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).

They have met a bewildering number of people

A photograph sent by one of the team who has gone out to India (to liaise with the call centre staff). The city is one of great contrasts – the hotel where they are staying is comfortable and modern, but the view from the window (taken on a mobile phone) reveals a world that is hard and unrelenting. Although the hotel is only a hundred yards from the offices our personnel are conveyed there in taxis. They have to work UK hours, which adds to the disorientation caused by jet-lag. They have met a bewildering number of people in the couple of days they have been there. Next week they have a programme of team games and fancy dress parties.

Very occasionally the stiff heavy handle will turn...

There are perhaps fifty or so doors, spread throughout the county, that I routinely try just on the off-chance that one day they will be open. Whenever I am passing a particular building I want to get into (I have a list) I will stop the car and try the door. Almost always I am disappointed.

But very occasionally the stiff heavy handle will turn… and continue turning. The lock will click. The door (after some pushing) will slowly open…

Last Saturday I had just such an experience when driving through a small town on the uplands (not much more than a large village, although it has a weekly market). Everyone says the tombs in the church are worth seeing, but every time I have tried the door it has been locked. Occasionally I knock at the Rectory next door to ask for the key, but there is never any answer.
On Saturday however the church door opened.

Inside it was gloomy but very spacious. It was one of those buildings that look bigger on the inside than on the outside. I picked up a guide leaflet and walked round, noting the items of interest (wooden angels on the hammerbeam roof, some Victorian stained glass in lurid colours, monument to an explorer who claimed huge areas of Canadian perma-frost etc).

I knew the tombs were in a family chapel, and I was prepared for the chapel to be locked (often the case). But in the north-east corner of the building I found the chamber, separated by an arcade from the chancel, the door wide open. The tombs were incredible – lots of recumbent medieval effigies.

Above: There was this alabaster tomb of 1396. Note the railings which separate the chapel from the rest of the church. Seeing these railings reminded me of the moment in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (and also in Polanski’s Tess) when Tess looks through similar railings at the tombs of her ancestors and wishes she was dead among them, so burdensome had her life become.

Above: There was this stone tomb of 1348. The couple look as if they are lying in bed. You can just make out that the knight has his legs crossed which is supposed to mean that he had been on a crusade.

Above: The tomb filling the whole west arch of the chapel was the most magnificent. Supported by ionic columns and entablatured with Latin texts, the monument includes three lifesize figures of a monk and two woodwoses. The three figures are standing on the tomb chest itself, and between them are two stone busts of the deceased (looking as if they were rising out of the grave in some petrified act of resurrection). Seen through the dim light of the late afternoon, with the oblique sunlight making the stone glow gold, the effect was very impressive. Note the monumental brasses on the floor of the chapel, cordoned off with a rudimentary barrier of rope tied to four chairs. You may need to click on the photo (and then click in the corner to enlarge it again) so that you can see all the detail.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Portaits from the globalised world Number 5: No-one gets paid what they are paid

One of our cats went missing recently – it’s very unusual for either of them to stay out all night. I thought she might have got locked in one of the barns by accident (the old farmyard beyond the garden is still partly used by a local farmer). This morning at 7.30 I heard the noise of vehicles in the farmyard so I walked round there to see if the cat ran out when the barns were opened.

To get there I had to leave my garden, walk along the lane, and go into the farmyard from the main entrance. In the big turning area was a lorry just leaving after dropping something off. Locking up one of the big sheds was a man aged about twenty-five whom I had never seen around the farm before. I explained to him that I lived in the old farmhouse and wanted to look in the barns (they are our property anyway). He just shook his head, uncomprehending. I repeated my request, pointing to myself and then pointing to the barns. He replied in very few words that he was Polish and didn’t understand. By sign language I made him realise that I wanted him to unlock each of the barns. In the last shed the cat came out as the door was opened.

The influx of Polish people into the local area has become considerable. My brother was walking past a nearby farm where they have a tiny caravan site (only about six caravans in a little copse of trees) which they used to let out to holidaymakers. He said the caravans are now lived in by Polish people who stay there all year round working on the fields and in the packhouses).

Above: Over half a million Poles have come to the United Kingdom since Poland joined the European Union in May 2004. Eighty per cent of these immigrants are men aged between 18 and 34, making them a valuable addition to the population (very hard working, because they are young they are generally healthy so there is no drain on the NHS, as they start to pay taxes they will boost the national economy etc). Although they are poorly paid by UK standards, they are famously wealthy in their home country (no-one gets paid what they are paid, no-one can afford the luxuries they can afford).

Above: At first you would see groups of Polish men, but increasingly you see couples. Although most of the Polish immigrants say they will eventually return to Poland, this is unlikely to happen. I’m basing this on the 20th century migration of Irish people to England where most intended to work for a short while, but ended up settling permanently, the majority becoming completely subsumed into the English population (the only key to their origin being surnames such as Kelly or Murphy).

Above: Please excuse this lopsided picture (I don’t have access to Photoshop at the moment). I took this photo in the car park of Asda where a group of enterprising Poles offer to wash your car (by hand) while you do your shopping in the store. The implications of this are striking – Asda is a downmarket store where mostly C2s and Ds do their grocery shopping. Despite being on low incomes, the C2s and Ds can still afford to have their cars washed (by hand) by the new immigrants. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations demonstrated that value is ultimately related to labour. The movement of half a million (and rising) people from Poland to England represents a considerable boost to the capacity of the economy.

Above: In Tesco I noticed that these Polish gherkins have appeared on the shelves, presumably to appeal to the new immigrants. I bought a jar for my brother (I cannot stand gherkins personally). The label design is attractive but also alien.

Passage to India

Above: Passage to India is a restaurant in the High Street (not one of my best photographs – I had to stand in the middle of the road to take the picture).

Passage to India is a 1924 novel by EM Forster, counted by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best novels in the English language ( and later made into an Oscar-winning film by David Lean.

“No passage to India” effectively describes my current situation.

For two weeks most of the staff in my office have gone five thousand miles to meet the personnel at our Indian call centre in a sort of inter-departmental exchange and international “jolly”.

Therefore this week and next week I am almost alone in the office (apart from one creative in the studio and one person who has resigned and is working his notice and in any case is on holiday today). Why, out of all my colleagues, am I the one to be left behind? Obviously someone needs to be left in the UK office to cope with any emergencies (and also keep an eye on the builders who are altering the downstairs back offices). But it is also true that my omission from the India trip could be interpreted as a snub. Since arriving at the office a year ago my progress has not been altogether smooth. As one of the PAs said to me: “You’re too outspoken – only yes-men get ahead in this company”.

The offices have an odd feel to them. They are darker since there is no point in switching on all the lights. They are completely silent apart from the hammering from the builders downstairs. There is no-one to talk to since the two friends I have in the company have gone on the India trip. There are less phone calls (lines have been diverted) but every call that comes in I have to answer. The post is already beginning to heap up on the desks of various people.

It’s going to be a long two weeks.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Stubbs would have grouped the horses more artistically

Sunday was a “Heritage Open Day” which is when buildings normally closed to the public open their doors for an afternoon. All sorts of places, that normally you would struggle to get into, become available (I think there’s a requirement for listed buildings receiving grants from the government to open to the public occasionally). The problem is deciding which one to choose, especially as different buildings open on different years, so it could be quite a while before a particular place can be seen again (unless you go through the rigmarole of writing for a formal appointment to view, and then you turn up and get treated like an official inspector from English Heritage).

Above: Anyway, I decided to go to the south western part of the uplands. The escarpment at this point is much more gentle (but you still go up quite a rate in a short distance). There was hardly any traffic on the roads.

Above: Once up on the top there was an undulating landscape of cornfields alternating with paddocks. I stopped to look at the map and take a photo of this equestrian scene (Stubbs would have grouped the horses more artistically). The day had become extremely hot and sunny – the hottest September day since 1949.

Above: Eventually (after a couple of wrong turnings) I came to a small village and had to double-back twice before I found Old Church Lane. This road was hardly more than a track. Driving down it for a quarter of a mile I came to a hand-made sign saying “Car Park” and turned into a grass field where I parked next to three other cars. Continuing down the track on foot, the way curved ahead of me mysteriously – although I knew a redundant church was down there somewhere, I had no idea what it would look like. The heat (after my air-conditioned car) was enervating. Insects filled the air (dragonflies, horseflies, midges).

Above: The hedgerows opened up into a clearing, and the small church came into view, declared redundant when the Victorians built a new church (a livid red building) on higher ground in the centre of the present village. Pevsner says that the old church had originally been medieval but rebuilt in the 18th century (you can see that the brick walls rest upon stone foundations). The land around the building was subject to regular flooding so in the nineteenth century the village had moved to higher ground, the new church had been built and the old one abandoned.

Above: Inside it was light and airy, painted white, completely empty apart from some bulbous Communion railings (although the building was redundant it was still consecrated). The windows were clear glass protected by mesh, presumably to prevent intruders since the place was so remote. Two Purple Emperor butterflies ( fluttered about, trying to find their way out.

Above: I walked back down the track. Opposite the field where I parked my car was a lesser track leading to Old Church Farm. A small poster announced that teas were available with an exhibition of “bygones”. I went down to the farmhouse and a very well-spoken lady came out and asked if I wanted a cup of tea, indicating that I should sit at one of the small tables set up in the farmyard. No-one else was about. I sat down and looked around – the farmyard was remarkably neat and tidy, with tubs of flowers, picturesque barns, pretty views into the surrounding fields.

The lady returned with my cup of tea (cost 50p):

“We’ve been here four years” she explained. “When my husband retired we looked about for our dream home and we found this. It’s perfect.”

Although she and her husband were “retired” they only looked in their late fifties. Even though they were now “farmers” they didn’t need to make the establishment pay economically. They were restoring the house and barns to their Victorian appearance. They had conserved and extended the hedgerows around all the fields (in a scheme in partnership with English Nature). They were stocking up on rare-breed farm animals. They were commissioning an archaeological survey (in partnership with English Heritage) of the deserted village around the redundant church. They cut the grass around the redundant church and provided a guide service to visitors tracing their ancestors among the old tombstones. They researched the history of the deserted settlement. Their dream was to track down all the old church furnishings and try to return them to the building.

Above: In one of the barns they had set up their own little private museum of rural “bygones” which they had collected over thirty years in local antique shops and on markets.

“The linen was a wonderful find. It came from a woman over at the next village who was clearing out a relative’s house. The place was piled to the rafters with junk, and among it all was a tin trunk filled with Victorian linen. You see, when people know you collect things they start to look out for you. The linen was amazing. Clothes not worn for a hundred years or more!”.

I went over and looked through the collection. There were all sorts of domestic items (china, ancient kitchen utensils, old farm tools). There was a “rag rug” which had been specially commissioned from an old boy locally who was still turning them out. In another barn there were the contents of a Victorian chemist from a nearby town (when the family business closed they bought up all the pre-1900 items which had been just stacked in a back room). Most poignant of all were stacks of family photographs from the 1880s and 90s. The whole collection represented a considerable labour of love.

Above: In the fields you could see traces of the former strip and furrow agricultural system. Ponds had been reinstated (presumably contributing to the hordes of insects). The couple had bought the fields around the redundant church to ensure that the archaeological remains of the deserted village were conserved for a future excavation.

Above: “Those are long-wool sheep. Fairly rare animals. They are kept for their wool more than their meat.”

My tea cup was frequently replenished. The hot sun streamed down, contributing to the humidity. The couple seemed pleased that someone was taking an interest in all their hard work.

Friday, September 08, 2006

It’s like saying hip-hop is not inclusive

Above: In a church one of the ladies doing the flowers produced this impressive tribute to The Last Night At The Proms (including red, white and blue flowers - you can click on the image to enlarge it). “It’s not very inclusive” I said jokingly. “It’s not meant to be” she snapped back.

The BBC Promenade Concerts come to an end tomorrow with the institutional Last Night At The Proms. My uncle and aunt (who were both blind, my uncle blind from birth) used to go to the Last Night every year. Recently the concert has come under fire because it is not “inclusive” and attempts have been made to meddle with the traditional formula. This tactless interfering is the sort of thing that gets political correctness such a bad name. The behaviour of the audience at the Last Night is sometimes a bit juvenile, but to suggest they need some form of internationalist re-education is crazy. It’s like saying hip-hop is not inclusive.

Above: One of the Promenade concerts this year included Mozart’s Requiem. I listen to all sorts of music, and my main interest is the way in which musical expression relates to cultural identity (and also the way music relates to moving images). But the music that has most impact on me is religious choral music (I used to find classical music boring, but it has crept up on me over the years).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Targeting the “otherness” of an opponent

Above: Senate House in Bloomsbury, the central headquarters of the University of London (which comprises five big colleges and about a hundred schools and institutes scattered throughout the capital). During the Second World War Senate House became the Ministry of Information, where George Orwell worked. Orwell used the building as a model for the Ministry of Truth (with its language of doublespeak) in his novel 1984.

The Today Programme on BBC4 this morning had a feature on the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, which has produced a report saying that anti-Semitism was entering the "mainstream". The MPs blamed the tensions in the Middle East for the rise in prejudice. The MPs ignored the way in which the Labour Party used anti-Semitic images and inferences to attack Michael Howard (Jewish former leader of the Conservative Party) in the 2005 general election.

In a campaign that was extremely personal Michael Howard was caricatured as Fagin and Shylock (giant outdoor posters) and portrayed as a flying pig (again giant outdoor posters). The implied message of the campaign was that you couldn’t trust the Jews. Throughout the election Michael Howard was attacked as a hate-figure (he was dull politician, very little popular charisma, but hardly the sinister evil genius he was made out to be).

In his prophetic work 1984 the author George Orwell described a society where “Big Brother” government protected the people against both external and internal enemies. The internal enemies were led by “Emmanuel Goldstein”, and Big Brother organised daily two-minute hate sessions in which EVERYONE had to express their opposition to the (obviously Jewish) arch-traitor. In their treatment of Michael Howard in the 2005 election the Labour Party seemed to be duplicating this very easy technique of targeting the “otherness” of an opponent instead of arguing on policies.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A hand-written sign announced “Country Fair”

Below the escarpment is the plain, a flat country that stretches as far as the sea. Formerly (prehistoric times) it was half-sea itself, and for centuries comprised freshwater marshes, permanent islands, meres, summer islands, tidal sea-marshes and quicksands. Following drainage in the 18th century this watery landscape became solid land, chopped up into dozens of man-made islands by wide deep drainage canals.

Most visitors passing through dismiss the region as flat and featureless, but it is actually endlessly varied and subtle, full of hidden corners where the past lingers. This is not apparent when looking at a map – it is only when you are on the ground that you realise how cut-off some areas can be. You could be looking at a place only a few hundred yards away, and yet to drive there takes you on a diversion of perhaps twenty miles or so (or you could risk walking across one of the narrow plank bridges that give access from one field to another across a deep body of water, the makeshift bridge propped up on rickerty posts).

As the new land was drained it was colonised by the existing villages (the medieval islands) so that the new parishes tend to radiate outwards in oblong chunks of flat land, the settlements giving rise to subsidiary settlements, each new tranche of land, as it was drained, providing farms for younger sons so that the geographic map became mirrored by a genealogical one.

Above: Sunday, on my way to a remote hamlet (a sub-settlement of a sub-settlement of a settlement) I passed through an old village. I knew at once, from the medieval church, and the twists and turns in the road, that this had been one of the original island villages of the pre-drainage period. I stopped to have a look at the church, but it was locked, the windows boarded up so that the place looked redundant (it is incredible that a medieval building of this size and importance should be in such a state).

Above: I passed the village manor house – also derelict. Although we are barely three hours drive from London the area is so little known that attractive buildings like this, in unspoilt fields, can remain on the market for months without finding a buyer. Pevsner described this building as “a town house, a brick cube in shape, dropped down in the countryside”.

Above: At least the village butcher was still in business.

Above: From a busy road I turned off into a long straight by-road, and then turned off again onto an absolutely straight lane that went along one side of the drainage river known locally as “the little forty foot” (“forty foot” was a common name for the drainage canals of the 18th century – presumably because they were forty feet wide). I went for miles along this lane, not meeting any other traffic (just as well, as it was barely wide enough for two cars to pass). There was no barrier between the road and the river, and a false move would have tipped my car into the water. Eventually, after driving in a straight line for about seven miles, I arrived at the hamlet which comprised a row of widely spaced houses facing the “drain” and a flat empty green landscape. Behind the houses were gardens, with more of the flat fields beyond. At one of the houses the entrance was decked in bunting and a hand-written sign announced “Country Fair”.

Above: Paying £1 at the entrance, I was advised to look round the church first before going into the fair. The church was actually a chapel that had been built in 1812 as a daughter foundation of the original parish church (the old village was too far to walk to on Sunday mornings). The chapel was brick built, with a simple white cupola and wide clear windows. The west end of the church was so festooned in rampant ivy that the entrance looked smothered.

Above: Inside, on the south wall, were the Royal Arms (required to be displayed in all churches to signify the monarch’s position as Defender of the Faith). A rare survival - these arms date from Hanoverian times (the first four Georges) as they include the Hanoverian royal device in the centre. George the First, Second, Third and Fourth were Electors of Hanover as well as Kings of England, but Victoria being a woman had to give up the German territories (where only men could rule).

Above: The banner of the Mothers’ Union (still active) enshrined in maternal respectability beside the high altar.

Above: From the chapel I re-crossed the track and went into the fair, which was being held in an orchard and paddock behind one of the houses. Although it was not a very big event, for such a small community to put on a show of this kind was a considerable achievement. It was quite moving to see the humble lives the people lived, and how proud they were of their little world. But some parts of the fair seemed absurd. This skittles stall was almost a parody of old-time rustic entertainment. By enacting this sort of thing were the inhabitants of the hamlet deliberately turning their backs on the modern world, or (as the Royal Arms in the chapel seem to imply) had their little society genuinely remained intact since the Hanoverian age?

Above: Everyone seemed to have contributed to the fair – this collection of tobacco tins had been accumulated by one old resident and put on show mounted in a wooden fruit tray.

Above: A retired miner had made this model of a coal-mining scene. What had brought a miner to this obscure settlement a hundred miles from the nearest mining area? I didn’t like to ask as retired miners seem to have only one topic of conversation – the great miners’ strike of 1984 (quite interesting when you hear it the first time, but it’s always delivered in very partisan terms, as if one side was completely right and the other side completely wrong, with absolutely no concession to the complexity of the situation).

Above: What are these agricultural tools? What do they do? Why are they on show?

Above: In the village hall local produce was put on exhibition. This was part of the cake-making competition. After the prizes were awarded the cakes went on sale.

Above: Someone had brought along an old car. You can see in the background the fields stretching away into the distance (recurring feature of the landscape). Later the owner drove off in the car, the wheels slithering about on the surface of the lane so that I feared the vehicle would slide into the water of the “drain”.

Above: At three o’clock was a display of German dancing by the local boys’ school (illustrating their recent trip to Bavaria). Tapes of German brass band music played over the loudspeakers. The boys appeared in Bavarian costumes and performed for about an hour, their teacher explaining each of the dances as they were executed (sometimes the boys got the routines so mixed up that the result was a confusing fiasco).

Above: The German dancing culminated with the boys scrambling into this human pyramid, photographed by parents and grand-parents, the structure toppling over seconds later.

Above: The long-horned cattle in the fields were unimpressed.

Above: Even on a Sunday the harvest continued to be gathered in.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Crawling through mud…

Colombian singer Shakira ( has lost her Number One ranking in the United Kingdom singles chart. The youngest daughter of a Lebanese father and Colombian mother, she has become famous making records for the American and European markets. Her fame has become so great she was even featured on the front cover of the Daily Telegraph magazine.

Her (2001) video Whenever Wherever showed her jumping from mountain tops, moving among stampeding wild horses, crawling through mud…