Second book in the Gift Trilogy

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The Gift

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Friday, 16 August 2019

Damsons gone rogue

Are damson trees sentient? Are some wilful? Can some turn rogue? From a tree that appeared to be on its last legs, a branch emerged. We thought nothing of it. And then it charged. In slow motion, admittedly, but its charge and purpose is unmistakable. Like the medieval warhorse and knight, its lance is aimed four square on our conservatory.

                                                           The sickly, ivy drenched stump

I read somewhere trees are social and cooperative, their roots transmitting aid and succour to other trees, their canopies sharing light with fellow trees. Not this bugger. Beneath its headlong rush is an ornamental tree, which has been all but swallowed up.

Somewhere underneath the shaggy dragon is an ornamental tree.

The shaggy dragon advances still farther
And farther

When the wind blows, this rogue branch laden with damsons nods sagely like some knowing dragon. It whispers strange thoughts into my head. I’m saving you having to cut the grass, Michael. And look at the fruit that I bear. Unarguable. It is laden with fruit, and you can’t get past it without stooping, like a small Quasimodo—something impossible dragging a lawnmower. It is also, as my wife reasonably points out, preventing her from reaching the washing line.     

As you can see, laden with fruit

Can you see our access into the garden
Look closer!
There it is, that tiny green gap for washing and lawnmowers.

Looking at it from above, you can see how my damson forest has shrunk our garden into little more than a glade. Personally I like it. It has mystery. At night, I imagine hedgehogs and fairies outrageously flirting. In the meantime there is washing to dry via a goblin tunnel

And birds to feed if we can but reach the bird table.

We have arrived at an uneasy understanding whispered only at night.  As soon as the damsons are picked – in a few days – the branch will be sawn to a stump. The branch is not aware of this fact. I think. If there is no blog next week—you will likely know why

Friday, 9 August 2019

It takes all sorts

In his parliamentary maiden speech, Jacob Rees-Mogg invoked ‘three great Somerset men as his role models: Alfred the Great, a Eurosceptic when it came to the Danes, the C11th anchorite St. Alphege, and John Locke. His speeches ever since have invoked great historical figures in the form of languid asides; calculated self-mockery but effective nevertheless:

‘I was thinking initially of Achilles sitting in his tent and about whether that was a first example of industrial action …’

‘Let me start with that sad day in March 1603, when our beloved sovereign of blessed memory, Elizabeth, died …’

‘I was concerned about my hon. friend’s attack on the Victorian age, which was one of the finest ages in British history, when most employers were benevolent, kindly, good …’

‘I know that sometimes I bore the House with historical examples, but on this occasion I thought that I would go back to Odysseus …’

‘Queen Elizabeth I … did not need special measures, advancement and protection to get her going; she did it through her own vim and vigour …’

‘Does the lord chancellor recall that in the reign of Henry VIII it was made high treason to take an appeal outside this kingdom? …’

‘I think one can take back the divergence between our legal system and that of the continent to the Fourth Lateran Council.’

His opponents see him for what he is, an effective class warrior using humour and courtesy to devastating effect. Another class warrior, one who had a great influence on me in my youth, and who I still admire for his clarity, moral integrity and consistency is PeterTaaffe.

The young Peter Taffe
In 1985

It may seem strange, perversely contradictory in fact to admire two men with such divergent views, but it takes all kinds to make a world and individuals transcend tribes. As Jacob Rees-Mogg might say, ‘I’m reminded of the medieval warhorse moments before a fearsome joust.” It is blinkered on both sides so that it’s limited solely to the view ahead, and caparisoned with loud and tinkling bells to blank out all distraction. 
There’s the enemy, nothing else exists. Go charge.

But on to other things, the world beyond the blinkers.

What do these two figures on opposite sides of the class war have in common?
Both men reaching the same conclusion from different angles.
The Labour Party and The Guardian once regarded Brussels as a corrupt, anti-democratic gravy train, a convenience for global capitalism. So I ask myself what has changed—Europe or the Labour Party?

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Gentleman Jack!


When Gentleman Jack aired, I had little interest assuming, wrongly, it was going to be message laden and grim. I read in the study instead, occasionally coming out to refresh a drink and catching the bravura performance of Suranne Jones in the title role. The way she strode over those moors, like Heathcliff on speed. To my surprise I became gradually hooked but refused to admit the fact and so missed most of the series.

A few weeks back we had a short Yorkshire break and visited Shibden Hall, the ancestral home of Anne Lister, aka Gentleman Jack and I fell in love with the woman—admittedly a cul-de-sac since Anne Lister is dead and even if that was not the case she would have little interest in me.

She was born in 1791 and had her first full-blown affair as a schoolgirl in West Yorkshire. From 1806, she kept a detailed diary amounting in the end to over five million words. There are exhaustive entries on the political situation in Prussia, canal tolls and toenail cutting, but sandwiched in-between and carefully coded are detailed accounts of her sexual conquests, all of them women. Many years later, John Lister discovered the twenty-six volumes and decoded the ‘interesting’ bits. Despite being gay himself, he was so shocked he promptly hid them again where they remained undiscovered until 1933 when Halifax Corporation took full ownership of the hall.

The main Hall 

The Dining Room

The Buttery. Comes from the old French for bottle and was where the beer and wine was kept. By Anne Lister's time it was used as a discreet passageway between kitchen and dining room, where food was placed in the hatch for the servants on the other side. 

The Kitchen. The Blunderbuss over the door was to deter rodents. 

The kitchen was small, the spit and fire large so that the heat was unbearable in the room directly above. 

Anne Lister's bed. There were quite a few bedrooms, which I won't bore you with. One of htem however had a bed with the ropes supporting the mattress showing at the end of the bed. The ropes had to be pulled tight for a firm mattress and a good sleep. Hence the old saying 'Sleep tight'.

Anne Lister's view from her bedroom. It wouldn't have been so prettily formal in 1839

A rather nice corridor. And, just by the way of things a random man who just happened to appear and spoil a perfect shot. Regard him as a worrisome ghost. 

The back of Shibden Hall.
Walking around the house, I came upon the portrait of Anne’s father, Jeremy Lister. In the series he was played by that stalwart of costume drama, Timothy West and portrayed as an aging, benevolent nonentity. It was good to read about him in his prime as a young ensign in the American War of Independence. In 1770 he sailed for Canada with the 10th Regiment of Foot and saw action at Lexington and Concord where his right elbow was smashed. Despite this he lived on to the ripe old age of 86 —Anne Lister inheriting Shibden Hall and estate in 1836. (Although she’d been actually running things for the previous ten years)

In addition to the diaries she also left behind fourteen travel journals detailing her several mountaineering exploits and extensive travels across Europe. In 1839 she set off for the last time with her lover, a local heiress, Ann Walker. They got as far as Astrakhan (modern day Georgia) where, in 1840, Anne Lister died from an insect bite. Ann Walker brought the body back home where it was buried in Halifax Parish Church in 1841. 

The story darkens further. Ann Walker inherited Shibden Hall but was forcibly removed by her brother-in-law and taken to an asylum in York. She died in 1854.

The diaries tell their story.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Both had a husband called Philip,

But there the resemblance ends. Or does it? 

Mary Tudor suffered a traumatic childhood. Once the darling child of  Henry VIII then publicly reviled as a bastard when Henry acquired a new wife, and the father she adored turned against her. The effect would have broken many, but Mary survived albeit damaged. Theresa May, by all accounts enjoyed a privileged childhood, her only misdemeanour running through a field of wheat.

Both assumed power with varying degrees of approval, in Mary’s case accompanied by the ringing of church bells and a wave of affection. Both disappointed. Mary lost Calais, the last remaining English possession in France. Theresa lost Brexit. For months she trailed around her ‘Withdrawal Deal’ much as poor Mary trailed around her phantom pregnancy, which proved to be a malignant tumour.

As Mary lay dying, she may well have heard the same people, who’d cheered her accession, celebrating her imminent death with bonfires and cat-calls. These are tamer times. The Establishment looks after its own, and kind words will be spoken about Theresa May, few if any believed. In the Keyton household there will be no exulting, no roasting of oxen, but instead a quiet but generous Laphroaig in heartfelt relief,  accepting the fact her successor is no 'Virgin Queen.'