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Saturday, 20 October 2018

Reggie and Lois


In William Cross’s own words, ‘This is a dirty little book.’ In it he publishes the ditties and rude limericks from two adventurous but ultimately  tawdry figures of the 1920’s – one ‘a bright young thing,’ the other less youthful but appreciating it greatly in others. Lois Sturt was nineteen when she hitched up with the thirty-nine year-old and married Reginald Pembroke. Pembroke was a peer of the realm, an earl and major landowner. Lois was the daughter of a baron who later went on to marry the predatory homesexual Evan Morgan. She died with chronological neatness—in Budapest—aged thirty-seven in 1937.

In between she bedded Prince George, Duke of Kent, Edward Boulanger, Duff Cooper, Tim Cooper, Augustus John and Luffy Loughborough. She partied hard, drank harder, and starred as Nell Gwyn in The Great Adventure – the first British colour film. She trained racehorses and flew planes. A rich life that took its toll.

And this is the beauty of this wicked, scurrilous and gossipy book, the kind of history that never finds it way into school textbooks.  The limericks and ditties are puerile – one of their bedtime hobbies in between other things, but they'll  fascinate those who like peering through keyholes. Cross,  though, intersperses their ditties  with other examples doing the rounds at the time, which makes fascinating history but left me a little confused as to which belonged to whom.

One can take a high moral stand, in Plato’s words: Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.’ In other words it isn’t great poetry, but it does allow some insight into the time. And it's not all bad verse and bawdy shenanigans. Reggie is quite clearly in love:

I want you to be sitting beside me when I write. I want you to come and fish with me and walk with me and God how I want you to sleep with me . . . It is as you say almost terrifying to want anyone so much, but it is wonderful too isn’t it darling and when we remember that we flighty and light-hearted creatures, who have never stuck to anyone much longer than six weeks at a time, should have been absolutely faithful to each other for nearly 2 years . . . it makes it more wonderful still. 

In fact the affair lasted off and on until 1926 when Reggie went back to his long suffering but dutiful wife who refused to divorce him.                

The book then  opens a little known window into an age long gone, though it must be remembered that some wouldn’t recognise brightness if it hit them in the face.

Father John Degan for one. In a sermon, he urged upon women his own ten commandments:
1 Don’t parade the streets as if you were ‘in search of an adventure’
2 Don’t accept jewelry, clothing, or money from men folk, especially if they be blackmen
3 Never either enter a public house or a nightclub
4 Avoid those dancing halls where ‘dipping’ and other low class antics are tolerated
5 Leave cigarettes, intoxicants, and drugs severely alone
6 Remember that powder and paint and daring frocks are the hallmarks of the minx
7 Play hockey or lacrosse in winter and tennis in summer, but leave football to the men.
8 Beware of the ‘something for nothing’ man with marcel-waved hair, who offers you a   joyride in his car.
You’ve got the drift.

Father John's s own solution for raising up wholesome boys was the provision of a toolshed and a couple of hundred adventure books. And to discourage any daughter from becoming a ‘helter-skelter, promenading flapper,’ the provision of a piano, some sheet music and a  sewing machine would do the trick. You’ll have to buy the book to discover what one rebellious girl sent him on Valentine’s day.
As I said, a wicked, scurrilous and gossipy book and blessed, as always, with copious footnotes that lead you down into other rabbit holes.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis, one of the great comic novelists of the C20th, was reputedly in terminal decline by the mid 1980s, his faculties blunted by alcoholic abuse. To show there was life in the old dog yet, he won the Booker prize in 1986 for his book, ‘The Old Devils.

The story focuses on old friends from Wales, all of them retired and with little to do but start drinking soon after breakfast—usually in seedy pubs, none of them pleasant. They moan and bitch, are outrageously rude and wouldn’t know political correctness if it hit them flat in the face. ‘Show me a Welsh Nationalist and I’ll show you a cunt.’

But over the course of the book, they forgive each other’s faults and past betrayals. They show tolerance, indeed tenderness for Dorothy, an uncontrolled alcoholic who will talk nonstop on New Zealand tribal customs—given the chance. The trick lies in keeping the conversation going, for should there be a lull the task would be akin to starting  'a motorcycle in the path of a charging elephant’

The warmth and wisdom lies in the exploration of mutual infirmities, bowel movements and farting, and the ever-deepening shadow of approaching death.

Why has this book come suddenly to mind?

Well, this weekend I’m off to a reunion of some old and special friends from the deep past. In those days you made your own way to University carrying what you might need in a single large suitcase. 
 It was a dark Swansea night, and I had just wandered off from the train trusting in the assurance that the university had found me accommodation. Before I knew it, I was bundled into a white van like a Hezbollah hostage and there met the bunch of people I’d spend most of my university career living, working and drinking together.
We ended up in a strange boarding house, later found a large house overlooking a park, and developed  a friendship that, however loose, has lasted for decades. Life is a vigorous bagatelle, and I doubt not we’ll be split on politics and the Brexit chasm currently splitting the country, but real friendship transcends trivialities.
So, the OldDevils  are descending on Swansea. No doubt some beer will be drunk, but I have no intention of discussing bowel movements unless the others do first.

Below are three old photos that, for me, capture the unworldly magic of Swansea University and where we occasionally swam.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

We go so you don't have to


One hot day in late summer we went to Malvern, listed as Malferna in the Domesday Book 1086 and classified as woodland. The name is ancient British moel-bryn or ‘Bare-Hill. The modern Welsh equivalent is Moelfryn or ‘bald hill’. The area is rich in prehistoric remains, being positioned on a major ancient trade route connecting the salt mines of Droitwich Cheshire to South Wales, but with only a day to spare – a very hot day – we limited ourselves to the town and the Priory.

It’s sobering to consider that this great building  developed from a small settlement of Saxon hermits headed by the martyred St Werstan and favoured by Edward The Confessor. When the Normans came its fortunes looked up as did its architecture. 

The romanesque arches and heavy pillars are early Norman.

The Benedictines founded what is now the Priory its second and perhaps greatest prior being Walcher of Lorraine. He led a medieval mathematical revolution, observing the phases of the moon using the astrolabe and, with Robert the Lotheringian, he translated key Arabic works as well as Arabic numerals into England. 

The monks were blessed with some beautifully carved misericords allowing them to surreptitiously sit while apparently standing. 

Grotesque face

Witch on broomstick

Green man

The priory was greatly extended in the C15th and benefited from the patronage of both Richard III and Henry VII. The former commissioned the great West window showing Doomsday in stained glass, Henry, the fabulous Magnificat window showing Mary the mother of God in a blue cloud studded in stars.
If you zoom ins, Mary is ensconced in the cloud, (blue wreath) near the top.

It’s even more sobering to consider how close all this was to being obliterated, when Henry VIII dissolved and sold off the monasteries (1536-1540). The Lady Chapel was sold for a £1 and was knocked down, the stone no doubt being cannibalised for other buildings. The Cloisters and South transept were similarly destroyed, the lead removed from the roofs. The Priory Church, however, was saved by the 105 families of Malvern. They petitioned the king and bought it from him for the princely sum of £20. After doing so, there was no money left to adequately maintain it. That was left – like most things – to the Victorians who restored it to its former glory.

One great peculiarity is this magnificent tomb of  John Knotsford, his wife and his daughter. Why peculiar? it holds the corpse of one of the men who destroyed much of the priory before the village bought what was left. Such historical quirks hide stories yet to be told.

The great East window showing the Crucifixion and resurrection and behind you
the West window depicting Judgement day.  On a sunny day, a worshipper would be bathed in the light from both.
In fact where-ever you stood, you'd be bathed in coloured light. Malvern Priory holds the greatest number of late medieval stained glass in the country. God bless those 105 families who raised £20.

And since it was the Victorians who restored it, it seems only proper that on her Golden Jubilee,
Queen Victoria had her own window—her great nephew, the Kaiser in red military uniform stands behind her.  Another quirk of history, I guess.