On Sale Now

On Sale Now
The Gift

On Sale Now

On Sale Now
Anthony Trollope: Power, Land, and Society 1847 - 1980

Out Now!

Friday, 12 October 2018

The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis, one of the great comic novelists of the C20th, was reputedly in terminal decline by the mid 1980s, his faculties blunted by alcoholic abuse. To show there was life in the old dog yet, he won the Booker prize in 1986 for his book, ‘The Old Devils.

The story focuses on old friends from Wales, all of them retired and with little to do but start drinking soon after breakfast—usually in seedy pubs, none of them pleasant. They moan and bitch, are outrageously rude and wouldn’t know political correctness if it hit them flat in the face. ‘Show me a Welsh Nationalist and I’ll show you a cunt.’

But over the course of the book, they forgive each other’s faults and past betrayals. They show tolerance, indeed tenderness for Dorothy, an uncontrolled alcoholic who will talk nonstop on New Zealand tribal customs—given the chance. The trick lies in keeping the conversation going, for should there be a lull the task would be akin to starting  'a motorcycle in the path of a charging elephant’

The warmth and wisdom lies in the exploration of mutual infirmities, bowel movements and farting, and the ever-deepening shadow of approaching death.

Why has this book come suddenly to mind?

Well, this weekend I’m off to a reunion of some old and special friends from the deep past. In those days you made your own way to University carrying what you might need in a single large suitcase. 
 It was a dark Swansea night, and I had just wandered off from the train trusting in the assurance that the university had found me accommodation. Before I knew it, I was bundled into a white van like a Hezbollah hostage and there met the bunch of people I’d spend most of my university career living, working and drinking together.
We ended up in a strange boarding house, later found a large house overlooking a park, and developed  a friendship that, however loose, has lasted for decades. Life is a vigorous bagatelle, and I doubt not we’ll be split on politics and the Brexit chasm currently splitting the country, but real friendship transcends trivialities.
So, the OldDevils  are descending on Swansea. No doubt some beer will be drunk, but I have no intention of discussing bowel movements unless the others do first.

Below are three old photos that, for me, capture the unworldly magic of Swansea University and where we occasionally swam.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

We go so you don't have to


One hot day in late summer we went to Malvern, listed as Malferna in the Domesday Book 1086 and classified as woodland. The name is ancient British moel-bryn or ‘Bare-Hill. The modern Welsh equivalent is Moelfryn or ‘bald hill’. The area is rich in prehistoric remains, being positioned on a major ancient trade route connecting the salt mines of Droitwich Cheshire to South Wales, but with only a day to spare – a very hot day – we limited ourselves to the town and the Priory.

It’s sobering to consider that this great building  developed from a small settlement of Saxon hermits headed by the martyred St Werstan and favoured by Edward The Confessor. When the Normans came its fortunes looked up as did its architecture. 

The romanesque arches and heavy pillars are early Norman.

The Benedictines founded what is now the Priory its second and perhaps greatest prior being Walcher of Lorraine. He led a medieval mathematical revolution, observing the phases of the moon using the astrolabe and, with Robert the Lotheringian, he translated key Arabic works as well as Arabic numerals into England. 

The monks were blessed with some beautifully carved misericords allowing them to surreptitiously sit while apparently standing. 

Grotesque face

Witch on broomstick

Green man

The priory was greatly extended in the C15th and benefited from the patronage of both Richard III and Henry VII. The former commissioned the great West window showing Doomsday in stained glass, Henry, the fabulous Magnificat window showing Mary the mother of God in a blue cloud studded in stars.
If you zoom ins, Mary is ensconced in the cloud, (blue wreath) near the top.

It’s even more sobering to consider how close all this was to being obliterated, when Henry VIII dissolved and sold off the monasteries (1536-1540). The Lady Chapel was sold for a £1 and was knocked down, the stone no doubt being cannibalised for other buildings. The Cloisters and South transept were similarly destroyed, the lead removed from the roofs. The Priory Church, however, was saved by the 105 families of Malvern. They petitioned the king and bought it from him for the princely sum of £20. After doing so, there was no money left to adequately maintain it. That was left – like most things – to the Victorians who restored it to its former glory.

One great peculiarity is this magnificent tomb of  John Knotsford, his wife and his daughter. Why peculiar? it holds the corpse of one of the men who destroyed much of the priory before the village bought what was left. Such historical quirks hide stories yet to be told.

The great East window showing the Crucifixion and resurrection and behind you
the West window depicting Judgement day.  On a sunny day, a worshipper would be bathed in the light from both.
In fact where-ever you stood, you'd be bathed in coloured light. Malvern Priory holds the greatest number of late medieval stained glass in the country. God bless those 105 families who raised £20.

And since it was the Victorians who restored it, it seems only proper that on her Golden Jubilee,
Queen Victoria had her own window—her great nephew, the Kaiser in red military uniform stands behind her.  Another quirk of history, I guess. 

Friday, 28 September 2018

Where there's muck there's brass

There is fake news, and there is just downright weird news. I’m discounting the idiocies of Gwyneth Paltrew’s Gloop site where indispensable items like ‘Toxi-free casserole dishes retail at $1220. The buyer is assured that it is Gwyneth’s favourite cooking utensil. Yeah right. One presumes that Jade Eggs - $66 stone eggs ‘inserted daily’ (You figure it out) truly do ‘increase sexual energy and pleasure,’ and that a $85 Medicine bag containing crystals that have been ‘energetically cleansed with sage tuned with sound waves, activated with mantras, and blessed with Reiki’’ will cure the common cold; and that a $38 pot of Sex dust will make up for any shortcomings should the Jade egg fails.

There are scales of weirdness: intelligent bathrooms – showers that respond to barked instructions and intelligent toilets that anticipate your needs and obey your instructions. I have a personalised bladder and a fairly predictable bowel movement, for those itching to know. I’m not convinced I need an intelligent toilet to pre-empt either. Though a warm seat might be nice in winter. More to the point, much of these developments will be attuned to Alexa, and to my way of thinking, Big Brother knows more than enough about us without knowing our toilet habits, too.

And speaking of toilet habits, did you know you can make soap from cow dung? Surprisingly not a Gloop product though I suspect It’s only a matter of time—no doubt given added value via mantras, numerous Reiki blessings – and charged with sexual energy.

One final thought. In Sri Lanka paper is manufactured from elephant dung and varies in consistency and colour depending on the dietary habits of  contributory elephants. We just need one smart entrepreneur—a cross between Elon Musk and Gwyneth—to market world excrement in the interests of conservation and trees.

Friday, 21 September 2018

In Praise of Oxford Sauce

When I was a child HP sauce was ubiquitous. I abhorred it. I tolerate it if it’s there and I’m faced with a particularly bland sausage. I wanted to like their tomato sauce, Ketchup too, largely because the colour looked striking on fried egg. Similarly disappointing, sweet, slightly vinagery and a touch of something else you can’t put your finger on. Tomato possibly.

And then last year, I had a moment. St Paul discovered Jesus on the road to Damascus. I discovered Oxford Sauce. I’m still in search of the former.

It was a Christmas stocking filler for my daughter from an imaginative aunt and it lasted almost a year. Because of its richness, a little goes a very long way—which is just as well for it is a damned hard thing to find. If you're lucky, you may find a bottle in obscure village shops in the Cotswolds or the occasional delicatessen. Our last bottle was bought in Moreton in Marsh – unsurprisingly the last bottle on the shelf – though the lady informed us there was a bottle in Stow-on-the-wold. They are rarer than unicorns though Unicorns are notoriously tough, else melt like fairy dust on the tongue.

Just examine the ingredients on the bottle below and imagine the impact of them on the tongue. Apparently the decimal point on the chilli content was mis-read at the time of conception.

For those who fail in their quest for the Grail, the Unicorn or Oxford Sauce

Stokes Brown Sauce comes a reasonable second, though it does leave a residue of grunge on the top of the bottle according to one acerbic reviewer. It has body, but less subtlety, consisting of vinegar , date puree and black treacle with various spices.* But to show you how even brown sauce can arouse strong passions just read a review I discovered on one supermarket site:

Stokes is real brown sauce for people who knows what that means. It doesn't tolerate blandness in any way. It's spiky zesty taste grabs your tongue on a full out assault and then knocks you forward into breakfast. Full on, powerful a hefty dose of real time food trembles on your plate. You taste it again surely you were mistaken but no; there's molasses sweetness which punch in hard with the spicy aftertaste. It's as if it is on a full on competition with your sausage uppercut savoury and undercut sweet. Round one knockout this is a sauce that doesn't mess about and neither should you. Do your family a favour and buy some Stokes!!

And all I can say, is if he (I'm assuming it's a 'he,' women tend to be less obsessional) thinks Stokes is that good I'd expect no less than the Iliad should he ever experience Oxford Sauce.


Malt Vinegar (from Barley), Unrefined Raw Cane Sugar, Tomato Puree, Date Puree (9%) (Dates, Water), Black Treacle (8%), Cornflour, Seasoning (Coriander, Ginger, Clove, Cinnamon, Pepper, Cayenne Pepper), Sea Salt, Preservative: Sorbic Acid
It boasts a closely guarded secret recipe, which it then prints on the bottle. 
HP Sauce has a tomato base, blended with malt vinegar and spirit vinegarSugars(molasses, glucose-fructose syrup, sugar), dates, cornflour, rye floursaltspices and tamarind.