Events in Ukraine continue to dominate the news, and my thoughts inevitably drift to the anti-war movement and the peace songs of my youth. I am, at heart, a child of the 60s, and the anthems of those heady days still resonate with me. In those far off times we were convinced that the world could be a better place, if only those in power would listen to our pleas and give peace a chance.
We were, of course, hopelessly naïve in the belief that our message would be heard by those in a position to make the necessary changes. Fifty years on the world is a very different place, but as recent events demonstrate, not a lot better.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe absolutely that, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender or sexuality, the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people. But not everyone, and when bad people get into positions of power, bad things can still happen. The evidence is all around us right now.
Much of the anti-war sentiment that prevailed as I grew up in the 60s and early 70s came from the conflict in far-off Vietnam, but for many Brits memories of WW2 were also raw. I remember my father telling me of the occasion when his unit came under intense aerial bombardment and one of his terrified buddies completely lost his mind, leapt onto the bonnet of his jeep, shook a furious fist at the attacking planes and screamed “Death, where is thy sting?” The poor guy found out soon enough.
And I recall, too, my mother’s horrific account of how the family house was destroyed in one of the first air-raids of the war, and of how she and her parents were forced to flee across London to her auntie’s home with all the possessions they had left in the world bundled up in a single tattered bedsheet.
In the circumstances it is no surprise that, when I first heard Edwin Star‘s rendition of War I immediately felt a connection with his words, including:
War, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh (good God, y'all)
What is it good for?
War can't give life
It can only take it away
In fact, the song wasn’t written by Starr himself, but was penned instead for the Motown label by Norman Whitfield and Barret Strong. Although first recorded by The Temptations in March 1970, it was Edwin Starr’s powerful version three months later that took the anti-war movement by storm, reaching #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #3 on the equivalent UK chart (see note #1 below).
Sadly, War’s lyrics seem just as relevant today as they did when I first heard them half a century ago.
The invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind other anti-war songs from the same era. Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War, for example, an angry attack on those who seek to profit from conflict without any concern for the suffering of those caught up in it (see note #2 below). Can you spot the connection with recent events in Ukraine? No? Then look harder!
You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly...
You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins
And finally, my mind turns to John Lennon, who told the world in 1969 that we should Give Peace a Chance. A couple of nights ago we changed television channels a little early to watch the evening news, and caught some tail end coverage of a Rugby Union match. The game itself was over and the studio pundits were raking over the embers, as they always do. And in the background was John Lennon with his Plastic Ono Band, belting out his anthem for peace across the stadium’s sound system.
It can’t have been a coincidence: whoever chose to play that track at the end of that rugby match must have had Ukraine on his mind. And my overwhelming reaction was one of immense sadness, sadness that, nearly 50 years after Lennon laid the track down, we still feel the need to play it.
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Note #1: Other notable covers of War include recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984: YouTube link here) and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1986: YouTube link here). YouTube also boasts compelling amateur footage of the Boss performing the song live alongside Edwin Starr: enjoy it here).
Note #2: Notable covers of Masters of War include a recording by The Flying Pickets (1984: YouTube link here) and this acoustic YouTube version by Ed Sheeran (c.2013).
Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.
And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.
A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.
In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.
Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.
Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil.
One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.
Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?
But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.
I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.
Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.
Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.
Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.
And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.
Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?
Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?
My interest in folk music was inherited from my father. He was no great expert (and no great singer either!), but he knew just what he liked. Two of his favourite performers of folk and traditional songs were Joan Baez and Burl Ives. My last post touched briefly on a memorable track by Baez, so today I’ll say a few words about one of my favourite Burl Ives ballads.
The Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known American folk song, probably dating from the early 19th century. The lyrics were first set down in Joseph Bever’s Christian Songster, published in 1858. They tell the story of a man’s arduous journey through life, and his belief that his lot will improve after death when he will leave his troubles behind him and be reunited with his loved ones.
Folk song lyrics are like the Covid virus, constantly mutating, forever evading capture and control. So what follows isn’t a definitive version, but is nevertheless a reliable guide to The Wayfaring Stranger’s tone and major themes:
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I goI'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan*
I'm only going over home
I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep
I'm going home to see my mother
And all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor dangerIn that bright land to which I go
I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home
Beautiful, and deeply moving! One day – but not any time soon, I hope – a recording of The Wayfaring Stranger will be played at my funeral, as I embark upon my own final journey.
Burl Ives (1909-95) had a long association with this song. Having stormed out of his Illinois teacher training college in a fit of pique in 1929, Ives became an itinerant singer and musician who travelled across the US scratching a living by performing at small venues and doing odd jobs on the side.
Ives’s success and reputation grew, until in 1942 he was given his own radio show on CBS, playing traditional folk ballads. But the rootless, wandering lifestyle that characterised his early career obviously made a deep impression on the young man, and in memory of those times his show was titled The Wayfaring Stranger. Two years later he released a recording of the song on his album of the same name.
Countless artists have since recorded The Wayfaring Stranger, including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran and Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Jack White, whose character Georgie sings it in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. You can track down all of these covers on YouTube
Perhaps the most surprising interpretation I’ve come across was recorded by a bunch of Norwegians, the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. Scandinavia is not a part of the world that anyone might reasonably expect to spawn a memorable version of a classic American folk ballad, but their recording proves beyond doubt that musical talent is blind to national boundaries.
While Hayde’s rendition balances perfectly Rebekka Nilsson’s plaintive vocals with some superbly atmospheric Appalachian instrumentation, Jos Slovick demonstrates that The Wayfaring Stranger works just as well when sung unaccompanied. His a cappella version, recorded for the 2019 movie 1917 is mournful, and gut-wrenchingly haunting. Definitely one of my favourites.
Great folk songs are capable of endless reinterpretation, each new version adding subtly different dimensions to the core narrative and melody. The Wayfaring Stranger is, in my mind anyway, one of the greatest of them all.
* note: “going over Jordan” = dying and going to heaven / paradise
Next Saturday, (8 August), is International Cat Day. To mark the occasion, this post tells the story of a cat who first came into my life almost 60 years ago.
Mum and Dad twigged early on that I was crazy about animals, so when I was about eight years old we got a cat. It was a Siamese, and boasted an impressive pedigree. The neighbours thought we were getting above ourselves, way too big for our boots. Why couldn’t we make do with a tabby or a basic black-and-white job, just like everyone else down our street, they demanded peevishly.
In truth, however, the choice of a pedigree-toting Lilac Point Siamese had little to do with social pretentiousness. Rather, it was a simple matter of financial logic. “Our Mo,” as we called him, had a slightly mis-shaped (square-ish) head, meaning he would never win prizes on the show circuit. As a result we got him dirt cheap, and could therefore afford to eat for the rest of the week!
I can clearly remember my excitement, dashing off to school the next day to tell my class teacher, Miss Milbourne, about our new arrival. Miss Milbourne was a formidable battle-axe, at least 120 years old by my reckoning at the time, and built like a World War 2 American tank.
“Please miss, please miss,” I whined, “we’ve got a CAT!”
“Hrrmph,” Miss Milbourne grumbled moodily, “cats!” How is it that some people can invest so much contempt in a single word, a word just four measly letters long? The subject was never mentioned again.
Despite Miss Milbourne’s evident disapproval, I quickly came to worship Our Mo. There was so much to admire about him, including an uncanny ability to catch birds in mid-air and a visceral hatred of dustmen (aka “trash collectors” in North America).
Our Mo quickly learned how to open the living room door, leaping up to the lever handle and pulling it down with his paw to release the catch. After this it took him just a second or two to hook his paw around the edge of the door – which would now be slightly ajar – and ease it open. This neat trick enabled him to take himself off to bed whenever he felt like it.
When we first had him, Mum tried to persuade Our Mo that if he wanted to sleep on my bed it would have to be in a sturdy paper bag. I don’t think that lasted a week, and pretty soon he’d abandoned his paper bag and was lying wherever he chose. Often that would be in my bed, his head on the pillow facing mine, purring softly and twitching as he dreamt.
In his younger days Our Mo was a bit of a bruiser. He would regularly exact violent revenge on any other cat encroaching on his territory. One woman from across the road complained that we should teach our cat some manners, and do more to keep him under control. Even at my tender age, I recognised this was a preposterous suggestion. Cats will be cats.
Anyway, Mum and Dad didn’t like this woman much, and the fact that our cat was regularly able to give her cat a good pasting was a source of great vicarious pleasure. The only cat Our Mo ever tolerated in our garden was the next door neighbours’ elderly moggie, who was apparently given special visiting rights on the understanding that he knew who was boss.
Our Mo also terrorized the local wildlife, and as well as birds would regularly bring home mice and shrews. We’d have preferred him to leave nature alone, but like I say cats will be cats, however much we might wish they’d tone it down a bit.
One morning Our Mo laid a fully grown rat outside the back door and stood proudly beside the corpse, waiting for his hunting talents to be admired. Dad must have been at work because I can remember Mum getting very distressed. I was told to stay indoors, the cat was chased off with a flea in his ear (a bit of a change from where his fleas could normally be found!), and the next door neighbour was summoned and told to bring a shovel to dispose of our cat’s unwelcome trophy.
Once, and only once, Our Mo met his match. One day he came in from his adventures drooling at the mouth, sneezing violently and looking very sorry for himself. He was in a terrible state, and it was quickly decided he had to go to the vet.
This in itself was a bit of an ordeal. The vet’s surgery was several miles away and we had no car, so he had to be taken by bus. We didn’t have a pet carrying basket. I don’t know if they were even invented in those days, but if they were we wouldn’t have been able to afford one. So instead, Our Mo had to be taken in a zip-up shopping bag with just his head sticking out of the top.
Siamese cats have a loud, plaintive miaow at the best of times, but the stress and indignity of travelling by bus in a shopping bag with just your head poking out provoked a non-stop vocal protest that sounded for all the world as if he was being tortured. We couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from the accusing eyes of our fellow passengers, who plainly believed an act of unspeakable animal cruelty was in progress.
The vet examined our cat thoroughly, thought for a bit and asked if we had toads in our neighbourhood. Mum gave me a stern look, and I had to admit that although there were none on the riverbank that backed on to our garden, one of my collection of pet toads – my second best specimen, known as Walter – had gone AWOL a few days previously.
The vet’s diagnosis was that our cat had encountered Walter in the garden and had tried to dispatch him with a swift bite to the neck. However, he explained, toads are blessed with special glands to help them cope with just this sort of emergency, glands that can release a noxious irritant producing a swift and massive allergic reaction in the attacker. Case solved. The cat was given a vitamin shot and instructed to rest. I was given a telling off and instructed to keep better control of my outdoor menagerie in future.
Talking of trips to the vet, Mum was a very proper lady who had certain standards, and one day she decided that Our Mo’s feet were unacceptably smelly. The wretched creature was dragged off to the surgery again, where the long-suffering vet had to sniff his paws. Poor man, seven years training to be a vet, and he ended up snorting a cat’s feet to earn a living!
To make us go away the vet advised that we dip Our Mo’s paws in TCP (a particularly stinky disinfectant) every night, which resulted in them stinking of TCP instead. Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the illness. The neighbours thought we were completely out to lunch, and in this instance you have to see their point.
Our Mo cat died when I had just turned 18. I have no brothers or sisters and was a bit of a loner, so when the cat’s kidneys failed and we had to have him put down it felt as if a great chasm had opened up in my life. I can remember the three of us – Mum, Dad and me – hugging each other and gently sobbing in the living room. He was truly one of the family, a real character, and we missed him dreadfully.
A few months later I went to university. I’ve always thought that it was probably a good thing that Our Mo had already passed on when I left. He would never have understood why I wasn’t at home any more, and would probably have pined. Mum and Dad knew he was irreplaceable. They never had another cat.
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Follow these links to read about some other cats who’ve crossed my path over the years
Click here to read about Sid, one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met, as dapper as a card sharp at the opera, who broke our hearts in 2014
Click here to read aboutMilky Bar, a cheeky chap who is the undisputed king of our Derbyshire suburban Serengeti
Click here to read about Malteser, an unmitigated rogue who visits us whenever he needs a snack
In August 1955 Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Two white men were tried for the crime but, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The following year one of the men, now protected by the rules of double jeopardy, confessed their guilt. Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal are now seen as a pivotal moment in the development of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Bob Dylan described the outrage and his reaction to it in The Death of Emmett Till.
* * *
Although I spent a term studying American history as part of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, we never touched upon the Civil Rights Movement, let alone Emmett Till. But this was in the mid-1970s, so maybe historians had not yet fully processed the subject matter, transforming it from contemporary observation to historical scholarship?
Today, thankfully, things have moved on, and the Civil Rights Revolution is taught as part of an undergraduate paper on The History of the United States since 1865. However, my own formal education in American history ended with the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I owe my introduction to the life and death of Emmett Till to Bob Dylan.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota on 24 May 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While studying there he began performing folk and country songs at local cafés, initially taking the stage name “Bob Dillon.”
In 1960, Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he met ailing folksinger Woodie Guthrie and became a regular in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. He signed his first recording contract in 1961.
Dylan first performed The Death of Emmett Till in July 1962. It is not one of his most well known or highly regarded songs, and never appeared on any of his studio albums. However it began to circulate in various bootleg releases from the early 1960s. You can hear the song and read the lyrics in this YouTube presentation:
For me, part of folk’s appeal is that, skilfully executed, it paints vivid pictures of real lives and real issues. The anger, pain and emotion of folk songs brings to life the dirt-dry words of conventionally written history. The Death of Emmett Tillmay not be Dylan’s greatest composition, but it portrays graphically an injustice that should not be forgotten, and throws light on a dark corner of US history that some would prefer to remain hidden.
So, through his artistry and social conscience, Bob Dylan led me to a place that appeared not to be on Cambridge University’s radar in 1975. I don’t for a moment suppose or suggest that Dylan’s lyrics are in themselves a definitive history of Till’s murder, but in piquing my curiosity and leading me to ask the right questions they did their job.
The internet is loaded with accounts and analysis of Till’s murder and its aftermath, and I have consumed it greedily – but critically – in researching this post. The Wikipedia account is detailed and informative, but much more besides is readily available for anyone willing to look. The truth is out there…
Although it’s the best known of the songs about the Emmett Till murder, Dylan’s was not the first. An Essay on Bob Dylan by Jim Linderman reveals that this accolade belongs to A. C. Bilbrew, a long-time civil rights activist.
Bilbrew’s song is in two parts, each short enough to fit on one side of a 45 rpm vinyl single. It was released just months after Till’s death, sung by jazzman and entertainer Scatman Crothers, masquerading under the name of The Ramparts.
Sadly the song passed largely unnoticed “because [according to Jim Linderman] racist radio stations at the time wouldn’t play it.” However, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the generosity of YouTube, you can listen to Part 1 by clicking here. Part 1 describes events leading up to the murder, and Part 2 the crime itself and the subsequent – farcical – trial. Part 2 is available here.
Legendary folksinger Joan Baez, one time lover of Bob Dylan, has also recorded the A.C. Bilbrew song, combining the two parts into a single offering. You can listen to it by clicking below:
* * *
Three months after the unsuccessful trial of Till’s killers, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A tidal wave of protest followed.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Many years later Rosa Parks said “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back [to the section of the bus reserved for non-whites].”
Emmett Till has become a posthumous icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center helps keep his story alive, both physically and digitally. Any readers of this post wishing to know more about Till’s murder are encouraged to visit the centre’s website, which avows that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”
In a deliciously mischievous twist, the centre is based at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the young man’s killers were acquitted. Fair-minded people – and I include myself here – desperately want to believe that things are getting better, and the existence and deliberately ironic location of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center might suggest that they are.
However, events over the last few months, and in particular killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, must call into question how much progress has really been made.
It is not my place, as a white man living in the UK, to make judgments as to progress – or otherwise – towards racial justice in the US. I simply worry that things appear not to be what fair-minded people might wish them to be.
Nor do I suggest for one moment that this is specifically an American issue. There have been incidents in the UK over the last six months suggesting that racial injustice is alive and kicking here too.
However, one thing does seem abundantly clear: there is no room for complacency, in the US, the UK or, indeed, anywhere else.
And for me, there are three more lessons to be drawn from this brief foray into the story of Emmett Till:
History must not be hidden, and truths – even when they are deeply unsettling – must be told.
Great universities like Cambridge, my own alma mater, must be vigilant in ensuring that the history to which their students are exposed isn’t monochrome.
Folk singers must continue to fulfil their sacred duty: to protest, to rant, to rage and to roar about injustice, wherever they encounter it.
Bob Dylan ended The Death of Emmett Till with following words,
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
As the UK’s Black History Month 2020 draws to a close I’m pleased to record here my support for the line taken here by Dylan, and applaud him for standing tall in 1962, for adhering to the folk-singer’s sacred duty, and for saying what needed to be said.
Last Thursday, 1 October, was National Poetry Day. In a belated celebration of the event, I thought I’d share with you the only two poems I’m able to recite from memory. The first on my list is the work of the American poet Ogden Nash (1902-71), described on the Poetry Association website as “the most widely known, appreciated, and imitated American creator of light verse.”
The verse in question runs to only 13 words, and therefore is clearly no Paradise Lost! On the other hand it has just the degree of cheeky irreverence guaranteed to appeal to a schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Which I guess is why my teacher Mr Williams introduced us to it, and why, over half a century later, it still trips off the tongue. The Canary was published in Nash’s 1931 collection Free Wheeling, and still makes me chuckle today…maybe it’s the birdwatcher in me?
The song of canaries Never varies, And when they’re moulting They’re pretty revolting.
My second poem is a lot more serious. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936), universally referred to as G K Chesterton, was an English author, journalist, critic, philosopher and theologian.
Just why my headmaster chose to display a poster bearing the text of Chesterton’s poem The Donkey in the main corridor at my primary school will forever remain a mystery. Thankfully he did, and at a time when my brain was like a turbo-charged sponge, desperate to absorb new ideas and images, I consumed it greedily. Chesterton’s words have remained with me ever since. Here they are:
When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour; One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet.
If you are one of those people who prefers to listen to poetry, rather than to read if off the page, the link below will take you to a reading of The Donkey by Elric Hooper.
The Donkey celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As I am not, either by upbringing or instinct, even remotely religious, it may seem strange that this poem has stuck to me like glue for more than half a century. But the words have another, more profound meaning which resonated with me then and still does today.
In the first three verses Chesterton’s subject speaks to us directly of the contempt in which he is held by the world, contempt for his origins, his appearance and his lowly status. The donkey appears to us as a pathetic, self-loathing creature, lacking in confidence and eaten up by the ignorant and hateful way that others perceive him.
And yet…in the final verse we learn that he has a noble past, a back-story of which he is justly proud. The donkey has witnessed and been part of an extraordinary, world-changing event. He, no less than any of those who decry and despise him, is worthy of our respect, admiration and love.
And I guess that’s the philosophy by which I have lived my own life. The opinions held by others about our origins, outward appearance and social status are a mere distraction, an irrelevance, perhaps even a lie. We must look beneath the surface to perceive a deeper truth.
All lives have value, and all are worth living. We should never feel the need to apologise for what we are, and what we are not.
Instead of feeling imprisoned by other people’s perceptions of us, surely our focus should be on how each of us can best play the cards we have been dealt in order to help make the world a better place for ourselves, for our fellows and for all living things.
Each of us, guided by a spirit of tolerance and compassion, has the potential to do good. And each of us has the right, as well as the innate capability, to live a happy, fulfilling life untroubled by the negative opinions of those who would wish us ill.
First the good news: after a wait of over five months, Mrs P has at last had a proper haircut. My wonderful missus likes to wear her hair short, in a simple elfin style. The closure of hair salons during lockdown therefore made her miserable, as her locks edged inexorably towards her shoulders. A state of emergency was duly declared, and the Platypus Man was called upon to wield a pair of scissors. I think it’s safe to say I have not found a new career.
The government finally allowed hair salons in England to re-open on 4 July, but when she contacted her hairdresser Mrs P was dismayed to learn that other members of the sisterhood had beaten her to it. It seems that women-folk right across our neighbourhood had been suffering similar torments, but they’d been quicker off the mark in booking appointments. Five anguished weeks followed before, at last, hairdresser Sue was able to fit her in.
Returning from her appointment, Mrs P bounced into the house like a new woman. The measures the salon had put in place to protect clients and customers from coronavirus had been thorough but not onerous, enabling my good lady to relax while Sue got down to business.
And down to business Sue did indeed get, snipping, clipping and primping merrily until order was restored to my wife’s rampant mane. Both literally and figuratively, a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: Mrs P’s got her mojo back. She looks great.
But now for the bad news: my good lady has declared that I too must have a haircut. I generally avoid male barbers like the plague, being pathologically incapable of holding up my end in random banal conversations about soccer, cars or superhero movies. Instead, I let Sue sort out my hair as and when necessary. However, it’s been more than six months since I last sat in her chair of shame, and I’m enjoying a new sense of freedom.
You see, male pattern baldness is embedded in my genes, and has been making its presence known for two or three decades. I’ve not got much hair left now, and I cherish every last strand that has remained faithful to me.
Moreover, I’m a child of the sixties and look back lovingly to my hippy past. OK, I wasn’t a real hippy, but I admired their hedonistic lifestyle and carefree attitude to the cultural norms of their parents. To celebrate their values, in my university years I allowed my hair to grow until it brushed my shoulders, long, thick and luxuriant.
Ah, those were the days!
It’s occurred to me in recent months that the haircutting hiatus initiated by Covid-19 offers the ideal opportunity for a new beginning. Or perhaps more accurately, the chance to relive my glory years.
I therefore boldly suggested to Mrs P that lockdown is just the beginning, that now is the perfect moment for me to grow what’s left of my hair down to my shoulders again, and maybe even to have a ponytail. Her reply was short and to the point: it’s not going to happen, and if I don’t get it cut voluntarily she’ll do it herself when I’m asleep.
So we’ve agreed on a compromise. Mrs P’s booked her next appointment with Sue for early November, and one for me 30 minutes later. Could be worse, I guess: at least I’ll have a couple more months to enjoy my rediscovered hirsute-ness.
And with any luck we’ll be in lockdown again by November, and hair salons will be closed until spring 2021. That should give me plenty of time to explore my inner hippy. Peace, man!
Last week’s post featured my replies to eleven questions posed by New Zealander Liz Cowburn of the Exploring Colour blog, who had nominated me for a Liebster Award. This week I complete the Liebster process by revealing 11 things about me which readers may – or may not – find vaguely interesting or amusing, before moving on to ask 11 questions of my own and nominating a few bloggers to answer them.
11 things about me
1. I was born and raised in west London, under the Heathrow Airport flightpath. I left London at the age of 18 to go to Cambridge University, and never lived there again. I don’t miss it at all, but when I go back and mix with the locals my London accent returns within minutes!
2. In my childhood our garden backed on to a small river – well, more of a stream really – and my happiest days were spent on the riverbank, chasing butterflies, searching for slow-worms and wielding my fishing net in pursuit of sticklebacks. My love of nature and wildlife was born right there. More than any other place on Earth, that riverbank and what I found there made me what I am today.
3. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to one of London’s top schools, an hour’s journey by bus and tube train from my suburban home. It was a Direct Grant Grammar School. These don’t exist any more, but back in the day they were a noble attempt to promote social mobility and greater equality. Most parents had to pay to send their children to these A-list academic establishments, but a few places were reserved, free-of-charge, for children of the “deserving poor.” I was fortunate to win one of those free places, and the quality of education I received as a result was brilliant. It was life changing.
The experience of being a child from a family with a modest income surrounded by youngsters from much wealthier backgrounds helped shape my political outlook. At the time several contemporaries suggested that a career in politics beckoned, but luckily I grew up!
4.Early on I had ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, but at secondary school it became clear that I wasn’t good enough at science to achieve this. However I also discovered an interest in, and talent for, the study of history. I carried that interest through to my university studies, where I also got into archaeology. History remains one of my passions.
5. During my mid and late teens I became a fervent supporter of Brentford F.C., a local soccer club playing in the (then) Fourth Division of the English Football League. My new best pal Pete introduced me to dubious pleasures of league soccer, and having quickly caught the bug I probably didn’t miss more than half a dozen home matches over a period of six or seven years. To be honest, as well as being the least fashionable team in London, Brentford were rubbish most of the time. Supporting them therefore taught me important life lessons, particularly with regard to managing my expectations and coping with disappointment!
6 On leaving university I spent 6 months in Bristol training to be an accountant. However the experience of spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing was profoundly depressing, so I gave it up and opted instead for a career in public service.
7. I have lived in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands of England, for over 40 years. Derbyshire has several claims to fame, including the UK’s first National Park (the Peak District), the world’s first industrial cotton mills established along the Derwent Valley in the late 18th century, several notable stately homes including Chatsworth, Kedleston, Haddon and Sudbury Halls, and the production of world-class ceramics at the Royal Crown Derby factory.
8. In Prague a few years ago I found myself falsely accused of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic! We were wandering in some sort of wooded parkland on a hill overlooking the city centre and, it seems, innocently blundered into an area frequented by ne’er-do-wells. Suddenly two plain-clothed officers leapt out from behind a bush and confronted me, saying that since I was in this place I must be smuggling Albanians, or failing that drugs or foreign currency, into their Mother Country.
When I protested my innocence the goons said only “Is OK, is control, is control, is OK.” I did not find this reassuring. However, having subjected me to a thorough body search and found no illicit drugs, illegal currency or unwelcome Albanians secreted about my person they let me go with a cheery wave. Bizarre, but true.
9. Mrs P and I have visited all 50 states of the USA. The “project” took around 18 years, but could have been completed a lot sooner had we not returned time and again to the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.
10. Over the last few years I have rediscovered my love of folk music, particularly English and Celtic traditional folk. The best folk music is earthy and authentic, echoing a simpler world with fewer frivolous distractions (you know what I mean, stuff like Facebook, the X-Factor and endless selfies,) and more connected with nature, the land and the seasons.
When I was studying history I came across The World We Have Lost, a book by Peter Laslett about English social history before the Industrial Revolution. For me, much of English folk music is a reminder of the lost world that Laslett writes about. This song, sung by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith about the rhythm of the seasons in an agrarian landscape, is a case in point:
I have no musical talent whatsoever, but wish more than ever that I could sing in tune or maybe knock out a few notes on a fiddle, guitar or mandolin, so that I could be more than just a passive consumer of the folk music genre.
11. My favourite bird is the humble oystercatcher. Although I’ve watched birds on 6 continents and seen many rare and beautiful species, the oystercatcher gets my vote because it’s a bit of a Jack-the-Lad: loud, feisty and unapologetically full of itself, always strutting around to show off its good looks and screaming abuse at anyone or anything encroaching on its turf. In human form these characteristics would be a nightmare, but in a bird they’re strangely endearing … to me, anyway.
11 Questions for my nominees
Why do you write your blog?
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
What do you usually eat for breakfast? And what would be your dream breakfast, prepared free-of-charge by a top chef?
Dogs or cats?
Which four historical figures (2m, 2f) would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
Where is your favourite place to visit?
How important is Nature in your life, and how do you get close to it?
If you were reincarnated, what animal or bird would you like to be?
Do you have a favourite book, one that you return to time and again? Why is so special to you?
Your house is burning down. All the other people and their pets have got out safely but you only have time to save one personal possession. What will you save?
We all know about the terrible impact of Covid-19 on individuals and communities, but is there an upside? Has the crisis had any positive impact on you and your life?
My nominations for a Liebster Award
This has been difficult. Some of the blogs I would have nominated have declared themselves award-free, while others have recently been so-honoured (Liz, Ann, Mike, this means you!) So my list comprises a few blogs that have kept me entertained, diverted or informed during the Covid-19 lockdown. If you’re not listed here but fancy having a go, please do so with my best wishes.
If, however, you appear on the list but don’t want to take part that’s OK too. There’s no obligation whatsoever, and I won’t be offended. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and had fun doing it, but I know it won’t suit everyone. The choice is yours.
This blog celebrates its first birthday at the end of May so it felt timely that a couple of weeks ago a fellow blogger, New Zealander Liz Cowburn from the Exploring Colour blog, nominated me for a Liebster Award. Our paths first crossed digitally late last year when she began reading and commenting on my earlier blog about a road trip around New Zealand. I was flattered by her interest, and I’m reet chuffed today that she feels my blogging is worthy of recognition. Thank you, Liz.
Given the title of her blog, it’s no surprise that Liz writes about colour, both in nature and in the human world. Her photos, and those of husband Nigel, complement her words perfectly. Through those words and pictures Liz presents a fascinating – and sometimes quirky – glimpse of life in New Zealand. She also touches on lots more interesting stuff, from the impact of last year’s Australian bushfires and Covid-19 on her homeland, to Irish pubs and the poetry of Rabbie Burns! If you haven’t already done so, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Liz’s excellent blog.
Now you may be wondering just what the ‘Liebster’ (German for ‘favourite’ or ‘dearest’) Award is. It’s a means to allow readers to discover new blogs and by the recipients nominating more blogs, lots of bloggers have a chance to be found. (A sort of bloggers-helping-other-bloggers chain letter!)
Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
Answer the 11 questions given to you
Share 11 facts about yourself
Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
Ask your nominees 11 questions
Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post
Having explained what I’m up to I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to tackling Liz’s questions. Then, next week, I’ll move on to the “Big Reveal,” when I will declare 11 facts about the Platypus Man to an expectant blogosphere, before nominating a few folk to answer some cunning questions of my own devising!
Liz’s questions and my replies
1. What connection (if any) do you feel that you have with New Zealand? 🙂
Prior to our trip there in 2019 my knowledge of New Zealand was fairly limited, and could best be summarised thus: “a country that is a bloody long way from anywhere else, very good at rugby but not so clever at cricket, a home to flightless birds facing extinction and lots of sheep.”
Our visit opened my eyes, and allowed me to glimpse briefly a place far more interesting and beautiful than I had imagined. What a great country, what lovely people, albeit people whose vowel sounds – to English ears anyway – are seriously weird! In various ways NZ feels quite British, much more so than Oz or Canada, but the elements of Māori culture give it a unique Pacific spin. Definitely one of my favourite places.
2. What place in this world do you most love?
The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, are remote, beautiful and scattered with relics and reminders of their Neolithic and Viking past. There are more sheep than people, and more birds than sheep, which makes it my kind of place! Without family commitments I think Mrs P and I would have made a life there, but instead we must make do with visits every couple of years. We were due to go again in September, but we’ve had to cancel due to Covid-19. Next year, maybe?
3. Your favourite colour(s) are what? –and what do you associate with the colour?
I guess these days I would single out the colour of autumn. You know what I mean, that distinctive but elusive golden amber hue suffused with shadowy hints of blood, rust and decay, that subtle tone which is a beautiful but poignant reminder of time’s passing. All things must pass.
4. What connection do you feel/experience with Nature?
Nature – wildlife, countryside, open spaces – makes life worth living. I’ve always been into it, but I find my interest grows with the passing of the years. All 5 of my blogs have focused heavily on aspects of nature. For example, I’ve enjoyed writing about close encounters with devils in Tasmania and whales in Newfoundland, with grizzlies in Yellowstone and penguins in New Zealand. We are part of Nature, not separate from it, and my life is made infinitely richer by time spent alongside creatures great and small.
5. Your favourite ‘active’ recreational activity …?
I played cricket in my teenage years, but retired due to gross incompetence. These days “active recreation” equates to a gentle stroll around a nature reserve or bird sanctuary, binoculars and video camera slung from my neck. My bad back, knackered knees and passion for chocolate cake prohibit strenuous physical activity … well, anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
6. Your favourite ‘quiet’ hobby/interest?
Mrs P and I started taking a serious interest in birds during a visit to Scotland in the early 1990s, when we carelessly mistook buzzards for golden eagles! Since then our passion for birdwatching, and for watching other wildlife too, has just grown and grown. This shared activity is fundamental to who we are, individually and as a couple.
7. Is there something you enjoy ‘having a go at’ regardless of skill?
I was going to answer “no” on the basis that life’s too short to waste time on stuff one is bad at. But on reflection, I do enjoy singing in the bath, and Mrs P will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am the most tone-deaf person who ever walked on god’s green earth.
8. What was (or is) your favourite children’s book?
My parents told me that when I was young I used to love Alice in Wonderland. I still appreciate it now, not least because it contains one of my all time favourite literary quotes. I’ve had cause to trot out these wise words at various stressful moments over the years, for example when our rental car broke down on a remote gravel road in an out-of-the-way corner of a sparsely populated island off the coast of Tasmania, and we couldn’t get a signal on our cell phone! Lewis Carrol’s insight goes like this:
“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad,” [said the Cheshire Cat]
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
More recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an extraordinary work of literature. The movie and television adaptations completely fail to do justice to an outstanding piece of imaginative writing which, although notionally aimed at the teenage market, transcends all attempts at categorisation.
Other children’s volumes that grace the groaning bookshelves at Platypus Towers include Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame), Holes (Louis Sachar), The Machine Gunners (Robert Westall), The Milkman’s on His Way (David Rees), the Tripods trilogy (John Christopher), Goodnight Mr Tom (Michelle Margorian), The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (Gene Kemp) and Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman). The best writing for children is brilliant, and should never be dismissed as “childish” or “just for kids.” Some of the greatest writers out there are writing books aimed, in the first instance at least, at a young audience.
9. Your current or past ‘occupation’ ie. work / study / keeping busy is …what?
Before retiring at the end of March 2018 I spent the best part of 40 years working in the UK public library sector, the last 15 running a city library service serving a quarter of a million people. I made this career choice because I knew that libraries can change lives. My father left school at a young age and did menial jobs throughout his life, yet thanks to the local library he was one of the wisest, best educated people I’ve ever known. Libraries made him, and in a slightly different way they’ve made me too.
10. What’s your favourite creative activity.. what do you have a passion for?
I enjoy cooking, particularly experimenting with Indian, Chinese and Thai-inspired dishes. I also relish writing, pulling together stuff that interests or amuses me, rather than the endless boring reports that my employers had me churning out for decades. I do it for my own amusement, and blogging is my outlet. If other people enjoy reading it that’s great, but the whole point is that I enjoy writing it!
11. Is there something you can share about a challenge you face, or have faced?
Interesting question. Like anyone of my age I’ve had my fair share of setbacks and heartache, but nothing out of the ordinary. I guess I’ve been very lucky. I found university challenging, not academically but in terms of my self-confidence and sense of belonging. If I had my time again I’d cope better and make more of the opportunity that uni offered me. I blogged about my experience of Cambridge University last year.
Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.
Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.
However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.
But then Covid-19 got personal.
Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.
Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.
Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.
He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.
Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.
Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.
Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.
Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.