Simple pleasures

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.

My lockdown reading!

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.

Small Tortoiseshells have been common this year

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.

2020 has provided an abundance of bumblebees

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.

Milky Bar: the most idle cat in existence

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:

An English tradition: the joy of Afternoon Tea

“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?

I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”

So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.

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Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.

All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.

Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.

Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?

Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.

Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.

Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.

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Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.

When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.

Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?

So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.

Getting stuffed: the King of Rome and superfluous penguins

He spends his days, and nights too, with all the other dead things in the natural history gallery. In a desperate attempt to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear Derby Museum’s curators call it the “Notice Nature Feel Joy Gallery”, but there’s precious little joy for me in display cabinets full of sad, stuffed things. It’s a bizarre collection, an unholy mixture of long dead creatures that certainly lived here or hereabouts – foxes, badgers and the like – and others that most definitely did not.

Hands up anyone who knows why Derby Museum finds it desirable or expedient to display a pair of stuffed penguins.

But don’t mock and be sure to behave yourselves, after all we’re in the presence of royalty. Over there, in that unassuming showcase on the back wall, sits the King of Rome. And here’s the thing, he really does belong in the heart of the English East Midlands: the King of Rome lived out his days in Derby.

Before you think I’ve completely lost my marbles, or conclude that Derby folk make a habit of inflicting taxidermy upon exiled European monarchs, let me reassure you that the King of Rome is a racing pigeon. Deceased, obviously, otherwise the RSPCA would have something to say regarding his incarceration in a museum showcase.

And not just any racing pigeon. I mean, this guy’s a record breaker who found his most famous exploit celebrated in song.

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Even setting aside matters of gastronomy, man and pigeon have been in a longstanding relationship. A record exists from around 1200BC of messenger pigeons being used in ancient Egypt to enable cities to communicate with one another about Nile River floodwaters. More than a millennium later they were passing messages through the Greek and Roman worlds, and pigeon racing is known to have taken place as long ago as the third century AD.

Modern European pigeon racing began in Belgium in the 1850s, from where it spread to Britain. The first formal pigeon race in the UK took place in 1881, and five years later King Leopold II of the Belgians presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. To this day the monarch retains a royal pigeon loft at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

In the early 20th century poor working men in some areas of the UK took up pigeon racing. For them the sport became a means of escape, personal exploration and self-expression at a time when working class lives were hard. Selectively breeding pigeons to increase their chances, then rearing and caring for them to ensure they were in top condition on race days, became an all-consuming passion for the sport’s devotees.

It’s now that our hero, and his owner – one Charlie Hudson – take the stage. Charlie lived on Brook Street, in a poor area of Derby known as the West End. His interest in pigeon racing is said to have begun in 1904, and in 1913 he showed the world that he’d produced a champion.

In 1913 Charlie entered his best bird into a race from Rome to Derby, a colossal distance of 1,611km (1,001 miles). It won, and in so doing set a new long-distance record for an English racing pigeon, while over one thousand other birds competing in the race perished on the journey home.

The winning bird became famous in pigeon racing circles. When it died in 1946 after a long and celebrated life, Charlie presented the corpse to Derby Museum to be stuffed for posterity and the common good.

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Charlie Hudson died in 1958. Three decades later the story of this simple working class hero and his indomitable bird caught the imagination of Derbyshire folk singer-songwriter Dave Sudbury. “The King of Rome” tells the story of the race, and, more importantly perhaps, shows how pigeon racing allowed Charlie to escape the confines of his birth and upbringing. Through the medium of Dave Sudbury’s song, Charlie says:

… “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Excerpt from The King of Rome, © Dave Sudbury

The song, which has since become a classic in the folk world, was initially made famous by the brilliant June Tabor on her 1988 album Aqaba. You can hear her version on YouTube by clicking here. The complete lyrics are here.

Countless others have recorded the King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s original version of the song is also available on YouTube: raw, authentic and very moving.

However my favourite of them all is sung by the incomparable Lucy Ward. Lucy’s a Derby girl, so it seems only appropriate that she should sing about another great character from that city. Click here to listen and watch her singing the song live and unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon, England in 2012.

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In 2013 the 100th anniversary of the great race was celebrated in a 45 minutes-long radio drama, demonstrating that the story continues to capture imaginations. Dreams really can come true.

What a pity, therefore, that Derby Museum makes so little out of this heart-warming tale. True, it displays the stuffed King in a neat little showcase, while a small adjacent card describes the bird’s achievement and mentions the folk song in a few meagre sentences.

But the story, as Dave Sudbury so ably captures, is much bigger than that. It offers a way into the social history of Derby, in particular the inadequately told history of working class leisure pursuits in the 20th century. Surely these are the stories that English regional museums should be telling, rather than cluttering up their galleries with superfluous penguins?

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding.  In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges.  It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back.  Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage ditch into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off. 

This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies.  And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, although I made a few friends I never felt I truly belonged.  Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education.  The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous.

At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from West London, deserved my place.  Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

I know now that I got it all wrong. 

For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff.  Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning. 

St John’s College

And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded.  By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough.  While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard.  Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.

My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life.  Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.

Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study.  He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again. 

That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.

I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground.  I won’t ever go back again.