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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Clay Cross

Clay Cross first materialised in Bed-sit-land in the Handpost area of Newport, and when Newport still had its Woolworths. Next to the assorted sweets, it had piles of cheap paperbacks featuring Richard S Prather's detective, Shell Scott. I admire Prather for the sheer volume of his work. He was knocking them out, and in those grey, grimy evenings, I was reading them as fast as they appeared on Woolworths' shelves. I still have most of them, a fine collection. Interspersed with Prather's hyperactive Shell Scott, was the more sober prose of Raymond Chandler, and the rage and paranoia of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. 

Thus Clay Cross came into being. 

He found his voice in the letter pages of  The South Wales Argos where he vented the most outrageous ideas in the voice of a misogynist, homophobic Cold War warrior circa 1951. And then he went into cold storage as I couldn't for the life of me find away of bringing a creature of the 1950's into the late C20th without the support of a zimmerframe, oxygen bottles, and care assistant. 

He was resurrected on the pages of an online magazine called On Fiction Writing where he interviewed a host of some very generous writers, with the help of his sidekick, the lascivious and kinky Sheri Lamour. The two of them were outrageously rude, and when the enterprise ended neither agreed to be put back into their respective coffins. 

It was a whisper in the dark. Sheri I think, or perhaps April Dawn. Either way a solution was found, and both Cross and Lamour were plucked from their natural habitat and plonked into the centre of Newport in the late C20th.  Here they ran amok - and continue to do so--- oblivious to political and cultural sensitivities, and appallingly rude to anything that moves. 

I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Why I love history

Time can play tricks with the mind, especially in old churches and amidst graves. St Michael's and AllSaints is a case in point, whether you study the list of priests and vicars  who attended the church, or the grave stones surrounding it. The Church itself was built in the C12th by Geoffrey de Clinton, who, for the most part, stayed on the right side of Henry Ist.

This fine medieval church has a fine medieval yew tree, a sapling when Henry Ist was mutilating coiners for debasing the currency.

St Michael's and All Saints is also the final resting place of Benjamin Disraeli, his brother and nephew.

The dates on their grave stones, in particular those of their respective wives, illustrates beautifully how history is fluid. Real people don't live in 'periods'. They live through them. Consider Ralph Disraeli, the great man's brother. He was born in 1809 so was six years old when the Battle of Waterloo took place. His grandfather may well have told him of similar battles, such as Blenheim, as well as the loss of the American colonies. 

Ralph Disraeli would have his own tales to tell. He was fifty-four at the time of the American Civil war, but because he married a much younger wife, she carried on the baton. Katharine Disraeli, born in 1837 died in 1936, so witnessed the First World War, and missed the Second World War by only three years. Those two people unite centuries and transcend periods. If you bring in Marguerite Katharine Disraeli, their youngest daughter, she witnessed the 1960's dying in 1967, the same year as Sgt Pepper. 1809 to 1967 embraced in a single family, with one of the great statesmen sandwiched inbetween.

Ralph, Disraeli's brother.

Disraeli's nephew, Ralph Coningsby Disrael who inherited Hughendon

I stood there for some time, on ground consecrated nearly a thousand years ago staring at gravestones. Then sanity took over and I went for a beer.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

At home with the Disraelis

Benjamin Disraeli once gave a three-hour speech in which he consumed two bottles of brandy. He is one of my heroes. He is also famous for disliking Gladstone, once defining the difference between a misfortune and calamity thus: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity." 
And he never let anti-semitism get him down. Responding to a remark by the Irish Nationalist, Daniel O'Connell, he remarked:

"Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."

 It is worth googling Disraeli quotes. What comes out from them and his career is a heady fusion of ruthless pragmatism, ego, ambition, wit, and romanticism. It is hard to imagine him functioning in a modern democracy, nor any modern politician being so mordantly witty on their deathbed. Asked, as he lay dying, whether he wanted the Queen to come and see him, he drawled that she would only want him to send a message to Albert. (Her husband she'd been mourning for twenty years)

Understandably, given the chance to visit his house I jumped at the chance.

Hughendon manor is mentioned in the Domesday book when it was given a value of ten hides. A more substantial house was built in the C18th century but failed to meet Disraeli's expectations when he bought it in 1862. He had it remodelled along the lines of Victorian gothic. It delighted him but not the architectural historian, Nickolaus Pevsner who called it 'excruciating.'

Disraeli himself greets you as you pass through the porch
 This is far more imposing than the more bohemian Disraeli painted in later years
 This in turn is more imposing than the many wonderful and surreal Victorian cartoons.

 His dining room was quite small but this didn't bother Queen Victoria when she visited him once. She was quite small, too. In fact he had her chair cut and shortened so she could sit down without dangling the royal legs

His Drawing Room however was more spacious and sunny. A portrait of his wife, commissioned after her death, hangs over the mantelpiece.
 Love it or loathe it, a fine piece of Victoriana

 In one of the corridors, attached to the wall, is a carriage door. It's there for a reason
                                                    And its worth zooming in to read this.
Such a story could come from the wife of an Ayatollah, though it's unlikely an Ayatollah would consume two bottles of brandy, even less likely that Cheri Blair or Michelle Obama would respond in similar manner.

Disraeli married his wife, Mary Anne, for her money, but it developed into a love match. In her words:“Dizzy married me for my money.But if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” He poked fun at her:

“My wife is a very clever woman, but she can never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” And she embarrassed him by telling Queen Victoria that she always slept with her arms around Disraeli’s neck, and  prim society hostesses how beautiful her 'Dizzy' looked naked in the bath. It could have been worse. She could have discussed his merits in bed. Speaking of which
What's interesting is what they have on their walls. Clearly whatever they got up to was done with Royal Approval.

And finally, into the garden ---
--- which is seriously weird with its Flower-Pot man, Scary Spice, and Spanish dancer scaring small children and birds.
I leave their unholy love child until last.

We are done. The back of Hughendon. Disraeli's grave yet to come!!!!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson is a marmite personality, loved by many, loathed by others. I understand why some like him and why others despise him. I don't even have to leave the couch to understand the polarity of opinion. The internet allows those of like minded views to read like minded blogs and God help anyone who deviates from the party line on these like minded blogs. 

I don't watch Top Gear, can't abide cars though I like to be driven, but an aspect of the whole furore niggles me. Clarkson has been sacked for punching his producer who failed to do his job. The BBC's position  is that Clarkson 'crossed a line' in doing so and this is being propagated in  its various outlets.

 One could ask the question why top Premier League footballers are not sacked when they kick, or stamp on opponents in the heat of the moment. There would have been uproar on Merseyside if Steve Gerrard had been sacked for one such recent offence. In fact the Premier League would be decimated if everyone was immediately sacked for 'crossing a line.' Then again one could ask who defines 'crossing a line'.

This leads on the more serious question. In 1988, the BBC's Mark Thompson made an apparently unprovoked attack on a senior television journalist, Anthony Massey. He lunged at him snarling and sank his teeth into Massey's upper left arm. In Massey's words: "I pulled my arm out of his jaws, like a stick out of the jaws of a labrador. The key thing is, we didn't have a row first, or even speak." The affair was hushed up.  When he complained that Thompson hadn't even apologised or explained, his boss told him 'This whole place is full of f…. ...  headbangers." Massey was still unhappy about it, and was promptly sent on a dangerous assignment to Rwanda. 

There are stories, too, that Thompson once tried to strangle a video editor for handing in an obituary too late for broadcast. Another well known broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman remarked about Thompson "The bloke is quite clearly insane. Bloody hell. If any of this came out, he'd be toast."

Well, Mark Thompson wasn't made toast. He was promoted to the post of Director General of the BBC, (where he tried to hush up the Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandal,) and is now CEOof the New York Times.

So the question to be answered is not why you like or dislike Jeremy Clarkson, but why there is one law for some and another law for others?

 * This image was originally posted to Flickr by eirikso at http://flickr.com/photos/47402349@N00/3029958618. It was reviewed on by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

By God, Sir! So you have.

On the evening of June 18th 1815 the Duke of Wellington and Lord Uxbridge were riding side by side when a stray volley of grapeshot struck Uxbridge's right leg. Lord Uxbridge turned to the Duke and said:
By God, Sir! I've lost my leg
And Wellington replied:
"By God, Sir! So you have."
                                                                    Lord Uxbridge

The battle of Waterloo saw others less fortunate.  55,000 were killed or wounded. In one key respect it was worse than the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There 234 lay injured per mile of front. At Waterloo 2,291 lay injured per mile of front - many left bleeding to death. A few days later the London dentists arrived and extracted their teeth, revolutionising dentistry.

Waterloo Teeth

 All a far cry from the evening before at the Duchess of Richmond's Ball:
Brilliantly evoked in Thackery's 'Vanity Fair' but the pictures are good too.
 Bad news. Napoleon is almost upon them. Party-pooper!

                                                   We're coming for you Party-pooper!

Michael Crumplin, in his book, The Bloody Fields of Waterloo reveals that there were 2000 amputations that evening and the following day. The amputation was usually conducted standing up for speed was essential.  In Crumplin's words:

"They would cut the flesh with large capital amputation knives and then divide the bone with a saw. That would take only a few minutes but then you had to make sure you had control of all the arteries, which had to be tied off individually. Then you would dress the wound. In all it would take about fifteen minutes." (About the time needed to make and eat a round of cheese on toast.) Just as well because there were no anaesthetics other than spirits and on rare occasions, a small dose of opium. 

Lord Uxbridge apparently didn't flinch, except on the one occasion the saw jammed on the bone. The leg was buried in the garden where the amputation took place, and a plaque marking the spot was a tourist attraction for some years.

Crumplin makes the point that most injuries were from spent musket balls that penetrated the skin. "Being round, although they didn't have the destructive power of modern bullets, they did carry items of clothing into the wound - cloth infested with bacteria - which was a huge problem." It was why soldiers queued for the surgeon's saw. After twenty years of warfare they had seen the speed of gangrene, and its horrific effects. 

One final, interesting statistic from Crumplin's book is that of the 6,800 men wounded at Waterloo, 75% of them had rejoined their regiments by 1816. Injury and death were obviously preferable to the alternative as an agricultural labourer. Their officers, equally brave but having more options, resumed their dancing.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Any Questions

Friday March 6th got off to a poor start. I found myself seduced by a packet of bread. (I'd be easy pickings in the red light district of Amsterdam) It was a Waitrose Duchy Organic wholemeal 'without reliance on artificial chemicals or fertilisers.' I was looking forward to it all day, deciding on a cheese and tomato sandwich prior to attending 'Any Questions'.

The bread left a dry, acrid after-taste. It was horrible - even with half a bottle of mayonnaise hurriedly applied to disguise it. How was this possible, with its tasteful packaging, its wholewheat grown on the sun-kissed estates of Prince Charles? Try it by all means, but I advise you to stick with his eggs. 

In consequence I was quite hungry when I walked the one and half miles to the Blake theatre, where Any Questions was due to be held. We were advised to take our seats by 6.45, and it was packed to the gunnels. I followed a bunch of schoolgirls, all quite excited, some brandishing their tickets. The foyer was full of pupils from both the Girls' and the Boys' school, along with parents and a full crossection of Monmouth's finest, some of whom, judging by their resigned expressions, might have sampled a Waitrose Duchy Organic wholemeal cheese sandwich. 

The 'warm up' began at 7.30 and was conducted by a tall sprightly lady with short hair and quite a deep voice. She reminded the audience of the program's history, how it was now 67 years old, and how it all began - an impromptu alternative to a radio quiz. There had been a hitch and moments before going on air the quiz audience were treated instead to four politicians and an invite to ask them any questions they wished. The rest, as they say, is history.

She asked us had we listened to Any Questions the previous week, and reminded us, with some relish, how the UKIP spokesman on the panel had been given a slow handclap by the audience. I thought it a weird thing to say in terms of the famed 'impartiality' of the BBC. We were being invited to laugh at the fat boy who had farted in class. 

Just before eight, the panel came on to the stage, along with the chairman, a BBC stalwart, Jonathan Dimbleby, and his producer who sat alongside him. She seemed to be staring at an iPad during most of the programme, occasionally scribbling a note and passing it on to Dimbleby, who would then 'spontaneously' interject with a question to whoever was speaking. 

The panel consisted of Baroness Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats, Chris Bryant, Shadow Culture Minister, Mark Harper Minister for Disabled People, and Efyn Llwyd WestMinister Group Leader for Plaid Cwmru. They were an interesting bunch of people to watch, not necessarily to listen to. 

Baroness Brinton cultivated an 'incisive woman of sense persona.' Efyn Llwyd came across as everyone's favourite uncle, with his small moustache and bulging waistline. He twinkled. You could imagine him giving children a polished silver sixpence and dancing at Christmas in shirt and braces. You would go to him for advice if you had a suitably small investment. 

   Mark Harper, famed for breaking his leg dancing on a Soho restaurant table.

Mark Harper on the other hand looked like Richard III. He was sober suited and did not seem to be enjoying himself - a crucial failing before a live audience - as any teacher will testify. In contrast, Chris Bryant played the crowd with gestures and pantomime winks - something those listening on radio can't see but a live audience responds to. He was glib, and quite patronising to Richard III. On several occasions he told the sombre suited Harper how deeply he loved him despite him being an absolute fool. 

 Chris Bryant, famed for taking selfies in his underpants. The rich underbelly of Parliament.

Afterwards several old ladies congregated round the boyish Chris Bryant who looked suitably pleased.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Waking up. The ritual

Once upon a time, getting up was easy, a well-defined pleasure. It was a simple matter of arising before anyone else, making a huge pot of tea and sitting in darkness listening, and every so often cursing, at the radio. Grumpy man. Lacking a cat. 

And then two things happened. We bought an iPad. 

And Osbaston, a tiny suburb of Monmouth was hit by a wave of burglaries. This was great news for our local paper, The Beacon. With over 28 burglaries in just a few months in said tiny Osbaston, it positively salivated with headlines like Terror Hits Osbaston. Burglar alarm companies salivated even more, selling their products like hotcakes. 

And yes, we are now the proud possessor of a burglar alarm. If a mouse twitches in our house, all of South Wales knows about it. 

Problem is, getting up in the morning. I'm usually halfway down the stairs before a ferocious beeping warns me I have only 15 seconds to switch the damn thing off!

Then there is the aforementioned iPad.

This has changed my morning routine completely. I still make the huge pot of tea and sit in the dark with the radio, but now I'm scanning cyberspace as well--- the early morning mail, one or two select blogs and online news sites, and the Devil's own timesink---Facebook. And all the time the radio is weaving in news. A sensory duelling banjos, a rich and diverse pattern of neural activity, synaptic overload - it's a fine balance, but the tea helps.

Inbetween refilling my cup I'm flipping through cartoons, pictures of cats, online campaigns, people selling their books, things friends find funny (and many of them are) And then the Scylla and Charybdis of 'Waking Times' and the sciencey '109' 

I've forgotten now how they came to be on my Facebook page, but get sucked into them, and your doomed, your brain reduced to that of a magpie.

Waking Times is preoccupied with GM foods, the effects of fluoride. (apparently it's very bad for the pineal gland, and in consequence your spiritual growth, which is all part of an establishment conspiracy) They're very big on 'The Establishment':
"Being considered 'crazy' by those who are still victims of cultural conditioning is a compliment." Gave me a warm feeling until I realised Jihad Johnny would probably agree with that, too.
And all the time my half-awake brain is oscillating between radio news: events occurring in Greece or Iraq, who's to blame in the Ukraine, Ed Milliband's promise to posthumously pardon every homosexual breaking the laws of times past, (but not presumably past victims of witch-trials. He may be saving that for next year)
And Waking Times.
The finger hovers over hidden warnings:
Ten top eating myths you probably believe.
Are smartphones becoming a substitute for thinking?
Leavened with Fridge Magnet nuggets of wisdom:
Are you really going to let fear control your life? Easy to give a firm shake of the head in Monmouth, perhaps not in downtown Miami or some parts of London.
Where attention goes energy goes.
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket
Wherever you are, be all there.

It doesn't like organised religion but wallows in a weird mix of yoga, paganism, eastern mysticism and exhortations to fight the dark forces wilfully cloaking our minds.

It has pictures of penguins in sweaters, tells you what your sleeping position reveals about your personality, how to use mathematics to find your true love on Valentines Day, how to choose your genes

I skip an interview with a reptilian being. The thought of listening to two sources of noise frightens me. Instead, I move on to a question: Do I realise time has three dimensions?
Waking Times is bursting with answers to rhetorical questions.
I stop, with relief, at this last little pearl:
'Silence is loaded with answers.' On that basis, Waking Times must be the most silent site in all of cyberspace. 

In comparison the site 109 is positively prosaic with its best cos play costumes, its regular sci fi 'spoilers' its attacks on sexist tropes in the genre. Today I saw a video of deer eating birds, learnt how Charles Babbage attempted to summon the devil, and how CGI added pubic hair to Fifty Shades of Grey. And then an item on women's football on radio.

By 9 am I've slipped into aboriginal Dreamtime that only a brisk country walk will wake me from…after I've put on the burglar alarm.