Sunday, 30 January 2011

Through a local lens No. 6


This is a place called Fréjo. It's about half a mile upstream from where we live. It's where the Fréjo spring gushes out of the rock at the foot of the cliff into the river Jaur. It's a popular place in summer, but today there was no one else about, and maybe just as well.

There's a cave behind the waterfall. I'm reminded of the Scottish Gaelic practice of taghairm, which means wrapping yourself in a bullock-hide and somehow getting in behind a waterfall. This enables you to see into the future.

I did a very foolish thing at Fréjo. Finding on the river beach a large and very heavy piece of inch-thick white melamine-coated chipboard, which must have been washed up there recently when the river was in spate, I launched it back into the water. I thought it would break up and disperse in the rapids a little further downstream, an easier way of getting rid of such an eyesore than carting it up to the nearest disposal point.

I'm afraid it was so waterlogged that it refused to float. It just slid into the calm water in the photo and came to rest hip-deep on the river bed, a worse eyesore than it was before.

If I'd had a bullock-hide handy and had managed to wade across the river and install myself behind the waterfall I'd have foreseen this, of course. There's never a bullock-hide about when you want one, is there?

Friday, 28 January 2011

Nimrod no more


So it looks as if the last rescue bid has failed and what remains of the once-powerful fleet of mighty Nimrods, the RAF maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, is consigned to the breaker's yard.

The Nimrod was once my bread and butter, in a sense. The ever-shrinking RAF Coastal Command lost Ballykelly in Northern Ireland, St Mawgan in Cornwall, not to mention overseas bases, and finally concentrated in RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, due for closure soon.

Many of the children of RAF Kinloss personnel came to my school. We lived close by, and I have lively memories of this once-great aircraft. Sometimes the landing lights of a Nimrod, returning from some reconnaissance mission maybe far to the north of Iceland would show as a distant gleam on the eastern horizon, bright as the setting Venus, closing and intensifying as the aircraft prepared to land. Sometimes woods and fields round us would stink of the paraffin they used - I believe - to pre-heat the engines. Sometimes, when the wind was in the west, there would be the shattering roar of the four Rolls-Royce Spey engines as a Nimrod took to the air. Classes sat in stunned silence for a moment or two, rounders games froze, telephone conversations were suspended until the noise had passed. Sometimes the locals were entertained by the drama of this great plane rising vertically, a monstrous, leviathan noise, but this practice was frowned on by the RAF authorities and was eventually stopped.

I was lucky enough once to fly in a Nimrod. In the days when some of the fleet was based at St Mawgan, there was a frequent movement of kids between my school and the school in nearby Trevisker in Cornwall. It seemed sensible for the two schools to compare notes, maybe formulate some common policies, whatever might be possible to smooth out the schooling problems of children subject to frequent postings. So I flew by RAF Airlines to St Mawgan for a 24-hour visit. It didn't turn out to be all that useful, because St Mawgan closed down soon after, but I had a lovely time. I seem to remember signing a piece of paper saying I wouldn't divulge anything I'd seen on board, but at this remove I can't see much harm in mentioning what I saw outside. Chiefly memorable was the magnificent view of the Isle of Man and the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland silhouetted against the setting sun on the return leg.


When RAF Kinloss celebrated its 50th birthday in 1989 we made them an immense birthday card in the shape of a Nimrod, and filled the bomb-bay (actually the cellophane and paper roundel on the fuselage) with individual cards from every one of the 250 or so kids in the school. (Press cutting above from The Northern Scot, a fine local paper.) Even at that time it seemed to me unlikely that the role of RAF Kinloss would survive for another 50 years. The Cold War was over, the Russian nuclear submarines they tracked so unsparingly were more dangerous to their own crews than anyone else. To me, a mere civilian looking out of my office window at RAF Kinloss kids running about in the playground, it appeared that the Nimrod's anti-submarine role in defending the realm was fast becoming a bit part, while orbiting satellites were beginning to take star billing in maritime reconnaissance. Like other sections of the armed services, maybe it was easier to look back than into the future.

As a tiny unwitting echo of this, sometimes the kids used to sing on bus journeys He took a Flying Fortress up to 40,000 feet to the tune of John Brown's Body. Some teachers banned it, I think more because of the indelicacy of expressions like They scraped him off the tarmac like a dollop of strawberry jam and the chorus Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die than because of folk-memory evocations of World War 2 Battle of the Atlantic glory that never really left them.

More extraordinary, and instantly banned, was There were ten German bombers in the sky, sung to the tune of She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes. It was a reducing song, like Ten Green Bottles. The refrain went Till RAF Kinloss shot one down, whereupon There were nine German bombers in the sky. And so it went on. No other local schools sang it. I don't dare guess what service ethos these songs hinted at. What with archaisms like Flying Fortresses and German bombers, they more properly belonged to the immediate post-war generation. Logically it should have been me singing them.

But the RAF were first rate neighbours, invariably supportive and anxious to help and contribute, and for my part it was extraordinarily reassuring to know there was a fully equipped hospital, fire service and - at the height of the 80s IRA menace - an armed response unit just round the corner. Not many schools could claim that.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Giving ourselves the crêpes


Montpellier, Tuesday morning. It's a perfect January day. Don't need a coat. I've got a couple of hours to kill before lunch, which I've booked at a little side-street crêperie called Le Kreisker. I stroll across the massive central square of Montpellier, the Place de la Comédie (see above), to buy a copy of The Times, printed in Marseilles, and settle in the sun on the terrace of a café called Le Yams. (Can't explain this: no idea what it means. 'Kreisker', incidentally, means 'city centre' in Breton. The 'ker' element, for the hordes of philologists who come here every day, is the same as the 'caer' or 'car' meaning 'town' that you get in sister-language Welsh, e.g. Caernarvon, Cardiff. Le Kreisker has a Breton theme to it, there are Breton bagpipes and round black beribboned Breton hats hanging on the wall, even though here in the Languedoc you couldn't get much further away from Brittany without getting very wet. Can I get on with my story now, please?)

On my right - at the far end of the photo - is the massive Opera, decorated like a wedding cake, all cornices and finials and crockets and swags and other architectural goodies. Two enormous panels announce the season's repertoire: The Barber of Seville, Samson and Delilah, La Traviata, Die Fledermaus and others and I find myself daydreaming . . . just suppose, in the legendary manner of somebody asking from the stage 'Is there a doctor in the house, please?' a tuxedo'ed figure, shaken by some desperate backstage emergency, appeared from the curtain saying 'Is there a conductor in the house, please?' I suppose I could volunteer and take them off the cuff through Die Fledermaus or La Traviata, The Barber at a push. I dream on until . . .

. . . the Yams waiter brings me my coffee, a café au lait. I take my time. I could stay here all day without anyone urging me to order anything else or vacate my table. There's an article in The Times by their columnist Ben Macintyre about the development of Indian English. He's describing the same sort of thing that happened to Latin: amoeba-like, it fractalised over time into Italian, Spanish, Romanian, French, Portuguese, Catalan and so on. English is doing the same, and always has done and always will, because language is a vital, living organism that feeds on change, and people who try to pin it down definitively, once-for-all, are no lovers of language in my book.

In an encouragingly non-patronising article, Ben Macintyre quotes from an apparently apocryphal 1909 letter written by a Bengali (Bangladeshi?) complaining about the lack of loos in trains of the period:

Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhoti in the next when I fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on platform...

Apocryphal or not, I wish I could write like that.

J. and I are booked for lunch at 1pm. About 20 minutes beforehand I pay my bill, fold The Times, put it in the bag in which there's a new cravat (sometimes called 'Ascot' here) I've treated myself to, saunter across the square and amble down the Esplanade, a tree-lined pedestrian avenue leading down to Montpellier's second opera house, a vast modern complex called Le Corum, where we've agreed to meet. Lunch at Le Kreisker is as usual excellent. The buckwheat crêpes are melt-in-the-mouth, light and lacy. I have egg, cheese, tomato and ham in mine, the more moderate J. has egg, spinach and sour cream. We share a green salad. As those Indians in all seriousness might say, 'super-duper.'

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Lydian Airs Behavioural Science Dept.


Today I'm wondering how many:

Revolutions
Insurrections
Conspiracies
Seductions
Romances
Epiphanies
Gambling debts
Apoplexies
Duelling scars (Dave)
Betrayals
Civil actions
Musical Awakenings (IE)
Welsh Topographical Awarenesses (Dave denies it)
Affirmations (Z)
Arstronomical phenomena (Rog)
Female Control Psychoses (Geoff)
Navigational Errors (Vicus)
Punctuality Problems (Sarah)

have had their origins on the back seat of the bus.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Lydian Airs Travel Notes No. 26


Breakfast in the Shangri-La: A Useful Guide to calling Room Service

Room service (RS): Morny. Ruin sore bees.
Guest (G): Oh, I'm sorry, I thought I dialled Room Service.

RS: Rye...Ruin sore bees, morny! Jewish to odor sun teen?
G: Uh...yes, please: I'd like some bacon and eggs.

RS: Ow July den?
G: What?

RS: Ow July den? Pry, boy, pooch?
G: Oh, the eggs! How do I like them? Sorry. Scrambled, please.

RS: Ow July dee bay come? Crease?
G: Crisp will be fine.

RS: Hokay. An San Toes?
G: What?

RS: San Toes. July San Toes?
G: I don't think so.

RS: No? Judo one Toes?
G: I feel really bad about this, but I don't know what 'Judo one Toes' means.

RS: Toes! Toes! Why Jew Don Juan Toes? Ow bow tinglish mopping we bother?
G: 'English muffin'! I've got it! You were saying 'toast'! Fine. Yes, an English muffin will be fine.

RS: We bother?
G: No - just put the bother on the side.

RS: Wad?
G: I mean butter - just put it on the side.

RS: Copy?
G: Sorry?

RS: Copy? Tea? Mill?
G: Yes, coffee, please, and that's all.

RS: Wan Minnie. Ass ruin torino fee, strangle ache, crease bay come, toesan inglish mopping we bother honey sigh and copy? Rye?
G: Whatever you say.

RS: Tendjewberrymud.
G: You're welcome.

(I believe this or something very like it appeared in the Far East Economic Review several years ago. My son Nibus sent it to me in 1999. It resurfaced while going through some old papers. WARNING: There may be more.)

But what's 'torino fee'?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Making a meal of it


We had twelve people round our dining table the other day. It ought to have been a specially blessed occasion, and as far as the meal was concerned it certainly was. C., an amiable Swiss lady who lives some distance away, did all the cooking and brought the entire meal, plus wines and coffee, to our house in her car.

Entrée: Avocado dressed with salmon mousse, salad with vinaigrette

Main course: Chicken pie in a rich creamy sauce

Cheese: Camembert, Gouda, Mimolette, Brie

Dessert: Iced lemon mousse

C.'s guests were all those volunteers who had helped her organise last summer's series of concerts. It was her more than adequate way of saying thank you. J. was delighted merely to lend our kitchen and supply cutlery, glasses, etc. and clear away afterwards.

It was a superb meal. We sat down at about 12.45 and didn't get up until 4pm. I wish I could say the time flew by, and that the conversation was sharply illuminated with flashes of French wit. But it didn't and it wasn't. Two of the company decided the opportunity was ripe for long uninvited monologues about

a) The origins of local place-names (22 minutes)

b) The probable effects of the imminent reorganisation of French local government (38 minutes).

I sat next to C., feeling for her and desperately hoping that this brutish commandeering of her event hadn't taken the lustre off her hospitality. I told her quietly that in the UK three topics of conversation are traditionally avoided at table in polite society: sex, religion and politics. She was genuinely surprised. I felt I was carrying everyone else's boredom.

I hereby make public apology for deliberately creating a between-course diversion to limit the first monologue by inviting everyone to come to the window to see a distant mountain-top chapel the speaker had just mentioned, St Martin du Froid, St Martin in the Cold. I even supplied binoculars to spin the interruption out while everyone had a look. (This tactic of desperation had its price: the window became covered in fingerprints as people pointed it out to each other.)

As for the second monologue, maybe I should have created another diversion, but I chickened out. It's so easy to become known as a disruptive, subversive and thoroughly irresponsible element. And when in Rome, of course...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (conclusion)


One of the books that arrived here over the Christmas period was Prefaces to Shakespeare, by Tony Tanner, a Cambridge professor of English and American Literature. As you might imply from the title, this book consists of the introductions Prof. Tanner wrote for every one of the plays in the Shakespeare canon, an immense labour.

I became very excited indeed about it, to the extent of getting up in the middle of the night to read a bit more, then a bit more, then just another little bit more. (It's true, my reading filled in the gaps between small-hours Ashes over-by-over reports.)

The previous three posts in this series (which have led to some very gratifying private outcomes, incidentally) have been nibbling at the edges of the idea that the ancient house I lived in for a few years as a child, St Margaret's in Titchfield, Hampshire, was associated with Shakespeare. It's pictured above, showing the Tudor or pre-Tudor tower and the rather disproportionate Georgian wing, added in about 1800.

In particular there was the persisting tradition that he'd written Romeo and Juliet there, if not at St Margaret's, then at the nearby and now ruined Place House, the former Titchfield Abbey. Both great houses belonged to Shakespeare's friend and patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

My grandfather, a man with an even longer nose for this sort of thing than mine, came from his native Lancashire to stay at St Margaret's once. Somehow he discovered the name Gobbo in the 16th-century parish registers in Titchfield church. Not a common name. Where else do you find it? Why, in The Merchant of Venice. No proof, of course, but another faint pointer to the possibility that Shakespeare, with his magpie mind, picked up and developed several ideas from Titchfield and his association there with Henry Wriothesley.

The most powerful of these seems to me to be the figure of Juliet. I wonder if her creation owed anything to Margaret of Anjou, the 15-year-old French princess who stayed at St Margaret's the night before her wedding to King Henry VI in 1445? (As far as I know she and Henry had never met before the wedding.) Shakespeare's source was a long, dull 1562 poem called The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet, by Arthur Brooke, who had put it together in English from several Italian versions of the story. Brooke puts Juliet's age at 16, which we can just about accept.

But Shakespeare goes out of his way to emphasize a younger Juliet. In the play, with Romeus changed to Romeo, the Nurse works Juliet's age out almost to the day. She is just 14 and hardly into stays. Romeo and Juliet directors, whether of play, film or ballet - the 1966 film of Prokoviev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, otherwise stupendous, is made ridiculous with the 47-year-old Margot Fonteyn dancing Juliet opposite Nureyev's Romeo - directors who cast Juliet as a girl obviously older than 14 disregard Shakespeare's powerful projections of innocence, exploitation and betrayal, without which the play falls back on the lesser, West Side Story, issue of the rivalry between two noble families. (I would like to explore the powerful 'Vestal Virgin' concept of sacrifice some time, but clearly not just now.)

Tony Tanner came up with another idea that sent shivers down my back. (Excuse me: these sudden trembling enthusiasms are meat and drink to me and I hope they never leave me) Romeo and Juliet, with its possible St Margaret's connections, was written at the same time as A Midsummer Night's Dream. And it's true, Mercutio's speech from Romeo and Juliet starting 'O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies' midwife...' has - in content and atmosphere - somehow strayed out of R and J into A Midsummer Night's Dream. Similarly, the Pyramus and Thisbe sub-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a well-meant parody of . . . Romeo and Juliet. It's as though the two manuscripts lay next to one another and paid each other visits in the night.

Much of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in woodland. At St Margaret's there was a formal garden, shown below, with box clumps a 7-year-old could jump over, and a central path leading to a gate which opened into The Wood. I expect it's built over now, what's left of it, and it's hardly likely that the same wood grew 350 years earlier, when I imagine, with no justification whatever, Shakespeare chewing the end of his quill, staring out of one of the St Margaret's lattice windows towards The Wood, reciting to himself and testing the balance and euphony of the lines (e.g. 'Dare I put 9 Os into "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"') he was putting into the mouth of Juliet, or of Mercutio, Oberon, Titania or indeed Margaret of Anjou, as she appears in Henry VI.


The Wood had another, indisputable, legacy. When I was about 8, I and another lad happily coincidentally called Jimmy Shakespeare made a fire in a hollowed-out and fallen tree trunk. The draught turned a little play-fire into a raging inferno, which soon spread to the surrounding trees. The Titchfield fire brigade saved most of The Wood from destruction, and my other principal memory is standing in front of one the canvas hoses as the firemen prepared to void the tank of water no longer needed, now that the fire was out. Despite being told to stand aside, I somehow failed to, being not so much a child, more an imbecile. I received the full force, knocking me to the ground. A richly deserved outcome. I probably deserve it again for all this unwarranted conjecture. Thank you for bearing with me, if you have.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (3)


Margaret of Anjou, hot-blooded, proud and wilful, went on to become a major figure in the Wars of the Roses, taking a leading role from her unwarlike and unstable Lancastrian husband, King Henry VI. She became a target for the opposing Yorkist forces, who slung every dollop of mud that came to hand. One of the slanders concerned the night before her wedding, spent in St Margaret's, the house I was privileged to live in for a few years when I was quite small. She was not alone, apparently. Fingers were pointed at William de la Pole, later Duke of Suffolk, an influential figure who had arranged Henry's marriage with Margaret, had stood in for Henry at the betrothal ceremony in France which preceded the actual marriage in Titchfield in 1445. It was he who had escorted Margaret from France to Titchfield. The most you can say about such allegations is 'well, they would say that, wouldn't they?'

5 years later, as the full fury of the Wars of the Roses was about to burst, William de la Pole was captured by Yorkists at sea, off Ipswich. His possibly headless body was left on the beach at Dover, where Queen Margaret had it recovered and taken care of. He had long been her favourite. She gave him a decent burial at Wingfield, in Suffolk.

What stands out for me in this account is the association of St Margaret's with a passionate young girl of noble family, on the edge of adulthood, being forced into an arranged marriage. I'm not quite certain what 'passionate' means in this context: a hapless martyr to her emotions, maybe.


*

Almost a century later Henry VIII broke with Rome, not so much over matters of doctrine as of authority, principally the authority to enable his divorce from Anne Boleyn. Short of money, it was also an expedient time for him to close down, annex or sell off the great religious houses, a 1536-9 movement known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, an astute courtier and able servant of both Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, a Londoner called Thomas Wriothesley (pronounced 'Risley') bought out the Abbot of Titchfield before his Abbey and its estates could be suppressed.

In due course, for services to Henry VIII, Thomas Wriothesley was created Earl of Southampton. He transformed Titchfield Abbey into a palace, which he called Place House, I don't know why. It's a ruin now, pictured above. Other estate houses were upgraded and enlarged. Maybe St Margaret's was among them. Thomas Wriothesley's grandson Henry, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was a favourite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. In the early 1590s, in the course of court activities he met an up-and-coming poet and playwright, rising 30, attractive and intelligent, witty, educated and companionable, drawn to London from his native Warwickshire. His name was William Shakespeare.


Southampton and Shakespeare got on very well. In 1593 Shakespeare dedicated his long and sexually palpitating poem Venus and Adonis to Southampton, which maybe says more about the dedicatee than the poet. In the summer of that year the London theatres were closed because of the plague. It's a possibility that Shakespeare first came to Titchfield then, partly to escape the plague and partly to pursue his friendship with Henry Southampton.

I suppose it's also a possibility that, in riding together about Place House, Shakespeare asked his host - by now his patron - how Anjou Bridge, a bridge over the Meon close by the former Titchfield Abbey, had got the name it still has today. If he knew the story, Southampton would have been in a position to tell him about the passionate 15-year-old French princess, her overnight stay at St Margaret's and the marriage that had been arranged for her. Maybe those House Detectives, exploring the connection between St Margaret's and Romeo and Juliet in that BBC TV programme didn't look quite far enough outside the frame.

And for the multitude of serious historians whom come here, I did entitle this mini-series 'Conjecture....'


(to be continued or even concluded, who knows?)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (2)


When my mother bought St Margaret's, a great house on the edge of the Hampshire village of Titchfield, one of the first things she did was commission a stained glass window by an artist called Donald Brookes. The window, installed in the porch beneath the tower, showed St Margaret surrounded by flames. There are several St Margarets in the lists of saints, so which St Margaret my mother or Donald Brookes had in mind is a guess.

My money goes on the earliest, St Margaret of Antioch, who belongs in the same Apocryphal Saints Club as St George and St Nicholas and many others. She appears to be the same person as St Marina or St Pelagia. Maybe there's some kind of sea element here: the word 'Margaret' means pearl, 'Marina' speaks for itself and 'Pelagia' is a Greek word for marine. According to the legend the first St Margaret, a devoutly Christian shepherdess, received an offer of marriage from a Roman notable, on condition that she renounce her faith. She refused. She was tortured in an attempt to make her change her mind, and was eventually done to death, burnt, maybe. She worked various miracles involving dragons during her torture. Virgin and Martyr, she became the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women, shepherdesses, those falsely accused, exiles and, curiously, those suffering with kidney problems. She became a Christian cult figure in England at the time of the crusades, roughly 1100-1250.) In essence she is a personification of courage, determination and faith.

Almost exactly 500 years before Donald Brookes' window was commissioned and installed, another Margaret, much less shadowy, comes into the picture. In the early 1440s King Henry VI, aesthete and slightly unbalanced son of the victor of Agincourt, was looking for a queen. The choice fell on Margaret of Anjou, a French princess with strong continental dynastic connections. Margaret was sent for from her home in Lorraine (she was born in Pont à Mousson, now an ironworks town known to every Frenchman because the name is cast on innumerable manhole covers), she sailed across the Channel and put in at Titchfield Haven, then a small port on Southampton Water. From Titchfield Haven she rode the four miles inland to Titchfield, where she was due to be married the next day, April 23rd 1445, to the 23-year-old Henry VI.

The wedding venue was the chapel of Titchfield Abbey, a Premonstratensian monastery by the banks of the river Meon. The Titchfield Abbey lands (I expect 'messuages' is the correct term) included a guest house or just possibly a small convent on the hill to the west of Titchfield village. Or maybe St Margaret's was just one of the eight manors with which Abbey was endowed. However it might have been, this was where Margaret of Anjou spent the night before her wedding. Maybe it was in her honour that the house (or its predecessor) that we lived in half a millenium later was called St Margaret's.

Margaret of Anjou was a month past her fifteenth birthday. The historian Paul Kendall describes her as 'already a woman: passionate and proud and strong-willed'.

(To be continued. Sorry, Vicus.)

Friday, 7 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (1)

When I was quite little, five or so, we moved from the Gloucestershire/Warwickshire borders to Hampshire. My mother was anxious to start a new life, as happens to quite a lot of us one way or another, and with some money that had come her way she bought an extraordinary house, the one pictured above, on a wooded ridge overlooking a village about halfway between Portsmouth and Southampton. It was called St Margaret's, sometimes St Margaret's Priory, although any ecclesiastical connections it ever had are lost - but not beyond conjecture - in the fog of medieval history.

It was one of those properties you read of sometimes where nothing has been touched for many years, and even the dust is antique and the spiders' webs themselves are museum pieces. My first memories of this house are connected with the antiquated lighting system: somewhere in the outbuildings was an apparatus - I can still smell it - that converted calcium carbide into acetylene, which was piped into gas-brackets in the house to light it at night. Once having given up its acetylene the whitish calcium carbide waste was dumped by the wheelbarrow-load in a forgotten laurel-screened corner which I called the 'woite' (I had a West Midlands accent then) where a little girl called Anne and I used to go to see which of us could pee the most and make rivers in the chalky deposit.

Having bought St Margaret's from a Miss Parry, who had lived there alone like a latter-day Miss Havisham for the previous quarter of a century, my mother set about modernising it, at least to some extent. Water and electricity were brought in, but sewage and waste water (apart from a few trace elements on the woite) were still piped to an enormous brick-lined cess-pit, also surrounded by laurels. Alas, the money fairly soon ran out, the business idea of selling antique furniture in period surroundings never took off, and in less than five years my mother was obliged to sell and move to a more modest house elsewhere. The developer who bought it divided it into three separate properties, which is how it is today. So we were the last people to inhabit St Margaret's in its totality.

It was only after leaving St Margaret's that I slowly began to realise what an amazing property it was. Parts of it were very, very old. Some years ago the rather catchpenny BBC TV series House Detectives featured it, but I think the presenters were too busy promoting themselves as 'characters' to make much of a fist of it. They dated some of the beams, by drilling holes into them, at around 1620, but they seemed to be blind to the architectural style of the earliest part, the tower and the premises at its foot, which scream Henry VII (1485-1510) at the very latest.

It was an extraordinary hotch-potch of a house to have the run of, a template and sampler of English architectural history. The tower, so exciting for a small child to climb, but so frustrating when reaching the top to discover that I was too little to see over the parapet, came from the mid to late 15th Century. The principal rooms were Tudor, very probably on much earlier foundations. In about 1780 a Georgian wing was added, and maybe 100 years after that a range of Victorian kitchens, pantries, sculleries as extensive as anything below stairs in Downton Abbey was added.

House Detectives had invented for themselves a mission: could Shakespeare possibly have written Romeo and Juliet at St Margaret's?

(to be continued)

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Bald kommt Herr Los


This lady's name is Megaera, Meg for short. She is one of the three Eumenides sisters, originally from Thessaly in northern Greece, once described as the 'personification of curses pronounced upon the guilty'.

The gentleman is showing great presence of mind at this time of seasonal tribulation. He is holding fast to that which is good.*

I don't know what he did or said to light Meg's ire. Something trifling, to be sure. I'm afraid I was under the table at the time.


*1 Thessalonians 5,21, Dave?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

O-live, o-live O


Cailletier, that's their name. Pronounced ky'-te-ay.

I leave Rog to make a joke about redundant French letters.

Anyway, that's the variety of olives we have. Three years ago my choir gave J. and me an olive tree. It came in a big plastic tub, too heavy for us to carry. We ended up by rolling it on its side to the place where we wanted to plant it. For the first two years it did very little, except just be, but last spring it brought out a heavy blossom of tiny creamy white flowers, and in due course these turned into fruits.

The olive harvest here takes place in November or December. For other varieties the technique is to spread sheets or nets beneath the tree and then beat the branches with long sticks so that the ripe olives fall. Some use tractors to knock the tree violently, and I believe there are machines that shake the tree so hard that the olives fall off.

Not ours, though. Ours are so small, and our tree, although growing fast, is so little, that they're hand picked. I spent some time trying to discover what variety our olives are, because they really are tiny, not much bigger than peas. Cailletiers aren't that common, not nearly as common as the much bigger Lucques or Picholines, which mostly end up in local oil-presses. If we sent ours to the nearest press, we would end up with not much more than a thimbleful of olive oil, just about enough to flush an earwig out of a child's ear.

Cailletier olives are sometimes called niçois (i.e. coming from Nice), because traditionally they feature in salade niçoise along with hard-boiled egg, anchovies, tuna and various greenstuffs often including rocket and spinach leaves. And dressing, of course.

The flavour is wonderful, but you have to work hard to bring it out. First they have to be soaked in several changes of water for a few days. Then they have to be steeped in brine for a period of several weeks. So by mid-February our first home-grown olives may be ready.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A to Zee


In the course of New Year greetings a long-silent American friend called Greg Abbott phoned. There was a long rambling conversation, of the type you have when you're catching up with friends you haven't spoken to for several years. You can maybe judge how rambling the conversation became: at one point he spoke about a schoolfriend called Zygslič. Their class was seated in rows, and where the kids sat was determined by the first letter of their surnames. Accordingly Abbott sat at the very front, while Zee for Zygslič was assigned an obscure desk at the end of the back row.

Now in his 80s, Greg wondered what effect this ordering had had on his subsequent development. Had the limelight of the front row caused him later to shun exposure? Had back-row obscurity turned Zygslič into a kind of lowly, furtive troglodyte (or poor worm of clay, as Dave might have it), desperate for attention? How would Greg have turned out if he'd been called Zygslič, and vice versa? There are no answers to questions like these, of course. Maybe with a phonetic name like Abbott you tend to have fewer problems with spelling than the eternal suspicion and self-distrust you possibly have about it if your name's Zygslič. (I'm very tired of typing this wretched name, so this is the last we'll hear of him.)

When I first went to do my stint at the chalk face in Scotland I had a mixed class of 10 and 11-year-olds, known in Scotland as Primary 7. There were about 40 of them, great kids. I was surprised to find that each one of them knew exactly where to sit, at which individual desk in which row.

I asked one to tell me how this was. The lad stood up, shoulders back, chest out, feet apart at an angle of 45º, thumbs pointing down the seams of his shorts, as though he was standing to attention in the Black Watch or the Gordon Highlanders. (It wasn't a military school in any sense. It was an ordinary primary school in a North-east fishing village. However, this lad belonged to the Boys' Brigade, I discovered later.) As Primary 6 they'd had end-of-year tests the previous June. If you failed the tests you stayed in Primary 6 and repeated the year. (Very few did.) In Primary 7 you sat according to the marks you got in your tests. The brightest kids sat at the front, the average in the middle, slowest at the back.

I thought this was an iniquitous system and, after a week or two in which I'd got to know the children, I changed it for something less pointedly segregational. Their Primary 6 teacher, a Mrs Crumbie, was furious and there was a big staff-room row. It was as though the purpose of Primary 6 tests, indeed of the whole Primary 6 syllabus, was to determine seating order for the next school year. I'd just arrived from teaching in England. Clearly I represented everything that undermined and devalued the order and discipline that made Scottish education famed throughout the world. I was a dangerous threat and ought to go back to England. This was a heavy charge, but I stood my ground. I expect I seemed very arrogant.

I didn't know Greg Abbott then. If I had maybe I would have used the A to Zee system.

This isn't Mrs Crumbie in the photo above. The kids I'm writing about wore uniform, and teachers were expected to wear academic gowns, called togas in Scotland. I suppose they protected clothes from chalk dust.