Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Tired of travel, you want to settle down
I guess they can't revoke your soul for trying
Get out of the door - light out and look all around
Sometimes the light's all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been
It's been three months since I last blogged which is the longest break I've taken since I started way back in 2010. I hadn't got bored with it or anything like that, I've just been very busy and the break became rather extended.
During the Summer break we went away around East Anglia a few times with friends, enjoyed our eldest daughter's brief return from Mexico and my friend John and I also took ourselves off on a Rock'n'Roll tour of London. There will be more on that in a future blog - I also feel the need to mention the similar tour from last year in New York.
Obviously there has been far more than those few things going on. Most of May and June were taken up with exam marking and there was rather a lot of finishing off and packing up from our place of work. More recently there had been two more weddings to attend. We've had dealings with various agencies to sort out our pensions. Mine is incredibly modest but I felt it time to stop working in an environment that was becoming increasingly more bogged down in a mire of trying to outguess and impress Ofsted than actually concentrate on just educating kids. There has also had to be a gradual coming to terms with the fact that we would not be rushing off to work any more. No more pointless meetings, unnecessary admin tasks or lessons to prepare. No more lesson observations and constant criticism. However, Mrs Dave has been very busy (indeed, still is) remarking Psychology A level exam papers. So all in all, the laptop has been pretty well taken up recently. It has been so busy lately that I've taken the step of using our older laptop which chugs along slowly but gets there in the end (usually).
So, sitting here tapping away at a laptop that occasionally misses letters and whole phrases out, I have returned and hopefully will be corresponding with anyone out there still listening.
Whilst it has indeed been a long strange trip, here's to many more adventures to come.
Tuesday, 16 June 2015
Only journeys to depart on
Salt and dust, oil and rust
It's still the only garden
I'm no Adam, you're no Eve
Don't look back and never grieve
A wasted seed, a broken reed
It's what the poor man sets his heart on . . .
We never left the garden
I always laugh when I see books or articles about small gardens. They still seem to think that a small garden is about the size of Rutland. Ours really is tiny, it's about thirty two feet by twenty (if that). Given its ridiculously small size we somehow manage to grow stuff in it as well as cook, entertain and - weather permitting - sit around soaking up the sun.
A few years ago - probably about ten - we actually attempted to run an allotment. That was a dismal failure by anyone's standards. Both of us being full time teachers with a family and my wife being on the Senior Management Team meant we had no time whatsoever to get up to there and spend the months of tpoil required to produce much worth talking about, let alone eating it. In fact, we failed so hilariously, we were just about to be kicked off of it by the council. We did manage to grow some potatoes and what started as courgettes. The potatoes were quite good, as I recall. However, the courgettes resembled the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers because we had left them for so long.
Alongside the above there are so many different herbs this year in pots and poked in to any available space that I've forgotten what I've planted where. I think I've actually got some sea kale growing but I can't remember where. Edible flowers like Borage and Nasturtiums are rapidly growing and we have a blackcurrant bush that seems quite prolific too. Because space is at a premium we probably should plan it all out but I have continued with my usual haphazard approach that the rest of my life seems to have bumbled along with that it hardly seems worth changing the habit of a lifetime for.
For many years I have been able to wander out of the back door and pick fresh herbs when I'm cooking - a small bay tree, an old gnarled rosemary bush that was replaced a year back and various
When I think back to being a lad in Stevenage, the only herb that my parents ever grew was mint - there was always a fine patch outside the back door in our house in Four Acres. I really don't remember much else. I think my parents preferred flowers and a lawn. At least the mint sauce was always home made.
I sometimes joke about my mother's cooking. She was a pretty good cook really but I always wondered why she over-cooked joints of meat. Sunday meals often meant quite tough lamb or beef. I'm sure they would have been cheaper cuts but it took me quite a while as an adult to get into enjoying both cooking and eating them. Now, they are a pleasure to cook. I guess we have the plethora of celebrity cooks to thank for better knowledge of how to prepare food now. According to Michael Pollan Americans (and I guess the British too) have abandoned their kitchens at the same time that there has been a huge rise in tv celebrity chefs showing off food porn.
Most of the tv programmes about cooking are awful and I don't have much time for the bake-offs and Master Chef ones at all. Over the years I've enjoyed Keith Floyd and Nigel Slater. The latter is a fine writer. I've also continued to refer to the late Marguerite Patten although she hated sage for some reason. She was one of those post WWII writers that evidently changed Britain's cooking habits.
I took over the cooking (and shopping) quite a few years ago when my wife was becoming more and more bogged down in Management meetings and other important stuff. Nowadays, it's second nature. I make bread by hand, I can cook pretty well, even if I do say so myself, and being able to supplement what I churn out with some produce from our little garden makes me feel good about what I do. I spent most of last Sunday cooking or preparing food - homemade bread, guacamole, roasted beetroots and elderflower champagne were all made as well as the actual evening meal. Whilst I was pottering about the kitchen it occurred to me that this is exactly what I want to be doing when I retire.
As I am about to retire from the British education system next month I am very much looking forward to continuing my haphazard adventures in both small-scale gardening and cooking. Perhaps it's time to think about trying to run an allotment again . . .
Tuesday, 19 May 2015
It's that time of year again - it seems to come round quicker and quicker. Still, this is the last time I'll be juggling a regular job and exam marking. Yes, it's the annual trip to London for the AS Film Studies exam marking conference.
As I am now only working part time and the conference was on Saturday, I took myself off to London on Friday to have a day out. As the hotel was in Hammersmith this year I thought perhaps a wander along the river up to Chiswick and the Fuller's Brewery would be a good idea. Unfortunately I couldn't organise a piss-up in the brewery for myself as they were full. Still, a wander along part of the Thames Walk seemed like a pleasant distraction on a nice sunny day.
I wandered along and took a look around the area as I've never spent much time around there before. I did see the pre-Clash Joe Strummer band the 101'ers* back in the mid-1970s and Dire Straits in 1979. Oh yes, my Best Man took me to see John Martyn there the night before my wedding too. But these were all fleeting visits to a concert hall. We certainly didn't go wandering around the neighbourhood to take in the ambience.
|A parakeet, honest!|
A little later outside a very busy pub, a heron was happily allowing pigeons and gulls to wander around checking him out whilst he lazily thought about whether it was dinner time or not. He was only a few feet away from a lot of people but seemed quite happy. That's probably the closest I've ever been to one in the wild since one flew directly overhead once near the River Ivel when I used to live in Bedfordshire near Jordan's Mill.
A trip to the Fuller's Brewery shop secured a few cans of London Pride at a much more decent price of £1.97 to take back to my Executive suite at the Novotel. They even supplied mini Bose speakers for my entertainment. Things are looking up. After a rest and a few beers I went down to dinner thinking I'd go to the cinema to finish the evening's entertainment off. But after meeting a few old colleagues that was a non-starter as more and more bottles of wine turned up like on some sort of psychic conveyor belt.
Usually I end up wandering around the West End when I go up to London. I have mentioned before that modern Soho is becoming Every Town, Every Place as developers are forcing local established businesses out to build more swanky shops, hotels and restaurants. A depressing state of affairs but everything changes, I guess. I didn't go this weekend as I'd forgotten my Oyster Card and travelling around London otherwise can be pricey (I'm practically a pensioner you know!). Maybe next time.
Saturday came and Saturday went and I reached home without having to get the usual East Anglian weekend "alternative transport"- or getting a bus as they're known. Usually someone's digging up the railway tracks. Or sweeping leaves off of it. Or nicking the copper wire. On Sunday I wandered up to get a newspaper which is something I rarely do nowadays. However, there was a great article on disappearing Soho in the Observer which I enjoyed reading over a light lunch in my local - yep, definitely £3.55. Reading it made me feel a little cross that I hadn't gone to see it before it does disappear. Well worth a read, anyway. Actually, a live version of Wild West End by Dire Straits just came on as I wrote that. Synchronicity? Ah well, I'll be back up on June for the A2 marking so perhaps it'll last until then.
Tuesday, 5 May 2015
Cut and move on:
take out trees,
take out wildlife at the rate of a species
every single day.
I was sitting in a friend's garden on Sunday with the wildlife of Nottinghamshire flitting and around and entertaining us with a few songs, I brought up a subject I'd had on my mind for a while now. For some reason I recently flicked through the Brooke Bond Picture Card album Wildlife in Danger and I mentioned to my friends about how I wanted to check through the fifty species mentioned to see how many were now extinct. They sagely nodded and thought it a worthwhile pursuit.
I have mentioned this series before but essentially, in the 1960s P G Tips tea regularly gave away cards that we collected and glued into our little books. This one cost sixpence which shows how old it is. It was first published in 1963. So my little seven year old self was busy collecting cards and sticking them in badly so the pages occasionally stuck together all those years ago. I got all fifty of them. Even if some of the species hadn't survived, the album has. It also shows that we drank a lot of P G Tips in the sixties (I've still got plenty of the other collections!).
Anyway, yesterday I spent a short while checking every one of the species in the album. Some of them seem bizarre, almost as if they were made up or had featured in The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. I was sure that I was going to be quite depressed afterwards, which is why I'd put off checking them out for a while. However, as I worked through the EDGE and Wikipedia sites my heart was lifted by the news that nearly all of the species have survived. That doesn't mean to say that everything is rosy - many remain critically vulnerable or in low numbers. Given that most of the species were, even then, becoming endangered because of mankind, it is only really due to human attempts to stop them from disappearing that has saved them from inevitable extinction.
story here was a fascinating read. There are quite a few creatures in the album that have become extinct at some point in the wild but through reintroduction programmes are now, at least, hanging on. In some cases the creatures that have been reintroduced into the wild are now thriving such as the Splendid Parakeet. The only creature in the album that I have genuinely seen in the wild is the Californian Condor. In the album it claimed that there were about 60-65 individuals left in 1963 and according to Wikipedia they became extinct in the wild in 1987. Due to being reintroduced they seem to be surviving. Still the veracity of Wikipedia is called into question here as the EDGE site tells a slightly different story. They're supposed to be protected now but it would seem all is not well. One of the main problems for them is lead poisoning from hunter's spent cartridges.
About ten years ago we were standing looking out over the Grand Canyon when several of these huge birds flew up from below us - there was an audible gasp from everyone there. Spectacular.
Another bird that is only just hanging on is Stellar's Albatross with its seven foot wingspan, because of the vast distances they fly it's difficult to keep perfect records but it is, just about, still with us. The Galapagos Giant Tortoise which is featured on the cover became extinct as a sub-species in 2012 when the last surviving one 'Lonesome George' died. Technically he was a Pinta Island Tortoise but him and his kind have gone the way of the Dodo now. The Leathery Turtle managed to survive in their thousands but our propensity for plastic bags has become a major problem. The turtles, along with many other sea species, assume the floating bags are their main source of food - jellyfish. Obviously with devastating results.
Another little chap that is still having a hard time clinging on is the Giant Fijian Wood Boring Beetle.
All-in-all I was relatively impressed that we have managed to stop the wholesale extinction of many of these creatures but it's still quite unsettling to see the devastating impact we've had. The fifty species identified back in 1963 for the most part have managed to lurch into the Twenty First Century which is good to know. However, the EDGE Project gives the picture that we still continue to have a ridiculously devastating impact on the World.
Thursday, 9 April 2015
Wednesday, 8 April 2015
The young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree which local superstition has it that if cut, the tree would bleed real blood. They had taken a knife along to test it. Afterwards, Laura asks her mother if there are still any witches:
"No. They seem to have all died out. There haven't been any in my time; but when I was your age there were plenty of old people alive who had known or even been ill-advised by one. And, of course," she added as an afterthought, "we know there were witches. We read about them in the Bible." That settled it. Anything the Bible said must be true. (Lark Rise to Candleford, 1939, p267 Penguin edition)
During the original run of the Keith Dewhurst's version of Lark Rise to Candleford at the National Theatre, the young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree with the Albion Band playing this. It was an electrifying moment in what was a fantastic production. I can still remember that moment some 36 years later.
The young Flora Thompson was writing as the World was plunged into another devastating war and she looked back to the changes of modernisation on rural communities. Laura, as Flora called herself, and her brother were fascinated with witches. And in those prelapsarian times they could easily believe that an ugly old woman being chased by men and boys with pitchforks could change herself into a tree. Evidently witches can't cross running water, so as she came to the brook she turned herself into an Elder tree to avoid her pursuers. And, like children have for centuries, Laura and Edmund lived in fear of them.
Quite possibly we have Shakespeare to thank for creating a vivid image in words of witches. Laura's mother thought witches had died out but they hadn't. They never disappeared. Perhaps after centuries of persecution they hid like unicorns and other fantastical creatures - away from mankind's malevolent gaze and need to destroy anything they don't understand.
Driving back from Heathrow on Monday my thoughts had turned to witches for some reason. It was probably because that ridiculous song The Witch by The Rattles came on but somewhere in the back of my head a thought grew about the amount of songs that were written about witches particularly in the late 1960s/early 1970s. And then last night, I came across Richard Thompson's version of Donovan's Season of the Witch purely through synchronicity, or perhaps by magic. Who knows? Evidently RT's version is played over the opening credits of a TV programme I've never heard of called Crossing Jordan. Anyway he adds his own magic to it and it could just as easily be one of his own songs from his most recent albums. Donovan released his version way back in 1966 and it has had many cover versions. Since then witches have become popular characters to write songs about.
You can probably Google lists of songs about witches because some people have nothing better to do than make lists. However, I'll mention a few notable ones. Donovan was a bit of an old fart by the time I was getting into music at the cusp of the sixties turning into the seventies. After all the fey wispy away-with-the-fairies stuff, someone decided to beef up his sound. By putting him in a studio with the Jeff Beck group, Donovan had a major hit with the barking mad gobbledygook of Goo Goo Barabajagal and a great appearance on Top of the Pops. It was, I think, the first single I bought on my own. It was 1969 and I bought it from W.H. Smiths in Stevenage Town Centre - I can remember the lovely Caroline Scott serving me to this very day. Another case of unrequited love - we spoke often but all she used to say was, "That'll be eight shillings, please," and usually, "ta" after fumbling over the change. She was quite a beguiling witch, I can assure you. Still, standing there as a gawky 13 year old trying to say, "have you got Goo Goo Barabajagal?" probably wasn't the most romantic chat up line I could have mustered. And she was a lot older than me.
The song itself was very silly but gave a beefier sound to the subject of witches than Mr Leitch himself or that other little elf that warbled on about witches and wizards, Marc Bolan. They were complete twaddle of course but Bolan picked up a white Fender Stratocaster and spent an eternity fighting the neck and the electrickery itself running through Tyrannosaurus Rex's Elemental Child. He then realised a name change by shortening it to T. Rex and only spending 2 minutes on Ride a White Swan could change his life forever. Meantime, Jethro Tull had turned up on TOTP looking totally freaky with The Witch's Promise which was another single I had to rush out to buy. I think the fragrant Miss Scott had moved on to better things by then. Jethro Tull had started mixing a more acoustic sound into their music with the flute and mellotron that were the early sound of Prog. The wildness of the amped up distorted guitars of Jeff Beck and the late 1960s blues rock players was being given a pastoral makeover.
The early 1970s saw a rise in songs about witches in the American Indian band Redbone's Witch Queen of New Orleans, Santana updated Peter Green's Black Magic Woman and the Eagles told us about a Witchy Woman. Meantime, electric folk rockers such as Fairport and Steeleye Span were adding electric riffs in a more aggressive manner to old songs of magick like Tam Lin and Alison Gross (the ugliest witch in the North country, evidently). Another barking mad songwriter, Stevie Nicks, became her alter ego in Rhiannon in 1975. Probably Fleetwood Mac's best performance post-Peter Green. Of course, his swansong The Green Manalishi had been a sizeable hit too. Another spooky mystical song that nobody knew what the hell he talking about.
There seemed to be so many songs through these times about witches, wizards and magic that there must have been more than just fluoride in the water. Bands like the awful Uriah Heep (a Stevenage connection there) and Black Widow released albums exploring such subject matter. Black Widow, as I've mentioned before, featured a mock Sabbath sacrifice on-stage. I know that as young teenagers we were interested in all this stuff. Dennis Wheatley books such as The Devil Rides Out - we were too young to see the film - the weekly magazine collection Man, Myth and Magic told us about a whole netherworld of arcane happenings. Catweazle was on Saturdat evening tv and The News of the World informed us about the daily goings on of Vicars getting mixed up in covens . . . er, I think I might have made that bit up. Somehow, though, witches themselves seem to be wonderful muses for songwriters.
If I have any theory as to why witches inhabit so many songs - and I've only touched on a tiny amount - it is possibly linked to those childish fears. The music of the era I've been talking about was mostly produced by fairly young people. The managers and money-spinners were older and jaded and couldn't care less what the songs were about. The kids buying records like me had grown up reading about this whole otherworld where we knew wolves could become men and trees could bleed if cut. We wanted to be transported to such far off times and lands full of Rackhamesque trees and black cats. Ultimately, they were just more intriguing and exciting and the new music of pop and the Underground bands that grew into Prog just tapped into those childhood memories. Looking around for something more than"I love her but she doesn't love me" ideas for lyrics, songwriters turned to the stories of their childhood.
There are witches out there in the real World but they aren't warty-nosed and flying about on broomsticks. They are everyday people like the rest of us who have a different belief system. They have their ceremonies sky-clad and cast spells. It's only, as Laura's mother said, because the Bible says they exist that Christians assumed they were evil. In Witchfinder General, there are no real witches. The evil is there in Hopkins and his desire to make money out of the stupidity of the rural yokels who believe what they're told. As Bill Caddick sang about those other mystical secretive creatures Unicorns:
We never went away,
You always knew we were near,
Remember how to look for us,
You'll see we were always here.
Sunday, 5 April 2015
|Action Man's younger, skinnier brother|
*I believe it means "Celebrities" M'Lud.
Monday, 23 March 2015
Sunday, 22 March 2015
Once upon a Time there was a girl and a socially awkward and clumsy boy. . .
Actually for several years there was always a girl. Taking some children and splitting them up in going to single sex schools may work for some kids but in my own case, it didn't really do me a lot of good. For one thing, I didn't really take to the Grammar School system and pretty soon sunk to the bottom of the class. For another, as mentioned elsewhere on previous posts, when I left the school rather ignominiously and attended the local college, I didn't find talking to girls that easy.
My sister got married and moved away from home when I was in the third year (Y9 nowadays) but, truth to tell, we weren't the closest of allies. At the same time as moving into the local Grammar School, we had moved away from 125 Haycroft Road and into the newly built Council estate of Four Acres. The friends I had grown up with had all moved on too. We were just kids and we all played together, had our Measles parties and spent our wild youth running around bluebell woods and cornfields before they built the newer estates of Grace Way and beyond. So suddenly, here I was in a new school full of boys, my main childhood friend and I had parted - not even good enemies in Steve Ashley's lovely phrase - and my only other friend went on to a totally different school*.
By the time I got to the third year I was lost to music. At the time I dreamt of being a great songwriter and after getting my first acoustic guitar, maybe a performer too. The damned thing was un-tunable - perhaps I should have seen the signs. Anyway, despite being a Prog fan for many years (I've waffled on about this before) I had not really listened to Caravan. At college one guy kept telling me how great they were and gradually, I suppose, through osmosis I got to know the album In The Land Of Grey And Pink pretty well. Eventually I bought it. The songs were quite whimsical and very English in that Ray Davies/early Genesis way, all tea and psychedelia. Golf Girl by Richard Sinclair was a fantasy song about the lady who later became his wife, the title track was a contender for the most far out piece of dope-smoker whimsy imaginable. It was up there with Traffic's Hole In My Shoe only without the sitar. The second side of the album - yes we had to get up and physically turn the album over** - was a side long prog extravaganza. But the real killer - and it still is, really - is the second song on the first side, Winter Wine. It seemed to be just a long epic song about fair maidens wandering minstrels so I didn't pay that much attention to it at first. I guess I didn't listen to the lyrics too carefully.
A couple of years later a good friend, let's call him Jim, noticed that I was a bit morose. Not my usual happy joke-telling self he may have said. In these times we went as a large group of friends to pubs all around the area and often to gigs. Jim was older than me and had been to the same school as me and had also been asked not to come back after O'levels. Jim came round my house one evening, I guess we were going to go over to the Longship and have a glass or two of beer and a chat. Before we went out, he asked me what was wrong and eventually I told him about my unrequited love for a particular girl. I guess he must have told me that the obvious thing would have been to ask her out but I wouldn't have considered that option as I would have probably said that she was out of my league. So, Jim being Jim, he put Winter Wine on and told me to listen to it carefully. All of a sudden, the whole song made sense. The dreamy lyrics that seemed to have drifted out of Sinclair's lungs along with whatever he was smoking at the time weren't just about pastoral scenes and Arthurian ladies. There was a sort of stoned eroticism about it:
The last line of that verse seemed to point towards something else, not just that awkward moment when the best bit of the dream is about to happen and the alarm bell goes off. And then the first three lines of the final verse hit hard (I quoted them above). That's why Jim played it to me and that's why I occasionally play it to friends (or daughters!) who seem to be down in the dumps about something. Some of us spend far too long "wishing for things we'll never have." I've been dreadful over many years for doing exactly that. I'm better now.
Another thing is that it reminds me of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris which explores the nature of nostalgia. The Golden Age syndrome some call it. In the film the Allen character, played by Owen Wilson, is an Hollywood writer who is trapped in an upcoming marriage that he really shouldn't be in. During a trip to Paris he travels back in Time via an old car that turns up at Midnight and whisks him off to 1920s Paris. It's the Paris of his dreams when writers and artists sat around drinking, arguing, loving. And for him, it's his absolute dream come true. Where does he belong? Should he stay back then or carry on in the present? During the film his new love interest wants to go back to an earlier time and several other artists they meet, such as Lautrec, want to go back to the Renaissance. No matter how far you go back, someone always thinks a previous time was better.
So, for me, the song's final verse (well, I tend to ignore the actual last two lines) tell me that I shouldn't waste time wishing for something I can't have. Sure, there's nothing wrong with dreams, for me that's where the creativity often lurks. There's nothing like the feeling of waking up with a whole song in your head. It doesn't happen often but it's a great feeling. But generally as any decent Buddhist would tell you, you should live in the present.
The boy grew up and as an old guy instead of wishing for things he'll never have looks back and wonders why he wasted so much time doing that! The wisdom of age, I guess. Also, he isn't as socially awkward any more. Still clumsy though! As for the girl, after a few years of a platonic relationship they drifted apart and she did well. She came to the boy's father's funeral but that was 26 years ago. That was the last time they spoke. There were other platonic relationships until eventually the awkwardness wore off.
So, essentially here's a song that I use to remind myself to stop moping about and get on with life. I'm not talking here about ambitions or drive - they've got their own songs. But that's for another time.
*And prison later but that's not really important.
** or leave the arm up so the same side repeated - how often I fell asleep listening to John Martyn's One World or Pink Floyd . . .ahh!
Friday, 20 March 2015
Tuesday, 17 March 2015
I often get told by students that they "don't like reading" this is usually accompanied by a giggle and maybe a raise of the eyebrows and a little grin as though it's a delightful affectation. Basically it's because they get bored and it seems too much effort. Some of the students who do read tend to read the same books - certainly the same types - over and over again. Reading a Harry Potter book twenty times doesn't really make you a reader. And, too be honest, I don't think it helps your vocabulary much either. It certainly doesn't help the quality of essay writing. Essays are often ridiculously short and there is an incredulity at the expectation of "developing" the points made. Or making more than one!
Having made my living as an English teacher for the past quarter of a century, I would be expected to find this a sorry situation. However, although I, thankfully, don't teach the subject any more, I still see the need for a good vocabulary and a developed literacy. Over the past few days I have had conversations with students that are variations on the "don't like reading" theme. It's me that raises my eyebrows in despair. Reading about the subject you are studying will obviously help you become a better writer about it. This follows on that a better understanding is developed and, rather obviously, better grades will be the result. It seems that this point is beyond the pale for some students. Some of them get exasperated about the length of a Wikipedia page and this is about all they'll ever bother to attempt to read. If it's not available to look at on an iPad screen, it's not worth bothering about.
Robert Macfarlane's new book Landmarks explores the loss of language that shapes our sense of place. The point made early in the first chapter is jumped on often in reviews and articles but it's an important one. In the Times Higher Education review the point about this loss of language is referred to:
Some readers may dismiss this as mere whimsy. But they should ponder the disturbing detail that Macfarlane includes in his opening chapter concerning the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which there has been a “culling” of words concerning nature – acorn, cowslip, kingfisher, willow – as, at the same time, terms such as blog, chatroom and celebrity have been added. As Macfarlane ruefully remarks: “For blackberry read BlackBerry.”
I do understand why there has been a shift but it saddened me to read these words. Many youngsters don't venture out into wild places very often and don't see a need to know the names of plants, birds or birds. Yesterday there was a clue in a crossword: "small wild flower (9)" it stared with s and ended with l - "speedwell," I said immediately. Mrs Dave went off to check as she hadn't heard of it. I was right. Okay, so it's not important for young people to be able to name wild flowers or even do crosswords as both seem so arcane and pointless, I guess.
By the time I was in my late teens I had taken to making up for my woeful lack of reading anything that wasn't Sci-Fi, James Bond or Westerns written by Louis L'Amour. I took to wearing jackets that had pockets big enough to carry a Penguin Classic paperback and I was happy to sit in a pub or restaurant alone reading. I still do nowadays. In fact last Thursday evening I took myself off to my local to read the Sandy Denny biography whilst enjoying a pint of Adnam's best whilst Mrs Dave was being sociable with some of her friends. I was quite happy.
The point I'm making here is that I come from a pre-digital age where the act of reading was a pure joy. It's an important skill, obviously, but for the students I teach Film Studies to it's an essential one. I often start a lesson with an article or chapter that I have found - I give it to them and get them to read it, make notes on it and discuss it. Occasionally there is one left on the desk at the end of the lesson, discarded. Many of our students eyes are fixed constantly on their iPad screens and I know they're not really taking notes. This shift to all students having the damned things isn't helping their poor literacy skills.
We can't escape the use of tablets and phones I know. A few years ago when I still taught English at GCSE we had to study several Seamus Heaney poems. With the remark made by Macfarlane, quoted above, I guess some students will assume that Blackberry-Picking is a poem about going down to the phone shop at upgrade time.
Sunday, 15 March 2015
During the recording of Rock On by the Bunch - a collective of hard-partying wild folkies let off the leash for a week or so at Richard Branson's Manor recording studio - Sandy went for a walk in the surrounding Oxfordshire countryside. She came across a lonely, empty church where she saw a lone vicar "giving a service to a phantom congregation" (quote from Mick Houghton's excellent new biography of Sandy Denny). This may be why I love this song so much. During the seventies I spent a lot of time wandering around the countryside around Stevenage alone. I still wander the countryside but it's Suffolk nowadays. The church in the photo above is fairly lonely and the type of place Sandy would have seen. I often come across such empty places around Suffolk and wonder who puts the flowers in the jugs, sometimes leave tea-making facilities and tend the gardens. Who goes to services in these places? Are there vicars who still perform the services to all those souls at rest?
I've just finished reading the aforementioned Mick Houghton biography I've Always Kept a Unicorn and listened to the podcast from David Hepworth where he and Mark Ellen interview Houghton, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, it's a great hour or so and I thoroughly recommend both to you. The book is exhaustive in its detailed interviews to piece together Sandy's tragically short life. The only other worthwhile book about Denny is Philip Ward's excellent Sandy Denny: Reflections On Her Music.
I have been meaning for ages to write a re-view of Sandy's first solo album. Reading the biography and listening to the podcast has spurred me on to start thinking it through. More Sandy Denny soon, then.
Tuesday, 3 March 2015
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds -
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For cormorant or shag -
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near'd, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
|later the same day . . .|
As I wandered down to the beach my first thought was to wonder if I'd see a cormorant. And, sure enough, just beyond the gulls being brought closer to the shore, a familiar dark, reptilian, short-winged, long-necked shape flapped awkwardly into view. It was almost as if I'd conjured it up in the two minutes it took to walk from my front door to the beach. As usual, the dear chap was flying in a straight line parallel to the shoreline. He flopped down onto the sea to take a rest whilst keeping a beady eye out for lunch.
Since those far off days I have seen many cormorants and shags as well as many other pelagic birds such as pelicans in their natural habitats. In fact, in Mexico a few years ago, a pelican flew so close just above my head I could have probably touched it! Since moving down to the relative calm of the east coast from the urban squalor of downtown Stevenage, I have noticed the numbers increasing exponentially. The first time I saw one here was about twenty years ago when a guest pointed it out. I was aware of a colony in Essex just down the coast and was excited to start to see them a few hundred yards from my house. Only a year or so back one flew overhead as we walked along the Suffolk-Essex borderlands. Cormorants are essentially sea birds but Winter and breed by freshwater too. They've begun to nest more and more inland so they are not as uncommon now as they obviously were back in the mid-sixties. After all, they are opportunistic birds and these new wetland habitats must have seemed like the sudden upsurge in supermarkets we noticed. Cormorant figures in Britain reached their nadir in the 1960s but through the introduction of new wetland habitats since the sixties has led to a growth in numbers. I guess the stocking of these habitats and the rise in trout farms et al is particularly relevant here. I blame all those stinking rich rock stars like Roger Daltrey and Ian Anderson. From 151 known pairs at one nesting site in 1986, they grew to 1334 pairs at 35 sites across the land between 1999 - 2002. The birds are now so successful that there are probably some 9000 pairs in Britain.
The problem with cormorants - and they've had a bad press since mediaeval times - is that they eat fish. An adult needs to eat about a pound of fish a day. I'm no mathematician but that's a lot of fish. Anglers and the fisheries industry constantly call for the birds to be 'managed' (read = culled) and basically, it's another war with nature that humans continue to wage. Anglers moan about cormorants damaging and scarring fish when they're unsuccessful in catching them but don't most anglers throw the fish they've damaged with hooks back into the water? I never was a fisherman. I mean, fish are my favourite form of food so I'm glad these guys are out there catching them, I just wish we could accept that the world is a finite resource and mankind's habit of catching more than they need and leaving the seas full of collateral damage no doubt pisses off the cormorants and other bird and marine life that rely on fish as a food source.
Anyway, I don't know what it is about weird looking birds like herons, egrets, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos but they're the ones I get really excited about seeing. By the way, cormorants are the "Liver Birds" of Liverpool. For some reason I didn't know that. Maybe it's because I've never been to Liverpool. I did perform a little search on poems and songs about cormorants but surprisingly, there aren't many.
Perhaps I'd better write one.
*They do say of the sixties, of course, that if you can remember it you weren't there. I went from being about 4 to 13 that decade and I can remember it all very well. It was called childhood. It was great fun but the tea was always sweet. I started the next decade by refusing to take sugar in my tea or milk or sugar in my coffee.
Friday, 27 February 2015
I'll be waiting, how about you?
I'll be standing at the station with my ticket
How about you?
When the train comes . . .
For a while I've been thinking about how different train journeys are nowadays - time really has changed our expectations and experiences.
It seems that steam trains still raise some form of romantic notion in many people. Memories of seeing the beautiful Mallard or the Flying Scotsman come rumbling through Stevenage when I was a child are still vivid. Looking down on them as they thundered through the Old Town station from the bridge outside the ESA factory filling the air with smoke brings a tear to the old eye – and it wasn't just the grit thrown up alongside the smoke.
The opening shots of the Time Shift programme The Nation’s Railway: The Golden Age of British Rail brought back the same memories. The programme looked at Britain’s railways during the era of nationalisation. It showed how the decayed, Victorian transport network that had clung on but eventually became tired after WWII had been transformed into a modern system fit for the twentieth century and laid the foundations into the twenty first. As steam gave way to diesel and electric, the architects of the railways looked ahead far into the future. Now things are knee-jerk reactions, built for a quick profit and have built-in obsolescence. New stations like Euston were built as cathedrals to Modernity and the first British high speed trains were introduced.
|Old Stevenage Station|
A few years later I went on holiday to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends. As they all went down a few days earlier than me because I went to the Reading Festival, I followed down on the train. I actually did this two years running due to Reading and I must say that I really enjoyed the experience of travelling alone with a pocket full of money and the freedom to do as I liked. Long quiet train trips through fabulous changing countryside with the time to sit and read (most likely science fiction or a Penguin Classic) sipping beer and occasionally chatting to fellow passengers.
The BBC4 programme informed me that British Rail served Whitbread Tankard keg beer in those days so I assume that's what I was drinking - remember folks, no ID needed in those halcyon days! I also remember one of the trips quite fondly because a rather lovely young lady took a shine to me and talked to me all the way from London to Exeter. We drank a few beers and she told me all about her trip to Exeter to get married the following day. A sweet old lady opposite for a while listened in and assumed that I was to be the Groom. Given that I was a scruffy seventeen year old with a remarkable resemblance to Catweazle’s skinnier brother and must have been one of the least likely passengers on the train to be getting married the next day, this was a bit of a surprise. That was nowhere near as surprising as the fact that the charming young lady decided to continue with the conceit. It was a lovely journey and still brings back pleasant memories of innocent travelling. What was that line by Mark Knopfler? I got a keepsake and a kiss.
So, all in all, trains still seem to feature in my life. Maybe they're not so romantic nowadays but I do usually enjoy the experience. And of course if you get really fed up with everyone yakking on their phones or the sound of a distant Ed Sheeren's tinny voice whining on, you can always sit back with a good book or crossword listening to your own choice of tinny digital background noise.
** having re-found that bit in the film it seems that was just the 125, so I'm probably wrong.