Tuesday, 31 March 2015


A sense of homecoming
Dunstanburgh Castle

Other than Yorkshire, there are a few places in the world that give me a sense of homecoming.
the Bay of Naples in Italy
the Acropolis in Athens
Wengen in Switzerland
all a result of formative holidays.  The former two, of course, have cultural resonances from reading, research and imaginative flights of fantasy.
Coast near Craster

In England the places I often think of as "home are:

  • the Cotswolds (Badby and Stratford-upon-Avon in particular) and
  • areas of London (the South Bank for example)
Places I have lived all have wedges of "home" cut into my soul:
Wakefield (for the first 18 years of my life)
Manchester (for four years of university experience)
Helsinki (for a vivid year of teaching English to adults in professional settings)
Sheffield (for my teacher training year)
Leek (in North Staffordshire where my first job was)
Bingley (where we lived when we returned to Yorkshire)
Saltaire, Shipley, Bradford (where I have lived since 1991)
Seascape in Craster, Northumberland

Home is where your loved ones are…?In an earlier blog (here) I reflected that “home is where the heart is and that is usually where your loved ones are.”  But maybe it’s more complicated than that – certain places do take a heart-hold and, for me, Northumbria is one such place.

Where is Northumbria?

In the Dark Ages it probably meant Bernicia and Deira taking in everything on the East Coast of England from the Humber to the Firth of Forth in Scotland.  Today I think it is a tourist board denotation of the combined counties of the northern part of North Yorkshire, the counties of Durham, Tyne and Wear, Cumbria and Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.

Memories of Northumbria

During my university years I stayed in Whitley Bay with a friend to see the Royal Shakespeare Company season of plays at the Newcastle Theatre Royal, Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) and the  Gulbenkian Studio Theatre.  I visited Tynemouth Priory and parts of the coast around the city up there.  Since then I have visited Northumbria to moderate Drama in secondary schools, en route to and returning from Scotland and staying in different places for weeks at a time drinking in the sights and smells of this ancient-feeling world.
The walk between Craster and Embleton Bay

Places and topics I’ve visited up there in the past include: the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Alnwick Castle, Brinkburn Priory, Chillingham Castle, Cragside, Edlingham Castle, the Farne Islands, Hexham Abbey, Housesteads, Seaton Delaval Hall, Wallington Hall, Warkworth Castle.  They are places that conjure the ghosts of Saints Edwin, Oswald, Aiden and Cuthbert; the Picts, the Vikings, the Romans and the Border Reivers. All catnip for me.
The North Sea and Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall

First holiday in term time

So recently we spent a week – the first time in my whole 54 year life on holiday during a school term – staying at Craster with its monolithic mini-harbour mouth, its fish smokery and its excellent pub, the Jolly Fisherman.  We stayed in a cottage right by the pounding North Sea in a week that was often misty and breezy but was sometimes sunny and clear.  On the last day we got tremendous views of the near-total eclipse of the sun from the back garden of Seascape, our accommodation.
Belsay Castle, Hall and Gardens

The beaches in Northumberland stretch for miles, the castles perch precipitously on headlands, the cliff tops and dunes are atmospheric. Trips to the Chester Roman Fort, Belsay Hall and Gardens, the Grace Darling Museum, Barter Books and Dunstanburgh Castle were “events” in the week, along with Fish-n-chips in Seahouses and picnics with Prosecco amongst the dunes, but the abiding memory is of the massive northern horizons, the smell of the seaweed and smokery, the sound of the repetitive crashing waves and the Rest. Glorious Rest.
Barter Books in Alnwick and Sally's birthday on the beach at Bamburgh

All photos by Harriet
All photos by Harriet

Being Human

We listened to compilation CDs or Alan Bennett stories in the car, played Cards Against Humanity, watched Being Human and drank too much wine.  But those convivial evenings were well-deserved after every day hoisting on the backpack full of coffee, water, sarnies and snacks and setting off for another Northumbrian experience.  Being Human, indeed….
The final day - eclipse and the Angel of the North

All photos by Harriet
All photos by Harriet

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Who Murdered the Princes in the Tower?

The Return of the King

I couldn’t help being glued to the saga of the discovery of the bones of Richard III.  Philippa Langley’s Looking for Richard project demonstrated a tenacity and meticulousness that leaves me in utter admiration.
Philippa Bailey, 

The king in the car park

Channel 4’s documentary about the finding of the bones of Richard in the remains of the Greyfriars Priory was a riveting account, I thought, of English doggedness and sheer fluke.  The moments of revelation were handled well and the “host” Simon Farnaby delivered his dry and charming commentary with sensitivity and flashes of grim humour – “If that isn’t Richard III, that’s one unlucky monk!”
Jacqui Binns with her funeral pall

Shakespearean spin
As a lifelong Shakespeare devotee, should I be huffing and puffing like the pantomime historian, David Starkey, and trying to denigrate the Ricardians who were all anxious to give the bones a reinterment with honour and dignity?  Would any deviation from the Tudor view of the “poisonous bunchbacked toad” undermine Shakespeare’s brilliant creation?
Ian McKellen, Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, Jonjo O'Neill

Sharon Penman
Since reading Sharon Penman’s evocative fictionalised account of Richard’s life and seeing the Shakespeare Histories Octology staged in all its glory (five times now) I am an avid reader of Wars of the Roses material.  Growing up nearby – and regularly visiting – Sandal Castle in Wakefield also has something to do with my obsession with the Yorkist cause, I’m sure.
One of my favourite books

History is bunk – and marvellous at the same time
I wrote in an earlier blog (here) about my feelings about History.  No way can we ever truly know about the motivations and actions of anybody, let alone a long-dead historical figure.  Every bit of evidence will be tainted with bias.  Even recent figures (wholly alive) are elusive – and will remain so.  Who can prove with absolute certainty what motivated Tony Blair’s thoughts and actions during his time as Prime Minister?  There will be as many interpretations as there are commentators and even Tony B's own memory and brain will fashion and refashion what happened and how and why.  History is a narrative construct; all evidence is interpretative.

I find the Sharon Penman view of Richard III the most persuasive.  (Any work that explore four brothers is bound to get me – as I discovered when I read The Queen of Air and Darkness.)  Her sympathetic Richard, loyal to the north of England, and a loving brother, husband and father, is completely at odds with Shakespeare’s character of Richard III.  But Shakespeare’s “bottled spider” is a fictional villain, a study in tyranny and a theatrical tour de force.  I don’t watch Julius Caesar or Macbeth expecting a documentary study of those rulers.  Cleopatra in history, I’m 100% sure, was nothing like the Shakespearean character in Antony and Cleopatra.

So thank you to all those who contributed to the honour and dignity of bringing Richard’s bones to a more dignified resting place.  Of course I would have favoured a reinterment in York Minster – and I would have attended myself if it had been at Middleham Castle.  Where he belongs.  But I can accept him being in Leicester for all kinds of reason – I hope Richard’s presence there gives the city a boost.  That would chime with what I believe about Richard III’s sense of justice.  He knows Yorkshire loves him….  
Middleham Castle, a Ricardian paradise
Who murdered the Princes in the Tower?
Buckingham is a likely contender but my understanding of the time – and my reading of the evidence – points to the supporters of Henry VII.  Did they act on his orders?  Did Buckingham do the dirty on behalf of Henry VII?  Did the older boy die, and the younger boy survive to become Perkin Warbeck?  We will never know.  But we will never know, either, that Richard III definitively ordered their deaths.  Anyone expressing absolute certainty is simply giving an interpretation.  J’accuse Buckingam/Henry VII!  Final words to the brilliant Carol Ann Duffy:


My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; you own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Friday, 27 March 2015

Who Murdered Rick Toad?

So there was an invitation….

To Rick Toad’s Mansion.

And the guests were welcomed….

With protection from paparazzi and a thousand candles.

The places were set….

And mysterious Madame Velda tried to reassure cocky Jayne (Wayne) Fonda of her powers to predict the future.

Spirits were high….

Mae Vest, Marlon Mean, Rock Houston, Princess Grace of Ruritania and Marilyn Mansfield joined Madame Velda and Jayne (Wayne) Fonda.

Despite the frothing bubbly….
They all learned that successful agent to the stars, Rick Toad, the “Most Powerful Man In Entertainment,” had been found floating in the swimming pool surrounded by red roses. As Warwick intones in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part One: "You see what mischief and what murder too / Hath been enacted...."

Who Murdered Rick Toad?

The Goldfinger Food, Cecil Beef DeMillionaire, Rebel Potatoes Without A Cause, Broccoli Named Desire, Some Like It Jus, Sunset Jellovard and Dial S For Strawberry did nothing to alleviate the tension as clue after clue, drink after drink, accusation after accusation and revelation after sordid revelation ratcheted up the tension.  Luckily the murderer was unmasked before the end of the night but discretion – and a forthcoming trial – means I could not possibly say who perpetrated the dastardly deed….