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. Simon
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The rest is silence…
“But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.”
Above the harbour at Scarborough, between the castle and the ancient church is a small graveyard much visited for the sake of a single grave. That of Anne Brontë. Visitors are divided between pilgrims and passers by. Some have read her novels and admire her as being the third great novelist from a remarkable family. Many enjoy a few minutes repose and the inspiring views out over the south bay and beyond along the Yorkshire cliffs and headlands towards Bempton, unaware of just why the grave is marked as special.
I like to sit there. If you go in the evening there’s a better than even chance that you’ll have the place to yourself. I occasionally converse with the incumbent of the grave. Silently of course; I like to keep my madness to myself. And the conversations are not all one-way. It’s a good place to feel poetic. Scarborough is a handsome town and there is nowhere better to appreciate its charms. Reaching the spot isn’t easy though. From whichever direction you come its a haul. The best way is straight up from the harbour: a mix of historic ginnels, lanes and handsome terraces. Steep rows rising up literally through Paradise (the name of the hill just below the churchyard). A few post war developments don’t tick any beauty boxes and mark areas bombed in the first world war. Scarborough, along with Hartlepool, was the unlikely first victim of enemy shelling. You have to earn your rest, which is one of the messages hidden in the metaphors of the poem. Pleasure can come with pain, kindness with hurt, love with betrayal, heaven (whatever that means to you) is often attained through hardship; restful bliss through endurance. It’s a hell of a place to contemplate poetic philosophy.
The place caused controversy in 2010 when the church made the lower half of the graveyard into a pay and display car park. Richard Wilcocks of the Brontë Society was asked his opinion: “Car parking in church grounds and on reclaimed churchyards will always be controversial, and I would not wish to comment on the rights and wrongs of the church allowing their land to be used in this way, but would certainly respect that personal opinions will be varied.” It could be used as a starting point on using words to say nothing and demonstrates a faux diplomacy I don’t associate with any of the Brontë sisters.
And being able to drive to the grave takes away the effort required to fully enjoy the calm and the view. It’s the rose without the thorn.
As a footnote I might add that the grave is now largely eroded to the point whereby you can no longer read the inscription. A plaque has been placed there to remedy this. Very few words were used. Nothing about her achievements in poetry and novel writing or a short career in teaching.
“Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, daughter of the Revd P Brontë, incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire. She died aged 28, May 28th 1849.”
No, just who her father was and the date she died and her age, which the stone carver got wrong. She was 29. I’ve lived exactly twice as long and done so much less. I may not be able to write like her (few can) but I can read and appreciate the wonder in her poetry, in Agnes Grey and The Tennant of Wildfell Hall. She helped establish a feminist literature which examines oppression and isolation and the sacrifices that are made to survive and pursue happiness. Few regard her as being as great as her sisters (incidentally Charlotte chose this resting place for Anne) but Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights set the bar very high. I think she matches them. There were truly three great writers in that family.
Sitting near her grave on a summer’s evening as the lights begin to glow below in the old town is a good place to contemplate her thoughts.
The Narrow Way
Believe not those who say
The upward path is smooth,
Lest thou shouldst stumble in the way,
And faint before the truth.
It is the only road
Unto the realms of joy;
But he who seeks that blest abode
Must all his powers employ.
Bright hopes and pure delights
Upon his course may beam,
And there, amid the sternest heights
The sweetest flowerets gleam.
On all her breezes borne,
Earth yields no scents like those;
But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.
Arm—arm thee for the fight!
Cast useless loads away;
Watch through the darkest hours of night,
Toil through the hottest day.
Crush pride into the dust,
Or thou must needs be slack;
And trample down rebellious lust,
Or it will hold thee back.
Seek not thy honor here;
Waive pleasure and renown;
The world’s dread scoff undaunted bear,
And face its deadliest frown.
To labor and to love,
To pardon and endure,
To lift thy heart to God above,
And keep thy conscience pure;
Be this thy constant aim,
Thy hope, thy chief delight;
What matter who should whisper blame,
Or who should scorn or slight?
What matter, if thy God approve,
And if, within thy breast,
Thou feel the comfort of His love,
The earnest of His rest?
Midsummer Madness Theatre Company
Some shots from rehearsal and set-up.
I have a few photographs from Midsummer Madness’ Twelfth Night from a few years ago. The archivist in me says I should use this blog to collect as complete a record as I can of our annual Shakespeare family picnics by the Avon. We’ve actually been going to watch Shakespeare plays in Stratford since 1976 but the RSC people aren’t that keen on you taking photographs of their plays so I settle for a pic or two of the free festival performances outside in The Dell: especially those with friends and family involved. The family picnics now rank with Christmas as occasions for the clan to come together. Actually its the only event that regularly attracts from both branches of the family. Something that is often reserved for weddings elsewhere. We’ve been doing it for years now and not a single fight has broken out.
These are all of the set-up and last minute rehearsals. If memory serves this was not only an enjoyable performance but also a brave one with several last minute changes of cast and actors learning lines and moves in only a few days. The sun shines and crowds gather. It’s delightful to see the variety of people who are attracted to these plays; a far wider spectrum than you’ll find in the main houses. I like those who come across a play as they do their tourist stroll, decide to watch for a minute or two and are still there an hour later.
Sun And Moon Theatre in Stratford on Avon
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (Illustrated and Slightly Abridged)