Tag Archives: culture

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

Life in Songs

I don’t know if you are familiar with this enigmatic song but the lyrics came back to haunt me recently. It’s been recorded many times but my favourite version is by Dusty Springfield.

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth.
I think I’m returning to
Those days when I was young enough to know the truth.

Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more colouring books, no Christmas bells to chime
But thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win.

I can recall the time
When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to a friend.
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than a skipping rope to lend.

Now there’s more to do than watch my sailboat glide
And every day can be my magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years.

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s all we lack
So catch me if you can I’m goin’ back.

Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King the words seem to describe lost innocence using iconic images like skipping ropes and colouring books and magic-carpet rides – freeze-framed elements of childhood in the sixties.

While visiting my sister in Kent, we decided to take a walk around our childhood. It was a fine spring afternoon and we dabbled in nostalgia as our walk recalled the extraordinary freedoms with which we were blessed ‘in our youth’.

Upchurch, the village where we grew up, lies on the southern shores of the Thames Estuary and is set on a small, low-lying peninsula where the ragged shoreline breaks into a maze of tiny inlets. These muddy, virtually unnavigable rivers, are ruled by the tide and we’d spend most of our summer holidays playing in the ribs of rotting barges, imagining the lives of those who came before. When the tide came in we would go and dig for treasure amongst piles of Victorian rubbish originally shipped as ballast and dumped beside the old jetties in days when boats, not cars, governed local transport. Amongst our best finds were a bronze Roman coin and half a mammoth’s tusk, all donated (unwillingly) to a local museum.

‘Going back’ to our childhood made us realise how little the region where we grew-up had changed. But times have changed and I doubt any mother today could permit such freedom without being accused of negligence. Not that we realised the dangers, we were too busy having fun.

Perhaps this song does sum-up the best things in childhood. Certainly that’s what Carole King captures in her bouncy, up-beat recording of 1966, made at a time when she was still ageless with youth. But listen to Dusty Springfield’s soul-ridden performance and the words resound with sadness, this songstress wants to hold onto the past because she’s terrified by the prospect of growing old.

But the fact that really sparks my interest is how the same words can be performed in such a way they generate very different emotional responses. Like the past, it means different things to different people. And that is the enigma which makes writing about the past so very fascinating. We can only visit the past when we’ve experienced the future.

North Kent Marshes

North Kent Marshes

“CliffeCreekFleet 0312”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG#/media/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG

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Filed under Changes, Family, Growing, Interpretation, Kent, Marsh, Nostalgia, Writing

The Artist

It was no more than a garret. Pitched windows cast mute sunlight. Seasons of grime danced with dust. Marooned by forsaken canvases the artist posed at his easel, far too engrossed to acknowledge visitors. Ardent fingers stroked muddy gouache into a sullen landscape. It was his agent’s suggestion they should throw open the studio so patently the little man should take full responsibility for clients.

Pierre, clad in simpering Sunday best, was steering an elegant woman through the shambles, taking particular care her generous skirts didn’t engage with discarded canvases. The silly man never did recognise when a painting was finished and dry.

‘My mother thought herself something of an artist.’ The client had an elegant voice, symptomatic of her class. ‘An unfortunate obsession.’

Pierre was nodding respectfully. ‘Artists! Such passion?’ And keen to illustrate the virtues of his young protégée poised in front of a glowering masterpiece.

The woman’s flamboyant millinery concealed the look on her face but studying the picture closely she enquired. ‘What is the subject?’

‘Notre Dame. It is early morning; mist is rising from the river.’ Pierre had become well-versed in avant-garde techniques.

‘I see nothing but fog.’ Grey dust swirled as their client marched towards the next canvas.

The artist didn’t stir from his easel, being posed in the far corner. Closing his empty eyes he tossed fronds of tousled dark hair from his fore-head, and brooded. Discarded underfoot, like flotsam on a beach, were the charcoal sketches of blurred memories never destined to become art.

‘And what is the theme of this study?’ The relentless woman had manoeuvred behind the artist in progress.

‘The church of Sacre Coeur at dawn…’ Pierre began confidently.

But the lady interrupted. ‘And has the artist ever availed himself of taking the air at dawn?’

‘The artist prides himself on beginning every study en plein air.’ Vigilant in his praise.

‘Yet another study of Paris in fog?’ She waved a gloved hand dismissively.

The artist applied paint with such passion his easel screamed across the floor. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t give the client that pleasure.

After an agonizing pause she continued. ‘I find Paris too indulgent of artists with a fascination for fog.’ The pitch of her voice rose to an unremitting crescendo. ‘They must persist in starving until they comprehend how these bland creations fail to inspire.’

Pierre looked forlornly towards his artist. Spine rigid, head otherwise engaged, he laid down his brush and took up a knife.

Derwentwater winter

Good manners being integral to business Pierre remained impeccably polite. He escorted their client downstairs and out into the street. Only then, concerned for his artist, did he run briskly back up to the garret, more than slightly out of breath.

‘Madam was over-critical, please don’t be dispirited.’

Laying down his knife the young man stepped back from the easel, wiping his paint-swabbed hands on a rag while considering his latest creation.

Pierre shook his head sympathetically. ‘Of course we are bound to attract the curious, those whose interest is not entirely aesthetic.’

‘Oh she never intended making a purchase.’ The artist’s attention remained set on peeling paint from each awkward finger.

A sudden perception engrossed the agent. ‘You’ve met the lady before?’

And turning from his ruined masterpiece the artist brandished a smile. ‘That lady was my mother.’

February 2012

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Filed under art, aspirations, courage, endurance, Family, fiction, fulfilment

What is Creative?

chesset

According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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Filed under aspirations, Crafts, Culture, Education, History, innovation, society

Fully Tested

Spring in Cumbria

I’ve just received results from my first DNA test. I say first because I’m sure the science is still in its infancy. Having dabbled in family history research I already know (on paper) I have relatives in every corner of the British Isles. At first glance I thought my results confirmed what I’d always feared, I am entirely British. How very boring! I was hoping to discover at least one wildly romantic and exotic strain in my ancestry.

But now I’ve studied the data more thoroughly I discover I’m only 73% Brit. So there’s some hope. Actually with mother’s Northumbrian roots it’s no surprise to discover 5% of my genes are Scandinavian, the Vikings were known to love that particular coast. And 5% Celtic, something I’ve always suspected but never been able to prove. And finding Eastern European strains, with trace elements of Jewish, Spanish and Finish/NW Russian probably explains father’s ‘foreign’ characteristics.

But what’s fascinated me most is finding 3% of me comes from the Caucasus. Practically far-flung! Historically many an exotic race fled this contentious region and some infamous ones remain – like the Chechens, a very passionate people (such as my dear friend Ondrei). But this leaves me thinking – what truly defines race? I believe the various places I grew up, and the place where I live now, have made me who I am. Nationality defines character, and the landscape of the British Isles defines my spirit, but it is history which defines my soul. Which is why I wanted to explore my DNA?

Caucasus Mountains

As far as I can see Britain is peopled by the progeny of various waves of immigrants and invaders. There is no indigenous race, nobody who can prove their ancestors have native possession. The only thing my DNA test proves is how I’m descended from a cacophony of ancestors who most probably arrived on Britain’s shores before history was conceived, never mind written.

So what is British? First and foremost an island race who often travel beyond their surrounding seas but generally decide to come home. Otherwise we feel the need to make a ‘little Britain’ wherever we put down roots. It’s inevitable I suppose, to take what’s best and evolve.

I spent most childhood summers on the untamed beaches of Northumberland, near my grandmother’s home, dabbling in rock-pools, careering down seamless sand dunes, splashing the crystal cold waters of the North Sea, wondering when the last invaders beached their boats in the bay.

But my parents lived and worked at the opposite end of the country, in Kent. But it might surprise outsiders to learn that the broad sweep of salt marsh that skirts the Thames Estuary is as remote and unknowable as the wind-swept beaches of Northumbria. Charles Dickens used to walk these ancient sea-walls in search of inspiration. During the sixties, when I lived there, Upchurch was still surrounded by ancient orchards of fruit trees and autumn scaffolds of hops, quilting the northern chalk Downs. Life in Kent revolved around harvest, except nobody liked picking hops; they stain the skin and leave clothes tainted with their pungent smell. No wonder the first history I researched (age 11) was all about the production of beer!

For the last thirty years I’ve occupied a place of outstanding beauty – Cumbria – land of mystery and legend, where two nations meet but never merge. This landscape has its own timelessness, past and present conspire and inspire. But living here requires a particular kind of endurance, because we can experience all four seasons in a single day. True border people are tuned to prevail, I’m sure its distilled in the local DNA.

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I know where I belong. Take me away from my habitat and I’m nothing, or rather what remains is insignificant to who I am or whatever I might be.

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Filed under Ancestry, Changes, DNA, Family, History, Landscape, Research, Roots, Travel, Writing

Kith and Clans

Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.

This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.

What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.

winter sun

Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!

For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.

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Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.

Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.

Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle.

Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.

Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.

Further Reading:

The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat

The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser

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Filed under Ancestry, Family, History, Middle Shires, Roots, Tradition, Winter

Ice Friends

Listening to the radio a few years ago, I heard this story recounted. I’m only sorry I didn’t take note of their names but still, I believe, it’s a story worth telling.

At the beginning of the Second World War two English children were sent to live in the USA. Their father lectured at an Oxford college and Princeton University had a scheme offering families of British academics temporary homes away from any danger of bombing raids. The children, then aged eight and eleven, arrived with their mother during the autumn of 1941.

While the older brother settled easily into a new way of life his sister struggled. She didn’t like the curriculum at her new school and she missed her English friends, but her favourite pastime was ice skating and most afternoons, after school finished, she would go skating. Her brother didn’t skate but accompanied her as chaperone and generally sat at the side of the rink doing his homework. As the weeks went by his sister befriended an elderly gentleman who also had a passion for ice skating. Gradually a friendship formed and the two would skate and chat together incessantly.

One afternoon, after their skating session ended, the girl asked the old man if he would like to come home for tea. The old man had previously informed her that he was quite good at maths and she was having a problem with her maths homework. The brother, worried by this sudden invitation to a complete stranger, raced home to warn his mother, concerned mainly that she wouldn’t have enough food prepared. Imagine the woman’s surprise when she opened the door – to Albert Einstein. After that he came to tea regularly, and helped both children with their homework.

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Filed under Changes, Family, Friendship, Ice Skating, Life, Loneliness, Wishes

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

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What Do You Want Santa To Bring You For Christmas?

BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT SANTA TO BRING YOU FOR CHRISTMAS?

It’s a huge decision. And four year old Reuben has struggled with it every day for almost a whole month – he mustn’t get his choices wrong.

Obviously with so much to deliver Santa has to restrict all little boys and girls to three toys, otherwise how could everything possibly arrive on time. Reubs big brother Oscar (aged five) knew just what he wanted. At the beginning of December he carefully copied out his letter to Santa, checking the spellings more than twice. He even got most of the words to fit the lines while using his very best handwriting. The stamp he drew on the envelope was coloured-in with crayons and mummy took him to the local post office so he could make sure the address was absolutely correct. Oscar also enquired if Santa ever had trouble with Polar Bears because they live at the North Pole too. Very concerned for Santa’s welfare is our Oscar.

Thinking a visit to the old man himself would help resolve matters my daughter booked Reuben an appointment. He sat on Santa’s lap, completely overcome with fear. Eventually he whispered into the whiskers. But later that night, just as he was closing his eyes to go to sleep, Reuben burst into tears. He’d asked Santa for Lego – but as Lego comes in all shapes and sizes how would Santa know what sort to bring him.

Reuben was still struggling with his decision on the final day of school. My daughter and I were in Edinburgh for the day, enjoying the festive market that fills the old Nor Loch and looking for stocking fillers, when my son-in-law rang with the news that Reubs had decided that the only thing he wanted Santa to bring was a Teksta puppy – in blue.

Now, of course, the one toy completely sold out in every shop was a Teksta puppy of any colour. Very popular this year, we’re informed. Meanwhile my son-in-law had no luck on the internet either. I sent an urgent text to my sister. She works for John Lewis’s, in London – but even that great metropolis was Out of Stock. Less than a week to go and it seemed we had no chance of fulfilling Reubs wish.

But then we found one on E-bay, second-hand but unused, the woman said, because her daughter wanted red, not blue. It arrived in the post, yesterday. My daughter, elated with success, asked Reubs if there was anything else he wanted Santa to bring.

A scarf he said, with the letter ‘R’ on it, for Reuben.?????????????????

Guess who’s spent all day sewing?

Happy Christmas Everyone, hope you get everything you wished for….

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Cruising

It’s easy to forget the true purpose of a cruise is to visit foreign parts – there are too many things to keep us entertained on board these modern ships (or do we call it a boat?). And it hardly looked inviting as we dropped anchor at the first port of call. The heavens darkened as torrents flooded the narrow streets of Cozumel. Apparently it was the first time they’d seen rain since April. We admitted it was our fault; being English we attract grey clouds, just like Winnie the Pooh.

Anyway by the time David and Stacey hired a jeep and we’d all piled inside the clouds had emptied and the far horizon looked temptingly bright. Driving out of town on the island’s single ring-road we used our basic map to hunt for the kind of beach anticipated by the prefix ‘Caribbean’ i.e. palm trees with white sands fringed by a turquoise sea. It took a couple of sorties before we found one that didn’t charge per-item (parking, toilets, shower facilities, loungers, being there) as private beach clubs monopolise much of the best coastline, but finally, after bumping down an unmettled  track through what can only be described as swampland (with resident tropical mosquitoes), we found what we were looking for. Picture-poster paradise!

Cozumel beach

We settled onto the ‘free’ sun-loungers and while everyone else went to change into swim-suits (only the timid call them costumes) the waiter brought a menu for the beach bar. No coffee? No tea? Now I love an ambitious cocktail but not before elevenses. The man seemed flummoxed by my abstinence – one rum mojito? It’s very tasty! Perhaps…given more time…I might have relented but I wanted to remember my day in Cozumel for all the right reasons.

We lazed on the beach and swam in crystal-clear water until the sun beat down so mercilessly we decided it was time to go exploring. We wanted to see the whole island – the ancient ruins, the exotic birdlife and even perhaps one of the native crocodiles (one would be enough).

Beach Bar, Cozumel

Cozumel beach 2

As we rounded the south-east tip the scenery changed dramatically as the road ran briefly beside the shore. But this wasn’t a gentle laze-in-the-sun beach, although an azure sea stretched out to a distant horizon, Atlantic-driven waves spurt over and through a plateau of craggy limestone, spouting metres into the air, illustrating one of the island’s best natural features – its blow-holes. For millions of years the sea has burrowed through these rocks and geologists have recently discovered this tiny island contains the fifth largest cave system in the world. But we didn’t come to Mexico to go caving.

Wave power

Time for lunch. We stopped at a rickety beach-bar (resting on twelve-foot high stilts) because it offered great views, and subsequently broke every ‘safe’ traveller’s rule by ordering fresh guacamole and salsa (the ‘kitchen’ proved to be a tin shed tucked behind the toilet block). The food was truly delicious but our enjoyment was shattered by a trio of hardy mariachis, two guitars and a percussionist, who’d trailed us from the capital (guitar strung to their backs and drum-kit across the knees) on an aging pair of mopeds. We’d all laughed when we sailed past them a third time not guessing they would track us down!

O sole mio

Escaping their enthusiastic rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ (who requested a love song?) we set off for the temple ruins, our last port of call before re-boarding the ship. It’s believed the island had a population of 10,000 Mayan people before the Spanish arrived. By the late sixteenth century European diseases had decimated the native population and everyone forgot the Mayans. Although the Archaeological Institute of Mexico is responsible for maintaining the ruins they are in danger of remaining an enigma. A very inhospitable armed guard charged us a small fee for entering a concrete quadrangle which housed various souvenir shops and a bar-café full of uniformed guards. We were immediately steered to the opposite side of the square where we were charged a further fee and provided with day-glo-green wristbands which, it was explained, permitted entry to the Mayan complex. What the first fee covered was never divulged, and we were far too intimidated to enquire, but we had our suspicions – gazing at the officers at the bar.

I only wish I’d remembered the Deet. Before we reached the first set of temples we were consumed as ‘plat du jour’ by a vigorous insect population. Shorts and T-shirts proved an open invitation to hungry hoards who obviously relished Brit. At first we braved it out, running along some ancient track that kept our feet above swamp. We viewed the ruins in fast-forward mode – look…there’s a carving, look…that’s where they sacrificed people, look…there’s a giant iguana….crikey he’s real. Do they eat Brits? Rather than test the theory we raced back to the car – Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

Mayan bridge

David’s previous experience on Cozumel taught him to allow plenty of time to drive through the island’s capital. Although we had ‘the map’ roads weren’t numbered, or even classified as to size or quality, and negotiating what appeared a simple grid-system proved tricky. Our first choice was one-way – in the wrong way and the next option wasn’t wide enough for a four-wheeled vehicle wanting to retain both wing-mirrors so we felt blessed when we finally reached the harbour unscathed. David returned the jeep, leaving us to quickly browse a street market before making our way back to Navigator. Enough foreign parts for one day!

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