Thursday, 31 December 2015

Year of the Flood

Natural disasters in the UK

There have been diseases that killed over a million people throughout the UK (the Black Death in the 14th Century, for example); over 225,000 people died of Spanish Flu in the UK alone in 1918/19; there was a Hurricane in Southern England in 1703 that killed around 15,000 people and what was probably a Tsunami in the Bristol Channel in 1607 that killed around 2,000 people. The UK has also experienced minor earthquakes, tornadoes, avalanches, landslips, famines, heatwaves and droughts. On our group of islands, though, we feel, on the whole, pretty happy with our climate.


Floods are shocking, disturbing and disorientating, not to mention a bit disgusting in terms of the muddy debris and detritus that wraps around everything in the flood path. The biggest loss of life, so far, was in 1864 in the Great Sheffield Flood when 270 were killed. Two floods in the early 1950s (one in Lynmouth, Cornwall in August 1952 and one on Canvey Island in the Thames in January 1953) killed scores of people. But the frequency of floods in the UK since the Year 2000 has been increasing with the South West, Wales, Yorkshire and Cumbria being the worst affected in terms of damage and the need for extensive clean-up operations.
Sally and Harriet feeding the ducks in Roberts Park, Saltaire

Shipley in December 2015

Houses and businesses in Shipley where I live have been hit hard with one of my favourite pubs, the Boathouse suffering (not for the first time in its history) and houses in Baildon having to have rooftop rescues. Roberts Park was properly underwater for the first time in my memory as the River Aire burst its banks.
The Boathouse in Saltaire

Metaphorical floods

In addition to the historical reality of floods, many cultures and religions use flood-myths as part of their narratives: God wipes out the human race to start again – or nature rises up to cleanse the land. We talk about:
  • “floods of tears”
  • “floods of complaints”
  • “flooding the room with light”
  • “floods of tourists”
  • “old fears/memories came flooding back”
  • “flooded with emotion”
    Victoria Mills, Saltaire

Margaret Atwood Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood named the middle part of her dystopian trilogy Year of the Flood.  The prequel is the heartbreaking Oryx and Crake and the final part is the mind-bending Maddaddam. I can’t praise these novels highly enough – hard to pinpoint why – maybe it just brought together so many of the things that have floated my flood-boat in the past – gender, sex, religion, politics, dreaming, storytelling, metaphorical gardening, bio-engineering, science-fiction, myths and legends – and Atwood wraps the story in mischievous language. Disaster is always round the corner – but so is love. Floods devastate, but also bring out the best in people.
Saltaire and Roberts Park during recent floods

What am I living for and what am I dying for are the same question.
….we must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there’s nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing.
Happy New Year!
(from me and Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood)
Most photographs by Harriet

Saturday, 19 December 2015

This Wide And Universal Theatre

Jane Eyre – I am no bird
Jane Eyre, in my opinion, is one of the glories of English Literature. It’s not my favourite Charlotte Brontë  novel – that would be Villette, partly because I think that novel is more subversive and Lucy Snowe is a very troubling and troubled character. But Jane Eyre has had a massive cultural impact and given way to concepts and phrases that are in the nation’s subconscious fabric:
•    Plain Jane
•    The red room
•    The madwoman in the attic
•    Do you think I am an automaton?
•    I am a free human being with an independent will
•    Reader, I married him
•    The ruined house (and damaged man) symbolic of redemption

Sally Cookson’s production
Earlier in the year Bristol Old Vic staged a two-night production by Sally Cookson, devised by the cast, designed by Michael Vale with music by Benji Bower. I mention their three names because their contributions to the final performance were overwhelming. I caught this production in its shortened one-night revival at Cineworld in an NT Live broadcast and found it thrilling, funny and moving. Film and TV versions have been shy of using Charlotte Bronte’s over-wrought language but the cast here delivered many “quotations” with energy.
Total Theatre
With a utilitarian stage of ladders, windows, bars and ramps, the space reflected the struggles in the novel between survival, aspiration, barriers and hope. The music underscored the emotions and surprised at times with blues versions of Noël Coward’s Mad About the Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. Melanie Mason, in a vivid red dress, sang out Bertha Mason’s broken heart and somehow distilled the spirit of Jean Rhys’s Antoinette Cosway from Wide Sargasso Sea. The bristly charismatic Laura Elphinstone as Helen Burns, Adèle Varens and St John Rivers, the galumphing Craig Edwards as Pilot (the dog) and bass-toned Felix Hayes as the (in Charlotte’s words) the “strikingly peculiar” Rochester all shone in a multi-role cast that worked their socks off. And Madeleine Worrall tied everything together in her journey as Jane from stubborn, tormented child to passionate, free-spirited woman.
“Jane, be still; don't struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.""I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.”
London Road, The Rocky Horror Show, Hamlet, Hecuba, Antony and Cleopatra
Theatre in the Cinema
This year I’ve seen 8 theatre productions at the cinema and enjoyed every one – the price, the convenience, the close-ups, the clarity. I can’t see an argument against broadcasting live theatre and hope the practice continues. In terms of reaching audiences throughout the UK and the world, it is, it seems to me, a no-brainer. I’ve still managed to shell out for 24 live theatre events at the Alhambra in Bradford, at Leeds Arena, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in the West End of London and, most frequently, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon. So, from what I’ve experienced (and from what I’ve read) cinema broadcasts of theatre have not diminished theatre audiences and, in some cases, have given them a boost. Long may it continue. Best theatre of the year? Probably Jane Eyre at the cinema and, amongst live productions, a toss up between Oppenheimer and Death of a Salesman.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Oscar Wannabes

My film of the year: Brooklyn

Odeon Screen Unseen

This time last year I started going with the family to the Odeon Screen Unseen showings – usually Monday nights, usually critically acclaimed, usually £5 a ticket.  All good. The risk is you sit down not knowing what is going to come up on the screen! That way we got to see Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Selma, and It Follows last year – all fascinating in one or more ways. This week it was Room and when the title came up I was happy (and worried) because it was a book I had raced through earlier in the year, astonished at the tension built up by the narrative voice in Emma Donoghue’s novel. It could have gone either way.
Emma Donoghue, Jacob Tremblay, Brie Larson - Room
Room was excellent, I thought. The lean screenplay, the photography and editing, the final shot of the suburban garden in the snow…. All worthy of prizes but equally wonderful were the performances from the sublime Joan Allen as Nancy to the heroic Tom McCamus as Leo, from an intense William H Macy as Robert to Wendy Crewson as a devastatingly smooth TV interviewer – all cameos of great power. But could an Oscar nomination go to a 7-year old? Jacob Tremblay as Jack certainly goes through a convincing gamut of emotions in the film, spending half of the running time looking horribly ill. But I will be very surprised if Brie Larson isn’t nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She, I think, plays unpredictably, sometimes unsympathetically, maternal but highly-strung, dead-eyed but full of life force, strong and vulnerable – and at all times, in my opinion, playing truthfully to the dramatic situation.
In the Heart of the Sea, Murphy, Gleeson, Fairley, Whishaw, Hemsworth

In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard’s film about the loss of the whaling ship Essex and how it inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is less obviously award-winning except possibly in the special effects categories. I wasn’t bored but my daughter spoke the truth when she said it had elements of the cartoon version of Thumbelina – ie one disaster after another. Chris Hemsworth scrubs down well (and looks truly wasted at times) and Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson and Michelle Fairley can do no wrong in my eyes; as for Cillian Murphy, I would watch him read the phone directory. But there was something about the structure of the movie (the script, maybe?) that meant I cared very little about the outcome, though absolutely cheered for the whales (and excellent dolphin performances, too.) Oscars for the special effects, I think, and thank you to Cineworld who presented this in an early Secret Screening!
Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mr Holmes, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Ex Machina

My Oscar hopes

My film (and book) of the year has been Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and I will be delighted if it wins every award going; if it wins nothing, I won’t care because it’s permanently lodged in my psyche. I also enjoyed Bridge of Spies, Carol, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mr Holmes, Inside Out, Ex Machina, Diary of a Teenage Girl and Steve Jobs. I’ve yet to see (but am looking forward to) Spotlight, The Revenant, The Danish Girl, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight and Trumbo.  I would definitely add Room to my list of great films of the year now, if only for Brie Larson’s performance. I’m already booked in (twice) to see a galaxy far, far away but will be going with phantom trepidation as much as new hope….

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Secret Santa

Alex in Wonderland....
Christmas and New Year
I think I might have broken free of the academic year cycle. Approaching this year’s season of good will I have a definite sense that I am approaching the end of the year, a chance to reflect, look back and look forward. I spent the best part of 50 years thinking of September as the beginning of the year and August as the end of the year. From 1985 when I started teaching in secondary schools, the beginning of the year switched to A Level results day – usually the third Thursday in August – from that point on a new school/teaching/working year began…. But no longer. January is (for me now) the beginning of the New Year. I feel glad about that.
Christmas Dinner Number One: Joyce, Janet, Michael, Emily, Harriet, Sally

Secret SantaLast weekend I had my first Christmas dinner courtesy of our friends in Badby. A log fire, great company, a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company for Wendy and Peter Pan and Secret Santa presents (now half way through Srsly Hamlet and playing regularly, perhaps more than I should, with my wind-up toy of Shakespeare.)

My Secret Santa presents!

Origins of December 25th becoming Christmas DayI’ve been reading quite a bit of Bernard Cornwell recently – borrowed from the library.  His Stonehenge and the trilogy about King Arthur, The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur have been fascinating about the way early Christianity compromised with paganism in order to increase followers. Choosing December 25th as the Nativity of Jesus was a canny move on the part of the early church to get pagans on board. It happened to be the birthday of Mithras, the Indo-Persian-Roman Sun God (belief in whom stretched back to 1500BC and who had a virgin birth, recruited 12 disciples, was born in a manger, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and visited by shepherds, became a travelling preacher doing miracles, promoted baptism, had Sunday as a sacred day, was described as the “Way, the Truth and the Light of the World,” who ascended to heaven and who died to save the world.) December 25th was also near the winter solstice which had long been a time for Celts and Vikings to bring greenery into the house, to wander through fields and orchards singing songs (carols) to ward away evil spirits and guarantee a good harvest and burn (Old Norse) Yule logs on the fire to gather families and friends together. The date was also near Saturnalia, the Roman feast of gift-giving, candle-lighting, mistletoe-hanging (to promote fertility) and feasting. Even further back December 25th was also the birthdate of the Ancient Egyptian god, Horus.

Pretty pagan but no less wonderful for that.  Joyce off to Canons Ashby

So when was the historical Jesus born?
Historians use a number of factors to seek an accurate birth date for the historical preacher who became known as Jesus of Nazareth:

  • non-Christian historical evidence from Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud, the Greek satirist Lucian 
  • the gospel accounts of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke
  • the reign of Emperor Augustus
  • the reign (and known death date) of Herod the Great
  • the census of Syrian governor Quirinius
  • the conception of John the Baptist (since there are records of his father Zacharias who was a temple priest
  • the likelihood of shepherds being on the hills watching their flocks on December 25th (nil likelihood)
  • the possibility that the star followed by the Magi was in fact an astronomical phenomenon. 
Dates suggested range from 12BC to 1AD, usually narrowed down to 6BC to 3BC and the months have been (most convincingly) suggested as May, June or September.  But I can’t see the Christian world ever changing the date of Christmas day any day soon…. But then again, I imagine the medieval world would never imagine a King of England would one day create a breakaway church because he wanted to get divorced. One teacher at my (Roman Catholic) primary school called the Church of England – “The Henry the Eighth Club” like it was a hobby rather than a religion….
Old Norse tradition or Victorian Germanic import? - it smells good!

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Whatever the origins, I find it impossible not to enjoy the Christmas season, as long as I can avoid thinking about it before December 1st and as long as, at least once, I can watch White Christmas and, like Bing Crosby, count my blessings.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

They shall have good luck

Chris, cousin Ann and Mum, December 2013 and December 2014

White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits

I said it on Tuesday 1st December, of course, prompted by my brother’s reminder on Facebook…. It’s become a regular thing. Something that my Mum used to always say. And now Chris does. Every month. On the 1st of the month. I wonder how many people say it. And why they do.

Lost in Legend

There are other variations of “White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits.” Some people insist on “Rabbits, Rabbits, Rabbits.” Or “Pinch, Punch, First of the Month” along with a pinch and a punch. And in the West Country, apparently, you can retaliate to “Pinch, Punch….” with a swift and well-aimed “A Flick and a Kick for being so Quick.” But I grew up with the triple White Rabbits. So where did the phrase come from?
  • The internet reveals the uncorroborated claim that RAF pilots would always say it before every flight, though not why rabbits and not why white…. 
  • Some scholars think it’s connected to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and the fact that Lewis Carroll knew some Hebrew and the Hebrew saying “Have a great month” when transliterated verbally sounds a bit like “White Rabbits.” 
  • Some believe it’s connected to fertility and wishing parents would have good luck getting pregnant because rabbits are notoriously fertile.

Double Double Toil and Trouble

As a child I thought it was something to do with guarding against the power of witches. I think the “Pinch, Punch….” saying might be connected to this too, as a pinch of salt was used in medieval times to ward away witches. I thought white rabbits were something kindly magicians made use of (appearing out of top hats, for example), so rabbits, I reasoned as a child, would be a good charm to counteract the creatures that I understood witches used. My primary knowledge of witchcraft came from the Weird Sisters in Macbeth and they make use of cats, hedge-pigs, toads, snakes, adders, blind-worms, lizards, owlets, dragons, wolves, sharks, goats, tigers and baboons, not to mention the body parts of Jews, Turks and Tartars or a "finger of birth-strangled babe"…. Three times White Rabbits was the very least protection you needed, I imagined….

Was there ever man had such luck!

Cloten says "Was there ever man had such luck!" in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline but a few scenes later Cloten has been beheaded. He needed some more potent signs of luck: a black cat, a horseshoe, a money spider, a 4-leaf clover, maybe? Touching wood, knocking on wood or shaking hands with a chimney sweep? Seeing two magpies or admiring a rainbow? Catching falling leaves? Crossing your fingers? Throwing salt over your shoulder?

Now, by the gods, I pity his misfortune

King Simonides pities the misfortunes of Pericles and within a few lines the unfortunate guy is rewarded with a new bride and (eventually) a happy end. Plenty of misery before his happy ending but no tangible signs of bad luck: new shoes on the table, for example. Opening an umbrella indoors. Seeing one lone magpie. Friday the Thirteenth. Cracking a mirror. Walking under a ladder. Spilling salt (before throwing some over your shoulder to counteract the misfortune.)

Just to be on the safe side

So it could go either way, it seems. Cloten thought he was a lucky man and lost his head; Pericles suffered blow after blow and got a happy ending. Better just say “White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits” in case. And try to remember to say it first thing before you say anything else…. Here’s to good luck for all in December!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Hey, Boo

Geoffrey Brindle, "Bradford Jesus" - photo and portrait by Gary Beck

I just like walking

Earlier this year, Geoffrey Brindle died. Not a famous man outside West Yorkshire, but he was a very distinctive man who invariably smiled, often waved, and when asked “Why do you live the way you do?” (ie walking the streets of Bradford in a cassock), he replied “I just like walking.” Geoffrey died in hospital in August 2015, having fallen at home. He was probably 88 years old. He has been called various names over the years – Bradford Jesus, the Jesus Man, the Mad Monk, the Bradford Monk, the Airedale Monk, the Bradford Hermit, Holy Joe, Moses, Happy Harry – but all the tributes to him in the local newspaper when he died were positive and came from around the world. And came from people of all faiths and from people of no faith.

Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird….

Like Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, Geoffrey Brindle shied away from the limelight. He was known to run away from journalists seeking interviews. He would never answer questions about himself directly. Rumours remained rumours: rumours about his extended family, rumours that he was escaping from a childhood trauma, or a rumour that shoe companies wanted to sponsor him, or rumours that he had magical healing powers or was a wizard! He remained mysterious because the only encounters anyone had with him involved him smiling warmly, being encouraging, giving time and attention….

Rumour doth double, like the voice and echo….*
(from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two)
Did he meditate in a cave near Settle for 12 days in the 1960s having left his job in a factory? Did he have a wife and children? Was he born in Derbyshire? What were his motivations? There are many testaments to his willingness to talk to people, especially anyone who was upset or in trouble. Social workers in Bradford mention how helpful he was with families in distress. He would sit, drink tea, listen…. Why did he live the way he did?
Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.

Small acts of kindness

My last blog celebrated unhistoric acts – and Geoffrey Brindle seemed to be one of those people. There is talk of naming a new street “Brindle Walk” – a fitting tribute to someone who was forever putting one foot in front of another come rain, come shine, come snow, come fog…. Why did he live a life so unencumbered by material goods? Why was he so generous with his smiles and waves? For at least 50 years in and around Bradford? Why Bradford? Somehow his life gives me hope. Persuades me that life-affirming people will win. Reminds me to keep alive what matters. RIP, Geoffrey. Smile and wave.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Small acts of kindness

Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Miranda Raison in The Winter's Tale

Paulina in The Winter’s Tale

Last weekend I saw The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre in London (to be broadcast this evening in cinemas.) The character of Paulina is one of the most extraordinary in literature and I wanted to see the show live because one of my favourite actors, Judi Dench, is currently playing the role. Paulina behaves without regard to her own safety, life or convenience – and Judi Dench catches her sense of humour, her courage, her loyalty and, when needed, her blazing anger. It is hard to behave with absolute conviction the whole time. Most of us (me certainly) regularly compromise, regularly miss opportunities, regularly see both sides of an argument.


The end of The Winter’s Tale (like those other great Late Romances of Shakespeare, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Tempest) is suffused with redemption and forgiveness. Hard-won lessons are learned, families learn to forgive and the future, though potentially painful, is a bit more hopeful. We are all in charge of our own reactions and responses to everything that happens. It astonishes me when suffering family members forgive terrorists and murderers who have slain their loved ones. In doing so, though, they are controlling their own futures, so I can appreciate why they choose forgiveness rather than revenge. I don’t know if I could.

Even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you

Khalil Gibran’s quotation above is from a lengthier one on “Love.” The idea is well-known – if you love someone you open yourself to being hurt. Why does anyone do it? Victor Hugo in Les Miserables promoted “small acts of kindness” as one of the keys to happiness:
You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving. The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness. We pardon to the extent that we love. Love is knowing that even when you are alone, you will never be lonely again. A great happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved. Loved for ourselves. And even loved in spite of ourselves.
Book illustrations, stage and film versions of Les Miserables

Unhistoric acts

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Dorothea is the heroine that, like Paulina in Winter’s Tale, is a model for our time. Do one good thing. Then another. Then another.
Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better….
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
How many small acts of kindness have we had done for us in our lives? Who did them? How many small acts of kindness can we do tomorrow?
Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea in the BBC version of Middlemarch

Friday, 20 November 2015

Iron Tree

If this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating

“Art” is a curious thing. When teaching General Studies I remember asking students to identify as many different branches of the arts as they could. We usually came up with a list that included painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photography, film production, architecture, literature (poetry, drama and prose), music, dance, performance art and multi-media art. Do computer games count as art? Software programmes? Interior design? Furniture-making? Where does “craft” end and “art” begin? The Arts and Crafts movement (c1880 – c1920) suggested the distinction was unhelpful and I currently agree. If there is an aesthetic quality to something that has been made by a human, then I think it can be considered art if there is someone willing to look at it with some level of concentration.

The art itself is nature

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a wonderful place to see works of art, surrounded by nature, sometimes pretending to be nature. It is easy to walk past everything there passively seeing but not thinking. But I love to engage my brain with questions. What does it remind me of? What does it make me think? What does it make me feel? What did the artist intend? How precise is it in construction, shape or colour? What are the proportions of the object or the space around it? What are the textures of the piece? What is its mood? How was it made? How long will it last? Will everyone feel the same about it? Will its meaning change over time?

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree is one of my favourite sculptures at the park. The prominent nuts and bolts suggest (to me) industry and history. I like to think the interconnected pieces relate to world harmony, working together and my favourite motto (from EM Forster’s Howard’s End) – Only Connect. I’ve read that Weiwei was inspired to creat the sculpture by the street vendors who sold wood in southern China. But at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park I can’t help feel that the setting of the Iron Tree inside a chapel garden reflects spiritual rather than commercial ideas. It reminds me of the Stark’s Godswood in Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Falling Leaves Like Snowflakes

In their beauty strewed

Margaret Cole campaigned against conscription in the First World War. It was a deeply unpopular stance but then she was a very unconventional woman: a socialist, atheist and pacifist in a very “traditional” era.

Her poem The Falling Leaves is one of the classic War Poems, one I always enjoyed teaching because of its sound and rhythm as much as its content.

The Falling Leaves
by Margaret Postgate Cole 

November 1915

Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay

Fathomless Eyes

W N Hodgson was warded the Military Cross in 1915. He had been killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. His poem Glimpses was written in June 1914.

by W N Hodgson

I saw you fooling often in the tents
With fair dishevelled hair and laughing lips,
And frolic elf lights in your careless eyes,
As who had never known the taste of tears
Or the world's sorrow. Then on the march one night,
Halted beneath the stars I heard the sound
Of talk and laughter, and glanced back to see
If you were there. But you stood far apart
And silent, bowed upon your rifle butt,
And gazed into the night as one who sees.
I marked the drooping lips and fathomless eyes
And knew you brooded on immortal things.