Here in the UK autumn ends today, 30th November. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the notion that the seasons are astronomically determined, in which case you’ll need to wait until around 22nd December for the official start of winter. But as a cold wind whistles around the house and I look out at naked trees, a garden littered with fallen leaves and sullen skies devoid of swooping swallows, I know that autumn’s over. Sigh!
After a difficult few months in which we found ourselves mostly confined to the house by wardrobe woes, the horrible heatwave and the Covid blues, autumn’s been a welcome opportunity to spread our wings a bit. When we visited Surrey and Sussex in October, a few trees were just beginning to turn. They made a perfect backdrop for the artworks at two sculpture parks we visited, and also for Arundel Castle and the Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage.
Left: “Release” and reflection in the lake. Top right: Arundel Castle in Sussex, viewed from its grounds. Middle right: Autumn foliage at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden in Surrey. Bottom right: The gardens at Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage in Surrey.
Fungi were also much in evidence, a sure sign of the changing seasons.
In terms of its symbolism, autumn is ambiguous, a season of immense joy and unbearable sadness. On the one hand it is a time of plenty, ripening, harvest, and abundance. And yet, on the other hand, it represents decline, decay, old age, and the imminence of death. The colours of autumn are glorious, a celebration of life, but we know it won’t last. The golden leaves will inevitably fall and perish, and greyness will prevail. Autumn is the ultimate proof that All Things Must Pass.
But even though All Things Must Pass may sound depressing, it is, for me, a message of hope. Although hard times will soon be upon us, they too shall pass. Nothing is forever, and, in the fulness of time, spring’s awakening will be with us once more.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Forever Autumn, written by Jeff Wayne, Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass, and sung here by Justin Hayward, is a plaintively beautiful love song in which autumn serves as a metaphor for despair and loss. The song features in Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. Here’s a selection from the lyrics:
The summer sun is fading as the year grows old
And darker days are drawing near
The winter winds will be much colderNow you're not here
...Through autumn's gown we used to kick our way
You always loved his time of year
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyeAs if to hide a lonely tearMy life will be forever autumn
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
Listen here, and gently weep for the loves you have lost…
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
This will probably be my last post of 2021. Planning it, I thought I’d write a retrospective piece, focussing on the highlights of the last 12 months. Well that wouldn’t take long, would it, given that there haven’t been any highlights. It’s true that 2021 hasn’t been quite as bad as 2020, but not by much. On balance it’s another year I’d rather forget. But, thankfully, there have been a few compensations along the way.
That was the year that was (all jabbed up, with nowhere to go!)
When I left work in 2018 the plan was that we’d do a lot of travelling, see more of the world and the UK too. And for the first 18 months it worked out just fine, with big trips to the USA – centred on Yellowstone National Park – and New Zealand, as well as shorter stays in various corners of our own country. But since Covid struck nearly two years ago we’ve spent just a couple of nights away from home, in the nearby county of Rutland. Retirement wasn’t meant to be like this!
But at least we’ve had our jabs. Two doses each during the spring, and more recently booster doses to counteract the threat of the omicron variant. We remain healthy and feel safe, but the restrictions and continuing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic have so far deterred us from planning any trips next year. Seems like we’re all jabbed up, with nowhere to go.
So, with our passports gathering dust all year and our UK horizons severely restricted, we’ve had to resort to simple pleasures.
One of the few bonuses of Covid has been that, with long distance travel out of the question, we have found ourselves exploring much closer to home. We’ve finally visited some places that have been on our list for years – decades, even – but never made it to the top. And others that we were totally unaware of, even though they’re in our own backyard. So it’s not been a wasted year, but not at all what I would have predicted when I started drawing my pension in 2018.
The internet has made lockdown life much more tolerable than it would have been had Covid struck before the world went online. During 2021 I’ve spent a lot of time on the web listening to folk music, an interest that dates back to my childhood. We’ve also attended several online gigs on Zoom, and every week I’ve listened to several regional folk music shows via online catch-up radio. We even plucked up the courage to attend one day of the Derby Folk Festival in person, and enjoyed seeing Ninebarrow – a folk duo we discovered online during the first lockdown – perform live.
But more than anything else the thing that has made this year bearable has been the company of our visiting cats, Milky Bar and Malteser. Being at home just about all the time has allowed us to get to know them much better than before, and they’ve repaid us by spending lots of quality time here, sleeping, playing, making mischief and eating any treat we’ve put in front of them. Our Covid experience would have been a whole lot bleaker without those two fabulous felines.
So that’s it, that was the year that was. Of course, it could have been been much, much worse. But I can’t pretend it’s been a bundle of laughs either. Let’s all hope 2022 will be a whole lot better.
Christmas is a time for gift giving, and in that spirit I’d like to present you with this link to a recording on YouTube of Benjamin Zephaniah reading his wonderful Christmas poem that invites us all to Be Nice to Your Turkey this Christmas.
Benjamin was born and raised in Birmingham, England, and is a celebrated dub poet whose work “is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he calls ‘street politics’.” Many years ago Mrs P and I were thrilled to attend one of his gigs. It was nowhere near Christmas, but his performance of this poem still brought the house down. If you’re not familiar with his work do click on the link and listen to the man do his stuff – it may well be the best two minutes and eight seconds of your whole Christmas!
My second gift to you is Joan Baez singing The Cherry Tree Carol. I’ve already observed that my interest in folk music dates back to my childhood. My father loved Joan Baez’s singing, and had several vinyl albums of her work. I grew to love them too, and remember playing and re-playing her records on our ancient radiogram (anyone else remember radiograms?) until the grooves were worn away.
Although dating back in some form to the early 15th century, the Cherry Tree Carol as we now know it was collected by Francis James Child (1825-96) during the second half of the 19th century and included in his famous anthology of English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I am not a religious man, but the spirituality of this song moves me deeply. And who can possibly listen to Joan Baez’s fabulous folkie voice without getting a lump in their throat? Listen and enjoy!
And finally …
Thank you for reading my blog, and for sharing your comments with me from time to time. With Covid restrictions curtailing travel opportunities and limiting our social interactions, I’ve really appreciated exchanging ideas and experiences with WordPress pals from across the globe. You’ve helped make a difficult year more bearable.
I wish you all a happy, peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.
I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)
The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed!
Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.
With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.
They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.
Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them:
The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.
As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!
On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.
Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.
The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.)
The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.
The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.
Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination. To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:
A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Today, 11 November, is Armistice Day, when Britain remembers its fallen servicemen and women. Armistice Day was first observed in 1919 to commemorate the armistice agreement that came into effect on Monday, November 11 1918 – at precisely 11am – to formally end the First World War. To mark this anniversary a two-minute silence is observed each year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
In addition, services and ceremonies to remember those who lost their lives fighting for their country in all conflicts – not just the First World War – are held annually on Remembrance Sunday, which always falls on the second Sunday in November. In 2020 Remembrance Sunday was therefore on November 8, but events were scaled back drastically due to the Covid-19 crisis.
* * *
The First World War resulted in around 886,000 deaths of British military personnel. Unsurprisingly, society felt an urgent need to commemorate those who had lost their lives, and up and down the country war memorials were created as the focus for community remembrance. Memorials took many forms, including in some places a dedicated garden.
Although I’ve lived in Belper since 1983 I’m sorry to say that until a few weeks ago I had never visited its Memorial Garden. The Garden dates from 1921 and lies on land donated by George Herbert Strutt, a descendant of one the town’s most famous sons, cotton mill magnate Jedediah Strutt.
The names of the dead servicemen are inscribed on a simple white granite obelisk, around 4.5 metres high, standing close to the northern boundary of the Garden. There are 225 names in total, including one W [Walter] Pepper.
When viewing war memorials it can be difficult to get beyond the list of names, and to understand something of the lives they represent. But in Walter’s case there are tantalising insights on the web.
The Belper in Wartime website tells us that Walter Pepper was born and lived much of his life within just a few hundred metres of the parcel of land which was to become the Memorial Garden. He worked as a fitter before the war, and later joined the 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment).
Walter was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on Saturday 1st July 1916. He was 38 years old. The night before he “went over the top” to his death, Walter wrote this moving letter to his wife:
I could not rest without saying goodbye, happen for the last time…but I want you to cheer up and be brave for the children’s sake. We must put our trust in God and hope for the best – to come safely through. We go over in the morning and I am in the first line. They are giving them a terrific bombardment… It is simply hell upon earth here.
My last thoughts will be with you at home as we are stepping over the trenches. May God watch over me and guard me and bring me safely through.”
Source: Belper in Wartime website
* * *
Although the obelisk is the primary focus for ceremonies of remembrance, the whole Garden is dedicated to the fallen. Belper town has something of a reputation for its floral displays, and the Memorial Garden was a riot of colour when we visited in September.
The Garden’s generous scattering of benches gives visitors the chance to sit and rest awhile. Here, in this tranquil oasis, it’s easy to escape the hurly-burly of our busy little town, to contemplate and to reflect on the sacrifices others have made so that we may enjoy our comfortable lives today.
One of the Garden’s simple but striking features is the silhouette of an infantry soldier amongst the flowerbeds. Propped against his legs is a plaque bearing the legend “lest we forget.” It’s a poignant reminder of why this is place is here.
And towering over the south-western corner of the Garden is another reminder. Sacrifice depicts the face of Lance Corporal Jim Green, another Belper man who joined the Sherwood Foresters regiment and then perished on the first morning of the battle of the Somme.
Before joining the Army Jim Green worked as a coal hewer at nearby Denby Colliery, and was a popular soccer player. He lived in the Cow Hill area of Belper, within sight of the sculptural installation which now immortalises him. Green’s image is copied from an archive photograph, in which he poses proudly in his uniform tunic and cap.
Sacrifice was designed by local artist Andy Mayers, and is cunningly fashioned from 29 rods of corten steel. As you walk around it the view of the subject’s face is forever changing. From some angles you can almost forget you are looking at a face at all, but from other positions it’s unmistakeably a soldier in uniform. To me the symbolism of this installation is plain: the fallen are forever with us, even though we do not always see them clearly.
* * *
Belper’s Memorial Garden has one more surprise in store, a poem inscribed on a plaque discretely tucked away on one of the boundary walls. One of 20 poems that make up Beth’s Poetry Trail, High Flight was written by John Gillespie Magee, an Anglo-American aviator and poet who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Magee has no obvious connection with Belper, and yet his words clearly belong here. He, like the other men whose names are recorded in the Belper Memorial Garden, gave his life in the service of his country, and in so doing touched the face of God.
Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.
* * *
The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”
Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.
The site of the new development is the former Castle Blouse factory, operated by the Nottingham Manufacturing Company for the production of blouses and hosiery. The building became a storage facility for Rolls-Royce engines during the Second World War and, in 1947, was taken over by the celebrated confectioner Thornton’s. Here, yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thornton’s abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.
Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.
* * *
As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?
A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.
The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.
Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.
So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library
Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.
But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?
But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.
In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.
But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.
Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.
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.
We’d got big plans for 2020. No overseas visits – we wanted to spend a full year in the UK recovering from our 2019 New Zealand adventure – but plenty of travel here at home: a week in Norfolk, a few days in Liverpool, a fortnight in Cornwall, a long weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, and a Scottish odyssey centred around a two-weeks stay in the Orkney Islands. But Covid-19 has blown our plans out of the water: we’re going nowhere in 2020.
Instead, 2020 has become a year of simple pleasures. For more than three months we barely left the house, other than to buy food, so there was plenty of time to read. As a means of escape I’m working my way through the Jeeves novels and short stories by controversial novelist PG Wodehouse. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is claimed by some to be the funniest writer of all time in the English language. That’s overstating his abilities, I reckon, but he’s definitely brought me some welcome comic relief in recent weeks.
Written over a period of 60 years between 1915 and 1975, the Jeeves stories comprise a series of tales about upper class buffoon Bertie Wooster, a supremely stupid representative of the English idle rich who’s always getting into scrapes, and Jeeves, his smart, suave and sophisticated personal manservant, who invariably comes to his rescue. The early 20th century class system portrayed by Wodehouse is achingly absurd – grotesque, even – and one is left wondering how Britain ever achieved its prominent position on the international stage when ineffectual prats like Wooster ruled the roost.
The Jeeves stories allow us to glance over our shoulders at a (thankfully) long-lost world, one in which rich White Englishmen did what they liked and everyone else did what they were told. However the books are wittily written, and as long as we remember the historical context and laugh at the appalling aristocracy rather than with them, it’s just harmless, escapist nonsense. And god knows, in the year of Covid-19, we all need opportunities to escape.
Speaking of escapism, we’ve also been using lockdown constructively to binge our way through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. We missed out on it first time around, but if ever there was an opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about it’s now, when we’ve got loads of time on our hands and not a lot to do with it.
And what a treat it’s been, an epic fantasy, a seething cauldron of death and deceit, dwarves and dragons, debauchery and depravity. Blood and guts litter the landscape in nearly every episode, while power-mad tyrants battle for ultimate control and leave mayhem in their wake. To be honest, it seems not unlike a normal day in the politics of your average western democracy.
For an old cynic like me it’s always been tempting to assume that something as popular as Game of Thrones must be cheap and nasty, just populist rubbish that combines mass appeal with minimal merit. It isn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. The production values are superb, the characterisation vivid, the narrative complex and compelling. There are few positive aspects of Covid-19, but for us one of them has been creating the space and motivation to finally watch a TV show that just about everyone else on the planet has already seen. Love those dragons!
With opportunities to go out and about strictly limited, initially by government edict and then by our own caution, we’ve spent more time than ever before in our little garden. Thanks to my bad back and knackered knees I don’t look after the garden as well as I should, and it therefore has a slightly wild and unkempt appearance, like my Covid-19 hairstyle. But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the birds and the bees and the butterflies have visited regularly throughout the summer.
One day I even spotted a bat, clinging to a pondside plant in broad daylight. It was during a hot spell and I assume he’d gone to the pond to take on water. He took off before Mrs P could grab her camera, circled two or three times around the garden before flying away. A rare treat, something we’d probably have missed in a “normal” year when we’re away from home for much of the time.
Less rare, but still a treat, is a visit from Milky Bar. Regular readers of this blog will know all about Milky Bar, a local cat who claims our garden as his own. Although he occasionally exerts himself by hunting insects, he is probably the most idle cat in existence and spends most of his time with us sleeping, waking just occasionally to chase patches of shade as the sun tracks westwards across the sky. Milky Bar is a great character, and his visits throughout lockdown always lifted our spirits.
It would be banal to say that 2020 has been a year like no other, but clearly what’s happened in recent months was unimaginable as 2019 drew to a close. Mrs P and I have got off lightly. The virus has – so far, at least – passed us by, and as we’re retired and financially secure we’ve been spared the worries about the future that have afflicted so many working people. Instead we’ve spent our days here at home, comfortable and content.
It could have been so much worse and we’ll be forever grateful for our good fortune, and for life’s simple pleasures.
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Postscript: for all you CAT-LOVERS out there, here are links to other posts featuring Milky Bar:
When campaigning about pollution, environmentalists currently focus much of their attention on CO2 emissions and plastics. While this is understandable, it’s important to remember that there’s plenty of other stuff that we should be concerned about. The movie Dark Waters, which is based on real events in a small town in West Virginia, reminds us of the devastating impact that pollution by the chemical industry can have on communities and individuals.
The star of the show is lawyer Robert Billott. Billott takes up the case of small-time livestock farmer Wilbur Tennant, who has watched in horror as his herd of cattle succumbs to a range of illnesses. Tennant believes, and his lawyer finally proves, that the sickness amongst his stock is due to contamination of their drinking water by chemical corporate giant, DuPont.
But the damage isn’t limited to Wilbur’s herd. Billott discovers that DuPont dumped toxic waste at a local landfill site for many years, apparently without regard to the possible consequences and despite the fact that its own research warned of the dangers.
The pollutants released from the landfill are shown to have found their way into local water courses, with probable links eventually being identified between them and medical conditions including various cancers, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia, ulcerative colitis and rotting teeth in humans and animals alike.
The movie homes in on Billott’s marathon David v. Goliath battle. The lawyer takes on DuPont, and many years later finally wins justice for his clients and the local community.
For me, this movie generates a huge sense of indignation, as well as real fear for the future of our planet. If you haven’t done so already I encourage you to watch the movie Dark Waters, and to read the lengthy New York Times Magazine article upon which it is based.
This is not a happy movie, and in a sense I took no great pleasure in watching it – it was too raw, too traumatic. But I’m glad that I did so, to be reminded that I should be vigilant and not take at face value those who glibly tell me that we can trust scientists, big business – and their lawyers – always to do the right thing.
And while we’re on the subject of chemical pollution, the Process Man (also known as the Chemical Worker’s Song and the ICI Song) tells another – equally horrifying – story. The song was written and recorded in 1964 by Ron Angel from Cleveland in the UK.
The economy of that part of north-east England has been dominated by the chemical industry for generations. The industry has provided employment for many thousands, but the human cost – as highlighted by Angel’s lyrics below – has been huge. The lyrics have been sourced from the Antiwar Songs website.
A process man am I and I’m telling you no lie. I’ve worked and breathed among the fumes. That trail across the sky. There’s thunder all around me and poison in the air. There’s a lousy smell that smacks of hell. And dust all in my hair.
But you go boys go. They time your every breath. And every day you’re in this place. you’re two days nearer death, but you go.
I’ve worked among the spinners I’ve breathed in the oil and smoke. I’ve shovelled up the gypsum till it nigh on makes you choke. I’ve stood knee deep in cyanide gone sick with a caustic burn. I’ve been working rough I’ve seen enough to make your stomach turn.
But you go boys go. They time your every breath. And every day you’re in this place. you’re two days nearer death, but you go.
There’s overtime there’s bonus opportunities galore. The young men like the money. Aye they all come back for mare. Ah but soon you’re knocking on. You look older than you should. For every bob made on this job you pay with flesh and blood.
You can listen to Ron Angel singing his song by following this link on YouTube.
At their best the arts, including music and film, are much more than simple entertainment: they are a repository of lessons that we forget at our peril. Songs like the Process Man are an important reminder that much of the prosperity we currently enjoy has been built upon the misery of the masses over many generations, while movies such as Dark Waters should serve as a warning that the profit motive continues to tempt organisations and individuals to do stuff we – and they, ultimately – will regret.
Pollution is an ever-present danger in our modern world. We owe it to the planet, to all creatures currently living on it, and to those who will come after us, to remain vigilant.
My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago. Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.
In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape. It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.
What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers. In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse. Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.
Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931. In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden. Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam.
Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.