Monday, November 27, 2023

A bottle thrown into an ocean

I realise I am probably writing into empty space here.  A bottle thrown into the ocean. Not so much a plea for help, but a way of making sure this blog doesn't disappear before I work out what to do with it.

So, it is five years since I wrote here last.  I think about that, and what has passed.  In 2018 I produced a series of monologues for performance during the Chester Heritage Festival, which I loved doing so much that I did it again during one of the Pandemic lock-downs of 2021.  An hour long series of monologues about the life of Thomas Brassey - a little-known native of Chester - which is here

Early in 2023, I started work on another piece of theatre.  This was a real play with acts and scenes and people talking to each other!  Ha! Just like Shakespeare. Kind of.

I did my usual vast amounts of research,

traveled to the wilds of Cheshire and Wales - so much more convenient than Greenland and Patagonia -and then spent several months writing it, and even had the pleasure of hearing some of the scenes read out by some brilliant actors.

But then.  It all screeches to a halt.  No funding.

So it's time to reassess. This story is too good to be wasted.  And my research continues.  

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Happy 2018

I'm starting 2018 with a short review of one of the 61 books I read in 2017.

'The Ice Palace' by Tarjei Vesaas was sent to me by Penguin Books - a strange and remarkable book.   From the cover, a girl - I think it is Unn, one of the schoolgirls in the book - stares with lifeless eyes, halfway between colourless and blue-violet.  Her skin and hair are both too pale, too perfect, and then there's the white something adhering to her face and hair.  Is is white lilac blossom or snow?  Why doesn't she sweep it away?  Perhaps because she can't.

The text itself reminded me of Scandinavian Art House film. The village, of course, is isolated.  It has to be.  The house of the main character, Unn, lies apart from the rest, and in order to get there, Siss, the other character, has to travel through woodland.  Both Unn and Siss are enigmatic, Unn more than Siss.  Siss has been born and brought up in the village, whereas Unn comes from elsewhere, and her past remains a mystery, a little of it told in disconnected fragments. Unn and Siss, like the other characters in the book, talk in half-formed sentences loaded with subtext.  Then there's the Ice Palace.    It was formed when a nearby waterfall froze - and sounded so intriguing I was desperate to see it for myself. Like any palace, it has entrances and rooms, one connecting with the next.  This bewitching place entices its prey inwards and then imprisons her...  Probably.

The rest of the book dealt with the aftermath of this visit to the Ice Palace.  The people of the village search and find nothing.  They move on and the event is remembered in empty chairs and things unsaid.  Meanwhile, the ice compacts, cracks and is so mesmerisingly described that the chilliest room seems warm in comparison.  Then, sometime during the last third, the narrative becomes more urgent.  The thaw begins - and yet nothing is revealed. Something is resolved, but it's not clear exactly what it is. But as in the best Scandi Noir, it is not this that matters.  Maybe to understand it all would be somehow missing the point. Mood is everything.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Grace Darling and Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

Today, David Bradley reminded me that it is the anniversary of the death of Grace Darling, and has marked the event with his own tribute to the heroine and a very interesting account of the circumstances of her heroism.  It adds a useful piece of background to the novel that I'm reading at the moment.

It is called The Wynding by my friend Simon Gotts, and very well written it is too.  It's particularly good evocation of the life, times and an area of England that still seems remote to many today.  A large part of this comes from the dialogue, and Simon has somehow managed to convey a strong accent that is not only convincing but understandable to the twenty-first-century reader too - very impressive.

I've only managed to read a couple of chapters so far, but I'm hoping to catch up with this and some essential reading in Dewey's 24-hour reading challenge this weekend.  Here is the rest of the pile: two novels, one pop-sci, one social history, a memoir and one that's maybe part psychology, part sociology.  There's no way I'm going to get through all these, but like Mukulikaa Ananda, it's good to have some choice.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Erddig's Golden Apples

I like apples. This week we went to Erddig Hall near Wrexham for their apple show.  There are various activities at the weekend during the month of October including cider-making, history of apples, various craft events and family creative writing, but since we went during the week it was relatively quiet.

East front of Erddig Hall

The gardens are a big draw at Erddig, with stately avenues of yews

Garden of Erddig Hall

fruit trees grown against warm crumbling walls.

Fruit wall at Erddig

A specialty is the number of apple varieties produced each year. Some are available to buy (and sample at the weekend).

Erddig Apple Display

Dropping our hoard in the car, we went on one of the marked walks in the ground to see the remains of the first Earl of Chester's Motte and Bailey

Hughes d'Averanches earthworks (eleventh  century)

the Motte now marked out with an avenue of trees leading to views over the surrounding countryside and revealing the reason why Hugh d'Avranches chose such a spot

Avenue of trees on motte

before going on to 'the cup and saucer' a hydraulic ram, invented by one of the Montgolfier brothers, which was used here to pump water up to fountains in the grounds of the house.  The National Trust is hoping to bring this pump back to life one day.  Meanwhile, the cup and saucer remains an elegant and interesting way to transfer water from one level to another.

'Cup and Saucer ' Hydraulic Ram, Erddig
We finished with a tour around the house, with displays in the servants' quarters

Butler's Pantry, Erddig
and stable blocks

Working Shire Horse at Erddig

just as interesting as those in the main house.

Bedroom at Erddig

The house had been owned by the Yorke family for several hundred years.  The family ended in the 1970s with two bachelor brothers, neither of which produced heirs.

Nursery at Erddig - frozen in time around 1912

Philip Yorke, the last brother, who lived at Erddig with a friend, sounds an interesting character.  He was a teetotal vegetarian who would not allow motor vehicles onto the estate and relied on sheep to cut the grass and rode around the estate on a penny farthing (which Prince Charles once tried).  The house was without electricity, except for a generator which he used to power two televisions tuned to two different channels, and Philip Yorke was determined to leave it all to the National Trust.

Gas lamp at Erddig.
At first, the National Trust offered to buy just the furniture (there are 30,000 artifacts here, only 20,000 of which are on display),

Library at Erddig
but Philip insisted that they buy the house too.  It was a battle because the Trust was reluctant to buy a building that was obviously going to require some extensive renovation.  It had been undermined by the National Coalboard, which had resulted in some structural damage.  Eventually, Philip won through, the National Trust only persuaded to take the plunge after they had been given permission to sell off some of the estate's land for housing to finance the repairs. Gratifyingly, he live long enough to see the completed project.

Dressed stone west front of Erddig Hall

By the time we'd finished with our tour of the building (at the splendid west side, an aspect I'd never encountered before) a few other apples were available to buy - so we added to hoard.

Apple hoard

On the subject of apples, I see that Ian Patterson has made this fruit the subject of one of his literary quizzes in his 'Nemo's Almanac' which arrived at my house today, courtesy of Profile Books.

Nemo's Almanac

It's based on an appealing idea: quizzes for people who have an interest in books.  I can imagine this working really well in literary festivals with an entertaining adjudicator.  I've also found it fun to try and guess, and even when I haven't got a clue, I find I learn a lot.  For instance, I remember loving the title of a book by Ray Bradbury in my youth, 'The Golden Apples of the Sun', so much I devoted an art project to it, and this afternoon I found the origin on this phrase - suitably enough in 'October' - and discover it is from 'The Song of the Wandering Aengus'  by W.B. Yeats:

'I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

So now, of course, I want to read the whole poem.  Wonderful stuff.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Swansea Research

I'm researching for another novel at the moment.  This time, it is partly based in Swansea.  Swansea, a town in south Wales, is a place I used to know well because my family used to go there every summer (and at other times too) to visit my grandmother who lived there.

Because I was a child when we went to visit, there are some parts of the town I feel I know very well, other parts are hazy  - it's like joining the dots between memories. Looking at it afresh now, travelling virtually along the roads I used to know on Streetview, I am struck by how beautiful the place is - around every corner is a view of mountains or the sea.  It makes me want to go back there.

For instance, I remember my grandmother's house.  It was on one of the main roads out of the town up a steep hill, and looking on Streetview,  I can see that this road is indeed as steep as I remember it to be, but also much more narrow.  There are trees and hedges, and the place looks much more rural than I remember.

Another significant feature of my childhood was an ice-cream parlour near the sea-front called Joe's.  This sold sundaes in tall jars, including the magnificent' nut sundae'.  I once ate two of these in quick succession, little piglet that I was.Reading through 'Swansea's Frontline Kids' by Jim Owen I learn that the windows of this ice-cream parlour were smashed by stones when Italy joined on the side of Germany in World War Two, but Joe Cascarini offered free ice-cream all round on Victory in Europe Day).

Then there was the wide beach, that was only sandy when the tide was in.  When it went out we had to trudge through a darky grey sludgy mud.  This, Frontline Kids reveals,  had pillboxes and poles in the sand during the war and was sometimes out of bounds.

Then there was the town centre with its stub of a Norman castle and shops all around.  This, apart from the castle,  was all new.  The original shops, including the town's main department store, was completely razed to the ground during Swansea's three-day blitz in 1941.

Images of Swansea, compiled by the South Wales Evening Post, show this devastation when it was still raw.  The smoking ruin of Ben Evans' department store; the steel skeleton, which was all that remained of the market building, and the mounds and mounds of rubble. 

I'm interested too in what happened next, and having read through the highly entertaining Growing
Up in the Lower Swansea Valley by Jim Young about the childhood antics of a boy born just outside of the town in 1949,

I am now reading Swansea in the 1950s by Geoff Brookes.  This, no doubt, will reveal to me how this shell of a town centre became the modern city centre I knew when I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Other books I have lined up to read are: 'Bloody Welsh History Swansea' also by Geoff Brookes;

'Swansea Girls' by Catrin Collier, which is the first novel of three about coming of age in 1950s Swansea; 

and 'Swansea Girl' by Barbara Hardy, which is a memoir of an academic who was born, I think, between the wars.  

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Salon: What I'm Doing 46

Another few weeks of culture: first, a political play called 'Whipping it Up' at TipTop - a local amateur dramatics group (as usual the acting was...tip top, of course:-)).  This was about the shenanigans of the whip's office written by someone who knows, I should think.  Entertaining it was too.
Mound of Shotwick Castle

Then, a couple of weeks ago, in blistering sunshine, we went with the Chester Archaeology Group to the site of Shotwick Castle.  All that's left of it now is a mound, the stones robbed away - presumably for other buildings.  But it was built in Norman times, perhaps by the first Earl of Chester, Hugh Lupus, in the eleventh century.  It was later used by the princes as a staging post as they made their way into Wales over the River Dee to subdue the Welsh.  Our little expedition was ably led by Peter Carrington, and it was very interesting hearing from the other knowledgeable people in the group too.

Chester Archaeological Group on Shotwick Castle Site
I, of course, know very little, but I have been reading about this crossing place on the Dee, and came across a book called the 'Cestrian Book of Dead' which maps the many places where people attempted to cross the Dee - only to be drowned by the incoming tide.

Apart from that, my reading has been 'The Gene' by Sidhartha Mukherjee,

'Postwar' by Tony Judt on Audible (both of these hugely impressive works),

and having finished 'Londoners' by Craig Taylor, have now started 'Our Endless Numbered Days'

by Claire Fuller on my Kindle. So far so good.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sunday Salon: What I'm Doing 45

The summer has brought me an excellent couple of weeks of culture.

What I've seen (live).  Julius Caesar at Storyhouse.

This was the opening night and I've been wanting to write about it for some time.  It started in the foyer with Julius Caesar marching in with the crowd swarming around the audience in adulation.  The flags and banners were in blue, white and red stars, and there was footage of his arrival at the theatre in a black limousine on a big screen - pointing out the link with the modern world.  But then every time I see any Shakespeare I am reminded that all he says is timeless and endlessly relevant.

After the introduction in the foyer, we were led upstairs to the auditorium where the rest of the play continued - the cast sometimes shouting from the wings - which had the effect of including us all in the story.  The first half culminated in a satisfyingly bloody and dramatic assassination - in preparation for a second half that was one of the most gripping I've ever seen.  By complete coincidence, we found ourselves, very happily, sitting next to the poet Aled Lewis Evans, and at the end of it we just looked at each other and said exactly the same thing: 'Wow!'

Julius Caesar is now my favourite Shakespeare play.  I cannot remember ever being enthralled with any of the others I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot) as much as I was with this.

What I've seen (on TV): An Art Lover's Guide to Amsterdam, Barcelona and St Petersburg.
This was great.  Excellent presenters (I've seen them in other things and they've always been good - but to put them together was inspired, I thought). These three programmes looked at the quirky pieces of art available in each of the three cities - my afvourite segment being the one on Irma Bloom and her books.  There's an articl from the New York Times on some of them here.

And then, of course, I've read a few books.  First Gregory Norminton's The Ghost Who Bled:   collection of stories from different places and times, some with an environmental theme:  a science fiction story featuring a cult which pays homage to animals that man has made extinct, for instance; an academic's disillusionment with university life;  and a beautifully written paeon to a past accessed from a future that is lost.  The wistful meandering between now and then makes compulsive reading.

A poignant exploration of a fundamental truth - that saving someone's life forces you to hate them forever -  is joined by stories dealing with advisability of going back; creativity in a world that's falling away; and a Japanese ghost story that twists and teases between cockpit and village.

Showmanship is another motif: an actor changes his mind about a life-changing decisionand in doing so 'sobbed for his body, for the close companionship of bowels, of kidneys, of liver and spleen.'; an emperor who finds a novel way to extract information from a visionary and a ventriloquist wants to end it all.

Each story is exquisitely written but perhaps my favourite is  'In My Father's Garden' - an entertaining look at the varied ways we impose ourselves on our little piece of planet.

Apart from that I've read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks - an intriguing and brilliantly mystery primarily evoked by the unreliabilty of the narrator.

It seemed just as real as The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale that  describes a life that turns out unexpectedly- teaching me alot about life at the end of the nineteenth century.  It reminded me a little of Peter Carey's books - and not just because it was based, in part in Australia (although the Wicked Boy was non-fiction).

Now I'm on Postwar : A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt.  Because I'm listening to this I hadn't realised that it is a thousand pages long, but it impresses me so much I've just ordered it in hardback as well.  I think this may take some time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyhouse: Chester's New Cultural Centre.

For the last couple of years the old Odeon building in Chester has been hidden behind hoardings, with glimpses of the renovations to turn it into the new 'Cultural Centre' fleetingly exposed.  

One winter's day, for instance,  the old back wall came off and we gawped at the  tiers of the old cinema seating framed in the space which was once the big screen.  I imagined a production there, Grecian- theatre style, the Clwydian hills forming a wild and authentic backdrop.  Another time, Hodmandod Senior noticed bricks in an elaborate pattern joining the front old portion to the newer building behind. Were they old or new?  We couldn't remember, but someone had arranged them beautifully in place.  Once, close to a Christmas last year, or maybe the one before, the inhabitants of Chester were  invited to dig where an old office block had once been, and more hoardings appeared showing finds from Chester's Roman past.  Then, in March the old library closed: a favourite building of mine.  It used to be the old Westminster Motor showroom with three brick arches and a moustached face grinning from the middle like a genial twentieth century gargoyle.   When I heard the new library was going to be a stroll-in affair, self-service like a shop, I didn't think it would work.  These days, libraries tend to be down-graded.  They are converted into gyms or taken over by computer terminals or coffee shops.  But last weekend as we passed, the hoardings had been removed from the new Storyhouse or cultural centre and we were invited in.

Those tiers of seats once exposed to the skies are now stairways

leading past peacocks perching on walls,

and Art Nouveau monkeys holding a shine to aspidistra pots.

Below them, framed by the outline of the old screen, are  modern ticket terminals

with a fifties vibe.  Alongside is a restaurant with long tables, high tables

low-level chairs

and books.  Books!

Here then, is Chester's new library, and it works really well.  Up the stairs,

alongside the original laddered windows,

part of the fabric of the place, like a vital thread

sewing together corridors,

quiet places to read

and there, beneath a track of light,

is a particular bookshelf assigned to historical fiction

which includes, as it turns out

one of mine!

I love it (and not just because of my book)!