26 April 2017

Across the Borderline

But hope remains when pride is gone 

There's a place where I've been told 
Every street is paved with gold 
And it's just across the borderline 

I cruise west, the concrete and steel towering over me as I pass through the shiny gateway to heaven.

And when it's time to take your turn
Here's a lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you'll ever hope to find

The price is £6.70 to enter these Elysian fields these days, but wtf? With the way the world is spinning we need to treat ourselves. All we really need is the band from the Titanic to play us out, and we can sink happily.

When you reach the broken promised land
And every dream slips through your hands
Then you'll know that it's too late to change your mind

But then it is always too late to change your mind….. There is never a going back. I still believe in the England of Yore (whoever he/she was) where Postman Pat (and his black and white cat) delivers simnel cake and Private Godfrey’s sister Dolly makes the sandwiches. Come to that I even sometimes live in a world where Betsy Trotwood chases donkeys out of her front garden, Justices Shallow and Silence preside over the magistrature, and The Pardoner’s Tale passes the time in the traffic between Sittingbourne and Faversham.

But that is fantasy.  There is no going back,

'Cause you've paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you're still just across the borderline

So I pursue my first intent, to be a pilgrim for the day on Offa’s Dyke, up the hills near Abergavenny, in Monmouthshire. This is border territory, sometimes known as the Anglo-Welsh Border. The England-Wales border runs for 160 miles, from the Dee to the Severn estuary. It has followed much the same line since the 8th century, and for part of the way it is marked by Offa's Dyke. Offa was Trump of Mercia from 757 to 796, and his walled ditch was constructed (at his own expense?) to keep the immigrants from Powys out. The modern boundary was fixed in 1536, when Henry VIII melted the lead off the roof of Tintern Abbey and simultaneously created both the Romantic Poets and Secular Tourism.

Now the only signs of Welsh independence are signs on the road instructing you to go ARAF and a charge of £6.70 to cross the Severn in a westerly direction, where:

A thousand footprints in the sand
Reveal a secret no one can define
The river flows on like a breath
In between our life and death
Tell me who's the next to cross the borderline

En la triste oscuridad (In the sad darkness)
Hoy tenemos que cruzar (today we have to cross)
Este rio que nos llama mas alla (this river which calls us further away)

But hope remains when pride is gone
And it keeps you moving on
Calling you across the borderline

Up on these beautiful hills, with views across England’s green and pleasant (?) land to the East, the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons to the west,

and the flatiron top of Ysgyryd Fawr (Skirrid) between me and the Mouth of the Severn to the south,

it feels good. I am away, temporarily, from it all – or so it seems. The corrugated end of a farm building carries verses from Edward Thomas’s The Lofty Sky:

Today I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills,
Above the last man’s house…

…where naught deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky.

The skylarks agree.

The ponies agree.

I am alone with my thoughts, where once border patrols might have shot me on sight.

And other borders, other boundaries, come to mind. What is this United Kingdom if full of care? Will Gretna be Greener when Scotland detaches itself? What about Ireland? In Sunday’s Observer Sean O’Hagan asks Will Brexit reopen old wounds with a new hard border? 

A recent Irish government survey noted that there are now around 200 border crossing points and an estimated 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars travel to and from Northern Ireland every month. In spite of this progress, the prevailing question now occupying people either side of the Irish border, particularly those that live in its hinterland, is: does Brexit mean that checkpoints of some kind could reappear, to prevent the movement of goods and people from European Ireland into British Northern Ireland?

The border is 310 miles long, and, as we soon find out, can be difficult to follow even with the help of an Ordnance Survey map. It skirts five of the six counties of Northern Ireland – Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry – as well as five Irish border counties – Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal. Along the way, it bisects mountains, towns, townlands, fields, rivers, bridges, farms and even a few houses wherein the occupants sit down to supper in Ireland before going to sleep across the hall in Britain. [Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd]

And O’Hagan reminds us of Seamus Heaney’s chilling poem From the Frontier of Writing:

and everything is pure interrogation
until a rifle motions you to move
with guarded unconcerned acceleration – 

a little emptier, little spent
as always by that quiver in the self,
subjugated, yes, and obedient. 

Do we need these borderlines? Will the ponies be safer? Will the larks fly higher? As Robert Frost, in Mending Wall, said:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall…

…Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Though he recognises, and challenges, the opposition from his neighbour, but:

I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

The received wisdom of ages: the black, the white, the binary choice. What are we doing with these enclosures, these barriers? In due course they will all be reduced to dust and ashes as the world warms, and meteorites gather speed in the vacuum, teeming towards our fragile planet, mindlessly careering through our futures. Why make things worse?

However, despite this life of care I enjoy a beautifully unfettered walk over Hatterall Hill in Crucorney, with a steep descent in to the Vale of Ewyas, with a stop at the wonky Cymyoy church,

which was built on slippage from the cracked old red sandstone of the surrounding hills (cf Matthew chapter 16, verses 18 & 19, And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it…. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…. I feel reassured?)

and end up in the Queen’s Head, which isn’t really a very Welsh name for a pub, is it? In fact neither the lady of the house, nor any of the clientele switch to Welsh when I enter….

In fact, none of them are Welsh…. A sandwich and a pint, and a few clues in the communally shared giant crossword (The Ghost of Thomas... five letters beginning in K?), and then it’s back across the borderline to Bristol….

Though, as Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt wrote:

When you reach the broken promised land
Every dream slips through your hands
And you'll know it's too late to change your mind
'Cause you pay the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you're still just across the borderline
Now you're still just across the borderline
And you're still just across the borderline

There is no going back…… There is only hope!

Please sponsor my 100 mile hike in support of research into Dementia through Alzheimer's Society by donating online at http://www.justgiving.com/Richard-GIBBS5

For Bob Dylan's Farm Aid rendition of the song, please see:


For one throb of the artery,
While on that old grey stone I sat
Under the old wind-broken tree,
I knew that One is animate
Mankind inanimate fantasy.

W B Yeats
A Meditation in Time of War

14 April 2017

Nottingham Snotingaham

Somewhere between Sunday Morning and Saturday Night…..

I’m me, and nobody else; and whatever people think I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.  The words of Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator in Nottingham’s Raleigh bicycle factory in the 1950’s, as reported in Alan Sillitoe’s ground breaking novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  In 1960 film director Karel Reisz and then unknown actor Albert Finney brought these words to the screen.  The working class angry young man became a star…..

I am staying on the site of that very factory, where Sillitoe worked and where Reisz filmed.  The Raleigh Cycle Company was founded in 1888, taking its name from the street where Frank Bowden had set up business.  At the peak of its success the company employed about 10,000 people and produced two million bikes a year. 

Competition from abroad led to economic difficulties at the end of the 20th century however and the company moved production to the far east and sold its Triumph Road site to the University of Nottingham in 2003.  Which is where, on the Jubilee Campus, I find myself.

In 1725 Daniel Defoe, when on A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, wrote that, Nottingham is one of the most pleasant and beautiful towns in England.  The situation makes it so……  And in Reisen eines Deutschen in England im Jahre 1782, Karl Philipp Moritz, enthused that, Of all the towns I have seen outside London, Nottingham is the loveliest and neatest. Everything had a modern look, and a large space in the centre was hardly less handsome than a London square…… Nottingham ... with its high houses, red roofs and church steeples, looks excellent from a distance.  Which, I suppose, depends rather on just how distant you are….

This was my first stay in the city.  I have skirted it before, and visited Lord Byron’s home at Newstead Abbey more than once (please see http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2014/01/lord-byron.html  for more on this).  

I passed through Eastwood once, too, ferreting out the slightly less grand (though no less evocative) birthplace of D H Lawrence (https://www.liberty-leisure.org.uk/d-h-lawrence-birthplace-museum/

but I had never before seen the green plaque on a central Nottingham wall which marks the place where our hero worked as a clerk at Haywood's Surgical Garments factory in 1901, before succumbing to a near-fatal bout of pneumonia….. 

It is Easter time.  The cherry trees are blooming in the Castle Grounds.  

The students (some seventy-thousand of them) are away and the taxi drivers complain of idleness.  

I join some Spanish school children on a tour of the City of Caves that riddles the soft sandstone under the Broadmarsh shopping centre.  

I inspect the sanitised cells in the underworld of the National Justice Museum.  

In St Mary’s church I learn that Nottingham is a city without a cathedral (the Bishop’s seat is at Southwell Minster – the Cathedral Church of Nottinghamshire, where, as I write, they are holding an interactive exploration of the passion of Jesus…..)

The Church of St Mary the Virgin’s address is High Pavement, Lace Market, and round here the tall buildings reflect another of Nottingham’s past industries. During the days of the British Empire, according to the Experience Nottinghamshire  website, Nottingham was a world leader in lace making and the Lace Market area was full of impressive examples of 19th industrial architecture. Although it was never a market in the traditional sense, the area is full of salesrooms and warehouses for storing, displaying and selling the lace.

Today, the area has been transformed into one of the hippest parts of the city, with the former warehouse buildings now converted into apartments, bars, restaurants and shops…..

And another flagship industry is now no more.  In Nottingham, in 2014, Imperial Tobacco closed the last cigarette factory in Britain, with a loss of 540 jobs….  The business was started by John Player in 1870, and once employed 7,000.  John Player Navy Cut cigarettes were one of the most recognisable brands of John Player and Sons and the parent company Imperial Tobacco. The international popularity of the brand meant that the Nottingham castle trademark, used on the reverse of this packet, became the most viewed image of a castle in the world in the first half of the 20th century……  I read in the Illustrated Handbook to Nottingham (Edited by Lemon Lingwood in 1906) that, owing to the large area occupied, it is difficult to obtain a  photograph that will convey an adequate idea of the dimensions of Messrs. John Player & Sons' enormous factory….

The Castle Tobacco Factory plays a conspicuous part in the commercial enterprise of Nottingham, and some 1,600 people find happy and profitable employment within its walls. The total area of the premises, comprising Tobacco Factories, Bonded Warehouses, Saw Mills, and Offices, is 45/6 acres exclusive of the roads and causeways, the floor areas equalling some 310,000 superficial feet, or upwards of seven acres.  Or so it did once…..

Not everything has disappeared, however.  There is (are?) still, Boots. A great and growing business (again, I quote from the Illustrated handbook of 1906.)  These words fittingly introduce us to one of the largest commercial enterprises of Modern times. Truly, Boots', Cash Chemists, with over 300 Branches in 150 Towns, can claim to be "The Largest, Best, Cheapest."  Today’s Company Information website has this to say:  Nottingham has been home to the Boots brand since its humble beginnings when John Boot opened a small herbalist store on Goose Gate in 1849. The Boots UK Support Office is currently located on a 279-acre site in Beeston in Nottingham, which was purchased by Boots in 1927 to expand the company’s manufacturing capability.  And they proudly advertise that, On the Beeston site, Ibuprofen was invented and leading brands such as No7, SEVENTEEN, Boots Soltan, Botanics and Boots Pharmaceuticals have been, and still are, developed, formulated and manufactured.  Just the very thought of all that makes me feel better…..

There is plenty going on in Nottingham.  Apart from the (two) Universities, and all their students, and apart from the tourists (Nottingham Castle is spending £29.4 million to increase its appeal, hoping for some 400,000 visitors a year).  In 2015, Nottingham was ranked as being in the top 10 UK cities for job growth (2004–13), in the public and private sectors.  

And in the same year, it was revealed more new companies were started in Nottingham in 2014/15 than any other UK city, with a 68% year-on-year increase.  From Castle Rock I look down on an extraordinary expanse of new rooftops that belongs to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).  

I wonder where they get their money from?

Although the old Labour Exchange may now be the Headquarters of Grace Church,

perhaps there are job opportunities in the city, though data from the Office of National Statistics reveal that, figures for February 2017 (released April 12th 2017) show 7,075 claimants (of unemployment benefits – out of a total population of 321,500) in Nottingham, an increase of 330 claimants in the last month. This includes 1,460 unemployed Universal Credit claimants. An increase is expected in February as temporary Christmas contracts come to an end.  The monthly increase of 4.9% in Nottingham City was higher than the national average but lower than the regional figure.  Which is some relief, I suppose…..

Though in the city centre I meet Paul David Cartledge, who is dressed in his best suit (with his treasured Kylie Minogue badge stitched on his waistcoat).  Paul is going for a job interview, hoping to gain work as a waiter so that he and his partner might be able to afford somewhere to live.  Paul is proud of his city, and is keen to tell me of the sights.  I thank him, and wish him well….  I have no reason to liken him to Arthur Seaton, but the words, I’m me, and nobody else, seem to fit.  Good luck, Paul….  There is a spirit here.

Nottingham in the eighteenth century may well have pleased the eyes of Defoe and Moritz, and it does have its attractions, but, even though the sun is shining, there is a tension in the architecture, the almost universal mismatch of styles that plagues so many of our cities.  

Empty buildings are scrawled on, 

forwarding notices are taped to windows, 

the elegance of the Lace Market is gashed with half-finished repair work.

In the Newshouse I read the local paper.  

A couple of articles stand out.  One is headlined, Drink-driving teacher is banned from classroom after school crash.  This tells of how a 53-year-old teacher, two and a half times over the limit, reversed into a colleague’s vehicle at the end of a school day.  The case doesn’t look good:  allegations include that she: (a) consumed alcohol, prior to attending the school premises and/or on the school premises; (b) slept in another room in the school’s premises while she was responsible for teaching a class; and (c) took and/or stored alcohol on the school’s premises.  The report states that she consumed large amounts of alcohol on a Tuesday night and then, when she arrived at work the next day she consumed at least two and a half more glasses of alcohol. And if that were not sufficient, having been found asleep in the maths office, she consumed yet more alcohol from a plastic bottle in her handbag at the end of the day before colliding with her colleague’s car.  

Stressful job, teaching, but…. A plastic bottle!

The other article, Reckless night out’ costs man £2,805 in court, tells the story of how Drunk Conall Kenton back-heeled a £2,500 takeaway shop window.  The incident happened at 2.30am on Clumber Street on March 25th

Police arrived and arrested the twenty-year old, who, said it was because of the alcohol he had drunk and the fact that he was angry….  So there still are angry young men in Nottingham.  I sip a modest pint in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem with mild-mannered, middle-aged tourists, and then wend my way, carefully, to the Jubilee Campus to ponder on the passage of time. 

In my dreams I pedal my green Raleigh bicycle with Sturmey Archer four-speed internal gearbox and Brook’s saddle (one of the very ones Alan Sillitoe worked on in the 1950s) across fields of lace, but the ash from my cigarette sets the papery doilies alight and I am scorched, so need to acquire 35 grams of Boots Pharmaceuticals Calamine & Glycerin Cream.  The heat and pedaling has made me thirsty so I stop at the Vat and Fiddle for a pint of Castle Rock Sheriff’s Tipple but am arrested and dragged to the futuristic HMRC buildings in Castle Meadow, where I am quickly found guilty of a misdemeanour in my accounting and am condemned to be a guide in the Tigguo Cobauc (as Snotingaham’s City of Caves was once called) for eternity, or until Notts County FC win the FA Cup again (or whichever is the sooner)…..

I wake up screaming, I’m me, and nobody else; and whatever people think I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me…..

There’s a knock at the door.  The chambermaid tells me to stop shouting.  She doesn’t care who I am, but the Woodland Trust Conference begins in ten minutes……

Oh!  I forgot to mention Robin Hood…..  Damn! 

Next time…..