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Friday, 10 August 2018

Beware those wearing wigs

A Mr. Bullock (I’m not making it up) has complained about cows mooing next to his home and as a result, Leeds City Council have set up recording equipment around the offending farm to monitor the sound over a period of twelve months before reaching any decision.

I’m considering making a similar request apropos the seagulls who wake us up each morning between 5.30 and 6 am. What in God’s name are seagulls doing in Monmouth? There’ll be trawlers up the high street next, old ladies slapping their thighs and singing sea shanties. It’s not on. But then a lot of strange things are happening with birds at the moment.

Feral chickens for one. Gangs of feral chickens have been terrorising the island of Jersey. Some one’s counted them. Six gangs apparently, with the largest one amounting to 100 chickens. They also wake up residents early in the morning, wreck gardens and disrupt traffic. Give me cows any day.

But back on to seagulls. It seems they’ve discovered the joys of urban living, one walking into a Greggs pie shop and walking out again with a bag of crisps in its beak. They’ve also discovered the joys of alcohol, but not as yet cigarettes. In Devon, Dorset and Somerset they’re scavenging leftover alcohol. In Taunton the RSPCA had to treat up to 30 gulls after they were found passed out or staggering around in a boozy haze. One even vomited on a firefighter who was trying to rescue it from a rooftop. They stink of alcohol and rescue vans smell like pubs on a Saturday night.

Sober gulls, too, are a nuisance. One writer has complained bitterly about incontinent gulls in Aldeburgh. The sea front is splattered with the stuff, buildings caked, even cars if parked for more than an hour. One resident complained: “It’s like the Dam-busters this summer, but with shit.” A follow up letter however put things in perspective. Seagull shit is water-soluble. Heavy rain will soon clear it up. Pigeons on the other hand . . . their plop does not clear up in the rain and has the consistency of chewing gum.

Mr Bullock, are you listening?

But to end with my own Alfred Hitchcock experience. I was walking in Iceland (sorry about that) when an Arctic Tern dived bombed me scraping my head with its talons. Had I been wearing a wig, it would have been gone. Our tour-guide explained why.

We were walking by a nesting area and Arctic Terns have no time for idiots. They are sometimes called paradise birds because they follow the sun, every year flying from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back again. Thus they enjoy two summers and the longest period of daylight than any other creature. Mind you, whether it’s worth it is debatable, flying 12000 miles there, and 12,000 miles back.

  In the Arctic they breed during the period when the sun never sets. I guess, having invested so much in the whole process, they don’t take lightly anyone walking anywhere near their eggs or chicks. Having said that, they keep themselves to themselves, neither mooing, boozing, or shitting all over you, but beware those wearing wigs.

** Metro
*** Cornell

Friday, 3 August 2018

Zombie Barnacles

We live in an era of fake news, though it may be more accurately termed ‘Pick-and-Mix’ news. Facts are omitted, others given undue prominence, but all interpreted and glossed to appeal to our separate and vociferous tribes.

In this beautifully produced book, William Cross does a scholarly hatchet job on the National Trust, the present guardians of Tredegar House. He is concerned with facts and demolishing the myths that have encrusted themselves around the now defunct Morgan dynasty like barnacles—Zombie barnacles—for they have an unholy life of their own. It’s part and parcel of human nature, I suppose, for it is also fake news that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction often trumps truth.  We love a good story, and sometimes truth just gets in the way. In this respect, Will Cross has done an heroic job. Time will see if the zombie barnacles are truly dead.

For the curious, these are just some of the myths explored and demolished.
The Morgans were descended from Welsh princes
Tredegar House has 365 windows, one for every day of the year. (It has seventy-three)
Henry Morgan the pirate was an ancestor of the Morgans of Tredegar House.

In 1758, Charles Gould married Jane Morgan for love
Few married for love in that day and age. We have a contemporary account of the union:
“I have,” answered he (Mr Thomas Morgan of Ruperra) “two girls. One is handsome; the other, not so well endowed by nature. In order to repair that deficiency, I mean to give her fifteen hundred pounds as a marriage portion. To her sister I shall only give one thousands. Which of them would you wish to have?”
Gould replied: “Allow me to enquire, which is the eldest?”
“The plain girl,” Morgan replied.
“Then if you please, sir, I’ll have her.”
Both sides were satisfied, especially when Charles changed his name from Gould to Morgan in order to preserve the family line. 

A tale that is not a myth but an interesting story nevertheless concerns the two sons of Charles and Jane—John Morgan and Charles Morgan. Both fought in the American revolutionary wars, John killed in action at sea, and Charles captured by the Americans at York Town. Before the surrender, an American soldier, Captain Huddy was captured and executed without trial. Hardly surprising. As Captain in the Monmouth militia he murdered those who remained loyal to the Crown. Even so, it was a bad call by a CaptainLippincott. It is, though, worth bearing in mind that Huddy had murdered several of Lippincott's relatives.

In consequence George Washington ordered thirteen British officers to draw lots for who would be executed in retaliation for Captain Huddy’s death. They were each handed a folded paper—twelve blank and one with one just one word, Unfortunate. Charles Morgan was fortunate. Captain Asgill of the Coldstream Guards less so, opening up his death sentence. All ended well however when he was reprieved after an intervention by the Queen of France. A different age.

But back to the myths:
Sir Briggs was buried standing up. To explain, Sir Briggs was a Morgan horse that survived the Crimean war and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Named after a servant of that name ‘Briggs’ the horse was unnoficially knighted and was buried standing up. There is no evidence at all for those last two claims.  
A golden gondola on Tredegar Park lake
Evan Morgan’s parrot bit Herman Goering’s nose.
After Evan’s death, a  black box of secrets was buried in the grounds of Tredegar House
The myths are first class and you want them to be true, but all are beautifully debunked in this readable and lavishly produced book.

Friday, 27 July 2018


I had promised faithfully not to get drunk or be embarrassing in anyway during the cruise— the latter being a bit of a tall order. I majored in embarrassment. The problem was, we had signed up for a £200 drink’s package to cover our ten days. This took some careful and methodical planning, but I am glad to report that at the end of the cruise I was in profit by the princely sum of £80. 35 p. As they say, you can take the boy out of Liverpool . . .

It was easy to sip lager staring out at as fjiords and mountains slipped by, sometimes harder to read as landscapes merged into reverie and the occasional whale. We are in Northern Iceland, touching the Arctic circle. 

And reading was one of the great attractions of the cruise. Unless you paid an exorbitant sum for Internet connection, you were cut off from every distraction, other than planning when you’d have your next drink. Truth was, I was on the verge of being burned out after a prolonged period of writing – scripts, novels and short stories. It was good to just do nothing and read, and sip drinks and eat and put on significant weight (all of which has since gone, though that required serious amounts of porridge and water.)
This is my last post on Iceland, so I’ll end up with our one significant walk from  Seydistfjordur to the Vestalseyri valley and waterfalls in in the mountains. The photos speak for themselves. I hope.

The walk starts

A gentle incline at first. I'm not fooled.

And now we're pretty high up. A river but no waterfall as yet. 

In winter there can be some devastating floods.

Call that a waterfall?

Hmm, a bit better

My favourite picture 

So good, I snapped it twice.

These three pictures of the plateau cannot capture the absolute silence - when not broken by an 
Curlew or Arctic Tern

Okay, Okay another waterfall but are we getting any nearer yet?

Promising. The noise is deafening.

And we've arrived. 

Homeward bound. At least it's down hill.
The ship! Looking forward to that first drink and then dinner

A nice ice cold lager. And ooh look, a whale albeit a shy one.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Isafjordur and Akureyri

Always exciting pulling into a new port. These are Akureyri and Isafjordur respectively

Isafjordur - the port is functional and bleak.

Isafjordur, a walk along the fjord

We met a remarkable tour guide who told us how his grandparents had lived in a turfhouse, which were still being built in the early C20th, when, it was calculated, there existed over 100, 000 of them.  

Part of the reason may well have been that being partly underground they were well insulated; warmth being valued more than smoke and poor ventilation. There were other reasons, too, one being the scarcity of trees in Iceland. When the Norse first arrived, it’s estimated 30 % of the landscape was covered by trees, but deforestation and slow growth because of the harsh climate meant that wood soon became in short supply. Trees are still relatively scarce,  though many have now been imported, some from as far away as Siberia.

When someone asked about stone houses, the guide, a local geologist,  told us that the Danish king had forbidden the import of mortar and cement into Iceland for fear they might have built stone forts in a struggle for independence. Basalt, (the local lava rock) is apparently unsuitable for dry-stone walling. This and the unsuitability of bricks in the Icelandic climate made for interesting and ingenious alternatives. Forget IKEA, Iceland is the spiritual home of prefabrication.

Concrete has liberated Iceland, that and corrugated iron, and of course prefabrication. What could be utilitarian and bland is made less so  by an emphasis on colour. 

We walked through streets of beautifully painted houses, simple  but elegant and weirdly out of place in a bleak and over powering landscape, like beads strewn on hillside and meadows. The colour would be all they going for them in winter and darkness.  A tribute to the human spirit.

The first port we called in at was Isafjordur, where, in the tourist information office, a young bearded guy guided us on with a map of the town, linking various members of his extended family. to the places where we should visit. These included his mother and grandmother, his wife's family and the hospital where he was born. The town centre is marked by some cobbling and three trees.

Isafjordur Culture House, once the old hospital, now a beautifully equipped library.
With a population of just 2,551, this library would put most of our libraries to shame. It shames Monmouth (pop 11,000)  with a library staffed by volunteers and which doubles up with a 'One Stop Shop'


                         Isafjordur - a tad bleak just here,  but for the Germanic looking hotel.

                                                 Isafjordur houses

A bar in  Akureyri in Northern Iceland. 
I drank my first Icelandic beer here. 

* Courtesy of Lydur Skulason from Iceland