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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Harewood House

I love old houses for much the same reason I loved Billy Bunter and stories of public schools, highwaymen and cavaliers as a child. All fed the imagination of one brought up in a grid pattern of red brick terraces. Make no mistake; I loved the streets I grew up in but only after they’d been transformed into gullies and canyons or streets haunted by cold-eyed Gestapo . . . and worse. Now I wander old houses, castles and churches but this time to write rather than read and imagine. A case in point is the Lascelles family who briefly pop up in a yet to be released book.

The Lascelles came over with William the Conqueror and have been kicking around Yorkshire ever since. They're still  there and quite likely will be in the C22nd. They've been around a long time.
In the English Civil war they were for most of the time on the winning side siding with Oliver Cromwell and later sided with William of Orange, the opportunist Dutchman who dethroned James II, the last Stuart king. But it is Henry Lascelles (1690 – 1749) that set the foundations of their subsequent wealth—much of which came from their large sugar plantations in Barbados. Oozing money, Henry Lascelles purchased the Harewood estate in 1738, but cut his own wrists in 1753, going to prove money doesn’t buy everything.

Four years later his son, Edwin Lascelles began building the house that was finally completed in 1771.

In 1784, Edwin’s brother Daniel died childless. Edwin took over his inheritance and thus became the proud possessor of 22 plantations, 27,000 acres in the West Indies and nearly 3,000 slaves. We are talking about £28 million in today’s money added to what he’d already inherited from his father. The house served the Lascelles well until the 1840’s when Henry Lascelles, the third Earl of Harewood, decided that with thirteen children, he needed more space. Second storeys were added to each of the flanking wings to provide the necessary bedrooms. The house as we see it today is the direct result of Henry’s fecundity and the architect Sir Charles Barry.

The very formal parterre and terrace were also added during this period of improvement. 

We walked a lot.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

There is a tide in the affairs of men . . .

'There is a tide in the affairs of men' sounds better as a title than ‘displacement activity.’ I can’t say language has improved over the years. This morning I woke up ready to slip into my usual routine until the realisation that my ‘usual routine’ had gone. I had just finished a book (yet to be edited) It was something I’d been looking forward to – finishing the damn thing – and I had all these other projects seething in the background, shouting out ‘Me next! Me!” These include several short stories and a more serious work on Anthony Trollope. The latter I thought I’d finished until it dawned on me I had yet to read two of his Irish novels, novels that might modify my general thesis. I'm currently finishing Castle Richmond with the Land-Leaguers yet to come.

 So, lots of stuff, but when I woke up I realised I wanted none of it. Not burnout exactly, more a need for breathing time and space – and activity. Above all activity.

This morning I transplanted an ailing Rhododendron bush from its pot into the garden. It had once stood guard over the front door but was appearing steadily sicker as the weeks passed. Each time I slipped the key into the lock I sensed or imagined a stern, reproachful stare. So this morning I wrenched it from it’s  very large pot—no easy thing—dug an even larger hole in the garden and bunged the damn thing  in.

 It still doesn’t look very happy, as you can see but much the same thing happened to its ‘parent’ three years ago, and its transplantation brought it back from the dead. I’m expecting great things.

Next I noticed ivy taking over what we laughingly call a lawn. ‘Bastard,' I muttered and went to it, digging out leaves and stems and leaving a substantial stretch of bald earth. Bulbs have been planted and the baldness re-seeded.

And now, marginally refreshed, I’m blogging about the whole miserable business because, at the moment, it’s the only thing I think I'm capable of. After this I'm off to tidy my desktop and organise an army of photographs, perhaps even cull my inbox of emails read and forgotten. 

As George Harrison said in one of his finest albums, ‘All things must pass.’
Post script:
Just to show my life has a little more excitement than digging holes I've included some more photos from our last visit to the Cotswolds, a small village known as Upper and Lower Slaughter. 

Lower Slaughter has been inhabited for over a thousand years and is recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Sclostre’. Its name comes from the old English for ‘Muddy Place’ which is not surprising since the River Eye runs right through the village. In a sense it epitomises the old saying ‘Where’s there’s muck there’s brass’ for nothing has been built or changed there since 1906 and now it’s a honeypot for Japanese tourists and eccentric Englishmen.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Earstoday, all my troubles . . .

It had been a hard morning at the gym made worse by my final session on the treadmill. Dylan’s Isis came up on shuffle, which I like. The song takes me on a journey, there are some juicy soundbites, my favourite being: ‘The snow it was outrageous,’ but it doesn’t last long enough. The tune that came up next was Scott Joplin’s The Entertainor – only four and a half minutes but it exhausted me keeping up with the bloody dancing piano.

I was ready for my Waitrose Coffee and banana.

I didn’t know there was worse yet to come.

Part of the ritual is choosing the banana, preferabley large and just touching ripeness. At the counter I’m always greeted with: ‘Your usual, sir?” which makes me feel grand, like I belong to a venerable gentleman’s club somewhere in the vicinity of St James’ Square. Admittedly there are no roaring fires or plush leather chairs, and the illusion lasts a mere second or two, longer if I close my eyes and slop coffee all over the place.

I sat near a window, giving me a view of Monnow Street and the bus station, which, to be honest, is geared more for stagecoaches. The question now was which to to first: peel the banana or open the newspaper.

At that moment, she spoke.

It was Princess Margaret or someone channelling her spirit.

I read somewhere recently that the late Princess had a distinctive diction, pronouncing ‘yes’ as ‘ears’ and ‘no’ as ‘nyah.’ Try it some time. It becomes quite addictive though everyone around you will think you a prick.

Anyway, one of those was sitting behind me, holding forth in voice like a corncrake only louder. In the space of twenty minutes I knew – along with half of Waitrose – her views on Brexit, her eldest child’s schooling—he’s dreadful at maths but he has a very poor teacher, and that she thought the recent tornadoes in the Americas were really quite dreadful. 

I couldn’t understand how she was able to breathe and talk with such speed without the hint of a break. I wondered who she was talking to, and why the hell they didn’t say something, anything—like 'shut up woman'. I risked a casual glance round as though inspecting the air. Her companion was another woman who nodded a lot and occasionally brushed crumbs from her jeans.

Princess Corncrake possessed a toddler neatly encased in a pushchair . Like me, he was approaching the end of his tether and risked a small howl.

“Really, Jasper, that is quite unacceptable!” She threw him a crayon, one of a few she had on the table, and returned to commenting on the weather: ‘perfectly beastly for the coming weekend.’
Jasper, not unreasonably howled louder, which earned another rebuke. “Jasper, that is quite enough!  You really must exercise more social control.” She spoke to him like he was a badly behaved dog, but used bigger words. ‘He can be a little anti-social at times,” she said by way of apology to her friend and the cafĂ© in general.

When I got home I was asked the usual question. ‘Gym good?’

“Ears,” I said. “Waitrose, Nyah.” I started humming Earstoday and wondered what other songs might be similarly improved