Saturday, 29 July 2017

Up North Again

Everything Old Is New Again
Sometimes when you return somewhere you see things anew, see things you didn’t see before and think things you didn’t think last time. So it was a pleasure to take Harriet to see Chatsworth: House Style on a less crowded day than last time. With the added bonus of a family picnic for Emily’s birthday.

Summer jaunts
Those who know me well know that I’m a fan of pavements and buildings, cityscapes and hygiene. Yes, I love the countryside – walking, enjoying views and smelling fresh air – but I like to walk on designated paths covered in woodchip and not be too far away from the nearest running hot water…. I’m not a typical Yorkshireman in being psychologically allergic to mud. So I even surprised myself by wanting to go to this year’s Great Yorkshire Show where the animals were real and the smells of the animals even more real. And the animals thought nothing of pissing and shitting in front of me. How rude. Of course some of them – like Atkinson’s Action Horses – were dressed up like the film extras they were and well drilled in their theatrical behaviour.
Protect and Survive
Somewhere I’d never been before was the Cold War Bunker near York, now looked after by English Heritage. It brought back memories of the booklet Protect and Survive which households were issued with in the early 1980s. I have strong memories of taking part in a touring T-i-E project at the University of Manchester called Going Up which attempted to make fun of the leaflet. Visiting the Cold War bunker recently it was clear how extensive the preparations were for monitoring nuclear fall-out in the event of an attack or accident. Our perky guide had plenty of startling anecdotes about the Royal Observer Corps who staffed the bunkers and who were only completely decommissioned in 1996.

Bring Me Sunshine
A return visit to Morecambe is always welcome – the vast bay and extensive promenade provides plenty of opportunities to stretch legs and blow away cobwebs. The difference this time is that we visited on a very sunny day unlike previous occasions when the waves crashed onto the footpaths and the views across to the Lake District were obscured by mist.

St Patrick’s Chapel
The walk along from Morecambe to Heysham is always worth doing to visit the atmospheric church of St Peter’s with its graveyard overlooking the bay and its Viking hogback stone. A few more steps take you to the ruins of elevated St Patrick’s Chapel looked after by the National Trust. The enigmatic rock-cut coffin graves are startling.

Nostalgic memories
A new Retirement game is to chase the sun on a day out. So we made the west coast sun in Morecambe and more recently found the east coast sun in Bridlington. Another oft-visited place seen through new eyes at a new stage of life. Bridlington was the “big town” when we spent childhood holidays at nearby Reighton Gap caravan park. Later on I took my own children when they were tiny to build castles on deserted beaches when British seaside towns had, for a time, become unfashionable. Now the beaches are busy again and “staycations” have become more popular. The North beach is quieter than the South beach and walking on the sands by the North Sea is one of the top pleasures in life.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Trip to the North

Inner geeks
In honour of Emily’s birthday, here’s what we did last Easter. Sally and Harriet went off on a walking tour round the Yorkshire dales (Settle, Malham, Grassington) and Emily and I summoned our inner geeks to explore the western end of Hadrian’s Wall and other historical sites in the Border country.

Brougham Castle
After a toilet break and cheese market purchase in Kirby Lonsdale we first stopped at Brougham Castle, the seat of the formidable Lady Ann Clifford. The view from the top of the intact keep presented an uplifting view over the whole site. References to the castle’s role in the Border Wars and the Wars of the Roses gave plenty of ammunition to kick-start our imaginations.
Brougham Castle

Carlisle Castle
Carlisle Castle was a remarkable surprise, partly because of the mighty building itself, well-preserved with several floors to explore. Its reputation as the most besieged castle in England is well explained with details of its Roman origins, connections to the Wars of the Roses, Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobite Rebellion; as well as its time as a military prison. On the day we were there wild violets grew in clumps so it looked especially beautiful.
Carlisle Castle

Museum of Military Life
My biggest surprise there was how much I enjoyed the Museum of Military Life housed inside the castle. It was unexpectedly fascinating and poignant. It showed soldiering through the centuries and was packed with human-interest stories of sacrifice, ambition, courage and complexity. Military facts, figures and jargon were all there, but in every section there were personal stories, not only of the soldiers’ lives but also of the reputations of the military and how it changed in different circumstances in different periods.

Heads Nook Hall
Our home for the four nights was Heads Nook Hall, a hefty pile, beautifully-appointed with plenty of space in the rooms and bathrooms. A great armchair to sit in in my bedroom overlooking sunrises and sheep fields through to the horizon. Malcolm Murray, our informative host, welcomed us with home-made scones and tea and supplied perfect
breakfasts every morning in front of an open fire.
Heads Nook Hall. Emily was in the Blue Room with a bath. I was in the Yellow Room with a view.

Birdoswald Roman Fort
Birdoswald was our first Hadrian’s Wall stop. It boasts interesting panels and museum artefacts but the site atop a pretty valley was upstaged by an eccentric kite-flying festival with audacious designs (like a weird deep sea diver) and stroppy tantrums by stunt-kite fliers. A whirlwind of enthusiastic amateurism, extraordinary skill and eye-catching design. Only in England….?
Birdoswald Roman Fort

Corbridge Roman Town
Corbridge Roman Town was another surprise, sited just south of the Wall and clearly servicing the settlements in all the ways you might imagine a military outpost would. An excellent audio-guide brought the streets and buildings to life. I hadn’t imagined the walls would be so intact. You get a strong sense of the different bits of the town community almost 2000 years after it thrived.
Corbridge Roman Town

Aydon Castle
En route to our next Wall stop we spontaneously called at Aydon Castle. A super-enthusiastic young man at the entrance tantalized us with what was available: a higgledy-piggledy totally eccentric pile of a house occupied (spartanly) as late as the 1960s when the owners were still using outside toilets. Stairs cropped up in strange places; rooms led off rooms that made little sense. It felt like being in an Escher building where you never know what room will come next – all the result of different occupiers bashing it about, including, at one time, a group of bandits. A real gem of a house with a short but pretty outside walk – through an orchard – above a gorge dropping down to a gurgling river.
Aydon Castle

Housesteads Roman Fort
I’ve wanted to visit Housesteads Roman Fort for ages – it didn’t disappoint. It was a bitingly windy day which made the thought of the Roman/Syrian occupiers even more atmospheric. Housesteads clings to a ridge across a wide area and it’s easy to imagine how isolated the auxiliaries must have felt being stationed there. The museum was freshly informative and the randomly-placed panels around the site meant your view and perspective kept changing if you made an effort to read all the panels. A panoramic, cobweb-blowing visit.
Housesteads Roman Fort

Roman Army Museum
Our B&B host recommended we include the Roman Army Museum, a commercial set-up which wasn’t planned but it proved well worth it. Targeted at and suitable for all ages, the multi-AV museum is essential if you want to sort out your legionary from your auxiliary and delve deeper into an understanding of Roman Army life. The different set-ups are all imaginative and a 3D film includes aerial shots of The Wall as well as recreations of the life of a bored auxiliary stationed in Roman Britain. A cheesy semi-soap about a group of auxiliary friends also highlights different aspects of the whys and wherefores of being a soldier at that time. The Roman emperor timeline was enlightening, as was the section on Hadrian himself in all his complexity, including his unsuccessful marriage to Vibia Sabina and his love for Antinous.
Roman Army Museum with "Roman" loos....!

I had imagined Vindolanda quite differently. I knew Vindolanda had ongoing excavations every summer (and will do for the next 200 years if all goes according to plan) but what I didn’t expect was such a massive site with such a clear visual presentation of the dynamic between the fort itself and the vicus that grew up outside the fort. It was a rainy and cold day when we visited but that played into the narrative of Pat, our excellent tour guide, who brought various parts of the site to life with a mix of funny anecdotes, dry references to quirky facts and a genuine love for the place itself. She knew her stuff! The reconstruction project of a section of stone Wall and a section of wood/turf Wall was fascinating as was the museum at the bottom of the site. The highlight for me of the museum was the remarkable discovery and presentation of writing tablets discovered quite by accident and revealing personal details of the lives of people at the time.

Lanercost Priory
The austerity of the functional church at Lanercost Priory is a stark contrast with what your imagination can do with the remains of the medieval Augustinian Priory, a solid and impressive edifice. It was fun (and sad?) to find bits of Hadrian’s Wall purloined to build the Priory. It’s hard though not to obsess (in a disturbing way) about the terracotta effigy of four month old Elizabeth Howard, a Victorian tomb by Sir Edgar Boehm. Felt very conflicted about its value but it certainly made an impact.
Lanercost Priory

Richmond Castle
Richmond Castle is another substantial building with an intact keep and fantastic view over the town and into the far distance. Scolland’s Hall is a highlight inside, as is the extensive curtain wall. The cockpit garden contains some dramatic topiary and there is an informative display about the Richmond Sixteen, the conscientious objectors from the First World War.
Richmond Castle

Easby Abbey
Our final stop on the way back home was Easby Abbey. The stunning refectory with its great window and the atmospheric cloister were easy to imagine with the help of the information panels. You can just see some original faint traces of red paint on the outer archway of the gatehouse. An impressive ruin though the highlight is probably the peaceful setting.
Easby Abbey
So what now? You decide.
Dad-daughter geek fests – highly recommended! First we did Arthurian sites, then this Hadrian’s Wall trip. Where next? We got along enough to think it may well happen again – yes, there is much talk of history and what we’ve seen, but there is also talk of politics and the state of the nation and reactions to and comments about James O’Brien LBC podcasts (The best of…. and Mystery hour) and we watched the films of Avatar and The Eagle to wind down in the evenings. And, well, we could spend as long as we liked reading the information panels. And we did.

(final lines from The Eagle)
Esca: So what now?
Marcus Aquila: You decide.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Bradford Literature Festival 2017

Bradford Literature Festival 2017
The cover of the booklet proclaimed 400 writers, 300 events, 10 days, 1 city
I listened to 28 speakers in 10 events over 4 days
I felt insanely proud of the city where I live for hosting such an event – the fourth year now and getting stronger each time. A thousand congratulations to the driving forces: Syima Aslam, Irna Qureshi and their superb team.
Bradford Waterstones in the old Wool Exchange

Inclusive, surprising, chock-a-block with surprising juxtapositions
I’ve been to a number of literary and writing festivals during my lifetime but I haven’t experienced one with such a variety: from Harry Potter spell-making to Pakistani politics, from Jane Austen to Rebel Girls, from Star Wars to Cricket, from LGBTIQ events to J B Priestley, from Waris Shah’s epic love love poem to lessons on how to avoid writing bad sex scenes. The organisers seem to be fearless and determined to put in something for everyone. And everyone, it seemed, turned out.
Bradford: City Square, City Hall, R C Bridgestock in the Victorian courtroom (see below)

City square in the sun
I found something on both weekends to intrigue and pull me in. But my abiding memory of the festival might be sitting in City Square watching the fountains play and being astonished (and moved) by the smiling crowds going in and out of the book tent, by the individuals, friends, strangers, families, young, old, all ethnicities, all backgrounds and all types watching the pop-up entertainments. Many, I’m sure, were as equally contented as me that, after all the metaphorical earthquakes in the political world in recent years, the evidence of people congregating at the Bradford Literature Festival shows that the human race is overwhelmingly peaceful, loving, investigative and open-hearted. Culture and the arts celebrate communities, spread ideas and, yes, it’s true, they advance civilisation. Much to learn. Much to debate. Much to ponder. Much to love.
Samantha Ellis's book, the Arabian Nights event (Abdul-Rheman Malik, Robert Irwin and S F Said); the Arthurian legends (Kirsty Logan, Reluca Radulescu and Remona Aly); and Game of Thrones: Myths and History (Tom Huddleston and Carolyne Larrington)

So what did I learn, debate, ponder and love?

Book Bidding Wars

  • Inside City Hall is as jaw-dropping as the outside, inspired as it is by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
  • The women from the publishing industry who spoke at this event were inspiring, funny and encouraging (thank you Ailah Ahmed, Danuta Kean, Lisa Milton and Kate Nash)
  • Update on my Rhenium Tales efforts: the arc of my second book is laid out with some material already dumped there because I’ve cut it out of Book One
  • Book One, Raydan Wakes, is in the final stretch of complete first draft at 111,000 words split into 15 chunky chapters, each divided into three sections….
  • Nothing at this event made me think I should stop writing and editing, writing and editing….

The Arthurian Legend and its Enduring Appeal

  • Remona Aly (journalist and broadcaster) was an endearing and enthusiastic chair whose expressions of her fandom articulated exactly my own Arthurian obsessions (and that's what's great about the festival: where the internal worlds of a white Roman Catholic in his 50s and a young Muslim woman can meet in an unlikely space....)
  • Kirsty Logan inspired me to buy her book The Gracekeepers 
  • I wish I’d been taught at university by Professor Reluca Radulescu
  • The three women debated the crux of the Arthurian canon: the fruitful jostle between the imaginative, the scholarly, the historical, the gender-focused, the patriotic, the European and the romantic approaches
  • The Tag “King Arthur” in the list to the right will demonstrate how much I wallowed in this event

Arabian Nights: the Original Science Fiction

  • There are way more stories in the Arabian Nights collection than I knew of
  • From oral tradition to the printed collection(s) on shelves now, the journey of The Arabian Nights is fraught with cultural, political and linguistic complexities
  • There are some wild and wonderful stories I never knew containing prophetic imaginings and leaps of technology
  • The Arabian Nights is more mind-boggling and enticing than I thought before
  • I need a new translation (thank you Abdul-Rehman Malik, Robert Irwin and S F Said)

Game of Thrones: Myths & History

  • Tom Huddleston (author and film journalist) and Professor Carolyne Larrington (Oxford) made a brilliant double act with well-prepared questions (Tom) and authoritative answers (Carolyne) and conversation that was mesmerisingly entertaining (both of them, thank you)
  • Another event, like the King Arthur session, that explored how history, geography, politics, gender studies, fiction and the imagination can work together to brew sci-fi and fantasy
  • They revelled in the North-South divide of York/Lancaster and Stark/Lannister which tickled me to bits
  • They revealed some crazy medieval anecdotes and prompted me to make four pages of notes

The Books they don’t want you to read

  • Kevin Duffy helps run Bluemoose books which published STOP! Don’t read this by Leonora Rustamova and her students, a story which is worth researching if you don’t know it (click here)
  • Melvin Burgess (who wrote two of my favourite “Young Adult” books Bloodtide and Bloodsong) is much more genial than I expected
  • Tariq Mehmood is a funny guy – and sometimes scary in his emphatic challenges – but whose book You’re not proper is one I’m looking forward to reading
  • All three men wrangled around the subject of banning books and acknowledged the empty chair reserved for Juno Dawson who had withdrawn from the festival for reasons which could be seen as ironic given the topic of this event – complex times – so I hope one day I’ll be able to hear Juno talking about her work; she would, I think, have had a different perspective to the three men on the panel, all of whom were interesting....
Branwell Brontë, Juliet Barker, the Bidding Wars panel (Lisa Milton, Ailah Ahmed, Kate Nash, Danuta Kean), Samantha Ellis, Michael Stewart, Louise Doughty and Robert Edric

And on the second weekend?

The Missing Brontë

  • Juliet Barker really is the best speaker about the Brontës on the circuit
  • She showed us extraordinary images of the Haworth Parsonage and analysed the ‘gun portrait’ in a fresh way
  • She painted a picture of Branwell that was complicated and sympathetic, believable and sad
  • She made a strong case for Branwell’s role in pushing the imaginative lives of the sisters when they were children

Inspired by the Brontës

  • Samantha Ellis, author of Take Courage (about Anne Brontë) and How to be a heroine, is an absolute delight and would be a great dinner party guest
  • Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard, won a place to be at the same dinner party; both she and Samantha Ellis spoke with humour and passion about the Brontës and how their writing had influenced their work
  • I tried to ignore Robert Edric who seemed to be there under false pretences; and Michael Stewart (writer) asked some good questions and some rubbish questions; but luckily the two women had enough to say and illuminated the theme of the event
Boyd Tonkin and Germaine Greer

Gender Expectations in the Lives of the Brontës

  • Boyd Tonkin (writer, journalist, editor) commented intelligently and asked pertinent questions
  • Germaine Greer (academic, environmentalist) said a lot, often wittily, always memorably, frequently debatable
  • On signing “To Tony” inside one of her Shakespeare books for me at the end, formidable Germaine looked me in the eye and said “I have a cousin called Tony who exposed himself to my little sister.” Which meant I forgot just about everything else she’d said earlier, except I remember that she admitted she didn’t know Wuthering Heights well, even though she was happy to deliver strong opinions about it.
  • Greer’s book Shakespeare’s Wife is a brilliant account of Elizabethan/Jacobean social history so I’ll always be a Germaine fan because of it. But I’ll avoid listening to her talking about the Brontës in the future. She ain’t got nothing useful to say about them. Entertaining. Thought-provoking. Occasionally stubbornly wrong. Juliet Barker beats her hands down. Not that it’s a competition…

A Man’s Game

  • Ross Raisin (ex Bradford Grammar School, award-winning author) is a thoughtful and philosophical speaker; his first novel God’s Own Country was (imho) an absorbing and poetic read; I got a copy of his latest A Natural signed at this event
  • David Park is a Belfast-born writer whose words inspired me to buy his collection of short stories, Gods and Angels, so I’ll look forward to reading that
  • Ellis Cashmore (sociologist and cultural critic) moderated, intervened, provoked and enjoyed his own thought processes awfully much
  • Will women’s sport ever (again) receive as much media attention and financial investment as male sport?
  • I was interested to learn how in the early part of the 20th Century women’s football flourished and was then banned by the FA….
  • Is there a modern crisis of masculinity?
  • Do fiction writers have any responsibility in attempting to portray an ‘ideal’ man?
Ellis Cashmore, Ross Raisin, David Park, A Natural, Melvin Burgess and the Banned Book event (Kevin Duffy, Melvin Burgess and Tariq Mehmood)

Realism in Crime Fiction & Tour of the Bradford Police Museum

  • Who knew there was a fascinating Police Museum housed in City Hall? I know now.
  • Who knew there were Victorian police cells to visit and an astonishing Victorian courtroom, often hired by film and TV production companies? I know now.
  • R C Bridgestock (aka husband-and-wife team Bob and Carol) gave an entertaining account of their careers in the police force, their transition to writing crime fiction and their forays into consulting on series’ like Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley 
  • Bob and Carol were generous in their enouragement and writing tips
  • Pamela Clare, make-up artist, showed astonishing skill in demonstrating gruesome facial injuries on audience members
  • Martin Baines was an informative, entertaining and thoughtful guide round the fascinating bowels of City Hall and revealing insights into the past (and present) practices of police custody
I’m already anticipating Bradford Literature Festival 2018
The founders of the BLF: Syima Aslam and Irna Quresh

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Make your garden rich

Hidden gem
Out near the East Coast, positioned between Hull and Scarborough, lies Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens. It’s a house in a private trust and we followed an old recommendation to pay a visit there. It’s not English Heritage, it’s not National Trust. It’s beautifully kept and there’s plenty to do for a whole day, particularly if you’re keen on gardening.

Anne and Joyce
During their lives, my Mum, Annie Penn, and Sally’s Mum, Joyce Allard, loved spending time pottering in their gardens. So it seems somehow fitting that tending our garden at home now has become a retirement activity. Not for me, alas, tapping and scribbling away indoors at my novel; but for Sally who’s developed an absorbing interest in shrubs, hedges, flowers and soils – and their arrangements, colours, hydration and upkeep. Gardening seems to be a bottomless pit of possibilities with so many variations and complications and hits, misses, false starts, surprises, successes, uprootings, feeding, fertilising, mulching, raking, digging, watering, staking, supporting, planting, replanting, pruning and dead-heading.

Gardens as metaphors
Writers through the years (poets, playwrights, novelists and journalists) have often turned to gardens and nature when trying to express essential things about humanity. The concept of growing something from seed, nurturing it, tending it in its maturity and then deciding when to put it out of its misery or start again has inbuilt metaphorical potential. A garden can be seen as:
  • a country (the “garden of England”)
  • a road map of setting priorities and organising time
  • an emotional history
  • a place to form roots, tame the wild and form patterns
  • an area of your life to prune, weed and declutter
  • a tangible expression of reaping what you sow
  • a loving harvest of time and effort
  • a place of rest and contentment
Burton Agnes
The house at Burton Agnes is a massive Elizabethan pile and inside feels lived-in and homely even with spectacular rooms like the Long Gallery and elaborate ceilings and exquisite wooden paneling. But, unusually for me (a sucker for historical houses) it was the garden that sticks in my mind: luscious, dramatic, flamboyant, classical in parts, cottage-like in parts, fuzzily colourful in parts, blazingly daring at times; nooks, crannies, secret paths, weird juxtapositions. It helped that the sun was shining. It helped that one of the characters in my trilogy, The Rhenium Tales, (Currently 110,000 words), is a gardener so I was open to be influenced.

Gentler scion and wildest stock
Sally isn’t a character. She’s real life. And she’s the gardener of my heart. In Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale Perdita argues that she only wants to plant pure breeds of flower but Polixenes argues that sometimes when you put together two unlikely things (grafting is the gardening term!) art can improve nature. I sometimes wonder if that’s what happened in 1986 when we got married – the art of marrying improved our individual natures to form a new hybrid plant.
You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
Happy Anniversary.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Laura Pidcock maiden speech

Thank you, Pat Glass
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I also thank the people of North West Durham for allowing me to be here at all. It is apt that I should be called in this debate because, before entering the House, I worked with schools, colleges and teachers for nine years and my predecessor, Pat Glass, dedicated her professional and then political career to education. If I can be half the friend and ally of schools in North West Durham that Pat Glass has been, I will be doing very well.
Pat Glass and Laura Pidcock
A lion hunting a gazelle
Pat Glass leaves a brand new secondary school as one important legacy of her time here. Even in opposition, she managed to prise funding for a school from the former Education Secretary, which took the energy of a lion hunting a gazelle. I, and others, are truly grateful for all that she did for the constituency, and I wish her well in her retirement.
Magnificent, Beautiful, Breathtaking, Cultural
North West Durham is the most magnificent of places, and I am truly blessed to represent such a beautiful part of our country. The green, lush countryside is simply breathtaking, peppered with arable, dairy and upland hill farms; the richness of our culture and history is astounding; and the people are hard workers, proud and strong. Some in here would have us in the north painted as uncultured and without finesse—as savages—but people only think that or say that because they do not know our communities or our people. My constituents are the real wealth creators, and they are people who make this nation great. If anyone wants to see one of the world’s finest cultural traditions, they should look no further than Durham miners’ gala, which, although not in my constituency, is an annual pilgrimage for many of my constituents and is the biggest trade union gathering in Europe. It celebrates the best of solidarity, born of struggle.

Proud tradition
North West Durham has a long and proud tradition of industry and skilled work. Consett was dominated by steel production and became renowned for the thick red dust that covered the town—airborne iron oxide from the plant. At its peak in the 1960s the steelworks provided jobs for some 6,000 people. We had lead mines and hundreds of jobs in a thriving textiles industry in Crook. That industry was unfortunately left to decline. Jobs and communities were not invested in and unemployment rose exponentially. Many are still living with the scars of that period today.
Consett and Crook

The system at large
Turning to this place, this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power; its systems are confusing—some may say archaic—and it was built at a time when my class and my sex would have been denied a place within it because we were deemed unworthy. I believe that the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental. The clothes, the language, and the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination are symbolic of the system at large.

Tell the people….
But the most frustrating thing has been to sit opposite those people who tell me that things are better, and that suffering has lessened for my constituents. I would like them to come and tell the people who have been sanctioned that things are better. I would like them to tell that to the teacher in my constituency who was recently made redundant. I would like them to talk to the 16,500 people in County Durham in receipt of food parcels. I would like them to talk to the nurses, the junior doctors and the firefighters—come and tell them that years of austerity have improved their practice or their profession.

Indignity of poverty
I will end with this: we can choose, in this place, to be self-obsessed, to perpetrate fear and greed, to be a monument to injustice, or this can be a place that elevates equality, facilitates the power of the people, and esteems and properly funds a rich network of public services so that nobody is left in the indignity of poverty.