26 March 2018

The Beauties of Bath - Without thinking of Jane Austen....

Sometimes I wonder what I'm-a gonna do

But there ain't no cure
For the summertime blues....

British Summertime....  It's snowing in Bath.  Mine host wishes me well, and I check out of my temporary lodgings on the hill.  The town lyes Low in a bottom, as Celia Fiennes recorded in 1688.  The baths in my opinon, she wrote, makes the town unpleasant, the air so low, encompassed with high hills and woods....

Not everyone shared Celia's view.  The origin of the town is attributed in legend to Bladud, son of Rud Hud Hudibras, who was cured of leprosy (which he caught in Athens) by bathing in the muddy swamps of the district.  His son later became King Leir (or Lear as some would have it).

Several centuries later, in the time of Agricola, the fiendish Romans got themselves into hot water here (between 37 and 47 degrees Celsius) and founded Aquae Sulis, after Sul, patroness of deep-seated mineral springs. 

Much later on, Royal visitors such as Mrs James I (Anne of Denmark) dipped her toes here, and then, in 1663, Mrs Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, was brought to try and cure her sterility.  Sadly, she had three miscarriages and did not produce an heir to the throne.

In 1702 Queen Anne made the place fashionable, and in her voluminous wake 'Beau' Nash produced a set of rules to follow if you wished to be accepted. As recorded by Oliver Goldsmith, these regulations included No.5 That no gentleman give his ticket for the balls to any but gentlewomen - N.B. Unless he has none of his acquaintance..... No.8 That the elder ladies and children be content with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.... and No.10 That all whisperers of lies and scandals be taken for their authors.....

This was also the time of the Johns Wood (Elder and Younger), Ralph Allen, and Robert Adam who, between them, raided the notebooks of Andrea Palladio to create the bridge in Prior Park (as well as the school behind it) and indeed Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon, 

Which betrays much more of its Italianate design from behind.... (think Florence, Ponte Vecchio...)

Wood the Younger was also responsible for the Royal Crescent, but actually only for its facade and overall design.  Individual householders had to find their own architects for their homes, so all is not necessarily what it seems....

In the meantime, Bath, along with Wells,  had grown itself a Bishop and a fine Abbey to go with it.  Despite Henery VIII's best efforts, the church survived, and, with quite a lot of more recent restoration, it's got some lovely fans....

As has my snowy busker friend outside.....

While, back in the Pump Room, the jolly burghers of Bath and tourists of the world are munching their buns and slurping the waters....

As refreshment after their tour of the remarkable Roman bathing establishment below....

Probably one of the top spots on a world tour for a selfie, though who am I to judge? (and when is a selfie not a selfie....?)

It is a wonderful show. Eerie Romans whisper lies and scandals to each other, while the mobile generation seem electronically absorbed....

And Calpurnia bares all.....

I blush and shy away, and turn to admire the simple pleasures of the city....

And that is without even thinking of Jane Austen, up at Sham Castle....

Summertime....  Who said the living was easy?  And there ain't no cure for the summertime blues....

It was at 4.10 pm on Sunday, 17th April 1960 that 21 year old Eddie Cochran died in St Martin's Hospital, Bath.  He suffered severe head injuries in Chippenham at 11.50 the night before.  A tyre blew out on his speeding taxi and Eddie tried to shield his girlfriend from the impact but was flung out as the door smashed open.

Gene Vincent survived.  The driver, who was called George Martin, was fined £50 and disqualified from driving for fifteen years.  

By Knytshall - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15992986

The Beauties of Bath.  Completely without thinking of Jane Austen.....

15 March 2018

North Wales - Y Moelwyn, and other stories

Poetry for Supper.....

Y Moelwyn

Ever cold, and rough its brows - where the flocks
Roam its heathery furrows;
An organ, as the high wind blows
Howling in rocky hollows.

Ellis Humphrey Evans was born on January 13th, 1887 at Penlan, Trawsfynydd and moved with his family to Yr Ysgwrn, a farm on Cwm Prysor in North Wales, at the age of four months.  He was the first of fourteen children.  Later he became known as Hedd Wyn, which means Blessed Place.  He is also known as The Shepherd War Poet.

In January 1917, despite being an agricultural worker, Hedd Wyn enlisted in the army, at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Early on the morning of July 31st, 2017, his battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, went into action on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele (the third battle of Ypres), at Pilkem Ridge, in rain, and dark and fog. Hedd was caught by an exploding shell and died being transported to hospital.

In 2012, Yr Ysgwrn, the farm, was acquired by the Snowdonia National Park Authority and in 2017 the house was opened as a museum and memorial, the centrepiece of which is the Black Chair, Y Gadair Ddu, which was posthumously awarded (draped in a black cloth) to Hedd Wyn, who had won under the non-de-plume of Fleur-de-Lis with his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) on September 6th, 1917, at the National Eisteddfod at Birkenhead Park. The empty chair came to symbolise all the empty chairs in millions of homes as a result of the First World War.

My years of weeping, deep and stricken,
And my anguish were heard where rocks lie barren,
For I was the Storm Maiden - and of old
I cried in the tempest and the cold ocean.

Ardently I wept, for lack of seeing
The prince of the land of youth, my darling,
When our days knew no suffering - and we
Into its ruby summers went strolling.....

Yr Arwr (The Hero) 
Hedd Wyn

[In September 2017, at Birkenhead Park, a Black Chair Festival was held in commemoration of the Royal National Eisteddfod of September 1917.]

After Yr Ysgwrn I make a detour to explore the remains of Tomen Y Mur, a Roman settlement from the first century AD where four or five hundred soldiers shivered in sight of Y Moelwyn.... Later, according to the Mabinogion, this became Mur Castell, the court of Llew Llaw Gyffen, a character who became King of Gwynedd, having overcome a series of terrible curses and the treacherous behaviour of his wife, Blodeuwedd (who had been magically created from flowers)....

And then I drive to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where shattered slates litter the hillsides. JRR Tolkein was inspired by this grim landscape, and as I trek my way up towards the heights of Y Moelwyn, I fear I see Orcs dribbling at me from up on the screes, while Golum scrabbles up a splashing gully.

This is a hard landscape, and it becomes colder and less hospitable as I climb skywards.

I first came here with my family on a damp summer holiday, when I was a child, and find myself dogged by shadowy memories.  

We stayed in a tiny old caravan, parked in a puddle hard by Penrhyndeudraeth.  The caravan belonged to an Aunt, Auntie Frankie, who had a small shop at nearby Portmeirion (more of which another day). Penrhyndeudraeth was the home of Bertrand Russell at the time (until his death, from influenza, in 1970) but, I am sorry to say, he did not come to visit us for tea.  Instead we took the Ffestiniog railway, and wandered on the slippery hillsides of Cnicht, and wondered if our father really did know Lloyd George, who had earlier practised law in Portmadoc.

It is extraordinary how rich in stories this area proves to be.  The village of Tremadoc was created in the shape of a T on reclaimed land by William Alexander Madocks, who also built the Cob at Portmadoc. {Portmadoc, Tremadoc, W A Madocks.....} [Madocks, incidentally, is thought to have been the original for Squire Headlong, in his friend Thomas Love Peacock's novel Headlong Hall.....]

Anyway, Tremadoc currently has two pubs, opposite each other in the spacious square at the head of the T: The Union and The Fleece.  One of these, I believe, was once known as the Madoc Arms, and it was here, in September 1812, that Percy Bysshe and Mrs Shelley took lodging, with a view to renting William Alexander's cottage, Tan-yr-allt on the hillside above his creation....

The story is a bit convoluted and I won't go into details, but, with absolutely no connection at all the village is also famous for being the birthplace, in 1888, of the son of an Anglo-Irish, drink-disposed landowner from Westmeath, by the name of Thomas Chapman (later, in 1914, Sir Thomas Chapman, 7th Baronet) and an illegitimate Scottish nanny known as Sarah Junner.  The son, as you might well have guessed (?) grew up to be T E Lawrence [aka T E Shaw, or John Hume Ross, or   Lawrence of Arabia.....]

You can understand why readers of the Sun flock here, what with bara brith, the Purple Moose Brewery Tap, and all this literary and political history.....

And why not indeed?  Except that I forgot to mention that Penrhyndeudraeth is said to be one of the most Welsh place in Wales, with 79% of the primary school pupils coming from Welsh-speaking homes.  Apparently, in 2011, English people took over the Royal Oak pub, but caused a riot by threatening customers who ordered their drinks in Welsh with an air rifle.  {Said landlords did not tarry long....}

Criccieth is very Welsh, too, despite its Edwardian good looks, and despite its being acquired by force by Edward I as part of his collection of Welsh Castles.....

A mile or so on the road from Criccieth to Portmadoc (Cricieth to Porthmadog) is the village of Pentrefelin. It was here that 87 year old poet R S (the Rev Ron) Thomas died in 2000, having retired from full time church ministry in 1978. I met him in 1986, when I was on a course in Cambridge. He had driven all the way (in a Mini Clubman) from his unheated home on the Llŷn Peninsula to give a reading.  He was tall, and grey haired, and his face was weathered and etched with lichen - an impressive presence, something like a granite sheep.  He read his words quietly, as if to himself, but every word was heard.

Thomas learned Welsh too late in his life to write poetry in the language, so he had no Bardic Chair.  But he wrote for Wales, and he understood writing.  A favourite poem is:

Poetry for Supper

'Listen now, verse should be as natural
As the small tuber that feeds on muck
And grows slowly from obtuse soil
To the white flower of immortal beauty.'

'Natural, hell! What was it Chaucer
Said once about the long toil
That goes like blood to the poem's making?
Leave it to nature and the verse sprawls,
Limp as bindweed, if it break at all
Life's iron crust.  Man, you must sweat
And rhyme your guts taut, if you'd build
Your verse a ladder.'

'You speak as though
No sunlight ever surprised the mind
Groping on its cloudy path.'

'Sunlight's a thing that needs a window
Before it enter a dark room.
Windows don't happen.' 

So two old poets,
Hunched at their beer in the low haze
Of an inn parlour, while the talk ran
Noisily by them, glib with prose.

R S Thomas's ashes are buried by the entrance to St John's Church, Portmadoc.

I make my way back down the coast, past mighty Harlech Castle, past the caravan parks and tall boarding houses of Barmouth, and up the Mawddach  estuary to my friend Hilary's house, for a delicious supper of ravioli with rhythm and rhyme, with caesura sauce and run-on wine.....  On the way I stop to admire the reflections of the ridge of Cader Idris in the tidal waters, and another traveller comes to mind.  Daniel Defoe passed this way on his Tour Through the Whole Island Of Great Britain (1724 - 26).  Here among innumerable summits, and rising peaks of nameless hills, we saw the famous Kader-Idricks, which some are of opinion, is the highest mountain in Britain.....

The sun on the mountain

By sweet streams I went walking - as the shy
Moorland breeze was playing;
And pale sunshine's arm did cling
To the old hills, embracing.

Hedd Wynn

For more information on Hedd Wyn and his home at Yr Ysgwrn please see:

8 March 2018

Julius Caesar - The Ides of March

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.....

The Ides of March is not a good day.  It was, after all, the day on which, in 2003, Thora Hird drew her last, slightly rasping, breath, perhaps causing Freddie Frinton to hiccough in his grave.

It was not a good day for Gaius Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC), as he took no notice of the warning of the soothsayer, and succumbed to the knives of Brutus et al on the steps of Pompey's Theatre, not far from the Campo di Fiori in Rome.  

Caesar, untimely ripped from his mother's womb (so the family was used to knives), may have been the greatest statesman and general the world had known, but he was a little deaf, and missed the warning about going out on March 15th.  And there were several such:

Yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking....

Which surely were indications if ever there were that this was a day when calling in sick would have been a smart move?

And what is most disconcerting about the erstwhile great general, conqueror of Gaul, defeater of Asterix, amongst others, was that he repeatedly defies the auguries.  

I first noticed this when made to take a role in the famous documentary of his life by a certain Crollalanza (Sheik Speir) when I had to utter the words, You blogs, You stains, You were Stan Sends-his-things.... And within an Act or two, as sure as fate, Mr Julius went off to meet his doom.

And exactly the same thing happened only the other day, when I attended a rock concert of sorts at Nicholas Hytner's new Bridge Theatre on the South Bank.  

There was Mr Caesar, being told not to go out, and would you believe it, no less than Paddington Bear, in the guide of 'Ettu' Brutus, shambles up and shoots his Hytness in the throne, right in front of us.  Some people never learn....

All this would perhaps be the stuff of myth, however, if it weren't for the fact that on the Ides of March, 1978 another famed Roman politician had misgivings about going out, and made a point of being especially careful about packing his medications for the morrow.

Aldo Moro.  President of the Christian Democrat party.  Several times Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Minister of the Interior, and Professor of Law.  Moro's morrow would be his downfall.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking.....

He did not heed his misgivings, nor those of his faithful bodyguard Oreste Leonardi, who, with four others, escorts and drivers, was slain amongst the glass and smoke of Via Fani at nine the next morning.

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

Aldo Moro was whisked away from that deadly ambush, kept hostage in a 'People's Prison' for fifty-five days while his family fretted and his colleagues, most notably Giulio Andreotti and Francesco Cossiga, turned their backs on him, and then his shattered corpse was returned to the world in a red Renault 4, half way between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party, the two organisations which Moro had been about to bring together in an Historic Compromise on the day he was taken.

O! what a fall was there, my countrymen;

Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.....

So.  The Ides of March is not a good day. Even if, statistically, it is just another day, if you still aren't convinced, bear this in mind: the 15th March, 2018, will be Philip Green's 66th birthday.  

It's not a good day.

Stay at home, avoid the snows and storms, the collapse of chain stores, Brexit and Trump.  And pay heed to the sayers of sooth......  

O! Julius Caesar! Thou art mighty yet!

Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails.