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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Just standing in St. Materiana’s church in Tintagel immerses you in an intense and magical peace. St. Materiana herself is most interesting because the Church has so little to say about her: "A Welsh or Cornish widow. No details of her life are extant, but some Welsh churches bear her name." Had she been martyred, no doubt the record might be more fulsome.

Scraps from myth and old Celtic records associate her with Modrun, a refugee in North Wales, a Queen of Gwent and a Cornish saint, which leads some to say she was an extremely busy lady or an amalgam of more than one Modrun. Others suggest she was a Christian invention covering over an older pagan cult (Matrona/mother goddess) which accounts for her name popping up in so many places.

Young British men, some little more than boys pop up in even more varied places. One of the melancholy joys in exploring old country churches are the wall memorials to fallen soldiers and seamen who lost their lives in forming an empire. All over England, in the most obscure hamlets, ancient churches record the deaths of ensigns, and lieutenants – some as young as seventeen – who died where they had no right to be. How in God’s name did a boy from an unknown Welsh village die in the gulf of Tonkin in 1673? What was he doing there?

Reading these memorials stirs something in the soul. They died for something greater than themselves. In our culture the individual is glorified; by sleight of hand deluded in to believing they are beholden to no one. The reality is different and the result is a growing subculture of the infantile and selfish, aspiring to riches or fame without effort.

And yes, I know a glorious con trick was played on our forbears. Many acted without choice. And ‘That something greater than themselves’ invariably enriched those who ruled them in church or state, often both. But does that demean or cheapen aspiration, sacrifice or nobility? Are the works of Michelangelo tarnished because he worked for the Medici and two corrupt Popes? The sacrifice of a warrior less so because he was there without choice? In the words of Bob Dylan everyone “Gotta Serve Somebody” And you're more likely to find yourself serving others than serving yourself.

And may St. Materiana look over you.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The mystery of strangers

It is a source of deep regret that I have now reached an age that leaves me no time to sample every whisky in the world. To try would hasten my inevitable demise and I can find no way round this particular Catch 22. But there is another, deeper regret. Even in a lifetime it is impossible to know everyone that you might like to know. And this has its own ‘Catch 22’. It’s not something you’re likely to think about as a teenager. Whisky, maybe, sex yes, but not people.

I was on the train to Gerard’s Cross when an elegant, middle-aged lady sat next to me. She wore Rive Gauche and her voice was low and attractive when she asked whether the seat next to me was taken. Immediately I wanted to know more about her, and I wondered why that was.

What made her different from anyone else who might have chosen to sit next to me and who I might not have given a second thought? Okay, the perfume, the low attractive voice but it wasn’t just that.

From early on I’ve always been attracted by a person, more so than his or her body. Probably true of most people. A person can crackle with energy or exude something more subtle, glimpsed in a smile, a glint in the eye, voice, and that something hard to define so I’ll call it a life-force or soul.

A soul you intuit and you want to know more. A bee has no inhibitions nosing from flower to flower. Pollen, though indispensable, is more mundane than the soul, but nevertheless the bee devotes a life in its pursuit. We have more important things to do.

And yes, pollen is food but we are spiritual creatures. What is it that prevents us from exploring others?



Alcohol loosens the tongue, opens doors and closes them. Have sympathy with the overtures of drunks. For a moment in time they are wanting to know. Inhibition removed, they’re responding to the same urge that made me want to know more about that woman on the train.

A writer – okay, a nosy bugger - stares out the window at a darkening Buckinghamshire countryside and imagines who the woman is, where she is going, where she has come from. He will never know, and he will never know all he’d like to know, or drink all the whisky in the world.

Friday, 19 August 2011


We emerged from the mist like melancholy sheep, wraiths in anoraks. This was more like it. Morose but content. The Keytons on holiday. Overlooking the sea indistinguishable from the wetness around us, we picnicked at Tintagel and ruminated on Arthur. If this was his Camelot no wonder the Knights of the Round Table came to their dismal end. Arthur must have been terminally depressed; probably threw himself on Mordred’s sword just to get away. There would be sunshine in Avalon, and he had chain mail to protect himself from midges. I understood then why Isolde had fled her husband in favour of Tristan. Mark never stood a chance. “It’s not you, dear.” And she probably meant it. Tintagel.

We chewed our cheese sandwiches and contemplated the rock, grey in mist but rearing high in the clouds. The climb looked formidable and I thought back to Canillas de Aceituno, and the expats we had met. There was a guy that could make you drunk on his breath. Flies died from alcohol poisoning. This was his solution to sunshine and loneliness; another who had imbedded himself in the Spanish community. He was opening a convalescence home for seriously ill children, and his own child attended a Spanish school. He seemed the exception.

They reminded me of Crusading knights each in their villa - tiny castles on alien hills - each with their pool, their glorious sunsets, their satellite dish, and most important of all, a fast internet connection to home. They were immensely hospitable, some cheerful and at peace with the world, others lost like ghosts in a landscape that didn’t belong to them. It reminded me of the importance of roots and that relationship with others that even plants, with their very different senses share. I chewed on my sandwich.

“What are you thinking of?” my daughter asked.

“Richard of Cornwall,” I said. “His brother Henry III gave him Cornwall as a birthday present. He built the castle – what you can see of it - in 1233.”

“Not Arthur then.”

“Not Arthur, though the site itself was important to the ancient Cornish kings.

“So he may have been here.”

“Have a cheese sandwich.”

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Canillas de Aceituno

Fresh from the experience of 'Macbeth' in a storm – well, to be honest some years after but the memory was strong – we booked a holiday, our only criteria being somewhere hot and dry, and with a pool. We settled on Canillas de Aceituno in the mountains of Andalusia.

The patio overlooked deep valleys and a turquoise but diminishing lake. Mountains surrounded us; very Wagnerian, the mosquitoes less so, whining Valkyries that fed on the living.

I didn’t anticipate problems. Swallows dived from azure skies, and we had a pool. Even our very own fig tree.

So Canillas de Aceituno was two miles away. We could do that. We thought. What we hadn’t realized was that this two miles involved a vertical trek. The town was perched even higher than we were! 40 degrees centigrade heightened the experience.

I lost weight.

Not in the normal way.

Mosquitoes and a whole host of voracious insects took great chunks from my arms and legs and neck. My face turned volcanic, a deep Martian red. The flies followed soon after, settling on each and every itching wound. "Laying their eggs," my son said gloomily, as though considering what his reaction would be when I writhed with maggots and exploded in flies.

I didn’t expect over-much sympathy. Never do. As things stood, the whole family walked ten paces behind me, reluctant to be seen with the leper. My name became 'Belial, Lord of Flies.'

No one else in the family was touched, just me, the sacrificial goat. It was good to get back to Monmouth. No mosquitoes yet, just the pleasant charm of quiet eccentrics.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Macbeth in a storm

In 2001 we saw an open air production of Macbeth in the grounds of Llancaiach FawrManor. It starred Abigail Hopkins, the daughter of the more well known Anthony. It also rained. Not just ordinary rain. Wales doesn’t do equatorial. Not often. Fate – I pictured her as a malevolent Welsh woman with a watery grin - waited for us to choose our seats, open our sandwiches and then without warning covered us with the Atlantic and some of the Pacific.

It poured down, turning cheese sandwiches into a cold fondue, and here is where a weird, British perversity kicked in. We tightened our hoods, unfurled our umbrellas and raised our feet as the ground turned to mud and pools grew into lakes. As the performance went on, our chairs slowly sank into the morass, but still we remained…and, equally weird, so did the actors in a strange, symbiotic relationship: as long as an audience remained, they would perform, and for as long as they performed we would remain. Besides, they’d probably factored in the curse of the play that must not be named.

And maybe they were enjoying skidding across a greasy stage and sometimes coming off. Abigail Hopkins surely did. As Hecate she with the other witches were perched up a metallic tree, silhouetted against a lowering sky when suddenly lightning flashed and thunder rolled. This was SFX with attitude and I’ve never seen witches so terrifying, or terrified. Alas, all good things come to an end, our applause muted in rain.

But a decision was made. Our next holiday would be taken in sunshine. Be careful what you wish for. Be very careful:)