Wednesday, 30 September 2015

One step at a time

Attention must be paid

As Mark Forster eloquently explained (click to see blog here) you can only change things by Giving Attention to them.

Destroying a shed

Having decided to take down the wooden playhouse in the garden (to chop up for firewood for our stove…. gotta budget now we’re retired and make use of everything!...) it didn’t seem possible that it would ever be finished. It took three of us the best part of a week to deconstruct a roof, two floors joined by a ladder, four walls and a door. Many splinters later and having acquired aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had, today the final kindling was transferred to the cellar. God knows how many nails were claw-hammered out.
Courtesy of David Wolfe's Facebook posts

One step at a time

The biggest of tasks can be completed with a will and a willingness to surrender yourself to the time and attention it takes. One step at a time. The following quotation has been ascribed to both Henry Ford and Albert Einstein - it resonates with me every time I feel uncertain about doing something different.

Free scope

In All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s most under-rated plays, the complex and courageous Helena recognizes that if she remains “dull” (passive, inactive) then she will not be able to determine her own destiny; she has free scope and decides to find a remedy within herself.
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie 
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky 
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull 
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
Judi Dench as the Countess and Claudie Blakley as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Constant as the northern star....

Saltaire Festival

Saltaire Festival

A few times a year Saltaire, where I live, holds a street and park festival with beer tents, food stalls, craft and vintage stalls, live music and street performers. Some years there are arts trails, open garden trails and in recent years in the build-up to Christmas there has been a Window Advent Calendar hunt. All these events bring out the creative best in local people and the atmosphere is generally fantastic although the Festival now is a huge and crowded event and seems to get bigger every year. I am as proud of my adopted home, Saltaire, as I am of my birth city of Wakefield.

Proud of Wakefield

Wakefield Cathedral

Growing up, I loved Wakefield. I loved the open fields near Eastmoor Estate, the sense of history with Sandal Castle and the chantry chapel, the cathedral, the parks, the opportunities for both sports and the arts; as a teenager I played rugby and acted in a local amateur dramatic society – an odd combo looking back. One of the constants about Yorkshire through my life has been how quickly you can get to places of interest and beauty.

Harewood House

Harewood House near Leeds

A place like Harewood House, for example, has so many quirky aspects: the beauty of the house and grounds; the Bird Garden (complete with penguins); the terrace art gallery and café; the display about Britain’s history of slavery; and the painting of the “Scandalous” Lady Worsley, recently portrayed in a BBC TV drama by Natalie Dormer.

East Riddlesden Hall

East Riddlesden Hall between Bingley and Keighley

Along the road from my house is the National Trust-run East Riddlesden Hall complete with a huge ancient barn, legends of hauntings, at least three stages of building and a riverside walk.

Jervaulx Abbey

Jervaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire

Further afield is the tranquility of one of the great ruined abbeys of the north. You can take your pick in Yorkshire from Bolton, Byfield, Coverham, Easby, Fountains, Jervaulx, Kirkham, Monk Bretton, Mount Grace, Rievaulx, Roche, Whitby and York St Mary’s. The pictures above are from Jervaulx but they all are atmospheric and peaceful  places to visit.

Middleham Castle

Middleham Castle, North Yorkshire

And not far from Jervaulx is my favourite Yorkshire castle, childhood home of Richard III, Middleham, maintained by English Heritage. I visited Leicester cathedral recently to see the new burial site of Richard but it is Middleham where his heart seems to have been and where his positive reputation remains intact.

Linda Thompson's statue of Richard III at Middleham Castle
I have posted the poem below in a previous blog, but I think it’s a superbly crafted piece of writing:

Richard by 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.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Ruby Wedding


Kublai Khan, the Chinese Emperor, wanted to swap a whole city for a magnficient ruby. It is the stone of kings and the queen of stones, the symbol of love and faithfulness, protection and prosperity. Ringo Starr and the other Beatles are chased around the world in the film Help! because Ringo is in possession of a sacrificial ruby ring. And ruby is the stone that commemorates 40 years of being married.  40 years! The current UK statistics are that 42% of marriages end in divorce, 34% of them by the 20th wedding anniversary – so 40 years is not insignificant and definitely worth celebrating.
Ringo Starr in Help!

Two of a pair

Mick n Jan, yin and yang
Antony, Cleo, Juliet, Romeo,
Tarzan and Jane, Venus and Mars,
Eric and Ernie, Adam and Eve,
Bed and breakfast, bread and butter,
Salt and pepper, fish and chips,
Rock and roll, in and out,
Up and down, twist and shout,
Cheese and pickle, pie and peas,
Day and night, left and right,
Hot and cold, brave and bold,
Give and take, an arm and a leg,
Near and far, high and low
Now and then, push and pull,
Forty Years On, They’re Going Strong,
Owl and pussycat, Lady and the Tramp,
A party gal and a bit of a scamp,
G and T, a pint or three,
Sun and moon, yin and yang,
My brother n his missus, Mick n Jan.
Family and friends at Mick and Jan's Ruby Wedding Party

"O my gentle brothers, Have we thus met?"

(from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline)

Worshipping older brothers was a feature of my childhood. My over-riding memory of Mick, my second brother, is of his kind and generous nature, his honesty and integrity and his modest calmness. Nothing’s changed. It was to Mick and Jan’s Ruby Wedding Anniversary Party I went last Saturday night.
Blasts from the past....


Families are extraordinary. There is so much shared history, so much shared joy and pain, and when you assemble in a big group – often for celebrations but occasionally for funerals – you want to ask everything and ask nothing, you want to tell everything and tell nothing. It almost doesn’t matter what’s said because the family is part of you and you are part of it. Family exists as a community concept – the blood relations who are connected by marriage and birth. And then there are other people who become part of the family by marrying in, or people who become part of the family because they spend so much time with you they are almost like family anyway. They are all “part of the furniture” of your heart and brain, your guts and soul.


One of my favourite retirement hobbies is creating a timeline for everything that has ever happened. Ever. It is a bottomless pit of a hobby but I am enjoying seeing the historical connections between things.
  • The first item on the list is 13.7 billion years BC – the Big Bang.
  • In 1960 I record that I was born.
  • In 2015 I note that on 12th September Mick and Jan held their Ruby Wedding Anniversary Party
Mick and Jan are on the same timeline as
  • the French Revolution (1789 – 1799)
  • the death of Shakespeare (23rd April 1616 – and of course I’m over-excited about the 400th anniversary commemorations of Shakespeare’s death next year) and
  • the first Olympic Games in 776 BC
We’re all on each other’s timelines, muddled in with Emperors and Clowns, Popes and Vagabonds, Warrior-women and Mothers of Messiahs, simultaneously important in immediate personal terms and insignificant in cosmic terms.


It is a bit haphazard the way I am adding to the timeline but I suppose the focus is on Major Historical Events and how they relate to Literary and Cultural Landmarks. Who knew, for example, that there were three major extinction events before 1 million BC? Or that Captain Cook was exploring Australasia when David Garrick was initiating the first Shakespeare Jubilee celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon? Or that Jane Austen’s Emma was published in the same year as the Battle of Waterloo?

Does anyone care?
Probably not, but “doing my timeline” keeps me out of trouble, off the streets. And in keeping my brain and imagination ticking, I hope I’ll be celebrating a Ruby Wedding Anniversary one day…. Ten years to go…. Pearl for Sally and me next year….

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Provoking the Desire

Plenty of Henrys

Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, another vivid image of an English drinker is Henry VIII. He was clearly a man of enormous appetites. He loved wine and ale, not to mention food, sport, music and women. There have been plenty of fictional Henry VIIIs apart from Shakespeare’s version in All Is True. Hilary Mantel created a vivid Henry in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, as did Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl. I also vividly remember Keith Michell in 1970 in the BBC’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Richard Burton in 1969 in Anne of the Thousand Days and Robert Shaw dueling with Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1966.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in The Tudors, Sid James in Carry on Henry and Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII have all made their mark in popular culture.
Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, Charles Laughton, Richard Griffiths, Nat Parker, Keith Michell, Damien Lewis

A few other vivid drinkers in Literature

Michael Henchard in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge starts the novel sozzled in Furmity (milk and raisins mixed with rum) – and then promptly sells his wife to a sailor, a startling beginning to a novel. Dick Diver in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night – starts as a successful playboy and ends in a drunken stupor. On stage Maggie and Brick in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are earlier incarnations in their drinking battles of Martha and George from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; both are memorable and sympathetic couples, in spite of their intoxication. Dickens created the unforgettable image in A Tale of Two Cities of the Parisians desperately lapping up spilled wine in the streets and even squeezing wine-soaked handkerchiefs into the mouths of infants, prefiguring the later puddles of guillotine blood. He also gave us the tragic Mrs Blackpool’s alcoholism in Hard Times and the comic Mrs Gamp’s gin-swilling in Martin Chuzzlewit.
Mrs Blackpool and Mrs Gamp

Days of dirty water

Where does the British love of alcohol come from? In medieval times alcohol was indispensible because safe drinking water was a rare commodity. If you lived near a source of fresh spring water you were lucky but most medieval folk (rich and poor alike) relied on:
  • home or locally-brewed concoctions of weak or strong wine 
  • mead (using honey or fruits)
  • cider (using different fruits) and
  • different kinds of ale or beer. Beer had many variations by the time of the guzzling Tudors and nicknames inevitably sprouted, for example: 
  • mad dog beer
  • dagger ale
  • tooth rot brew
  • dragon’s milk
  • double double beer (double double beer was eventually banned by Elizabeth I as it caused such riotous behaviour by all accounts; an early example of prohibition)

    Wine, women and song

Heavy drinking and drunken revelry is not a modern phenomenon: there are references to bacchanalian orgies of drinking in classical Greece and Rome; we know that the Chinese developed rice wines in ancient dynasties; the Vikings enjoyed pouring horns of plenty into their gullets; and even Noah in the Bible inspired artistic depictions of his fall from grace after too much celebration following the appearance of the rainbow.

The First Hangover (Genesis 18 – 24)

Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth came out of the ark…. and from them the whole earth was populated. Noah, a farmer, made a new start and planted a vineyard. He drank too much of the wine, became drunk, took off his clothes and lay down in the middle of his tent. Ham, Canaan’s father, walked into the tent and saw his father’s genitals and told his two brothers who were outside. Shem and Japeth took a large robe, threw it over their shoulders, walked backward, and covered their naked father without looking at him because they turned away. When Noah sobered up from his wine, he discovered what his youngest son had seen...
The Drunkenness of Noah by Bernardo Cavalino

“It provokes the desire but takes away the performance….”

So spake the Porter in Macbeth.
“Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things . . . nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
Times past and times present are not that different in terms of alcohol. It can lead to disaster, violence and death in some cases. It can also lead to happy times of great joy. On the one hand it’s a toxic, calorific, liver-destroying, addictive, hangover-provoking, sleep-disrupting activity that affects your judgement, perception and performance. On the other hand it can reduce stress, reveal truths, dilate blood vessels, promote socializing, improve the taste and digestion of meals, enhance friendship and lead to a more contented state of mind. I suppose you need to choose your drinking companions and moderate your intake. Then all will be well with the world. Cheers.

Friday, 4 September 2015

"Come Crush A Cup Of Wine"

First and Second Elizabethan Ages - "Tavern Brawls"

I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking*

(* Cassio from Shakespeare’s Othello)
In my previous blog I sung the praises of BritWit extraordinaire, Adrian Smith, enthusiastic oenophile. It was easy to celebrate the wine-tasting experience by recalling Shakespeare quotations about drinking, given his plays are riddled with references to quaffing. Alcohol is everywhere. I’ve known plenty of people in my life who struggled (and struggle) to moderate drinking. And I’ve never been one to preach since I’ve got my own over-eating disorders and addictions. Modern society is rife with the tussle to control consumption, whether of material goods or of addictive food and drugs.
Nights out that didn't end so well....

Thou'rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink*

(* Sir Toby Belch from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night)
I know I drank too much beer and lager as a teenager and sometimes also at university. Some weekends now definitely involve way too much wine, but the fact is that “crushing a cup of wine” (as the Capulet servant invites Romeo to do) is a very sociable and enjoyable thing to do. Throughout history and literature, wine (and beer) have been constant presences in British life.

Come, I will go drink with you*

(* Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff)
I included an image of the gloriously ignominious and indisputably English Falstaff at the end of the last blog. He only appeared in three of Shakespeare’s plays and his death is described in a fourth. (Falstaff appears in Henry IV Parts One and Two as well as in The Merry Wives of Windsor and his death is described by Mistress Quickly in Henry V.) Falstaff certainly dominates Shakespearean images of drinking.
Paola Dionisotti as Mistress Quickly and Antony Sher as Falstaff
The loyal Mistress Quickly even subscribes drink to improving his health and temper, though, alas, she recognizes he has had too much in Henry IV Part Two:

MISTRESS QUICKLY (to Falstaff): I' faith, sweetheart, methinks now you are in an excellent good temperality: your pulsidge beats as extraordinarily as heart would desire; and your colour, I warrant you, is as red as any rose, in good truth, la! But, i' faith, you have drunk too much canaries; and that's a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say 'What's this?'
Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly and Simon Callow as Falstaff

Drink a health to me*

(* Petruchio from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew)
There are many “feasts” in Shakespeare that involve wine (Romeo and Juliet springs to mind) but there are a few key scenes where the drinking starts in a light-hearted way but leads to horrible consequences for one or more of the characters. Timon’s guests eat and drink to financial disaster in Timon of Athens. Trinculo and Stephano get Caliban blind drunk in The Tempest.  Lepidus is the butt of the Romans’ jokes in Antony and Cleopatra’s drinking scene, though it marks a deeper humiliation for Octavius too.
Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Othello and Timon of Athens

I'll drink no more than will do me good*

(* Mistress Quickly in Henry IV Part Two)
Did the actor who first played Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra also play Cassio in Othello since that scene’s drunken military orgy, orchestrated by Iago, portrays a similarity between what happens to Octavius and the downfall of Cassio – a man desperate to fit in with “the lads” who then drinks too much and suffers later. Did Shakespeare get carried away once too often in the taverns of Stratford and London? Did drink pay a large part in the accidental death/murder/assassination/skirmish in Deptford that ended Kit Marlowe’s life? The scenes in Antony and Cleopatra and Othello are such vivid lad-drinking scenes that Shakespeare must have experienced out-of-control drunkenness in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
The death of Christopher Marlowe - "a Great Reckoning in a Little Room"

These clothes are good enough to drink in*

(* Sir Toby Belch from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night)
Falstaff’s nearest rival for Top Drunk in Shakespeare’s work is Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Toby utters the immortal line to the Puritan Malvolio who tries to stop the drunken revelry:
TOBY BELCH (to Malvolio): Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
The old reprobate, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Nigth

There is no doubt the audience are on Toby Belch’s side at this point in the play, even though the sound of drunks when you are trying to get to sleep can be disturbing. As with every theme he covered, Shakespeare presents two sides to the human condition – “good company, good wine, good welcome/Can make good people” is the belief of Guildford in Henry VIII. Cassio in Othello has another perspective on alcohol: “O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!”

Drinking Philosophy 

by Terry Pratchett’s Death and Albert:

Albert: "Oh, yes, sir. But alcohol sort of compensates for not getting them.”
Death and Terry Pratchett and an idyllic view of drinking....