Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort

Above: Tondal views The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort

Freezing fog the last few days, which makes driving to work in the mornings very slow. One of the compensations of being late this morning was that I was able to listen to some of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 (it starts at 9 o’clock when I would normally be at my desk). It is one of the most erudite and intelligent programmes on broadcast media.

This morning the panel of experts looked at the idea of Hell in European culture, from the earliest Egyptian influences to the Greek shadowlands and into the medieval Christian imagination (at that point I arrived at the office and had to switch off). They talked of Dante’s Inferno (from the Divine Comedy) and how Dante was guided by the poet Virgil through the different levels of Hell. This reminded me of when I worked at the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (I was a sort of intern in their Public Affairs office). One of the treasures of the Museum is an illuminated medieval manuscript called the Dream of Tondal.

In this 1470 French manuscript (based on a much older tradition that predates Dante) the young off-the-rails knight Tondal is guided through Hell by an angel, as a warning of what will happen to him if he doesn’t give up his selfish licentious lifestyle. The twenty illuminated images fascinated me and I used to look at them every day (because I was working there I had access to the curatorial departments and could see things close up, even handle them – wearing special gloves).

One image in particular so impressed me that I had a print made of the Museum slide (and have now scanned it in to post on this site – so this image is several generations removed from the vibrant original – copyright held by the J. Paul Getty Trust). It shows the naked knight Tondal being shown The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort. Looking back I think I liked it because of its Monty-Python-And-The-Holy-Grail absurdity.

I have a recurring dream (about once a year) that I am in one of those niches on the outside wall of Heaven, detained as one of the Bad (But Not Very Bad). In the dream I am quite comfortable but have to be careful not to move since there is a terrifying drop below me. I suppose there could be worse fates.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

He is just being cruel

The Guardian yesterday reported that Work and Pensions Minister John Hutton is proposing that long-term unemployed people should have their benefit stopped unless they get a job. John Hutton complains that immigrants have no problem getting jobs therefore the long-term unemployed should be able to do the same. He is reported as saying: “If workers from Poland can take advantage of these vacancies in our major cities, why can’t our own people do the same?”

This is an entirely bogus and disreputable comparison to make.

The immigrants who come here are almost always the best people overseas countries can offer – the most enterprising and ambitious. Highly motivated and determined to succeed. Prepared to do whatever it takes to establish themselves, even if it means taking dirty jobs and working long hours.

The indigenous long-term unemployed on the other hand are often late-middle-aged, depressed, de-motivated, usually poorly educated. They have been harassed and humiliated by Job Centre staff, who keep giving them ridiculous hoops to jump through. Often they are just tired of life and don’t see any point to modern consumerist society.

Increasingly we are living in a dog-eat-dog world, and to expect the demoralised long-term unemployed to compete with the enterprising post-war immigrants who have come here is like putting an elderly slow-moving spaniel in the same room as a starving rottweiler.

John Hutton is a cruel idiot to even suggest this proposal.

Except that he isn’t an idiot.

Which means he is just being cruel.

We need to accept that a proportion of the population (perhaps twenty per cent) isn’t going to be highly-motivated and eager to make a success of their lives. They could be anxious worriers, scared of making decisions, have poor social skills, slow learners, perhaps drink a little too much, perhaps just not see the point of “modern” society. They may be literally worthless as economic units, but as a tax-payer (and I pay a relatively high level of tax) I want these people looked after and treated with a reasonable level of respect.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The effect will be to make government services more remote and faceless

There is widespread anger at the government’s proposals to close thousands of post offices. Inevitably the majority of these will be in rural villages. The move is seen as yet another example of the cynical way in which the government is trying to strip resources (police services, Accident and Emergency services, postal services) from rural communities to concentrate them in inner city areas where the core of New Labour’s supporters reside.

The effect will be to make government services more remote and faceless, particularly for elderly people who are unable to travel into the towns.

Mrs Warner did the above floral tribute to the rural postal service using Mrs Welham’s old Royal Mail bike (it’s painted in Royal Mail scarlet and you can see the Royal Mail logo). The display is part of a drive to make the church flowers more relevant to issues in the news. It is unlikely that the government will take any notice of such mild protests (to paraphrase Stalin: How many armoured divisions does the Mothers’ Union have?).

Above: The red letter box was first introduced by Anthony Trollope and went through several design incarnations before becoming standard throughout the country. In tacky London souvenir shops the red letter box is seen as one of the iconic images of the city along with red telephone boxes (designed by Edwin Lutyens) and the clock tower (“Big Ben”) of the Houses of Parliament (designed by Sir Charles Barry). Obviously the models in the picture are of different scales.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Images of scythes

Today I have been thinking about how images of scythes are used in Western culture.

In the summer I had a day’s holiday and got up quite late (10 am). I went round the house opening the curtains, and from one upstairs window saw a small white van parked on our land near the house. I went out to see who it was, and found emerging from a deep ditch a council worker carrying a scythe on his shoulder. He looked like a character from a film by Serge Eisenstein (one of those montages from October where the land workers unite with the industrial workers to storm the Winter Palace). I asked him what he was doing and he said he was part of a council team keeping the drainage ditches clear. Apologies for the lopsided photo.

Above: Sickles and scythes hung up on the exterior wall of a stone barn. The hammer and sickle was adopted as the official emblem of the Soviet Union in 1922, and later became recognised as a communist symbol around the world. The hammer and sickle is meant to symbolise the unity of the peasants and workers (a statue of sickle-weilding workers from a collective farm adorned Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

Above: stone carving in a dark corner of a cathedral. Azreal, one of the four Archangels, is traditionally known as the angel of death (the grim reaper) and is supposed to be the angel of the Lord who took the firstborn children in the tenth plague of Egypt. Azreal works continually at a great book, listing all the living on the Earth (entering their names at birth and erasing them at death).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Feature in yesterday's Guardian

You may need to click on the image and then click again (when a square ikon appears in the lower right hand corner) to enlarge it so that you can read it. It's a feature in yesterday's Guardian. I'm posting it here as it is tidier than trying to keep the original cutting.

Friday, December 01, 2006

They have a micro-culture that goes back in an unbroken stream

Church bell, 16th century, at a village in the west of the county (under the internal cliff). The bell was taken down when the bell loft in the tower became unsafe (there are still five bells remaining in the belfry which are rung every Friday evening and Sunday morning). As well as calling the villagers to church services, in medieval times a single bell was rung to announce the angelus (three times a day) and the curfew.

Bells would also solemnly toll to announce the death of anyone in the village – “nine tailors” (tollers) for the death of a man, six for a woman. Dorothy L Sayers titled one of her most famous detective stories “The Nine Tailors”. The expression Nine Tailors also crops up in a limerick, recorded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There was a widespread belief in the county that the sound of bells could cleanse the air of evil (associated with the miasmic theory of disease). Petitions were made in the 17th century for the church bells to be rung to allay popular concerns (fear of plague, fear of witches, fear of “foreigners” sighted in the district). Betjeman wrote: “The sound of English bells is the music of Heaven itself”.

There is a fraternity among the bell ringers of the county that goes beyond their normal village territories. As a distinct community they have a micro-culture that goes back in an unbroken stream several centuries. And yet so precarious has the rural way of life become that it could all vanish tomorrow (yes, I know I am exaggerating).

Above: The bell ropes, tied up high to prevent any miscreants (particularly children) ringing the bells without authority.

Above: The complicated “changes” are chalked up on a board for the bell-ringers to memorise.

Above: The bell-ringers form a tightly-knit community. They have their own rituals and hierarchies. Their achievements are recorded in plaques put up under the tower.

Act of votive placation

There is concern about the fate of the English cricket team facing the ruthlessly professional antipodeans (with the ironic implication that ruthless professionalism is not really “cricket”). There is anxiety that the Ashes might not be retained. Mrs Warner (who is doing the flowers for this Sunday) has included a cricket themed shrine as one of her famous window ledge displays (why has she done this? - is it an act of votive placation to the sporting muse?).

The church flower rota is an intensely political affair with factions, uneasy truces and unwritten rules-which-must-not-be-transgressed. The Rector refuses to get involved in it. You would have to be very brave (or extremely foolish) to criticise the flowers on your way out after Morning Service (previous complaints: the smell of tuberoses brings on someone’s hay fever, the big display on the chancel step obscures someone’s view from the north aisle, even one extremist who told the Rector that flowers in the church contravened the commandment about graven images).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Russian dissident murdered in London

Above: Russian doll in the window of a champagne shop in the West End.

It’s interesting to follow the story of the Russian dissident murdered in London through Polonium poisoning. It’s like a short story by Somerset Maugham (one of his 1928 Ashendon series or Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent). My brother collects videos of spy stories – as well as being inordinately interested in James Bond (we plan to go and see Casino Royale as soon as the cinemas become less crowded) he has an old video of John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People which he watches regularly, as well as (my favourite) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Richard Burton in a very seedy black and white view of 1950s inner London where tinned peaches represented the height of sybaritic luxury).

Matryoshka dolls date from the 1890s and have become a cliché of the Russian image as seen from the West (one enigma contained within another).

The Russian agents must be feeling very confident for them to murder someone so openly in the centre of London (unless they had the collusion of the British Government, which would not surprise me given how morally bankrupt the current administration has become).

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Post Office Tower... from Old Compton Street

View of the Post Office Tower (I think it has a different name now, like BT Tower) from Old Compton Street. Architects of the tower were Bedford and Yeats working for the Ministry of Works. It was opened in 1966 by the then Postmaster General Anthony Wedgwood Benn (now Tony Benn).

It used to have a rotating restaurant on the 34th Floor called (unsurprisingly) Top of the Tower. In the 1967 film Smashing Time (a satire on 1960s swinging London) the rotation mechanism spins out of control (it looks funnier than it sounds) and blacks out the whole of London. In 1971 the IRA tried to blow up the tower and it was closed to the public.

The lack of access adds a sense of mystery to the building.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Working dogs

Display of working dogs at a village on the heath. The dogs are Jack Russell terriers, for a long time not recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club. Fearless and fast, the dogs are ideal for rural areas (especially good at hunting rats). They are also good guard dogs as they will bark at any unfamiliar noise. We used to have a Jack Russell dog called Patch. When he died we got another Jack Russell called Charlie – except that Charlie has grown tall, and has such a mild temperament that he is obviously not a pure bred terrier but a gentle old-fashioned mongrel.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The vast majority of social problems can be traced back to family breakdown

There was an interesting discussion about poverty on the Today Programme this morning. Talking it over with friends at lunchtime (including a solicitor who defends a lot of petty criminals) the vast majority of social problems can be traced back to family breakdown. Noting down some of the suggestions:

1 Divorce is too easy and encourages people to walk away from their responsibilities – amend the law so that if you have children under 18 you cannot have a divorce.

2 Where a marriage doesn’t exist the law should automatically create a basic civil partnership the moment a child is born, even if both biological parents cannot immediately be identified.

3 Abandoning children before they are 18 (by mothers or fathers) should be socially unacceptable, regarded as a form of child abuse, and carry financial penalties (on top of maintenance payments).

4 Grandparents should have access rights – this would increase the amount of scrutiny and family control over a child’s upbringing.

5 Soap operas have acquired an unreasonable influence over social groups D and E, and they need to be more responsible about the messages they are giving out (lazy writers create attractive characters and then have them drift from one improbable relationship to another – critics need to be a lot harder on these writers).

6 Make the existing laws work.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

On a subliminal level

The television advertisement for PC World currently running has to be one of the most wooden and clunky commercials ever aired. It comprises sequences of “customers” talking to “sales assistants” (all played by actors) with pedestrian dialogue that resembles a government information film. The ad ends with a gigantic masonic handshake filling the screen (are they unaware of the cultural implications of this image? Is no-one advising them?).

Previously PC World ran TV commercials that featured a lead “face” (an alpha male sales manager) stamping on the showroom floor, the force of his stamping supposedly forcing the floor lower. The message of the ad is that PC World is stamping down prices. Every time I saw the ad I was reminded of George Orwell writing in 1984: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

This image has entered western culture, and not just the obvious German goose-stepping example (transmogrified into marching hammers in the Pink Floyd animation accompanying Another Brick In The Wall). You can see the motif in rock music, vacuous Jessica Simpson videos, even a logo for Dover Council’s unit for suppressing anti-social behaviour (on a subliminal level I find the use of this logo by Dover Council disturbing and seemingly a vindication of Orwell’s vision. Anti-social elements could be non-conformists and dissidents just as much as delinquents and vandals. And in any case I would prefer a “hug a hoodie” policy to Orwellian-style stamping on people – but then I live in a rural area where crime is extremely low, and I might have a different view if I lived on a south London sink estate).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bookshop in Great Russell Street

Antiquarian bookshop in Great Russell Street – there has been a bookshop in this builidng for over a hundred years. Formerly the home of book illustrator Randolph Caldecott. Good for rare editions of Dickens.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The film Marie-Antoinette

I went to see the film Marie-Antoinette at the weekend. Directed by Sofia Coppola, it starred Kirsten Dunst as the ill-fated young queen. Rather than being a sequential biography (which could have been a bit boring given the Thomas Paine “rights of man” moralising which usually accompanies any examination of this period), the film was comprised of a series of set-pieces that cleverly resembled the theatrical tableaus of the 18th century.

The symbolism of the film had several ironic layers of meaning so that you could read the story in different ways. For instance the Queen of France seemed to be constantly eating elaborate cakes. Versailles in the early morning light had a haunted quality that paralleled the later (20th century) sightings of a ghostly Marie-Antoinette returning to the scenes of her former excesses. The anachronistic soundtrack suggested that the entire movie was inspired by the career of the Princess of Wales in the late 1980s. It was a complex film that covered many issues and could be read through several interpretations. Not obviously commercial, but the sort of film that will acquire a considerable following through a “long tail”.

I went to see the film with Helen B and Kim Blacha. When we emerged from the cinema they seemed to be in a state of shock. “The clothes” they gasped to each other, “did you see the clothes!”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Feelings of nausea, horror and fascination

In the local newspaper was a report about the retirement of one of the paper’s senior reporters. In the article she thanked various people for their help over the years and recounted the various “top” stories she had been involved in over the years (as this is a very quiet part of the world none of them were particularly eye-catching – the local by-pass campaign, the occasional visit from minor royalty, late night fights among youths in the Market Square etc). However, one story did interest me.

Her first story as a trainee reporter was to follow up a report of a partially decomposed body uncovered on a local farm. She had gone out to the farm and arrived at the same time as the police, meeting the farmer who had uncovered the body when ploughing a field. The farmer was in a terrible state, distraught that such a tragic discovery should have been made on his land.

With feelings of nausea, horror and fascination, the trainee reporter accompanied the police as they walked though the muddy furrows to where the body was lying. The police prodded the body, and muttered to each other. The “body” turned out to be a gigantic mandrake root, rotten and stinking.

Mandrake roots are unusual in that they roughly approximate to the human form. Locally they can grow to a good size, although very seldom are they over five feet long. More on mandrakes at,%20Mandrake.jpg

Thursday, November 09, 2006

It was a local holocaust

Saturday (tomorrow) is Armistice Day and Sunday is Remembrance Day. In the Village Hall a scale model of the Cenotaph has been set up, with an exhibition of medals, photographs and letters. The plan on Sunday is for the service to begin at the War Memorial, then process to the church for the usual Morning Service, and then finish with coffee in the Village Hall.

There are three War Memorials in the village – a gothic pillar on the edge of the green, a marble monument to the fallen in the north aisle of the church, and a framed list (elaborate calligraphy including gold initial letters) of all who served. Looking at the list of casualties, there are about fifty names from the First World War (including many family groups), and five from the Second.

The many names from the 1914-18 conflict reflects the large numbers of manual labourers who for generations had worked on the surrounding farms (the young men finished the harvest before volunteering in early October 1914, many of them never returning). The First World War had a devastating effect on the village. It was a local holocaust.

Recently an American-style “Veterans Day” has been introduced on June 27th. This is supposed to be an additional opportunity to honour the armed forces. Cynics say that the government has introduced Veterans Day with the intention of dropping Remembrance Day at some point in the future (Remembrance Day has long been criticised as “anti-European” and not politically correct).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It was as if I had just seen the Pied Piper of Hamelin

My car was out of action and a work colleague had to drive me to the local train station so that I could get home by public transport. We left the office just as it was starting to get dark. We made good progress into the town centre and I was confident of catching the train.

However, within a quarter mile of the station we were stopped by police standing in the road. They made no attempt to search the car or ask us to get out or anything, they just walked up and down in the road, as if killing time. Traffic began to build up behind us.

The streets around us were completely deserted (it’s the sort of town were everywhere is closed by about five o’clock). It had been raining and the dying sun created a sheen on the wet road. Minutes passed and I began to wonder whether I would catch the train. Very faintly we heard the sound of flutes and drums. Gradually the noise became louder, then louder still. The police in front of us stood to attention – very slovenly.

From the pedestrianised street to our right came a pipe and drum band, comprised of youths in a sort of bottle green uniform and wearing berets. They were marching two abreast, and were followed by platoons of navy cadets, army cadets and then RAF cadets, all in uniform and carrying pennants. Immediately following were a group of elderly men in dark suits, and women in smart clothes. Then there was a small coterie of people in what looked like fancy dress – fur-trimmed robes, tricorn hats with ostrich feathers, golden chains of office. Because the cadet troops at the front were marching at quite a pace these dignitaries had to walk very fast to keep up – it looked as if they were power-walking. Following behind was a troop of Brownies, then Girl Guides, then Boy Scouts. At the end of the formal procession came a ragtag assortment of people in anoraks, laughing children, people wheeling bikes. I scrabbled in my folder and found my camera, just managing to take pictures of the dignitaries as they passed in front of the car. Apologies for the quality of these photos – they were walking very fast, and the light was fading.

“It’s the Mayor and Corporation” said my colleague. “I wonder where they’re off to. There’ll be a good dinner in it for them no doubt.”

After the procession had passed the police stood aside and waved us through. The scene had been very surreal. It was as if I had just seen the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Marks & Spencer announced a 35% increase in profits

Above: Directed by Paul Nelson, the M&S television commercials were beautifully shot in a variety of London locations. 1960s model Twiggy starred in the advertisements (obviously it's not Twiggy in the picture above - it's one of the other models in the ad). The soundtrack was by Bryan Ferry (who is also a “face” of M&S menswear).

Marks & Spencer announced a 35% increase in profits today, industry insiders crediting the rise to its autumn advertising campaign. M&S was notorious for decades as a major company that spurned all idea of media advertising. They thought that because they had developed a unique way of retailing they would always command customer loyalty.

This hubris nearly destroyed the company as imitators copied their sales formula and then added the power of media advertising to make their offering irresistible. On a personal level I suffered from the M&S blinkered approach as I used to work as a marketing manager for a company that supplied Marks & Spencer. Whenever I suggested an advertising campaign I was rebuffed (as if I was some poor simple fool) and told that Marks & Spencer was a sterling example that media advertising was just an expensive waste of money.

Friday, October 27, 2006

“Apple Day” organised by an organic society

Recently I went to an “Apple Day” organised by an organic society at a local school hall. On tables all along one side of the hall were examples of apples displayed in rectangular wooden frames like some kind of surrealist installation. As well as the formal displays there were also lots of different kinds of apples to taste.

The place was packed with people who had brought along apples to be identified.

In front of me in the queue was an elderly couple clutching a small cardboard box filled with apples. They were wearing identical beige-coloured raincoats. The woman’s hand was on the man’s arm.

“We’ve recently moved into an old house with an overgrown garden” the man said. “We have ten apple trees in the garden. We are hoping someone can tell us what they are.”

Above: Horticulturalists were identifying the different varieties. They rely on memory and also comparing the samples to the named varieties on show, looking for similarities in shape, colour and aroma. There is a system of Apple Passport Numbers (APNs) that will compare twenty or so points of reference and give each a numerical value (the APN of the Merton Beauty apple is 26-4-13-1-345-238-19-2-2-36-78-38-258-8-56-3-28-89-34-3-3-8-3-123).

Above: There are a huge number of apple varieties – approximately seven thousand five hundred. The Guardian recently did a free wall chart on apples which was very feeble – it only showed about forty varieties, half of which were the mono-culture varieties sold by the supermarkets. At the Apple Day there were about a hundred and twenty different apples on show.

Above: The Merton Beauty apple was first grown by a Mr Crane in 1932 at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in Merton, a suburb of south London. The tree is easy to grow and gives a good crop - aromatic apples tasting slightly of aniseed. Not to be confused with a Camberwell Beauty, which is a butterfly.

Above: Nonpareil is a variety introduced from France, probably in the 17th century. They are small apples, yellow-green in colour with streaks of brown russet and a faint orange flush. French scientists claim that the typhoid bacillus will not live in the juice of the Nonpareil apple.

Nonpareil means “unmatched” - there is a bird called the Nonpareil ( as well as a type of almond and a kind of sugar confection used to decorate cakes.

In A la recherché du temps perdu Marcel Proust wrote: “To return to Combray, we need only turn down an avenue of oaks, bordered on one side by a series of orchard-closes, each one planted at regular intervals with apple-trees which cast upon the ground, when they were lighted by the setting sun, the Japanese stencil of their shadows; then, sharply, my heart would begin to beat, I would know that in half an hour we should be at home…”

Above: Claygate Pearmain is a wonderful apple, crisp and heavily scented. The taste is very nutty. It was discovered by accident growing in a hedge in Surrey about a hundred and eighty years ago. In appearance the fruit is large, with red stripes and russet polka dots. Edward Bunyard (a very opinionated writer on the topic of apples) describes it as one of the top twelve finest apples in the world. It used to be widely grown in Victorian and Edwardian gardens but has now become quite rare. There is an old county remedy for sore eyes that involves rotten Claygate Pearmain apples used in a poultice.

Above: Gascoigne’s Scarlet was first grown by W. Gascoigne of Bapchild Court in Kent. As the name implies, the colour is a deep blood red. It keeps well (picked in September, it will last until January). Apparently it is good for growing on chalky soils. It is a “duel purpose” apple which means it can be used for cooking (apple pies, apple dumplings, apple puddings etc). Shakespeare’s Henry IV mentions a dessert made from apples and caraway.

Above: Histon Favourite is a yellow apple first grown by John Chivers (from the famous jam family) around 1850. It has a sort of acid taste that the experts describe as “brisk” (Bunyard describes it as “indiscriminate and undistinguished”). It was widely grown in Cambridgeshire to supply the London market.

Above: Peasgood Nonsuch was grown by accident by a sixteen year old girl who planted five pips from an unknown cooking apple. Only one of the seeds germinated and eventually produced gargantuan apples, each apple over a pound in weight. Many families in the county used to plant an apple tree whenever a son was born (and a pear tree for a daughter).

Sir James Frazer records rituals that accompany the tasting of the first-fruits of the apple crop each year. Unless these ceremonies are performed there is a danger that the “tree spirit” may be offended. Frazer also mentions how a straw man would be placed in the boughs of the oldest tree in an orchard, representing the tree spirit that would revive when the blossom appears in the spring.

Above: Reverend Tom Putt, Rector of Trent near Sherborne, is supposed to have first grown the famous Tom Putt cider apple in the late 1700s. Orchards of Tom Putt apples can be found all over the west country. “Wassailing the orchard-trees”' on Christmas Eve is a custom that still survives in the west (it used to be widespread in all counties). Farmers go into the orchards at night accompanied by their families and drink to the health of the trees in cider before throwing the remainder of the drink onto the tree trunks. Shotguns are fired into the branches, and special songs sung. Wassailing bowls were very ornate (

Cider apple vinegar is a powerful detoxifying and purifying agent – you can buy a very pure version by mail order from Goldshield (

Above: Cider press in operation. Recently on Film4 I watched the 1998 film version of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, directed by Phil Agland and starring Rufus Sewell. It is set in the New Forest in the nineteenth century and includes a very effective scene where woodsman Giles Winterborne holds a party in his humble home hoping to impress his promised fiancée (in a sort of arranged betrothal) Grace Melbury. The yokel neighbours also invited to the party become excessively inebriated with cider, and their drunken behaviour so disgusts Winterborne’s prospective father-in-law that the match is broken off (with tragic results). The drinking is not mentioned in the novel and is one of the few occasions where a film has improved upon a book. The Woodlanders is supposed to have been Hardy’s favourite among his novels.

Above: I usually stop at roadside stalls to see what they have on offer. In September I bought some incredible carrots – they must have just been pulled out of the ground. We had them at dinner and they were very succulent, completely unlike any carrots I have had before (I suppose most carrots get a bit dried out when being transported to the supermarket).

Above: Crab apple jelly. Crab apples are wild apples that are tiny in size and extremely sour (the final jelly is very sweet, copious amounts of sugar having been added when the apples are boiled up). Almost every farm has its own recipe for crab apple jelly, many involving alcohol.

Above: Baskets of windfalls were lined up for you to help yourself.

Apples feature prominently in mythology. The Trojan War began when Paris gave an apple to Aphrodite. The legendary Isle of Avalon is supposedly the “Island of Apples” (traditionally located at Glastonbury which is an area noted for its apple orchards). Eve tempted Adam with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge (more likely to have been a pomegranate as the Middle East is too hot for apples to grow).

In the medieval period a relic purporting to be the apple given by Eve to Adam appeared in Egypt and was venerated at a church in Alexandria (Sir John Mandeville makes an oblique reference to this). It was stolen in 1365 during the Alexandrian Crusade and conveyed to Cyprus, and then Malta. According to notes left by Canon MVG (an amateur antiquarian, therefore not entirely reliable) it later shows up as one of TWO holy relics at a Cistercian house in Wales, one relic being the apple from the Tree Of Knowledge, the other being an apple from the Tree Of Life. The credibility of these two objects doesn’t seem to have been very high, even in medieval times, and the cult following was negligible. At the Reformation both of the apples are supposed to have been put in a box and sealed in a wall of the monastery, identified by MVG as Strata Florida. However in 1998 I stayed with Alan Nixon at his home in south Wales (the MVG papers belong to his family) and we thought that Cymer Abbey might be a better candidate. We drove up there the next day (if you have ever travelled from south Wales to north Wales you will understand what a difficult journey that was) but it was a wasted trip – there were hardly any walls of the abbey left standing, and none of them seemed wide enough to contain a hidden box. Had we found a box would we have dared open it? The apple from the Tree Of Life would be a relic that even an M. R. James character would have been wary of.

Political Correctness is the New Colonel Blimp

I spoke to someone who did History with me at university. He went on to do an MA then a PhD and now has a minor academic post (doesn't pay very much). It is the sort of career I once contemplated. Anyway, he has just written an article on the historical context of Political Correctness, demonstating that it is related to the Colonel Blimp phenomenon, which I thought was quite interesting (Political Correctness is the New Colonel Blimp - not sure what journal).

Note: Colonel Blimp was a cartoon figure of the 1930s that satirised establishment opinions: pompous, contradictory, hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I went to see Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Avon. It was the matinee performance on the last day (we put off going for weeks and nearly risked not seeing it at all). We went to Stratford by train, which was a mistake as both going there and coming back there was massive disruption, breakdowns, signalling problems.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s most famous, but possibly not his best. I have seen it many times before – as a live performance and also on film (the Zeffirelli 1968 version and the Baz Luhrmann 1996 version starring Leonardo Di Caprio). This production was good apart from the tap-dancing fight scenes, which I thought looked silly. The set designs referred to 1950s Italy and seemed to be a bit skimpy. Rupert Evans played Romeo and Morven Christie played Juliet. The play was directed by Nancy Meckler.

Above: There is an aura to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon that adds an indefinable quality to the experience. You think that because it is being performed in Shakespeare’s birthplace it must be the definitive production. We wanted to see Troilus and Cressida at Stratford when it transferred from the Edinburgh Festival but we left it too late and missed it. The theatre is to close shortly for rebuilding. The plan is to make the building bigger and grander while incorporating the original features. The reopening is scheduled for 2010.

Above: Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet has inspired many other artists – writers, painters, musicians. Prokofiev used the play as the basis of his ballet Romeo and Juliet (which I’ve seen at Covent Garden). 1980s band Dire Straits had one of their most famous hits with the song Romeo and Juliet (although the original video with its waddling bespectacled hero is seldom seen now).

Above: How realistic is the characterisation in Romeo and Juliet? Obsessive first love between teenagers can seem pathetic, even when ennobled by the poetry of Shakespeare. You might think that teenagers these days are far too cynical to fall in love (this is the era of Vickey Pollard). During the summer I was sitting at a table belonging to an outdoor café. Anyway, I began to notice a teenage couple walking backwards and forwards. They didn’t just pass by once – they went up and down the street several times. They caught my attention for several reasons. First because they were dressed very similar (there is a theory that couples end up wearing similar clothes). Also they were walking with great speed, the boy with a determined look on his face, while they went into clothes shops, gadget shops, sports shops etc. But what really marked them as unusual was the way in which they were clinging to each other. The boy was striding along while the girl had to give little runs to keep up, all the time hanging onto his arm. I looked at them and thought: that’s Romeo and Juliet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Wicker Man

I went to see The Wicker Man at the weekend. The film stars Nicholas Cage as a Californian police officer who goes to a remote island off the coast of the state of Washington to investigate a missing child. Directed by Neil LaBute it is based upon the 1973 British film The Wicker Man (supposedly one of the six best British films ever made), but so hacked about that the final result is very poor.

Had the film been a straight remake, even transposed to an American setting, it would have worked. Had it taken a completely new direction, using the screen play but reinterpreting it completely, it would also have worked. But there were so many references to the British film (directed by Robin Hardy, screenplay by Anthony Shaffer) that all that it did was remind you how inferior the current version was to the 1970s original. The 1973 film portrays a weird society where the mundane co-exists with the fantastic so that you are able to imagine such a place existing. The American version never really develops a credible world of its own. There are some good moments (perhaps worthy of an episode of the X-Files), but far too much action and breathless characters explaining things to each other.

Above: The image of “the wicker man” has been adopted as an alternative ecological symbol (I took this photograph at an event where various “new age” pseudo-hippy stalls promulgated alternative lifestyles).

Above: In the closing scenes of The Wicker Man the Nicholas Cage character was burned alive in the organic idol (a giant “Waste Man” was constructed in Kent recently and set on fire producing similar images ).

Above: the American Wicker Man lost all credibility for me when the woad-painted harpies started to appear. Are Hollywood producers so ignorant of basic history that they did not know face-painting with woad died out in the Iron Age? Or did they know the truth but chose to portray a falsehood because it looked better?

Face-painting with woad is also a feature of the film Braveheart which projects a retarded image of thirteenth century Scotland ( In a film filled with many comical anachronisms the woad-painting was the most crass. Braveheart has been a tremendously successful movie, but one that I find unpleasant and disturbing. There is a sense of history being manipulated by Director Mel Gibson in a way that is not really acceptable. 13th century western Europe was a society where personal fealty was the universal social structure, and knighthood represented an international fraternity that crossed the borders of different kingdoms (which were very fluid anyway and grew or retracted according to dynastic alliances). Nationalism based on ethnic origin was a nineteenth-century invention, and ethno-nationalist conflict a twentieth-century development.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The countryside is changing

Above: field of sunflowers with wind turbines in the distance. An example of how the countryside is changing. John Prescott describes wind turbines as "beautiful" (fat lot he knows). In isolation one or two can look striking, but large numbers amount to visual pollution of the landscape. Fields of sunflowers are increasingly common, making parts of the county look like eastern Europe. When I drove past this field this morning the crop had been harvested.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Apologies for not updating recently - with the staff shortages at work, and my car being off the road, and everything else that's happening I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

No virgins ringing handbells!

Note: click on the photos and when an icon appears in the lower right corner of the image click again to enlarge the pictures to their fullest extent).

Above: giant haystacks down on the plain (Giant Haystacks was also the name of a wrestler in the 1970s). The harvest in most of the county seems finally to be gathered in. Combine harvesters do the cutting and threshing all in one, the grain being transported to grain silos and the straw baled for cattle litter. Before mechanisation the corn was cut by lines of scythe men (note to US readers: corn in England means grain, not maize). The women of the village followed behind, tying the sheaves and standing them up to dry. The sheaves were then carted back to the farmyard to be threshed. The straw was baled and put into stacks. To protect the stacks from the winter weather they were usually thatched (like a house). Elaborate straw finials were put onto these temporary roofs to denote ownership of the stack and also ward off bad luck (

Above: sheaves of wheat are used to decorate the churches ready for the harvest festival (held towards the end of September). One sheaf was always left standing in each field, traditionally because it was the abode of the “corn spirit” and needed to be cut and carried to the church in a ceremonial way to placate the supernatural forces which governed village life. There is evidence that farmers encouraged belief in these old practices to control the activity of gleaning – gleaners would not go into a field until the last sheaf had been cut.

Above: sieves (or riddles) decorated with flowers and put up in the chancel of the church. The frame of the riddle would be made from thinly-split pine wood, with the mesh formerly made of horsehair (but now almost always metal). The surname Riddler indicates someone who would winnow grain with a sieve.

Above: hedgerow berries used to decorate the chancel steps.

Above: sheaves of corn have been placed on either side of the high altar. The last sheaves of wheat from each field would be cut and brought back to the village in a procession. The grain from the last sheaves would be ground and the flour used to make a special harvest loaf in the form of a sheaf of wheat. This loaf has actually been placed upon the high altar. Puritan critics in the 16th century condemned such practices as blatant worship of the corn goddess (Ceres in her Romanised form). However, the incorporation of pre-Christian symbols into Anglican rituals dates from St Augustine’s mission to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ( and was intended to demonstrate that Christianity had supplanted the religious beliefs (mostly nature cults) of the Angles and Saxons.

Above: in my cursory interest in the customs of the county (it really isn’t my primary focus – I just record these things in case they should vanish without trace) I had hoped to find an example of the procession “bringing in the sheaves” from the fields to the church. I managed to find on the internet the above Victorian drawing which illustrates the ceremonial march (apologies to whoever owns this image – I copied it without noting the url). I also managed to locate a procession that was held annually each harvest at a small village down on the plain, but the last one had been held eight years ago. Then the trail went cold. There were lots of anecdotal accounts by people who remembered such processions in their childhood (shire horses decorated with coloured ribbons, maidens of the village traveling on the cart ringing hand-bells, traditional songs etc). But none of the villages (on the plain or the escarpment or the uplands) still held a procession, so that I thought the custom had finally died.

Above: then I went to a museum of rural life where the theme of the weekend was “the harvest”. I had actually gone there to see an exhibition of shire horses. At the end of the afternoon all the horses gathered in the central ring. Each horse had been carefully groomed and decorated with coloured ribbons. Furthermore, at the end of the parade was a shire horse decorated with ribbons and horse brasses, and pulling a wagon painted with wheatsheafs. Although just an exhibit at a “living” museum, it appeared to be an authentic portrayal of the ancient performance. Because working horses were so valuable they were “protected” by horse brasses – amulets made of brass and incorporating lucky symbols. Hundreds of thousands of these horse brasses still survive, and they can be bought quite cheaply at antique shops. There are about four thousand different designs, the earliest ones being crescent-shaped.

Above: the wagon had been loaded with a sheaf of wheat, a pitchfork stuck into it (but no virgins ringing handbells!).

Above: in the church was this black and white photograph, obviously pre-Second World War, garlanded with flowers. It shows heavy horses pulling a plough. Until the 1940s millions of shire horses were employed on British farms. Horse power was the main means of getting things done. A farm of a hundred acres would usually require three heavy horses, plus horses for hunting and transport. Now if a farm keeps horses it is usually for sentimental reasons.

Above: at the museum of rural life was a demonstration of ploughing using shire horses. I think this is one of the best photographs I have ever taken (something to do with the horses outlined against the sky – it just seems to be very moving). You might have to click on the image to get the full impact.

Above: after the harvest was brought home there were harvest suppers (with apple pies) – either in the farmhouses of the wealthier farmers or in rooms at local pubs. Part of harvest culture relates to the full moon that appears in late September, known as the Harvest Moon. This moon rises at a point opposite to the sun, and because it is so low in the sky often has a yellow tinge (one of the more famous representations of the Harvest Moon is by Samuel Palmer – note: the routing of the M25 motorway through Samuel Palmer’s “valley of vision” was a terrible blow to conservationists everywhere).