clear polling evidence that if the vote had been taken the week after or the week before the result would have been equally murky but very likely the other way.

I’d hold by the result if someone can convince me that we (the country) had the faintest clue what we were voting for. We know what we were told we were voting for and that was a very different thing indeed. We now have a much clearer vision. We can see the cliff edge is real. That we will either get no deal or a bad deal in leaving and that nobody has yet come up with any real disadvantages of staying.

The exposed lies of the Leave Campaign

Turkey is not joining the EU, the extra £350 million a week for the NHS was a lie, and a cruel lie. The promised windfall from not having to pay our subs is actually a colossal bill. The creation of an enormous new free trade area stretching form the Pacific to the Atlantic coast of America was a pure fiction, the issues of our sovereignty were twaddle (see the sheer anger of Leave supporting politicians and newspaper proprietors when people like Gina Miller actually stood up for our sovereignty). The reality so far (and remember we haven’t even got close to the exit door) is slower growth, weak investments, the trickle (soon to become a flood) of major businesses re-setting on the other side of the channel, an increase in racial violence linked to fractures in our multi-cultural society, a vacancy crisis in the NHS and a already measurable (£900 per person p.a.) drop in living standards.

What should politicians do?

What shouldn’t they do first. It’s easier to explain. They shouldn’t do what they have done. Set out positions, create tensions, realise the position is untenable and unceremoniously abandon that position. Re-position in a way designed to appease those on the extreme of each side of every argument. Entrench, realise the untenability of the position and abandon. Repeat every couple of months until you are left miles from where anybody, and I mean anybody would wish to be. If we are going to vote to leave the institution that has provided the foundation of our economic well-being (remember the position we were in in 1973) we have a right to know what we are actually voting to replace it. I personnally was very keen to see the back of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard but I would have thought twice about voting them out if I knew David Cameron was going to replace them. Simply the poorest prime ministerwe have ever had.

There’s an old music hall song about marriage:

Be kind to the first

For the next might be worse

And you’ll long to be single again.

So let’s have another go. I’ll accept the outcome if the lies are removed and we see that the glorious affluence and independence is so much hot air spouted by a particularly disreputable group (and a small group at that). The choice is we either stay in and maintain all the advantages of the last 40 years (and have a voice in reforming what is manifestly wrong with the institutions) or we come out with either no agreement (which leaves us prey to the politicians and beaurocrats of countries that hardly have our welfare uppermost) or we come out with a half-baked version of being in with few of the advantages, all of the disadvantages and no say whatsoever.

If someone can come up with a way of leaving that is genuinely beneficial to us all then let us return to the issue as and when that happens. I’m open to persuasion but in the meantime I like being a citizen of 28 countries, I like the fact of a Europe working for the benefit of each other, I like being able to afford a few luxuries, I like extreme views being expressed, but being expressed as a minority opinion in a country that is comfortable with the truth. I like the fact that my generation has seen improvements in almost every section of society. I hate the fact that huge areas of the country have been left severely disadvantaged through social and economic changes. But this is an internal issue. It is the UK that decided to give up an Northern Towns, and treat Wales and Scotland as second class parts of the union. This needs to be put right. I’m a working class northerner myself and have fought against many of the policies that have brought about social division and an economic underclass.

But, say the appeasers, it will be too divisive to hold a second referendum. Have they not looked out of the window. We are divided. We will remain divided if Brexit proceeds. Nobody is going to say, “Well I was against leaving, but now we can’t afford a decent health service, competent policing or a fair education for our children. Now that foreign holidays are once again for the rich and that German workers are taking home twice what the equivilent British workers are drawing, I’ve changed my mind.” I hardly think so.

There is a consensus. Our MPs are overwhelmingly against the idea yet they are going along with it. This is as irrational as it is unprecedented. Edmund Burke, the founder and hero of modern Conservatism said of political representation:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Another Conservative who knew a thing or two about Europe and who would have been horrified at the thought of Brexit, Winston Churchill said:

“The first duty of a member of parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain.”

There was a popular cry following the referendum of “What part of democracy is it you don’t understand?” All advanced countries took care to ensure that they avoided the tyranny of the majority. Constitutionally the position is straight-forward. The enabling legislation made it clear that the referendum was consultative. An essential feature of democracy is the right for people to change their minds.

Our politicians have sacrificed principle in favour of expediency. Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much if we can put right our mistake at the next election (we are a notoriously yoyo-like electorate). It matters a great deal if the step taken is effectively irrevocable.

Give us another vote between remaining in the EU or leaving under the horribly botched terms that now seem inevitable. We deserve it. And don’t give me any of that “the country is tired of elections” business. It’s a walk down to the community centre once in a blue moon. I think you’ll find that plenty of us will exercise the chance to vote if we get it.



True Grit (1969)


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Western Approaches

Not Bad for a One-Eyed Fat Man

Remakes stimulate debate. Rarely does the new version come out on top. Received wisdom invariably is that “It isn’t a patch on the original.”

It’s an argument that has dual attractions: first in the direction of nostalgia and second of  one up-man-ship. “You mean to say you haven’t seen the original!” The word original (in this context) is straight from the emotive school of language. It’s use, in reality, is little more than saying hooray for my side of the argument. “I like the old one because it is the old one”. Having said that, remakes rarely out-do the fondly remembered.

Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross

Some classic westerns could be termed remakes. 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars for instance. They take their storylines and characters from Akira Kurosawa films. This doesn’t necessarily make them remakes just as  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V is not a remake of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie. Same characters, same story; completely different film. Of westerns that are remakes, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Magnificent Seven (2016), Stagecoach (1966), and The Lone Ranger (2013) all fail to capture the qualities that made the earlier film and TV shows classics. One exception is the 2003 version of Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger which is a massive improvement of the 1970 version starring a miscast Mick Jagger. (OK it’s Australian but in every aspect it’s a western).  Some films deserve to be remade and some deserve to be left alone. The 2010 version of True Grit is a good film but it fits into the category of “why didn’t they use the wealth of talent at their disposal to make an entirely new western?” It’s like taking your band into the studio and doing a cover version of a Beatles song. It may be brilliant but it will never be(at) the Beatles.

John Wayne’s True Grit is not a masterpiece in terms of classic cinema. It’s a magnificent film, a wonderful 2 hours and 8 minutes  but it rarely features in the top 100 lists. It won John Wayne his Oscar but I think Wayne put in more complex and challenging performances in (for example) The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach. The great success of the film is the mixing of key western elements, classic revenge tragedy, stunning location photography, brilliant casting, toughness and grit into what is essentially a heart-warming comedy. What Edward Buscombe describes as “an expert blend of humour, tenderness and excitement”. There’s plenty of shooting, a double-figure body count and yet it is undoubtedly family viewing.

Jeremy Slate as Emmett Quincy, Dennis Hopper as Moon and Johns Wayne as Cogburn

I love it and intend to use the rest of this post to explain (to myself as much as to anybody else) just why this is the case.

First the Mirabell reason*. I admit the film has its faults and I like it better  because of them. Glen Campbell wasn’t the first or last popular singer to be cast in a western (see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, not to mention Roy Rodgers) but he is undoubtedly the worst actor amongst them. But this suits the film. His character is an awkward sort of a lump who gives both Maddie and Rooster an opportunity to exercise their wit. These are pre Peckinpah cowboys who can ride and fight and drink and never need a change of clothes. They simply don’t get dirty. Campbell’s distinguishing feature as a musician (apart from a voice given by the angels and supreme guitar picking skills) is a head of hair so wonderfully combed as to provide a model for Lego people. His character  rides through the wildest wilderness, crosses  turbulent steams and climbs the rockiest mountains and still looks like he’s wearing George Jones’s Barnet. It’s a performance so wooden that even after he dies we have to wait for Wayne to explain  the lack of movement.

Then there are the prompts, the previews, the tell-you-it’s-coming lines. “Careful you don’t fall down that pit, it’s full of rattlesnakes.” and you have a pretty good idea where the action is heading.

Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper

The title song is poor and has little other than the words ‘True Grit’ to link it  with the movie. It’s all sweeping strings of the over-produced late sixties Nashville style and completely at odds with the rest of Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Sevenesque score. But it works. All the faults work. They contribute to making the film  better. In the 2010 remake Matt Damon, as good a lead actor as Hollywood has produced in recent years, struggled to inject life into the character of Le Bouef. He appears  awkward whereas Campbell’s awkwardness appears as a sort of charming gaucherie and contributes enormously to the humour.

On the strong points you cannot avoid Wayne. This is his film even though he doesn’t appear until everything has been set up. Cogburn’s faults allow Wayne to show an impressive skill at comedy without sacrificing the dramatic qualities of the film. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s prejudiced and largely misogynist, mercenary and a drunk. Wayne has enormous fun with all of these. He’s happy either as straight man or comic and never misses a beat. Underneath all of this however,  is a man with a sense of right and wrong, a man capable of love and generosity; a source of goodness.

Strother Martin as Colonel Stonehill

Kim Darby is wonderful as Maddie Ross. She maintains her dynamic and intensity of performance while never attempting to take over the film. A single minded, clear thinking, determined, ruthless force for retribution who, like Wayne, reveals a vulnerable side to her nature when things go wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film (once these character traits have been revealed) are surprisingly tender and moving.

The supporting cast is superb. A young Robert Duvall shows what a great western actor he might have been if westerns weren’t rapidly going out of fashion. (I think he did ok without cowboy films). Dennis Hopper demonstrates a completeness in his portrayal of Moon which is perhaps proof that there are no small parts only small actors. Strother Martin is always a delight to watch; here he’s the horse dealer trying to short change Maddie and having the tables turned on him. James Westerfield has barely enough lines but uses them  to establish a court doling out frontier justice by means of a simple request for a peppermint to sooth his troubled stomach.

There isn’t a weak link in the chain. The storyline is gripping. Half revenge tragedy, half quest with a universality dating all the way back to the Greek myths. The story is sequential which requires a recurring pattern of dramatic climax and anti-climax. The timing is faultless, the editing flawless. Quest westerns invariably move from the town or city out into the wilderness. The towns represent all of the corrupting influences on man. Bad things happen in towns. The wilderness is a place for refugees and renegades and outlaws. It is also a place of cleansing. Bad things get put right in the wild, people become renewed and return older and wiser men and women.

“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man”

Which brings us to the cinematography. We’re invariably looking out across vast undulating hills towards distant mountains. This creates a sense of enormous space whilst delineating the limits of man’s world. Everything is in the  process of growth. The grass is green, the trees are coming into leaf. There is a sense of permanent springtime out there. Shot after shot is superbly composed and photographed with a depth of focus that makes it  look as if you can see for miles.

“Fill your hand you son of a bitch”

The climax is a shootout between Wayne and Duvall’s band of outlaws. It’s shot from different angles. At one moment we’re looking down on the field; a clearing in the wooded hills; an arena.  It could be a medieval tournament and close ups show the champions issuing their challenges.

Ned Pepper: What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?

Rooster: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?

Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.

Rooster: Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

I wasn’t old enough to see True Grit at the cinema and it’s too good a film to be fully enjoyed on the small screen. Perhaps instead of remaking these westerns they might consider re-releasing the originals for the full big screen treatment. I would love that!



* Mirabell is a character in William Congreave’s The Way of the World. Romantic heroes had always extolled the virtues of their beloved. Mirabell was the first, as far as I know, to extol the faults.

She has beauty enough to make any man think so, and complaisance enough not to contradict him who shall tell her so.

For a passionate lover methinks you are a man somewhat too discerning in the failings of your mistress.

And for a discerning man somewhat too passionate a lover, for I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable. I’ll tell thee, Fainall, she once used me with that insolence that in revenge I took her to pieces, sifted her, and separated her failings: I studied ’em and got ’em by rote. The catalogue was so large that I was not without hopes, one day or other, to hate her heartily. To which end I so used myself to think of ’em, that at length, contrary to my design and expectation, they gave me every hour less and less disturbance, till in a few days it became habitual to me to remember ’em without being displeased. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own frailties, and in all probability in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.

The Best Day Out in England


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Lincoln: Summer 2017


I’ve rarely been on a friendlier train. Even people busy with their phones (mostly games…one scrolling through eBay for kitchen utensils and one on Facebook) were happy to answer my questions. Cheerful people got off at Collingham and Swinderby, presumably to work, and a dozen fresh faces got on at North Hykeham to bring their smiles into the city. It seems to do people good to live and work in this part of Lincolnshire.

I’m early. The main attractions don’t open until 10 o’clock. A good breakfast would come in handy and I drop lucky. Stokes’ High Bridge Tearooms are exceptional. Seating on three storeys of a historic building on a bridge across the River Witham. Waitresses in traditional black dresses with white pinafores make it feel both timeless and authentic. I hope the food matches. It does. And the tea is superb. Take a note cafe owners. It’s really ridiculously simple. Take all your tea bags and throw them in the dustbin. Buy good loose-leaf tea, put it in an attractive earthenware teapot, add boiling water and leave to infuse slowly. Take to the table with a  jug of milk (don’t be stingy)  and a second pot of boiling water for topping up. A cup, a saucer, a teaspoon and, for the careful, a tea strainer. Result, tea worth drinking.

Try the plum loaf while you’re there; it’s exceptional.

I like Lincoln but it has always seemed to underplay itself. It should be up there with Oxford and Bath and Canterbury but it often finds itself lining up with other under-rated county towns like Worcester and Lancaster. We should visit these towns more often. Their splendours often match the tourist honeypots and they have the huge advantage of being quiet enough to actually enjoy what is there. Lincoln cathedral is one of the great ecclesiastical buildings and the castle is outrageously good at any time. It’s even better this year.It provides, in no particular order, one of Europe’s great castle wall walks, two almost perfect examples of the motte and bailey design, stunning views, a Victorian prison you can walk round, dress up as a prisoner or warder (I did both), visit the strangely haunting chapel where prisoners were kept incommunicado, stand where the scaffold was or  the graves of those sentenced to be buried within the prison confines, take in an active Crown Court where (judging by the number of high security vans parked outside) some serious felons stand accused and then, after you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee or tea (bags I’m afraid) you can enter the special vault where not only the Magna Carta is on permanent display but this summer it is joined by The Charter of the Forest (yes, me too!) and the Domesday Book. No not a replica or a copy or one of ten originals but THE Domesday Book.

O.K. they’re in glass display cabinets but believe me these are not only worth seeing but they’re worth travelling to see. Three of the most important documents in our history on display in a single room. Everybody who came through was awed by the experience of simply looking at the ancient parchments. They meant something different to each visitor. A law student stood rapt for half an hour seeing the foundation of  English jurisprudence. An American couple saw a significant building block in their country’s constitution, a farmer knew his village is mentioned in the great book, a small boy told the joke “Where did King John sign the Magna Carta? At the bottom!” only to be corrected by the guard who showed him the holes where the royal seal would have been hung. I had gone to see the Magna Carta and didn’t know the other two would be there. Suddenly I’m speechless. If I’d been standing between Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale and Bob Dylan I wouldn’t have been more starstruck. I bought a season ticket. I’m going back.

Archive photo. There was a strict no photography rule in the Magna Carta vault.

“How much are they worth?” asked a man in a Guns and Roses t shirt. “Priceless” came the answer and I reckon this room contains the very definition of that word.

The guard was great. (there are a lot of guards around the castle this year but they keep their watchful presence with gentle good humour). This fellow had been won over by the Domeday Book in particular. The official castle guide couldn’t get a word in edgeways as a man who looked like a uniformed thug, and a big one at that, held forth about the hierarchy of land ownership in 11th century Lincolnshire, then onto a workable précis of the feudal system and finally a detailed description of how they made the ink.

Downstairs in the impressive mini cinema we enjoyed a wraparound film that explained in entertaining detail where the security man had got his information. (Just a note to Lincoln Castle if you’re reading this… a few extra pounds spent on genuine actors might have been a good investment.)

I spent four hours in the castle and was never once less than impressed. The prison chapel is an awful place, as is the prison. But awful in a way that should be remembered. The presence of Lincoln Crown Court in the castle grounds is a reminder that we may not have learned all the lessons just yet.

My visit inside the cells was brightened by the peculiar sound of two women singing Mozart a cappella on the prison landing. I complimented them once they were done. They said they were rehearsing for a wedding that weekend when there were going to be twenty singers. It never occurred to me thirty odd years ago that I could have got married in a building that had experienced such extreme examples of man’s inhumanity to man and woman. The massed choirs of the sixth sphere of heaven wouldn’t have tempted me. Having said that, the singing was pretty good.

Then a short walk of stunning beauty past a number of tempting pubs and eating houses to the cathedral. It was done up to the nines for the graduation ceremony of one of Lincoln’s two universities. One university provides for the young and the other for the older student. I’m not sure if this is planned but as I  watched the parade pass before me it felt like the gold watch ceremony for completing 25 years service with the local council.

I was just in time to be one of three communicants at a service in a glorious chantry. The lesser the congregation the greater the share of glory. The priest was a visitor to the city having spent his career divided between chaplaincy at a Cambridge college and singing opera professionally. He was excellent company.

As was the guide in the Wren Library. It was quiet up there and I think he fancied a little conversation that allowed him the veer from the prepared parts of speech. We shared a love of books, of beautiful rooms (the Wren Library was described by Sir Roy Strong as “the most beautiful room in England” and I wouldn’t disagree), of a love of learning, illuminated documents, bookbinding, civil wars and the history of the legend of Robin Hood. We talked for over an hour and I didn’t notice the time go by.

Also an archive photo (with thanks to City of Lincoln) as photography was not allowed in the cathedral libraries.

Further round the cloisters is the Chapter House. Stunning in size and another treat lay in store. The wonderful sound of a violin doing justice to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending drew me in. Artist in residence Dominic Parczuk was enjoying a break from his duties and the amazing acoustics of the chapter house to have a little practice. It was stunning and the impressive thing is that Dominic (a really pleasant, decent, friendly sort) isn’t there to play the violin. That’s just his hobby. He’s a visual artist, and a very good one. Not for the first time that day I felt very privileged indeed.

They’ve gone document crazy in Lincoln this summer. In the gallery at the bottom of the hill is a special exhibition where you can see a cornucopia of the nations most important scrolls, books, letters and laws. Among the exhibits are the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots, Edward VIII abdication letter, the actual scroll of the Act of Settlement 1701, Henry V’s will, stunning and rarely seen portraits from the Queen’s own collection. It is a feast of stuff having a rare outing. Get there before September 5th. It’s normally all housed in London and most of it in vaults rather than on display.

Add to this a first rate regional gallery with some first class paintings including a delightful Stubbs of a spaniel type dog that seemed every bit alive as my sheepdog at home.

I was torn between the train or afternoon tea back at Stokes. I had an appointment that evening so the train won but shall bring the current Mrs J here for tea in the near future.

Even after a hard day’s work my fellow passengers were cheerful and lovely. One girl gave me a smile that made me wonder what it would be like to be thirty years younger and at least twice as handsome.

Go to Lincoln. If there’s a better day out in England this summer I haven’t found it.




Time Travelling in the British Museum


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Pictures and Poems :  Volume 9

In the British Museum by Thomas Hardy

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

When we were at junior school we had history books that asked us to pretend to be time travellers. We were invisible and unable to interact with the travelled-to-world. It worked well. I enjoyed making the imaginary leap. I’ve just been listening to Brian Cox explaining how forward time travel is possible (and once we’ve built rockets that can get close to the speed of light we can really start motoring). It would be one way so no coming back to cash in on what we learnt. I think I’d pass. I’ve spent most of my life travelling through time using books and buildings as my vehicles of choice. They work remarkably well. Unlike HG Wells’ Time Traveller or Marty McFly, I can be in several different zones simultaneously without much danger of committing an act that makes my existence impossible and causing a vortex in the space time continuum.

Old churches do it for me, from the humblest chapels to the mighty minsters. I like to sit and smell the wood and ancient stones and contemplate and sometimes pray, and often I can feel either the sense or presence of those who also sat and thought of time and the apostle Paul a century or two before. Not ghosts. Nothing physical or supernatural. Just ideas. But real. Real at least in idea form, and that’s a sort of reality.I get it in galleries. I’m standing – me, yes me! – in the self same spot that Turner stood with brush in hand. Those are the marks he made. He’s present as much as I am. More so in some ways. In books the writer is with me, in the self-same room. I hear their voice. And the characters, the locations. Hardy doesn’t describe Egdon Heath to me, or Mellstock Church, he takes me there. I hear Clym Yeobright preaching or the hymns sung by the choir.

I don’t care to travel beyond my own country. I thought I would when time and funds were there but I don’t. Modern transport doesn’t appeal and I find plenty to interest me within an hour or two of home. And when I take the train to London I don’t get far from St Pancras where my two favourite buildings are: the British Library and the British Museum. The library an endless source of inspiration and reference but the museum sends me travelling like a temporal astronaut.

I lose all sense of time in there.  I feel connected to everything  both now and then. I’m in Bloomsbury in 2017 and Athens in 483 BC. I move along though Babylon, Egypt, Rome. I’m there (to a greater or lesser extent with each object) and the masons/carvers/sculptors are here. They are present in their work. ‘Look on my works  ye tourists and say, “Wow! This is amazing!”‘

What time is it Dr Wolf? What time is it among the Elgin Marbles? Is it 5th century BC and the world that carved them and placed them on Parthanon pediments? Is it the early years of the nineteenth century as they are removed from the temple and shipped to Britain? Is it 1817 and they are on display? Is it now, the very present moment as I stand and gaze in troubled awe? Is it even earlier in time or legend when Lapiths fought Centaurs? And it is all of these, and more.Poets have been drawn to this national treasure house. They’ve shared the feelings of wonder and doubts that question the presence of artefacts from other cultures, countries and civilisations sitting (beautifully safe, conserved and respected) in a country much further to the north. And they time travel too.

I’ve chosen just two; Thomas Hardy and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Between them they cover a range of thought and time but share a sense of awe and wonder.

In his poem Hardy creates (and partly adopts the persona of) a rustic some decades before his (Hardy’s) own time and places him in front of sculptures taken from Areopagus and sees only ‘ashen blankness’; a time stained stone from the base of a pillar. There’s a dialogue going on in the poem. Is there someone else in the museum with our rustic labourer? Maybe? Or maybe the dialogue is between an imaginary labourer around 1817 and the poet many years later. So we have a dislocation in time. At least two time zones. Add in ourself, in the present as we read, and we have three – all simultaneous. At which point the antiquity of the stone comes into focus. Not just from Ancient Greece but from Areopagus; a mighty rock in ancient Athens. And the rustic knows of the teachings of the apostle Paul; that he gave a sermon from the Areopagus and he knows it well. So well that it has a great significance for him.  We can now add the time zone of Paul; a very specific time when he said that God does not live in objects made by man. Where has the rustic labourer learnt of Paul? The likely answer is either church or school. Or both. Many characters in Hardy’s works take church going and the lessons from the bible seriously which provides support for the church theory. Thus we have our labourer on a Wessex pew listening to the scriptures and transferring this knowledge to an ancient object before him in the museum and bringing them both alive. In a few lines of simple and apparently rational verse Hardy has got us travelling through time like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. And yet the poem seemingly follows a straightforward beginning, middle, end, straight line.

There are many reasons for loving the poem. Many perhaps more important than this. But existing in different moments  simultaneously is an idea that appeals to me almost as much as Hardy’s revolutionary idea, in 1893, of having a working man enter the glorious portals of the British Museum to have a look. And significantly, to respect his thoughts.

In the British Museum

‘You look not quite as if you saw,
But as if you heard,
Parting your lips, and treading softly
As mouse or bird.‘It is only the base of a pillar, they’ll tell you,
That came to us
From a far old hill men used to name
Areopagus.’I know no art, and I only view
A stone from a wall,
But I am thinking that stone has echoed
The voice of Paul,‘Paul as he stood and preached beside it
Facing the crowd,
A small gaunt figure with wasted features,
Calling out loud‘Words that in all their intimate accents
Pattered upon
That marble front, and were far reflected,
And then were gone.

‘I’m a labouring man, and know but little,
Or nothing at all;
But I can’t help thinking that stone once echoed
The voice of Paul.’

by Thomas Hardy

My second British Museum poem is one of the most requested on Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Ozymandias is  widely studied and loved by students and non students alike.

If anything the time zones and scales in this poem are even more complex. Here is a poem written about an object in the museum that was still on board ship bound for England when the poem was written. Thus the poem already (without making it obvious) extended into an unknown future as it left the poet’s pen. The past includes the following separate periods of time (and the list is by no means complete) : the discovery of the broken statue (widely believed to be The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II)* as a historic fact, the poet’s version of the discovery (including a fictional traveller from an antique land), the thousands of years that it remained undiscovered, the parts of the statue that remain lost in real life, the vast and trunkless legs of stone from the poem, the period of time when the statue was originally on public view, the carving of the statue, the reign of the semi-fictional king, Ozymandias and the reign of the actual king, Ramesses. Oh then there is the modern reader reading the poem in the present, the modern reader contemplating the poem later on over a cup of coffee and even the modern visitor to the British Museum doing what I did and standing before the very statue and reading the poem (which is conveniently included in the information plaque to one side). And I did say “Wow!” …several times.



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

 Percy Bysshe Shelley





  • * My photograph is not of the Young Memnon statue. I was so taken by suddenly being confronted by Ozymandias that I forgot to take the picture and I didn’t want to break from my rule of only using my own photographs in these posts.

Sitting in Shakespeare’s Orchard


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Pictures and Poems ; Volume 7

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Sonnet 18 and a Day of Flowers in Stratford

For £25 you can buy a ticket that will allow you to see all of the Shakespeare houses in and around Stratford on Avon. The tickets lasts for 6 months and I, for one, think that a bargain. I’m happy to buy one every year just so long as they don’t expect me to step indoors. They (the powers that be in Shakespeare land) are not at all keen on letting you explore and find a feel of the place for yourself. Once through a doorway, under a lintel, over the threshold, you’re suffocated with tour guide: the set speech; all very well informed and presenting everyone as the dearly beloved and as virtuous as a maiden aunt. It’s dripping with deference to the Ardens, the Hathaways and the Shakespeares. It’s a little too much for the largely disinterested (“I came for the day out with friends, I didn’t need to go back to school”), a little too hearty for the quiet explorer, a bit scratchy for anyone who has got past GCSE level and (delivered by guides and actors in RSC cast-offs) altogether as authentic as the plastic loaves and cheeses spread out on oaken boards behind tasselled (keep out and don’t lean over) ropes.

It suits plenty and I’m happy about that but it doesn’t suit me.The gardens are a different prospect altogether. By no means perfect but it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the attempts to turn the glorious herbal bed at Hall’s Croft into a “Four Humours plot”. The four humours being those identified by Hippocrates in the fifth century BC and largely of metaphorical reference by Shakespeare’s time: black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile. They’re supposed to relate to the 4 elements (Elizabethan science was well ahead of this) of earth, air, fire and water, and the over-riding dominant emotions (temperaments) of sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. There’s a powerful and persuasive argument that Shakespeare’s four great tragedies encapsulate each an element, a humour and a temperament. I wouldn’t mind if this idea was somehow developed instead of digging up a superb section of herbal garden and replacing it with a disappointing section of over-worked, cordoned off, neatly in its place and labelled, dullness. My four reactions are sanguine – it’ll get better if it’s allowed to grow, phlegmatic – well I suppose it could be worse, melancholic – this sadly seems to be the way things are done these days, and choleric – why the hell have they destroyed something wild and free for this contained little project of some history Johnny who can’t tell his goose quill from a ball-point?  But ignoring that, and the twenty-first century habit of putting up dreadful willow sculptures, the gardens are truly wonderful.For decades the gardens have been a blaze of colours; all of them variations on the traditional English cottage garden. And long may this continue. Like the plays and the poems you get more than you can possibly take in while presenting a glorious unity at the same time. Masses of juxtaposed colours, shapes, scents and textures sweep in and out of each other. At Anne Hathaway’s cottage this is taken further with the inclusion of fruits and vegetables: runner beans and peas and currant bushes. All that is lacking is a pig or two in the orchard and some bee hives. Instead of these we get the coaches depositing their hungry-for-culture crews who whisk around the gardens, take their selfies through the willow sculptures and line up for the series of mini-lectures that comprise a visit around the houses (none of which is as it was in Shakespeare’s day).But step a turn away from the well-trodden path and you enter orchards that are even more glorious than the colourful beds. Here the glory is in neglect (they’re not neglected but rather allowed to be as they should be) and wildness. Only about 1 in a hundred visitors venture here and birdsong and butterflies  delight the ear and the eye. The trees are knotty and twisted with age, some gloriously ruffed with mistletoe and hanging with fruits of former times: pears, apples, plums, greengages, damsons, sloes, quince all prosper and grow. No mower has been close, the grass left to grow into the hay that pigs would love. I’m lucky with the weather, vast acres of blue sky with the sort of cloud shapes that make you wish you’d brought your watercolours. The sun warms the grass and leaves fuelling the butterflies and bees and drifting the drowsy scent from blade, bough and ripening fruit.Somewhere far away the sound of a primary schoolyard at play – games we played; tig, hopscotch and closer but separate the shuffle of tourists doing the round of garden, house, shop and tearoom. I wasn’t expecting this hidden place, this very Eden just fifty yards from the honeypot. I love Shakespeare. No matter what they do to him in packaging, production, commercialism or historical accuracy the love remains. It’s in the words and you can carry those around with you, hold them in your hand or your head; speak them through your own mouth which must, and does, make them your own. He says it better than we can and seems to have something for every thing we’ve done or felt.

“There Shakespeare, on whose forehead climb
The crowns o’ the world; oh, eyes sublime
With tears and laughter for all time!”*

“He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there.” **There are more glories beyond the orchards, so many superb places for students and lovers of the plays to rehearse and perform sections, scenes, whole acts, entire plays. Someone (quite pointlessly in my view) has stuck some little quotations on bench and tree and minor sculptors have been licensed to lessen the view. Less is more you curators. Give us flowering borders and rugged orchards and houses we can look round and see for ourselves. We don’t all see Shakespeare the same way nor wish to visit him on the same terms.

I don’t really mind. You can keep the houses for me, (and keep them well). I’m happy to spend the whole afternoon in this overgrown orchard with one who, to me, has always been the object of sonnet 18. I’m surrounded by peace and loveliness. The world is quiet and content. The coach parties are doing their round, the tills are ringing but not for me and my girl. We’re sitting among the summer scents as the present drifts backwards and the words sound finer than ever.

This is close to perfection.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


  • * Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • ** John Dryden

Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron


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Pictures and Poems : Volume 6

Newstead Abbey and Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

England has produced two huge celebrity poets. One was moderately successful during his lifetime, carving out a comfortable living and buying up property in his home town in the Midlands. The other was hugely successful and spent much of his life selling off property in the Midlands to fund a life of poems, passion and adventure. Both are regarded as being in the very highest rank of the world’s greatest writers. Both have left a legacy of works that few have completely read through. Both had three children. One got to 52 and quite possibly died from a sexually transmitted infection. The other died at 36 of typhoid fever while leading a private army in a Greek war of independence.

One’s fame and celebrity has grown exponentially since his death, the other has been quietly diminished. His status as a writer keeps his name alive but his memory has not been celebrated. You can’t move in Stratford on Avon for Shakespeare tea rooms, guided tours, street performers, open top bus rides, endless performances of his works and chances to see the houses he once inhabited. No less than than four theatres have been built specially to show his plays. In Nottinghamshire you can’t get inside Newstead Abbey unless you make special arrangements, and you can walk round the town of Hucknall oblivious to the fact that one of the greatest writers, and most famous Englishman, lived there. A plaque on the side of a pub and and closed down Bingo Hall bear his name. His body lies in the parish church but no great fuss is made.We know very little about Shakespeare. Much of what goes for fact is supposition and there is continued doubt (not shared by me) as to whether he actually wrote the works for which he is famed. Despite this a multi billion dollar world wide industry has grown up around him. We know plenty (perhaps too much for some) about George Gordon. He lived his life in the full blaze of publicity, enjoyed his notoriety, caused scandal with an ease many a modern bad boy would envy. To put their contemporary fame in perspective. Shakespeare was about as well known in his time as film maker Ken Loach is today. Widely respected, admired even, but quite able to walk down the street without being pestered. Byron’s fame on the other hand would put him on a par with Lady Diana. His every utterance published, every move remarked upon and never out of the public eye.

Byron left behind a trail of mistresses and affairs with men and women, abandoned children, an incestuous relationship, incessant and biting criticism of his peers, a revolutionary approach to politics. When told at Cambridge he couldn’t have a dog in the college he returned with a bear. He used his main reception room at Newstead for wrestling matches and pistol practice. Though in the very pinnacle  of writers (only Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer possibly come ahead of him in this country*) he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey. He might not have minded; William Hazlitt said that if he (Byron) had been put there he would have got up and walked straight out. When he was laid to rest in his home town church, much of the aristocracy and many political leaders refused to attend.He was labelled by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb (imagine a cross between a young Liz Hurley and JK Rowling) as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. He was quite the boyo!

He still gets read but I am not alone in wishing he was more widely known. His works are beautifully structured, dazzlingly provocative and often very funny. He tells a story well and is second to none in a gift for pricking pretension. Apparently he could reel off iambic pentameters at the speed of normal speech. At his death his brain was weighed at 5 pounds rather than the average 3 pounds. He was born with club foot and was severely hindered by this and yet was an admired athlete who once swam the 4 miles of heavy currents we call the Hellespont.

He was in almost every way a most remarkable man.

I’ve chosen two of his shorter poems. (The long ones are very long indeed!) One is perhaps his most famous and justly so. It is true beauty. I’ll let it speak for itself.

She Walks in Beauty Like the Night

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.


And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

George Gordon (Lord Byron)

The second is read by almost every visitor to Newstead Abbey. You can’t always get into the house (a pity because it is well worth it)  so visitors make a sedate and leisurely stroll around the grounds and gardens (beautifully looked after by Nottingham City Council). One by one they settle in front of what looks like a memorial near the ruined chapel. It is in fact the grave of a dog and on it are two pieces of writing. The first (often attributed to Byron) is actually written by the poet’s  friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse knew Byron for many years and saw a remarkable man, a brilliant man, a man worth knowing.In this simple verse dedicated to his dog we see so many of the qualities we would like to find in anyone we would call friend. When I go to Newstead, which is often, I take time to read the verse anew. It’s a lovely place and a first class day out but there isn’t a great deal to tell you about who the poet was; particularly when the buildings are closed. The simple grave and the simple verse (and dedication) give an insight into the man and provide some answers to why he was so incredibly popular.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.



  • Happy to be corrected here
  • ** The vault of Hucknall Church also contains the body of his daughter, Ada Lovelace; one of the great female mathematicians.

November Graveyard by Sylvia Plath


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Pictures and Poems : Volume 6

When I was sixteen I read a poem called ‘You’re’  and  fell in love with it. The imagery was unlike anything I’d read, the vocabulary was from somewhere other than where I’d spent my formative years and the grammatical leaps were unsettling and pleasing at the same time. “A common sense thumbs down on the dodo’s mode”. As my generation were to become so fond of saying: what’s that all about? Some weeks earlier I’d experienced something similar when a friend played me Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It opened new doors, so different yet so familiar. I was drawn into both of them and spent the rest of the summer; the summer I left school to enter the real world, woefully ill-equipped, with a few unimpressive certificates, a love of Bob Dylan and cool jazz and a belief that Sylvia Plath wrote upbeat, happy poems about children yet unborn.

You’re by Sylvia Plath

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,

Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,

Gilled like a fish. A common-sense

Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.

Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,

Trawling your dark as owls do.

Mute as a turnip from the Fourth

Of July to All Fools’ Day,

O high-riser, my little loaf.


Vague as fog and looked for like mail,

Farther off than Australia,

Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn,

Snug as a bud and as home

Like a sprat in a pickle jug.

A creel of eels, all ripples,

Jumpy as a Mexican bean,

Right, like a well-done sum.

A clean slate, with your own face on.

It’s a wonderful piece that hasn’t lost any of its appeal. In addition to the imagery, grammar and peculiarities it is also clever enough to be impressive (in the how did she manage that…I couldn’t do that…Could you do that? sense) and its totally unique. Here is a true poetic voice singing strong and clear and full of love and love of life.

Depressives (for she was one) don’t spend their lives choosing to be half in love with easeful death. They enjoy life; sing,  dance and write poetry to explore the unbelievable beauty of the world. They fall in love, experience pain and  have a down side that can be almost an exact mirror image. It isn’t baggy white linen shirts and wandering around ruined medieval piles saying “Woe is me” as a once popular view of the Romantics suggests. Nor is it a desire to be seen as somehow supremely sensitive beings who, if understood properly, would open up the truth of the world. It doesn’t make them special; it’s a double edged sword that can bring higher highs but also lows that can border on unendurable.

Plath has become something of the poster girl pin-up for the angst-ridden, the misunderstood, those who wish to wear their introversion extrovertly. And the irony is that this has made her one of the most misunderstood poets in the canon.

There are two histories: one a true one that we can only view through time, the eyes of others and the poetry. Ignore the one that treats Ted Hughes as a monstrous villain. A little learning in a closed mind is a dangerous thing.We enter the churchyard through a small close where a cheerful woman is throwing a ball to the friendliest of dogs. Those who were born in Heptonstall are a lovely bunch. Those who came here have less to feel proud about.  Hughes and Plath moved in the fifties. I don’t think they’d move back now.

But the churchyard is spectral; a mass of graves like a stoneyard from a gothic novel, quite splendid in its unkempt state. Plath is buried in the field across Back Lane. It’s a sad and forlorn place. It’s still in use and the sadness of the valley is reflected here in more suicides, so many young people; two brothers who didn’t make 30 both victims of heroin and a belief in drugs. Some attempts have been made to tend her plot. Some flowers appropriate and some not. For some reason pilgrims, aware of her status as a great writer, have stuck some cheap ball point pens; the sort you give out to a class who are unlikely to return them, close to the stone. It’s a gesture somewhere between tasteless and insult.Like W.B. Yeats she had written about the place where she would come to rest. Her poetry is at its best once she found the voice that gave expression to the mental torment. Her end seemed, as Germaine Greer has said, inevitable. I didn’t shed a tear as I read November Graveyard, with no-one around it seemed a decent thing to do, but I’m almost crying as I type these words the morning after.

We shared a few minutes silence and walked slowly towards Lumb Bank and the views across to Stoodley Pike.


November Graveyard

The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last  leaves, won’t mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
To elegiac dryads, and dour grass
Guards the hard-hearted emerald of its grassiness
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. So no dead men’s cries

Flower forget-me-nots between the stone
Paving this grave ground. Here’s honest rot
To unpick the elaborate heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein. When one stark skeleton
Bulks real, all saints’ tongues fall quiet:
Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.

At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare,
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.

Sylvia Plath


The rest is silence…