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’.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Lincoln Book Festival Literary Dinner

Dr T is off to the Literary Dinner this evening at the Lincoln Book Festival. The guest speaker is Lord Melvyn Bragg, so an interesting time is anticipated! A report will appear in due course.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Thought for the Day

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
Origin unknown

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital

The St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital is run by the Order of St John and relies entirely on voluntary donations. The medical and nursing staff treat everyone regardless of race, sex or creed. It is truely a marvelous organisation. Indeed, when I visited the hospital a few years ago, the experience brought tears to my own eyes, it is that emotive.

Below is a section from a recent letter from the Chief Executive of the Eye Hospital:

'Many Palestinians live without access to medical care. Most cannot move freely to see family and friends. Nearly half live below the poverty line. Last year we treated over 64,000 patients, including 3,000 major and 1500 minor operations.'

Perhaps I could encourage you to take a few moments to visit the website for this wonderful hospital and to consider how you might be able to help, even in some small way:

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why I Blog

You may be reading this as a result of the very kind article in the latest edition of Writers’ News (Blogging Joy for Robert, Vol 17, No 6 June 2006), for which I am grateful to Mr Jonathan Telfer. Either way, I thought I would add to what has already been said.

Up until January this year I had not heard of blogging. Although I like to think of myself as being reasonably computer literate, this particular modern publishing phenomenon was completely unknown to me.

All that changed one rainy weekend afternoon in the middle of January as I sat browsing the latest editions of various writing magazines. It was then that I came across an article in the February 2006 copy of Writers’ News, written by Jonathan Telfer and entitled Blog Show Case Opportunity. It was about to send me off on a project which has since become an addiction.

One weekend later, I had set up my first blog and, with great trepidation, posted article number one. Just over three months later, I have posted ninety eight articles and logged almost nine hundred visits to my site (from as far away as the USA, Korea and Australia).

Why do I do it? The answer is simple. It is an exciting way to place articles, which wouldn’t easily find a home elsewhere, into the public domain. The fact that people are interested enough to read them is both rewarding and encouraging. Blogging also helps to develop one’s writing skills and, who knows, there might be a book out of it one day!

Last month I decided to start a second blog dedicated to my attempts at poetry. This was undertaken with a considerable degree of apprehension, as I acknowledge my obvious shortcomings in that particular area. However, at some stage a writer needs to be bold, crawl from under the bushel and expose himself to possible criticism. The risk is that the writer also exposes his inner self to public scrutiny. However, is that not what poets have always done?

A third blog is in the planning stages. This one will be a window for all those short stories which have either served their purpose or fallen by the wayside. It seems such a shame to leave them languishing in a filing draw.

In a short space of time, blogging has become an invaluable addition to my spectrum of writing and I would recommend it to any writer who is trying to develop their craft. In the meantime, my only regret is that visitors rarely feel encouraged to leave comments. It would be pleasing to receive constructive feedback or to spark off some thoughtful debate from time to time.

You may also be interested in following the link below to an earlier article where I explain why I write (Writer's Itch, January 2006), and possibly another article Success by Osmosis (January 2006) which explains why I have chosen this particular pseudonym.

Thought for the Day

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell
Why I Write (1946)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Laughter through Adversity

The ability of people to be humorous when faced with enormous dangers is one of the most endearing characteristics of mankind.

For the past fourteen days, two miners have been trapped deep within the Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania following a rock fall on the 25th April, which killed one of their colleagues. Messers Russell and Webb, both in their thirties, have survived through the protection of a small steel cage.

Once rescuers had managed to bore a pipe through to their location, the men were asked what they would most appreciate being provided with. As quick as a flash, the reply came back from one: ‘a copy of the day’s newspaper so I can apply for a new job.’

Later on, one was heard to remark that he intended to claim a “living away from home allowance” for the time spent trapped underground.

Finally freed today, they were asked by reporters as to what was the first thing they were going to do. The reply: ‘put in an overtime claim.’

Who couldn’t but rejoice on hearing that they had been freed, after having shown such great fortitude and courage? They deserve every penny of the estimated £800,000 their story is going to bring them from newspaper, book and film rights.

Retreating from the Real World

Last week my wife and I went to the cinema to see The White Countess. For those who are yet to see it, then I strongly recommend the film. Indeed, I would quite happily sit through it again to catch some of the deeper nuances, which I may well have missed the first time around.

The White Countess was written as an original screenplay by the writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, whose previous film success was from the novel, Remains of the Day.

The story is about an American called Jackson, living in Shanghai during the late 1930s. He is an ex-diplomat who was blinded during a terrorist explosion in which he also lost his daughter. He builds a nightclub (called The White Countess) in which he hides away from the world outside. Various components of the nightclub make it a tightly controlled miniature of the world at large, all carefully managed by Jackson. The club revolves around his main hostess, the Countess Sofia, one of a family of impecunious Russian aristocrats who have fled their home country. The tension within the club is reflected by the inevitable, yet restrained and almost denied, romance that grows between Jackson and the Countess Sofia. Various other facets make the story an interesting cameo on the plight of refugees, both Russian and Jewish, as well as the tense relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese prior to the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

What intrigued me the most was the concept of building a world (in this case the nightclub) in which the architect hides away from reality, whilst the very world he has built continues to occupy its own place within reality. It struck me that many of us have similar defensive mechanisms by which we retreat from the real world. For me it is our home in the Yorkshire Dales. Some of our friends run away to the North York Moors, others to their boat. In each case, we carry with us only those elements we wish to be a part of our alternative lives. We leave behind all that causes us unrest, work or displeasure. No longer are we troubled by time, the imposition of deadlines, the need to make a living or to pay bills etc. We live a fantasy life albeit within a real world and on terms that do not make demands upon us. It is as though we take off the mantle of responsibility and concern when we step through our own version of C J Lewis’s wardrobe.

The White Countess is a splendid reflection of the need many of us feel in respect to controlling our environment and hiding from reality. By doing so, we remain sane and more capable of coping with the stresses of the real world. Perhaps it is true that, from time to time, we all need, in individualistic ways, our own personal Narnia.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Word of the Week – Solipsistic

Nothing gives me greater delight, when reading a book or article, than to come across a word that I not only do not know the meaning of, but also have never heard of before that moment. It is a momentous occasion. The discovery of a new treasure!

Today’s word is enunciated in a flowing manner, which, by itself, gives it an immediate appeal. Said slowly, it just rolls around the tongue, lips and mouth rather as an echo bounces off the walls of a valley. It could perhaps even be thought of a sensuous word.

I came across the word whilst reading an article in The Daily Telegraph on blogging (See the world though our bloggers’ eyes, April 28, 2006). The sentence ran thus: ‘They do not do so in solipsistic isolation’.

Cue the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE). According to this knowledgeable tome, in the form of a noun, solipsism is ‘the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist,’ or ‘the quality of being self-centred or selfish’. Solipsistic is the adjective, solipsistically the adverb. The word originates from the late 19th century, from the Latin solus (alone) and ipse (self).

Returning to the article, blogging is an isolated activity at source. However, the blogger knows that his work is to be potentially exposed to the entire world through the medium of the Internet. Thus, he does not blog in ‘solipsistic isolation’. Nicely put. I am very glad I read the article as the attainment of a new piece of knowledge tunes my psyche to a level of contentment for the rest of the day.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Initiating Change

Whilst speaking at a conference this weekend, I tried to paraphrase from memory a quotation from Machiavelli's work, The Prince. For the benefit of those who may have been at the same conference, the original quotation is given below. For those who were not present, you may still find it thought provoking and perhaps useful should you ever be tasked with initiating change:

‘…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct , or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.’

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Driving Force Behind James Patterson

According to an article in The Daily Telegraph (Friday 28th April 2006) James Patterson is “the author of more new No 1 bestselling titles in the past five years than Dan Brown, J K Rowling, Tom Clancy and John Grisham put together”. His books allegedly earn him $40 million a year.

When the reporter, Cassandra Jardine, asked what drives him now, his reply was “a desire to provide for his family”.

All I can say is that, with $40 million per year, his family must be very demanding!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Postcard from Cumbria (1)

Sunday, 30th April 2006

I am standing on a path behind the northeast corner of the church of St Mary in Kirkby Lonsdale. In the mid 19th century, when the view before me was immortalised in words and watercolour, this part of the country was known as Westmorland, only much later to be amalgamated with Cumberland to form the county of Cumbria.

The scene I am visually and mentally absorbing was once described by John Ruskin, the artist, writer and thinker who lived from 1819 to 1900, as ‘one of the loveliest scenes in England and therefore, the world’.

Ruskin’s View, as it is now known, was captured in watercolour by the artist Turner early in the 19th century. The scene has changed very little since then. What we can now behold is that which first entranced both Turner and Ruskin. (As I stand here, I am amused by the passing thought that Freemasons would perhaps share with me a quiet satisfaction that something so perfect should be viewed from a vantage point looking towards the northeast.)

Below is a wide valley of meadowland through which a broad river, the River Lune, wends its way in a U-shaped curve. Above the pasture is a deep band of woodland, behind which, dry-stone walls climb the heather-clad slopes of the fells of Barbon. Cattle and sheep graze the hedged grasslands, flocks of birds feed at the water’s edge, and small farmsteads and old Halls dot the landscape. The various components of meadow, river, woodland and fell form a composition of perfect harmony, topped today, by sunshine, a blue sky and the occasional white cumulus cloud.

Simply standing there, with nothing but the sound of bird song and the chiming of the church bell to disturb the silence, I am left with an intense feeling of inner peace and contentment. It is impossible for me to imagine being more relaxed. Ruskin was correct; it is a scene of perfection.

* * *

Descending a long flight of steps enables the riverbank to be reached. From there, the most pleasant of riverside walks stretches to the Devil’s Bridge at the road junction to Kirkby Lonsdale. Large rocks allow one to sit and gaze in contemplative mood at the waterside scene, made even more pleasing by the presence, at this time of year, of Orange Tip butterflies.

I am aware that, beyond the Devil’s Bridge, a car boot sale is in progress, with hoards of cars and people. There they can stay. The real attraction is here amidst the solitude and beauty of nature. For me, this is the true value of being alive.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Lexicographic Seduction

Thou strong seducer, opportunity!
John Dryden
The Conquest of Granada (1670) pt. 2, act 4, sc. 3

I have, this very evening, been seduced. Not only that, the event has taken place in the presence of my wife and with her wholehearted assent.

It was a matter of lust at first sight. No other word can describe the shear, unadulterated desire that surged, like an electrifying pulse, through my entire being the very moment I gazed upon the countenance before me. Oh, how I longed to hold this most beautiful of creations in my hands; to caress the layers that clothed the delights within; to inhale the heady perfume that is common to all of this nature. As soon as I held the photograph in my hands, I knew this beautiful thing had to be made mine.

Thus, I ordered a copy of the Folio Society’s exact facsimile of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary and now await its arrival with eager anticipation.

Readers of the past postings on this blog will know the power that such books hold over me (see The Noble Sport of Book Hunting, February 2006). This one is an absolute treasure. If you have not been fortunate enough to be offered the chance to buy one of the limited edition of 1,000 copies, then let me take a few moments to describe it to you:

Containing the definitions of 40,000 words, along with examples (amounting to 120,000 quotations) of their usage, the Dictionary is in two volumes, measuring 16¼" x 10¼" with 1,164 pages to each. One third bound in calf leather, the spine has raised leather bands and gold-blocked titles on separate leather labels. An exquisite marbling adorns the paper edges and front and back boards. With the addition of two ribbon markers per volume, the completed works are encased in a buckram-bound box with scalloped edges and a volume divider. What a feast! Those who share the passions of the noble sport of book hunting will immediately know why I have been so readily seduced.

Dr Samuel Johnson wrote his Dictionary over a period of nine years, with the first edition being published in 1775. Even today, the Oxford English Dictionary contains definitions that were first suggested by Johnson. Some of his original work gives an insight to his personal beliefs and politics, as well as the attitudes of the day. Examples such as those that follow are particularly memorable:

Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland, supports the people.

Pension. An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England, it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

Curtain-lecture. A reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed.

Nappiness. The quality of having a nap.

Tory. A cant term, derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying a savage.

At just under £600, the dictionary is not cheap. However, great works of art never are. Besides, someone must patronise such endeavours for the edification of future generations (making the assumption that these books will long outlive me). As I said to my wife, I feel I have a duty to my country to add this great work to our library!

The postman cannot arrive too soon.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Thought for the Day

Seen on a bookmark in a craft fair in Hawes, North Yorkshire:

Life is Short - Eat Your Pudding First.

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (7)

Saturday, 29th April 2006

Haworth, home of two of the greatest of English novels, namely Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, sits amidst the area south of the Yorkshire Dales, known as the South Pennines. Internationally famous by virtue of the three Brontë sisters who, in the mid 19th Century, lived with their father in the Parsonage, it is also home of the famous Worth Valley Steam Railway, which featured in The Railway Children.

Above the village sits the wild expanse of Haworth Moor with its brooding rocky outcrop known as Ponden Kirk (Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights), the ruins of the remote farmhouse, Top Withins (home of the Earnshaw family in Wuthering Heights), Brontë Bridge and Brontë Falls. Once a working area of quarries, the moor is now the playground of walkers, literary tourists and, within season, grouse-shooting parties.

This was my third visit to these moors, the first two occasions being in my late teens, some twenty-nine years ago. The changes are subtle, but noticeable. The most obvious is the increased number of visitors. My first pilgrimage across the moor to Top Withins was unaccompanied and with no other soul in sight for the entire journey from Haworth Parsonage. The path beyond Brontë Bridge to Top Withins was indistinct and I can well-remember needing to orientate myself with the aid of a map and compass, picking out the landmark of a solitary tree at the ruins of Top Withins with the aid of binoculars. Now, the paths are well trodden and, at times two, three or even four people in breadth. Way markers (complete with Japanese wording – we met one Japanese lady en route) have also sprung up in a profusion, which, although helpful to the new arrival, detracts from the beauty of the area as an imagined wilderness.

Despite these ravages of modern tourism, it is still possible to enjoy the rugged beauty of the moors and envisage the scenes, wind swept and rain-lashed, which were foremost in the mind of Emily Brontë when she placed her lovers, Cathy and Heathcliff, in their encounters out here.

An indirect walk to Top Withins involves climbing up through an area known as Ponden Clough. Covered with heather, it must be a wonderful sight later in the year when the heather is in flower. Two tumbling becks divide the Clough, providing the important source of water for the Ponden Reservoir at the base of the valley. Having reached the heights of Ponden Kirk, one is rewarded on a clear day (such as today) with a panoramic view of the reservoir and of moorland and hills, which simply stretch for mile upon mile in every direction.

A mile or so further on, Top Withins is the ruined remains of a remote farmhouse. Pausing for lunch, we sat on the broken walls and took time to ponder how harsh life must have been for those who once lived here some one hundred and fifty years ago. How alien today’s visitors would seem to them, not least of all with the occasional mobile telephone making an unwelcomed intrusion. Even the sheep are tame; with only the firm pressure of a walking boot holding them off from approaching close enough to steal the sandwiches!

Literature however, such as that written by the Brontës, is not about describing reality. It is about opening windows in the minds of the readers through which they are able to see an imagined world. Despite the imposition of the modern tourist, the world the Brontës drew from and extended within their own imaginations is still out there. All one needs to do is open those windows in our own imaginations. Contemporary intrusions instantly disappear and we can be transported back to a dark, storm-lashed moor and two desperate lovers. It is the ability to make that cerebral connection with the mind of an author, living one hundred and fifty years ago, which makes today’s journey worthwhile. However many centuries pass, Top Withins will, for the literary mind, forever be the formidable Wuthering Heights.

* * *


The walk back from Haworth passes through a small settlement called Stanbury. It is perhaps worth noting that Stanbury was the home of Timothy Feather, or ‘Owd Timmy’ as he was locally known. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the development of steam-powered mills within the West Riding of Yorkshire caused the demise of the old cottage industry of handloom weaving. However, undeterred, ‘Owd Timmy’ continued at his craft until his death, at the age of 85, in 1910.

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...