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Friday, 18 December 2020

Praise where praise is due.

Have you ever bought something, and then realised too late it was a mistake—and the worst kind of mistake? In this case, the mistake was on the part of the supplier but compounded by our failure to do anything about it until almost too late. 

We are both admirers of Vincent Van Gogh; I’ve met few people who aren’t. And after a visit to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I bought my wife a canvas of a painting seen in Tate Britain and one she particularly admired.

This is what it should have been.

This is what we got. 

And our mistake was in the fruitless months we spent in deluding ourselves (well, attempting to) that it was perhaps the light—if we squinted—if we turned widdershins three times with eyes closed and then opened them—everything would be alright. But, curtains closed, lights on, curtains open and sun pouring in—the result was the same muddy teal effect instead of the glorious blue. 

I didn’t have to sense my wife’s disappointment. She told me tactfully so, with little hope of success, I wrote to Tate Britain:


This, I'm afraid is a delayed complaint. I bought from you a print of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Starry Night as a Christmas present for my wife last year. It’s been almost a year now that we've tried to convince ourselves that our eyes are just playing tricks and that we are the proud owners of a replica picture we saw at the exhibition and on display in your shop.

I have no idea who is at fault here, other than ourselves for not complaining at once, but as I said, we foolishly tried to convince ourselves that everything was fine when clearly it was not.

I'd appreciate very much your opinion of the two pictures attached, the one we expected and the one we received. It certainly colours the possibility of any other purchases (and there is one in mind) as well as recommending such purchases to others.

Hoping you are well in these difficult times

Mike Keyton

You could have knocked me down with half a feather when I got this response.

Hello Michael,

Thank you for getting in touch and for your ongoing patience. I can only apologise for the delayed response, we have been working with a higher demand on a reduced team but I can assure you that we are getting on top of things now.


I am sorry to see that you’re dissatisfied with your print; I just wanted to assure you that I have passed your feedback onto our Print Production Manager and they will investigate the image file used for this print. We always try to match the piece to the artwork as well as we can but obviously, it can be difficult to accurately reflect the nuances of oil paintings in a print format.


I do agree that this print is far from ideal, though and therefore, if you would like to receive one, I would like to offer you a replacement print of another artwork. If this is acceptable, please do let me know your preferences, as well as confirming your address and I can raise the order for you.


I can assure you that we will investigate the issues with the Starry Night piece but it can take quite some time for us to process a new image if possible.


Please do let me know if there is anything else that I can help you with,



That is really kind of you and it’s very much appreciated. In an ideal world, we’d be happy with a better replacement for the same £75 canvas print. It’s my wife’s favourite painting by Van Gogh. But if that is impossible we’d be very happy with a canvas print to the same value of Vincent Van Gogh Farms near Auvers. Please could you confirm if this is possible?

Thank you again,   

Mike Keyton

Hello Michael,


Thank you for getting back to me.


Yes, I am happy to raise a complimentary order for any custom print that you would like, not limited to canvas prints but also any framed prints if you would prefer.


I am sorry that we aren’t able to offer another order of your wife’s favourite painting at the moment but the process of reassessing and processing a print file can take a number of months to complete, and we have a reduced workforce at the moment, so I wouldn’t be able to predict how long this will take.


Let me know if you would like to proceed with the Farms near Auvers canvas print.


Additionally, I would also be happy to offer you a pair of Starry Night over the Rhône espresso mugs as this is the other product we have with this artwork, as a small gift and gesture of goodwill to yourself and your wife.

So now we are the proud possessors of:

as well as two small bone china cups. 

And the best way of saying thanks (we've done that of course) is publically giving credit where credit is due. Thank you Tate Gallery London.

The last blog post of 2020. Fingers crossed for 2021 

PS The weird white background is due, I suspect, to copying and pasting from email (names and details retracted) Sorry about that. 

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Peggy or Bob

So, after all the heat and excitement, Punch replaces Judy, or is it the other way round? Whatever the case, it is a return to business as usual—for a time at least. 


An analysis by the Wall Street Journal listed at least forty former lobbyists on the President Elect’s ‘transition task force.’ They included executives from Lyft, Amazon, Capital One, Uber, Visa and J P Morgan. In Joe Biden’s words, these ‘reflect the values and priorities of the incoming administration.’ Nice to know, if a little dispiriting. Perhaps even worrying.


Donald Trump was elected in 2016, despite his faults, despite the hostility of leading MSM outlets, despite everything precisely because of a groundswell of hostility to this ‘business as usual’ disguised as democracy. And yet here we go again. Even a cursory glance at the new administration illustrates this.


The new advisor to Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency is Michael McCabe, a former consultant to DuPont and head of a $130 billion transnational corporation that lobbied to deregulate environmental standards.

And John Kerry, the man who owns 6 houses, 12 cars, 2 yachts and a private jet as the proposed new ‘Climate Czar?’ You couldn’t make it up. 

Much of Joe Biden’s new Pentagon Team (war office) consists of those funded by the arms industry. 

Susan Rice, Obama’s former ambassador to the UN, was instrumental in the US intervention in the Libyan Civil War and accused of misleading American news networks as to the cause of the Benghazi massacre. When the Obama administration came to an end, she was given a nice sinecure on the board of Netflix. Why? Both question and answer leave a bad taste in the mouth. It resembles the corruption of the Medieval Church, where those in the Pope’s favour received Bishoprics or less prestigious offices (the revenues at least) without necessarily being there or doing the job. It’s rife in Britain;  we call it the House of Lords, though well-renumerated directorships demanding little more than two days attendance fits the bill too. But I diverge. Susan Rice is now in the running for a foreign policy position in the new administration. 


For all his faults, Trump avoided wars. With or without Susan Rice, expect expansionist adventures in eastern Europe and Ukraine. Poking the Russian bear. A splendid idea. Expect excitement in the Middle East too. “America is back.” As are neo-cons and those with Ukrainian interests, as, too, the body-bags, I suspect.


However worthy other appointees may be, the much-vaunted diversity in the new administration also makes for nice packaging, cover for decisions made by those who make policy. Even Kamala Harris, Biden’s likely replacement a year down the line, is a known quantity and likely regarded as biddable by the establishment. I doubt she’ll be allowed to rock the boat very much. I suspect she doesn’t really want to.


Was so much fervour and heat expended for this? It’s akin to an alternative world, an alternative Russian Revolution—Bolshevism Vs the Tsarist regime replaced by Team Rasputin Vs Team Yusupov. 


However, greater forces prevailed in Russia, and likewise, with or without Trump, the forces that propelled him to power will not just go away. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Biden-Ukrainian dossier, censored or ignored by the MSM and big tech. Will it resurface or go down the memory plughole? That of course depends on six companies who largely control what America hears and sees—as in Britain too. 




In my view, the future is far from rosy: low-level civil disturbance and/or ‘soft repression.’ The legalisation of pot may satisfy some. One commentator posited that this may well be the future of America, possibly the west: the gutting of a viable middle-class and its replacement by a gig working proletariat kept distracted/content by celebrities, gaming, pot and a universal basic wage; a C21st version of the old Roman ‘Bread and Circuses,’ as the wealthy leached an empire dry.


 It worked well for a time, until population decline, disease and barbarian migration burst the bubble. Rome also had to contend with the Parthian empire on its eastern front. America may or may not see parallels across the Pacific, though one hopes that no American president finds himself in the unfortunate position of the Roman emperor, Valerian. This hapless emperor sought peace by attempting to buy off the Parthians. Instead, he was captured in the process of offering the bribe and reduced to a human footstool by the Parthian king Shapur.


So, at best ‘business as usual’ or in Peggy Lee’s words ‘Is this all there is?”

Or perhaps the more apocalyptic:


Friday, 4 December 2020

What did they put in those mince pies?

We sat with our coffees and mince pies, contemplating the dystopian vision beneath us , a vast  ocean of snow, a frozen sea. 

Our future when the sea levels rise and the valleys are flooded. 

An indication where to build and where not to.

And then the mist slowly lifts over the fields 

And Monmouth coyly peeps through

On a similar day we explored a forgotten world when railways were king 

And like awestruck barbarians contemplating the ruins of Rome 

Wept to see the abandoned ruins of great Victorians. 

Well, we didn't actually weep. We went indoors and had a cup of tea.

For those interested in the scale and history of the Iron Bridge and Viaduct, the wiki link is here. 

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Lost Things

It’s the lost things that are best remembered, especially when it comes to books. There are exceptions, but few. I remember with regret a beautifully turned salad bowl, the best thing by far I ever achieved in Woodwork. Before, I’d brought home a poorly made bookshelf, and a mahogany crucifix (well, the cross at least) but the salad bowl was my pride and joy. Unfortunately, my parents persuaded me to give it away to the domestic science teacher who’d coached me prior to me entering Catering College. I’ve forgotten the teacher’s name, but not the salad bowl.

But books are the thing; the memories, sharp niggles that catch me every now and again. There are three, in particular, all lost during the traumatic house move from Newport to Monmouth. One was ‘The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce,’ an old hardback bought from a second-hand bookshop. I’ve since bought it on kindle but it’s not the same. Another was a lavishly produced coffee table book of photos portraying Long Island. It was a gift from Bud and Edith, two incredibly generous New Yorkers who took me under their wing when I was in New York and came over to visit us in Newport some years later. At the time, the book aroused little interest though obviously, I was appreciative. I’m still not that keen on coffee table books, but what I regret most is the tangible memory. You pass a book, or your glance alights on it, and the memory floods back—especially the generosity of those who gave it to you. They’re dead now, but I’d still have the book had I not been so careless. 

The final item lost in that house move was the 1982 St Agnes Academic School for Girls Yearbook. It was given to me at the end of my teacher exchange and had the names and photos of every girl I taught that year. It also had a photo of me grinning like a fool. I remember many of the names and faces but am horribly aware that more have gone through the memory-plughole. 

There are two other things I regret losing, both conscious but badly judged actions. My dad sewed and stitched a green canvas shoulder bag for me when I first left home for university—skills he had learned at sea. It went everywhere with me, for a long time holding a mandolin until I was able to afford a proper case. And then, I decided I no longer needed it and so it was binned. With age, you better appreciate the importance of things. 

The final small treasure I consciously binned was an old white plastic, leather-effect briefcase with a broken zip. What was important was not the case but what it held, two or three years of trans-Atlantic letters from my distant cousin in Seattle. We’d been penfriends since our teens. 

The catalyst for that particular act was, ironically, after a visit to see her and her family at her home in Seattle. It was Christmas, and a wonderful, never forgotten experience. But when talk turned to our years of correspondence, she told me cheerfully that she’d thrown my letters away or at least never kept them, which amounts to much the same thing. But then why keep them? I wasn’t Virginia Woolf (thank God) And yet it rankled, bruised ego perhaps. So, in another, earlier house move the plastic case with its trove of letters went. What rubbish, I thought, keeping old, adolescent letters. And how badly wrong both of us were. What a treasure trove of memories was lost. 

Then again, putting regret into perspective, everything is lost in time—the greatest, most rapacious thief of all.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Fascist or Schoolboy?


You can buy my book here.  But why should you buy a book about Peter Cheyney?

Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify his books as great, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it, and played it back to them. Cheyney talked to the popular mood rather than the concerns of an educated elite. It was the less educated who bought his work in droves. 

Cheyney’s books travelled with soldiers to the battlefields of Europe and were found in the homes of the ‘Resistance’. His ‘Dark’ series had relevance and brought a new degree of realism to the spy novel with its soiled glamour, its weary brutality.

Oscar, coming to terms with Cheyney

Peter Cheyney’s world-view might make some wince at its robust and thoughtless chauvinism, its narrow certainties that ‘pansies’ were abominable and foreigners not to be trusted.  He is, though, reflecting an uncomfortable fact that the real heroes of World War II were not the moral icons that the media then and now prefer to portray – the awkward bits cut out.  The heroes of World War II would be homophobic, racist bigots by our standards but heroes nevertheless. It was the ordinary man with the ordinary prejudices of the time – and the aspirations that Cheyney portrayed. Those less literate than Greene or le Carre made Cheyney rich because he wrote what they wanted to hear, and so provides a reader today a fascinating insight into a world long gone. 

His most famous books found in 'the dark' series were written when Cheyney was well past his physical prime. Reading his descriptions of hard-drinking, hard smoking lantern-jawed heroes with impossibly white teeth,  it's worth having a vision of their creator at the time they were written.

'On the eve of the Second World War, the forty-three-year-old Peter Cheyney volunteered for the Officer’s Emergency Reserve and was mortified when he was turned down on the grounds of ill health. He settled for the Home Guard instead and the role of Captain Mannering in ‘Dad’s Army.’ Thwarted in his desire to serve King and Country in France, Egypt, Burma, or Greece—anywhere but central London— he dug slit trenches and trained other unfit men, on how to repel the invader. Cheyney revealed a near-martinet obsession with military discipline, which, in the view of his first biographer, was a likely defense mechanism, a response to wounded pride. 

Occasionally it backfired—most spectacularly when he regaled the Press Club with the ineptitude of his men and how he had spent an entire afternoon trying to teach them how to advance under little or no cover. 

One of those listening ‘innocently’ asked, “What exactly were you trying to get them to do?”

Cheyney put his whisky back on the bar and lumbered down onto his very large stomach. An obliging soul handed him a walking stick in lieu of a rifle, and the bar watched in silence as he crept up on the ‘enemy’ hidden behind the door of the Billiards-room. Tables and chairs were moved out of his way as he proceeded to wriggle with deadly intent. People crowded into the room to watch, unable to believe their eyes.

On reaching the Billiards-room, Cheyney, red-faced and puffing clambered back onto his feet and brushed himself down. “Now do you see?”

The wit that every schoolboy knows manifested itself then. An unknown voice piped up from the back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite see that?”

It may have been the whisky or the ‘sincerity’ of those watching but Cheyney re-enacted his walrus-like wriggle to the Billiard-room door six times before the penny at last dropped. Furiously he heaved himself back onto his feet and faced the by now hysterical audience. “That’s right, laugh! Laugh your bloody heads off!” And they did, weeping on each other’s shoulders as Cheyney stormed out of the room.

It was a far cry from the young Peter Cheyney, struggling to find himself in the febrile and disjointed world of the 1920s, the young Cheyney, nostalgic for the certainties of war. It was, too, a far cry from the unpleasant thug he may well have appeared to those who opposed him. ....' (Extract from Cheyney Behave)

Friday, 13 November 2020


President Trump accuses the Democrats of electoral fraud. The Democrats swear blind they would never do such a thing. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies looking at both claims, ‘They would say that wouldn’t they.’ History may eventually sift the truth of it, then again it might not. 

But for any who think these ‘shenanigans’ could never happen here, one only has to look at Peterborough, Birmingham, Bradford and West Yorkshire.

The 2004 Peterborough election vote rigging scandal eventually saw justice in 2008, when Raja Akhtar, the Conservative Mayor of Peterborough, was sentenced to three months in jail for electoral fraud, at Norwich Crown Court. These were not the only convictions for fraud in the 2004 election. Labour party members, including a former mayor Mohammed Choudhary, candidate Maqbool Hussein and a party official Tariq Mahmood were also jailed in 2008.

They were caught as part of ‘Operation Hooper’, launched by Cambridgeshire police after residents turning up at the ballot box to vote were turned away after being told their vote had already been cast. The investigation revealed that the men had tampered with postal voting forms, sending ballot papers to away addresses where they were hijacked. Peterborough Telegraph 10 October 2008

Similarly, the Birmingham Post reported similar shenanigans in 2014:

“Ten years on from the postal vote fraud scandal which saw Birmingham’s political system likened to a ‘banana republic’ an MP says he is sure there is still election fraud today.

The city council election on June 10, 2004 was perhaps the darkest day in Birmingham’s political history as it marred by vote rigging on an industrial scale which left trust in the electoral system shattered.

“High Court Judge Richard Mawrey QC, presiding over the election court, famously declared the fraud “would disgrace a banana republic,” after his election court found there was a campaign by Labour Party activists to forge, steal, and alter thousands of postal votes.”

The extent of fraud was uncovered when police found candidates and supporters handling unsealed postal ballots in a deserted warehouse in Birch Road East, Aston during a late-night raid two days before the election.

A further clue, perhaps, was when the number of postal votes rocketed from 28,000 in 2003 to 70,000 in 2004 – and witnesses saw people delivering bags full of ballot papers to polling stations and counts.

Tower Hamlets in 2015 also saw widespread postal fraud along with voter intimidation. Perhaps as a result, Tower Hamlets now implements tough election security. Both the Evening Standard and The Docklands and East London Advertiser reported how in 2019 anti-fraud officers equipped with body-worn cameras were deployed at polling stations when voting began. Nine officers were also stationed at the count in the town hall and a new photographic entry system was put in place to stop anyone who should not be there entering. The fact that such measures were needed bears witness to the previous corruption. 

But this was the mere tip of the iceberg. In 2017 the Yorkshire Post reported the findings of the Electoral Commission:

‘More election fraud claims in Bradford and Huddersfield than London and West Midlands combined.

‘NEARLY one in five alleged cases of British election fraud last year was recorded in West Yorkshire - with Bradford, Keighley and Huddersfield emerging as 'high risk’ areas…’

Perhaps the strongest motive for electoral fraud is the arrogance of those who know what's  best for ‘the people,’ whether, as in the C19th, the conviction that property owners possessed a wisdom that ordinary people lacked or the present belief, in some quarters, that ‘ideology’ or any one particular party should determine the outcome of an election. The Chartists fought for one man one vote, not one man two hundred votes whether it be a local aristocrat or via the more modern phenomenon of corrupt postal voting. 

It’s not my place to speak for America. Republicans and Democrats can speak for themselves, and should they hesitate the media will do it for them. I’m speaking about Britain where our voting system  clearly needs to be tightened. 

Voting should be done in person with proper ID and, if necessary, over two days.

Mail voting should be restricted to the sick, housebound or those out of the country, and then under much stricter conditions with proper ID and signed by them— not dubious proxies. 

And finally, whatever happens, we should never go down the cyber route via the click of a mouse. Convenient for the voter, and convenient for those who control the technology. I don’t want my vote controlled by Google or Government or any extra-state power who may get involved—including in the future any benevolent A. I. knowing what’s best for us. Pencil and pen or expect further shenanigans.

Michael Keyton has now left the pulpit.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Empire and Heroes

I was drinking tea in a pub (that’s a different story) when my eyes were caught by this wonderfully evocative poster advertising the virtues of Empire and Beer. It brought to mind a dim memory of me as a child celebrating Empire Day in Primary School. It involved lining up in the playground, singing a song I can’t remember and listening to a speech I can’t remember. But I remember we got the afternoon off. So that was good. 

It’s not the done thing to celebrate the British Empire, but to my mind it was just one of those things. Recorded history—and almost certainly before that—is one of a ‘dog eat dog’ world, and it will continue to be so in one form or another. The C16th—C19th saw pivotal conflicts between Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal and France for territory and trade. Islam was engaged in similar endeavours to the east. The Aztecs conquered and enslaved, and the Comanche were no peace-loving hippies. 

Part and parcel of conflict and empire are the heroes held up as exemplars for others to follow. The Iliad is a paean to heroism and subterfuge. In Rome we had the story of Horatius defending the bridge against an Etruscan army, and Gaius Mucius  Scaevola burning his right hand in front of the Etruscan king in a demonstration of Roman courage. And it’s no coincidence that Thomas Babington Macauley popularised such stories in his ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ in the burgeoning years of the British Empire, one that was to consciously model itself on that of Rome. Macedonia had Alexander the Great who conquered half the known world. Sparta had its 300 Spartans who defended the pass of Thermopylae.

And yet from Achilles to Sparta stretching forward to our present time, all heroes have feet of clay. Achilles had a dodgy heel. Sparta enslaved its helots and practised infanticide. So why should we be ashamed of Frances Drake, Hawkins, Clive of India, Wolfe of Quebec, Nelson, Churchill? You take on board their human failings and highlight what made them great or at least significant. It’s akin to prospecting for gold in fast moving rivers.  After hours sifting through pebbles and sand you don’t then throw away the occasional nugget of gold because of the debris accompanying it.

And in British history, the nuggets are more usually found in the common man. Edward III and Henry V conquered large areas of France – but not without the long bows of the ordinary Welsh archer.

The Duke of Wellington, summed up that peculiar balance between the hero and the common man in three separate quotes. Speaking of Napoleon, he remarked that ‘his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men.’

And speaking of his own troops he confessed, with some pride, ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but by God they frighten me.’

And finally, over a few drinks with his officers and in more reflective mood:

‘people talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really Is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.’

That poster in the pub brought it all to mind, even the way it exploited the nostalgia of empire and the ‘heroes’ who manned it in the interests of beer. The empire too was an exploitative enterprise, venality and ruthlessness mixed in equal parts with heroism considerable, if perhaps inappropriate idealism,  and the everyday just getting on with the job. 

There is one song which sums all of this up: The Soldiers of the Queen, and I always think of my grandfather, Sergeant John Keyton, who died in the Boer War just a week before it ended. 

For me, this version carries a strange mix of jollity, pathos, wry regret and pride.

Whereas this version is more triumphalist, very much 'Boys Own' kind of stuff,  the imagery I was brought up on as a child. 

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Devil's Elbow

To the left, Lol on squeeze box. Behind her Nigel who played a mean flute, Mike a guitarist, Henry in the blue shirt. Theo a lovely Dutch guy played with us in Irish sessions, and Reg capturing the dissolute cavalier vibe played bodhran and jug. To my shame the other two guys I've no idea. I'm taking the photo.

There are moments of intense happiness in most people’s lives. I have been more than fortunate in friends and events: University, my year in America, my marriage, seeing my children born. And the intensely enjoyable years I spent with the legendary Devil’s Elbow—well, we were big in Abertillery. Our Captain Pugwash hornpipe going down a storm: headbanging and much stamping of feet.

So, with that in mind, I need to put on the record my gratitude to two old friends and founding members, Henry and Lol Lutman. Both from Yorkshire, they enjoyed the Viking propensity to grasp chance by the neck and go where the tide took them and the band. (My scouse propensity is grasping metaphors by the neck) So, in short, they brought joy to my life, and for that I’m grateful.

From small beginnings, as they say: a priest loosely attached to the school heard that a Welsh dancing troupe were in need of musicians. Now, I was not a musician, though I owned a second-hand fiddle bought in a Swansea junk shop for 7 shillings and sixpence. But I was able to pick up a tune very quickly and then later discovered I was better on mandolin. The Welsh dance group—Gwerinwyr Gwent—were the nicest bunch of people you could possibly meet, which was just as well because even the musicians had to dress up, in my case waistcoat, short breeches and long socks. I drew the line at the tall hat and skirt. It was also very good, coming second in the Welsh National Eisteddfod, Henry, Lol and me accompanying them—me the imposter—scared out of my wits and staring at sky when I didn’t have my eyes tightly shut.

The Red Lion

We left the dance group eventually, and over a drink in the Red lion on Stow Hill, Henry and Lol told me they were forming a ceilidh band and would I like to join.

Never say no, however bad you are. I said yes. 

And from there Devil’s Elbow was formed, various other band members (mostly guitarists) coming and going over the years.

Self-belief and hard practise work wonders. Weekly rehearsals and much laughter punctuated by increasing bookings on the Ceilidh circuit and then folk clubs. And it was hard practise, the key to muscle memory that allows you to play when you’ve drunk one too many. I still have the cassettes, one with us playing the damn ‘Atholl Highlanders’ ten or twelve times until it was sufficiently tight. And I still have the muscle memory, fingers and mind on automatic even after all these years. 

This was originally 'OReillys,' a magical Irish pub that had 'lock-ins' (much better than lockdowns) on a Sunday afternoon. The guinnnes was free for as long as we played

And so, the wheel turns full circle and the joy continues when my daughter a gifted violinist, and a Valkyrie on ‘fiddle,’  comes home from London. She reads music fluently, but possesses the greater gift of being able to play by ear—and the even greater gift of playing Devil’s Elbow


I hope the sound is okay, it comes from an old demo tape/radio interview. As I remember the format was usually one or two instruments playing the opening few bars and the rest of the band coming in as and when. I played the Octave Mandola pictured above. It sounds like a woody banjo bubbling between the violin and guitar - and believe me it's the devil's own job keeping up with a fiddle. I also play mandolin somewhere or other

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Their owners reclaim them at night


Ever since a child climbing up them, making tree houses, swinging from homemade swings as Robin of Sherwood, I've loved trees. Now my tastes are more sedentary but I still like to touch them, sometimes even sniffing aka Joe Biden  the more attractive specimens. 

(First youtube pic might not show on iphone. It does show on my ipad and desktop)

There is music to this: The Lamentation of Owen Roe O'Neill by the blind C18th Irish harpist O'Carolan. The only thing of note is that it's played by me on Octave Mandola accompanied by guitar. It's from a different life, when I was a musician . . . of sorts.

But what was I saying about trees?

I love them grouped in shade and light

I love them fully dressed

But most of all I love them naked, especially when, like looking at clouds, you see hidden shapes

From a distance you know something is not as it seems

And then you see it: a serpent, the tree's hidden owner or prey being consumed.

Clearly a tunnel, until you see the face and again the question, owner or one trapped in the tree. 

And here I see a mother rabbit and baby.

If you look top right corner you imagine a tree slowly sliding down, and the tree at the bottom clinging on for dear life, its roots turned into giant claws. But look again and you can see all manner of things: a horse's face, there's the  face of a malignant goblin somewhere there too. Look long enough and you'll see all manner of things.

And you just know that something lives in this tree. 

Here though, there is no pretence or attempt at disguise. this is owned by a tree gnome. Tradesman entrance below 

With all these things be wary at night when their owners awake and reclaim what is theirs

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Chepstow Castle

There were already rumblings from the Welsh Assembly. They wanted to ban the English from Covid stricken areas from visiting Wales. As far as I can see, Boris Johnson’s strictures already ‘discouraged’ those areas affected from travelling outside of their immediate area. Likewise, within Wales, Covid stricken areas are similarly ‘discouraged’ from leaving their local area. What Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister and a man with the charisma of a dead sheep, seems to be demanding is that the English should be legally enforced from moving from one area to another, as opposed to the Welsh who will continue to suffer the milder ‘discouragement.’

But these were mere storm clouds when our beautiful daughter announced a visit from Covid-ridden London. Hmm, Mark Drakeford or daughter?

Being responsible we agreed to meet up at Chepstow on the borders of England and Wales and where the Mark Drakefords of their day had as much success at keeping out the Normans as they’re having with Covid.

But first we had lunch in an outside seating area at Una Vita, a small Italian café reasonably close to the Castle. It wasn’t a good start, at least not for me. Not when I stared down at my plate of Lasagne the size of a small sandwich with a dollop of sauce, and two squares of bread little bigger than stamps—and one of them was mouldy. 

Never mind, Chepstow castle awaited, with a tower for each of us to keep socially distanced.  

Approaching the castle, it appears impressive but not over large. It's a bit like the Tardis in this respect, appearing larger in the inside.

Two pictures at the rear of the castle

When you consider William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and the foundations of this castle were laid in 1067, you can appreciate the speed of Norman penetration and the importance of this particular site on the border of England Wales. It was the gateway to the rich lands of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, as well as being a possible crossing point for Welsh forays into Gloucestershire. In fact the original name of both castle and town was Striguil, (Bend in the river) which remained its name until the C14th. 

The bridge separating England from Wales, no doubt patrolled by a vaguely embarrassed policeman when the law banning the disease-ridden English from entering Wales comes into effect. 


One of its four baileys each marking a different period of its development

The river Wye flows past the castle. Winches brought up wine and other supplies from barges below.

Ooh look! Ducks

Note the  beautiful vaulted roof for what is essentially a storage room overlooking the river.

One of the inner baileys. Compare it to that first picture of the castle. The Tardis effect

Like most small boys, I loved battlements.  Imagined myself on them fighting off every kind of maurader. (I haven't changed much,)  But here,  note their solidity

And here, two baileys connected by a bridge

The Normans, of course, were highly Covid conscious

This remains the oldest castle door in Europe, dating from the 1190's perhaps earlier. It guarded the front of the castle until as late as 1962

The Great Tower, started by William fitzOsbern and developed subsequently by William Marshal, and Roger Bigod
It’s hard to imagine what it once looked like inside, but the heavy Romanesque arches and the beautifully carved windows shown below give some indication

Again, the wonderfully solid battlements and glimpses of one Bailey linking into another

Forest, limestone cliffs, and the river Wye hints at how impressive it must have looked to the Welsh

St Mary’s Priory founded by William FitzOsbern and his son (keep it in the family) Roger de Breteuil, 2nd  Earl of Hereford, in 1072.

And then a leisurely drink in the Beaufort Arms before our daughter slipped over the border