Category Archives: travel

A skeleton argument

Spot the word that had me puzzled:

And here it is, from the Oxford English Dictionary, no less:

Etymology: Of uncertain origin; perhaps shortened < skeleton n.
U.S.slang.
In New York: a homeless person or derelict, esp. one who sleeps in the subway system.
To which we can add — since Montauk Harbor is some 110 miles, and three hours on the Long Island Railroad from Grand Central — this term has travelled a bit from its origin.The OED gives five citations, all specific to the vocabulary of the NYPD and New York’s Finest.
Oh, and The Dock is well worth the visit. Manspreading, mansplaining, and general chauvinism part of the “atmosphere”.
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Sunday, 10th September, 2017

Business of the day:

Home, James! And don’t spare the InterCity 125!

But first, breakfast at Monkeynuts. Because that’s what we do on such occasions. The breakfast plate (not the veggie option, thank you!) and two mugs of latte.

Then the 91 down to King’s Cross. Since it’s Sunday morning, that’s a whizz all the way.

Hang around for Virgin East Coast to flag up the platform number. A scamble through to platform 3. It’s the Inverness train, so it’s a diesel 125, not the electric jobs. On the other hand, it’s first stop York, and nominally a shade off two hours. Plus those refurbished Mark 3 coaches are still as good as it comes (the Mark 4s seem to have more cramped seating and less leg-room).

There’s a bit of hanging around in the north midlands, but else it’s Warp Speed, and we arrive almost on time — and that’s not the norm for a weekend service.

The York Citaro bendy-bus from the station to the top of our road: barely a hundred yards and we’re in the house.

And that’s it.

Carte du jour:

As above for Monkeynuts.

Tea from our own pot. The daughter and grand-sons paid an overnight visit and left milk in the fridge. But also, we find, clothes in the washing-machine.

The lightest of evening meals.

Beers of the day:

Give it a rest! Tea and Adam’s Ale (with orange cordial).

Quotes of the day:

Almost anything from Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column, but his last bit seems portentous:

It is one of the paradoxes of minority governments that they can be both acutely vulnerable and remarkably durable. They are easy to wound, but much harder to kill. This could be a long fight.

Those of us who lived thought the examples Rawnsley cites (Callaghan’s long years’ journeys into the Thatcherite night, and the dark extended tea-time of John Major’s soul-less trek) would recognise that. This time, though, it could be even worse.

Rawnsley must be read alongside the opposite, editorial page. The two go together like stewed rhubarb and custard:

Britain has a Tory problem and, as the clock ticks, it is growing critical. The irresponsible behaviour of many Conservatives at this fraught juncture in the country’s affairs is nothing less than a national disgrace. How can May and her senior colleagues hope to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU when, leaking and briefing against each other, they cannot agree on handling even the most basic issues? How dare David Davis, the Brexit minister, repeatedly try to mislead parliament and the public with his patronising, faux-cheery accounts of the Brussels negotiations, claiming falsely that useful progress is being made? Such breathtaking disingenuousness echoes last year’s mendacious Leave campaign. It is equally objectionable.

By what twisted reasoning do Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg and fellow hard-Brexit Tories claim a mandate for foisting their extremist minority views on the majority of voters? Whether or not they backed Brexit 15 months ago, most people rightly fear a 2019 cliff-edge meltdown damaging livelihoods, incomes and their children’s and grand-children’s futures. Fox, minister for trade deals sans trade deals, embarrassed Britain, his hosts and himself during a recent visit to Japan by accusing the EU commission of blackmail. It was an ill-judged jibe that said more about the chaos characterising the government’s ineffectual stance than it did about Brussels.

Grief! We live in benighted, squalid, little country!

Ear-worm of the day:

In the RV1 bus last evening, coming back over Waterloo Bridge, with a bright sun lowering up the river. Trum-twiddle-trum-twiddle-trum-trum:

What else?

 

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Filed under Andrew Rawnsley, Kinks, London, Observer, politics, travel

Saturday, 9th September, 2017

Business of the day:

To the National Theatre for Follies.

We bought tickets at the announcement, just as the pre-production hype was building, mainly on the assumption that:

  • when the National do a musical,
  • when the cast is so stellar,
  • when it’s Sondheim —

— this one is going off the scale. And, counting the star-ratings given by the critics, it’s doing just that.

So, it’s the w7 to Muswell Hill, and the 43 down (in theory) to London Bridge, with a gentle amble along Thames-side, a light lunch somewhere, and arrive at the Olivier in good time. The best laid schemes …

All was going well until we hit a major snarl-up at Bank. Like that opening voice-over in Casablanca, “the others wait… and wait… and wait… and wait”. It stayed that way until the bus-driver relented, and allowed semi-legal escape by creeping along the wrong side of the pedestrian barrier. We are only at the bottom end of Moorgate. There are several options to get to the South Bank site, but here’s an opportunity to do something I’ve probably done at most a couple of times in living in London for over forty years: take the City Drain. Come to think of it, I’d reckon the last trip must have been on the 1940 rolling stock.

The Drain is something of an anomaly. It exists simply to bring the commuters from south-west London, off the Waterloo trains, across the river to the City, a distance of less than 1½ miles —something like four minutes end-to-end on a shuttle service. No intermediate stops. No possible extensions north, south, east or west. It simply exists.

So that’s the way we went.

The South Bank is redolent with snackeries, but we ended up inside the National: lattes and sandwiches. Haute cuisine, this is not.

Then to the wonder of real live theatre. Over two hours of it: no interval. And Follies enthrals. The context is a final meeting, in 1971, of the individuals who had inhabited this theatre and Weismann’s Follies between the First and Second Wars, for the theatre is to be demolished. The plot (as far as there is one), in essence, is a four-hander: two mis-matched couples retracing their lives and loves over thirty years. Lots of angst. And, at the end, the resolution is the same as before: the two couples continue to their previous lives, presumably a bit more aware of who and what they are. The twist is that Sondheim has each of them followed by a shadow of who they had been in 1941 (this production adds a shadow to each one of the cast).

Indeed this leads us to the great conundrum of the National’s revival of Follies:

Tracie Bennett, Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton play the magnificent Follies in this dazzling new production. Featuring a cast of 37 and an orchestra of 21, it’s directed by Dominic Cooke …

Extravagant staging. Big budget stuff. Yet the show is scheduled for barely eight dozen performances in total. On the other hand, there will be one of those National Theatre Live broadcasts.

If getting to the National had been fraught, getting back to Norf Bleeding’ Lunnun was as difficult.

We grabbed the RV1 hydrogen bus from the National to Covent Garden. So far, so very good. Then came the worst idea going: switch to a 4 to Archway. This route has to be one of London’s more circuitous. Saturday afternoon and Arsenal Stadium make it very heavy going. The result was the better part of two hours gone from my life forever.

Having arrived at Highgate Hill, it might seem logical to take a 210 up to Highgate Village …

Carte du jour:

There are many nosheries in the Village. So we eliminated the pub steak-houses (two previous nights’ running was enough of that). The best pizza-and-pasta joint could provide for us, but only if we were in-and-out in the hour. So we ended up in the Café Rouge, which was amazingly empty. Presumably because all the other trough-eterias were heaving.

Beers of the day:

Café Rouge supplied an adequate Merlot, then back (down the Hill and the W5 back to the Maynard) for another taste of that ELB Jubilee. I must have been getting an addiction.

Quotes of the day:

The show-stopper of Follies:

Imelda Staunton (as Sally) winding herself up:

The sun comes up,
I think about you.
The coffee cup,
I think about you.
I want you so,
It’s like I’m losing my mind.

What amounts to the punch-line of Follies (and this seems an addition to the play-script):

Philip Quast (as Ben Stone): You’re really something else!
Janie Dee (as Phyllis Stone): Bet your ass!

Readings of the day:

Somehow, I never got into the fat Saturday papers.

My reading of the day was the programme for Follies. Yes, I bought the play-script, but have done little more than dip into it.

Ear-worm of the day:

Part paradox, part because these “behind-the-scenes” musicals have a degree of parallelism:

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Blessed Saint Margaret

This week, for family reasons, to King’s Lynn, and what was Saint Margaret’s and is now dignified as Lynn Minster.

Lynn deserves greater notice that it gets. Much of the town-core has many fine buildings, all the way back to the medieval period. Of the baker’s dozen of Grade 1 listed buildings in the town, the 15th century Hanseatic Warehouse would be a treasure anywhere. The late-17th century Customs House, and its position on the old harbour, has to qualify as gem-like: Nikolaus Pevsner was bowled over by ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’. From Tuesday Market (now, inevitably, a parking area, and the Minster, one walk through High Street and Nelson Street: Nelson Street (renamed sometime — presumably c.1805 — for the Norfolk Hero, but originally Lath Street) can be little more than 150 yards in length, but contains two dozen listed buildings.

Why has Lynn been so fortunate to preserve so much of its history?

First, I suppose, because the Luftwaffe (who were the chief instigator of post-War British architectural horrors) had far too many better targets. Second, because — after its brief span as a Hanseatic port — the town became a by-water. The clue is in the wikipedia entry:

The town centre is dominated by budget shops reflecting the spending power of much of the population.

The corollary of that is the #Brexit vote: across the district, over ⅔ voted Leave.

St Margaret of Antioch

A remarkable number of English churches (a list is here) are dedicated to one or other of the Saints Margaret, but the unhistorical virgin of Antioch gets most billing.

Which raises an obvious question.

My assumptions were the confusion with Marina of the Orthodox Church, also, from the Latin, the sea.

Then Margaret, for being an impious young lady, was sent to mind sheep. Which gives the wool-trade connection.

But then, I belong to a generation which had yet to develop feminist studies. So I have to go with the mood: her cult grew after the first millennium because invoking her was a charm against the dangers of child-birth.

The cult of Margaret of Antioch appears, too, in the town arms. Legend has it that Margaret was devoured by a dragon, but, when she produced her crucifix, the dragon’s belly split apart, and she stepped out unharmed. For this miracle, she was — so the story goes — beheaded.

Which side are you on?

Back in the Minister, high above where the rood screen should be, is a royal arms. They are those of Charles II. And thereby hangs another tale.

The two Members of Parliament for Lynn were Thomas Toll and John Percival, both puritans. We can presume thereby a strong faction of the goodly burgers of the town sided against Charles I. By the nature of business, the parliamentarians were based in the urban trading and commercial classes. Added to which, there would have been considerable import of subversive protestant materials and tracts  — the illicit pornography of the time — from the Low Counties. The Norfolk countryside, however, was more royalist — as one might expect among the unenlightened land-owning gentry. The royalists had their supporters, too, in the population of Lynn. The result was, to put it mildly, civil commotion, with the royalists coming out on top. The royalist leader was Sir Hamon L’Estrange, who emerged from his feudal base at Hunstanton as “governor” of King’s Lynn.

During the summer of 1643, the parliamentarians had mopped up Lincolnshire and were ready to move on Lynn, by now the only royalist hold-out across East Anglia. Put on alert, royalist Lynn strengthened the defences. The Earl of Manchester rolled up with his besiegers, secured the roads and bridges into Lynn, and began occasional bombardments from across the river. On 3rd September one cannonball made a direct hit on the west window of St Margarets. Another ball was turned up in Nelson Street, and now features (as right) over the entrance of Hampton Court.

Manchester had the water supply to the town diverted, but Lynn held out on the hope of relief from Newcastle’s royalists across the Wash. Manchester issued his ultimatum on 15th September, ordering the defenders to remove women and children. After three weeks defying the siege, Lynn surrendered, and at day-break on 16th September 1643 the parliamentarians occupied the town.

Come 1660, the church-wardens of St Margaret’s. Mathias Welles and Thomas Thetford (making sure their names were prominent), rushed to make amends. Hence the royal arms high on the chancel arch. Jollier lions and unicorns are hard to find:

 

 

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Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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On the money day

Back in 344 BC, the Kalendae Iuniae, the Romans dedicated the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill. The site is now occupied by the neat (from the exterior)  basilica church of Santa Maria in Arceli.

She was Juno “the warner” because of the legend — or even a verifiable story, since it had happened just forty years earlier  — of the sacred geese giving the alert of the attack by the Gauls.

During the third century BC, Rome started issuing coins. The mint was set up in the temple of Juno Moneta. So, from that came the terms for “mint” and “money”.

 

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“Affordable and easy”?

Last weekend’s New York Times had a superbly self-contradicting travel article:

Luxury Trips for Less in Spain and Portugal

Despite that headline, the whole piece was about:

how to get maximum luxury for the lowest prices on a Spain or Portugal getaway

So far, so good. And some of the “tips” are valid — or self-evident, depending on your mood. For example:

Spain and Portugal have an abundance of small, family-run luxury hotels, which are often half the price of five-star chain properties… these locally owned properties, in some respects, could be more luxe than chains because their rooms tended to be comparatively more spacious and the service more personalized. If you mention during your stay, for example, that you are interested in the local architecture, don’t be surprised to find reading material about the area’s top architectural sites waiting for you in your room.

Well, stripe me pink and call me ham!

The one that really, really got me was this:

… AND THE TRAIN IN SPAIN The country’s reliable, clean, service-oriented high-speed train system, Alta Velocidad España, is an affordable and easy way to get around. A one-way ticket from Madrid to Málaga, in southern Spain, for example, costs as little as 50 euros.

I defer to nobody in my enthusiasm for travel by rail. And were I wanting to travel from Madrid to Malaga I’d certainly be tempted to do so by AVE. I would book ahead, on-line, and reckon on rather less than €50. Then, both at Seville and Malaga, the AVE arrival is a wee bit away from the centre. Still …

Bucket listing

My interest in this page-filler was, just a few weeks since, I ticked three items off my bucket list: Granada and the Alhambra, Cordoba and the Mesquita, Seville.

The joys of low-cost air travel meant we were in-and-out through Malaga. The commuter trains through Malaga Airport station go all the way in to Malaga-Centro Alameda: €1.80 — not AVE standards, but regular and efficient.

Now we could have made that Andalucian circuit by train, especially the bit from Seville back to Malaga. In fact we found that it was quicker, and cheaper to use the ALSA coach services. On top of which there would be no changes, and more frequent — at least hourly —  departures. Not to mention that the coach stations are, in at least two of those cities, more adjacent to the tourist centres.

Time and tide waits for the retired

The other dimension here is we didn’t racket around. We took a fortnight, which allowed several days in each city. That was just as well: the Alhambra for one allows only a ration of visits each day; and to do the whole site — the Nasrid palace, the palace of Charles V (no where near as spectacular, but worth the trip) and the Generalife — is going to take a full day.

Then, in Seville, you are not going to get into much of the cathedral, or climb the Giralda, on a Sunday …

And, doing it that way, meant it allowed us to rent an apartment in each location. It also gives access to a washing machine, so less baggage.

The bottom line is: luxury shouldn’t trump convenience.

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