Out Now!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

A pub in time

 The Blackbull was where I had my first drink. Fortunately not in this particular building because that would make me over 120 years old. The road to the left (Warbreck Moor) would then have led to countryside; a few years later redbricked terraced housing for the respectable working class were built. Note though the lamp in the foreground and how, though the pub changes, this focal point remains essentially the same. For me, as a child, it was the 'gateway' to Aintree and home.

This was the 'new' BlackBull - with its own policeman. This man faced a demanding task directing such heavy traffic


 The children look much the same but the policeman has gone.Now there are trams

 The tramlines remain; the trams themselves replaced by buses.

 I hope the Blackbull remains forever.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Small Eye problem

The retinas have left the building.

Back soon.

Merry Christmas All


Friday, 13 December 2013

I don't know. Don't tell me.

I grew up in an age of conformity, nudged and directed on how and what I should think by parents, church and school. There was no escape from this, no obvious escape, and to be fair for a long time I saw no reason to escape: obey and be happy.

And then things changed. I became a Marxist; revolutionary in my thinking but not fully appreciating I was following a different kind of authority. Nor I suppose did it matter. It was an authority I agreed with. I read comprehensively from Das Kapitol (I managed three chapters) to the obscurest of tracts and even more obscure pamphlets. I could smell heretical splinter groups from fifty yards and treat them with suitable disdain. I was argumentative, pumped up and primed.

Where am I now?

I’m back in the late fifties surrounded by new orthodoxies and realising more fully the original impetus to rebel, this time against a more dangerous and effective conformity enforced by mainstream media.
The bottom line is I just don’t like being told what to do or think – although of course we’re never ‘told’. We are nudged and cajoled along designated patterns of thought. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious like politicians going on and on about ‘Hard working families’ or ‘The right thing to do.’ Other times it’s more subtle, so much so it becomes part of the wall paper.

So I’m siding with the ‘naughty’ boys in the class -‘naughty girls,’ if you will. There are politicians and comedians who, instead of arguing a point or constructing a good joke, will say ‘Daily Mail’ and elicit a Pavlovian response, their audience suitably conditioned to snigger or jeer. I’m not championing the Mail. I’m championing its right to exist and attacking the sheep-dog sneer, keeping the flock in line. It must be said the Mail uses similar tactics, their dog whistle being the BBC - and that, too, has a right to exist, though perhaps not, like the Renaissance Church, being the only pulpit in the land.

So, Murdoch - ‘the dirty digger’, Fox News, UKIP, anti EU, anti immigration, the death penalty:  Bugger the arguments for and against. The first sniff I get that ‘Teacher’ doesn’t like them, the more sympathetic I become. Dog whistles alarm me and I don’t care who’s blowing them. They have all the profundity of wrist-bands: short-cuts to thought without the thought. They create herds, all those within, sharing the warmth of like-minded opinion, encouraged to moo at the heretics without.

New developments in cyber technology are designed to make such ‘whistles’ exclusive and more strident, raising the walls between the various ‘tribes’. Google and other companies are designing ever more subtle algorithms that analyse their individual users’ cultural, social and political preferences, their ‘searches’ and ‘suggestions’ in future geared to and reinforcing individual prejudices. Soon we’ll have Gated Communities of thought – each one the creature of corporation, government or interest group. And for the proles (I use the word in the 1984 sense) we’ll have the Game-ificaction of news, where grazers can click on politicised games with closed outcomes but encouraging and reinforcing a particular point of view.

My problem is I don’t have a particular point of view, other than resisting being told what I should do.  I also struggle not to tell others what they should do, which is hard because I love argument. 

A grouch without a cause. 

 Big problem.

 Like many, I’m a collection of labels none of which intellectually cohere: Bolshevik, libertarian, Hobbesian, Christian, cynic, anarchist, totalitarian, conservative (with a small c). They are labels covering flux, stretching quantum uncertainty to unforeseen limits.

  I don’t know, but don’t tell me.

Getting back to algorithms, Face Book is also one of these companies refining their own. It has one redeeming feature. For all but the narcissist, who wish only to read what they agree with, its Home Page allows an eclectic and diverse range of views. Mine is like a wild and overgrown garden and I wouldn’t uproot or prune a single shoot or bloom. Family and  friends, – new and historic share their prejudices and views (as do I) Scottish Nationalist, Scouse, rednecks and Christian, ex –students, the vaguely liberal, socialist, Neo-Cons to the right of Genghis Khan, writers – some whom shamelessly pimp books, the couldn’t care less – even Canadians. They are all there. Who would want a single point of view when there are so many? It’s the difference between the market place and the mall, and it suits me just fine.

The dream of being super-rich and holding a Home Page party in a fine hotel with good beer and two or more hog-roasts is an attractive one – the idea of arguing, sharing and enjoying diversity. A dystopian but probably more realistic outcome might be everyone finding their own particular table of like-minded souls.

 It may be argued that gated communities of thought are a necessary and predicable reaction to the danger of tyrannical orthodoxy, Others may argue they are intellectual care homes, and point out that it was a similar withdrawal from polity that contributed to the decline of Roman Britain.

 I don’t know.

* An interesting article on how our brains are being modified by intense social interaction. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Suspicious minds

 I was well into my latest novel when I heard a faint but persisting rustling. I looked over the screen, through the window, up the drive, embankment and the small patch of wilderness that links our front garden to the road.

No doubt about it. Someone was up there rummaging in our hedge and trees.

I didn’t act immediately. It was warm inside, I was well into the chapter, and besides she/he may just have been waiting for the bus…and was bored.

I kept on writing.
The bus came and went.
The rustling persisted.

I went upstairs, the front bedroom offering a better view of the hedging and road. There was no doubt about it. Mystery person was playing about with our hedge.

Territorial anxiety, anger, competed against the fact I was holding a fresh cup of tea, the fact it was freezing outside, and a general ‘British’ reluctance to cause a fuss. 

I tried to return to my work.


I could stand it no longer. I didn’t even put on any shoes. I raced out the house, dark suspicions fomenting in my mind. Some neighbours didn’t like our trees. They blocked their houses from ours. They also blocked a view from theirs. Maybe the mysterious rustler was poisoning our trees. Paranoia comes easy to the Celtic mind.

I burst on to the road and confronted a  lean, elderly lady with piercing blue eyes. She had a large green bag and some shears. I had a large false smile.

“Excuse the curiosity, but what are you doing?”

“I am sorry. I was pinching your pine needles.” She pointed to the pavement where there was usually a large and obstructive mound. “They’re ideal for my compost bins. But in exchange I’m pruning your hedge. It will grow thicker. I’ve taken a Hedging Course in Usk College. I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind, I could have kissed her, except she was sweaty from all her exertions. Trimming our hedges and trees that otherwise block the pavement is a yearly but onerous chore. She could have all the pine needles she wanted. I told her so. 

A residue of suspicion remained. Was she in favour of our little bit of wilderness or not? Was this a subtle foray? I introduced the subject of hedgehogs, waxed lyrical about a family of hedgehogs I’d seen in the bushes.  She pointed out an old wasps nest in the hedging and explained the lifecycle of wasps. Suspicion evaporated. My wilderness was safe in her hands; a kindred spirit though still sweaty.  

I’m telling you, there are times I really believe we live in the mythical village of Nutwood – something entirely meaningless unless you know Rupert Bear.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A medal in return

 This is the Liverpool he left: Lord Street looking towards Church Street mid 1890's

 And this is where he ended up.

 Shortly after that he died at the Battle of Slabbert Nek

And this is the context:

The Boer revolt was initially successful and caught the British on the back foot. By 1900 the full resources of the British Empire had been mobilized. Troopships from India and Australia, Egypt and Britain had converged on South Africa and amongst those soldiers was Sergeant John Keyton of the Royal Irish Regiment.

The Royal Irish Regiment was part of a force led by Major General Clements 

On July 6/7 in conjunction with other forces they defeated the Boers at the inappropriately named, Bethlehem. The Boers retreated and regrouped in the Brandwater Basin.

 The Basin resembled a huge horseshoe formed by the Wittebergen mountains with Slabbert’s Neck and Retief’s Nek to the north. Retief’s Nek linked on to the Roodebergen range curving south easterly to Naauwpoort Neck and Golden Gate. Its circumference as a whole was about 75 miles; its base-line about 40 miles is marked by the Caledon River. The four key access points in this natural citadel were Commando, Slabbert, and Naauwpoort Neks. My grandfather probably didn't realise all this. He was thinking of keeping warm at night by making fires from animal dung and grass briquettes, or writing letters asking whether his wife had enough money, wishing his friends well, once discussing the things he would do when he returned. 

Back to the strategy.

The British tightened their net in a three pronged attack. The British had a force of 200,000 and Sergeant John Keyton. They faced a force of 20,000 Boers. The best kind of odds.

The Boers realised their danger, realised, too, the terrain didn’t suit their manner of fighting and by July 11 were planning their retreat. They were limited to only three passes:  Naauwpoortnek in the east, Commando and Generals in the south, Slabberts and Retiefs in the north and the Golden Gate.
Golden Gate

On July 16th the Boer Commander De Wet, with fifteen hundred well-mounted men and five guns, broke through Slabbert's Nek and made swiftly for the north-west, leaving the main Free State force in a hopeless position behind him

The Boers held firm at the strong pass of Retief's Nek, but on the 24th July they were forced to abandon it, as the capture of Slabbert's Nek by Clements threatened their rear.

Slabbert’s Nek was heavily fortified and the first attacks on it on the 23rd were unsuccessful. Two companies of the Wiltshires* did, however, gain and hold their position until nightfall. They were a stone's throw away from the Boer trenches. A section of the Royal Irish had also got close to the enemy's trenches, but not my Grandfather. He was killed in action and never saw what happened next.

  Under cover of darkness, Clements sent four companies of the Royal Irish and two of the Wiltshires on a dangerous night march. The soldiers had to crawl on their hands and knees along a rocky path with a drop of 400 feet on one side. This flanking movement along the crest of the heights surprised the Boers, forcing them to retreat in haste. With the fall of Slabbert’s Nek, Retief’s Nek was impossible to hold making it impossible for the Boers to retreat. 

Within six days British forces took Spitzkrans, Relief’s Nek, Slabbert’s Nek and Fouriesburg almost unapposed. On July 27 the Boers attempted to retreat from Naauwpoort Nek along the Little Caledon River towards Golden Gate, but were forced to retreat to Slaapkrans, now known as Surrender Hill.

Between July 28 and August 9th Boer forces collapsed. The British had captured 4 314 men, three field guns and 2 800 head of cattle and they destroyed about 6-million rounds of ammunition. Some comfort for my grandmother who had to bring up two children alone. 

She did, however, get this.

*With thanks to the Wiltshire Regiment

Friday, 22 November 2013

Is Toronto in need of a new Mayor?

The yellow envelope came through the door. I recognised it at once. It came from the Co-op and in it would be coupons - I estimated at least £40 worth - based on how much I'd spent in their store. It’s historic. It’s the Co op dividend; the 'Divvy' as my mother called it, and now a small part of my Christmas budget. 

I opened the envelope and saw the letter at once – the ominous headline:

Your membership is important to us  - the first inkling that something was wrong.

The inkling became a felt-tipped pen:

'You may have heard about the challenges The Co-operative Group is facing. I can assure you that your new management team is developing a comprehensive plan to tackle them. At this time of year, as a member, you’d normally' (You’d normally. Bugger. What are they telling me, the bastards. Yes, yes, go on) 'you’d normally receive a share of the profits based on your spend with us. For the period January to  June 2013 we made a loss, so we don’t have profits to distribute.'

We made a loss? The co–op bank made a loss - £700 million in the first half of this year. But I don’t shop at the bloody bank. I don’t have an account there. And to my knowledge the various branches of the Co-op haven’t made a loss: its supermarkets and funeral parlours, its chemists and electrical stores. No, their ‘loss’ is mere book-keeping trickery. They have come to the aid of the troubled bank by ‘lending’ them £559 million just to tide them through. And somewhere in those millions is my £40  ‘Divvy’.

I continued to read:

'I understand that times are tough for us all, and how disappointed you will feel about this news, but I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for your continued support.' Continued support – is that irony?

I raised my fist to the ceiling and invoked Moloch and Baal and the Seven Lords of Hell. 'Damn you Co-op group,' I cursed. 'Damn you the man in charge of the bank Damn you to Eternal Perdition.'

Well, blow me. They listened. I hadn’t expected such a rapid response, nor that my curse would prove so effective. A week later Paul Flowers, Methodist Minister and Head of the Co-op Bank was caught paying £300 for ketamine and Crystal Meth, as well as being embroiled in stories concerning rent boys and hard core pornography. Better still a week later Len Wardle, chairman of the Co-op group and the man who appointed him also resigned.

I had a momentary twinge as to what the Seven Lords of Hell would want of me in return and pondered the wisdom of curses.
The bottom line is that I don’t care that Paul Flowers was caught with his trousers down in a phone box in the eighties.
 I don’t care that he was dismissed as a Labour Councillor in Bradford some years later for hard core pornography on his works computer, and then nominated by the same council as governor of a primary school.
 I don’t care how this totally unqualified man came to be head of a major British Bank and that shortly afterwards he lent the Labour Party millions on low terms of interest.
I don’t care about the rent boys, his boast that he was going to ‘get wasted’ after a Parliamentary Committee * established he hadn’t the faintest idea how much money his bank had. I’m not ageist. 63 year old men are allowed to ‘get wasted’. He can twerk stark naked, consume Crystal Meth and Ketamine by the bucket load, and preach on Sunday.  I don’t care.

I can even manage a wry smile at the invariable damage control: ‘I am seeking professional help’. Prison would be a start. He wont serve long. His kind never do. The question is what happens when he comes out?

So two questions:
Is Toronto in need of another mayor?
And what do I do with an ‘ethical’ Co-op card that subsidises ineptitude and/or corruption with my ‘Divvy’?

PS * ie the Parliamentary Committe is slow but devastating theatre. 

Friday, 15 November 2013

In search of Shakespeare's Grave

The house where he was born seemed a good enough start.

 But where next - the room he was born in? The trail is cold.

Time to ask a policeman.

 Well, we found where he died

Then some one suggested following the river.

We asked some swans

But their beaks were closed.

 This looked hopeful

 A graveyard at least. 

 Am I reading this right? The grave is Open? Seems a bit macabre to me

The excitement mounts

The altar of Holy Cross Church

 And here is where he was christened. The font was retrieved from a farmer's field where it had been used as a water trough for cattle.

And here is where he was buried, along with....

The rest of the family...well almost.

Shakespeare, Ann Hathaway, his Son– in–Law, and Susanna, his eldest daughter are buried here, along with a grandson. But Judith his second daughter isn’t, and where she is we don’t know. It’s interesting, too, that Judith was illiterate but Susanna wasn’t, and unquestionably sad that she married such a rogue as Thomas Quiney. He impregnated another woman who died in childbirth, and in consequence Shakespeare struck him from his Will. This was tricky because then a wife’s property belonged to her husband, so Shakespeare’s lawyers had to be clever. 

Judith is also interesting because of her longevity – 1585 – 1662. She would have been three years old at the time of the Spanish Armada, and then gone to experience the reign of Charles I, the Civil War, Cromwell’s Protectorate and live to see the Restoration ie Charles II

 I turned back to Anne Hathaway’s grave and remembered what once used to puzzle me: why Shakespeare left her his ‘second best bed’. The best bed was always reserved for important guests. The second best bed was in fact the marital bed.

I sensed someone watching me, perhaps reading my thoughts: 

It was time to go and write what we saw before he did.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Unknown Soldier

I pass this now worn monument most days. It never fails to arrest me, for a moment or two at least.

In 1916 an Anglican clergyman, David Railton saw an anonymous grave in a French back garden. On the grave was a crude cross with the inscription ‘An Unknown British Soldier. The clergyman had a flash of inspiration and he acted upon it, writing to the Dean of Westminster. He suggested a national tomb for the ‘Unknown Soldier. The idea resonated in a country racked by grief, especially for those whose bodies were never found, and the result was an eloquent ceremony copied by many other countries in the years that followed.

The ritual, attention to detail, the profound respect, created a potent and melancholic magic.

The ‘Unknown Soldier’ was chosen from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. The four anonymous ‘remains’ were brought to the Chapel at St Pol where two officers were waiting.  The  bodies were placed on stretchers and covered in Union Jacks. One of the officers, General Wyatt closed his eyes (some say he was blindfolded) and chose a body at random. It was then sealed in a plain coffin and the other three bodies were reburied.

The next day the Unknown Soldier began his final journey, stopping at Boulogne where it was placed in a casket of oak from the gardens of Hampton Court. On it was an antique sword from the king’s own collection and an iron shield with the words 'A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country'

A French military wagon drawn by six black horses carried the casket to the harbour. It was accompanied by the ringing of church bells, the massed trumpets of the French cavalry, and a mile long procession led by a thousand children.

 Marshal Foch saluted the casket as it was lifted on to HMS Verdun, and just before noon the destroyer set sail escorted by six battleships. Its arrival at Dover was accompanied by a 19 – gun Field Marshal’s salute.
From Dover castle it was carried to London, to be exact Platform 8 at Victoria station, where it remained overnight. (A plaque commemorates it still.

The following morning November 11th 1920 the casket was placed on a gun carriage and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. Another gun salute was fired in Hyde Park and the entire Royal family and leading ministers joined and followed the cortege, leading the ‘unknown soldier’ to his final resting place. At Westminster Abbey it was flanked by a hundred soldiers all of whom had won the Victoria Cross. Among the guests of honour were a hundred widows and mothers who’d lost a husband or son in the conflict.

The coffin was finally buried in the western end of the nave and covered in earth from the main French battlefields. The black marble stone came from Belgium. Servicemen stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently pass. In the first week alone an estimated 1,250,000 people walked past the grave of the ‘Unknown Soldier.’


 For those who believe pictures are worth a hundred words, please click and follow the short and brilliant slide-show

Post script. America did something very similar a year later. I was privileged to visit Arlington in 1982 and wish I knew then  what I know now 

With thanks to Ann Barnes, and the Imperial War Museum

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Walk: a minor celebration

                                                  Setting out - the world before me

I love walking. I could walk all day and have. Consequently my recent little health-scare bugged me no end. On leaving hospital it took about a week just to be able to walk down the road, never mind anything else. But the body is a miracle in progress and stamina develops. Ten days later I was able to walk the one and a half miles to Waitrose with many stops and some strategic panting. The Waitrose free coffee for Waitrose Card holders made it almost worthwhile. I remember I tried a latte for the first time instead of my usual black and haven't looked back. Perhaps the collapsed lung subtly altered my tastebuds - I can live with that.

This week I took my first non-stop (apart from the photo-stops) reasonably brisk walk to Waitrose without losing breath. Not a pant or a gasp. And it was magic. For those who like the English countryside (Monmouthshire slid into Wales by an inadvertant slip of the pen in the early 1970's) I hope the photos show what a privilege it is to be walking these lanes and what I have been recently missing.

    The magical lane. One direction leads into country. The other direction takes you to Monmouth.                                           

  I walked a mile into the country before turning round.

This is the final stretch of Vauxhall Field that fringes Monmouth.

I stop and look back and around. Our house is a distant spec.Sometimes caravans use these fields. There
are steam fairs, more often cows getting fat.


The sun cooperated. Ahead is St Mary's spire. A few minutes later clouds covered the sun.

I have a river to cross - the Monnow - which gives its name to Monmouth.

As you cross the iron bridge you can see the old abbatoir. The blood and guts would run into the river.

You can see the abbatoir more clearly here - ie  between the arches.


At at last Monmouth itself. Ahead is the Shire Hall. The camp little man just below the clock is Henry V.
The white building to the right is the King's Head. Perhaps a celebratory drink is called for.

Looking down the main street. Destination near.                                         

Waitrose is unseen - just to the left. Directly ahead is the C13th Gate House and a little beyond that
the country again.

A quick look back - using St Mary's Spire as a landmark - and two pertinent questions. Walk back or Bus?
Coffee or Beer? Whatever - best of all my lungs are clear and as sound as a bell!