Monday, 27 October 2014

How do you mean…?

Inspired by my hero, Douglas Adams, and his collaboration with John Lloyd on The Meaning of Liff – as well as I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’s Uxbridge English Dictionary of daffynitions – here are a selection of the (possibly) real meanings of local place-names:
  • Alderminster 1. A retired vicar. 2. Ex-member of the cabinet.
  • Alveston Layering for winter.
  • Banbury Only cremations allowed.
  • Barford No American cars, please.
  • Bearley 1. An old and much-loved teddy. 2. A parsimonious amount of locally-grown grain.
  • Beaudesert 1. Trifle. 2. Treacle tart and custard.
  • Bidford [see Barford] Trying to buy an American car at auction.
  • Birmingham Sand-cured pig thigh or hock.
  • Brownsover Ex-PM.
  • Chadshunt 1. Ignorance of African geography. 2. American presidential election fallout.
  • Charlecote Outerwear fit for a prince.
  • Charlecote Park [see Charlecote] A posh cloakroom.
  • Claverdon 1. Knowledgeable Spanish nobleman (e.g. Juan). 2. Bighead. 3. Lecturer.
  • Coughton [see Charlecote] Going outside.
  • Coventry The mystical oak where witches meet.
  • Epwell A supersized form of naval uniform shoulder ornament [see also Shipston-on-Stour].
  • Ettington Frequently results in indigestion.
  • Foleshill My horse is poorly.
  • Fullready A new car, with a complimentary tank of petrol.
  • Fullready ford [see Barford; Bidford; Fullready] A new American car, etc..
  • Gaydon [see Claverdon] Happy Spanish nobleman (e.g. Adriano de Armado).
  • Halford One part of a ‘cut and shut’ [see Barford; Bidford; Fullready ford].
  • Idlicote [see Charlecote; Coughton] Outerwear for lounging.
  • Kenilworth A valuation of canines (sometimes behind glass).
  • King’s Norton Posh motorcycle.
  • Knowle [see Claverdon] Bighead.
  • Leamington Spa A branded corner shop in Leamington.
  • Lower Tysoe [see Tysoe] To knot shoelaces properly.
  • Loxley Narrowboat, waiting its turn (e.g. at Hatton).
  • Middle (or Church) Tysoe [see Tysoe] Cincture at the navel, or waist, of cassock.
  • Moreton Morrell An excess of edible fungi.
  • Newbold Reformulated washing powder…
  • Newbold Pacey [see Newbold] …for a quick wash.
  • Norton Lindsey [see King’s Norton] Shakespearan actor’s motorcycle.
  • Oxhill [see Foleshill] My cow is poorly.
  • Packwood Carrying fire-alms (on the Feast of Stephen).
  • Pillerton A large prescription.
  • Pillerton Hersey [see Pillerton] Side-effects.
  • Pillerton Priors [see Pillerton] Repeat prescriptions.
  • Radway Good direction.
  • Rollright How to win a big cheese…
  • Rollright Stones [see Rollright] …under the influence.
  • Sherbourne Shakespearean actor carried aloft; transported.
  • Shipston One hundred mariners.
  • Shipston-on-Stour [see Shipston] One hundred mariners between changes of uniform.
  • Snitterfield The sensation or experience of a tiny laugh [fr. Howerd; fr. Williams].
  • Southam Piggish insult [fr. Shakespeare].
  • Stratford 1. Without digression. 2. Not complicated. 3. Often the second exit on a roundabout.
  • Stratford-upon-Avon [see Stratford] It’s easy to understand, as God is my witness [fr. Shakespeare; obsolete].
  • Tysoe To knot, or fasten, something correctly.
  • Upper (or Over) Tysoe [see Tysoe] Windsor, half-Windsor, four-in-hand, or Pratt?
  • Upton A prefix: meaning negative, or of a dubious nature – e.g. upton ogood.
  • Upton House [see Upton] A lack of commonsense.
  • Walton A televised Disney film.
  • Warwick A candle used in blackouts.
  • Whatcote [see Alveston; Charlecote; Coughton; Idlicote] Doubting the Met Office.
  • Whichford [see Barford; Bidford; Fullready ford; Halford] Struggling to choose a model of car.
  • Willicote Prophylactic.
  • Willoughby On the banks of the Avon.
  • Wilmcote [see Charlecote] Outerwear fit for a prince (as opposed to haricot – which is obviously a bean).
  • Worcester Jeeves’ employer.
  • Wroxton A large quantity – or weight – of ironstone.

If you would like to suggest your own definitions, or alternatives, please feel free to add a comment below.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Written nearly forty autumns ago…

Charred-brown these ringèd fingers

Charred-brown these ringèd fingers sway,
Scattering their summer clay
Of leaves that billow, then stop still, until
Again they fly.

Golden-green these crusting, rusting leaves
That fall like feathers to the breeze:
Down to the frosty, mossy ground, where, still,
They wait to die.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

If he stops to think he starts to cry…

I have been a U2 fan for as long as I can remember: from 1980’s Boy LP (when I Will Follow grabbed me by the pit of the stomach – and has never let go…) onwards (we didn’t have CDs – and it would have taken over seven hours to download using a well connected 28.8 kbit/s modem – in those days, y’know – so ask your parents or grandparents why those twelve-inch circular slabs of (mainly) black vinyl are “Even better than the real thing”) – and was fortunate enough to see them perform at their peak in Leeds, in 1987 as part of their Joshua Tree tour. Although I don’t recall it in perfect detail – Wayne Hussey, lead-singer of The Mission, later said that he didn’t remember it at all: and they produced a barnstorming set as one of the support acts! – I do recollect that it was as much religious experience as concert.

As you can imagine, I was therefore (in a minority of those?) delighted to ‘discover’ that U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, had automagically appeared on both my iPhone and iPad (as it might have done on yours), as part of Apple’s typically lavish launch of the iPhone 6.

Art – great or otherwise – depends for its ‘success’, I believe, largely on meaning – not that it should signify or suggest, necessarily, the same thing to different viewers, readers or listeners. Interpretation – and the bond that forms between subject and object – is key.

It doesn’t matter, therefore (perhaps) what Bono intended when he conceived the lyrics for The Troubles – the last of his band’s Songs of Innocence. However, it does matter – to me – that they provoke a response (in addition to that of the almost epilogic music): in this case, deeply probing my emotional innards – “Somebody stepped inside your soul” – and speaking (singing) to the quintessence of the being I have become – not necessarily through choice; but in response to the major, injurious incidents (and their repercussions) that have helped(?) shape me, and which have been refined by my respondence.

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me and hurt me some more

Ten years ago, learning a new way of living, I produced an essay (for one of my medical specialists) entitled Always deal with what pain is…. At the time, due to enforced medical retirement, and being bound both to bed and barracks (by my then perceived limitations), I had been doing rather a lot of reading – as I’m sure you can imagine. And one of the books that made most impact on me – because of its strong humour and resilience (things that I no doubt needed to share in, just then – and still do…) – was Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas: about him joining “the Tokyo Riot Police on their year-long, brutally demanding course of budo training”.

Coincidentally (and resonantly) enough, Twigger deals frequently with his (and his companions’) experiences of pain; and I found the following excerpts filled with that resonance:

…pain is personal, pain is subjective. You should never judge another man’s pain. Not only is the amount of pain subjective for any given injury, so different people are sensitive to different pains. It is difficult to conclude that someone has ‘a high pain threshold’ because he may tolerate a migraine without painkillers but scream blue murder if his finger is nicked by a penknife.​
     The area is further muddied by imagination – indeed, this is the major contributor to an over-reaction to pain. It’s not the pain in itself, it’s what the pain means which is so distressing.
     It is one thing to be able to suffer pain. It takes a second level of stoicism to ignore the damage that the pain signifies.

It’s easier to convince yourself it doesn’t hurt when you are shouting. This is the distraction-method of fighting pain, the preferred Western way. The preferred Eastern way is detachment.

I asked [Sato] why he never let pain show on his face.
     “If I show pain, I feel a different kind of pain, a kind of pain that tells me to stop. But if I keep a clear face then the pain is not so bad. We call it ‘the face of Kannon’, a face like the Buddha.”

Dimly, I could already grasp there were two levels of pain. Pain (1) was the actual sensation. It was on the level of an objective observation: “I have been stung by a bee. There is a pain in my upper left forearm.” Pain (2) is the subjective reaction: “Ow! It hurts! It really hurts!”
     Young children only experience pain (2). It hurts and hurts and hurts and then it’s over and they stop crying.
     The basic character of pain, and almost indistinguishable from it, is the desire for it to go away. A masochist doesn’t want it to go away. This serves to neutralize the pain (2) content of the experience, since pain (2) is the “It hurts!” side, when it seems as if the pain is everywhere and not localized, as if it is attacking your brain directly, and is indistinguishable from the desire for it to stop. In a way pain (2) is “Please stop now”.
     Growing older increases the domain of pain (1). We may experience chronic pain, for example, which won’t go away. We either become miserable or we cordon it off, localize it, objectify it (“There is a pain”), and then we learn to almost ignore it. Almost.
     Slowly I was beginning to see that the senshusei course was a lot about coping with pain, about losing the pain (2) experience and getting pain under control on the pain (1) level. If you train until you faint then you have lost the pain (2) element. If you stop when “it hurts” you may be doing the safe thing, but you are not commanding your body, it is commanding you. There may be a time when your life depends on who is in command.

I was also delving into a plethora of what could be described as ‘medical textbooks’; and Twigger’s revelations tied in well with Jean Craig’s “two levels of pain”, described in Managing Chronic Pain:

The primary level is where the ‘sensation of pain’ is sensed through the nerve endings that recognise pain in reaction to an injury [nociceptive pain]….
     The secondary level of pain is the ‘perception of pain’ where the pain message radiates from deep structures in the brain to the outer cortex where it is linked with thought, feelings, mood, attitudes and beliefs.

But my foremost bookish love is fiction; and there’s a leitmotif of chronic pain in Mary Doria Russell’s wonderful, heart-hollowing book The Sparrow, and its sequel Children of God – both about “the nature of faith and what it means to be ‘human’” – and I think one of the most telling passages (at the time, for me, and my understanding of phantom pain and its correlation with chronicity and plasticity…) is this:

“My uncle lost most of his right hand when I was about eight…. My aunt used to think he was lying about the pain to get sympathy,” Joseba said…. “Dead dogs don’t bite, she used to say. The hand’s not there anymore. How can something that’s not there hurt? My uncle used to tell her, Pain is as real as God. Invisible, unmeasurable, powerful –”
     “And a bitch to live with,” Sandoz whispered…. “Just like your aunt.”

However, to get back to Robert Twigger for a moment – and an elemental objective for the rest of my life:

Always deal with what pain is and never with what it means.

And that’s the main challenge, isn’t it? Because of the make-up of my personality – especially my introversion and intellect – I am compelled to research as deeply as I can the situations I find myself in, one by one. And then I have to draw my own conclusions from the plethora, the mountains, of conflicting information: so that I can try and take my life forward. I have to draw my own conclusions… – and then ignore them….

Atypically (and somewhat astonishingly), what prompted all this was that my consultant had asked me how I saw myself working in partnership with him to help me deal with the constant high levels of pain I experienced (and still do…); and what I had been through (endured) before encountering him. And, in response, one of the best summations I had found – that expressed what I felt, at the time, more pertinently or skilfully than I could have done – came from Eloise Carr and Eileen Mann’s Pain: Creative Approaches to Effective Management:

We now live in a society that has high expectations of what health care can deliver, and those in pain are no longer prepared to suffer in silence. However, when we are faced with pain that challenges our ability to relieve it, or even in some cases understand it, the encounter can be frustrating and unsatisfactory for [medics] and patients alike.

In essence, what my answer boiled down to was that I wanted to be in control… – and still do (to some degree) – of the pain; this situation; my life (especially as people in chronic pain who take control are known to get both better treatment and life quality as a result): because I knew that, as every day passed by, achingly, slowly, so my self-identity was gradually being eroded. But I was repeatedly reaching the twin, defeatist dead-ends of either “having to live with it” (my fault, if I couldn’t, or didn’t want to) or “there’s nothing else we can do for you” (their – or medicine’s nameless – fault; but still really mine, for having the temerity to ask for help…).

To go back to Robert Twigger – for the last time – what I really wanted…

…was to break the subjective link between how you feel and how you perform. Instead, [the aim was] to replace it with a decided goal and achievement of that goal using the body, rather than the body dictating what the goal should be.

And I therefore finished my essay with a list of objectives (which were more like demands) – the most important of which was to “Learn my limits” – so I could then ignore them, as well as my conclusions…!

There are so many things that I used to take for granted, that came so easily, that are now so difficult or too painful to make any sense of in what I’ve come to think of as an ‘increased-pain/benefit analysis’…. I walk because it has helped to get (and keeps) me fit, and has helped me lose significant weight (putting less stress on my body). I type this document to express my thoughts so much better than I do when I open my mouth, etc..
     But, where, between bungee jumping and struggling to get out of bed, do my true limits lie? What makes sense? What could do me an injury (apart from [my neurologist’s] advice not to do “anything that involves significant lifting or manoeuvring one’s head into awkward and difficult positions”)…?
     Jean Craig says that “Acceptance of chronic pain is probably the most difficult step of all but the most important, because it allows you to get on with your life”; and that this means “not only acknowledging that you are in pain, but that while you are experiencing pain, high physical and mental demands on yourself are quite unrealistic”. But, as you’ve already said, this (to me) is “b*ll*cks”. Why should I accept it? I know there are limitations – but I don’t want them to be at such a low (almost vegetative) level….

He, thankfully – of course – agreed.

So what does this all have to do with U2?

Well, like Tom’s “little green devil” in Smitten Kitten, I have always personified my pain – as a constant presence in my life – and quite frequently talk to it, have a moan at it, sometimes chide it for its bad behaviour – it’s very rarely good – as catharsis. As you can imagine, these interactions tend towards soliloquizing; but they are my way of getting by, getting through what current Government benefit application forms call – in their typical Miniluv doublespeak – permanent and significant “discomfort”.

Having therefore elaborated to my pain management consultant (a fairly new specialism in the UK, back then) that I knew there were “limitations” to my physical (and, sometimes, psychological) exertions – I made it acutely clear that I didn’t want to feel (and would try not to be) trapped by them. I still don’t. And I try my best to expand and exceed them on a regular basis – always knowing that this “bad behaviour” on my behalf will then come back and bite me on my overweight behind… – but that I will still have achieved an infinitessimal incorporeal victory in an eternal campaign of war.

Listening to The Troubles for the first time (using the modern and minute miracles of Bluetooth-enabled hearing instruments), it was obvious to me immediately that the “Somebody” the song referred to was my “little green devil” made concrete – voiced by Lykke Li in this colloquy – and how it had taken (attempted to – had I let it? – take) over my life:

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

However, there is a subsequent message (meaning and interpretation) in there – sung by Bono himself – aimed squarely at me, and my profession to understand and be able to overcome my limits:

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

And I could quite happily walk around with a T-shirt (well, it would have to be a fleece-lined hoodie, at the moment…) bearing the following response:

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me and hurt me some more

Another principle I would wear proudly – from Pat Wall’s ‘bible’, Pain – the science of suffering – is already engraved on every cell of my recalcitrant body:

Coping is not ignoring. In fact, it is the opposite… [learning] to live with… pain in a realistic context… the beginning of a series of steps that give a sense of understanding and a type of control.

…and this – even though it is someone-else’s (hard-won) conclusion – I will never disregard. In its perceptive summation, it is what drags me out of bed in the morning; what pushes me along the footpaths by the River Avon; what stabs my stubby fingers imperfectly at the keyboard. It has become a promise to myself – the hardest thing I’ll ever do…. But if I’m coping successfully, I’m living victoriously – besting my pain at least once a day (rather than controlling it) – by hauling myself up (maybe with a stick; maybe one at a time) that series of steps. Even if it only the beginning….

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf IX

Revised from The Wide World arrives... – 13 May 2014

When the night comes falling from the sky…

It was a cold, spring day, and the Mole, the Water Rat and the Badger were sat around a blazing log fire in the Badger’s kitchen: the Mole and Rat perched on one of the high-backed settles; the Badger sunk into his customary armchair. Half-drunk refills of coffee, and the remains of a plain but ample breakfast – bread crusts, and the odd, crispy bacon rind – lay around: evidence of a long and deep discussion, requiring much sustenance.

“If only life were ALWAYS so simple and satisfactory,” muttered the Mole, wiggling his outstretched feet; but with regret etched into his sad eyes and drooping whiskers.

“But it never is,” stated the Rat, wearily, “when the Wide World moves through the Wide Wood, and an evil wind blows through the willows.”

The previous evening, the monthly Council of Animals had met, and – contrary to the promises made to the Badger: their saviour, the first time an invasion had appeared at their borders… – they had entrusted their defence against the Wide World, this time, to the Chief Weasel.

“I’m so sorry,” said the Mole, directing his sad gaze at the Badger: “you must feel awfully let down – especially after everything you did for all us weaker, less clever animals, before. I know you don’t care one fig about glory; but to be betrayed like that – again – when you gave so much of your life, your solitude – and even your hibernation – for us all; and in favour of the dastardly bullies who nearly ruined things the first time around. Damn them, I say: damn the lot of them.”

“Don’t fret, my little chap,” replied the Badger, soft and smoothing in his tones – not, for one moment, displaying any of the deep, tortuous feeling that both his friends knew was searing through every bone, sinew and nerve in his body. “If all they care about is themselves; and the kudos they think will come from associating themselves with the stoats and weasels of this world; they will get what they deserve – and not the peaceful time they think will come.

“It does seem, sadly, though, that coercion and tyranny now rule not only in the Wide World; but that it has crept through the Wild Wood – where my word was once cherished, was even law; my actions praised… – to the local animals, to the river bank itself. Even Otter acts like the most feeble mouse, when picked on…”

“…as he knows you are too noble to act the tormentor; too dignified to remonstrate or complain,” interjected the Mole, anxiously.

“You are SO right, my furry chum,” added the Rat, patting the Mole generously on the arm; and glancing for approval at wise, old Badger – who, it seemed, did not mind the interruption one jot. “But I wonder how many of the other animals, down by the river, know what is REALLY going on?” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “Just because Chief Weasel has taken over Toad Hall surely doesn’t mean that all the others think he is now Lord of the Manor…?”

“Not that there ever was such a thing, really,” stated the Badger, almost to himself. “Although they tug their forelocks as if he was KING! If ANYONE is due allegiance as Lord, then it’s the fine gentleman that lives in the big house over the hill. Mind you – sensible chap that he is – he keeps himself very much to himself; and that’s what I shall go back to doing, too. Living here, in the Wild Wood, I am still an outsider, and always was: ’though I fear for what will become of the river, the willows – to you two, my companion friends and campaigners – when the true spirit of the water, the grass, the air, the hearts that beat in all true country animals, is represented in the Wide World by something so selfish and ignorant – so utterly unrepresentative – so arrogant. It is not in our nature to fight even the cruellest enemy but with wisdom… – and, yes, I do see you, Ratty, looking meaningfully at the cupboard where our stash of cutlasses and pistols lies from the last battle!

“But we MUST NOT fight our fellow creatures. They have made their decision – however badly and stupidly it was reached. It is THEY who have divided US; and we should not fall into the trap – especially as we do not have it in us to act the bully; to crave fame and glory; to desire to crash and bang about like the Toad in one of his infernal motors (oh, how I miss silly old Toad…!) – of following in their footsteps, and applying the tactics of the frightened, OR the frightener.

“We must keep our wisdom and wits about us for when the realization dawns that intelligence, graft, research and application of knowledge are what is REALLY needed – even if my now very full stomach tells me that I should close the door FOREVER on them: stoats and weasels that they have all become.”

There was a keen silence: a quiet which seemed to stretch out from the crumbling ashes of the fire, beyond the breeze creaking at the door at the end of the passageway, to the very river itself – listening not only to the murmur of the water, the whispering of the willows, but for the very thoughts of the local animals themselves (many of whom were still asleep; most of whom were yet to learn of the far-reaching decision the council believed – wrongfully – they had been forced into; and had not had the courage nor integrity to fight: not having learned from the exemplary comrades now on the verge of sleep themselves…. It might be division they had wanted to AVOID; but it now seemed inevitable that, instead, they had CREATED such division…). Empty-handed, the draught returned, to spark the glowing embers for a moment, and then die.

“Fie!” exclaimed the Mole, from nowhere. “O blow; and bother! What a load of idiots they are. Otters reduced to mice; stoats made toad. So this is what the Wide World is like. You were right, Ratty. I want NONE of it. Hang the council; and hang all weasels.” He ran out of breath as quickly as he had started; and all the energy slumped from him, from his shoulders to his now-still toes. “Onion-sauce,” he finally whispered, fitfully.

“Aye to that,” said both the Rat and Badger, quietly together in thought and deed. “Onion-sauce.”

“And that’s my last memory of Badger,” said the Water Rat, raising his drink.

“To BADGER!” The Mole and the Rat, comfortable in their shared memories, clinked their glasses together: with a mixture of love, sadness and Happy Times all swirled together in the remnants of one of the Badger’s many single malts.

“I could get used to this,” said the Rat.

“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from,” replied the Mole, wearing the Rat’s stupid grin: “thanks to Badger.”

“But I can’t get used to not having him around… – especially HERE.”

“I know….”


Saturday, 11 October 2014

Tares and vetches still have charms…

Before I continue… I must stress that I – along with all the other villagers I have spoken to – would not want to deprive others of living in this wonderful place. We know that we have to grow. It is just that the proposed [Gladman] development is too large, too sudden, too concentrated; would remove a crucial part of our heritage; and would be damaging for future generations, because of the lack of regard it has for the negative impact it will have on the earth we live on.

Every day, a quick, three-question survey pops up on my iPhone, courtesy of YouGov, covering a wide variety of topics. The last of yesterday’s questions was:

Assuming that family, friends, [and] money issues were taken care [of] in a satisfactory manner, in which of the following two ways would you choose to live the next ten years of your life… In the frenzied excitement of Manhatten [sic] [or] In the calm solitude of a Tibetan Monastry [sic]?

As you can probably guess, (after wondering if this had been proofread) I selected the latter; and then found myself in a reasonably-sized minority – 35% of the 4,150 people that responded.

This was a “Forced choice” question, though: so there was no alternative response. However, I believe that it does indicate a propensity for city living, and an accompanying move away from the rural: a trend which is borne out in statistics (globally, as well as nationally); and that has been in motion for a couple of centuries – at least in the UK.

When Shakespeare was alive, there was quite a strong divide between town and country – a state of affairs that probably hadn’t moved on much from Roman times: when the majority of native Britons carried on farming (largely being self-sufficient), whilst the invaders established – or expanded – towns to centralize administration and house their garrisons, containing market places, temples and baths.

This probably didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution; and it was still quite unusual, even when Joseph Ashby was a child, for a villager to travel far from their place of birth, unless they were visiting their nearest market town to sell their produce, or having fun – or looking for employment – at the annual fair.

Shakespeare bridged this divide, though: as Stratford-upon-Avon was then quite an agrarian town; and “His works contain many references to wild flowers, animals and birds, rural characters and country customs” – such as poaching!

For instance, in As You Like It, when asked by countryside Corin how he likes “this shepherd’s life”, townie Touchstone replies…

Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd’s life, it is naught. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life (look you) it fits my humour well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach.

…and then curses the shepherd – “Truly, thou art damn’d, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side” – “For not being at court” (as if this were the countryside’s major – and probably one and only – fault…).

However, Corin – who, tacitly, revels in his assured superiority – refuses to play Touchstone’s game – “You have too courtly a wit for me, I’ll rest…” – but not without first plainly defending his own bucolic lifestyle:

Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behaviour of the country is most mockable at the court. You told me you salute not at the court but you kiss your hands; that courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepherds…. Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.

One of the advantages of city-living, besides having “more plenty in it” – and, yes, I admit that there are some good points (even though I have described myself as a “country boy” on more than one occasion…) – is that people living there, on average, produce a smaller carbon footprintprobably because they are closer to the facilities and work they access; are in higher-density housing; and benefit from the urban heat island effect – although it has been posited that these metropolitan residents may not live as long as us backwater bumpkins….

One of the obvious disadvantages, though, is crime. Not that it isn’t present in the countryside – just that most of it happens outside the home; and tends to involve theft of property, and not violence to people (or mice…).

In a recent blog for NFU Mutual, Tim Price, a rural affairs specialist, wrote that:

As anyone who lives in the countryside will tell you, rural life has its own risks and rewards. And, as someone who grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, I will happily put up with a lack of public transport and higher energy costs for the privilege of bringing-up my family in a close-knit community with little traffic and wide open spaces on our doorstep.

That being said, however, I am not blind to the fact that crime can and does happen in the countryside and whilst it is generally lower than recorded crime in urban areas, rural homes and businesses are by no means immune to theft.

That “lack of public transport” is obviously one of the causes of our larger carbon footprint (coupled with the more frequent journeys and longer distances made by car); as well as the “higher energy costs” – both ecological and financial – associated with having to heat our homes with oil.

However, even though we have to travel further, according to a study by NFU Mutual, people living in rural areas seem to be more optimistic, and – like Corin the shepherd – more content with their quality of life than people in cities and towns. Tim Price, though, strikes a note of caution, for those not in awe of the oppidan way of living, and bucking the general trend:

Many people choose to escape the bustling city life for the tranquility of the countryside. However, for young people the lack of rural jobs paying a living wage and high transport and housing costs continue to make it hard for them to live in the countryside, and we urge the Government to support this group to prevent country homes being affordable only for second homeowners and city commuters.

It makes sense then – surely? – that the majority of housing (whether “affordable” or not) should be concentrated where the majority of people live, and wish to live: nearer major cities, where the majority of employment opportunities are – e.g. Coventry and Birmingham. And that even entertaining the thought of Stratford-upon-Avon absorbing some of these places’ “overspill” should be wiped from the planners’ minds.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Stratford-on-Avon District Council’s excessive “target of 10,800 new homes in the district in the 20-year period from 2011 to 2031… is now being questioned by the Council [sic] to Protect Rural England (CPRE) which claims changed population forecasts mean the figure should be 6,000 at most.”

Monday, 6 October 2014

Who is it that can tell me who I am…?

If you want an analogy, all the colours are present right across the tapestry. There are 20 colours, that’s why it’s so thick. But the machine brings the colour to the surface when it’s needed. I think that’s an analogy for our character. We’ve got all of ourselves there, but the bit that’s necessary in any given moment comes to the surface. So, with my daughter, I’m a father. When I’m in the studio, I’m an artist. When I’m out, I’m ‘Grayson Perry’. So you ask what your identifiers are – artist, tranny, father, man, motorcyclist – and you’ve got a hierarchy of things. And that’s the nature of identity, isn’t it?
– Grayson Perry, interviewed by Simon Hattenstone

Over the past couple of weeks or so, I’ve managed to publish a blog post, on average, every other day. In fact, I had a run of four consecutive days, as the summerlike fruits of September morphed into the autumnal ebb of October – at a time when my various infirmities insolently ganged up on me, instead of patiently and politely waiting their turn. Considering the enormous effort it takes to produce a sentence that I’m reasonably happy with; or at least – like a proud but reluctant parent, regarding their offspring as they venture out on their own for the first time – let stand up on its own feet in public, this hints at a couple of my identities: that of sick (old) man raging, raging “against the dying of the light” of my inconstant health; and of writer… – and how, when I am unwell, one of the ways I cope is to express myself with the written word: something that brings me satisfaction, if not delight.

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
– Shakespeare: King Lear

I can be either of these “identities” without necessarily clinging on to the other: but, when I am ill, I have the time to fill (of course – however condensed in reality); and yet, then, each utterance is won with greater grind – “and words express The manner of my pity-wanting pain” – although I believe that the combination thus provokes a different character of creativity: “That every word doth almost tell my name”.

Although I consume words as well as produce them (by a very hefty ratio in favour of the former…), I find I read differently – as well as write more volubly – when, say, confined to bed: either more deeply and deferentially, savouring the words, their meanings and context; or from a height where the words themselves are almost invisible, and I skip sparingly over them, hardly leaving evidence of my presence on their pages. Usually, I take a middle path: but I find, say, a headache can lead to text as solid distraction (drilling down into it) or as hollow diversion (when I float above it).

In some ways, the same can be said of my writing: and, although the results (following prolonged major linguistic surgery) can be identical, they come about, again, as a result of taking very different routes: what you could call ‘determined’ (i.e. it’s what I meant to say – but perhaps not how I meant to say it…) and ‘unintended’ (i.e. external and internal factors have led me to discover serendipitous congruences – possibly dug deep from my subconscious; encouraged by my medication; or simply that, as Elgar believed, “music is in the air all around you, you just take as much of it as you want” – what I call “Always listening to the breeze in the trees”).

Frequently, after I have storm-trooped my way through some idiosyncratic rant, I am then left without any neat way of concluding… – and it is often, then, that this latter ‘technique’ comes into play: my thoughts having stewed deep inside my shrinking brain; or been hung out to mature in the countryside around, before returning through an open window, (not quite, but nearly) fully-formed.

Articulate as I can be in print; in person, however, I know (and accept) that I am somewhat more taciturn and less coherent. A fundamental reason for this is – to paraphrase Virginia Woolf – that I must have room of my own if I am to write, to create, and not just follow a script: that is, not just satisfying a “need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art”; but privacy (even if that isolation is an illusion, a bubble of seclusion in the middle of the hubbub of the RSC’s Riverside Café – where the fading-to-background hurly-burly acts as insulation from those around me…).

Only then may I bring “to the surface” the part (rôle and/or fraction) of me labelled ‘writer’ – or, more accurately, ‘creator’ or ‘composer’ (or even ‘inventor’) – and yet this is an identity that very few will witness in the flesh. In some ways, therefore, it could be said that this is as close to the ‘real’ me as can exist: except, of course – because I know this portrayal will make appearances in public… – it is still an highly-edited version.

But the writing is also public…. Its source is perhaps the very source of fiction itself – the mysterious and compulsive need to find a rhythm and an artful tone to suggest and communicate the most private feelings and imaginings and facts to someone else, to make sentences which will move from mirroring the writer to allowing the reader to catch a more intense glimpse of the world.
– Colm Tóibín: A grief observed

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Won/Nothing: in a game of two halves…

Ranging from high drama to low farce (which is very, very funny indeed – with echoes of the Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd (sans specs)), Love’s Labour’s Won – really Much Ado About Nothing – follows on beautifully (and remarkably well) from its companion Love’s Labour’s Lost – using a slightly shuffled cast (from the same company of players) to complement it; as well as sharing a setting, in my cherished Charlecote Park.

Keeping Edward Bennett (Berowne/Benedick) and Michelle Terry (Rosaline/Beatrice) as the central pair also helps link the two plays – a pair of sparkling actors, in “a pair of sparkling comedies [that] belong together”, as Greg Doran states in the programme – although this one has a much more optimistic (and complete) ending: which, carrying on after the first ‘curtain call’, just keeps coming back for more song and dance! (Extra time, perhaps…?)

This play wins on momentum, perhaps – it “hath indeed better bett’red expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how…” – but takes joint honours in the early-twentieth-century period “excellent music” (by Nigel Hess; directed by John Woolf – including a very moving post-interval company rendition of Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak mid-winter…) – and costume (supervised by Samantha Pickering). It also features a dancing star of a Christmas tree topper that I hope the RSC will be selling in their shop as a seasonal, Shakespearean ornament available to all…!

The revelation of the (preview) night, for me, was the multi-talented Harry Waller’s self-deprecating “ill singer” Balthasar, accompanying himself on the piano for a wonderful rendition of Sigh no more, ladies. Only a footman in Love’s Labour’s Lost, his warm voice perfectly fits the post-Edwardian era timbre of the play: making him more of a central figure than the text would perhaps suggest (only 33 lines – of which 23 are lyrics…) – “faith, thou sing’st well enough for a shift”.

If I had one criticism, it would be the casting of Sam Alexander (as the (legal and ethical) bastard, and personification of evil, Don John) and John Hodgkinson (as Prince Don Pedro) as half-brothers – when there is an age difference, in real life, of around twenty years. Although they both inhabit their rôles consummately, with depth and meaning, their somewhat lighter parts in Love’s Labour’s Lost – as the most conscientious monarch, and the affected Spanish braggart (and wonderfully cod-accented) Don Armado, respectively – mean that, initially, it can also be difficult to accept the serious nature of their ‘new’ characters: nonetheless, this does give both of them the vantage of demonstrating their great range.

As with the first, I shall be back to see this second play in a month or so (once more, with captions) – but tickets (I am told) are starting to get hard to come by: so if you want to join in the revelry – and this production of Much Ado would make a perfect pantomime-substitute – book now!

By the way – as a walking stick user, with a mum who uses a crutch – I think I need to start a campaign to teach actors that supports always go on the good side – not next to your gammy leg. Don John may have limped consistently and convincingly, throughout: but he has obviously been watching too much House…!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Summer death…

The hedgehogs (postscript & epitaph)

There were three of them – poor souls –
Old before their time it was said
We fed our brothers as one does
As – unlike us –
It was said that their mother was dead

There were three of them – now two –
One other slung without the pomp
Over the broken wall with shame
We – cowards all –
Had her say that they had gone away

There was one of them – with shame –
The maggots taunting with their smiles
Wicked in their beckoning guiles
One – stomach split –
Had lost both mother and his life

There was one of them – their mum –
Old before their time we had said
Crushed by a rubber bomb slow speeding
As – unlike us –
She fought for fodder and their feeding

There are two of them – poor souls –
Hidden from the prowls of night-time
We fed our brothers as one does
But – eating not –
We prayed that with the warmth they would

(And then there were none – all gone –
Old before their time they had tried
To suffer as brothers but they died
One – to the end –
Fought hard – but that stench of pain will stay
For the three of them – poor souls –)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf VIII

He was a friend of mine…

The Mole was getting nowhere. Literally and figuratively. He was completely and truly stuck. More stuck than raspberry jam. More stuck than a stick. More stuck, indeed, than glue. But, the more he kept on digging, the more he realized he had hit a wall: a very solid wall, at that. And hard. Rock hard. “It’s not exactly prevarication,” he remarked to his confidant candle, shuffling and staring at the blueprints for the umpteenth time that morning, then placing the Badger’s old magnifying glass back on top of them, again; “more shilly-shallying; beating about the bush; sitting on the fence… in PREPARATION for prevarication. If I WERE excavating a hole…” – and the First Law of Holes (But Not According to Moles) suddenly came into his furry head: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’ – so he scratched it, hard: as if that would make things better. But it just made it hurt. “If I WERE digging an ACTUAL HOLE, I would KNOW what to do: retrace my steps, and set off in a different direction – to divert, not tergiversate: as Grandad used to say. And certainly NOT GIVE UP.” But he KNEW he was getting nowhere; because he didn’t know where the somewhere he needed, wanted to go to, actually WAS. And he kept taking wrong turns.

“What is needed is a change of tack. But isn’t tacky the same as sticky…? Oh bother. Oh blow. Oh… botherblow! Oh BLOTHER.”

He got up from the unyielding study chair – the soft cushions having long tumbled with his fidgeting down onto the threadbare once-patterned rug beneath: bearing witness to much movement of furniture and feet – and stared, absentmindedly, at one of the Badger’s sprawling bookcases. Books in piles; books double-stacked; books seemingly always on the brink of toppling. But, somehow, they stayed safe, and secure, as well as dust-free. (“Umm.” He scratched his head, again.) What he knew he required, in answer to his question, was a dictionary; but, pulling himself up onto the chair, tiptoeing, he reached for a thin leather volume on the highest shelf he could reach, instead: its gleaming red leather binding having caught his eye, as if beckoning him to select it. KUBLA KHAN, it said, on the spine, in-between well-worn, raised bands: A VISION IN A DREAM.

Fluffing the fallen cushions, and replacing them on the wooden seat, one under, one behind, the Mole pulled open the front cover, carefully, leant back, pushed his spectacles further up his nose, and began to read, mouthing the words as he went. It wasn’t long, of course, before he found himself snoring gently in “gardens bright with sinuous rills”.

The Mole hated committees (and their meetings) even more than he hated tomatoes (and their eatings). The bitter taste of both would linger in his mouth for a long, long time afterwards; and, being naturally timid, he would spend hours compiling minutes, rather than contributing anything to them. In fact, for all the Badger’s sagacity, and supposed primacy as democratically-elected chair, it rapidly became clear that the group was to be used as a soapbox for the warped opinions of the taller of the two weasels – rapidly christened by the Water Rat as the “Twisted Pair” – but only as a stepping stone on the way to grabbing power and authority for their own perverted predilections and sinister schemes (most of which seemed to be about flaunting what they obviously believed was their superiority over all all other animals). It did not help that the smaller, rounder one now lived in – and reigned over – what had been Toad Hall; and obviously equated saving the river-bank with sparing his own home – and very little else.

“And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,” muttered the Mole, between short, distressed grunts.

The Mole had known that the tiny rabbit would say little or nothing; but had expected – rather than the schism which befell the nascent congress – compromise (“such a weaselly, weedy word”) from the other members: where the stronger influenced the weaker; and some sort of sensible way forward would reveal itself – even if it did not lead immediately to the destination that he, Ratty and Badger desired. He had then hoped that the Badger’s pronounced and natural authority would pull the others along; and had been completely blindsided (“so typical for a shade-loving mole”) by the redirection, the deviation, of the two furtive, treacherous weasels. It seemed that the cottontail wasn’t the only one intimidated, then quelled, by their takeover; and the Badger – with all the goodness he held in his heart; with not one jot of space left for badness of any kind – could not, in an eternity, have foreseen it.

“And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war!” The Mole twitched – yet still not awake.

It therefore took a long time for the Badger to admit to the Mole and Water Rat that such dirty, rotten behaviour had gone on without the official meetings, too; and that the Twisted Pair had gone behind his back on a thoroughly nasty campaign of intimidation and innuendo: somehow managing to insinuate themselves between the Badger and his good friend the Otter, and the Council of Animals which he led: the two groups that should have formed natural allies now riven irrevocably.

“And all should cry, Beware! Beware!” A squeak.

But they had been clever enough – given their history; and knowing of the powerful kinship that linked the Badger, the Water Rat and the Mole – to keep their physical distance from these three, even as they snared the other committee members in their nets. But, in doing so, they had left the Badger just enough wiggle room, just enough power, enough freedom, to put his initial plans into action – and openly, too. And, for a short time, as a result, they felt as if the threat of the Wide World had receded. But for a short time only. Soon, it would be back….

“His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”

As he woke – his remembered nightmare vivid, still, flashing in front of his tired eyes – he could hear its echoes still – “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing…” – distant, but repeated, like the thump someone’s cudgel would make upon a stout wooden door. “Tish and tiddle”, said the Mole. “It was only a DREAM!” He rubbed his gritty eyes.

But the noise would not stop…. “Who is it THIS time, disturbing people on such a night?”

“Oh my dear, dear chum, where have you been? ALL this time. All this TIME…” bawled the Mole, so thrillingly delighted, yet still – but only slightly, now – perplexed, astonished and annoyed at the Water Rat both for his disappearance THEN, and his sudden reappearance NOW. “Where HAVE you been, my good friend? I have so very missed you. It seems so very long…” and he tailed off (which moles are wont to do, of course), until his snout reappeared, instead, sniffling and whiffling, from behind his habitual faded red spotted hankerchief. “You have been gone too long,” he said, simply and quietly. “TOO long. But then,” he snuffled, “a day would have been too long, too. Too….” He looked up over his eyeglasses: and the Rat could see his own stupid, grinning visage reflected back, moistly, distorted in duplicate.

“I was having the most vivid dream. All sorts of images rose up before me, as things. I’d worked out what to do. And, taking my pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote it all down. At this moment…. Oh, Ratty, Ratty, Ratty, RATTY…!” The small book of poetry and accompanying notebook hit the stone floor with a gentle pair of flumps, followed by a small clatter of fountain pen. “Ratty…”

It was more than a hug. For many moments, they stood in the hall, silently, statue-still, reaffirming a bond long-established and unbreakable. Trust was deeply ingrained in that embrace; as was love; as, of course, was friendship; as, of course, was a mutual understanding that required no words to explain.

“I’m sorry, Mole”, said the Rat, simply and quietly: trying.

“No,” said the Mole. “NO. APOLOGIES. I know why you needed to go, what drove you. A water rat is nothing without water. I told them. I TOLD them…. But…”

“But what?”

“There’s no water. Still.”

“I know.”

“So WHY…?”

“Because I took the coward’s way out. Was selfish. I just wanted to feel like a water rat should.”

Now it was the Mole’s turn to say “I know” – again. And to add: “I would have done the same. But what MOLES need is holes. And here, I have plenty! You DIDN’T have what you needed. You HAD to go.”

“Thank you. But now I’m back, for GOOD. To help. To help Badger. And to help YOU.” Something in the Mole’s expression hit him deep, deep down. It hurt so much, it took his breath far, far from him. “But what… WHAT about Badger? What…”

The Mole placed a gentle paw on the Rat’s shoulder. “Long gone. Long gone.” And then it was the Rat’s turn to weep. Now, there was water aplenty.

“I had business in Porlock,” said the Rat.

“What’s ‘paw-lock’ – a door-lock for paws?” asked the Mole, wrinkling his face, curiously, over his amber tumbler.

“A joke,” grinned the Rat. “A stupid, poor joke! From a stupid, poor Ratty!”

“Oh, I’m SO glad you’re back!” chortled the Mole.