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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Blenheim Palace

I met Mike Adams when we were both fifteen and had just started a catering course at Mabel Fletcher Catering College. He reminds me, with no trace of bitterness that I refused to let him copy my work. I was a young and ill-informed prat, but he got the last laugh, ending up cooking for the Rothschilds, The Duke of Westminster and the Marlboroughs of Blenheim Palace. 

A painted panorama of Blenheim Palace

 This is just the Gatehouse behind which is a large courtyard and the Palace itself

                                                     Mike's Apartment as Head Chef

                    View of the Gatehouse from the Palace. I told you the courtyard was big.

Mike recently showed us round the palace (the only non-royal, non-episcopal palace in the country). It was a joy, marred only by Wei Wei and his conceptual art. Had I wanted to see it I would have gone to the Tate or its equivalent. 
 The Entrance Hall, (left side)

 The Entrance Hall (right side) and a Wei Wei Chandelier

Mind you, we were given fair warning, having opted for an initial tour before Mike took us elsewhere. The lady asked us (a group of twenty or so)  were we interested in Wei Wei?" It was a fair question and I gave a fair answer. "No," I said. I hadn't come here to see Wei Wei.

She looked shocked, but I didn't want to see pebbles artfully arranged, nor pink and grey crabs, lopsided tables or his pictures defacing Blenheim's Grand Library. My daughter was equally shocked. She poked me in the ribs. I had been rude. I didn't see it. I'd been asked a question. I'd given an answer. And we were shown his work not-withstanding, along with her interpretation of every last piece, and how much she worshipped the air he breathed.

  Sarah Jennings (The first Duchess of Marlborough) and her children. The Duke is the guy on the horse. This is where I was poked in the ribs by my daughter. 

At last we were done and we wandered at will.
The Dining room.

                                                                      Dining table

 Dining table from other side

The palace was built between 1704 and 1711, and financed by a 'grateful nation' for John Churchill, (the first Duke of Marlborough. His achievement was striking. Blenhiem and a string of less well known victories were pivotal in diminishing French power in Europe and later the world. Had Louis XIV succeeded in the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain, and all her New World Colonies would eventually have fallen into French hands, albeit by proxy. 

 Louis XIV - the Sun King - the leggy brunette undefeated until Blenheim

Marlborough's lesser known achievement was keeping his armies well shod. Barges laden with boots followed his armies wherever they went. It's hard to win victories with raw feet and blisters.

               A tapestry showing waggons carrying supplies. Marlborough thought things through.

 Tapestry showing victory

A tapestry showing the French Marshal conceding defeat.  Oh, to be the Duke surrounded by memories like these. I have a few Facebook likes by ex-pupils and a few well recieved stories : )

 And my favourite - if you look closely you'll see the weaver has lost the plot. He's done so many horses he can't be bothered going out of his way for a dog - note the dog's hooves and how his legs (un-dog-like) mirror those of the horse

There is no doubt that John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough helped shape the course of history in Britain's favour, but my God, Blenheim is gratitude over the top! Facing the house, some distance away there's a Victory monument that makes Cleopatra's needle look like…a needle. 

 Admittedly the Victory monument looks a bit needle-like from this distance, but it dominates the surrounding estate.

Then there's his own personal chapel. 
                                                           The family private chapel

 The pulpit. Pity the vicar who had to preach before Sarah Jennings sitting directly below him

 A surprisingly modest altar, but then Jesus was a humble man

Look again at the small altar and pulpit. Contrast it with his mausoleum. God gets a poor deal in Blenheim, but then (unless you see John Churchill as His chosen instrument) He hadn't just whupped the French, and set the British imperial ball rolling. 

 You might notice the Duke and Duchess as Caeser and Caeserina, and at the bottom in bas relief Marshal Tallard surrendering after the battle.

                                                       There is life outside the mausoleum

An £18 ticket allows you to revisit as often as you want in any given year. It's a kind of Historical Time Share for those with delusions of grandeur. The park alone is worth it, never mind the house. But just as you can have death by chocolate, you can suffer death by Blenheim. Too much of a good thing. But we'll look at the park next week.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Clay Cross

Clay Cross first materialised in Bed-sit-land in the Handpost area of Newport, and when Newport still had its Woolworths. Next to the assorted sweets, it had piles of cheap paperbacks featuring Richard S Prather's detective, Shell Scott. I admire Prather for the sheer volume of his work. He was knocking them out, and in those grey, grimy evenings, I was reading them as fast as they appeared on Woolworths' shelves. I still have most of them, a fine collection. Interspersed with Prather's hyperactive Shell Scott, was the more sober prose of Raymond Chandler, and the rage and paranoia of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. 

Thus Clay Cross came into being. 

He found his voice in the letter pages of  The South Wales Argos where he vented the most outrageous ideas in the voice of a misogynist, homophobic Cold War warrior circa 1951. And then he went into cold storage as I couldn't for the life of me find away of bringing a creature of the 1950's into the late C20th without the support of a zimmerframe, oxygen bottles, and care assistant. 

He was resurrected on the pages of an online magazine called On Fiction Writing where he interviewed a host of some very generous writers, with the help of his sidekick, the lascivious and kinky Sheri Lamour. The two of them were outrageously rude, and when the enterprise ended neither agreed to be put back into their respective coffins. 

It was a whisper in the dark. Sheri I think, or perhaps April Dawn. Either way a solution was found, and both Cross and Lamour were plucked from their natural habitat and plonked into the centre of Newport in the late C20th.  Here they ran amok - and continue to do so--- oblivious to political and cultural sensitivities, and appallingly rude to anything that moves. 

I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Why I love history

Time can play tricks with the mind, especially in old churches and amidst graves. St Michael's and AllSaints is a case in point, whether you study the list of priests and vicars  who attended the church, or the grave stones surrounding it. The Church itself was built in the C12th by Geoffrey de Clinton, who, for the most part, stayed on the right side of Henry Ist.

This fine medieval church has a fine medieval yew tree, a sapling when Henry Ist was mutilating coiners for debasing the currency.

St Michael's and All Saints is also the final resting place of Benjamin Disraeli, his brother and nephew.

The dates on their grave stones, in particular those of their respective wives, illustrates beautifully how history is fluid. Real people don't live in 'periods'. They live through them. Consider Ralph Disraeli, the great man's brother. He was born in 1809 so was six years old when the Battle of Waterloo took place. His grandfather may well have told him of similar battles, such as Blenheim, as well as the loss of the American colonies. 

Ralph Disraeli would have his own tales to tell. He was fifty-four at the time of the American Civil war, but because he married a much younger wife, she carried on the baton. Katharine Disraeli, born in 1837 died in 1936, so witnessed the First World War, and missed the Second World War by only three years. Those two people unite centuries and transcend periods. If you bring in Marguerite Katharine Disraeli, their youngest daughter, she witnessed the 1960's dying in 1967, the same year as Sgt Pepper. 1809 to 1967 embraced in a single family, with one of the great statesmen sandwiched inbetween.

Ralph, Disraeli's brother.

Disraeli's nephew, Ralph Coningsby Disrael who inherited Hughendon

I stood there for some time, on ground consecrated nearly a thousand years ago staring at gravestones. Then sanity took over and I went for a beer.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

At home with the Disraelis

Benjamin Disraeli once gave a three-hour speech in which he consumed two bottles of brandy. He is one of my heroes. He is also famous for disliking Gladstone, once defining the difference between a misfortune and calamity thus: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity." 
And he never let anti-semitism get him down. Responding to a remark by the Irish Nationalist, Daniel O'Connell, he remarked:

"Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."

 It is worth googling Disraeli quotes. What comes out from them and his career is a heady fusion of ruthless pragmatism, ego, ambition, wit, and romanticism. It is hard to imagine him functioning in a modern democracy, nor any modern politician being so mordantly witty on their deathbed. Asked, as he lay dying, whether he wanted the Queen to come and see him, he drawled that she would only want him to send a message to Albert. (Her husband she'd been mourning for twenty years)

Understandably, given the chance to visit his house I jumped at the chance.

Hughendon manor is mentioned in the Domesday book when it was given a value of ten hides. A more substantial house was built in the C18th century but failed to meet Disraeli's expectations when he bought it in 1862. He had it remodelled along the lines of Victorian gothic. It delighted him but not the architectural historian, Nickolaus Pevsner who called it 'excruciating.'

Disraeli himself greets you as you pass through the porch
 This is far more imposing than the more bohemian Disraeli painted in later years
 This in turn is more imposing than the many wonderful and surreal Victorian cartoons.

 His dining room was quite small but this didn't bother Queen Victoria when she visited him once. She was quite small, too. In fact he had her chair cut and shortened so she could sit down without dangling the royal legs

His Drawing Room however was more spacious and sunny. A portrait of his wife, commissioned after her death, hangs over the mantelpiece.
 Love it or loathe it, a fine piece of Victoriana

 In one of the corridors, attached to the wall, is a carriage door. It's there for a reason
                                                    And its worth zooming in to read this.
Such a story could come from the wife of an Ayatollah, though it's unlikely an Ayatollah would consume two bottles of brandy, even less likely that Cheri Blair or Michelle Obama would respond in similar manner.

Disraeli married his wife, Mary Anne, for her money, but it developed into a love match. In her words:“Dizzy married me for my money.But if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” He poked fun at her:

“My wife is a very clever woman, but she can never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” And she embarrassed him by telling Queen Victoria that she always slept with her arms around Disraeli’s neck, and  prim society hostesses how beautiful her 'Dizzy' looked naked in the bath. It could have been worse. She could have discussed his merits in bed. Speaking of which
What's interesting is what they have on their walls. Clearly whatever they got up to was done with Royal Approval.

And finally, into the garden ---
--- which is seriously weird with its Flower-Pot man, Scary Spice, and Spanish dancer scaring small children and birds.
I leave their unholy love child until last.

We are done. The back of Hughendon. Disraeli's grave yet to come!!!!