Out Now!

Friday, 27 March 2020

Botany Bay

Week one of self-isolation and surrounded by trees. 

Why so many pictures of trees? I could say I love trees and here, their lichen and sinuous and snakelike form. Another factor was that much of the walk was uphill and taking photos was a cunning ruse so as not to admit I needed a rest. I suspect I was rumbled. 

We were walking in Botany Bay just above Tintern Abbey. A strange name for such an idyllic spot – and one of the last sights convicts bound for Australia would have seen before boarding the barges that would take them down the Wye and then exile to the penal colony of Botany Bay. No doubt there were other transit points but none near as heartbreakingly beautiful.

The first 736 convicts were banished there in 1788. They included a 70-year-old woman found guilty of stealing cheese. Over the next 60 years about 50,000 other convicts were transported there.

The prevailing wisdom was that criminals were inherently defective thus rehabilitation was out of the question. They had to be separated from the genetically pure and since, after 1776 America was no longer an option, Australia was deemed the next best possible place for them.
Conditions were unbelievably brutal but for those caught escaping there was worse to come – Norfolk Island some 600 miles east of Australia where death was often the preferred option. Norfolk Island now is a far happier place  
But back to Botany Bay. The name crops up all over the place but few with such obvious links to the more famous penal colony. There’s a Botany Bay near Chorley, deriving its name for being in such a desolate spot, a Botany Bay in Derbyshire, another in Broadstairs Kent.  There’s even a Botany Bay in South Carolina. Maybe they just liked the name. At that point I stopped, the internet being a rabbit hole with no obvious or immediate end.

Walking through the woods we stumbled upon St Mary's Church

The tomb in the middle is that of Robert White who ran the local wire works until his death in 1736 . The inscription refers to his: amiability and hospitable nature called to this sequestered spot many of the first rank and character. Inoffensive and benevolent, he lived without an enemy and died beloved of all. Wouldn't we all like to be remembered as such?

The origins  of the church are medieval and may have been a retreat for the monks of the more famous Tintern Abbey twenty minutes’ walk away. It was rebuilt in the 1866 and destroyed by fire in 1977 – the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and not part of the celebrations.  It was there we ate our picnic,  and I wondered what those early convicts thought.

Friday, 20 March 2020

'History never repeats itself; man, always does.' Voltaire

The fourteenth Century must rank as one of the gloomiest in the last thousand years, with its plagues, climate change, famine, war and corruption. The Twentieth Century had its moments, the Twenty-first Century is shaping up well.

I was reminded of this when re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book: A Distant Mirror. (This and the new Hllary Mantel should see me some way through the present crisis.) The book explores C14th Europe through the life and career of the renowned knight, Enguerrand de Coucy (1340 – 1397.) He had a spectacularly successful career, fighting his first battle at the age of fifteen, and whilst a prisoner of war in England, wooing and marrying Edward III’s daughter Isabella. He died of bubonic plague aged 57 in the Turkish city of Bursa, ironically as a prisoner of war. 

What makes him an ideal pair of eyes for Tuchman is the fact that he was in all the right places at the right time, and so much of the century is explored through his direct or indirect experience, and once you start this book you won’t want to finish it too quickly. The book is full of the macabre and bizarre; to take just one example, a real life Danse Macabre

On the Tuesday before Candlemas Day— 28th January 1392— the Queen of France held a masquerade to celebrate a twice married lady’s maid re-embarking upon her third marriage. Six young men including the young King Charles, Yvain, bastard son of the count of Foix and four others, disguised themselves as ‘wood savages.’  Linen cloth soaked in resin and pitch was sewn to their bodies. Frazzled hemp, meant to resemble fur, was stuck to the resinous linen so that each resembled a ‘shaggy beast’ of the forest. Face masks completed the picture and hid their identities.

One of the ringleaders of these ‘shaggy beasts’ was Huguet de Guisey, a notorious debauchee and ‘cruellest of men.’ He was also a notorious corrupter of youth and held those beneath him in contempt. If a servant displeased him, the servant was forced on the ground. There Huguet whipped him and, through the screams of pain, made the unlucky servant bark like a dog.
God is patient.

In the ‘Dance of the Savages,’ the six men capered in front of the party-goers howling like wolves and making the obscenest of gestures—the young king being particularly foul in front of the fifteen year old Duchesse de Berry.

At that moment, Louis de Orleans and Philippe de Bar arrived from an orgy elsewhere in the palace. Both held torches to light up the gloom. The rest is history.

Curious as to the identities of the masked savages, Louis held up his torch close to one of the capering demons. A spark fell. Flame raced up first one leg then the other. Screaming and gesticulating even more wildly than before, he set the rest of the dancers alight, too. The Duchesse de Berry, recognising the king in time, protected him with her voluminous skirt, dousing out the flames before they took hold.

Around them, the room was filled with wild sobbing, screams and shouts of unrestrained horror. There was one other survivor. He jumped into a large wine cooler filled with water. 

And what of the villainous Hugeut de Guisay? He lingered on for three days in appalling agony cursing everyone but himself for his plight. When his coffin was carried through the streets, peasants and townsfolk greeted it with barking and cries of ‘Bark, Dog!’

Reading the book you are struck by how much it resonates with our own era, not in terms of swords and plate armour, but in human greed, incompetence and corruption. Proving that nature is a law unto itself, this century too experienced climate change with its severe mini ice-age when the Baltic sea froze solid more than once, crops failed, and people starved. History never repeats itself; man, always does. 

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Hidden Agendas

My face was on the pillow, the radio on. I always sleep to the news but was wide awake to one of the headlines. It went roughly like this. “From the safety of the Vatican palace, the Pope has reminded priests to attend the sick and dying during the coronavirus crisis.” Separate the actual news here from the snide and not so subliminal comment.

 ‘The Pope has reminded priests to attend the sick and the dying during the coronavirus crisis,’ is factual but not startling news. What would have been news would have been the Pope advising priests not to attend the sick and the dying.

In the real world, priests have attended the sick and dying throughout history. It is likely that this particular Pope visited the sick and the dying during the years of his priesthood. But what’s with ‘From the safety of the Vatican palace?’ ?

What you have here is both comment and judgement, a snidely delivered message. The news-reader could have said ‘From the safety of the Vatican Palace, the 83-year-old Pope with one lung reminded priests to attend the sick and the dying’ but then that wouldn’t have fitted this particular agenda.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not playing ‘Defender of the Faith’ here. I’m not after a Papal medal to add to my vast collection of medals.  For me, it’s just another example of our news media unable to report the news without suggesting what we should think about it, too; another nail in the coffin of impartiality. There are so many nails in this particular coffin, it’s impervious to woodworm.

Friday, 6 March 2020

A different kind of happiness

These are the railway sidings a few hundred yards from my childhood home in Liverpool. They are reputedly the source of the famous ‘Aintree Iron’ made famous by the Scaffold in 1967. 

But, like Camelot, there are other contenders for that particular honour, each fiercely guarded by their champions.

No matter, it was where we played as kids, blowing up trains on their way to Heidelberg or Berlin, evading the shadowy but ruthless Gestapo—more usually the railway police. Either way, the imagination was fed and sometimes I wish I could play similar games now without being locked up as an idiot.

It’s in marked contrast with my present environment—one which makes me equally happy but in a different way. Now my only excitement is dodging Covid 19. No Gestapo at least, not for the moment.

Sunlight in a country lane

Monmouth across Vauxhall fields