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Friday, 29 May 2015

Well, that's Summer sorted

The bizzare, the wonderful, and the mundane; it all happens in Monmouth and surrounding area. In June, should the fancy take me, (and if I had or acquired a dog) I could participate in an attempt to break the current Guinness World Record for 'Most dogs in one place wearing a bandana. The current world record, and this I truly didn't want to know, is 764.

Think. That's 764 people or more who decided to dress their dog in a bandana in order to break a world record. It's harmless but decidedly eccentric, even if done for charity. Why not extend it? Parakeets in tuxedos, cats in pyjamas, snakes wearing condoms....perhaps not in Monmouth.

For those without dogs, parakeets, snakes or cats there is always an alternative. Also in June WWF Cymru is calling on people of all ages to make a stand for Nature and 'Wear it Wild.' The nations is being challenged to dress as wild as 'they dare.' Helpfully they make suggestions: wear animal print socks at work, leopard leotards on the school run, or go out in a Wild Onsie. It's a worthy cause and comes with a worthy caveat. Only fake fur please.

But this Sunday - be still my beating heart - is the Tintern Duck Race. This involves Ducks floating down the river Wye from Brockweir Bridge. Cash prizes for the three winning ducks. Their owners I presume. When all is said and done it beats 'Poo sticks'. There are more variables with ducks.

And finally for the more timid, and those wanting to get fit, there is of course 'The Big Welsh Walk'--> WITH ACTIVITY SHEETS. Oh Joy.

All this in the Monmouthshire Beacon. A snip at 45p.

I shall keep you posted if we break the world record in dogs wearing Bandanas

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Milksops and Wetties



I love obituaries. I love contrarians more, irrespective of class. The Dowager Marchioness of Reading who recently died at the good age of 96 is a case in point. She was a reputed beauty in the 1930s and 1940s,  for a brief time the face of Pond's Beauty Cream. She also possessed a fierce and independent spirit, being one of the first British women to get a pilot's license, compete on the stock car racing circuit and later indulge in rally driving in the 1950s. In old age, she became an outspoken English nationalist and campaigner for animal rights.


Not everyone admired her. Harold Brookes Baker, the former publishing director of Burke's Peerage, once noted that Margot Reading 'had views diametrically opposed to most sane people.' This is rich coming from one who once assured the Queen that she would be safe from Islamic fundamentalism because she was related to the Prophet Mohammed, and later  proposed that she be created Empress of Europe. 

Harold Brookes Baker, I suspect was more sycophantic than feisty. I can't imagine him ever writing, as The Dowager Marchioness of Reading did when defending football hooliganism:
"We are a nation of yobs. Now that we have no war, what's wrong with a good punch up?" In a later interview she elaborated further:
"I love England so much and I just feel that the so called 'hooligans' are just sort of over enthusiastic. How is it we conquered the world and that our armies went over the top? It is because we are a nation of fighters. What an English tough guy does is to fight with his fists, which is a good clean fight…with so many milksops and left wing liberals and wetties around, I just rejoice in the fact that there are people who keep up our historic spirit.'
She did her bit for the 'English Spirit' by fiddling with the controls of a carousal to make it go faster. It nearly flew off from the ground, along with everyone on it.
She also wrote (an unpublished letter to the Telegraph) proclaiming that 'the only answer to paedophiles is to cut their balls off.' In the 1960s she considered being a Conservative candidate until her husband dissuaded her, fearing what she might say. We live in a duller world

Friday, 15 May 2015

A Free Range Childhood



Two things caught my eye this week, one of which I have mixed, feelings about - some bordering on the hypocritical. Complaints were made in Nottingham about children playing football in the street. The council issued letters to parents in the street, warning of a fixed penalty £100 fine if it happened again. Local residents had raised complaints about balls hitting their cars and windows.

Hypocritical? Very much so. As a Liverpool kid, but lousy at football, I and everyone else in the street regularly kicked a ball against a  fat red wall that was the side of somebody's house. I marvel now at their tolerance, along with everyone else in our street that experienced 'The Alamo,' 'World War II' and several Indian uprisings every weekend and holidays. Now, when a ball is kicked near our car or tender plants, I stare miserably out the window, torn between memories and the urge to chastise.

The other, related piece of news, poses no moral dilemma. In fact it makes me despair as a parent, ex teacher, and one who benefited as a 'free-range' child. 

Plans have been put forward to introduce a nine hour school day and reduce school holidays from 13 to 7 weeks a year. 

The Government adviser argues it will transform the lives of British households. Damn right it will. Those residents of Nottingham would be happy, and Mr Gradgrind would be popping champagne corks with talk of preparing 'children for the world of work by getting them used to full days.' It's probably no coincidence that this particular adviser is also a partner in the Accountancy firm of KPMG. In Oscar Wilde's words: one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I would also suggest he is delusional when he declares it would be 'popular with teachers.' It marks the triumph of those who value 'meaningful activity' over 'boredom,' and further weakens 'family' allowing parents to work longer and children to come home in darkness but in time for bed.

The pictures below illustrate what a 'free range' childhood in Liverpool entailed. 












 















Thursday, 7 May 2015

Blenheim Part II Vision and egos



Sarah Jennings was ambitious, single minded, and egocentric. Her husband, John Churchill, may have won Blenheim and a string of other battles but she called the shots, and worked tirelessly for his advancement. By all accounts he adored her. 

It was a ruthless, dog eat dog age. John Churchill, a natural Tory had been a favourite of James II who appointed him governor of the Hudson Bay Company, made him a Baron, and confirmed him as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. 

When William of Orange invaded England, Sarah sniffed which way the wind was blowing and persuaded John Churchill to change sides. James lost his throne but  the Churchills did well, John being elevated to an Earldom, and regaining his position as Gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. (If anyone fancies being a Gentleman or Gentlelady of my Bedchamber, feel free to apply)

When Princess Ann, William's sister-in-law became queen in 1702 the Churchill star blazed all the brighter, with Sarah Churchill the new Queen's closest and most intimate friend. Following her husband's example, she became Mistress of the Robes, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and (my favourite) Ranger of Windsor Great Park) John did well, too. He became a Duke, which made her a Duchess.

After Blenheim nothing was too good for the golden couple and a grateful nation funded (until the money ran out) the building of Blenheim on the ancient manor of Woodstock.

All good things come to an end. Sarah, imperious, egocentric and, worse of all drifting towards the Whigs, lost the Queen's favour, which was transferred to the gloriously named Mrs Masham, and the Churchill's left England until the Queen's death in 1714.




 




Above and below, the garden temple where in 1908 Winston Churchill proposed to Clementine. The short link is well worth reading

The view Clementine would have observed over Winston's shoulder as she said yes.



John Churchill died in 1722. Sarah Churchill spent the rest of her life glorifying his name until her death in 1744. She quarrelled with architects, craftsmen and ministers. Her first architect Vanbrugh left in a rage, as did the equally gifted Grinlon Gibbons. The building dragged on for decades. Several times the money ran out and the indefatiguable Sarah would embark on fresh quarrels with her builders, cost cutting wherever she could. As late as 1735 the Duchess was haggling over the cost ot Queen Anne's statue in the Great Library.

Queen Anne in the Great Library. Note the two Wei Wei photographs to either side of her. They line the bookcases and detract from the original vision. Or, if you wish, replace one 'vision' with another.

Vanbrugh had an ego to match, though it wasn't his money to spend. His landscaping included the building of 'the finest bridge in Europe' over a marshy, trickling brook. The bridge was and is huge, once reputed to have in it thirty rooms and an underground tunnel to the main palace. The former brook is now more substantial because Capability Brown later used dams to create a great lake.

The Victory Column, a 134 feet high terminated an avenue of Elms planted in the position of Marlborough's troops at the battle of Blenheim.

Vanbrugh suggested another, smaller monument - an obelisk to mark the original ancient manor where Henry II played nooky with 'Fair Rosemund' behind the queen's back. The Duchess may just have frowned on adultery. She may equally have frowned on anything that could distract from the Churchill glory. In her words: "If there were obelisks to bee made of all what our Kings have done of that sort, the countrey would bee stuffed with very odd things." 

Which leads me to the equally odd, and, dare I say it - egocentric Wei Wei exhibition at Blenheim. Some might say it is a very good thing. I suspect Sarah Churchill would be spitting in rage.

 Photos like these line the two sides of the Great Library, each celebrating 'the finger' at authority via various iconic buildings, and each obscuring the books in the library. One presumes he's also raising the finger at Blenheim


 He Xie or 'harmonious' - describing the ideal of Chinese society and also its downside - conformity. And to think Sarah Churchill and Vanbrugh once quarelled violently over competing vision.
 Simply labelled 'Bubble' 2008


 When I first saw the handcuffs on the chair next to the bed where Winston Churchill was born, my first thought was that this was an interesting way of controlling a woman during the travails of birth. Either that or the nurses in attendence were dressed in 'Shades of Grey.' Only later did I find out that this was another Wei Wei artifact celebrating his release from detention in 2011. I haven't figured out whether the handcuffs are the actual 'art' or where they have been positioned  constitutes the 'art.'




Winston Churchill was born in Blenheim and was inspired by its history, and the first Duke of Marlborough. It might be argued that he saved Britain from a threat far worse than Louis XIV, but the nation was less tangibly grateful. At the dawn of empire, an C18th Monarch could afford Blenheim - kind of. An exhausted empire would afford a State Funeral...and a pair of Wei Wei handcuffs.

The three pictures, showing the Finger, He Xie, and Bubble, by kind permission of Henry Szabransky, who I suspect doesn't entirely agree with my jaundiced view.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Blenheim Palace



I met Mike Adams when we were both fifteen and had just started a catering course at Mabel Fletcher Catering College. He reminds me, with no trace of bitterness that I refused to let him copy my work. I was a young and ill-informed prat, but he got the last laugh, ending up cooking for the Rothschilds, The Duke of Westminster and the Marlboroughs of Blenheim Palace. 

A painted panorama of Blenheim Palace


 This is just the Gatehouse behind which is a large courtyard and the Palace itself

                                                     Mike's Apartment as Head Chef

                    View of the Gatehouse from the Palace. I told you the courtyard was big.


Mike recently showed us round the palace (the only non-royal, non-episcopal palace in the country). It was a joy, marred only by Wei Wei and his conceptual art. Had I wanted to see it I would have gone to the Tate or its equivalent. 
 The Entrance Hall, (left side)

 The Entrance Hall (right side) and a Wei Wei Chandelier


 
Mind you, we were given fair warning, having opted for an initial tour before Mike took us elsewhere. The lady asked us (a group of twenty or so)  were we interested in Wei Wei?" It was a fair question and I gave a fair answer. "No," I said. I hadn't come here to see Wei Wei.

She looked shocked, but I didn't want to see pebbles artfully arranged, nor pink and grey crabs, lopsided tables or his pictures defacing Blenheim's Grand Library. My daughter was equally shocked. She poked me in the ribs. I had been rude. I didn't see it. I'd been asked a question. I'd given an answer. And we were shown his work not-withstanding, along with her interpretation of every last piece, and how much she worshipped the air he breathed.

  Sarah Jennings (The first Duchess of Marlborough) and her children. The Duke is the guy on the horse. This is where I was poked in the ribs by my daughter. 


At last we were done and we wandered at will.
The Dining room.


                                                                      Dining table

 Dining table from other side


The palace was built between 1704 and 1711, and financed by a 'grateful nation' for John Churchill, (the first Duke of Marlborough. His achievement was striking. Blenhiem and a string of less well known victories were pivotal in diminishing French power in Europe and later the world. Had Louis XIV succeeded in the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain, and all her New World Colonies would eventually have fallen into French hands, albeit by proxy. 

 Louis XIV - the Sun King - the leggy brunette undefeated until Blenheim



Marlborough's lesser known achievement was keeping his armies well shod. Barges laden with boots followed his armies wherever they went. It's hard to win victories with raw feet and blisters.

               A tapestry showing waggons carrying supplies. Marlborough thought things through.

 Tapestry showing victory


A tapestry showing the French Marshal conceding defeat.  Oh, to be the Duke surrounded by memories like these. I have a few Facebook likes by ex-pupils and a few well recieved stories : )

 And my favourite - if you look closely you'll see the weaver has lost the plot. He's done so many horses he can't be bothered going out of his way for a dog - note the dog's hooves and how his legs (un-dog-like) mirror those of the horse


There is no doubt that John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough helped shape the course of history in Britain's favour, but my God, Blenheim is gratitude over the top! Facing the house, some distance away there's a Victory monument that makes Cleopatra's needle look like…a needle. 

 Admittedly the Victory monument looks a bit needle-like from this distance, but it dominates the surrounding estate.


Then there's his own personal chapel. 
                                                           The family private chapel

 The pulpit. Pity the vicar who had to preach before Sarah Jennings sitting directly below him



 A surprisingly modest altar, but then Jesus was a humble man



Look again at the small altar and pulpit. Contrast it with his mausoleum. God gets a poor deal in Blenheim, but then (unless you see John Churchill as His chosen instrument) He hadn't just whupped the French, and set the British imperial ball rolling. 

 You might notice the Duke and Duchess as Caeser and Caeserina, and at the bottom in bas relief Marshal Tallard surrendering after the battle.

                                                       There is life outside the mausoleum

An £18 ticket allows you to revisit as often as you want in any given year. It's a kind of Historical Time Share for those with delusions of grandeur. The park alone is worth it, never mind the house. But just as you can have death by chocolate, you can suffer death by Blenheim. Too much of a good thing. But we'll look at the park next week.