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Friday, 29 April 2016

A Most Talented Stomach

I was sitting down when the gurgling began, not that of a child in a pram. The gurgling came from my stomach. It’s something I’ve become accustomed, too. As the body ages it becomes more determined—desperate even— to show how hard it’s working. My stomach is a case in point, and this evening it gave me everything but fireworks and lights.

I must confess it had something to work on, namely lentil dahl, Roquefort cheese and a handful of grapes, but I wasn’t expecting this.

It began with a whiny sort of noise, more like a creaky door—or a conductor calling an orchestra to order. A long hollow noise followed, an intestinal aria as other parts of the stomach raised their instruments and waited their turn.

When it came, it was like duelling banjos, a Prokofiev and Shostakovich showdown in the guts and coming from every direction. The gurgles varied from the full bodied and fruity to the muted trumpet solo, but wh really surprised me was its duration. It went on, and on, and on.

For a while I panicked, thinking of those unfortunate souls who hiccupped for years on end. Would I be an embarrassment, to left at home with the TV on full volume? A fourteenth century mystic cried for over two decades thinking on the wounds of Christ. Where was my stomach going with this?


There would be lulls followed by a whole series of noises, like a roaring of termites in the lower intestine; and then a brief silence heralding the long plaintive sound of a whale in song. It was the colonic version of the dawn chorus, but where as in bed you can stagger out to shut the windows, with the stomach there is no escape. 

So I sat, a quiet pride gradually replacing fear, but relieved there was nobody else in the room. When it ended I experienced a perverse disappointment, like a concert had ended; perhaps a little Vaughan Williams next time around. Broccoli might do it.  

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Nine Witches of Garway




On a downcast Saturday afternoon we drove to Garway, a village fifteen miles or so away. It was something we’d planned to do for some time. I mean, who could resist a little known Knights Templar Church, stories of ghosts, and nine witches? 

The Nine Witches of Garway are quite an item. It is said ‘There’ll be nine witches from the bottom of Orcop to the end of Garway Hill as long as water flows.’ But it is difficult to find anything more. It was difficult enough to find the Church, never mind witches. We ended up asking directions from an elderly man with interesting eyes. His directions were good, involving a lane and a walk across fields. And as we walked the weather improved.

The Church is tucked in obscurity, and yet it remains in use and has all the bric a brac you associate with small country churches: hymn books, parish notices and drawings from a local primary school.
These homely touches are beguiling, even deceptive. An experienced dowser who helped in research for the book English Magic 2008 reported experiencing a ‘shattering sense of evil’ in the area of the piscina, where the communion chalice was once washed. This sense of evil—or something—has been detected by others, most notably by that master of the supernatural story, M. R. James.

After a visit to Garway in 1917, he wrote to one of his hosts, Gwendoline:
‘We must have offended somebody or something at Garway, I think. Probably we took it too much for granted, in speaking of it, that we should be able to do exactly as we pleased. Next time we shall know better. There is no doubt that it is a very rum place and needs careful handling.’

To my knowledge, Dan Brown has yet to visit Garway, but it has everything from a sacred well to a dovecote with 666 holes. It also suffered the full force of the Papal war against the Knights Templar. Clement the Humane had already connived with the King of France, Philip the Fair, to launch a full-scale attack on the Templars. The Order was accused of witchcraft. They may have been guilty of witchcraft, or they may have had more wealth  than both king and pope thought they deserved. A small hiccup in the form of Edward II  emerged, when the pope tried to extend the persecution to England.

For all his faults, Edward II was reluctant to comply. Eventually he allowed the papal inquisition but banned torture, insisting that all arrested Templars be treated with kindness.

This resulted in a stern rebuke from the Pope: ‘We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of your land…I command you at once to submit these men to torture.’

Edward remained reluctant but submitted when  money was given to him. Even kings have their price. 

Torture may not guarantee honest confessions, but in this case they guaranteed the  confessions the establishment desired, and the Knights Templar were extinguished, leaving only rumour and conjecture, and small mysterious churches like Garway.

You might enjoy a photo of what may be a ghoul or shadow on a window. You decide. The link is here, but you'll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page. 

Friday, 8 April 2016

A balding raccoon

When I was a small boy I pursued cats with a badly made catapult. In my mind, I was Davy Crockett hunting raccoons. From the cats’ perspective I was a loon, and they treated me with suitable disdain.



Many years later Kathy, my American cousin, came to the rescue. One memorable December, I visited her in Seattle and enjoyed a wonderfully warm family Christmas. There were many highlights including a swim in a very cold Pacific.  





Another highlight was the opening of an intriguing looking parcel. She had made me a real Davy Crockett made from a real raccoon, which now regarded me balefully over the crackers.

That hat followed me everywhere, surviving two house moves and a garage conversion. It enjoyed its years frightening young children who, exploring nooks and crannies, would come across its unmoving glare. For some years now it’s resided on the top shelf in our wardrobe next to an old pair of jeans.

I had fond plans of passing it on as an heirloom to my children—well one lucky child—the other would make do with a catapult.

But then disaster struck!

Its hair began falling out. Great drifts of it. When I moved it the two eyes stared at me through a cloud of floating hair. I now have a semi-bald raccoon skin hat, its eyes no longer baleful but vaguely reproachful, like how could you let this happen to me?



The question now is what do I do with it. Do I want to walk around with a bald raccoon on my head? There is no easy solution to this. I imagine hair extensions are out of the question, a comb-over equally unfeasible. Davy Crockett of course would simply shoot another raccoon.

Whatever the solution, Kathy and Rick, thank you again.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Today's April Fool. . .

A magnificent April Fool’s joke in today’s Times, but one that scrapes the knuckle of truth. In short, students from Imperial College and King’s College have demanded the two colleges be renamed in order to ‘decolonise and demisogynise higher education.’ Student Union members claim the names are ‘symptomatic of the historic and structural racism and sexism that cause daily microaggressions to students of colour and those who self-identify as female.’ Two new names have been suggested: Gaia College and Citizens’ College.

Frederick Chetwynd-Talbot, President of the King’s College Indigenous People’s Society believes the existing names are ‘inimical to a place of learning that claims to offer a safe space for all.’ For him it is ‘about the intersectional oppressions suffered each and every day by people of the Global South, and members of the LGBTQ community.’ There is to be a vote tonight in the Saif Gaddafie room, built from a bequest by the late Libyan leader’s son.


What can I say? Today’s April Fool, tomorrow—who knows? Rhodes has escaped by a narrow squeak, for the moment. In America the process is already gaining momentum, until the pendulum turns. In Pennsylvania, the Lynch College Memorial Hall provoked students there to demand a name change because of its racist connotations. In fact the hall is named after one of its past presidents Clyde Lynch, a   1930’s benefactor and fundraiser behind the building of the memorial hall. Now had the hall been named after the Virginian planter, Charles Lynch, whose ad hoc courts tried and ‘lynched’ British patriots during the American Revolution, those students would have something to shout about. I already feel a microaggression coming on. Pass me the smelling salts

What has been your best April Fool this year?

Friday, 25 March 2016

swimming on empty





Today was a melancholy day. Built in 1973, Monmouth Leisure Centre—after several false alarms—has at last closed its doors to be demolished and rebuilt in two years time.
No more 5.14 a.m starts, the early morning walk to the pool for an uncrowded swim and diving into sometimes quite warm water at 6.47.  We brave few silently sneered at the Johnny-come-latelies, drifting in as we left.



Around 7.15 a.m I would invariably think of my wife, warm and tucked up in bed. No sneer there, but occasional envy—replaced very quickly by an ineffable air of superiority. I was achieving, ploughing through water with no definable aim other than a hot shower on passing my fortieth, sometimes forty-fifth length.



The hot shower—the definable aim—was not without problems. Sometimes it was a very cold shower, and there was nothing you could do about it but dance to keep warm and flee to a fierce towel. And sometimes the drainage played up—a small grilled hole in the ground shared between showers.

The offending showers, far left

When that happened soapy water would swirl over ankles and calves and remorselessly rise.  At that point you left for fear of the obituary—drowned in a shower.

But now all this is gone, along with my sad, almost anal routine. All right, totally anal.

There is of course an alternative—apart from long country walks, which unfortunately involves a long country hill.  Monmouth Boys School have their own private pool and well equipped gym—open to all who are willing to pay over £300 pa.

£300.

The thought makes me shrivel. A long line of Henrys, Tobins, Parrys and Keytons scream out ‘Nooooooo!!’

£300, that’s over a pound a day, £7 a week, £28+ a month. The mind whirls in denial as siren voices edge to persuade. I spend more than that on drink.
Yes, but I like drink.
And I don’t have to get up early to drink
You spend as much on books.
Again. I repeat. I don’t get up at 5.15 a.m to read books, and no book has ever kept me up so late.
You have more books on your kindle than you’ll ever have time to read.
Yes, but I’ll have more time now.
And... And. . . And

The jury remains out. In the meantime I enjoy my lie in.