Friday, 29 January 2016

Give Me A Bowl Of Wine

Adrian Smith, family and friends

Give me a bowl of wine

Brutus’s full line to Cassius in Julius Caesar is “Give me a bowl of wine; in this I bury all unkindness.” Wine in Shakespeare is often shared between characters who are healing rifts or expressing friendship. Over the years I have enjoyed some very jolly wine-consuming occasions with friends like the Tuffnells and the Lancelots who all appreciate a hearty glug. The latest wine-tasting with online Drink Me magazine’s, Adrian Smith, took place in his stylish Leeds city centre offices towards the end of 2015.

Unpretentious quaffing

The beauty of Adrian’s “sessions” (apart from the relaxed company and excellent nibbles) is that he loves wine and encourages an enthusiastic approach to sampling, especially new wines that he has discovered on his international travels. I’ve learned how to release the aroma of wine through gadgets, decanting and swirling glasses; and I’ve learned about the body of a wine, the fruitiness or sweetness of wine, the acidity and the tannins. But more important than any of the imaginative and bizarre words to describe the taste and smell of wine is the answer to the simple question – “Do you enjoy drinking it?” Context is everything. Cheap plonk looking across the Bay of Naples can taste just as lovely as expensive wine in a local restaurant. Cheap fizz on a birthday beach picnic can be just as delicious as posh champagne.

Give me some wine and let me speak a little

The above line is the line that follows Antony’s “I am dying, Egypt, dying” just before Antony’s death in the arms of Cleopatra. Apparently alcohol is a common request on death beds, almost as frequent as calling for loved ones and praying to God. Rarely do people think of anything especially witty to say – but a glass of wine or a splash of gin brings immediate comfort and no doubt memories of convivial times with family and friends. 50 years after Shakespeare died, the Rev John Ward, vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, relates that the night before he died (in 1616, 400 years ago this year) Shakespeare had a drinking session with buddies playwright Ben Jonson and poet Michael Drayton. It’s hard after all this time to be sure of whether or not this was true, but since Shakespeare's plays and poems are filled with words and images of alcoholic drinks, I have no doubt that my boy Billy enjoyed a tipple. Here’s to the next wine-tasting. Cheers!

Friday, 22 January 2016

In the bleak midwinter

Boxing Day in the Black Rock in Wakefield

Everlasting bond of fellowship

In the parky January days it’s comforting to remember the gatherings over Christmas – on Boxing Day, Christmas Day and Christmas Eve. “Thy friendship makes us fresh,” wrote Shakespeare in the first of his Henry VI plays.

Christmas Eve with the Lancelot-Barr-Grady Brigade

Hot ice and wondrous strange snow

It was equally thrilling in the past week to have a couple of days with astonishing ice displays and snow effects. Crystal shards and heaps of snow painting blades of grass, decorating bare branches, enclosing frosty canals. Made a change from floods (see Year of the Flood blog here.) A few months from now (all being well) we will enjoy short sleeves and vitamin D, but currently it’s invigorating to tread gingerly on the frozen footpaths, slippery towpaths, icy highways and bitterly-cold byways.
Top two pictures by Harriet

Red blood reigns in the winter’s pale

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus sings about the mysteries of nature, how even in the depths of winter, blood pumps through the veins (“Red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.”) Bulbs sprout through snow. The depths of winter contain the promise of spring. “What is six winters?” asks John of Gaunt in Richard II. “They are quickly gone.”

Frosty wind made moan

My (joint) favourite Christmas carol is the Holst setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter. (My other  favourite is God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.) I don’t know why In the Bleak Midwinter gets me so much: is it the tune? Or the fact that Rossetti is in my top five poets of all time? Or the final punchline in answer to the last verse’s question “What can I give Him?” – “Give my heart.”

Giving My Heart

This is my 18th month “retired from” teaching and at the turn of the year (Christmas/New Year) it’s a good time to look back and ponder. Since being retired I’ve noticed how much easier it is to tune in to other people without the distracting white noise of work, jobs, lists, tasks, schedules, phone calls, emails, annoyances, irritations, crises, plans, timetables, marking, deadlines…. How do teachers do it? How did I ever do it? I truly madly deeply don’t believe I could do it today – or tomorrow. I don’t understand how I managed to do it for 32 years. I see my career now as a period of near-insanity. I can’t decide whether this is a natural feeling common to all retired teachers, a stage of retirement-grief, or a transfer of guilty feelings about how much energy, time and attention teaching stole from me. I know, though, that it feels good to have reclaimed my heart and brain and soul and begin the process of  “seeing” again. Seeing family. Seeing friends. Seeing winter and imagining the promise of spring.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Burn, bonfires, clear and bright

Bonfire night at Bolton Abbey in 2015

Fire burns and cauldron bubble

No sooner does Bowie die, but so does the elegant and gorgeously-voiced Alan Rickman, an actor I’ve long admired on both stage and screen. And both aged 69. Uncanny. Coincidental. I first got to know Alan Rickman in the RSC season where he played Achilles in Troilus and Cressida and Jacques in As You Like It. As Jacques says to conclude the “All the World’s a Stage” speech:
                             Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Alan Rickman in As You Like It and Troilus and Cressida
One fire burns out another’s burning
Memories of last November have leapt into my blog. Something about burning as a ritual of moving on, purging, cleansing... When Benvolio says “One fire burns out another’s burning,” in Romeo and Juliet, he goes on to say that
One pain is lessen'd by another's anguish....
One desperate grief cures with another's languish:
Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.
Can we forget and burn away sorrows?
Does Alan Rickman’s death mean Bowie’s is less painful? Should the deaths of famous people affect an ordinary person at all? The ending of Shelley's short but perfectly formed poem Ozymandias captures the sense of life's futility:
                                     Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Why pictures of 2015 bonfire night at Bolton Abbey?

Why not? Everything turns to ashes. Ashes to ashes. But from the ashes new life can spring. And will spring. A phoenix will rise. Come on, 2016, flame on!
The Human Torch from Marvel's The Fantastic 4

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Smiling and Waving and Looking So Fine

Bowie in Brecht's Baal

RIP David Bowie

How do you pay tribute to someone you never met but who contributed to your emerging self? There’s a line in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth directed at Bowie by Candy Clark’s character, Mary-Lou:
You know, Tommy, you’re a freak. I don’t mean that unkindly. I like freaks. And that’s why I like you.
The Man Who Sold The World

I don’t know whether or not the lyric below is my favourite Bowie lyric (and possibly song) – I could have chosen ANYTHING from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars which I must have played over a hundred times.
We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise, I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here
We must have died alone, a long long time ago

Who knows?  Not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world
Some lyrics are just funny (When you’re a boy/You can wear a uniform from Boys Keep Swinging), some are mysterious (Rule Britannia is out of bounds/To my mother, my dog and clowns from Life on Mars?) and some are pure poetry (Your circuit’s dead/There’s something wrong/Can you hear me, Major Tom? from Space Oddity.) His songs will endure.

Only Bernie Taupin’s lyrics loomed larger than Bowie

I think only Elton John’s albums had a bigger impact on my teenage years than David Bowie. Yes, there were particular songs that had personal significance like Love Train (The O’Jays), Kissing in the Back Row of the Movies (the Drifters) and She (Charles Aznavour); particular albums that were played over and over again like Dark Side of the Moon, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Tubular Bells; and various groups and artists caught my imagination: The Beatles, the Stones, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, Carly Simon, Carole King, Suzi Quatro, Blondie, the Carpenters, Queen, Mud, Lindisfarne, The Eagles…. These were the background to my teenage life. But, apart from Elton John’s music and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics (lyrics that, frankly, obsessed me) no-one got into my bloodstream more than Bowie.
The Man Who Fell To Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Labyrinth

Stiff on my legend (lyric from Cracked Actor)

Bowie worked with impressive and maverick directors: Martin Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ (as Pilate), David Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Tony Scott in The Hunger and Nagisa Oshima in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence but it is probably his roles in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell To Earth that capture his mercurial and other-worldly quality. Although he was uncomfortable on stage, the accounts of his performances in Pomerance’s Elephant Man and Brecht’s Baal, reveal an unsettling and uncompromising stage presence.


He was a man. Take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.
As Bowie’s character, Jareth, in Labyrinth, says “How you turn my world, you precious.”
G’bye, Bowie.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

I don’t know which moors the three kings were traversing in John Henry Hopkins carol but I hope to spend a good number of days in the Yorkshire moors and dales during 2016. And catching up with family and friends.

  • Bearing gifts (of love and time, maybe wine.) 
  • Traversing afar (if not in reality, then in the imagination and through reading, writing, TV, cinema and theatre.)
  • Following a star….?

It’s hard to let go of the holiday season

Before they are taken down for another year, we walked round the Living Advent Windows in Saltaire village. Awesomely creative as always. And atmospheric in the cobbled streets. The walk up and down the Fannys and the Marys and William Henrys and the Georges this year was a bit splashy rather than icy as it has been in previous years. I didn’t end up with a bruised arse from falling over, just a damp hat. And an inspired soul, which is more important. (Fanny, Mary, William Henry and George are names of the children of Titus Salt, after whom Saltaire is named; Whitlam, Edward, Herbert, Titus, Helen, Amelia, and Ada were the others; some tragically predeceased their parents.)
2016 Resolutions

I’ve had an Epiphany on this Epiphany. (A sudden revelation on the 6th January.) If I want to avoid diabetes (and enjoy retirement from teaching for a few years more) I need to make my luxury carriage (ie my body) a bit smaller in girth. I blogged about eating and drinking back in October (“Think well, love well, sleep well”) and have taken the first step to do something about it now, inspired by others who have been successful – and joined Slimming World. Yes, I have. I have entered the world of Free Food, Healthy Extras and Syns…. So far, so good, two days in…. Wish me well on the journey…. Following yonder star....