The Gift Trilogy

Out Now!

Friday, 5 June 2020

Horror in Osbaston

What have the Chinese ever done for us? The thought occurred someway down Osbaston Lane. There’s no getting away from it. China has history; it has millions of bright and inquisitive minds, their students the lifeblood of British private schools and the source of indecent salaries for those who run our universities.  

But what have the Chinese ever done for us: apart from giving us, Silk, Dim Sum, gunpowder and paper, kites, a wall that can be seen from the moon, 5G, Huawei, Wuhan flu,  Fu Manchu — and now Asian hornets.

They arrived here from France, perhaps via garden plants, and have colonised large swathes of Southern England, perhaps even Wales. We’re a multi-cultural society, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and that my friend is the Asian Hornet, Vespa Velutina to its friends.   

They devastate hives. These Asiatic marauders lie in wait and attack, decapitating the hapless bee and bringing back what’s left as food for the nest. Our bee population is endangered. But resistance is growing in the form of a new Home Guard, posses of beekeepers scouring the countryside for the first signs of an alien nest. They hide behind bushes—some camouflaged—tracking these hornets in an effort to locate their nests and destroy them before the queen flies off and begins all over again somewhere else.

With these thoughts in mind, I turned a corner in the lane and came across . . .


A member of the new Home Guard cunningly disguised as a tree stump, the fungus accessories a nice touch, I thought. I saw the face at once, a face set in bark, sternly scanning the forest for hornets.

But so, unnaturally still.

And then I realised. This had once been human, a fellow traveller like myself before impregnation by alien spores.  Osbaston hides secrets darker than any in China.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Bolton Castle

In these days of lockdown, happier memories must suffice.

Bolton Castle was built between 1378 – 1399 for Richard le Scrope, both a soldier (he fought in every major battle between 1346-1384) and Lord Chancellor to the unfortunate Richard II. It’s basically a fortified house with square angled towers enclosing a courtyard and guards the entrance to Wensleydale and its glorious cheese.

One small peculiarity are its spiral stairs. In all other castles they spiral upwards is in a clockwise direction. This allows the defenders maximum sword space in combat - at the expense of those swinging against the spiral. In Bolton Castle the spiral upwards is anti clockwise. 

View from one of the towers. Note the glorious Yorkshire sky

Richard Scrope died in 1403 and in his will left 13s 4d to every resident of the county and 2s to every prisoner in of York gaol.

Speaking of prisoners, Castle Bolton’s most famous resident albeit for 6 months was Mary Queen of Scots. After being turfed out of Scotland, she fled to England with as good a claim to the throne as Elizabeth who promptly ‘guested’ her in Carlisle Castle before moving her on to Bolton Castle where she stayed for six months. She was moved to a more permanent residence in Tutbury from where after seventeen tedious years she mislaid  her head.

As prisons go, Bolton really was a holiday camp. She had her own chambers in the South West Tower with a retinue of 51 people, 36 of whom lodged with her in the castle, the remainder in lodgings nearby. Reading the full list, I was struck by the mysterious ‘Two English Sisters,’ and the fact that she had her own apothecary, a surgeon, a ‘reader’ three laundresses, four grooms and the even more mysterious ‘two others’.

Mary's chamber, but not the bed Mary slept in. It is even more exciting than that. It is haunted and passed on to the perhaps disbelieving Scropes a little time later. It terrified the original owners, no one could sleep an entire night on it without experiencing hallucinations and horrible nightmares. It's been exorcised twice. 

The Great Hall where Mary spent most of her day. The niche to the right of the hearth was where she warmed her wine.

These three window shots held me for some time: the thought that Mary would have spent perhaps hours staring out at a landscape little changed. 

Furniture and tapestries were borrowed from other houses, and Elizabeth herself lent her some tableware and a kettle. During her six months ‘imprisonment’ Mary was allowed to go hunting and even meet up with local Catholics dignitaries – much to the displeasure of Elizabeth’s ministers—perhaps rightly so. Legend has it that Mary tried to escape, once getting as far as Leyburn Shawl, so called because she reputedly dropped her shawl there. It's also known, 400 years or so later, as Queen's Gap. Some dispute the legend citing the fact that nothing was reported back to the Queen's Council. Then again, it's easy to see why they might not report such a profound security lapse. Still, Elizabeth's ministers may have heard something. In the midst of a snow blizzard, Mary was removed to Tutbury where she spent the rest of her seventeen years. 

The Castle fell into rapid decline during the English Civil War when the young John Bolton (a teenager) supported the losing Royalist cause. The castle was besieged by the Parliamentarians for a year reducing those inside to eating their own horses before surrendering in 1645 from starvation. The entire N. Western side of the castle was ‘slighted’ ie reduced to ruins to make it unusable. As ruins, they convey their own unique romance. 

Note the remnants of the heavily buttressed lower roof. The ground floor was built to protect against fire that might otherwise spread more quickly to the upper apartments.

Enroute to the guardroom 

Unlike these picturesque ruins, the  S. Western part of the castle survived largely intact and is still owned and managed  by descendents of the Scropes. 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Lockdown, Madness and Marketing

Ming saw something was wrong.

Teddy and Bun were bored

Bun had an idea. "We’ll listen to the radio."

But Teddy was cross. He wanted music.  He wanted to dance. 
Bun wanted news.

Ming sighed. "Read a book," he said.

"Don’t like these," Bun said after a time. "They frighten me." Teddy agreed.

"What’s your book about?" Teddy asked.

"About a man with a beard. " Bun said. "Yours?"

""A crazy detective. He shouts  and kills people."

"This book’s alright," Bun said. "I think I'd like to drink there."

Bun looked across to see Teddy's book

Teddy sighed. "More crazy detectives who drink and kill and have nice teeth."

"I’m bored," Bun said.

Ming sighed.

And Teddy fell asleep.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Lockdown: thoughts in a garden with plenty of wine.

It’s been an interesting few weeks, a kind of time-warp taking us back to the fifties – deserted country roads, near empty pavements and roads without traffic. And, shades of 1984, one or two simple messages stamped upon the collective mind: ‘Save our NHS’—‘stay safe,’ — ‘self-isolate. The slogans, along with the manufactured compulsion to clap and bang pots each Thursday night in support of care-workers and nurses, though laudable verge, on the totalitarian with its ‘nudge’ factor compulsion. 

Few would deny that support and appreciation of those fighting to save lives is entirely good. Less good is the smokescreen it offers for the top-heavy bureaucratic behemoth of the National Health and Public Health England. Ministers have become the fall guys for their administrative shortcomings, and that would be true whatever government was in power.

But on to smaller things. It’s been fascinating to see the shy ‘were-all-in-it-together’ smiles as you side-step strangers on pavements or lanes, a new and delicate social quadrille—and you wonder what the new ‘normal’ will be when it’s all over.

On the one hand, I’m so looking forward to seeing friends again, dinner parties, doing what what we once took for granted: the impromptu latte in CafĂ© Nero, the occasional cheeky beer or two on a hot day in a country pub. Or a town pub. Or any pub. Restaurants.

 Part of me looks forward to diving back in and altruistically (yeah, sure) buying even more beer and eating more curries, Italian, Chinese, breathing life into ailing businesses. Resuscitation or greed, who cares?

The reality may be different. Another part of me is cautious, even nervous of plunging back into society—too quickly at least—and I wonder how common this factor may yet prove to be.
It’s a bit like those misnamed ‘free range eggs,’ so called because the chickens, though cooped in large barns have one or two small access points; in theory they can free range but few if any do.

How many of us will have grown used to our ‘barns’ – not those poor buggers cooped up in small flats with two or more children—but enough to make economic recovery even slower?

Keeping with the economics for a moment, an unexpected flip side is the money we’ve saved with less things to spend it on. The downside is how quickly it will be taken from us in taxes, as governments attempt to claw back the money they’ve spent. It will be a fine economic and political line between carrying on the debt indefinitely and clawing all or part of the money spent at the risk of  indefinite recession. 

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Lane

Each morning we consider the most important question of the day: where shall we walk? We have options: a three hour circular, but one involving stiles a daddy-long-legs would have difficulty clambering over  -  a much shorter walk but less scenic and involving several steep hills - the circular ridgeway route

 or, our favourite because it doesn’t involve squeezing into boots and tying complex knots, ‘the lane.’

At the very end of the lane is ‘Tregate Bridge’ and a decision, do we take a left turn to Crickhowell or turn right to Welsh Newton? I can’t be doing with decisions during a pandemic, besides it’s too far to walk, so we content ourselves with a brisk two-and-a-half-mile trot, our destination a mysterious shed.

I am quietly convinced ‘the shed’ is a cunningly disguised albeit dilapidated Tardis. It hasn’t got around to mastering time (as far as I know) but it’s certainly mastered space. The damn thing never seems to stay in one place.

Time and time again, we convince ourselves it’s just around a clearly defined corner, but it never is. 

Sometimes it’s located on the corner after that, or even one farther along, sometimes it’s exactly where it should be. It’s very exciting – the most exciting thing of a locked-down life – wondering where the shed will have located itself on any particular day.

You might think it gets kind of tedious, taking the same lane but in fact it never is.
Sometimes the sheep are excitable, other days they’re not. 

Those planning to cut their own hair during lockdown - consider.

And then there’s hedgerows bursting with butterflies and bees and every kind of wildflower. My wife is most patient. She knows it’s a ruse to pause and gain breath, but she says nothing as I stop to take pictures. Then again, it’s nice to know via ‘plant-snap’ what these flowers are, Celandine, Dog violets, and my current favourite Morning Campion.

The lane has its own mystery. This section is one of my favourites, little changed— apart from road surface—from the C18th.

Gorgeous in Summer, rich in mystery on dark winter nights when you half-expect highwaymen or worse: Hell-hounds, ghost-coaches, or the Devil waiting to trick a man for his soul—maybe in exchange for a shed that never stays still.

Friday, 17 April 2020


I can think of no better tribute to this book than to recount one of its anecdotes in full, partly because it gives you the ‘voice’ of the man, partly because of the directness and simplicity of the language, the effortless way one image follows another, and partly because it reminds me of the stories my dad and uncles told when we were very small children. The final section of the anecdote comes with a hint of reproval accompanied perhaps by an ironic wink that belies it, and again you have the certainty of Victorian values with their lack of cultural relativism that pervades our culture today:

‘A few miles away from Karachi there is a very curious place called ‘Muggur Pir.’ It is a small pond of water surrounded with palm trees and jungle. A very pretty place . . . but you will at once exclaim, what are these curious looking animals I see in the water and on the banks?
‘Well, these are alligators, who inhabit this pool. They are held sacred by a certain class of natives and called Muggurs. Certain priests, as they call them reside close by who feed these animals with the offerings brought by devotees seeking help from some affliction. Goats, brought there alive, are the customary offerings. These are killed on the margin of the pool by the priest, who cuts the body of the victim up into small pieces. When this is done, at the top of his voice he calls out ‘Ow! Ow!’ which means ‘Come! Come!’ From the pool there issue the Muggurs, who approach the priest ranging themselves in a line at the water edge – with their enormous mouths wide open.

' The priest goes along the line, throwing into the open jaws of each as he passes a portion of the goat. The portion is immediately crushed between their very powerful jaws, and away each one scuttles back into the pool again to enjoy is repast.

‘I have seen the complete head of a goat, horns and all, thrown into the mouth of one of these Muggurs. One crunch and the whole head, horns and all are smashed. The old patriarch of these inhabitants of the pool is kept in an enclosed den separate from the rest. He is called the ‘King of the Muggurs’ and is fed separately as becomes his rank. He is kept painted red, he is of larger size than the rest and considered specially holy. What a fearful depth of superstition and ignorance!

‘Visitors to the place out of curiosity are particularly requested in no way to interfere with the animals. One day two larky young officers went there, armed with 2 soda bottles, full, but tied together with about 2 yards of cord.

‘When the priest began feeding at one end of the line of muggers, these two young men commenced at the other by each throwing a bottle into the open mouths of two adjacent animals. Crash went the bottle with an explosion, and into the pool went the muggurs each clutching its prize – great was the commotion underwater, each Muggur trying to swallow its portion but prevented by its neighbour at the other end of the cord, greatly to the amusement of the authors of this miserable trick. The priests complained to the authorities and a severe reprimand followed, I believe accompanied by a fine. I think your verdict would be that it served them right.

I’ll not be blogging for a fortnight as I’m taking a fortnight’s holiday into the C16th and the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy – a worthy but not the preferred alternative to the American holiday we had planned. Preparing a blog – even a weekly one – takes some time and I’m a slow reader. Sunglasses on and goodbye for now.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Wuhan flu or Covid 19?

Covid 19 or Wuhan Flu. The former term boasts a degree of ‘neutral’ accuracy with its ‘CO’ for Coronavirus, its VI for Virus and D for Disease. At the same time its ‘neutrality’ is far from neutral. It deliberately obscures its origin as well as the historical record for the benefit of the Chinese state.

In the past, diseases were associated with their origins: Guinea Worm, West Nile Virus, German measles, Ross River Fever, Omsk Haemorrhagic Fever, Marburg Fever, Lassa Fever, Lyme Disease – the exception perhaps being Spanish Flu which had its origins elsewhere. To this day we use the term ‘Mexican Tummy’ and Delhi Belly for problems down under. So, when Trump was asked in a critical tone why he referred to the disease as ‘the Chinese Virus’ his answer reflected a long-standing pattern: ‘Because that is where it comes from.’

There are no doubt political reasons why he used the term, just as there are political reasons why the Chinese government are busy pushing the myth that the Italians or Americans are responsible for the disease. But ultimately that isn’t the point.

There is an argument that such terms as ‘Mexican Tummy’ or ‘Delhi Belly’ reflect not just knock-about humour but a past imperialist sense of superiority referenced in inferior hygiene; Now, that is a clear case of ‘punching down’. But associating Covid 19 with China is not in the same league. Are we really suggesting that we’re ‘punching down’ on one of the world’s super-powers? No, it’s the reverse. China is punching down on the rest of the world, denying any sense of responsibility for the pandemic.

When I read that China’s foreign ministry’s spokesman, Geng Shuang has condemned America’s use of the term: “We urge the U S to end this despicable practice. We are very angry and strongly oppose it,” my stomach turns. It turned even more when the all-but Chinese appointed Director-General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus remarked that the term (the Chinese Virus’) is ‘painful to see’ and ‘more dangerous than the virus itself.’ What planet is he living on?

WHO/ UNESCO even published a pamphlet explaining how the term stigmatised a whole race of people, and then, in case we didn’t understand what stigmatise meant, went on to explain the term and how simple minded people confronted with the unknown might blame any and every Chinese person they met.

All I can say is, that when I was struck down with ‘Hong Kong’ flu in 1968, I didn’t go looking for a Chinese person to beat up. And yes, simple minded people exist, many of whom are well paid functionaries writing simple minded pamphlets.

I could argue that on many levels it deserves to be called the ‘Chinese Virus’ not just in its origins, but in the way the Chinese state made things far worse by its initial cover-up. Whistle-blowers were persecuted. upto the very last moment, the Chinese government denied the scale of the crisis, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission declaring that ‘So far no infection has been found among medical staff, no proof of human-to-human transmission.’
The Chinese government only instituted a lockdown on January 23rd seven weeks after the virus first appeared and after more than 5 million people had already left Wuhan – many to Chinese textile factories in Northern Italy. Criminally, the same WHO that is now attempting to control our language passively connived in the deception by slavishly following the Chinese message that the infection was moderate until clearly it wasn’t. 

But I confess, beyond all this, there is a deeper reason for my bias towards   ‘Chinese virus’ rather than Covid 19.  When I’m told I shouldn’t do or say something by a clearly corrupt authority I’m impelled to do the reverse.

But on a sweeter note, a kindly person in our locality has left 'book boxes' here and there for those in lockdown with time on their hands. It's a lovely thought, but not perhaps a particularly safe option.