Out Now!

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Idle moments well spent

As the title suggests there is an art to life, and as we wandered through HerefordCathedral it becomes apparent that there is art in death. A case in point is Sir Richard Pembridge, a C14th Knight who died in 1337. By all accounts he was a splendid fellow who fought for the king at Crecy and Poitiers, and was rewarded for his trouble by being made a Knight of the Garter. Better still he was allowed to wear a garter on his left leg. What’s not to like about that?

Sir Richard survived a dangerous and exciting life. He was less lucky in death, or at least his tomb was. During the Civil War in the C17th his right leg was damaged. After the war it was replaced with a nicely carved wooden leg - complete with garter. Not only was it on the wrong leg, he now had two of them. This anomaly remained for another two hundred years until, in the C19th a third leg was commissioned in alabaster and without the surplus garter. May he now rest in peace.  

It was with that thought I stroked his head. It is one of my many vices, stroking the heads of dead men, so long as they’re smooth and cold and made of stone. I’ve stroked Einstein’s knee in Washington, and a whole series of Rodins in the Vatican Museum. No sculpture is safe from my wandering hand. Stained glass windows on the other hand…they’re too high to reach

And back to tombs again. 

This is the tomb of Andrew Jones and his wife. He was a wealthy cider maker who died in 1497. He gave money to the Cathedral so merited a tomb... in the crypt. What I love about his is what he is resting his feet upon. Whereas knights like Sir Richard Pembridge rest their feet on hunting dogs or leopards etc, his feet rest upon a cider barrel. An early but tangible sign of the emergent bourgeoise. All in all a happy tomb, insofar as tombs can be happy. 

On the other hand

The Denton Tomb is sad on different levels. It shows the effigies of Alexander Denton and his first wife Ann Willison, who died in childbirth. (1556) The child is shown with her, tucked alongside her left leg. Alexander however died twenty years later and is buried in Buckinghamshire along with his second wife. 

And let's end on a happy note. We had a hot goat's cheese salad in a small cafe adjacent to the cathedral. I don't have a photo of the salad, or the cafe, though if faced a C17th coaching inn.  I do though have some more stained glass windows - modern ones but just as  beautiful:
The Thomas Traherne Windows 

Friday, 2 October 2015

A kangaroo, Naruto and Morrissey

“I think I must be, absolutely, a total sex object. In every sense of the word.” Who said that and...why?

This week has been full of absurdities. I pick three out at random. It’s now official, ‘Selfie’s are more deadly than Sharks’—in fact twice as deadly, the respective figures being 12 and 6 respectively for the year just gone. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that people will swim in the vicinity of sharks, that people will photo-bomb a wild bear, a charging bull, and a speeding train with a ‘Selfie’, and that others will compile and compare the contrasting statistics. No one has yet photobombed a shark with a ‘selfie’ but they will. It is unlikely that Spielberg will make a film about it, though a crested Macaque monkey might.

One such monkey has already acquired its own agent, the animal rights organization: ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.’ PETA has even given said monkey a name: Naruto. The issue is simple. Naruto took a ‘Selfie’. So who owns the copyright, a hitherto unknown monkey called Naruto or David Slater who had set up the camera in his study of a group of Macaque monkeys? And will anyone compile statistics comparing monkey ‘selfie’ mortality rates?

Caligvla at en.wikipedia

The third absurdity of the week is Morrissey, a hero to many but essentially a twerp. His book, a List of the Lost is only 118 pages along but is set to replace Fifty Shades of Grey in the Derision Charts. I stand in awe of his description of sex: ‘…the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation (as it) smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.’ What does that last clause even mean?

And why would you think the story of four Boston relay runners in the mid 70’s interesting? Seen through the eyes of a gifted writer almost anything is interesting but to a writer who refers to his four heroes as our ‘our Priorswood tetrad’, ‘our hounds’, ‘our speed merchants', ‘our heroes’.

I sometimes struggle with dialogue, and I crit dialogue on workshops, but I wouldn’t know where to begin with this: “My body is decorative art! I delight in my magnificence!” 

Then there are the sentences that will have you scratching your head: ‘In servitude is the watcher, asking of the do-er that he assumes all aspects of the watcher’s desire.’

And what woman would fall for a chat up line like this? ‘Electrons from me need electrons from you to become electrons’ —other than a drunk physicist who liked Morrissey.

The book is full of groaners: 'Whoever put the pain in painting had also put the fun in funeral.’ I’m tempted to add ‘and put the last rites in writer’. But it doesn't quite work.

I suppose this last absurdity of the week stems from annoyance that there are so many talented writers looking for the chance Morrissey claims on the basis of a few clever songs.

Now if someone could prove that Naruto had been somewhere near Morrissey’s keyboard…

Maybe he was.

'The mutual head-rush struck both of them at the same time, as a man-and-woman lightning bolt that meant they could now lounge together at the end of it, yet saying nothing, because the air around their silence crashed and gargled with so much meaning.'

Puts me in mind of a thoughtful piece of graffiti I read once. 'Sex is a pain in the neck. . . or am I doing it wrong?"

Friday, 25 September 2015


I have not been so depressed by the printed word for a very long time. It was about a topic I knew nothing about, and be warned if you read much further you’ll share my depression.
In his book, The Cruise of the Beacon 1854 Francis R Nixon, the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania wrote this:

The young Bishop Nixon

"Nearly eleven years had passed since I landed on the self-same rocks with Sir John Franklin. How changed the scene! Then the beach was covered with the aborigines, who greeted their kind and loved benefactor with yells of delight; capering and gesticulating with movements more indicative of exuberant wild joy than of elegance or propriety. Now all was still."

What had happened?

When European settlers first settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1772 they remarked upon the number of aboriginal folk, their friendliness, and complete lack of curiosity. By 1830 their number had fallen from about 5000 to 72.  They had been used as slave labour, sexual pleasure, tortured and hunted as vermin—their skins sold as government bounty. Male Tasmanians were killed, their wives turned loose with their husbands’ heads tied around their waists. Those not killed were castrated and their children clubbed to death.
William Lanner (spellings vary)

The last indigenous male William Lanner died in 1869 at the age of 34. Two men wanted to examine the corpse. Dr. W L Crowther of the Royal College of Surgeons got in first and decapitated the dead man, replacing the missing head with another one. Other accounts suggest he skinned the head of the dead Tasmanian and attached it to another skull, which he attached to the corpse. His arch rival, Dr. George Stokell of the Royal Society of Tasmania had be satisfied with the hands and feet, though he did make a tobacco pouch out of the skin. Both men operated in the belief that the Tasmanian was the missing link between Ape and Man.

Truganini  (spellings vary)

William Lanner’s companion, Truganini, terrified that a similar fate awaited her when she died, begged to buried at sea. Her request was denied and her skeleton was displayed in the glass case of a Tasmanian museum. Not until 1947 was her skeleton removed on the basis of poor taste, but only to be put in a back room for further scientific examination. Finally in 1976 her skeleton was cremated, the ashes scattered into the sea as she had requested.

It’s easy to shift responsibility on to the backs of ex-convicts and greedy adventurers who saw the indigenous population as an obstacle rather than human. That would be too easy. You also have to factor in the racism that permeated the religious and intellectual climate of the time.

An older Bishop Nixon

Bishop Nixon’s racism is of the weary benevolent kind. Thus he writes:

“Early navigators speak of the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania as a social and gentle race, equally devoid of curiosity and of fear. Indolent and un-enterprising, (and) as is the wont of savages, addicted to petty theft. All accounts agree in describing them as being singularly deficient in the most ordinary methods of procuring for themselves those comforts, which usually characterize even the most untutored tribes of man.”

Within ten months of British occupancy fifty Tasmanians were shot. Bishop Nixon is full of sympathy:

“Poor ignorant savages--all unconscious of our power and of our resources, knowing nothing of the white man….
(But fearful was his revenge)…No white man's life was safe: at no hour of day or night could he be sure that the sleepless eye of the stealthy savage was not upon him. Men, women, and children were speared alike.”

The exculpation is a familiar one, much the same language used against the Native American. Bishop Nixon continues”

“As European population crept in and increased…The inferior race has slowly but steadily yielded; and though long succored and protected, there is now a mere handful of the aboriginal inhabitants left, maintained, however, in ease and comfort upon a Government establishment."

 He his referring here to a protective enclave established by the missionary Augustus Robinson. Here children were taken away from their mothers so they could be better indoctrinated in European ways. Food rations were so short most of them died of malnutrition. The good Bishop saw what he wanted to see and remained a happy benevolent soul as his journal records:

“…baptized six children, all half-castes. One of them, a boy of two years of age, was as magnificent a little fellow as I ever saw. His large full black eyes, and finely formed features, would have done honour to any parentage.

Soon after dusk we returned to our hospitable quarters, where we found tea awaiting us. Our host, Tucker, and his active little Hindoo wife.”

Anthony Trollope

Saddest of all, since Anthony Trollope is one my heroes, even he wasn’t immune from the casual racism of his time:

“…of the Australian Black Man we may certainly say that he has to go. That he should perish without unnecessary suffering should be the aim of all concerned in the matter.”

Friday, 18 September 2015

Birkenhead boy made good

Can anything good come out of Birkenhead? A rhetorical question answered  perhaps by Cammel Lairds and F. E Smith.  But then again, it was Cammel Lairds who built the Titanic whereas F. E Smith drowned in alcohol. He did though escape from Birkenhead.

After a fairly dodgy start he rose to become a fellow of Oxbridge, a lawyer who took no prisoners, an equally ruthless MP, and, at 47 the youngest Lord Chancellor in memory. His response held an element of prophecy: “Should I be drunk as a lord or sober as a judge?” He died in 1930 from Cirrhosis of the liver.

Some attribute this to thwarted political ambition. He may have been the youngest Lord Chancellor but though prestigious, it was also a political cul-de-sac.  From 1919, other than a brief year of sobriety, his drinking was prodigious— something Lady Curzon experienced first hand.
After Smith, in effect called her husband a liar, she came across him at a ball, and took great pleasure in snubbing him but, in her words, he was "too drunk to notice."

It hadn’t always been so. The historian George Dangerfield describes F.E Smith as a young man. His description and the Spy Cartoons give a wonderful impression:

“He was tall, dark, slender and a little over-dressed. His eyes and hair were lustrous; the first from nature, the second from too much oil. His mouth had always a slightly contemptuous droop; his voice was a beautiful drawl. He had acquired, not diligently but with too much ease, the airs of a fox-hunting man who could swear elegantly in Greek. Many people loved him, most distrusted him, some despised him, and he despised almost everybody.”

His quickness of mind and verbal ripostes reinforce the picture of a man who didn’t tolerate fools.

A 1924 entry in Evelyn Waugh’s diary described how an English High Court judge presiding in a sodomy case sought advice on sentencing from Lord Birkenhead. "Could you tell me," he asked, "what do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?" Birkenhead replied without hesitation, "Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds: whatever you happen to have on you.”
This particular judge got off lightly. On other occasions he could be a little more cutting:

Judge: You are extremely offensive, young man!
Smith: As a matter of fact we both are; and the only difference between us is that I am trying to be, and you can't help it.
Judge: I've listened to you for an hour and I'm none wiser.
Smith: None the wiser, perhaps, my lord but certainly better informed.
Judge: What do you suppose I am on the bench for?
Smith: It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.

Nor was it for him to get too worked up about sexuality. He might have used Roger Casement’s buggery of boys as ammunition when prosecuting him for treason, but dismissed calls to criminalise lesbianism on the basis that ninety nine women in a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices."

He was not infallible, remarking about India that to him it was ‘frankly inconceivable that India will ever be fit for Dominican self-government. At the same time he had a degree of prescience when he also observed:
“The greater the political progress made by the Hindus, the greater, in my judgement, will be the Moslem discontent and antagonism. All the conferences in the world cannot bridge over the unbridgeable, and between those two countries lies a chasm which cannot be crossed by the resources of modern political engineering.”

As Lord Chancellor he savaged the mine owners in the 1926 General Strike:
“It would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners' leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not frequent occasion to meet the owners.”
A year later it was the Unions, when he attacked mass picketing:
“We are asked to permit a hundred men to go round to the house of a man who wishes to exercise the common law right in this country to sell his labour where and when he chooses, and to 'advise' him or 'peacefully persuade' him not to work. If peaceful persuasion is the real object, why are a hundred men required to do it?”

Though he was a formidable ‘Class Warrior’ of the Right, his intellect and wit were acknowledged by a future Labour leader, Clem Attlee, who may have chuckled at another F.E Smith aphorism.  Referring to Bolshevism, Smith observed:
“Nature has no cure for this sort of madness, though I have known a legacy from a rich relative work wonders.” Cynical but the key to the Establishment’s success in turning too many Labour politicians into hypocrites.

At a smart party a lady approached Smith and pompously told him ‘My name is Porter-Porter, with a hyphen. He replied ‘Mine is Whiskey Whiskey, with a siphon.

‘He is very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head’ Margot Asquith

 “Churchill has spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks.”

Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink.”
“Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”
Exchange between Lady Astor and Lord Birkenhead—