Tuesday, December 26, 2006

In Search of the Meaning of Christmas

Christmas – a time of excitement for children, greatly anticipated and eagerly awaited for many weeks before. For many adults too, it is a time of joy and happiness; an opportunity to excel in excess without too much of a guilty conscience: ‘well, it is Christmas,’ is the excuse all too often heard. For some, it is not the same unless as many family and friends are invited to participate in a communal festivity. For others, it is spoiled by the absence of those very same people, with new cases of depression reaching a peak during the months of December and January.

Most of these peaks and troughs of emotion are fuelled year upon year by a common falseness of expectation. Whilst Charles Dickens did much to spread the concept of what is required for that cosy traditional Christmas, much loved by the Victorians and promulgated to this day from the fronts of thousands of greetings cards, he was also responsible for building people’s expectations of what the perfect Christmas should be like; to the point whereby any lesser experience is considered to be a failure.

I often wonder whether I am a lone voice in standing out against the falseness of all we have come to expect. I would not go as far as saying that I dislike Christmas – especially as I am in the process of experiencing one of the best I can remember from within my adult phase of life. However, I can remember, since early teenage years, having a recurrent sense of unease regarding the futility of most Christmas activities. Even then, the only parts of Christmas that really seemed to hold anything special for me were those parts where I was expected to be present at the local parish church by virtue of my membership of the choir. The Family Carol Service on Christmas Eve, followed by Midnight Mass and then the Christmas Day Morning Prayer were the events which most pleased me and gave me a true sense of belonging. Everything else paled into insignificance or, at worst, became a trial of endurance.

In order for me to have an enjoyable Christmas I need to escape the commercialisation, the artificial expectations of conformity to traditions, the moral pressures to be with family and thereby suffer numerous conversations about inane subjects about which I have no interest, have probably heard many times before, and really do not want to have again.

For me, Christmas is about regaining my inner self. It is the one time of the year where I want to step away from the world in which I spend the rest of my life pandering to the needs of others. It is a period of time when I want to stop giving and instead wish, quite selfishly, to take; and what I want to take is time itself – time for physical and mental rest, time for quiet reflection, time for the re-charging of my spiritual batteries and, of equally great importance, time for the re-affirmation of my love and commitment to the person who has chosen to accompany me through the rough seas of life – my wife.

As a Christian, I do not believe that my duty of care to my fellow man is just at this particular time of year. Effectively, it is throughout the other three hundred and sixty two days of the year. The rest of the world can have its share of my time and effort after these few days are over. In the meantime, being shut away in the peace and tranquillity of the English Lakes has given me the most relaxing and regenerating Christmas I could possibly desire. For the first time ever at this time of year, I feel content and at ease, not only with myself but also the world around me.

It may not be to everyone’s desire. However, if you ever suspect that you harbour something of the same feelings, have the courage to listen to that inner voice. Stop bowing to the pressures of the masses. Make your stand: refuse to send numerous pointless cards that will only end up in a rubbish bin in a few days time. Instead, make a donation to your favourite charity. Then take yourself and the person dearest to you to wherever you think you will find the peace your heart desires. The experience will be uplifting and change your view against conformity forever after. Your true friends will understand and will still be there on your return. What is more, you will be the much nicer person for it.

I know that I, for one, will be entering 2007 re-energised and with an enhanced sense of benevolence towards my fellow man. Now, surely that has everything to do with celebrating the birth of Christ?

Postcard from the Lake District (3)

Christmas Day – 25th December 2006

Waking on Christmas Day morning to nothing more than the gentle sounds of wild ducks and swans, with the occasional call of a moorhen, a few gulls and the odd rook or two, must rank amongst the most idyllic moments in life. This gentle alarm call from nature is complimented as soon as the curtain is drawn back, when the gentle waters of Lake Windermere appear just fifty yards from the window. Set to a backdrop of the gently rising green fells, their tops just covered by a fine mist, and with one or two white yachts quite still at their moorings, the scene is one of tranquillity and peace.

The Lakeside Hotel commands one of the most picturesque locations on the lake. Situated on the south-western shore of the lake, just one mile north of Newby Bridge, this four-star hotel is the antidote to the fast pace of modern life. Guests have a choice of exquisitely furnished rooms or suites within the hotel itself, or can opt for one of the two Executive Lodges built within the hotel grounds but set apart from the main building and having the advantage of their own private gardens and moorings. Built in the style of a converted boathouse, the lodge in which I now write has been designed as a studio apartment, full of space, light, large picturesque windows and, yes, its own sauna.

Today, the lake is perfectly calm, thereby allowing a perfect reflection of the hills and trees in its glassy surface. Just to my left, on the opposite shore, the slopes of Gummer’s How rise away from the rest of the fells. At 1053 feet above sea level, it is the highest point in this area and, from its top, gives a commanding view of almost all of the ten miles of Lake Windermere. Indeed, when we climbed it two days ago, and despite a fine haze, we could just discern the sands of Morecambe Bay. From the same point, one could look down upon the land of the Swallows and Amazons along the lakeshore, whilst further south is Fell Foot. Now owned by the National Trust, Fell Foot was once part of a large Victorian Estate with extensive lakeside lawns and gardens.

The small, grassed garden of the lodge is like a meeting place for 'Woodland Friends'. A rabbit is usually in evidence, quietly grazing the lawn, unperturbed by our presence at the window. Just above the rabbit, on a piece of wooden fencing, sits a robin. Occasionally joined by a second robin, it flits back and forth, capturing the odd tasty meal disturbed by the rabbit. Within a few feet feed a cock blackbird and song thrush, whilst in a tree nearby, a chaffinch moves from branch to branch with a flick of white feathers.

A few miles to the south lies the village of Cartmel. Famous for its pocket-sized racecourse at which races are held on only six days per year, Cartmel is also home to Cartmel Priory. Built by Augustinian monks around 1200 A.D., the priory church survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and now serves as a wonderful parish church, with fine Renaissance screens and delightful misericords in the choir. It is a fitting venue for the celebration of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, as we discovered for ourselves last night. The warmth of the church itself, combined with the collective voices of a full congregation and choir, help one to touch base with the spirituality within us, reminding us as to what this time of year is really all about and building resolve for the forthcoming New Year.

With the excellent food of the hotel’s restaurant and some fine wines from its cellars (including a Chateau Chasse Spleen 1983, Chateau Leoville Barton 1993 and a Chateau Talbot 1994 and not forgetting an exquisite bottle of Tokay), accompanied by the resident pianist and a small jazz band, the celebration of Christmas 2006 will certainly leave this writer suitably refuelled with a sense of goodwill.

A very happy Christmas and healthy New Year to all my readers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Power of the Human Mind

I was simply astonished when I came across the following. It demonstrates how extraordinarily clever the brain is.

Try reading this without hesitating:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg.

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy: it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Now tell me that you are not amazed!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Ploughing a Straight Furrow

One of the great delights of being a country G.P. is the opportunity to become involved with wider areas of the community, often under circumstances that have little to do with the practise of medicine. However, there are also pitfalls for the unwary.

When I first joined the practice, a retired partner gave me some sound advice:

‘Become involved with the local community,’ he said, ‘but never, ever agree to judge the “Bonny Baby Competition” .’

His reasoning, of course, was that there was no way I could make the “right” decision. I would immediately become the focus of hate for all those mothers who considered themselves (and, more importantly, their “darling little coochy-woochy”) overlooked and deprived of first prize “which really ought to have been theirs”.

He was right, of course, and it was advice that rang in my ears several years later when asked to judge the “Miss Slinky of the Year Competition” by the proprietor of a local slimming club. Not only was the aforementioned person my patient, but I was aware that several of her members, who had been working hard on their slinkiness for the past year, were also female patients of mine. How was I ever to make a decision as to whom the first prize should be awarded and hope to be alive by the time I reached the car park? Furthermore, if I did escape the braying mob, there would be the inevitable ninth-degree from my wife on my arrival home. Questions such as ‘why did you select that particular woman?’ and ‘do you fancy her then?’ interspersed by long periods of awkward silences, were just not worth the five minutes of playing the local celebrity role. I gently declined the invitation.

The prospect was very different when I was approached by a District Nurse and asked whether I would be willing to present the prizes at the local ploughing match. Following a quick risk assessment, I decided that I was on safe ground (so to speak) with this one and accepted.

The irony of the situation, however, did not escape my wife:

‘You? A ploughing match?’ she asked in-between wiping the tears of laughter from her cheeks. ‘What do you know about ploughing? You can’t even cut a loaf of bread in a straight line!’

‘They want me to present the prizes, not judge the quality of the furrows,’ I replied, slightly wounded at this sleight on my practical abilities.

She was right, of course. Straight lines and me just do not go together. Loaves of bread assume a wedge shape in my presence; likewise pieces of wood when brought in contact with a saw wielded by my hand. The strange thing is that I do have a critical eye for the precise levelling of a picture on a wall. It is when the hands become involved that things seem to go haywire. Which is one reason why I opted to be a G.P. and not a surgeon.

I guess I was also concerned at any allusion to my really being a “townie”. I vehemently defend my country pedigree. After all, I am a Kentish Man. (See A Matter of Identity - 23 Jan 06 - on this blog). That is most certainly not the same as being a Londoner, as my wife assumes all people born in the South East of England to be. However, even there I have to concede a point. A Kentish Man I may be, but that is clearly not the same as being the daughter of a Lincolnshire farmer - which my wife is. More to the point, she has recollections of ploughing fields using a crawler. Now, that is serious prior-knowledge when it comes to attending a ploughing match. There was nothing for it – she had to come with me to ensure my respectability amongst the rural folk.

Thus, it was that we attended the 29th District Ploughing Match on a wind swept expanse of farmland one October Sunday afternoon.

To be truthful, the afternoon was enjoyable and informative. Of course, I started by not being able to visually tell the difference between one furrow and another. However, after a few hours I found myself boldly uttering words of criticism and praise as I moved from one competition site to another. I even developed a superficial interest in the different types of tractors, which for me, being someone who, as a child, spurned anything resembling Mechano, was a major leap in my lack of fascination for all things mechanical.

The afternoon’s feverish activity soon done, I was positioned by the organisers in front of a large crowd of burly farmers, all eagerly awaiting the announcement of the results whilst trying to look nonchalant as though they did not really care for such trivialities. It was a formidable moment and I tried to look my confident best as a gentleman of the country. In that respect, I am sure I failed miserably. After all, it was most evident that, apart from on the feet of my wife and I, there were no other green wellies to be seen. A dead give away if there ever was one. ‘He’s really a townie,’ was what I feared they were whispering to themselves.

Class by class, the winners were named and each stepped forward to receive his trophy and rosette amidst polite applause. The only one who was sure his name would be called was the single entrant in the Crawler Class. He would have won even if his furrows were the shape of figure-of-eights. However, I thanked him for giving my wife a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Interestingly, the one abiding recollection I have of the prize ceremony itself is not the crowd or the bitter wind, or the speech I had to give before presenting the prizes (which my wife inevitably said was too long). It is the size of all those hands I shook. They were enormous bunches of Lincolnshire sausages attached to rough, hairy lumps of muscle the size of spades. They looked as though they had been hewn out of the local bedrock. Another giveaway, I thought. By comparison, my own hands looked so small and soft as to make it clear to the farmers that the most strenuous undertaking I must subject them to is the occasional piece of embroidery. (Actually, I don’t know one cross stitch from another – honestly!)

However, the joking aside, there is a serious message behind all the fun and competitive demonstration of farming skills at such an event. The English countryside is only the marvellous place it is because of the labour of love, which those farmers and their ancestors have applied to it. They are the true trustees of what is at the heart of England. As I said in my speech, when I drive around the countryside in autumn and see the neat latticework of expertly ploughed fields, I intrinsically know that all is well in the world.

Coincidently, the night before the ploughing match, I happened to come across a television programme, which was part of a series of Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland. Connolly made a comment that seemed most apt in view of the impending ploughing match. He said:

‘People in cities rarely get in touch with the countryside. However, when they do, it does something to them. If we truly have a soul, then it is our souls that the countryside gets in touch with.’

As I said to the farmers at the ploughing match, they are the, often unsung, guardians to that which lifts our souls and makes us feel alive. May they forever continue to take pride and pleasure in ploughing their straight furrows.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Art in the East End in Aid of the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem

The 5th November 2006 promises to be extra special for lovers of art, especially if they also enjoy good company, fireworks and the opportunity to support the Order of St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem (see my entry on this blog 'The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital' 14th May 2006).

The flyer gives further details. Do come and have an enjoyable evening whilst supporting a wonderful cause.

(Those interested in the Bankruptbank.com will apparently find the website live as from the 24th/25th October.)


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Thought for the Day

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.
- George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Dash

I was sent the following link by a friend. Whilst slightly on the 'twee' side, I think it is worth looking at (with the speakers turned on).

It strongly reminded me of the sentiments I wrote within an earlier piece on this blog (see Reflections after the Memorial Service - 05 Feb 2006).

The question I ask myself is 'why do we constantly need reminding about such an important aspect of life?' Do we ever learn?


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Dales' Perspective

Sign seen above the front door of a cafe in the Yorkshire Dales:

The Dalesman Cafe
Cyclists, Walkers and Civilians

Monday, September 04, 2006

Words, Glorious Words

Well, that long awaited moment has arrived. This very weekend I took delivery of the Folio Society’s facsimile of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. (See Lexicographic Seduction, May 2006, for the background to this particular piece of debauchery). In two enormous volumes, beautifully bound in calf-leather, the dictionary is every much the delight it had promised to be.

One of the first pleasures on opening volume one is to be able to read Samuel Johnson’s own preface. Once one has become accustomed to the portrayal of the letter ‘s’ in the style of an ‘f’, it makes for fascinating reading. Here, Johnson depicts his life as a lexicographer in terms which suggest that he came to see his great work as a ‘drudge’ and expected little thanks for his efforts. He believed that he was:

“…doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.”

The compilation of the first dictionary of the English language was clearly a far greater task than Johnson had initially believed it was going to be. However, the result was worth the effort. Indeed, many of Johnson’s own definitions have withstood the test of time and are to be found in the modern day Oxford English Dictionary.

That said, there were times when Johnson had to admit defeat. In his own words:

“Some words there are which I cannot explain, because I do not understand them…”

- a wonderfully honest statement from someone in his position.

It is probable that only someone with an immense love of books and words would share the spine-tingling pleasure achieved by the holding of one of these volumes. The delight and wonder comes from the fact that this is, as truly made as it can be, the next best thing to holding the original dictionary. That, and the overwhelming fact that the work was only published in 1755: a mere two hundred and fifty years ago. Bear in mind the significant works of literature which had been brought to the world by writers in the English language for several hundred years or more before that (Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and so on) and it becomes even more astonishing that nobody had written a dictionary before 1755. Equally astounding to the modern writer, armed with a whole armoury of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, electronic spell-checkers and the odd thesaurus or two to help him on his literary way, is that some of our country’s greatest writers were completely devoid of such lexicographical assistance. A thought for which I, for one, am all the humbler.

Johnson’s Dictionary promises to be a treasure box in which the most delightful of nuggets will be found. Only the repeated perusal of its pages will uncover them all: a task that will happily fill any wet, wintry afternoon for years to come. Thus far, I have only uncovered two such amuse-gueules.

The first relates to the word ‘twank’. ‘Twank’ is not a word to be found in the latest version of the Oxford Dictionary of English. No doubt, those with a Freudian disposition will take pleasure in the fact that this word, amongst thousands of others, stood out to me on my first perusal of the dictionary. However, putting aside such school-boy witticisms, it was the definition which first caught my eye, relating, as it does, to Freemen of the City of London; a status which I have the honour of holding. According to Johnson:

“A freeman of London has the privilege of disturbing a whole street with twanking of a brass kettle”.

I never knew I was so lucky – I must put it to the test sometime!

On a more serious note, the second enchanting entry for me relates not to a single word but to the whole section dedicated to words beginning with the letter ‘x’. There is not one! Samuel Johnson, for all his literary research, had to succumb to the following entry:

“X is a letter, which, although found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”

…letter dismissed!

Times have, of course, moved on and language does not stagnate. The Oxford Dictionary of English now lists ninety-three entries under the letter ‘x’, which is good for the richness of our language, but detracts nothing from the quaintness of Johnson’s own entry.

Enough for now. The volumes must be re-cased and put away for another day. One can only cope with so much excitement in one go. I will bring future discoveries to you as and when they arise.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Saint and the Sinner: Two Lives – One Faith

Mr Ernest Prendergast is a gentleman of what is commonly known as “the old school”. A devoutly Christian, octogenarian widower, he routinely attends the surgery to have his blood pressure checked and his medication renewed. On each occasion, regardless of the weather, he is dressed in a tweed suit, complete with waistcoat, tie, polished brogue shoes, a raincoat and cloth cap.

As he enters the consulting room he habitually hesitates, the cap being nervously fingered by both hands, gives a slight bow and apologises for having to bother me. The consultation itself is, at least on his part, a study in politeness, subservience, and respect. He always thinks deeply and speaks quietly and slowly, with great consideration given to the grammatical construction of each sentence.

I have known him for over fifteen years and have thus come to understand him very well. He has evidently led a life steeped in moderation and, as certain difficulties have shown, cannot be classed as a man of the world. Religion plays a central role within his daily activities. He has often expressed the opinion that he is merely a humble person whose soul will be claimed in due course by the Lord, whence he will have to answer for how he has spent his life in this world. His stated hope is that he has been sufficiently dutiful in the eyes of God so as not to suffer his future wrath. I have no doubt that God will not find him lacking.

At the end of the consultation, he routinely thanks me for my valued time, apologises for having taken up so much of it, offers me his hand, looks towards me with a depth of expression that only eighty years of life can replicate, and says ‘Thank you for your kindness. May God be with you’, before leaving the consulting room, head bowed, shoulders hunched, and the cap once more being gently kneaded with both hands.

Today, a few consultations after the one with Mr Prendergast, I entered the waiting room to call Lisa Jones. I spotted her in one corner, eschewing the spare chairs and choosing instead to squat cross-legged on a low window ledge. Her bleached-blond, dreadlock-styled hair, the centre of which is dyed a contrasting bright red, fell in an untidy mass around her as she rocked gently to and fro to the music on her ipod. Calling her name had no effect and it required a gentle touch to her arm to return her attention to the present.

I followed her into my consulting room, noting the sharply contrasting colours of her purple leggings, grey-denim miniskirt and dirty yellow blouse; the outfit being completed by a pair of heavy, black walking boots and a gold cross, three-inches in dimension, hung from her neck by a long gold chain of equally considerable weight.

I have known Lisa since she was eleven. She is now twenty-seven. Her life to date can only be described as one of wild, drug-fuelled debauchery. Commencing with glue sniffing, she rapidly progressed through smoking cannabis, popping ecstasy tablets, snorting cocaine and injecting heroin, with liberal quantities of alcohol thrown in. The final mixture would frequently be topped up with the odd three or four barbiturates for good measure.

Having closed the consulting room door, I sat at my desk and waited for a few moments whilst Lisa paced nervously back and forth across the floor. Finally, she grabbed a chair, pulled it as close to my desk as possible and started drumming her fingers on its surface. Still I waited, knowing that, in her own time, she would tell me why she had come. Experience had taught me that if I attempted to speed the process along, then she was just as likely to jump up and leave without a word being said on her part.

Finally, she looked towards me in a wild, unfocussed manner and tried to explain her problem. Although she is now clean of drugs, her brain has suffered more than its fair share of abuse. As a result, her sentences are disjointed as she struggles to find the appropriate words. Expletives are frequently resorted to as substitutes for verbs, nouns, and adjectives, making the whole process of listening to her an experience as colourful as her clothing, whilst the task of extracting the details of her problem can only be described as challenging.

Despite all the above, Lisa is a success story. Until a few years ago, her lifestyle was close to prematurely killing her. She was unable to care for herself, let alone her young daughter. As a result, her daughter was taken into care by the social services and Lisa spent long periods on the local psychiatric ward. However, it wasn’t modern medicine that cured her of her addictions. It was Christianity. Finding a deep faith finally gave her a focus within her life and helped her escape from the black hole in which she had, heretofore, psychologically dwelt.

The start of her new journey in life first came to my attention one morning at the end of a village surgery. She arrived without an appointment, just as I was packing away the laptop and various medical paraphernalia. However, it soon became apparent that she was not there for medical advice. As she showed me the brochure for a drug rehabilitation centre run by a Christian group near to the Welsh Borders, she expressed the view that there was nobody else she felt able to talk to about such matters. Coming from Lisa, that was a surprise as, although I have often stated that the role of the modern GP is part physician, part social worker, and part priest, I had never previously had any form of conversation with Lisa about spiritual matters. She needed my opinion on two topics. First, did I think that the rehabilitation centre would be useful to her, as she had never previously had any contact with church or Christian groups; second, which book would I recommend that she read, as the centre stated in their joining instructions that each resident should bring at least one book which would help them through their process of rehabilitation.

The book I finally recommended to her was The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. It is the true story of how a priest entered the streets of New York and started to work with the young, drug-addicted, knife-wielding gang-fighters. So many found salvation through accepting Christ into their lives that a new counselling service, known as Teen Challenge, evolved. The ministry now has centres in more than 70 countries. I thought that Lisa, as someone who would not normally read books, might find a sense of kindred spirit with some of the characters within Wilkerson’s book.

The rehabilitation was successful and the start of a new life for Lisa. Subsequently, she was able to obtain a lease on a small house in the village and the social services agreed to return her daughter to her care.

For Lisa, Christianity is now central to her life. Her faith is prominently displayed around her neck; she frequently refers to how God is her support in life, and never leaves the consulting room without glancing back to me and saying ‘Thanks. God bless you.’

After the morning’s surgery, I was left pondering on how a deep-seated faith was so important to the lives of two very different people. Old Mr Ernest Prendergast, in all of his eighty plus years, would not have even touched upon the type of life Lisa Jones has led in her twenty-seven years to date. Meeting in the street, they would probably not have even given each other a second glance. However, there was the very real (and somewhat surreal) possibility that, one Sunday morning, the tweed-suited Mr Prendergast might turn in his pew in Church and find himself offering the sign of peace to the wild, hippy-dressed, dreadlocked Lisa Jones: two different generations, leading very different lives, but ultimately united by a shared belief.

Charles Péguy, the French poet and essayist (1873 – 1914), is quoted in Basic Verities (1943) as writing in Un Nouveau Théologien (21st December 1899):

‘The sinner is at the heart of Christianity…No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one, except a saint.’

I think that Lisa Jones and Ernest Prendergast are very good examples of the “sinner and the saint”. It would seem that Péguy’s analysis could not have been more correct.

(Author’s note: The names of the patients have been altered to protect their identities.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Literary Snippet – Mark Twain

There is always something interesting to learn.

Whilst browsing the latest catalogue from The Folio Society, my attention was drawn to the new Folio edition of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

I hadn’t previously known that Mark Twain (whose other well known books include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) was a pseudonym; after all, there are many American names which sound unusual to the English ear. Further investigation revealed that his real name was Samuel Clemens.

There are two quoted possibilities for the origin of his pseudonym. The author claimed that it came from the time spent on riverboats. In order to test the depth of water, a weighted line was let out into the water. A depth of twelve feet was considered safe and the crewman would shout out ‘mark twain’.

However, there are some who maintain that his name came from time spent in the bars. On each occasion he ordered a double, he would instruct the barman to ‘mark twain’ on his account.

Either way, the knowledge will no doubt provide for a few moments of intellectual chat around the occasional dinner table.

Some of my favourite quotes attributed to Twain are:

  • Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
  • Golf is a good walk spoilt.
  • It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • Respect your superiors, if you have any.
  • I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.
  • Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Miscellany

Partially by chance, although on one occasion as a result of the need to research a chapter for my book, I have found myself of late wandering around various monastic ruins. I previously mentioned Mount Grace Priory and, although not a ruin, the ecclesiastical retreat at Parcevall Hall in North Yorkshire (see In Perspective, 31st July 2006). Since then, I have added Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire and, as of yesterday, Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire.It takes imagination to mentally rebuild these once magnificent edifices. However, with a little research it becomes easier to do, especially as many have a similar floor plan. What requires a greater depth of imagination is to feel what it must have been like to live in one of these places as a monk in the 12th, 13th or 14th Centuries.The one predominant sense for me on each occasion I attempt such a spiritual regression is the overwhelming feeling of peace and contentment. Presumably, this is what the intended purpose of the place was when first built. What is perhaps surprising is that such historic sites can still induce the same emotions albeit some seven hundred years on and in their present traumatised state.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. 26, Pg. 1017) defines the purpose of monasticism as the ‘discovery of the true self’. It expands the idea by saying ‘all monasticism has its mainstay in theologically based convictions that the present state of things leaves much to be desired’.

Sometimes, life is a kind of madness. It becomes the head-on pursuit of, to a great extent, material possessions. However, they often fail to give the total pleasure and sense of contentment which is so eagerly sought after. As time progresses, many come to realise that it is a much deeper satisfaction which is yearned for. For me, that deeper contentment is found by taking to the hills or, as with the benefit of recent experience, when wandering around monastic ruins. It is then that I start to see a reflection of my true self and can develop a focus which reflects a sense of destiny.


A Handful of Dust

Take a handful of dust from the side of a road. In it you will see many small pebbles. Look closely – each one is a mountain in miniature.

John Ruskin

* * *

I recently purchased a CD entitled A Night in Vienna by Oscar Peterson. This octogenarian jazz pianist has produced many splendid works over his lifetime. However, for me, one of the most moving pieces is his own composition called Requiem; a tribute to all the departed jazz greats. It is the most beautiful, haunting and melancholic pieces of music I have come across for many years.

Monday, July 31, 2006

In Perspective

It is often said that the pace of modern life is faster for most of us than many of our predecessors would have known. It is difficult to know whether that is actually true or not, as we have no direct way of knowing. All we can do is to look back at the historical detail and form an impression as to how life once was in respect to the influence of time. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in-between; that for many, life was frantic, with business to conduct, deadlines to meet, crops to be brought in against the threat of a turn in the weather and without the benefit of modern machinery and so on. For others, for example, those who were wealthy and could afford servants for the menial and more arduous tasks, the days were possibly as leisurely as they are for those who are in the same financially sound position in life today.

For, what tends to be the driving factor behind the speed at which our lives are led is probably no different now than it was one, two or three hundred years ago: that is the need to feed, clothe and house ourselves and our families, along, for many, with the innate desire to improve individual living conditions. The latter, however, usually requires the acquisition of wealth and thus the pressure builds.

The true problem we face in a modern society is perhaps not knowing when sufficient is enough. When do we decide that the standard of living we have achieved is sufficient? At what stage do we step back from the conveyor belt of work and decide that there is more to life than the incessant toil of self-imposed challenges?

Holidays are often a good time to take stock and reflect on such matters. For a short period of time one is excused from the daily turmoil of labour and allowed the luxury of spending the hours of the day entirely as one wishes. It is, as Shakespeare said about another form of escape, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ (Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 1).

Over the past two weeks I have had the chance to visit a variety of places in North Yorkshire and the Lake District which have given rise to such reflection. As a group, they are diverse: The acres of beautifully landscaped gardens at Parcivall Hall, the well-preserved ruins of the Carthusian monastery at Mount Grace Priory and Brantwood, the former home on the shore of Lake Coniston of the Victorian writer, painter and poet, John Ruskin, to name a few. What these places have done is to reinforce that sense which many of us already know but often do not heed: the concept that in life, it is the journey that matters, not the destination.

Some people never have the opportunity of understanding the true priorities of life. For those of us who do have the luxury of being able to take time to gain that valuable insight, the task ahead, when the daily conveyor belt of work-related demands again starts up, is not to forget. More to the point, the mission should be, wherever possible, to put that knowledge into action. In the words of John Ruskin, it beholds us to remember that:
‘There is no wealth but life.’

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Au Revoir

Dr T's unfinished novel beckons to him. He will return in a couple of weeks time.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Word of the Week – Discombobulate

I do enjoy words which have a sound which befits their meaning. Discombobulate is one of those very words.

Derivatives of the word include discombobulation and discombobulated. It is thought to be a 19th century jocular alteration of the word discompose or discomfit. Its meaning is to disturb, upset or disconcert. A ‘discombobulating thought’ is therefore one which could be said ‘makes your brain hurt’.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dear McScotland…

I recently enjoyed watching a documentary by Andrew Marr entitled Age of Genius.

The programme illustrated how 18th century Edinburgh was transformed by a group of enlightened Scots, whose ideas opened the eyes of people across the World.

This was all the more remarkable when one considers that there is on record the fact that, on at least one occasion during the 18th century, the mail coach from London arrived across the border with just one letter for the whole of Scotland!

I hope the letter’s contents were worth the effort of every man and horse involved in getting it there!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

For Lexophiles

Unfortunately, time pressures have recently prevented me from writing for this blog. I therefore apologise for falling back on someone else's work (anonymously). That said, I am sure that at least some of the following will summon a wry grin for a few readers:

1. A bicycle can't stand alone; it is two tired.
2. A will is a dead giveaway.
3. Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
4. A backward poet writes inverse.
5. In a democracy it's your vote that counts; in feudalism, it's your Count that votes.
6. A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion.
7. If you don't pay your exorcist you can get repossessed.
8. With her marriage she got a new name and a dress.
9. Show me a piano falling down a mine shaft and I'll show you A-flat miner.
10. When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.
11. The guy who fell onto an upholstery machine was fully recovered.
12. A grenade fell onto a kitchen floor in France resulted in Linoleum Blown apart.
13. You are stuck with your debt if you can't budge it.
14. Local Area Network in Australia: The LAN down under.
15. He broke into song because he couldn't find the key.
16. A calendar's days are numbered.
17. A lot of money is tainted: 'Taint yours, and 'taint mine.
18. A boiled egg is hard to beat.
19. He had a photographic memory which was never developed.
20. A plateau is a high form of flattery.
21. The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison: a small medium at large.
22. Those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
23. When you've seen one shopping centre you've seen a mall.
24. If you jump off a Paris bridge, you are in Seine.
25. When she saw her first strands of grey hair, she thought she'd dye.
26. Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead to know basis.
27. Santa's helpers are subordinate clauses.
28. Acupuncture: a jab well done.
29. Marathon runners with bad shoes suffer the agony of de feet.

Note: No trees were killed in the sending of this message, but a large number of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Postcard from London (3)

Thursday 29th June 2006

I have the honour of being a Commander of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. In addition, I have the privilege of sitting on the Chapter of the Order’s Priory of England and the Islands (www.sja.org.uk/history ).

Several times per year the Chapter meets in the Chapter Hall at the historic St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, London. Following a morning of deliberating business appertaining to the running of the St John Ambulance (www.sja.org.uk ), the Eye Hospital in Jerusalem ( www.stjohneyehospital.org/ ) and the St John Care Homes Trust (www.osjct.co.uk ) , the members of Chapter re-convene after lunch in the Priory Church for the investiture of new members of the Order.

The Order is the oldest Order of Chivalry within the British Honours system, with membership of the Order being bestowed following approval by the Queen. As with other Orders under the Crown, there are various grades of membership, namely, Serving Brother and Serving Sister (both soon to be replaced by the title ‘Member’), Officer, Commander and then Knight or Dame. Knights are further divided between Knights of Justice (who are armigerous and have the right to appoint two Esquires) and Knights of Grace (who are not armigerous and have the right to appoint one Esquire). The highest honour within the Order is to be appointed a Bailiff or Dame Grand Cross.

The occasion of an investiture is one of glorious pomp and circumstance. It is a ceremony which never fails to delight and impress all those who attend.

At the opening of the ceremony, the members of Priory Chapter are announced and process into the Church, dressed in the traditional black sopra vests (a form of cassock) and black mantles, the latter bearing the white, eight-pointed cross of Amalfi on the left side. They take up their positions in two semi-circles in the north-east and south-east of the Church, there to await the arrival of the Prior.

Within a few minutes the Director of Ceremonies announces ‘The Prior of the Priory of England and the Islands’ and everyone stands for his procession. Preceded by the Church Cross and the Sword of Justice and accompanied by the Principle Priory Officers (Dean, Chancellor, Chief Commander, Chief Commissioners, Hospitaller and Almoner) and the Chapter clergy, the Prior’s procession make its way to the East of the Church, each armigerous member being followed by an Esquire bearing a banner depicting that individual’s Coat of Arms. It is a display of colourful, but solemn, pageantry which encapsulates so much of the historic significance of the Order of St John under the English Crown.

Following opening prayers, the National Anthem and a few words of introduction by the Prior, each postulant (i.e. a person to be invested) is summoned in turn and is invested by the Prior with the insignia of his or her grade within the Order.

For the postulants, as for many of their family members and guests within the audience, it is a moving occasion representing the recognition of years of outstanding service to the Order in one or more of its charitable arms. For all recipients, it is a moment to take pride in and one which will never be forgotten.

After the completion of the ceremony, the postulants and their guests are able to mingle with members of the Priory Chapter amidst the splendid surroundings of the Chapter Hall and partake in afternoon tea.

Finally, before departing from the St John’s Gate, visitors may take the opportunity of visiting the Priory’s Museum, where the Order’s 900 years of history, dating back to the Knights Hospitallers of the Holy Crusades, is displayed. The museum is open to the public, details of which can be found at: www.sja.org.uk/museum/visit .

Today’s investiture was of particular significance for me as a close friend, who is also a colleague within the St John Ambulance and will already be known to readers of this blog as ‘Harlequin’, was invested as a Serving Brother of the Order. Needless to say, it was a matter for celebration. Accompanied by our wives and following champagne in the garden of Over Seas House (www.rosl.org.uk ), overlooking Green Park in St James’s, we adjourned to Le Caprice (http://www.le-caprice.co.uk/ ), a restaurant which has previously featured in this blog (see Dinner with Melvyn Bragg, 11th May 2006).

As always, this popular rendezvous was packed with diners well up to midnight. Although not an evening for the presence of either of the Lords Melvyn Bragg or Jeffrey Archer (both devotees of Le Caprice), we did notice Sir Alan Sugar with a party of guests on the table adjacent to ours. The evening must have pleased him as well as us, for none of the waiting staff was fired before the night was over.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Principles for Life

Last Saturday (24th June) the Priory of England and the Islands of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem held its Annual Service of Commemoration and Re-dedication in St Paul's Cathedral.

The ceremonial aspects of the service are always an impressive sight and it is a delightful honour to participate in the event. For the past two years, the event has been particularly pleasurably following the completion of the cleaning of the inside of St Paul's Cathedral, which in itself is now beautiful and awe inspiring.

Traditionally, Christian services end with The Blessing. It occurred to me several years ago that the words used in the first half of The Blessing at the end of this particular service in themselves form a creed which could be well-followed by people from any faith or even those who are without faith; they could be termed Principles for Life:

Go forth into the World in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honour all people.

I, for one, find those words thought-provoking and motivating on each occasion I hear them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Carpe Diem

On mornings like today, when the sun is streaming though the curtains at an early hour and the birds have seemingly been singing all night, it is very easy to rise and make the most of the available hours. Winter does not make it quite so easy. However, getting up at an early hour has never been a great problem to me and with good reason. I am a great believer in making the most of every available minute. Indeed, on the basis that life is too short, the one pill I would happily take above all others would be the one which renders sleep unnecessary.

W. F. Deedes, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph and one time Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, is still, at the age of 93 years, working as a journalist. In this respect, he is a man I admire. In an article by Stephen Robinson in yesterday's The Daily Telegraph (19th June 2006), the question is put to Deedes as to 'why, at the age of 93, he still switches on the laptop each day'. Apparently, Deedes's reply, whenever such a question arises, is to quote from the poet A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896) no. 4:

Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

It is an adage to be well abided by.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Confused Words from a Living Temple

The above title is taken from Les fleurs du mal (1857), by the French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire. He wrote:

Nature is a temple, where, from living pillars, confused words are sometimes allowed to escape.

Although I very much doubt that Baudelaire had the American Presidency in mind when he wrote those words, they do strike a certain chord today. By contrast, Shaw and Wilde certainly had the American people in mind when they said:

England and America are two countries divided by a common language.
Attributed to George Bernard Shaw

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.
Oscar Wilde The Canterville Ghost (1887)

The above quotations sum up that which continues to be very evident in our two societies today. Unfortunately for America, their current President has done nothing to improve our view that Americans have a poor grasp of the English language. The following quotes were sent to me by email. They have all been attributed to George W Bush:

The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country.

If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure.

One word sums up probably the responsibility of any Governor, and that one word is 'to be prepared’.

I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future.

The future will be better tomorrow.

We're going to have the best educated American people in the world.

I stand by all the misstatements that I've made.

We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe.

Public speaking is very easy.

A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

For NASA, space is still a high priority.

Quite frankly, teachers are the only profession that teach our children.

It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

It's time for the human race to enter the solar system.

As the writer of the original email commented, ‘God help America!’

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Birthday Blues

Today is the birthday of a very good friend of mine. In the time honoured fashion, I have congratulated him and wished him a very happy day. Indeed, two days ago my wife and I, along with some other friends, spent a most enjoyable day assisting him in celebrating his birthday two days early…well, it was Sunday, the sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea.

The aspect which always intrigues me is that the aforementioned birthday boy doesn’t like to celebrate birthdays. The fact that we did so this year was more the result of an arm-twisting by his wife than a joyous desire of his own. As I understand it, he would rather just forget about birthdays altogether. I know that he is not alone in this feeling as I have heard many others express similar sentiments in respect to their own birthdays. For such dejected souls, it is just a day which reminds them that they are yet another year older.

I take the opposite view. As we cannot escape the biological fact that we are ageing, why not use that special day to rejoice in the miracle that was our own birth and celebrate the fact that we are still alive? At the very least, it provides an excellent excuse for opening the odd bottle of champagne! By all means forget the precise number of years, but let’s not lose the opportunity for a good party.

For the past ten years or so, I have decreed that my own birthday should be a day of personal indulgence. It is a day on which I refuse to work. If it happens to fall within the working week, then I will take a day’s leave. The day is my own and I spend it in whatever way pleases me, which often means a mix of book shops, sight-seeing, a leisurely lunch, time for quiet personal reflection and a celebratory dinner in a quality restaurant. From my perspective, too many people allow their own birthday to whiz by without a second glance and then it is off on the frantic 365-day race to the next one.

Indeed, so highly do I rank the importance of celebrating birthdays that my wife and I have just recently celebrated our joint centenary. Having realised that our birthdays this year add up to one hundred years and, acknowledging the fact that neither of us is likely to make it to one hundred on a solo basis, we decided to party now. As I said, any excuse to open the champagne!

So, I believe my friend ought to take a leaf out of the book of the former American financier and presidential advisor, the late Bernard Baruch (1870 – 1965) who was quoted in Newsweek (29 August 1955) as saying:

‘To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.’

I am sure that it is an adage well worth adopting.

Happy Birthday Harlequin.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Word of the Week – Sesquipedalianist

This beauty of a word was discovered in the Books section of The Daily Telegraph (Saturday, 20th May 2006).

For the article A Writer’s Life, the journalist, Helen Brown, interviewed the author Will Self. I quote from her article:

‘In the public imagination, Self is a freak-show sesquipedalianist.’

Somehow, I think that is attributing too much to the public’s intellect. I would not mind betting that the majority have no idea as to the meaning of the word ‘sesquipedalianist’. I admit to being in the same category until I delved into the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE). Before then, it took me about ten minutes to even say the word with any degree of fluency!

According to the NODE, the adjective, sesquipedalian, means ‘polysyllabic, characterized by long words, long-winded.’ It originated in the mid 17th century, being derived from the Latin, sesquipedalis, meaning ‘a foot-and-a-half long.’

Rather an appropriate word for such a meaning. However, anyone reading this article can now consider him or herself to be a sesquipedalianist by virtue of their newfound knowledge. I am reliably informed that one cannot be arrested for it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Revival of Enid Blyton

Having been born in 1960, I was blessed with the chance to read Enid Blyton’s books before they were frowned upon by the educationalists. I thus thrived during my formative years on a diet of (amongst other titles) The Famous Five and The Secret Seven.

For me, The Famous Five were the winners and I followed each adventure with avid attention. How delighted I therefore was when The Daily Telegraph last week offered its readers the opportunity to obtain seven audio books of The Famous Five stories. With true dedication, I collected all the tokens and now wait for the parcel to arrive.

One reader enquired within the letters page of The Daily Telegraph as to whom the audio books were targeted, ‘us or our grandchildren?’ Well, I have no doubt as to the answer to that. Indeed, I would have thought it was obvious. Armed with my portable CD player and headphones, I, for one, will be taking a trip down memory lane the next time I have to endure a train journey to London. The very thought causes amusement as I can see now the scenario: a carriage of men, complete with pin-striped suits and copies of the Financial Times, with Dr T. amidst them all, listening to Five Go To Mystery Moor. I am sure they would understand if they knew – well, at least they would if they are more than forty years old.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Education versus the Art of Learning

The present Government has a bee in its bonnet regarding education: witness Tony Blair’s emphasis on ‘Education, education and education’ at the Labour Party Conference in 1996.

I have great difficulty with such dogma and would prefer that young people were not "educated" but taught the "art of learning", a subtle difference perhaps, but an important one.

By consulting the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE) we are presented with the following definitions:

Education: ‘The process of giving or receiving systematic instruction.’

Learning: ‘The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught.’

The former implies a passive process and does not necessarily result in the desired outcome. The latter, however, is very much an active process and does ipso facto achieve the aim. I ask you at the outset, whom would you consider the more intelligent or wisest of men: the "educated man" or the "learned man"?

It could be construed that education is a process of loading the brain with the specific information the teachers, schools and, increasingly, the Government (consider The National Curriculum) wish the population to be programmed with. This has shades of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein the state controls every aspect of daily life.

This was touched on by John Dryden who, in The Hind and the Panther (1687) said: ‘By education most have been misled…

On the other hand, being taught the art of learning implies being given the ability to acquire information for oneself, perhaps in accordance with one’s needs and desires. It implies the ability to think for oneself and fosters curiosity. This in turn can prove to be a valuable asset throughout life and not just a process undertaken whilst at school.

Naturally, guidance does need to be given to young people in the earliest days of their schooling. They do need some essential foundations upon which they can then build their own knowledge base. The manner in which the teachers put across those key skills is all-important. Consider the following words from William Arthur Ward:

‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’

The first three teachers are able, with varying degrees of success, to fulfil the need of educating their pupils. However, the fourth teacher is the one who will instil within them the art of learning.

The film Dead Poets Society (1989) touched on the subject of teachers who could inspire, demonstrating the heights to which the pupils could intellectually ascend if unconstrained by rote learning. In the film, the teacher, Keating, exhorts his pupils to ‘Seize the day’ and to ‘Make your lives extraordinary’.

In one particularly memorable scene, Keating says to his pupils:

You are souls at a critical juncture. Either you will succumb to the will of academic hoi polloi, and the fruit will die on the vine – or you triumph as individuals….learn to savour language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world.’

He continues:

‘You must strive to find your own voice. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Why be resigned to that? Risk walking new ground…never be ordinary.’

As the American poet, Robert Frost said in his poem The Road Not Taken (1916):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I argue that education alone does not empower people to achieve the ability to be those individuals. It is the willingness to constantly question and learn which does. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of believing that, because we have educated our young people in accordance with The National Curriculum, then our job is done. It is not. It has only just begun. Have a National Curriculum. However, do not make it the end-point. Rather, our task should be to ensure that education is simply a means to the far more important aim of arming our youngsters with the skills and ability to undertake life-long learning and thereby have the courage to take the road ‘less travelled by’.

I leave the final words to Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Ernest (1895):

‘The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.’

Perhaps those who decide on the political agenda of this country should take note and be prepared to think again.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (8)

Thursday, 25th May 2006

Harrogate, a delightful Georgian spa town to the east of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was to be the location for today's excursion. It was, of course, a shopping trip - a matter that often strikes fear into the heart of most men. However, in Harrogate it is possible to turn the event into the most civilised of activities, as I will endeavour to demonstrate.

The first priority is to set free one's wife. Usually, that is not difficult, being of great mutual benefit. Then, having set a rendezvous time several hours hence, one can begin to really enjoy oneself.

Today, I started with a visit to Jenny's Tearoom, set within the stylish Montpellier Mews. There is, of course, the alternative of the famous Betty's Tearooms. However, the latter does not have the facility for sitting outside. On a warm sunny day (as was today), Jenny's Tearoom has a secluded courtyard which is most pleasing and, at ten o'clock in the morning, almost deserted. There I spent a refreshing half hour, imbibing Earl Grey tea and an enormous toasted teacake, whilst writing notes for a later piece (on the subject of 'Education versus Learning') for this blog.

Suitably refreshed, an amble though the spacious, randomly arranged streets (taking time to appreciate the architecture of the buildings above one's usual line of sight), led me to Waterstones Bookshop. Not the largest of this chain, the Harrogate branch is nonetheless of great interest and the staff pleasant and helpful.

One hour later, I exited carrying the spoils of the Book Hunt:

i. The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent. (An act of charity - he has an expensive legal bill to settle after the failure of his recent case against Dan Brown in respect to The Da Vinci Code.)

ii. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. (Sub-titled, Unlocking the Poet Within, who can resist Fry's wit, coupled with a deep intellect, as he meanders through the complexities of writing poetry? His foreword opens with the line: 'I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry.' Great stuff!)

iii. The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin. (A novel about which I know very little other than it was offered to me free of charge with my other purchases. It would have been churlish to reject it.)

iv. Talking Heads by Alan Bennett. (An audio book of the first six classic monologues.)

v. The History Boys by Alan Bennett. (Another audio book, this one of the recent BBC 3 production of his award winning play.)

After a lightning raid on M&S for a re-supply of socks, underwear and silk ties (the problem with not having a bountiful supply of present-giving aunts is that I do not receive a year's supply each Christmas), I made for the Parish Church of St Peter, set in the heart of the shopping area.

St Peter's Church is attractive and spacious, with an abundance of stained-glass windows and an intimate side-chapel for private prayer. After the hubbub of outside, it presents an oatranquilityand tranquillity.

Spiritually revived, I shunned the lure of the second bookshop (Ottakers), the numerous antique shops and the tourist attractions of the Royal Baths and Pump House (both of which I have visited in the past), to relax in the sunshine whilst overlooking the war memorial gardens. Finding a quiet bench, I whiled away another half-hour perusing the contents of Fry's book.

Finally, the time of reunion arrived and, in the company of my wife, I adjourned to the Drum and Monkey, a highly rated fish restaurant, where we partook of a delicious cold fish platter accompanied by the, most acceptable, house dry white wine.

Of course, after such a delightfully alcoholic lunch, there is nothing better than to retreat home for the obligatory afternoon's eyelid inspection.

Several hours later, I sit here writing this postcard, with the light of the day slowly fading, surrounded by the aforementioned books (amongst others), armed with a glass of whisky and listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

A civilised day or not?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Thought for the Day

I came across the following in an introductory video at the museum known as The House of Manannan, the museum that tells the history of the Isle of Man:

‘A story is the tale of a journey told by a traveller to a traveller. For, although he may be thousands of miles away, he who is prepared to listen also undertakes that journey.’

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Postcard from the Lake District (2)

Wednesday, 24th May 2006

After heavy rain overnight, the day started by looking very wet and grey. However, owing to the recent acquisition of a new electronic gadget, I am now in a position to gaze into the future and matters were definitely going to improve by lunchtime.

One of the great facets of our cottage in the Yorkshire Dales is that we have shunned modern technology, in so far as we do not have a telephone (well, no land line anyway) and no television. The downside of such an arrangement has been the inability to access the Internet. A little magic box called a Blackberry has changed all that. The Internet can be accessed by wireless means and thus, courtesy of the BBC, I can tell that the weather is going to be fine this afternoon. Cue journey to the Lake District.

The object of our desires today was Lake Coniston. This particular lake, of course, is famous for Donald Campbell's ill-fated attempt to break the water speed record in 1967. The village of Coniston is also famous for the Ruskin Museum and, further along the lake, on its eastern shore, is Brantwood, the former home of the 19th century writer and art critic, John Ruskin. His grave can be found in the churchyard at Coniston.

However, all that was to be saved for another day. Today, we were to undertake a delightful walk along the western shore of the lake and then up through the woodland and over the fell above the lake.

One of the great delights of Lake Coniston is that, compared to Lake Windermere, there is almost a total absence of tourism. No hoards of people in over-filled car parks, no ice cream vans, no packed marinas with yachts and motor launches and very few buildings amidst the lakeside woodlands. Indeed, we saw one small boat throughout the entire walk (no sign of the National Trust's Venetian Gondola today) and met no one else save for a horse rider up on the fell. We were in a state of delightful solitude.

The path alongside the lake passes in and out of woodland, where, many years ago, iron ore used to be brought by barge to be smelted using charcoal produced from the coppiced wood. At this time of year, the gorse bushes are coated in bright yellow flowers and the heady aroma of the white May blossom intermittently wafts past. Beside the path, the fresh, light green tips of young ferns are starting to push through the soil, their small curly heads gradually unfolding to reveal delicate fern leaves.

The lake itself was smooth and blue, with just a slight ripple occasionally breaking its surface, causing a sparkling effect in the spring sunshine. Multiple streams tumbled off the fell side, down through the woodland and across our path before ending their journey at the lake's edge; the water lapping alongside the pebbly beaches being crystal clear. It was a scene possibly unchanged for generations and certainly one that Ruskin would recognise.

Leaving the lake after about one and a half miles, we entered Torver Common Wood and began ascending to the fell. The wood is mainly deciduous with just the occasional conifer. As a result, it is alive with bird life, chaffinches being the most vocally obvious today. That said, the call of a male cuckoo (or perhaps more than one) was with us for most of the journey, the distinctive sound always well into the distance. Why that should be so, I do not know. They are the most frustrating of birds, as, despite being an avid birdwatcher for almost thirty years, I am yet to knowingly see a cuckoo in the wild.

Breaking out of woodland into pastureland to the east of the village of Torver rewarded us with the sight of a low flying buzzard within one hundred yards of where we stood.

The pastureland had other delights of a botanic nature. Alongside the edge of the woodland, primroses were still in flower (their botanic name, primula, being derived from two Latin words meaning 'first rose'). Bluebells were also in abundance, whilst in the grass meadows, buttercups and daisies were omnipresent. Where the land was boggier, swathes of Common Cottongrass sported their white, cotton wool flowers. Really of the sedge family and not a grass at all, the flowers of these plants used to be utilised in making candlewicks and stuffing pillows.

Briefly passing through Torver village, we entered Torver Common and continued up past the Torver Tarn. Torver Tarn is a small reservoir, now redundant, as so well supplied is this area with water. (My apologies to readers residing in the drought-hit southeastern areas of England for rubbing that one in!)

The final leg of the journey passed down through a beautiful tree lined valley called Mere Gill, at the base of which the Torver Beck, swelled by the recent rain, tumbles noisily on its way. Here, horse chestnut trees are in flower; a tree I take particular delight in at this time of year, as the flowers look like large conical candles, giving the trees a decorated 'Christmas tree' appearance.

Just before reaching the road, as if taunting me, a cuckoo calls from away across the opposite side of the Gill. One day I will catch sight of one!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Call me Sentimental, but…

Every now and then one comes across something that tears unexpectedly at the heartstrings. Such an event occurred whilst recently driving on the Isle of Man.

It was as I rounded a bend in a small village just south of Douglas that I caught sight of the fresh remains of a mallard drake lying at the side of the road. Feathers still scattered the road around the lifeless body.

Moving over to avoid hitting the corpse, it was then that I caught sight of the drake’s mate, standing aimlessly on the pavement in between making small movements towards her late partner. It was a scene of instant poignancy and sadness that has since remained with me.

As I said, call me sentimental, but…

Friday, June 02, 2006

Thought for the Day

Learning is the fine raiment of the rich man – and the riches of the poor man.
Manx Proverb

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Postcard from the Isle of Man (4)

Monday, 22nd May 2006

The final day of this current trip and the morning opened with the omnipresent rain. However, the agenda for the day consisted of two museums, both of which were indoors. So, undaunted, we set off for our second visit to Peel, over on the west coast.

Apart from Peel Castle (about which I have already commented in a previous postcard), Peel is home of the award winning House of Manannan.

Manannan is the ancient Sea God, worshipped by the earliest of the Manx peoples. He is used at the House of Manannan to narrate and guide the visitor through the history of the Isle of Man from the earliest of Celtic days, through the arrival of the Vikings and on into the modern era. It is a concept that works very well.

Indeed, the entire museum works very well and is probably the best I have personally come across anywhere in the world. Utilising the most modern of computer technology, reconstructed, walk-through settings of life in a Celtic roundhouse and a Viking longhouse are brought vividly to life, as are scenes of the old 19th century quaysides and kipper factories, etc. Additionally, the museum is home to Odin’s Raven, a reconstructed Viking longboat, which was actually sailed from Norway to the Isle of Man as part of the Millennium of Tynwald celebrations.

The entire tour (which again we made as almost the only two visitors – which we were for most of the time) takes about three hours and I can honestly say that it is worth every minute. Every step of the way captivates and holds your imagination.

One spin off for me was the prompt to learn more about the Celtic races as a whole, a matter about which I previously had only sketchy knowledge. As a result, I am in the process of reading a book entitled The Celts, First Masters of Europe by Christiane Eluère, which gives a most informative overview of the Celtic history.

* * *

The afternoon was spent back in Douglas, visiting The Manx Museum. Compared to The House of Manannan, the Manx Museum is a more conventional and dry museum. However, that said, we were treated to a most interesting film (in a modern auditorium and as the only two viewers) regarding the history of the island and its people. Perhaps if we had visited this museum on our arrival to the island, we would have found it of greater interest.

What is certainly true is the fact that the Manx National Heritage has put together an island-wide historic trail (known as The Story of Mann) in a way which is most inspiring, educational and entertaining. It cannot be praised too highly. Indeed, the judges of the European Museum of the Year Award (just one of the many accolades won by the island) are quoted as saying:

“Now and again one comes across an achievement which is truly revolutionary and which is capable of having great influence on development elsewhere in Europe…and the Isle of Man has become an essential place to visit for anyone who wishes to see how to do the job better.”

I know that we will most certainly return, for we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what this gem of an island has to offer.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Postcard from the Isle of Man (3)

Sunday, 21st May 2006

When writing about the Isle of Man, it is difficult not to sound like a tourist information guide. However, the island is so rich in heritage sites that it leaves little option.

The southern half of the island was to be the focus of attention today, with the first port of call being Rushen Abbey at Ballasalla.

Rushen Abbey was once the seat of Manx Christianity. A Cistercian monastery until 1540, the abbey later fell into disrepair and was badly neglected over several centuries. For many years, the grounds served as a dance hall, market garden and even had a nightclub built over the ruins. Acquired by the Manx National Heritage in 1998, it was then subject to intensive archaeological investigation and preservation. In 2000, the site was opened to the public to great acclaim and rightly so, for it is now wonderfully presented. It comes complete with an extremely helpful indoor display giving the history of Manx Christianity and explaining every facet of Cistercian Monastic life. Additionally, there is a video presentation showing how the archaeological team unearthed, with painstaking care, the ruins we now see today. As we wandered amongst the remains, my wife remarked on the attractive wallflowers, which can be seen growing from various nooks and crannies; a remark which unwittingly reflected the diary entry of Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of the poet) following her own visit to the abbey many years ago. For me, a walk around the cloister was brought to life by the tolling of a nearby church bell, which very much gave the impression of an echo from the past.

* * *

Castletown, the principal town in the south of the island, was once the seat of government, both in medieval times and more recently.

Castle Rushen, within Castletown, is ranked as one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe. The oldest part of the castle dates back to the time of the last Norse King of Mann, who died in 1265. In later times, it has served as the island’s mint, administrative centre, law courts and, until the late 1800s, as a prison. Much work has gone into providing spectacular displays of life in the castle during the 17th Century. Some rooms are decorated with wall hangings, figures in medieval costumes, displays of medieval banqueting tables and soundtracks of contemporary music and speech, giving the visitor an inspiring insight to the period.

One discovery of great interest was a Fuddle Cup. Made of porcelain, the cup is really a group of four tall cups joined together, each with its own handle. When all four cups are filled with wine, it is then offered to a guest who has the challenge of draining one of the cups (without spillage of the others) before being able to hand the cup on to the next guest. What is not immediately apparent is the fact that the cups are internally joined by small holes deep within. Thus, the first guest would be tricked into drinking the contents of all four cups – and thus become ‘fuddled’. Unfortunately, they do not reproduce these as a traveller’s souvenir!

* * *

The Old Grammar School in Castletown was initially built in 1200 as the town church. In 1570, it became the Grammar School and functioned as such until 1930. Having the accolade of being the oldest roofed building on the island, it now houses a display of a small Victorian classroom.

Interestingly, along with so much else over the years, the island was the first to promulgate the concept of a basic education for every child, regardless of sex or wealth.

* * *

Across from the Old Grammar School, in a small square adjacent to the castle walls, is The Old House of Keys. The House of Keys is the Manx Parliament, now situated in Douglas. The Old House of Keys is the original, well-restored 19th century home of the parliament before it moved to Douglas.

Visitors are able to join in as representatives of a mock sitting of the House of Keys. Conducted through a clever mixture of technology, the model of the speaker comes to life through a projected face and various portraits become animated and make speeches to the house (rather like the portraits in the Harry Potter films).

The debates range through important facets of Manx history, including whether to give women the vote (introduced fifty years before mainland Britain), whether to allow motor racing on the island and, currently being debated, whether the island should apply for full membership of the European Union (with the possible loss of its tax haven status). The outcome is that the visitor leaves with a greater depth of knowledge and understanding regarding certain areas of the island’s history.

* * *

In the southwest corner of the island, overlooking a much smaller island (the Calf of Man) is the village of Cregneash.

Another first for the island, Cregneash was the first outdoor living museum within the British Isles. It now presents a working illustration as to how life was during the 19th and 20th centuries in a Manx crofting village. The various buildings display woodturning, weaving and spinning, life in a farmhouse of that era and, most interestingly, life in a small, thatched, two-roomed cottage (lived in by the late Harry Kelly until his death in 1936). Justice cannot be done within a few words here to the real value of this village, which needs to be visited to obtain its full value.

It is possibly the right moment to mention the Manx poet, T. E. Brown, who had his collected works published in 1900. What is special about his poetry is that it captures in dialect verse the life and times of the Manx people during the 19th century. The Collected Poems has been re-published by Manx Heritage. The poetry is most accessible, very informative and quite often humorous. For example, the opening lines to the eighty-six-page poem entitled Tommy Big-Eyes commences thus:

I never knew a man in my life
That had such a darling little wife
As a chap they were callin’ Tommy Gellin’;
So how he got her is worth the tellin’.

Who could resist such bait? From the opening lines, it is clear that a good yarn is going to be forthcoming (and so it is). Based on such, I now possess my own copy and look forward to much entertainment.

* * *

Throughout our tour of the various sites described above, we could be forgiven for thinking that we were the only two visitors to the island. On most occasions, we had the site/museum/castle to ourselves to the point that we felt that we were on a privately organised tour (for example, we were the only two for the Old House of Keys presentation). However, at every location we were made most welcomed by the staff, who went to great trouble to make our visit worthwhile and enjoyable. We cannot praise them highly enough. If they are representatives of the Manx people as a whole, then they are a delightful race and deserve to be hailed as such.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Postcard from the Isle of Man (2)

Saturday, 20th May 2006

The day was spent exploring the heritage sites in the northern half of the island, the first stop being the town of Laxey, where The Great Laxey Wheel resides. Built in 1854 to pump water from the lead and zinc mines, it is in working order and remains the world’s greatest industrial water wheel. Even for someone like me, who usually claims little fascination for things mechanical, the Laxey Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering.

One of the mines is accessible for a short distance. Inside the narrow shaft, water drips from the ceiling forming large puddles between the rails for the mine carts. It is hard to imagine working down there for hours on end, with nothing for light but a candle (secured to one’s helmet with a lump of clay). The hardship and suffering endured by the miners is reflected, outside the mine, by a large photograph of the workforce from the late 1800s. It is mesmerising and somewhat haunting to look at the faces of these long-dead men and see nothing but sadness, weariness and despair stare back. For several minutes, I could do nothing but gaze intently with a mixture of curious wonder and admiration for the people behind the images (the evocative sense produced by old photographs of people being similarly portrayed by the characters in Stephen Poliakoff’s excellent television play, Shooting the Past, about a country house, situated in the London suburbs, housing a photographic collection going back over the last decade).

* * *

Just north of Laxey, is King Orry’s Grave, a unique pair of megalithic chambered- tombs from 5,000 B.C. They represent what was once the island’s most important burial site. Two large standing stones have been excavated, the low, narrow gap between them forming the entrance to the first chamber (now collapsed and open to the air). It is just possible to squeeze through the gap, which I did with a sense of awe, knowing that people had done the same some 5,000 years ago in the process of burying their dead.

* * *

Further still along the northeast coast is the village of Maughold. Here, in a sheltered display area within the churchyard, is a fine collection of ancient Celtic and Viking carved, stone crosses. The low-roofed church is also of great interest, being small but well proportioned. Inside, beneath a diminutive organ loft, one central aisle leads past wooden pews (each able to seat three, maybe four parishioners) to the chancel, where the usual church furnishings (lectern, pulpit etc) have been scaled down to fit the small space. Behind the chancel is an equally reduced, but beautifully decorated altar. It is as though one has walked into the ecclesiastical version of a dolls house; all very cosy and comforting.

The exterior of the church at Maughold presents two additional surprises.

To the north side of the entrance is what at first glance appears to be a large mounting block (of the variety used by equestrians). However, further consideration indicates that it is really a set of steps leading up to an external door set at head height – the only way into the organ loft for the organist; a sort of tradesmen’s entrance for the secular staff.

The second surprise is the realisation that the church bell is hung outside the church above the main door, between a stone A-framed gable. Even more surprising is the heavy bell rope, which coils down over the porch and is tethered to one side of the entrance. Being appointed bell-ringer on a wet, cold winter’s Sunday, with an icy wind driving across the Irish Sea, must be a form of local punishment; a penance perhaps undertaken for having the temerity to miss the previous week’s service.

One final point of interest is the churchyard at Maughold. An ancient burial site, one could call it ‘well-stocked’, so numerous are the graves. The gravestones are mainly of stone (rather than marble), many standing five or more feet in height. Looking around at the expanse of these stones, the thought occurred that each one of these stones represents a person (or in some cases, many people) and I had a sudden and curious sensation of standing amongst a vast, silent crowd gathered on this hillside overlooking the sea.

Examination of headstones is an interest long held. Much can be learned of the people once populating the area: here lies a blacksmith, over there a priest, here a male hair dresser (perhaps unusual in 1865) and so on. Sometimes, many people have died around the same time, no doubt due to some form of infection bringing sadness and ruin to many families.

The most poignant of the headstones are those depicting families, as they often portray a life of sadness and despair. One such example consists of three adjacent graves belonging to a specific family. Between 1832 and 1847, William and Jane lost no less than eight children, their ages being as follows (it is interesting to note that some Christian names were used more than once):

Margaret Jane – in infancy
John - 1½ years
William Thomas - 7¼ years
Edward - 4¾ years
Margaret Jane – 11 months
William Thomas – 7 months
James – 8 months
Sarah – in infancy

Three more children were lost at later ages:

Christian in 1868 aged 19years
Jane in 1875 aged 32 years
Isabella in 1875 aged 23 years

What makes the whole history even more poignant is the fact that the father, William, died in 1887 aged 80 years; his wife, Jane, predeceasing him in 1884, but herself reaching the fine age of 79 years. What was it that gave the parents such fortitude, but failed in respect to the children? One can only stand and wonder.

* * *

Even further north lies the town of Ramsey, where a well-preserved house, called The Grove, tells the story of a Victorian merchant’s family. The Gibbs once owned a shipping fleet and initially developed The Grove as a summer residence to escape the risk of cholera in Liverpool. Later on, two spinster daughters continued to live out their lives there, both dying in their nineties. The contents of the house are intact and as depicted in photographs of the family during the Victorian era.

Today, visitors can take afternoon tea (served in old fine bone china) in the conservatory, itself having the same timeless charm. All in all, I couldn’t help feeling that we had stepped back one hundred years, perhaps leaving the Tardis parked just up the road!

* * *

The final destination for the day was Peel, over on the west coast, which entailed a drive around part of the road course for the TT (Tourist Trophy) motorbike races. With the races scheduled for early June, preparation is already taking place, with thick straw bales padding out stone walls, lampposts and trees on risky bends.

Peel Castle is sited on St Patrick’s Island, once only joined to the mainland by a spit of sand visible at low tide. It is the well-preserved ruins of an ancient fortress and early centre of Christianity, with much to whet the curiosity of the visitor interested in history and archaeology.

Today, the main risk of attack is from gulls nesting high up on the ramparts, coupled with a constant battering from a bitterly cold wind. We were the only two people looking round it and whether that says something of our hardiness or foolhardiness, I am yet to decide. Nonetheless, undaunted, we completed the tour, marvelling at the fortitude of those who had once lived there and feeling, with a sense of righteousness, that we had added another piece to the mental jigsaw called education.

Indeed, the events of the whole day had been one long voyage of discovery of what is proving to be a fascinating island.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Postcard from the Isle of Man (1)

Saturday, 20th May 2006

6 a.m.


No…very wet.

In fact, even that is an understatement, as the Promenade and Douglas Bay, over which our hotel room looks, is presently being lashed with rain, the ferocity of which leaves only one word to describe the day: sodden.

As I stand at the window watching a jogger in shorts and running vest battle his way head on into the wind, two thoughts simultaneously pass through my mind. First, whether all tourists are mad and, second, that the view looks depressing like the seafront at Brighton, or Cleethorpes or even Blackpool for that matter, which is to say, grey and depressing.

The crossing yesterday afternoon was not so bad. The Irish Sea was officially described as ‘moderate’, which means you have to walk in a staggering, zigzag fashion but can still make headway without clutching the nearest secure object. It is also sufficient to subdue the majority of passengers without causing a mass outbreak of vomiting. Overall, ideal conditions for people like me, who, unaffected by the rise and fall of the waves, simply wish to convert the enforced three and a half hours at sea into a valuable reading opportunity.

For some time, I have been meaning to read some of the late Dame Iris Murdoch’s work. I have a small selection in Yorkshire, harvested from Waterstone’s bookshop in Harrogate one idle afternoon last year. I did start to look at The Sea! The Sea! which won her the Booker Prize. However, for some reason I never quite got into it. I am now trying a different tack: that of reading about the author before reading her works. I do believe that it is often helpful to understand something of the writer in order to fully enjoy the literary output of that person. John Bailey’s memoir of his wife, simply entitled Iris, is easily accessible and paints an endearing picture of their life together. The crossing of the Irish Sea yesterday enabled me to get through about one third of the book without interruption. Perhaps The Sea! The Sea! will be given a second chance.

That is to say more than I would give the Hilton Hotel in Douglas. I hope that the lack of hospitality, culinary standards and choice of malt whisky will be compensated for by other attributes of the island.

At least there is now a suggestion of a break in the clouds…even if it is still raining.

* * *

7 p.m.

Clear blue skies, a calm blue-watered bay, golden sands and the promise of a splendid sunset.
As I stand at the window, a horse-drawn tram slowly trundles its way along the Promenade, as such trams have done ever since the late 19th century. The scene is most attractive and nothing like that of this morning. To be fair, the weather improved from about mid-morning as did the hospitality of the islanders, for we have met with nothing but friendliness and courtesy ever since.

As the words of the song say, what a difference a day makes.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dinner with Lord Melvyn Bragg

I arrived at the Lincoln Drill Hall last night and immediately felt that I had been transported to heaven. Such was the sight and sound that filled my senses.

In front of me was a table piled high with books - Melvyn Bragg’s Twelve Books that Changed the World to be precise. As for the sound, connoisseurs of jazz will instantly understand just what the sound of a tenor saxophone does in so far as playing spine-tingling havoc with one’s nervous system. All I needed was a glass of wine to complete the sensual impact. It wasn’t long in coming.

The occasion was the Lincoln Book Festival Literary Dinner with Lord Melvyn Bragg, as you will have already perceived, as the guest speaker.

I have previously commented on how one can draw threads through life’s experiences, providing a continuum between seemingly arbitrary events (see Threads through Time on this blog). Last night provided two such connections.

The first was whilst ordering the wine for the table. Picture the scene at the bar:

Dr T. ‘May I see the wine list please?’

Barman: ‘We have red, white or rosé.’

He indicates three different coloured bottles lined up by the till. The choice is merely that of colour; no more, no less.

Dr T. (Hesitating as he absorbs the complexities of the decision he is about to make):
‘Ah, well, I think I’ll have a bottle of red please.’

I was instantly transported back to the early 1990s when, as President of the Mess Committee for the Officers’ Mess of 250 Field Ambulance RAMC(V), I was responsible for stocking the bar for our annual camp. I duly paid a visit to the NAAFI armed with a wish list:

Major T: ‘Good morning Sergeant. I am looking for some good claret, Rioja Reserva, Chianti Classico and a selection of whites; Chardonnay is a must and perhaps some Sauvignon Blanc.’

Sergeant (in gruff, no-nonsense voice):
‘We have two type of wine here, Sir: red or white. How many bottles of each do you want?’

Fortunately, the rest of last evening was held at a higher intellectual plane than the simplicity of red versus white.

I have yet to read Lord Bragg’s book. Which is not surprising since I only bought it last night. However, I have sat through the entire television series of the same name and would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure. The twelve chosen books are not Lord Bragg’s twelve favourite books or the world’s twelve most popular novels and so on. They are twelve English books which have, undeniably, been responsible for altering the way we think or do things throughout the World.

I am not going to go into detail about the books. That you may discover for yourselves. However, I will say that Lord Bragg is as interesting and erudite in person as he is on the screen or when his thoughts are encapsulated in the pages of a book. For about an hour, he kept his audience spell bound and hanging on every word. It was a great pleasure to listen to him.

Naturally, after dinner he undertook the time-honoured role of all authors; that of signing his books. It was then that my second time-connecting thread materialised:

Lord Bragg: ‘Ah, a man who wears a handkerchief in his top pocket…’ (as does he).

Dr T: ‘And also dines at Le Caprice.’

(Le Caprice is an elegant restaurant in Mayfair, London and is frequently patronised by celebrities. Lord Bragg had been dining there on the occasion of one of my own visits last year.)

Lord Bragg: ‘Yes, a delightful little place. I haven’t seen you there.’

Dr T: ‘No, but I have seen you.’

…which rather sums up our relative positions on the literary ladder. Perhaps next time I will say ‘hello’.

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...