Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Postcard from London (1)

Sunday, 26th February 2006

‘Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life,
for there is in London all that life can afford.’

Samuel Johnson
James Boswell Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) 20th September 1777

Thus it was that, within one hour of having arrived in this great city, we were walking across Kensington Gardens towards Kensington Palace, eager to be adding even more pieces of experience to the vast jigsaw which is London. Despite having been born on its outskirts in Kent and having lived in several of its boroughs during five undergraduate years at the Charing Cross Hospital, London still excites the mind with its myriad of sights, sounds and smells. Once again we were having a ‘quick fix’, as we laughingly call such sojourns. Dr Johnson was absolutely right.

Across Kensington Gardens, the wind blew with a piercing ferocity; a reminder that, although the Magnolia back in Lincolnshire was gallantly pushing out its buds, snow was forecast and true spring had yet to arrive. The cold, however, could not erase in one’s mind, the image of that vast carpet of flowers which had lain across this very path, as the nation mourned as one following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I do not think it unkind to liken the Palace to a vast warehouse, such is its plain fa├žade. Perhaps, bearing in mind its more recent historical use, that of housing assorted members of the Royal Family, the analogy is an apt one; a storage facility for the lesser Royals. It does, however, come as a slight visual disappointment, especially knowing that it was designed by that great architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

Many of the old State Apartments, where the likes of George I, William III and Mary II once resided, are open to the public. These particular rooms are of interest, if only for the splendour of the ceiling paintings by William Kent or the wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons. The rest of the rooms on public display have a bareness about them, as though the removal of the possessions of the previous occupants (such as in the former apartment of the late Princess Margaret) has rendered the empty, hollow rooms soulless.

That said, in the entrance hall to Princess Margaret’s apartment is displayed a photograph by Lord Snowdon of his wife dressed in an evening gown. She is standing in the same hall and neither my wife nor I could avoid the temptation to quietly stand on the one particular square of black marble where Margaret had stood for the photograph. No great “touristy show” about it. No loud chatter or flashing photographs; just the quiet absorption of the energy and sense of occasion which radiates from places such as that. How different she must have been then compared to the very ill Princess Margaret we met some years ago at a reception in Westminster Hall, when she could only gallantly smile from the safety of a wheelchair.

The one other attraction, which for many would be the main attraction these days, is the display of dresses once belonging to Diana, Princess of Wales. These are complimented by a unique exhibition of images of the Princess, taken by Mario Testino for Vanity Fair in 1997. To me, they are hauntingly beautiful and I was vividly reminded of the time I met the Princess at the opening of a maternity unit at a hospital in East Yorkshire; her entrancing gaze never to be forgotten.

* * *
The day was seen out in style with dinner with friends at Bentley’s, a fish restaurant of high repute, situated in Swallow Street (just opposite the Wren Church in Piccadilly). It has recently been acquired by Richard Corrigan, who also runs a notable establishment in Soho, called Lindsay House. He has renovated the interior, removing the dark booths from downstairs and lightened and partitioned the room upstairs. But for all the change, it did not disappoint and the food was delicious.

Thus, as Pepys would say, home to bed; in this case, our club in St. James’s.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

So, the Mayor of London has £80,000 to pay for the omission of the word ‘sorry’.

If only writers were paid the same rate for each word they used!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Spiritual Guidance for Lent

As Ash Wednesday is almost upon us (1st March 2006), my thoughts have turned to the subject of Lent. As always, I have been pondering over what to deprive myself of for the ensuing forty days.

A few years ago, at this time of the ecclesiastical calendar, I turned to a friend and neighbour of mine for advice. As he is a senior cleric within the Church of England I felt sure that he would be able to offer some sound guidance. The conversation went something like this (though out of deference I have changed his name):

Dr T (leaning on garden fence): ‘Now then, David, I am at a loss as to what to deprive myself of for the period of Lent. Do tell me, what are you giving up?’

David (looking sternly towards me): ‘I always think it has to be something one is particularly fond of. Therefore, I always stop drinking gin.’

Dr T (looking surprised): ‘Goodness, David, I am impressed.’

David: (with less gravitas): ‘Yes, a great sacrifice; though I do find that whisky makes a very acceptable alternative!’

So, dear reader, with the wisdom of the venerable cleric ringing in my ears, I have decided to stop drinking my favourite evening tipple of Grouse whisky and dry ginger.

I will just have to suffer tackling some of those single 12 year malts residing in my cellar. Anyone care to join me?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Policing the Editors

We are informed that the suspect in respect to the shooting of WPC Brown (The Daily Telegraph, 16 Feb 06) is “understood to have been operating in the area where the shooting took place for four years”.

This places me in a quandary.

Should I complain to my M.P. that the police are far too tolerant of gun crime, or should I be demanding better editorial standards from the Newspaper of the Year?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

First Impressions

I have previously referred to my Kentish origins and how I had been given a warm welcome on venturing north of the Watford Gap. Having been here for over twenty years, patients no longer venture forth with remarks such as ‘you’re not from round here, are you doctor?’

It therefore came as a refreshing surprise to be informed by a fellow diner at my club on Tuesday evening that a friend of his had spoken to me on the telephone. Having not met me before, the friend later remarked to my informant, ‘I don’t know who this Tusitala is, but he sounds a reet posh bastard.’

Veritas praevalebit!

Thought for the Day

Following on from the quote of Patrick White on Monday of this week, I thought the following to be an apt companion:

Reader: Miss Moore, your poetry is very difficult to read.
Marianne Moore: It is very difficult to write.

Marianne Moore 1887 -1972
George Plimpton (ed.) The Writer’s Chapbook (1989)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Literary Stalker

Last weekend my wife and I found ourselves standing at the grave of two people neither of us had met, yet whose images were clear within my mind as though they had actually been known to me. To explain, one has to go back to the start of a series of coincidences, the remarkable concurrence of events without apparent causal connection, which began sometime during late 2005.

Betty’s Tearooms in Ilkley is where it started.

One Friday afternoon, late in 2005, my wife and I stopped off at this delightful, aforementioned establishment whilst travelling to the Yorkshire Dales. On leaving, I happened to bump into a very tall gentleman as he entered the tearoom. He was carrying a sheaf of newspapers and was dressed, amongst other things, in a raincoat, sweater and scarf. Now, I don’t normally go around bumping into people. Even less so do I tend to recognise them, and the chance of my actually being able to give them a name is almost zero.

‘That was Alan Bennett,’ I remarked to my wife as we walked out the door. A comment which, you will now understand, was quite astonishing for me, the great blinkered one. Even more so, as at that moment I couldn’t think of one thing he had written, nor when I had last seen him on television.

A quick burst of time travel then takes us to Waterstones in Harrogate where, a few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing the ‘best sellers’ and ‘new releases’ shelves, eager to divest myself of some book vouchers which had been burning a hole in my pocket. (Yes, perceptive reader of the past postings on this site, I was partaking in that noble sport, the Book Hunt and suitably dressed for the occasion – corduroys, tweed jacket, open-neck Barbour shirt, spectacles on nose, wad of ammunition in pocket.) Pausing for a moment, I picked up a copy of Alan Bennett’s new book, Untold Stories, flicked through a few pages and, for a reason which, in retrospect, is hard to explain, replaced it on the pile, deciding that it wasn’t for me.

Zoom forward two months to February 2006. An email announces that a complimentary copy of Alan Bennett’s book, Untold Stories, was on its way to me with a request that I write a short review for the magazine in question. As promised, the book duly arrived the following day and, over the course of the following week, was devoured with interest. Why I had ever rejected it whilst in Waterstones I will never know, except that providence had now enabled me to receive a free copy! It made for a most interesting read and I heartedly recommend it.

Well, it would probably have ended there if Mr Bennett had not made one statement in his book which particularly whetted my curiosity. It is in the introduction to the section in Untold Stories entitled Diaries. There he states, ‘Craven is the village in Yorkshire to which my parents retired and where we still have a house.’ Nothing special about that, you may think. However, we live in Craven and Craven is not a village, it is a district within North Yorkshire. Cue Sherlock Holmes.

For the next few hours I combed through Untold Stories, picking out the various clues. Then armed with an Ordnance Survey map of the area and Pevsner’s West Riding of Yorkshire, I pinpointed the suspect village. The next task was to prove the theory.

Which is why, last weekend, we stood in a lonely country cemetery, on the outskirts of a village, west of Settle, paying our respects to Mr & Mrs W Bennett, the late parents of Alan Bennett.

Returning to Lincolnshire on Sunday evening, I switched on the television and the first programme I saw was the tail-end of something to do with the history of Jackanory. Who should be reading an excerpt from Winnie the Pooh? Why, yes, Alan Bennett!

So, from knowing very little about the man, in a short space of time I had bumped into him, rejected his book, received a free copy of his book, reviewed his book, discovered where his Yorkshire home is, found where his parents are laid to rest and, at long last, seen him on television. No wonder I was beginning to feel like a literary stalker. However, there it ends. Have no fear, Mr Bennett. I will not come lurking outside your house, nor indeed will I identify the name of your village. Professional etiquette forbids me that.

Nevertheless, should you ever be passing through our own village, which is not so far from yours, then please do feel free to drop in for a cup of tea. After all, I would always be happy to give you some free advice regarding your next script…

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Noble Sport of Book Hunting

A strange title, you may think. Perhaps you might even consider it a pompous description attributing delusions of grandeur to a banal occupation. However, I can conjure no finer way to describe the pastime, which so many people embrace with nothing less than an all-consuming passion.

‘Book-collecting’ simply will not do, for that gives the impression of an indiscriminate process; a matter of the gathering together, or harvesting, of literary material regardless of its genre, appearance, age, edition, and so forth. No, to the book aficionado, the acquisition of an addition to his prized collection is a process akin to the hunter pursuing the next trophy specimen. A prize which, once captured, will be mounted, in all its glory, on a mahogany plaque for all to wonder over; except that, in this case, the mahogany is in the form of elegant shelving rather than wall-mounted shields. Moreover, ‘noble’ the sport most certainly is. How else to define an activity so lofty in its ideals, so morally elevated, so quintessentially sublime?

If you are already one of the converted, with your life-membership fully paid, then you will have skipped through the last paragraph, as none of it will be in the least bit surprising to you. You will have immediately recognised the description of the process and will have imagined many rows of your own favoured specimens. Your pulse rate may even have quickened at the thought of fresh quarry and you may, even now, be reaching for the local papers lest there be a Book Fair listed for your locality this forthcoming weekend. However, for those of you who are new to the sport, allow me to describe the procedure and introduce to you some of the rules and etiquette of the game.

One of the greatest privileges of book hunting is that there is no closed season. To the book hunter, the ‘glorious twelfth’ translates into the ‘glorious twelve’, for all twelve months of the year can be declared open season, with no restriction apart from fiscal limitations (although credit cards are often acceptable if ammunition such as notes in pounds sterling are in short supply). However, beware, for there are often one or two local by-laws governing the precise length of this open season and it as always wise to check that the few weeks prior to Christmas or birthdays are not subject to temporary book hunting prohibitions. One’s spouse is often the most knowledgeable person to consult in this regard.

Equally so, there is no legislative requirement for a book hunting licence. However, as with the times of temporary prohibitions, it is always wise to have some idea as to what constitutes an acceptable bag. Returning home after a day’s hunting with just one book is usually okay, although I personally find a brace far more satisfying and it is usually possible to go through the ‘nothing to declare’ entrance to the house without anything more than a cursory glance from the powers that be. Anything above two books may result in the extraction of a small hunting charge. This is usually payable to one’s spouse. Whilst the level of the fee may be as small as lunch at the local pub, it can be as high as dinner at an expensive restaurant, a day’s shopping trip, a weekend in London or even an expensive piece of jewellery, depending on the number of books and their relative value.

One word of warning here, however, as sometimes it is possible to exceed even the most lenient of hunting quotas. I can well remember an occasion many years ago when I successfully caught the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, all in leather bindings and in pristine condition. They were a remarkable sight, and still adorn the shelves of my library to this very day. The only problem at the time was that ammunition was in very short supply and I used something in the region of £1,000’s worth to capture these much-desired literary works. That in itself would not have been quite so bad, as membership of some hunting syndicates (such as the Folio Society) can turn out to be quite expensive in the longer term. The main problem was that the house was badly in need of renovation and we did not have much in the way of furniture. I was duly charged with wanton excess, summarily found guilty without so much as a panel of bibliophiles to hear my case, and sentenced to a lifetime penalty, to be paid in instalments, including compound interest, and at the whim of my partner. To ensure that the penalty was extracted in full, my partner was subsequently appointed my wife. This of course, in turn means that, although I am now let out on parole for good behaviour, the only way to have the sentence discharged is by the payment of a very large lump sum, whereby I would be able to retain the entire catch of that particular hunt, but would be otherwise destitute. So, be warned, there are pitfalls within this sport.

The matter of clothing and accessories can be quickly dealt with, for there are no particular rules. Naturally, a good pair of spectacles allows for easier identification of the prey. As a guide, it is worthwhile wearing comfortable clothing, with plenty of room for stretching the arms above one’s head. Equally, the trousers should be capable of withstanding much in the way of bending and crouching, so should not be over tight. Many book hunting grounds are cold, so attention to a suitable jumper or jacket is sensible. Ideally, the jacket should have plenty of pockets for accommodating wads of ammunition and the smaller of catches. That said, it is wise not to dress in one’s best. Booksellers are not easily parted from their charges at a discounted rate. If the hunter looks too affluent, then the hunt will be harder and more ammunition used than would otherwise be necessary. Finally, food, drink and ice-creams are strictly banned on all book hunting expeditions, although an adjournment to a local hostelry at the end of the hunt can be a convivial way to finish the day’s sport, giving, as it does, the chance to mull over the catch and to attract the approving eye of any hunt followers.

Whilst it is helpful to have an idea as to one or two sought after tomes, as this often acts as a guide when deciding on a plan for stalking the rows of a book shop or fair, a firm idea as to the object of your hunt is not always necessary or, indeed, desirable. One of the greatest pleasures of book hunting is the flushing out of an unexpected volume which, once its position is given away, jumps at you from the shelves as though challenging you to even dare consider going home without it. Breathless with the excitement of such a discovery, you will be spurred on to greater endeavours, often resorting to kneeling on the floor to gaze into the lowest nooks and crannies, or requisitioning the bookseller’s stepladders to enable you to scale the highest peaks, where so often the most exquisite of species lurk. (A word of warning in respect to the latter. When aloft, it is so easy to forget the heights to which you have climbed and many a book hunter, when eye-level to the tantalising titles on display, has reached out to the next shelf only to step off into midair. If such misfortune should occur to you - and even the most seasoned of hunters such as myself has had many near-misses - then do not despair, for the recovery time required will usually offer the unexpected bonus of free time for reading.)

The question of hunt followers has already been touched upon. However, the subject is worthy of further discussion. Book hunts are usually solitary affairs, stalking being the art of the hunt. However, occasionally two hunters will work together, albeit with different prey in mind. This means that there are usually only one or two hunt followers present, with one being the rule. It is sometimes possible to seat the hunt follower in a corner of the bookshop, where she (and they are usually female) can observe the process without disturbing the concentration of the hunter. This is an arrangement that works well for the shorter of forays. However, for a hunt likely to last for several hours, then it is better to ensure that the hunt follower is distracted by the charms of a day’s shopping of her own; otherwise, her goodwill can all too easily be exhausted. Under such circumstances, she quickly turns into a hunt saboteur, resulting in a very unsatisfactory day’s hunting.

Why go book hunting in the first place? I am asked this question most often by those not converted to the sport. It is an easy one to answer, for the pleasure of book hunting works on many different levels. First, there is the anticipatory planning of the hunt, the build up to the day and the frisson of excitement as one arrives at the chosen hunting ground. The hunt itself may last for a few minutes to many hours, but usually results in a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes it is such that a much sought after specimen is spotted and, after a degree of sporting with the bookseller, bagged for the minimum of ammunition. This prized book is then transported home with a sense of elation. Once home, it can be carefully fondled, sniffed (always smell a book, for their bouquet is often quite exquisite, especially if leather bound) and leafed through in anticipation of the day of reading. It is then gently placed on a shelf in view of the hunter, so that he can feast his eyes upon it from time to time, taking pleasure in its presence and fondly remembering the hunt itself. The tome continues to give happiness as it quietly sits on display, allowing the hunter to savour the day he will read it. That particular day is a joy unto itself and cannot easily be described in just a few words here. All I can say is that it is addictive and, once started, becomes a lifelong habit without a known cure. Once temporarily sated, the hunter then has the great pleasure of again observing the book on his shelves, recollecting how marvellous a read it was and imagining the pure delight of having the time to read it again. Therefore, you see, to the converted, a life without book hunting is simply a pale imitation of the glorious existence that book hunting brings.

Finally, a word of warning: NEVER LEND A BOOK. Books have a tendency to roam unless great attention is paid to their whereabouts. Once free of your shelves, they will frequently opt to stay on the shelves of the borrower, from where no amount of cajoling will elicit their return. On the odd occasion that they are returned, it will be because they have been ill-cared for, and will come home in a sorry state, jackets torn or missing, page corners turned and, worse, written in! No, it is far better to direct the would-be borrower to a hunting ground of his own or, alternatively, catch a specimen solely to be made as a gift to him. Peace and equanimity will thus be maintained.

I finish with the words of Lady Clementine Churchill, who was a great book hunter in her own right: ‘If books cannot be your friends, then at least let them be your acquaintances'.

Quite so.

Happy hunting!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Thought for the Day

I am constantly meeting ladies who say 'how lovely it must be to write', as though one sat down at the escritoire after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread and butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.

Patrick White 1912 - 90
- after finishing The Solid Mandala (1966);
Letters (1996)

Writing? It's an Obsession!

Writing is, quite rightly, considered a craft. However, it is an obsessive one at that. If a writer isn't writing, thinking about writing, reading what he or she has written, revising what has been written, looking for an outlet for the finished work, reconciling the writing accounts or, the more likely, opening the rejection slips, then he finds himself reading other writers' blogs about...yes, you guessed it...writing!

Which is precisely what I found myself doing this morning.

I am happy to pass this contact onto you and hope you find it as interesting as I did:

Writers' Blog can be found at: www.weejie.blogspot.com

Postcard from the Lake District (1)

Saturday, 18th February 2006

Lake Windermere, England’s longest lake, must surely rank as one of the most beautiful areas within the British Isles. Described by the poet Wordsworth as ‘like a vast river, stretching in the sun’, it is the setting for the adventures of Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome and for the many tales of Beatrix Potter. It sits surrounded by tree-clad shores beyond which, gentle countryside rises to towering fells. Several islands within the lake add to its charm, as do the many sailing boats dotted around its waters.

The day started well, with an overnight mist and frost soon lifting to reveal a blue sky scattered with white fluffy clouds of the cumulus variety.

Leaving the car at Ferry Nab, near Bowness, we caught the ferry across to the western shore. The lake was calm and there was little in the way of wind, making the passage akin to that of a vast swan gliding serenely over the water. Even the gentle throb of the engine failed to disturbed the tranquillity of the crossing.

Our walk took us via a ruin known as Claife Station. This is the site of one of the Victorian viewpoints for the lake. It was once a building with vast windows, all of which were fitted with different coloured glass, so as to give the impression of the effect on the mood of the lake by the changing seasons, or the impact of moonlight or a thunderstorm.

From the station, we progressed through woodland inhabited by red squirrels, accompanied, as we walked, by the constant song of robins and chaffinches. The route took us to the village of Far Sawrey and then on to Near Sawrey and Hill Top, the latter once being the home of Beatrix Potter and now preserved by the National Trust. Every so often, we caught glimpses of the waters of the lake below us, sparkling in the winter sunshine.

Lunch was a sandwich, taken seated on limestone rocks on the edge of woodland, overlooking pastureland where sheep quietly grazed. In the distance, the mountainous hills could be seen to be snow clad on their upper slopes. Whilst above us, a mewing sound drew attention to a buzzard, patrolling the area in vast lazy circles. A blissful silence was otherwise our companion, making for a most relaxing setting.

After lunch, and after crossing a few miles of open pastureland, pausing only to take some photographs of the church of St Peter in Far Sawrey as it nestled within the green rolling fields with the hills as a backdrop, we reached a path alongside Lake Windermere and thus returned to the ferry.

Back in the Yorkshire Dales, what had been a most satisfying day was rounded off by a meal at one of our favourite restaurants in Skipton. Le Caveau is to be found in the High Street, in what were once the dungeons of the 16th century Toll Gate to the town. The stone walls and vaulted ceilings give an interesting character to the restaurant, where the hospitality is warm and welcoming and the food simply delicious.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thought for the Day

All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been, it is all lying in magic preservation in the pages of books.

Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881)
Scottish historian and political philosopher

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Lament on the Passing of Sartorial Elegance

If ‘manners maketh man’, the motto of William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404), then a fine dress sense must surely be the hallmark of the true gentleman.

Yet, in many circles of life, the art of dressing well in order to achieve a resemblance of sartorial elegance is fast becoming a forgotten skill. Maybe it has something to do with the fast pace of modern living, or the need by the younger generations to forge ahead with their own identities. Alternatively, perhaps it is the fear of standing out in a crowd and being seen as someone different.

Whatever the reasons behind such decline, sartorial elegance has nothing to do with fashion. It does, however, have everything to do with stability. The wardrobe of the well-dressed gentleman is marked by a distinctive continuity and is a style that can only be described as ‘classic’.

Being a well-dressed gentleman is also something that could be claimed as peculiarly English. It is, as Samuel Johnson put it, a style which is ‘familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious.’ However, that said, it does not come easily to all Englishmen. For example, The Prince of Wales has it; Tony Blair, Alan Bennett and Richard Branson do not.

I lament the decline of standards amongst some of my fellow Englishmen, especially when it comes to those of a professional standing. If the man is the representative of his profession, then the clothes help to define the man and, thereby, contribute to the perceived standards of the profession. That said, it should never be the clothes themselves that are noticed. Rather, it should be the well-dressed man who draws the attention; a subtle but important distinction.

Neither is being well-dressed necessarily a matter of wealth or social position. It is widely understood that many women find a man in uniform to be attractive. The type of uniform is not always the factor; nor is his rank. A private soldier in ceremonial dress is equally admired as the colonel. What matters is how the uniform is worn. Once again, this is traditionally the preserve of the English, as observation of foreign armies will often support.

I also grieve for the well-dressed woman who, having clearly taken great care in presenting herself in an attractive manner, is taken out for a meal in an expensive restaurant, accompanied by a slouch of a man. Why do such men feel that a loose fitting, open-neck shirt worn with a pair of jeans and training shoes is a suitable attire to complement that of their lady? There, perhaps, as Shakespeare would have it, lies the rub. For why do the same women not demand greater values from their men? Why do they accept such slovenly standards?

Being well-dressed is all about selecting the right clothes for the given occasion. It concerns the style and cut of the material as much as taking care with collars and cuffs, ties and jackets, the pressing of the trousers. However, sartorial elegance is a charm of appearance stationed above being simply well-dressed. It is those carefully selected accessories which make all the difference; the tie pin and cuff links, the rings, the pocket-handkerchief, the rolled umbrella and, possibly, the hat.

For those who wish to ensure that they know the finer points of etiquette when it comes to such matters, and wish to understand those factors to avoid if a faux pas is to be prevented, then they can do no better than to obtain a copy of Oscar Lenius’s book, A Well-Dressed Gentleman’s Pocket Guide.

Finally, if by any chance, you happen to know a person who professes to never having spent more than £20 on a suit (as indeed, I was astonished to hear recently), then refer him with urgency to the nearest charity for the relief of the poor. For, if the great misfortune of being impecunious is not the case, then it is the most grievous expression of poor taste and bad judgement or, even worse, an act of parsimony to be avoided at all costs.

That said, there is only one area of greater concern. In that respect, I will leave the ultimate word to Hardy Amies, that most English of couturiers who, with a degree of finality proclaimed ‘it is totally impossible to be well-dressed in cheap shoes’.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Chinese Whispers

We are often reminded that patients only hear what they wish to hear. The latter may bear little resemblance to what they have been told. The truth of this was brought home very clearly to me some years ago whilst working as a G.P. Trainee.

A friend of the Practice Manager presented to me with a productive cough, which I duly dealt with.

The following day the Practice Manager informed me that, having seen me, her friend remarked to her that ‘it is not often a doctor tells you that you have “nice big breasts”’.

Needless to say, this caused me considerable consternation! Images of being summoned before the General Medical Council hovered before me. I then realised that she had mistaken what I had said on examining her chest, which had actually been ‘nice big breaths’.

The lesson has stayed with me. I now make sure that I examine the back of chests first and use the phrase ‘breathe deeply’!

(First Published in GP Magazine, April 2005.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (3)

Saturday, 11th February 2006

It is snowing. Not only that, it is settling. Big, white, fluffy pieces of snow fluttering down as though God were silently shaking an icing sieve over the landscape.

Snow was not forecast; at least not in the version I read. Not that it matters. Adaptability is what counts here. A walk had been planned. However, that is no longer a sensible option; at least not at present. The Yorkshire Fell Rescue Services can do without me setting up an impromptu exercise for them.

It is on days like this that the cosiness of a cottage comes very much into its own. Suddenly, we are given the best possible excuse for laziness. The Daily Telegraph and all its various sections will be digested in a leisurely fashion and, following that, I will continue working. Working, that is, in the sense of reading a copy of Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, about which I have been asked to write a review. Indeed, it is a hard life.

* * *
Two hours later, the promise of an indolent day had receded to being nothing more than a wistful notion as the snow stopped falling and the sky lightened. A walk it had to be and thus we found ourselves in the Strid car park at Bolton Abbey.

The Bolton Abbey Estate, the Yorkshire seat of the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire, has a beauty of its own at any time of year. However, my favourite time is the period between autumn and spring, when the valley is almost deserted. The summer sees hoards of families descend on the estate in order to enjoy picnicking on the banks of the river Wharf, whilst their children play in the clear waters. However, at this time of year the footpaths are more or less our own and we can enjoy the peace and tranquillity.

The descent through the woodland towards the Strid was accompanied by the regular high-pitched ‘see-too’ call of coal tits as they flitted through the tops of the trees. Here and there, the monotony of leafless branches was broken by a profusion of catkins, as the common hazel trees come into flower during February. Occasionally, small streams broke the slopes of the wooded hills, the water tumbling down from the fells toward the river below. From one or two early vantage points, the ruins of Barden Tower, a 15th century hunting lodge, could be seen nestling between the trees higher up the valley.

In the region of the Strid, a series of water-filled potholes within the limestone rock, the Wharf is an alluring mix of rushing water between stretches of calm, almost unbroken pools. Anglers fishing for trout are a common sight here during the summer.

It was William Carr, Rector of the parish in 1810, who persuaded the 6th Duke of Devonshire to open Strid Wood to the public. We owe much to the Rector’s endeavours, for it is a beautiful area. Whilst we stood looking down upon the scene, the clouds broke, exposing a patch of blue sky above us. Through this the sun, as though a spotlight straight from Heaven, illuminated the immediate area of trees, rock and water with a gentle lemon yellow light. Such a scene renders the valley’s attraction to the likes of the artists Landseer and Turner, and the poet, Wordsworth, very understandable.

Our walk continued from the Strid to an area known as Sandholme, a large open, grassy space next to the river, a popular area at any time of year. From here we crossed the river via a footbridge and walked back along the opposite bank of the Wharf and ultimately through pastureland to the Victorian aqueduct; a splendid castellated bridge which serves to hide the pipe carrying water from the reservoirs at the top of Nidderdale to the cities of West Yorkshire. Crossing the aqueduct, we regained the western bank and returned, though a wooded conservation area, to Strid Wood and thence home to tea and toast.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Word of the Week – Columbarium

I am a bear of very little brains and long words bother me.

Such is the delightful line written by A. A. Milne for his character, Winnie the Pooh.

The subject of long words has been extensively researched. As a result, it is well known that the average reading ability of the population of the United Kingdom equates to the standard of writing in the Sun newspaper. An appalling truth, if there ever was one.

Intent, as I am, on rescuing as many ignoramuses as I possibly can from the mire of lexical ignorance, I have once again dipped into my well-worn copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Such action, like charity, is twice blessed. It (hopefully) serves the purpose of educating my reader, whilst ensuring that I am able to preserve my own place amongst the literati. (O.K., that all sounds very pompous and arrogant, which is not what was meant. However, it did enable me to use some rather good words!)

On this occasion, I have a double helping, my first offering leading to another discovery.

The first word of this week is columbarium.

According to the trusty C.O.D., a columbarium is ‘a building with tiers of niches for reception of cinerary urns’. The pleural form is columbaria. The word is actually Latin for ‘pigeon-house’. However, the word is, apparently, still in modern usage.

Having made this discovery, I then had to confirm my understanding of the word ‘cinerary’. It does indeed mean ‘of ashes’, as in a cinerary urn, i.e. the urn holding the ashes of the dead after cremation. Thereby, I discovered the second word for this week. It is cinerarium.

A cinerarium is a recess in which a cinerary urn is deposited.

What I am unable to clarify is whether each niche of a columbarium is a cinerarium!

With such a conundrum hanging over me, I am beginning to develop more than a degree of sympathy for Winnie the Pooh…and perhaps my self-appointed membership of the literati is not quite as secure as I would have wished for!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Internet Resources for Writers

I have occasionally been asked about internet resources for writers. So here are some of my favourites:

Writing Magazine & Writers’ News

Freelance Market News

Poetry Society

First Writer.com


BBC Writers’ Room



Freelance Writer UK

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thought for the Day

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Dawn Chorus

The highest intellects, like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and to reflect the dawn.

Thomas Babington Macaulay
Essays contributed to the Edinburgh Review (1843) Vol 2.

Macaulay was not speaking of the dawn chorus when he wrote those words. However, if they are to be applied to all living things, then, around here the blackbirds take first prize.

I am uncertain as to when they started. Nonetheless, for the past week I have been aware of a growing clamour around the hour of 6 a.m. I am sure it is only the blackbirds at present, although the robins may well be contributing. As I have sat here in my garret in Lincolnshire, their singing has pierced through the cold darkness of the early February mornings, bringing with it the promise of light, new growth and fresh opportunities.

The dawn chorus, being the signal that winter is retreating, is usually associated with spring. Male songbirds sing to identify their territories and to attract potential females. The singing reaches its greatest intensity around 4 a.m. in May, stopping as soon as it is light enough to look for food. There is actually an annual celebration of the world’s oldest wake-up call, with the International Dawn Chorus Day this year being on May 7th.

So, with the song of the local blackbirds being heard this week, the first in February, has come a question. Have they started earlier than usual this year? I am uncertain as to the answer. All I can say is that the beautiful sound brings with it an uplifting of my spirit and I am delighted to welcome its presence.

Now, has anyone heard a cuckoo?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Pushing His Luck

A young man attended the evening surgery complaining that his penile warts had recurred. He was duly advised to attend the local Genito-Urinary (V.D.) Clinic. His response was to complain bitterly that he was unable to travel to the local hospital. However, after a fairly protracted discussion I managed to persuade him that the clinic was the most appropriate place for his warts to be treated and that he was perfectly capable of using the public transport to travel the distance of fifteen miles. He finally agreed, albeit with great reluctance.

Imagine my surprise when, as he rose to leave my room, he proceeded to proudly inform me how he had just returned from successfully completing a fifty mile charity walk in China!

(First published in GP Magazine, March 2005.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Reflections after the Memorial Service

For me, a memorial service is a bitter sweet occasion.

On the one hand, it is infused with sadness for the loss of someone who was loved, held as a dear friend, admired or simply respected. On the other hand, it concentrates the mind on the enormous reality, the sheer privilege, of being alive. It is as though the person departed is sending one final message to all who have gathered in his or her memory: ‘I am no longer with you in body, but the spirit of my life must live on within you. You must now pick up my mantle and continue the work I can no longer do myself.’

It may be that one is unable to continue the precise work which was once the remit of the deceased. However, that does not stop one being energised by the spirit of that person’s worldly actions; to take on their enthusiasm and energy, their humanitarian ideals, their love for life and their respect for those around one.

So, memorial services are, in my opinion, correctly termed “a celebration of life”. They should be times of thanksgiving for the value a person has brought to this World – a celebration of their life. But that is not where the matter should rest. Each and every one of us who attends a memorial service should leave with the idea of reviving those humanitarian traits within ourselves which may have started to fade. Each one of us should renew our resolutions to achieve the aims we have set, or, indeed, set newer and higher ones which may stretch us just that little bit further. In other words, memorial services should also serve as a private celebration of our own lives, that is, the fact that we are alive and have the advantages, the benefits and the opportunities that such fortune brings to us.

We owe such actions to the memory of the one who has departed this life and we owe it to those who, perhaps, one day will attend at our own memorial service. That we, through our own endeavours, may serve to act as the spark of revitalisation which may one day enthuse others to lead their own lives in the spirit of our own life and work.

And if all that is insufficient to make you reflect on the great privilege of being alive, then perhaps the following quotation will. I am uncertain as to its origins and therefore cannot properly attribute it. However, the words themselves have, for many years, been an inspiration to me:

‘I do not wish to find, when I come to die, that I have not lived.’

It is as important to those who continue after us. We owe it to them to take action to ensure that they will not find, when we come to die, that we have not lived. We must take great care not to squander this great gift of life that is in our possession.

The time for doing that living is now…today…this very minute.

As for those to whom we have paid our last respects:

Requiescat in pace

Friday, February 03, 2006

In Memoriam

Ian George Ridgway

1st May 1946 - 8th January 2006


Thought for the Day

Four things come not back:
the spoken word,
the spent arrow,
time passed,
the neglected opportunity.

Omar Ibu Al Halif, 7th Century Muslim

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Word of the Week - Obmutescence

For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination for words, especially long ones and those not frequently heard in everyday language.

It probably started at Primary School, where there was a weekly spelling test of twelve (we were pre-decimalisation then) very long words, or so they seemed to a nine year old. However, rising to the challenge, I set my sights on achieving a score of 12/12 each week. So successful was I, that after some weeks of perfect marks, the teacher decided that my development would be better served if she gave me the task of finding twelve suitable words for the weekly test. I was even given my own dictionary in order to complete this task. What joy!

However, the realisation, on the part of the teacher, that it didn’t take me long to open the dictionary at random and select the longest word on the page (a process repeated twelve time in as many minutes), meant that I was soon put in charge of marking the test for the rest of the class.

Neither did it stop there. If one of my classmates dared to ask the meaning of one of the words, the teacher would call my name and I would have to stand up and tell the class the definition. Such opportunities to display my talents were greeted by me with all the self-effacing reticence of the fairground showman; something which, with hindsight, did not endear me to my peers. I now also wonder whether the teacher was simply trying to catch me out, as opposed to diligently progressing my literary ability.

However, such things are character building, and my love of words was born. Therefore, in order to share such delights with you, I have decided to introduce the concept of the ‘Word of the Week’. This week it has entailed me opening The Concise Oxford Dictionary at random and selecting the first word I have never heard of.

This week’s word is obmutescence.

Obmutescence, (being derived from the Latin mutescere, which in turn derives from mutus, meaning dumb), is a noun meaning ‘obstinate silence’. It may be used as an adjective, as in: ‘he was so obmutescent’.

There, I am sure you are the better for knowing that. The delight for me is that even the spell-checker on the computer had not heard of it before. I have since educated it. My old teacher would be proud…I think.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Aspirant Polymath

I have long been intrigued by the concept of the polymath. Umberto Eco was initially to blame for this interest, which at times has bordered on being an obsession.

It all started with the film of his book, The Name of the Rose; a chance finding on the television late one night, many years ago, as I sat in the company of a gin and tonic. The film was so good it led me to read the book itself. From there I progressed to another of Eco’s books, Foucault’s Pendulum; a tome guaranteed to send the sanest of minds into paroxysms of cerebral contortions as the reader attempts to keep pace with Eco’s brilliant weavings of mysterious plot and arcane symbolism.

On the dust jacket of Foucault’s Pendulum was a short biography, whereby Umberto Eco was described as a polymath and a professor of semiotics. At that stage, I reached for the dictionary.

A polymath can most simply be defined as someone who is ‘greatly learned’. Traditionally, it more particularly describes a person who is very knowledgeable in multiple fields, across the arts and sciences.

The term ‘polymath’ should not be confused with the word ‘genius’. A genius is someone who has an extraordinary creative or intellectual capacity, usually excelling within one particular field. In this respect, Goethe and Leonardo da Vinci may be considered as being polymaths. However, Albert Einstein, albeit a genius, was not a polymath; likewise with Mozart.

During the Renaissance period, gentlemen were expected to become polymaths by having a broad education encompassing the learning of languages, writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, etc. It is thus that the term Renaissance man and polymath have become synonymous.

So, when does one know that they have succeeded in the aim of becoming a polymath? I am not sure that it is a term that can be self-applied. Rather, it is probably best kept as a form of accolade bestowed by others. Apart from the inference of arrogance, which surrounds the idea of the self-bestowed title, anyone who is an aspirant polymath is likely to subscribe to the concept: ‘the more I live, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I realise the less I know’. True sentiments, reflected in the words of Socrates, who said ‘all I know is that I know nothing’.

Then there is the wit that remarked, ‘if you know the definition of a polymath and think you may be one, then you are not’.

Therefore, an aspirant polymath I will have to remain…unless you know better!

Now, returning to Umberto Eco, just what is a ‘professor of semiotics’?

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...