The very best thing about being retired

Exactly three years ago today, on 31 March 2018, I trudged out of the office for the last time, bade farewell to the world of work and joined the ranks of the retired. Technically I was made redundant, my post deleted as part of yet another local government cost-cutting exercise. But since the manager who designed the restructuring exercise was me I could have no complaints, particularly as my employers compensated me handsomely for my noble sacrifice.

And anyway, I was exhausted. The restructuring had been dragging on for months, and many valued colleagues – several of whom I had personally appointed and nurtured – were certain to lose their jobs. I was doing what had to be done in the context of a rapidly shrinking budget, but I’d had enough. Surely, I thought, there must be more to life than this. Just give me my pension, and let me get on with it.

But adapting to retirement took longer than expected. Work brought a welcome structure to my existence, a secure framework of expectations, routines and relationships around which to arrange the rest of my life, and without it I was all over the place for a while. In addition it had given me purpose and status – I had an important job to do, and many people relied on me – but overnight all this was swept away. My social interactions also diminished when the daily water cooler banter and tea point chats abruptly ended. Suddenly I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

On the positive side, retirement brought an end to the frantic rushing around that had characterised my earlier life. I could do domestic chores when it suited me and take as long as I liked over them, rather than desperately cramming everything in on weekends. More importantly, it freed up time to travel as and when we wanted, rather than at times dictated by the business needs of my employer. Our rewards have included six weeks touring New Zealand, and a magical return trip to Yellowstone National Park. Nearer to home, until Covid intervened we finally found time to visit many of those places in the UK that had been on our “to do list” for years.

There are lots of things I don’t miss at all about work: the morning commute, for example, as well as the stifling risk aversion and mindless bureaucracy that are endemic within local government culture. But the thing I miss least of all is regular contact with politicians. During the last decade of my career I had the dubious pleasure of spending a lot of time with politicians.  As this was in local government their capacity to wreak mayhem and misery was geographically constrained, but it didn’t stop many of them having a damn good try.

The average politician is less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache

To be fair, some of the politicians I had dealings with were capable, decent, well-meaning human beings, regardless of party affiliation.  They simply wanted to make life better for their local community. However the majority were, in my humble opinion, cut from an altogether different cloth: ignorant, incompetent, self-important, totally lacking in self-awareness and less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache. Time spent in the company of politicians is rarely time well spent, as I learned to my cost during my last few years at work.

And so I am pleased to report that despite all the wonderful things Mrs P and I have done since 31 March 2018, the very best thing about being retired is that it is now 1,096 days since I last spoke with, or was in the company of, any politician. Long may it continue.

No pain, no gain: Reflections on getting the Covid vaccination

The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.

The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.

PHOTO CREDIT: CDC via Unsplash

So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.

Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.

And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.

While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.

I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.

Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!

Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.

* * *

Postscript: Mrs P had to wait another four weeks for her first jab. Other than a bit of a sore arm she suffered absolutely no side effects at all. Huh!

Public declarations of love: Bakewell love lock bridge

Bakewell is a picturesque market town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Built on the banks of the River Wye and most famous for the Bakewell Pudding, the town also boasts a range of pretty stone buildings and a church founded in 920. The handsome five-arched stone bridge across the river dates from around 1300, and is much admired by tourists, photographers and painters.

Mrs P and I have dropped in at Bakewell many times over the years so it was a surprise to discover, during a post-lockdown visit last summer, that as well as the five-arched masterpiece the town is also home to another notable bridge: the Weir Bridge.

This second bridge, a footbridge linking the town centre to the local Agricultural Business Centre, has no great age to it. Neither is it good to look at – in fact, it’s a functional steel monstrosity, probably one of the ugliest bridges the world has ever seen. No, the reason for its fame is altogether different. It’s a love lock bridge, dripping with padlocks large and small, many engraved with the names of couples intent on declaring their love for one another to the whole world.

For the uninitiated, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about love locks:

love lock or love padlock is a padlock that sweethearts lock to a bridge, fence, gate, monument, or similar public fixture to symbolize their love. Typically the sweethearts’ names or initials, and perhaps the date, are inscribed on the padlock, and its key is thrown away (often into a nearby river) to symbolize unbreakable love…Since the 2000s, love locks have proliferated at an increasing number of locations worldwide. 

Source: Wikipedia, retrieved 8 January 2021

The tradition of love locks fastened to bridges is said to have begun in Serbia during World War I, after a schoolmistress died of heartbreak when her lover deserted her for a woman whom he met when he went off to war in Greece. Other local women, horrified at befalling the same fate, began to fasten padlocks bearing their own names and those of their true loves to the bridge where the schoolmistress and her lover used to meet.

Padlocks first started appearing on Bakewell’s Weir Bridge in 2012, and now there are thousands of them. An enterprising local tradesman sells and engraves padlocks destined for the bridge, and is presumably making a tidy profit if the number of padlocks we saw that day is any guide.

The trend for these public declarations of love divides opinion. Some people are enchanted by the romance of it all, while others are appalled by the brutal ugliness of your average padlock. Meanwhile, civil engineers are worried that the sheer weight of so many padlocks will cause bridges to collapse, with the situation in Paris being regarded as particularly serious.

Personally, I’m relaxed about love lock bridges. Plainly where there’s a danger of a bridge collapsing the padlocks must be removed and / or outlawed. And they are inappropriate on structures of great architectural merit or historical interest. But on a bridge as sturdy, ugly and insignificant as Bakewell’s Weir Bridge, what’s the problem?

At their best I find love lock bridges quirky, inoffensive and strangely reassuring. Think how many good news stories are symbolised by the padlocks on the Weir Bridge. Despite all the problems facing the modern world today, isn’t it good to know that love is still alive and well amongst visitors to Bakewell, and is also dear to the hearts of couples visiting hundreds of love lock structures scattered across the globe.

***

UPDATE: MARCH 2021: On 22 March 2021, just weeks after this post was published, the Derby Telegraph reported that Derbyshire County Council intends to remove all the locks from the Weir Bridge, and will not allow any more to be attached in the future. Councils, don’t you just love ’em? NO!

Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.

Christmas dinner: let’s talk turkey!

As December rolls on we finally get around to planning our Christmas day. It doesn’t take long. Although government rules would allow us to “bubble” with Mrs P’s family we’ve opted not to do so: with vaccinations on the horizon, why take risks that could undermine the sacrifices we’ve all made this year? And as far as dinner is concerned there’s not a lot to plan – at the end of a year like no other, one thing will remain the same. On Christmas Day roast turkey will once again be the star of the show.

Turkeys first arrived in England in 1526, when Yorkshire-born voyager William Strickland acquired six birds from Native American traders and sold them at Bristol market for tuppence each. At that time the wealthy treated themselves to goose at Christmas, or maybe a boar’s head, while peasants scraped by with whatever meagre fare they could afford.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Roast Turkey” by Turkinator is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taking time off from bedding mistresses and beheading wives, King Henry VIII is said to be the first Englishman to have eaten turkey for his Christmas dinner. The evidence for this is scanty, although a man who spent so much of his life pulling crackers would doubtless have welcomed such a substantial meal to bolster his virility.

Despite royal patronage the popularity of turkeys at Christmas grew only slowly. Even in the 19th century turkey was not the most popular Christmas roast, because of its relatively high cost. In northern England the wealthy favoured roast beef while in the south they preferred goose. Poorer families often had to make do with rabbit, or even worse.

Christmas is a family time and turkeys are family sized, so as disposable income increased after World War II more families began to treat themselves to a Big Bird as the centrepiece of their seasonal feast. Meanwhile the growing availability of refrigerators also encouraged consumers to think big. By the 21st century England at least 80% of Christmas roast dinners would feature turkey, with many of us eating leftovers for several days afterwards in curries, soups and sandwiches.

In the 19th century Attila the Bun would have been on the Christmas menu, but this year he and Mrs P will both be feasting on brussel sprouts. Yuk!

Eating roast turkey for Christmas is a peculiarly British habit. Although it’s not unknown in some other English-speaking countries, it hasn’t really caught on elsewhere. Fish, shellfish, ham, beef, pork and wild game are all Christmas day favourites in one country or another.

Curiously, in Japan, Kentucky Fried Chicken is said to be a popular Christmas dinner, a tradition dating from a big 1974 marketing campaign called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) The attraction of KFC at Christmas reportedly lasts to this day, causing some people to order their boxes months in advance or queue for two hours to get their annual fix.

I’ve visited Japan a couple of times and love the country, its culture and its people dearly. However this is one of its customs I’m definitely not going to adopt, although we’d struggle anyway as our lovely little town doesn’t have a KFC. Indeed, we don’t have a McDonald either, so some would say we are doubly blessed!

PHOTO CREDIT: by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

No, on Christmas day the Platypus Man and Mrs P will be sitting down to a plate of roast turkey, a sausage or two, roast potatoes, a few garden peas and some decent gravy. Mrs P and our rabbit Attila the Bun will also have brussel sprouts. I, however, consider this vile vegetable to be the devil’s cohones, and will steer well clear.

We will wash our turkey down with a glass or two – or maybe three – of “bubbly” (champagne or sparkling white wine) and then retire to the toasty living room, turn on the television and snooze peacefully in front of it until teatime. Ah, the joys of Christmas day, chez Platypus.

Wherever you are, I wish you a joyous Christmas day and a tasty Christmas dinner. Perhaps you too will feast on turkey. But whatever else you find on your plate, I urge you to avoid the brussel sprouts. You have been warned!

PHOTO CREDIT: Public Domain Pictures via Pexels

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What will you be having for Christmas dinner this year? Tell the world about your Christmas menu by submitting a comment.

Essay for Black History Month: Emmett Till, Bob Dylan and the folk singer’s sacred duty

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 Till may 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.

Rest in Peace, Emmett Till.

Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

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.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

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.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

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.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

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.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

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.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

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.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

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.

Of canaries and donkeys – celebrating National Poetry Day

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.”

Canary Literacy

PHOTO CREDIT: “Canary Literacy” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

File:Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, a fresco in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Laraine Davis via Pexels

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.

Even donkeys can be beautiful.

A funeral in the time of Covid

Milly’s been sick for almost two years, going downhill steadily as Motor Neurone Disease tightens its grip. It’s a cruel condition, remorseless, destroying her body but leaving her mind intact. Helpless, she watches herself slowly waste away. When she finally passes we are sad to say goodbye, but relieved that her suffering is finally over.

The church in the village where Milly lived is closed, being too small for services to be conducted safely while the virus is still active. Instead, the funeral is moved to one that is a little larger, a few miles from her home. It’s a decent sized country church and probably seats around 200 people in normal times, but because of the virus, attendance today is by invitation only and limited to just 30 mourners. Others wishing to pay their respects must stand outside, and listen to the service relayed on loudspeakers.

We put on our facemasks before entering. Only the pews in the nave are available; others in the aisles on the left and the right are out-of-bounds. To facilitate social distancing each pew is limited to just two mourners, the first pair sitting to the left, those in the row behind them to the right, and so on. It looks and feels surreal, this funeral is in the time of Covid.

The priest takes his place, wearing a clear plastic visor. He welcomes us, and apologises that this will not be the sort of funeral to which we are accustomed. It doesn’t matter, we think, we’re simply pleased that we are able to gather here to pay our respects. The social distancing, the facemasks, the other restrictions, none are of any lasting consequence when seen in the context of the life that Milly has lived and lost.

The coffin bearers enter. Incomprehensibly, while everyone else in the church is masked-up, they aren’t. Why? It’s inconsistent and makes no sense, but that could be said of so much of the official response to Covid-19. Our government is clearly making it up as they go along, and while I don’t seek to minimise the challenges they have faced I do worry that they simply aren’t up to the job. I’m tempted to say that they’re a joke, but plainly this is no laughing matter.

The service begins: the prayers, the Bible readings, the eulogy. All standard stuff, swiftly and efficiently executed. But no hymns. The priest advises us that singing is not currently permitted at religious services, as it increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Instead he flips a switch, and a recording of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind fills the air. It’s a familiar hymn that most of us learned in primary school and, although we’re not allowed to sing out loud, as I glance around me I sense several mourners mouthing the words within the privacy of their facemasks.

The end, when it comes, is unexpected. Today would have been Milly’s 89th birthday, and as the coffin bearers carry her from the church the priest flips his switch again and Happy Birthday to You echoes around us. It’s a bit quirky, and therefore in keeping with the rest of the morning’s proceedings. We are reminded that, although we are here to mourn, today is also a celebration of a life well lived. Covid-19 cannot and will not be allowed to distract us from this simple truth.

Rest In Peace, Milly.

Fish and chips: a very British obsession

Last Friday, 4 September, was National Fish and Chips Day. Which, in my view, is a bit odd. After all, the combination of fried fish and chipped potatoes is – unofficially, at least – the UK’s national dish, an iconic part of our cultural heritage. Although they won’t win many Michelin stars, fish and chips are a British staple, a British obsession even. Surely, every day is Fish and Chips Day?

PHOTO CREDIT: Magda Glazewska (@magdag) via Unsplash

Of course, the people who declared 4 September to be National Fish and Chips Day had an agenda. The festivities were the brainchild of NEODA. Never heard of them? Neither had I, but a quick trawl on the internet reveals NEODA to be the National Edible Oil Distributors Association, a trade organisation representing “all the major refiners, key packers and distributors of edible oils.” So now you know…I expect you feel much better for that!

It’s easy to understand why the good folk at NEODA want to promote fish and chips, but frankly they’re pushing against an open door. The British love affair with the dish has been around for at least 150 years, and shows no sign of abating.

We need to talk about chips

Q: When are chips not chips? A: When they’re (French) fries.

To assist North American readers of this post, I need to explain that the food item we Brits call “chips” is referred to on your side of the Pond as “fries,” or maybe “French fries.” The snacks that you describe as “potato chips” are called “potato crisps” over here, because…well, because they’re made from potatoes and are kinda crisp. Confusing, eh? When George Bernard Shaw, the renowned early 20th century Irish playwright, observed that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” this was exactly the sort of nonsense he had in mind.

We Brits like to think of chips as quintessentially British. Wrong! Of course it was an Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh, who first introduced potatoes – originating in South America – to northern Europe in the late 16th century. However it was the French who invented chips, pieces of potato around 1cm square, cut in varying lengths and deep-fried. The clue’s in the appellation French fries, although the Belgians claim it was they – and not their southern neighbours – who made the culinary breakthrough

By the beginning of the 19th century chips had made it across the English Channel and were being cooked and eaten in the UK. First published in 1817, William Kitchiner’s cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, includes the earliest known recipe for something similar to modern chips. However, fish and chips, the double-act that was to wow the nation, had yet to make an appearance

A marriage made in heaven

As an island nation, we Brits have always eaten a lot of fish. However, coating fish in a floury batter and then frying it in oil was unknown until the early 1800s. The practice appears to have been brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal, where fish was traditionally cooked in this fashion. It soon caught on, and is mentioned in Charles Dickens’s 1839 novel Oliver Twist, which references a “fried fish warehouse.”

Frankie’s Fish and Chips, the UK’s most northerly chippy, sells fish ‘n” chips to eat in or take away. We ate in, and had an excellent meal!

The marriage between the feisty fish and the humble chip was consummated around 20 years after Oliver Twist was first published. Who should get the credit is hotly disputed, just another chapter in the interminable tussle for cultural supremacy between “the south” (aka London and its environs) and “the north” (aka anywhere up-country of Watford.)

Proponents of southern supremacy claim the first combined fish and chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in east London around 1860. However, northerners have their own hero, one John Lees, who is believed to have been selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market, near Manchester in industrial Lancashire, in 1863.

Regardless of who thought of it first, fish ‘n’ chips soon became a staple food item, particularly amongst the working class poor, for whom the meal constituted a welcome addition to normally bland diets. Shops selling fish and chips for customers to take away and eat elsewhere, often wrapped in old newspaper for extra convenience and cheapness, became known as chippies. They quickly spread across the length and breadth of the country, serving urban populations that grew rapidly as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

But the passion for fish ‘n’ chips was not confined to densely populated industrial settings. The craze spread to small country towns, and isolated rural settings too. Last year we had the pleasure of visiting Frankie’s, the UK’s most northerly chippy. Situated in the village of Brae on the main island of Shetland, which lies almost around 200 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland, Frankie’s maintains a reputation for high quality fish ‘n’ chips despite its very remote location.

The red spot (top right of inset map) shows location of Frankie’s!

By 1930 there were more than 35,000 chippies across the UK. Today, there are still 10,500, serving an estimated 382 million meals of fish ‘n’ chips every year. This is equivalent to six servings annually for every British man, woman and child. Almost a quarter of the UK population is believed to visit a chippy at least once a week.

With the arrival of chippies in towns and cities across the UK, the lives – and diets – of working people would never be quite the same again. These days, of course, they face stiff competition from other fast-food outlets, including those selling burgers, fried chicken, and Indian and Chinese takeaways. All have their place, and some may even outsell their older rival, but none is so deeply embedded in British culinary culture as good ol’ fish ‘n’ chips!

Choose your fish

The most popular fish sold in chippies is cod (around 62%), followed by haddock (around 25%). Others, seen less frequently, include hake, skate, plaice, sole and pollock. Several years ago George’s, our local chippy, briefly offered hoki, a fish found in the waters around New Zealand. They don’t sell hoki any more, which is probably no bad thing considering the monstrous carbon footprint each portion entailed.

Growing up in London in the 1960s, my fish of choice was rock salmon. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But the name is marketing bullshit, an attempt by canny fishmongers to glamorise the patently unglamorous dogfish, or huss. I now live in the English midlands, and up here they don’t sell rock salmon. I don’t know whether to be impressed that the locals have seen through the promotional smokescreen, or appalled that they are denying me a much-loved childhood treat.

Condiments and accompaniments

Originally a meal of fish ‘n’ chips was served with no condiment or accompaniment other than a sprinkling of salt, but today just about anything goes. While the standard condiment remains salt and vinegar, popular alternatives include curry sauce and gravy. Tomato ketchup is also well liked by some, and was favoured by none other than John Lennon. In Edinburgh, however, a tangy brown sauce is preferred.

Moving on to accompaniments or side dishes, pickles of various types, including onions, gherkins and eggs, all have their fans. And then, of course, there are mushy peas.

What in god’s name, I hear you ask, are mushy peas? Well, put it this way. Imagine dissolving Shrek, the Incredible Hulk, Kermit the Frog and a sack full of oversized, bullet-hard marrowfat peas in a seething vat of acid, and mixing the resultant pulp with a bucket-load of fermented goose droppings. Got the picture? Well, mushy peas are worse than that. They are the devil’s work.

Mushy peas

PHOTO CREDIT: “Mushy peas” by Simon Lieschke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Found mostly in more northerly parts of the country, mushy peas are an acquired taste that this Londoner-by-birth could never be bothered to acquire. It seems to me that anyone liking them must be just a little bit odd…on which point I should add that Michael Jackson is reputed to have adored mushy peas. I rest my case.

And while we’re exploring the darkest recesses of culinary good taste, perhaps I should mention the Deep Fried Mars Bar. In the UK Mars is a divinely decadent chocolate bar consisting of nougat and caramel covered in milk chocolate (the US version is rather different). “Naughty but nice” sums it up perfectly. In 1995 a Scottish chippy, encouraged by a pair of customers who were clearly chancing their luck, experimented with coating a Mars Bar in batter and then deep frying it.

The trial was pronounced a success (nobody died!) and pretty soon Deep Fried Mars Bars were on sale in chippies throughout Scotland, although whether anyone actually eats them alongside fish ‘n’ chips is unclear. I confess I’ve never tried one myself: life’s too short, and mine would probably be a damned sight shorter if I indulged in stuff like that.

Celebrating National Fish and Chips Day

It would have been churlish of us not to celebrate National Fish and Chips Day, so Mrs P did the decent thing and went online early Friday morning to place an order. I drove into town at lunchtime to collect the heavenly treat, and minutes later we were tucking into a feast of cod and chips, delicately seasoned with a sprinkling of salt and a splash of vinegar.

And not a mushy pea or deep fried Mars Bar in sight!