From generation unto generation

Another cross-post from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service on

There’s something eerie in finding one’s children, without prompting, have same books on their shelves. Except, in this case, I assume there was prompting from a university course.

21: Ronald Blythe: The Age of Illusion

That comes with the informative sub-title: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940. The first chapter is A Great Day for Westminster Abbey. That Great Day was 11 November 1920, and the interment of the Unknown Warrior. The final chapter is The Destruction of Neville Chamberlain, and deals with the few dramatic days from 7 May 1940.

In between most of the chapters hang hats on various characters of the period:

  • Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks and his use of the Defence of the Realm Act to crack down on London night-life;
  • John Reith and the birth of the British Broadcasting Company (sic);
  • T.E. Lawrence;
  • Amy Johnson;
  • Harold Davidson, the infamous, much-maligned, and much-mocked Rector of Stiffkey;
  • Wallis Simpson and the Abdication (and let’s not forget the canoodlings of Edwards Windsor and his Baltimore floozy did more to create the modern republic of Ireland than any of the blood-sacrifices of 1916);
  • George Lansbury’s pacifism and the Labour Party. That involved a swift canter through Lansbury’s strengths and weaknessses, notably his use of the minor Cabinet post as Commissioner of Works — in which he tore down the railings of royal parks and opened the Serpentine to mixed bathing.
  • Those are then divided by the passing ‘crises’ of the age:
    • the attractions of arty-farty bourgeois Communism;
    • the horrors of the Depression;
    • Britain’s distraction with sensational murders, while the Nazis seized power in Germany;
    • Spain.

When the New York Times came to review the book it pointed out that (on publication in 1964) it was as remote from the events it describes are already as much history as the Battle of Hastings or Magna Carta. That is perversely true in psychological distance: the interim involved several wars (one World, one Cold) and a nuclear bombs. I feel that review’s attempt at a punch-line is mistaken:

the large and variegated cast are assembled, put on their costumes and their makeup, speak their lines. But what of the play? What is the point of this so foolish, expensive, bloody and destructive spectacle? If point there be, it has eluded Mr. Blythe.

The use of the word spectacle is appropriate; but the lesson it tries to draw is not. Britain between the Wars was living a myth: the days of imperial grandeur had died none too far from Sarajevo, but the reality hadn’t struck home. Despite the loss of Empire and Britain’s diminished status, it still properly hasn’t — and won’t as long as Boris Johnson stirs the ashes. Dean Acheson’s pungent remark was two years old when the NY Times came up with that review:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a rôle.

The Age of Illusion, indeed. 

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Rudery and prudery

[Another post ported from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service]

 20. Strumpshaw, Tincleton and Giggleswick’s Marvellous Map of Great British Place Names.

It was an item in the Eastern Daily Press that reminded me:
A post about tranquil Cockshoot Dyke was removed by Facebook because it goes against community standards and constitutes “hate speech”.

Steve Burgess, a businessman and administrator on the Facebook page Love the Norfolk Broads said the issue arose when a member posted she had moored along the popular stretch, the old entrance to Cockshoot Broad.

Her reference combing the words cock, shoot, and dyke was promptly removed by automatic filters, a notification citing both violence and sexual content as the reason.

Most keyboard warriors have had similar experiences. Way back when PC (in every sense) machines were becoming available to teachers, I was edifying examination classes studying Romeo and Juliet. The institution had a super-Bowdler blocker. It meant a text-search of the the text of the play hit a block, and recorded an alarm to Higher Authority, were one to scroll to Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Since that comes as early as Act I, scene iv, it really put the mockers on cut-and-paste text extracts.

Since my days in Norfolk, it has become generally accepted that the Broads are flooded mediæval peat excavations. There’s a passing mention in Michael Pye’s Antwerp that the Netherlanders borrowed the process.

Cockshoot Broad is off the River Bure, and near to … ahem! … Horning. It isn’t just Facebook that has a down on Cockshoot Broad — as a place-name it gets omitted from many another map. Even on the Ordnance Survey, one has to come down to finer definitions:



Cockshoot Broad and Cockshoot Dyke seem to miss out on Marvellous Maps of Great Britain:

Some of those seem eccentric selections, anyway. What’s funny or peculiar about Stiffkey (apart from one past rector)? Especially since, nearby is Muckledyke, Cockthorpe, Cocklestrand Drive and others? Why is Great Snoring (even with its Duckstown End) more amusing than Little Snoring? And Binham used to have Lousybush Lane.


The EDP conclude that story with even better snorklers:

A scan around the county reveals Facebook could have a field day if it were feeling particularly easily offended.

Notable mentions go to Three Holes, a hamlet on the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire border and Two Mile Bottom campsite near Thetford and Stiffkey.

But top honours have to go to Slutshole Lane, Besthorpe, Cock Street and Hooker Road in Norwich, Dick’s Mount in Beccles, and Trumpery Lane in Norwich.



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Yet another port from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service.

Fair exchange is no Robb-ery

This one came about in the usual circuitous manner.

I recycled that earlier post on Michael Pye’s Antwerp on the site. The exchanges drifted onto how mediæval monasteries were roadhouses on cross-country travel.

A poster made what, for me, was a strange claim: Europe’s road network was near non-existent, and long journeys were dangerous. That begs the question: how soon did those Roman roads fall into disuse?

I take a passing interest in that, for my home cottage is none too far from the A19 from York to Thirsk — and that, once upon a far distant time was how the Roman legionaries and auxiliaries tramped from Eboracum’s Porta Dextra to Cataractonium (Catterick) and the Roman Wall.

The Itinerarium Antonini (the Antonine Itinerary) is a listing of the major Roman roads of Augustus’s Empire, and lists some fifteen main roads, two thousand miles, across Britannia.

As Chesterton said:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

They weren’t English: those Mesolithic track-makers came along eleven millennia ago. Perhaps here I reach for David Miles, The Tribes of Britain — or, better, leave that for another occasion. Whoever they were, they filled the landscape, and must have got around somehow. One of those ways, though not necessarily as  claimed ‘the oldest road‘ would have been the Ridgeway:

If these routes pre-dated the Romans (as is generally agreed), they certainly took back their significance after Roman power in Britain fell. Henry of Huntingdon was commissioned (1129-30) by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln to compile a Historia Anglorum. Henry identified four royal highways: 

  • Ermine Street, from Bishopsgate to Lincoln, and onto York;
  • Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln;
  • Watling Street, from the Channel ports in Kent, via Westminster, to Utoxeter on the Welsh border;


  • Icknield Way, the line of the chalk escarpment that runs from Norfolk to Salisbury.

The Laws of Edward the Confessor, at least as re-invented by the Norman kings, declared these ways were under royal protection.
You may remember that this post was instigated by European history, not merely English. And that I’m not convinced mediæval routes across Europe were there to get from one Cistercian house to the next. More that the Cistercians needed to move their fleeces and sites their monasteries in good dsheep country, but also convenient to transport.

All this brought me to:

19: Graham Robb: The Ancient Paths.

Robb occupies several locations on my shelves. The Discovery of France and Parisians are with things French so bottom shelf, near the bay window. What I assume to be his latest, The Debatable Land is, for want of somewhere more frontier-like, high above my left shoulder, along with GM Fraser and Alistair Moffat

This one, though, is a bit of a lost soul: it wanders from travel (above right shoulder) to ancient European history (sort of near left side) as it feels appropriate.

I reckon that’s because I haven’t quite nailed down what I think of this book.

Its subtitle is Discovering the Lost Maps of Celtic Europe. For me, it’s all a trifle too ‘New Age-ist’ — especially when he constructs a whole nexus of oh-so-precise geometrical connections. Try this one (page 275 in my paperback):


Hmm: too convenient, think you?

So I’m not leaping to accept Robb’s thesis of a Road to the End of the Earth following a solstitial line, bearing 57.53° east of north from sunrise through the Alps at the Col de Montgenèvre, near Briançon, all the way to sunset at Cabo de São Vicente. 

I don’t chase ley-lines; but cannot avoid the ‘sense of the numinous’. The trend in the 1920s was to look for spiritual markers. Alfred Watkins was the prime-mover in Britain. Wilhelm Teudt and his similar „Heilige Linien” were doing something adjacent in Germany — but that was absorbed into the Völkisch movements, all that went with them, and so into post-War disrepute


I am, though, prepared to accept that our Celtic (and Germanic) illiterate forbears were (in every sense) crafty, and used ‘natural knowledge’. Then, again, I’ve read too much Arthur C Clarke not to apply his apothegm, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And yet … and yet …

Even before Rome, there were tracks across Europe. They may have been seasonal (what wasn’t?); but all the evidence is they were there. Some were transactional (something as universally essential as salt needed to be moved): others seem to have particular and spiritual significance.

The Camino de Santiago — the path to Compostela — follows the Callis IanusThat notion stems from a belief there was a cult of Ianus as far back as pre-Roman times. Ianus gets absorbed into the classical pantheon as the two-faced door-keeper of the classical gods — but curiously takes precedence in some prayers: Livy’s History of Rome, Bk 8, chap 6, has the priest invoke:
Ianus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles, divine Indigites, ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies, and you, divine Manes, — I invoke and worship you, I beseech and crave your favour, that you prosper the might and the victory of the Roman People of the Quirites.​
Ianus is the deity of ‘beginnings’ (January, anyone?) and so, inevitably, of endings. That’s where we are all travelling: visit headlands facing the sunset, and spot the pre-historic burial grounds: the Celts and Scots chose Iona. All the pilgrim need do was follow the sunset to the ‘field of stars’ (campus stellae, in case you miss the significance).

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Crisis? What Crisis?

Long before CoVid, the Redfellow establishment had borrowed the essential Norf Lundun middle-class crisis:

It’s awful! Dreadful! What’ll we do? Waitrose has run out of organic quinoa!

This weekend I found that one topped by the Eastern Daily Press‘s horror story, ‘Today’s most read’:

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Would I were in Grantchester

[Still wrestling with WordPress’s incompatibility with a Safari browser. So another port from blogger.]

εἴθε γενοίμην. . . 

I can tell you that’s optative mood. Latin manages just two moods — indicative and subjunctive, but the Greeks had already said ‘Hold my Limnio!’ and come up with a third. You have just been treated to a proper classical education in 1950s-60s Dublin.

Some present may recognise the expression: it’s from Rupert Brooke’s well-known celebration of Cambridgeshire:

… would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: …
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. …

Gorgeous, pretentious, affected goo. Exactly what one expects from a privileged, effete Rugbeian. But — ooh — so emotive. Of course, the place and the poem come with all the trimmings. Byron swam nearby (Brooke gets that it). The village is the most up-market end of Cambridge, and it used to be an irregular number 18 bus.

If you detect empathy for the mosquito that got Brooke, you may have a point.

A Cantab once muttered his imprecations against his fellow alumni: ‘The trouble with them is they spend the rest of their lives trying to crawl back into the womb of alma Mater.’ I feel his pain.
One such is James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. As I work it out, young Runcie was born while Runcie senior was dean of Trinity Hall — which, by a strange co-incidence, was young Runcie’s college.
Young Runcie, though, made it in the big, bad world of media as a novelist, film-maker, and playwright.  And — perhaps more significantly — arts guru for the BBC.
In 2012, to gild a shining hour, young Runcie began a series of detective short-stories based on the fictional vicar of Grantchester. Either by intent, or calculation those six books provided a perfect basis for TV adaptation. Moreover, they had the quaint, cozy English feel that appealed to an American audience. The Runcie table would never be short of honey still for tea.
After half-a-dozen volumes of his Sidney Chambers, young Runcie went back to the fountain-head. And something quite remarkable came up:
18. James Runcie: The Road to Grantchester
We get four evenly-spaced ‘Parts’ — WarPeaceFaith and Love.
It starts:

London, 28 February 1938

They are in the Caledonian Club, dancing the quickstep. Sidney is eighteen. Amanda, his best friend’s little sister, is three years younger. The band is playing ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen’: ‘To Me, You’re Beautiful’. He has asked her to dance out of politeness. He has good manners, everyone thinks so, but he enjoys the dance more than he had expected.

 Amanda Kendall is, of course, the on-off love-interest in the early Grantchester Mysteries. Then a crash cut:

No one believes there will be another war and, even if there is one, how can it possibly ruin the memory of this golden evening, with everyone in their finery, dancing on a polished wooden floor under the chandeliers with the orchestra playing and the candles ablaze?

Five years later, Sidney Chambers is on a transport ship with the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards, preparing for landing south of Salerno.

Sidney’s school- and Cambridge-buddy, Amanda’s brother, Robert Kendall is in the same unit.

We follow the blood-and-gore of the Italian campaign from Solerno to Monte Cassino. Sidney’s problems with faith are implied: a visit to Mass at a ruined chapel, his occasional guilt, his exchanges with the padre:

‘Rev Nev’ Finnie is an Episcopalian from Markinch in Fife. He is an asthmatic in his early forties, technically too old for service, but he is a family friend of the Colonel. He has been offered leave but he has a determination to continue with his ministry, wherever it takes him, and people can’t be bothered to argue about his age or suitability. He is only a priest. There are plenty of soldiers to console and bury.

Page 69 (of 327) comes the crisis:

Kendall leads the advance; Sidney is behind with the Bren, waiting to open up when the German defence has weakened. It is a sustained cacophony, rifles firing, blazes of illumination, silhouettes of movement, men stumbling, falling, shooting, killing, dying; a sustained attack and then a lull; a moment for replenishing, rearming, reconsidering before another opportunity to take the initiative while both sides work out what to do next.

Sidney calls, ‘Down,’ and the men nearby fall low, allowing him a clear line of fire. But a few soldiers in the distance either haven’t heard or are confused about the battle orders and are scrambling back. In the darkness, it is hard to tell if they are Allied troops returning or whether it’s an enemy attack.

Sidney keeps firing. He can’t see Kendall, but then he can’t see very much at all in the melée. He only stops when he runs out of ammunition. Then he realises how many of his own men are wounded. He calls out for the stretcher-bearers. Where is the Advance Dressing Station? How soon can they get help?

One man is unconscious, bleeding from the neck and chest, his head to one side, his eyes open in glazed surprise.

It is Robert Kendall.

Two days later Sidney has a field promotion to Captain, and awarded a Military Cross. Robert Kendall gets a posthumous DCM. Sidney goes to ‘Rev Nev’ for some comfort:

‘Would you like to pray?’

‘I’m not sure if I can.’

‘Let me start for you.’

Rev Nev bows his head. ‘Merciful Father, look down on this, thy servant Sidney. Accept his penitence, calm his fears, bring him your peace, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us. Amen.’

Sidney just manages to repeat the ‘Amen’.

A lesser writer might have skipped then to Sidney, post-War, taking Holy Orders. Runcie doesn’t, but rushes the story through Sidney being wounded, cared for by an Irish nurse (hinted flashback to Sidney’s earlier relationship), and the end of the War.

The reader now possesses Sidney’s causes of guilt and of ‘belief’. Post-war he is rootless: suggestion of a career in the Foreign Office, in teaching or whatever leave him inert, unmotivated. Amanda takes him to the National Gallery:

They find themselves in front of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, Christ with outstretched arms in blessing, the two strangers suddenly realising who is with them, light in the darkness, the simplicity of bread and gesture, its distilled meaning. […]

They study the picture in silence. It is an image of commanding serenity, perfectly proportioned in its beauty and stillness. He feels the painting is calling him. Christ is calling him. This is the peace that the world cannot give.

Then follows a series of awkward exchanges: he meets ‘Rev Nev’ who arranges a retreat, he talks to his father, he tries to explain his intention to Amanda …

From then there is a killing (involves a pair of duelling pistols, no great mystery), we follow Sidney through theological college, into his first parochial involvements in Coventry as curate to Canon Clitheroe (there’s an awkward, youthful pregnancy which involves secrets needing to be confessed), he finds himself growing away from the social scene of Amanda and her family, until …

On Easter Monday, Graham Clitheroe asks for ‘a serious conversation’. Sidney worries what this might be about. Has a parishioner made a complaint? He does not think he has been neglecting his duties. On the contrary, he has been working all the time. Perhaps the vicar thinks he has been too lenient with Julie Jordan? Or maybe someone has died? Or Clitheroe has decided to retire?

They sit in deep old sofas, inherited and in need of reupholstery, drinking sweet dark sherry that Sidney does not like but won’t say. There’s a loud clock too, and he wonders why people need to be so constantly reminded of time.

‘Do you fancy a trip back to Cambridge?’ Clitheroe asks. The tone is kindly, almost amused.

‘Why there?’

‘I’ve had a letter from the Bishop of Ely. I don’t think you know him, but he’s been asking after you. They need a new man in Grantchester and he wants to know if you might be ready for the task. It’s quite a job.’ 

The conclusion involves Sidney telling Amanda how her brother died, a finely written scene — any comment would be a spoiler.

The novel concludes with Sidney induction at Grantchester:

Sidney is supported by friends old and new: his parents and siblings […] together with all the regular villagers, including Mrs Maguire, a fierce-looking woman who has been earmarked as his housekeeper, the Mayor of Cambridge, and Inspector Geordie Keating from the local police.

Sidney looks out into the congregation and spies Amanda at the back of the church. She must have arrived late and on her own.

They walk by the Cam:

‘I’d like you to answer another question,’ he begins.

‘Questions, questions, Sidney. Whatever next?’

‘Will you look after me, Amanda?’

‘That sounds like a proposal of marriage. You know I’m engaged to someone else?’

‘I think it’s more than that.’

‘More than marriage?’

‘Yes, probably, given our history, given all that we know about each other, given my hopelessly uncertain and impoverished future. . .’

‘And you expect me to answer that?’

‘I do.’

‘There you go again. Is that the only time you are going to use those two words in my company?’


Cliff-hanger ending.

All of that side-steps the question: to what extent is the story of Sidney Chambers at least partly an analogue of Runcie’s father?

Robert Runcie served in the Scots Guards (✔︎ check), was in the Normandy campaign (not Italy), was awarded the Military Cross for acts of bravery ((✔︎ check), was a Classics scholar (✔︎ check), studied for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridge (✔︎ check), served as a curate in Newcastle, returned to Cambridge (✔︎ check), and then became Bishop of St Albans. Robert Runcie died in 2000.


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Something happened …

[Yet an further port from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service, still trying to cope with the inability of WordPress to work with a Safari browser.]

No: not Joseph Heller’s ‘forgotten novel‘ — though I ought to get to Heller sometime. Just a thought about the moment English navigators and seamen looked across the Atlantic.

I doubt it was just Cristóbal Colón, antea Cristovão Colom,  Cristoforo Colombo finding his way and naming San Salvador.

All the evidence is that the shipmen of Bristol (and perhaps places like Waterford) had gone beyond the Porcupine Bank and been fishing off Newfoundland for at least two decades before — and presumably had some idea of land nearby. They just kept that knowledge to themselves. Else, how do we explain John Lloyd in a small vessel out of Bristol (15 July 1480) heading out to look for the mythical island of Hy Brasil? Lloyd’s cargo included forty bushels of salt — a bit of cod-fishing was obviously part of the deal.

There’s more evidence in Hakluyt, who included in Principal Navigations a Robert Thorne’s map and some memoirs. Thorne, in two letters (one to Henry VII Tudor, the other to Edward Lee, the English Ambassador to Spain), tells of his father having been involved in explorations of the Newfoundland coast, and urging the ‘authorities’ to get on with repeating it.

All of which, and far, far more suggests to my mind that ‘Something was happening’ in Tudor times to turn English attention to look west. The only question is when to date it.

Allow me to leap a very eventful century to 4 November 1576. That date was the sacking of Antwerp, and a period of anarchy for the Spanish Netherlands, which had all kinds of consequence. Out of that, the Union of Arras (formulating a core for the remaining Spanish power) and the Union of Utrecht (the cohesion of the United Provinces), both in late 1579, explain why the modern Netherlands (mainly lapsed Protestants) and Belgium (heavily Catholic, but no longer as sincere as they used to be) still persist. This was when the Habsburgs were realising the limits of Spanish power in the Low Countries. After, the main commerce centre moved north along the coast to Amsterdam. From a specific English point-of-view, it destroyed the main export wool-market.

And it’s why I have been reading …

17. Michael Pye, Antwerp: The Glory Years

I bought this book on the back of very warm reviews, and because I knew (and took to) Pye’s earlier The Edge of the World, How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are — which is very much the other half of this story. In the matter of the city and history of Antwerp, Pye’s two books overlap to the extent one may spot borrowings from one to the other: the same names flit from one to the other.

Another reason for acquiring this book was — I know and like Antwerp. Getting there is too easy — off the Eurostar at Brussels-Midi, change platform and the same ticket takes me the rest of the way. Antwerpen Centraal is gloriously theatrical, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century and splendidly over-the-top.

Belgium as a whole is the epitome of Northern European bourgeoisification. Antwerp must count as the country’s most bourgeois provincial city. And the ultimate bourgeois bit of Antwerp is Meir, the fashion district. Money still talks here — but with style.

Pye’s story is the great century of Antwerp, the sixteenth century. His account is topped-and-tailed by two events, making for a compact account (the text is barely a couple of hundred pages). It kicks off with the arrival of Portuguese Jews fleeing from the Inquisition, bringing their skills, trades and acumen. It ends with Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma, suppressing of dissent, enforcing Catholic conformity, and so with the flight of those Jews, of Lutherans and Calvinists to more congenial cities. In between is a period of liberalism, especially in economics.

Hence the story never strays too far from money. The book is delightfully full of anecdotes and vignettes. This is from page 116, starting chapter 8 (which is entitled — yes — Money):

The banker and merchant Erasmus Schetz tried to explain money to his ‘most special friend’, the ‘great and most learnèd man’, the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was not doing well. ‘I was certain,’ Schetz wrote, ‘that within a year I would have rendered you capable of understanding all this.’ He added: ‘I would prefer that you were more capable of grasping this matter than I see you are.’

Erasmus was expecting income from a parish in England, but the coins seemed to have different values in different places. Schetz had to tell Erasmus that there was money in coins and money on paper and the value of the two could shift, that other people could take the difference between the markets in money ‘to their own gain, and to your detriment’. The great philosopher had a simpler view: he assumed he was being robbed.

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Where were you when …

[Your necessary reminder: because WordPress has a vendetta against the Safari browser, this is a re-post from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service on Blogger.]

I’d finished a day teaching. Long since (formally) retired I was a locum at the local Roman Catholic secondary school. Locum in this case making me a ‘supply teacher’, the lowest of the low in the pedagogic pecking order.

It wan’t by any means a ‘bad’ billet. My TCD degree gave certain credibilities (I’d mentioned that I wasn’t RC; but that didn’t seem to matter). I could, though, cope with the stuff others shied away from — A-level Milton kept me in fodder for several years. Above all, it more than paid the bills: what with a secure pension, and this daily screw I was better paid in retirement than I ever had been before. I was once, discreetly, told that and the ‘on-costs’ made me the third most expensive item on the school pay-roll, after the Head and the Caretaker.

So, sweat of a day behind me, I cruised home on the Yamaha, over Alexandra Park (ignoring as did everyone else, speed restrictions). I dropped down the run-in towards the garage. Removed my crash-helmet, reached for the garage key…

The kitchen door was open, and the Lady in my Life called out: “She’s all right!”


We had a small Sharp tv on a ledge in the kitchen, and it was tuned to the news-channels. The full horror was being revealed moment-by-moment.

The time difference meant that London around tea-time was coming up to noon in New York.

It took some while for everything to become clear.

Number 1 Daughter …

… lived in suburban Noo Joisey, convenient to the ‘Midtown Direct’ trains into Penn Station. We’d been over a few weeks earlier, and trogged around Manhattan in steamy heat to exhaustion. Even to the point where we’d looked up and considered the tourist lift up the Twin Towers,  only to say, “No: they’ll be there another time. Let’s go, get a drink”.

Number 1 Daughter was then working on an consulting assignment in the World Trade Center. Her husband was down in Texas on some job. So Number 1 Daughter, with au-pair, was caring for First-born, due into day care.

That was the morning First-born, in short order, filled and re-filled his nappy, so Number 1 Daughter missed two trains in succession.

Not-quite-alternate trains on that Morris & Essex line run into Hoboken, there PATH and the ferry runs to the World Trade Center. When Number 1 Daughter arrived at Hoboken there were, of course, no PATH, no ferries — but all could see the smoke from the Twin Towers. The instruction was to go home — except, by then, the entire transport network was in total chaos, cell-phones were no longer working, and confusion was thrice confused.

It took hours for Number 1 Daughter to make it home. By that stage some sense of events had percolated through: Number 1 Daughter knew some of her team were down to DC that morning, and jumped to the conclusion they could have been on American flight 11. There was another shocker when she made it back to pick up First-born, by which time it was already approaching shutting-up-shop time. Only to find several other uncollected children, and an air of despairing panic setting in.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas …

… a select cadre of business-types could hear and see what was happening in NYC, but couldn’t communicate with home. Number 1 Daughter’s husband managed a line of communication: he could ‘phone his sister in California, who could ‘phone us in London, who could ‘phone Number 1 daughter once she was on the Noo Joisey network.

Without airlines, four business-types hired a car and drove non-stop the seven hundred miles to New York.

Yes, I remember 9/11.


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Not really missing

Anyone expecting the next instalment of the trip around my bookshelves will find it at:

After a slew of frustrations over WordPress not working with a Safari browser, with a single bound I am free!

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Entr’acte: sonnets

Warning: any defects of format are because this is a port from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service, because Blogger is still capable of working with Safari.]

 If those previous posts were the first Act, and if more are to follow, I need a short diversion.

Something short and snappy. My natural verbosity will not deliver, so I’ll still go for the diversion.

I’m not going to explain again the sonnet form. Nor attempt a history of it. I’ll just pluck a few petals on the way.

First up, although it had been around in early Italian since the thirteenth century, it didn’t arrive in England until the sixteenth.

Usually Sir Thomas Wyatt (as left, by Holbein) and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey get that credit. It says much about mid-sixteenth-century courtly life that both those worthies had flirtations with the headsman’s axe. Wyatt was in deep doo-doo through an association with Anne Boleyn which put him in the Tower to witness her end. He was saved by his friendship with Thomas Cromwell (they shared, serially, a mistress, Elizabeth Darrell).

Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, was not so spared. He was a trifle too closely related to the head that wore the crown for comfort; and he had too short a temper for a courtier of Henry Tudor. He became the king’s last victim.

I’ve tried to engage with their sonnets; but never managed to be properly uplifted or enthused.

I’m sure I should rave about Bill Shagspur’s efforts. Some we know too well; others have the odour of a sonnet factory (one cannot maintain prime quality over 154 of them). And I’ve had to teach them too often. Perhaps his best are those almost hidden in Romeo and Juliet (far too good a play to be wasted on the young): the Prologue and the heavily-truncated two tiercets of the Epilogue, but above all the hands motif when the lovers first engage.

My salivation improved with Milton:

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold …

Spit it out, man!Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll’dMother with infant down the rocks. There! Bet you felt better for that! There’s nothing like a piece of invective for clearing the pipes. Some day I must set to discover what incident (apart from a general loathing of Roman Catholicism) prompted Milton’s outburst.

Here’s another that stuck: Keats gob-smacked On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The doughty explorers climb a hill, and find themselves facing a vast new Ocean

Pity it wasn’t Cortez: but then ‘Vasco Núñez de Balboa’ is never going to fit iambic pentameter.

:… like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Allow me to cut to the chase.

There are a couple of modern sonnets that work for me. Both are very Irish, but speak to a wider audience. Both of whose authors I remember seeing in Dublin. Heaney, still unpublished but one we knew to watch, was athwart the cobbles of TCD’s Front Square, in deep conversation with Michael Longley, and (I believe) with Derek Mahon. One at least was smoking a cigarette.

First of them, Famous Seamus:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:Green, swift upsurges,

North Atlantic flux   Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,  

Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

Midnight and closedown.Sirens of the tundra,

Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise  

Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize

And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow. 

L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène  

Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay  

That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous  

And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’  

The word deepening, clearing, like the sky

Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Heaney had withdrawn from the Troubles to Glanmore in the County Wicklow, a few kilometres inland from Wicklow town. I imagine him listening to the post-midnight Shipping Forecast from the BBC. His sonnet twists back to the very beginnings of early English poetry, and their kennings, those metaphors, of Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse. Just as the storm drives the French fishing-boats to shelter in the lee of Wicklow, so his home in the Republic is A Haven.

OK: well it works for me.

If that one is good, this is even better: Paddy Kavanagh — who I was taken to observe in McDaid’s in Harry Street. The evening was yet young, because Kavanagh was merely hunched and solitary.

Kavanagh exploited the sonnet form, playing fast-and-loose with formal rules — and, as we are about to see, whole rhymes. Many propose Canal Bank Walk as his great achievement. Fair enough, say I, provided you are not being blinded by Hilda Moriarty

This one, though, is both simply and grandly, Epic:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

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Telling a story

[Your constant reminder this is a port from Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service, because WordPress doesn’t like Safari browsers.]

At its best, a book tells at least two stories: the text within, and the metatext that surrounds what is within.

Here’s an example:

14. JB Priestley, English Journey

My copy lacks this wrap-around dust-cover, which would multiply its monetary value several fold. It is, nevertheless, a first edition, and in remarkable condition for an octogenarian.

Inside the front cover, its first owner has inscribed, in respectfully modest minuscule, ‘H. Barnett. 23 July 1934’.  Below which, in an educated, even artistic hand, larger, more confident, ‘CT’ (or possibly ‘GT’) ‘1988’, forcibly underlined. In the corner above, Oxfam Books (where I bought it) has pencilled ‘£2,99, w 13’. There’s a whole history summarised.

I obviously got a bargain, because opposite in in delicate pencil is ‘1934 £7.50 1st edition’.

Over the year I have picked up some remarkable autographs in such inscriptions. At one stage I was collecting Left Book Club editions, and found I had the names of a couple of Cabinet members from the Attlee years. The Pert Young Piece rescued those when we moved house, and squealed with delight at her discoveries. One never knows until one looks.

We could, pertinently, ask why Priestley’s text has survived and prospered.

First of all, it was to Priestley and now to us a voyage of exploration, historical and personal.

Start with the extended subtitle:

Being a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt during a journey through England during the autumn of the year 1933

— precise, subjective and emotive (at least in the sense it is placed definitively within Priestley’s own personal emotions).

That comes through with one of his first trips, to Southampton:

I had been to Southampton before, many times, but always to or from a ship. The last time I sailed for France during the war was from there, in 1918, when half a dozen of us found ourselves the only English officers in a tall crazy American ship bursting with doughboys, whose bands played ragtime on the top deck. Since then I had sailed for the Mediterranean and New York from Southampton, and had arrived there from Quebec. But it had no existence in my mind as a real town, where you could buy and sell and bring up children; it existed only as a muddle of railway sidings, level crossings, customs houses and dock sheds: something to have done with as soon as possible. The place I rolled into down the London Road was quite different, a real town.

Margin Released (1962) was as close as Priestley came to a memoir, and beyond the second section and a few letters from the trenches we have to piece together his WW1 service. He had volunteered on 7 September 1914. He was posted to France as a lance-corporal in the 10th Battalion, was wounded twice, most seriously being buried by a trench mortar in June 1916 (which required an extended convalescence). At the dog-end of the War he was back as an officer (anyone of any capability who had lasted four years was likely to be advanced that far) and may have suffered a slight gassing.

In English Journey, he returns to the West Riding, and Bradford, invited to a regimental reunion:

I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about another and better England. I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all arc gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story, by hysterical women waving flags, by grumbling debenture-holders, by strong silent be-ribboned asses by fear or apathy or downright lack of imagination. I saw a certain War Memorial not long ago; and it was a fine obelisk, carefully flood-lit after dark. On one side it said Their Name Liveth For Evermore and on the other side it said Lest We Forget. The same old muddle, you see: reaching down to the very grave, the mouldering bones. I was with this battalion when it was first formed, when I was a private just turned twenty; but 1 left it, as a casualty, in the summer of 1916 and never saw it again, being afterwards transferred to another regiment. The very secretary who wrote asking me to attend this dinner was unknown to me, having joined the battalion after I had left it. So I did not expect to see many there who had belonged to the old original lot, because I knew only too well that a large number of them, some of them my friends, had been killed. But the thought of meeting again the few I would remember, the men who had shared with me those training camps in 1914 and the first half of 1915 and those trenches in the autumn and winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916, was very exciting. There were bound to be a few there from my old platoon, Number Eight. It was a platoon with a character of its own. Though there were some of us in it young and tender enough, the majority of the Number Eighters were rather older and grimmer than the run of men in the battalion; tough factory hands, some of them of Irish descent, not without previous military service, generally in the old militia. When the battalion was swaggering along, you could not get Eight Platoon to sing: it marched in grim, disapproving silence. But there came a famous occasion when the rest of the battalion, exhausted and blindly limping along, had not a note left in it; gone now were the boasts about returning to Tipperary, the loud enquiries about the Lady Friend; the battalion was whacked and dumb. It was then that a strange sound was heard from the stumbling ranks of B Company, a sound never caught before; not very melodious perhaps nor light-hearted, but miraculous: Number Eight Platoon was singing. Well, that was my old platoon, and I was eagerly looking forward to seeing a few old remaining members of it. But I knew that I should not see the very ones who had been closest to me in friendship, for they had been killed; though there was a moment, I think, when I told myself simply that I was going to see the old platoon, and, forgetting the cruelty of life, innocently hoped they would all be there, the dead as well as the living.

After rambling (quite literally) up the Dales, Priestley heads for the Potteries and then to Liverpool and Lancashire. This is where the tone of the Journey changes, and Priestley’s mood with it. What about the slums of Liverpool? —

A great many speeches have been made and books written on the subject of what England has done to Ireland. I should be interested to hear a speech and read a book or two on the subject of what Ireland has done to England. If we do have an Irish Republic as our neighbour, and it is found possible to return her exiled citizens, what a grand clearance there will be in all the Western ports, from the Clyde to Cardiff what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease. The Irishman in Ireland may, as we are so often assured he is, be the best fellow in the world, only waiting to say good-bye to the hateful Empire so that, free and independent at last, he can astonish the world. But the Irishman in England too often cuts a very miserable figure. He has lost his peasant virtues, whatever they are, and has acquired no others. These Irish flocked over here to be navvies and dock hands and casual labourers, and God knows that the conditions of life for such folk are bad enough. But the English of this class generally make some attempt to live as decently as they can under these conditions: their existence has been turned into an obstacle race, with the most monstrous and gigantic obstacles, but you may see them straining and panting, still in the race. From such glimpses as I have had, however, the Irish appear in general never even to have tried; they have settled in the nearest poor quarter and turned it into a slum, or, finding a slum, have promptly settled down to out-slum it. And this, in spite of the fact that nowadays being an Irish Roman Catholic is more likely to find a man a job than to keep him out of one. There are a very large number of them in Liverpool, and though I suppose there was a time when the city encouraged them to settle in it, probably to supply cheap labour, I imagine Liverpool would be glad to be rid of them now. After the briefest exploration of its Irish slums, I began to think that Hercules himself will have to be brought back and appointed Minister of Health before they will be properly cleaned up, though a seductive call or two from de Valera, across the Irish Sea, might help. But he will never whistle back these bedraggled wild geese. He believes in Sinn Fein for Ireland not England.

Tsk! Tsk! Mr Priestley!

If Priestley is out-of-sorts in Liverpool, his temper worsens as he drives through industrial Lancashire:

We went through Bolton. Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there. That is probably the secret of the Lancashire working folk: they have accepted that challenge; they are on active service, and so, like the front-line troops, they make a lot of little jokes and sing comic songs. There used to be a grim Lancashire adage: “Where there’s muck, there’s money.” But now when there is not much money, there is still a lot of muck. It must last longer. Between Bolton and Preston you leave the trams and fried-fish shops and dingy pubs; the land rises, and you catch glimpses of rough moorland. The sun was never visible that afternoon, which was misty and wettish, so that everything was rather vague, especially on the high ground. The moors might have been Arctic tundras. The feature of this route, once you were outside the larger towns, seemed to me to be what we call in the North the “hen runs.” There were miles of them. The whole of Lancashire appeared to be keeping poultry. If the cotton trade should decline into a minor industry, it looks as if the trains that once carried calico will soon be loaded with eggs and chickens. It is, of course, the extension of what was once a mere hobby. Domestic fowls have always had a fascination for the North-country mill hands. It is not simply because they might be profitable; there is more than that in it. The hen herself, I suspect, made a deep sub-conscious appeal to these men newly let loose from the roaring machinery. At the sound of her innocent squawking, the buried countryman in them began to stir and waken. By way of poultry he returned to the land, though the land he had may have been only a few square yards of cindery waste ground. Now, of course, sheer necessity plays its part too. We were going through the country of the dole.

He is back, eighty years on, in Dickens’s Coketown. Preston, which is generally taken as the model for ‘Coketown’, shows the cotton trade already in terminal decline:

That very day a mill, a fine big building that had cost a hundred thousand pounds or so not twenty years ago, was put up for auction, with no reserve: there was not a single bid. There hardly ever is. You can have a mill rent-free up there, if you are prepared to work it. Nobody has any money to buy, rent or run mills any more.

George Orwell will follow a couple of years later, also on Victor Gollancz’s money and patronage, and do a better, more incisive demolition.

That followed quickly by an anticipation of the North-South divide, the ‘Red Wall’, ‘levelling up’ and other false promises:

Lancashire must have a big plan. What is the use of England — and England in this connection, of course, means the City, Fleet Street, and the West End clubs — congratulating herself upon having pulled through yet once again, when there is no plan for Lancashire. Since when did Lancashire cease to be a part of England? […] No man can walk about these towns, the Cinderellas in the baronial household of Victorian England, towns meant to work in and not to live in and now even robbed of their work, without feeling that there is a terrible lack of direction and leadership in our affairs. It does not matter now whether Manchester does the thinking to-day and the rest of England thinks it to-morrow, or whether we turn the tables on them and think to-day for Manchester to-morrow. But somebody somewhere will have to do some hard thinking soon.

And on this most unsatisfactory conclusion, asking myself, over and over again, what must be done with these good workless folk, I took leave […] and made for the bleak and streaming Pennines, on my way to the Tyne; with the weather, like my journey, going from bad to worse. 

By which time Priestley is running a cold and a temperature, and dislikes Newcastle :

taking a great dislike to the whole district, which seemed to me so ugly that it made the West Riding towns look like inland resorts.

Then he anticipates Orwell precisely:

On a morning entangled in light mist, under a sullen sky, I left the Tyne by road for East Durham. Most of us have often crossed this county of Durham, to and from Scotland. We are well acquainted with the fine grim aspect of the city of Durham, with that baleful dark bulk of castle, which at a distance makes the city look like some place in a Gothic tale of blood and terror. […] It is, you see, a coalmining district. Unless we happen to be connected in some way with a colliery, we do not know these districts. They are usually unpleasant and rather remote and so we leave them alone. Of the millions in London, how many have ever spent half an hour in a mining village? How many newspaper proprietors, newspaper editors, newspaper readers have ever had ten minutes’ talk with a miner? How many Members of Parliament could give even the roughest description of the organisation and working of a coal-mine? How many voters could answer the simplest questions about the hours of work and average earnings of a miner? These are not idle queries. I wish they were. If they had been, England would have been much merrier than it is now.

Most English people know as little about coal-mining as they do about diamond-mining. Probably less, because they may have been sufficiently interested to learn a little about so romantic a trade as diamond-mining. Who wants to know about coal? Who wants to know anything about miners, except when an explosion kills or entombs a few of them and they become news? 

His journey returns him south: he isn’t much taken by York, quite likes Beverley, and finds Hull busy with fish and grain:

It remains in my memory as a sound and sensible city, not at all glamorous in itself yet never far from romance, with Hanseatic League towns and icebergs and the Northern Lights only just round the corner.

Lincoln he likes, too: a comfortable hotel, some companionship, and

few things in this island are so breathlessly impressive as Lincoln Cathedral, nobly crowning its hill, seen from below. It offers one of the Pisgah sights of England.  There, it seems, gleaming in the sun, are the very ramparts of Heaven. That east wind, however, blew all thoughts of idling in the Minster Yard out of my mind.

Ditto market day in Boston, and not quite three hundred feet high Boston Stump (actually, St Botolph’s is just over eighty metres).

And so via King’s Lynn to Norwich:

1 was not paying my first visit to Norwich, though I had never stayed there before.   But I must have lunched several times at the Maid’s Head, and then spent an hour looking at the antique shops in Tombland. The last time we were there, I remembered, we had bought a John Sell Cotman and a pretty set of syllabub glasses.

For me the notion of finding a Cotman in an antique shop, is more than anything else the distinction of 1934 and today. Priestley then chucks in an anticipation of regional government:

What a grand, higgledy-piggledy, sensible old place Norwich is! May it become once more a literary and publishing centre, the seat of a fine school of painters, a city in which foreigners exiled by intolerance may seek refuge and turn their sons into sturdy and cheerful East Anglians; and may I live to sec the senators of the Eastern Province, stout men who take mustard with their beef and beer with their mustard, march through Tombland to assemble in their capital.

Bring it on, say I.

Finally his journey over, Priestley works up a froth to sum it all. We then see why he became so popular during the Second Unpleasantness (1939-1945). The Central Office of Information decided that regional voices were a good thing — apart from much else, they were harder for the Huns to imitate, and they did give some sense of ‘We’re all in this together’. Despite Priestley’s boast of keeping his Bradford accent, three years at Cambridge had softened it. In his war-time broadcasts he reconstructs it (as did John Arlott, Wilfred Pickles, and others).

In 1934 ‘Jack’ Priestley is already preparing himself for that rôle (he was ever a man of the theatre):

I thought about patriotism. I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander, It was a term of sneering abuse, but 1 should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world, and being surprised and pained and saying, “Bad show!” if some blighters refused to fag for them. They are patriots to a man. I wish their patriotism began at home, so that they would say — as I believe most of them would, if they only took the trouble to go and look — “Bad show!” to Jarrow and Hcbburn. After all, I thought, I am a bit of a patriot too. I shall never be one of those grand cosmopolitan authors who have to do three chapters in a special village in Southern Spain and then the next three in another special place in the neighbourhood of Vienna. Not until I am safely back in England do I ever feel that the world is quite sane. (Though I am not always sure even then.) Never once have I arrived in a foreign country and cried, ‘This is the place for me.” I would rather spend a holiday in Tuscany than in the Black Country,, but if I were compelled to chose between living in West Bromwich or Florence, I should make straight for West Bromwich.

Decode that ‘metatext’.

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