29 May 2018

Lancaster Affairs

The old house is still standing....

The old hometown looks the same
As I step down from the train

Almost fifty years ago, in grainy black and white, I stepped warily off a train at Lancaster station, my head still heavy with farewells.  As in deportation dramas I was herded onto a bus with the small black, soft, suitcase my grandmother had gifted me, and delivered to the building site which was the County College, on Bailrigg Hill.  A smooth man, by the name of Roger perhaps, who said he taught linguistics, announced he was our tutor and gave us a glass of sweet white wine.

In my purple flares and stacked heels I staggered through freshers’ week, an eighteen year old with an empty head.  Somehow I made friends.  Ray Steele, son of a Crewe railwayman, a moustachioed Lawrentian character, confident with the girls; and Steve Blackham, from a broken family of St Leonard’s on Sea, whose dream of incessantly descending in a lift, stopping at all floors but never coming up, still haunts me.

We drank Boddingtons in the bar, conveniently close below my room, which looked out on the 200 year old oak tree (that I used to play on) in the quad.  We ate pies and beans and chips and sauce.  We smoked Players No 6.  We were introduced to teachers and study.  Philosophers who wore their jumpers backwards and smoked cigarettes and pipes simultaneously, who didn’t quite have a cat called Schrodinger but who talked about the table in the next room and whether it was there or not….  (Why didn’t they just look?)  Some of the Religious Studies staff wore kaftans and spoke with dense Scottish accents; others talked of India and Japan as if they were real places.  I heard that Gautama was a bit like St Francis, without the wolf, and that Mohammad was also a bit like St Francis, though with thirteen wives….

In the English department, there was talk of gest and Brecht.  Coal for Mike meant something.  Was I being indoctrinated?  Others talked of alveolar consonants and voiced dental fricatives, while still others wanted me to read Ancrene Wisse (Ondes Salue, Ich seide, wes feolahlich luue….)  I was being indoctrinated….  But wasn’t that what I had come for?

The University of Lancaster was taking shape. A nondescript brick building housed a computer, all punch cards, reels of tape, and whirring.  The chaplaincy centre conspired to refer to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, though only later, under the tutelage of Basil Ward, might I have come to this misconception. I found a music room somewhere to which I escaped to play a recording of Fernando Germani playing Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, at full volume.  Later I realised that full volume was actually eleven on the scale, when The Who accepted £1,050 to perform Tommy in the Great Hall, and my ears still ring from being up close and personal with Pete Townshend’s 2,000 watt speakers.  Still later my brain was even further rearranged when Bob Marley and Peter Tosh thanked me for help in shifting the Wailers’ gear with a dark introduction to Caribbean customs in their dressing room….

Around the same time I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympics; I remember asking someone in the interval how long it would go on, and was told that it was very long…. It covered the whole Olympics….  My understanding of the world was developing.

Kath Owen screamed I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough on grey walks under the M6 and over concrete tubes, even though she wasn’t from New York, she was from Treforest, a ward of Pontypridd, and it was there that her father took me on a tour of pubs, each of which had a back room with an ex-miner in a tuxedo and a bootlace tie endlessly singing Green, Green Grass of Home……

Sarah, from genteel Harrogate, slipped in a spillage of beer and broke an arm, so taught me to cook minced beef with sweet corn and mushrooms, with a crumbled OXO cube, in one saucepan.  For one.

Then Mary Lewis, one of four children of a Presbyterian Minister once of Coquetdale (but latterly of Geneva), became close, and stayed so through the second year in college and a year at 64 Dale Street in town, until, following her first class degree in history, the power of the US intervened in the form of a dandy don from Dumb Tom’s and I had to find consolation in Diane, from Stockport, and other drugs….

My understanding of the world continued to develop.  Slowly.

Down the road I look and there runs Mary

We were taught.  Perhaps we learned.  I was still a teenager.  My head was a worm cast of ideas, mostly other people’s.  At a distance of half a century I can’t itemise what I gained.  I can remember excitements and disappointments, incidents and fleeting moments of discussion.  At best I think I know the differences between Mahayana and Marxism, Modernism and Mozart, but probably only to the level of Pointless….  I know too much to enjoy pub quizzes, but not enough that I can answer even half the questions on University Challenge.  I almost certainly wasn’t indoctrinated enough….  Or maybe it was the alcohol?  It killed Frank Goodridge, ruined Norman Fairclough’s marriage, cured Ninian Smart of smoking, and extended our Friday lunchtime creative writing sessions when David Craig would drive us out to Glasson Dock in his VW microbus to start the weekends….

The Lancaster Affair came about after Professor Bill Murray (Ghostbusters,  Lost in Translation sic) went swimming in Prague with the British Ambassador (not, I am sure, my old chum Sir Cecil Parrott, but, most likely Howard Smith, later DG of MI5) during which immersion the Murray picked up a viral kind of McCarthyist fear of red insurrection in his dept. and the witch hunt began.

Seven bona fide members of staff were targeted, and constructive dismissal was the aim.  It hit the national press; the Guardian featured David, the BBC reported.  

In the confusion we set up an alternative university and I helped organise sessions at David’s home as well as upstairs in the Shakespeare pub, near the Duke’s Theatre.  Eventually, at least I think there was a connection, we occupied the Senate House, where legend had it that Bill Corr, who in 1969 had invested a toad with the title Archduke of Lancaster on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to open County College, carried a shotgun.  Apparently Vice Chancellor Chas Carter sanctioned our intrusion on the grounds that we were welcome as long as we cleaned up afterwards.  But my memory is hazy.  

It was boring sitting on the floor and it was nice outside.  Eventually, thanks in large part to Adrian Mitchell’s fundraising at the Liverpool Everyman which helped with legal fees, the crisis passed, David taught again, and in due course I became more better educated (sic)…..  As a post script, the then Headmaster of Lancaster Royal Grammar School later told me that there had definitely been evidence of left-wing bias in student work of the time, but, like Bill Murray, he is dead now.  And they were both wrong.  Or I’m a brain surgeon….

Shadows drift round the city now.  The Castle and Priory Church still sit broodily on the hill above the Roman bath house.  Lune Mills and the empire of James Williamson, later Lord Aston, are dust, and lino no longer rolls here.  The exhilarating covered market, once dazzling with fruit and veg, fish, meat, and cheese, the thriving hub of a living city, is no more, having suffered that curious fate of places to be redeveloped - a minor conflagration…..  Some of the back-to-backs

are still there, grass-green and unloved, but nobody seems to hang washing any more, 

and those Scottish Streets (Elgin, Dundee, etc) are choked by pavement parking, and uniformly decorated with satellite dishes, all directed at Moscow…..

Up in Williamson Park, by the Ashton Memorial, kids taunt me for taking pictures of my memories, innocent of the fact that they are enjoying the space as much as I did. 

The view across Morecambe Bay to the distant hills of the Lake District is the glory it ever was, and brings back memories of the gleaming sea and evening skies.

I visit David at his home near Carnforth.  Still as sharp as millstone grit, though inevitably less likely to play football with his offspring now, we lunch together, our memories folded like our napkins, personal, but not completely private. 

I don’t know what has become of the others.  Occasional threads drift across my face, but where Ray, or Steve, or Kath or Mary are now, only they can tell…..

What are we without memories?  My mother, now 95, sits vacantly in the departure lounge, unable to tell whether she knows who we are.  So should we, like Hamlet, wipe away all trivial, fond records…. From the table of my memory?  Or, like Cowper, should we acknowledge,

What peaceful hours I once enjoy’d
How sweet their mem’ry still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

(Olney Hymns, I)

I loved Lancaster, and my times there.  It was the kiln I was fired in.  But there is no going back.  I just hope that those I shared my time with there have had good lives.

It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home…..

17 May 2018

Third Degree Burns

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet.....

In June 1971, as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, I bought Barbara Goulding's unused copy of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, even though the national poet of Scotland was not on my syllabus.  I must have looked at it, but I have to say that, until recently, the book has remained little thumbed....

I guess I was attracted by a hazily understood reputation of the bard.  But neither then, nor when I returned to Lancaster in 1984 for a second degree, did I unravel the references to Poosie-Nansie, Souter Johnie, or Tam o' Shanter.  

Robert Burns was born in a small cottage in Alloway, on the 25th January 1759, merely a day before Australia Day (and my birthday....)  

His father and mother are buried in the yard of Alloway Auld Kirk nearby, and, to paraphrase something I heard someone say recently, if they were alive today they would be turning in their graves to see the grandiose monument and magnificent museum dedicated to their eldest son, which are just a step away from the rough and ready cottage that William had built himself on a small parcel of land....

Even though the boy has parked his bike outside....

Robert's father, a stern calvinist, did his best for his children and, despite the rigours of farm life, he ensured that education was not overlooked.  Robert learned to read and write and was fluent in both English and Scots, though as he grew he may have had conflicting thoughts about learning...

'O Man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all thy precious hours,
Thy glorious, youthful prime!'

Man was Made to Mourn

Robert and his brother Gilbert worked as ploughmen for their father, but also managed to form a debating society in Tarbolton which they called the Bachelors' Club.  

At the age of 22, in 1781, he went to Irvine to learn how to dress flax, one of the crops his father was growing.  He was there for six months, and made the most of Templeton's bookshop, though at the same time he also became acquainted with whisky and women....

After their father's death in 1784, Robert and Gilbert took on the lease of a farm in Mauchline.  Robert also fathered a child which, as he didn't marry the mother, he brought into the household.... one of fourteen children he acknowledged.....

About the same time he met another local girl, Jean Amour, who, early in 1786 became pregnant, though in the same year he was courting one Highland Mary... unfortunately, however, by October Mary was dead.

On July 31st 1786 John Wilson of Kilmarnock printed 600 copies of Scottish Poems by Robert Burns, which became an overnight success.  On the back of this, and without care for Jean Armour who had given birth to twins, Robert set out for Edinburgh in November of that year.

In Edinburgh Burns was a hit.  The Ploughman Poet charmed and intrigued society, and on 21st April 1787 the First Edinburgh Edition of his poems was published - and 3000 copies were printed.

With glowing eyes and a steady gaze, as well as a captivating voice, Burns was irresistible, and affairs and passionate friendships ensued.  However he didn't stay put in the city - he made tours of the Border counties and of the Highlands - and before too long he felt the need to find a job, and to provide for Jean Armour, who had managed to produce a second set of twins by Robert, although both of these swiftly died.

But, in 1787, Burns married Jean, and, in June, he set up home at Ellisland Farm on the banks of the Nith, near Dumfries, where, in December, the house was finished and he was joined by Jean. 

Here, amidst family life, the difficulties of a poor agricultural existence (Robert switched from arable to dairy after a year) and the training he underwent to become an exciseman, Burns wrote some of his best loved verse, including the rollicking yarn, Tam o' Shanter, a tale that may have had some personal experience behind it.....

But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white - then melts for ever....

The tale ends as drunken Tam is carried across the keystone of the Brig o' Doon by his faithful mare, Maggie, chased by a howling band of warlocks and witches, who grab at Maggie's tail:

The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

But, as 'twas well known, the devil's brood dare not cross a running stream, so....

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man, and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o'er dear:
Remember Tam o' Shanter's meare.

And this was not the only example of Robert's care for animals.  On Seeing A wounded Hare Limp By Me Which A Fellow Had Just Shot At is another of his Ellisland poems, composed by the winding river Nith...

And many a reluctant GCSE pupil will know To A Mouse (On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, November 1785):

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie....

If only for the lines:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

And so to Dumfries, where, after three years of struggling with the land, Burns moved to become a member of the First or Port Division of the Dumfries Excise, and lived with his family at 11 Bank Street, now preserved as a museum and memorial to the poet.

And it is here that I enter the University of the Third Age, inspired by Burns to the third degree....  I find, amongst the articles on show or for sale, a copy of Eddi Reader's deluxe edition of the Songs of Robert Burns.  Eddi was born in Glasgow though her family later relocated to Irvine, where Burns had learnt to dress flax.  She became a musician, travelling round Europe and then settling in London for a while, where she sang with Annie Lennox, and then topped the charts with Fairground Attraction, whose drummer was my old pal Roy Dodds, who spent many a mispent moment with me, Joe, Ben et al in The Festival Hole, infamous club in 1960's Berkhamsted.....

Since London Eddi's career has taken her around the world, including to Hollywood, and she is currently on tour in the UK.

It is the Robert Burns album that inspires me now, however.  It was recorded with some of the finest folk musicians, including Roy on percussion, and also with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  It was premiered at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the Celtic Connections Festival in January 2003, but released as the Deluxe edition in 2009.  The arrangements are beautiful, but it is Eddi's hauntingly beautiful voice that cuts across the centuries and breathes the words into living thoughts, wild birds in the treetops and the wind....

Robert Burns lived a relatively short life, but he made his mark, and his verses still inspire and console over two hundred years after his death.  I am only sorry I didn't look more into the book I bought all those long years ago....  

So, to make up for lost time, and to commune a little with the soul of the departed bard, I pay my respects at his mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard..... 

And then I step down the narrow lane off Dumfries High Street that leads to the Globe Inn, the howff where Burns spent many an hour, wining, dining, and courting Anna of the Gowden Locks....

Yest're'en I had a pint of wine,
A place where body saw na;
Yest're'en lay on this breast o' mine,
The gowden locks o' Anna....

It's not too late.  There is still time, I hope, to appreciate the works of this particular poet man:

 The winter it is past, and the simmer comes at last,
And the small birds sing on eve'ry tree:
The hearts of these are glad, but mine is very sad,
For my love is parted from me.

The Winter it is Past


And though he no longer scratches poems on windows with his diamond ring, he has left us enough to be going on with, and more.  I hope his love of love will perhaps touch such souls as come together in the near future, (such as some who may marry on May 19th, in Camden, if not in Windsor....)

And I will love thee still, my dear,
'Til all the seas gang dry.
'Til all the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun;
And I shall love thee still, my dear,
Though the sands o' life shall run.....

As Eddi Reader writes in her liner notes: What a wonderful thing that man did.... to write a song that makes everyone sing together and hold each other at the dawning of a new year, in ALL languages... and he never got to see it... God bless his soul.

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
For auld...
For auld lang syne.

4 May 2018

Journeys with 'The Waste Land'

On Margate sands....


Journeys with The Waste Land is the title of an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate, though by the time you read this it will probably have closed.

On Margate Sands.
I can connect 

Nothing with nothing.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Journeys with 'The Waste Land' is a major exhibition exploring the significance of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land through the visual arts.

In 1921, T.S. Eliot spent a few weeks in Margate at a crucial moment in his career. He arrived in a fragile state, physically and mentally, and worked on The Waste Land sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter....

 on Margate Sands. 

The poem was published the following year, and proved to be a pivotal and influential modernist work, reflecting on the fractured world in the aftermath of the First World War as well as Eliot’s own personal crisis.

I have come to Margate to see this exhibition, and to explore the town, as, despite many personal crises and several wars, I have never been......

The little I knew of Margate was that J M W Turner (Timothy Spall) spent some time here, with Mrs Sophia Booth, a particularly accommodating landlady; the ashes of Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) are scattered off the end of the breakwater here at the end of Graham Swift's Last Orders; Tracey Emin was brung up here (sic); and Thanet (the area) is one of the most deprived in the UK (though there is no connection between this fact and the previous one: Mad Tracey from Margate.  Everyone's been there - an appliqué blanket, fabric from clothing provided by friends, 267 x 216 cms, executed in 1997 -  fetched £722,500 at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 16 October 2014).....

I don't know whether T S Eliot liked seafood, but I enjoy cockles with the camera-shy potential next Mayor of Margate, who tells me that the Japanese tourists (Margate is in the Japanese guide books) like their oysters.....

Inside Turner Contemporary I get to know some of the locals - in this case John Davies's My Ghosts.... (a collage of images significant to me - people loved and lost, those wronged, those missed....)

Before becoming involved in the artworks and objects chosen by The Waste Land Research Group.  It is a fascinating and rewarding collection, especially (for me) where illustrations link clearly with either the period of The Waste Land or they pick up on one of the themes, a good example being Edward Hopper's Night Windows, 1928....

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.....
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays.

Or William Lionel Wyllie's The Goodwin Sands, 1874....

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers.  As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Or Paul Nash's The Shore, 1923

And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street,
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishermen lounge at noon.....

Your man himself is present, too, in this case painted by Edgar Holloway in 1934, when the artist himself was only 20.....

Though without the maestro's mandoline.....

It's a shame you may not see this exhibition, though I believe it will be re-staged somewhere else later this year....

But there's more to Margate than the shed by the shore....  The people, for instance.....

Scott, for example, is as friendly as can be at The Fez, and he rings down to The Lantern Cafe to make sure that Liz will be able to feed us.....

And indeed she is.  Her Bubble and Squeak, with egg and bacon, is a rare treat, especially as, with Carol's permission, she brings it in to us next door at The Harbour Arms......

Outside, in the rain, there's just time for a look round.  Pink seems to be the predominant colour:

Even the trees by the remarkable Tudor House are pink.....

And, despite it's patina of age, the 4.6 million shells in the Shell Grotto have a pink tinge.  No one knows how old this extraordinary place is (it was 'found' in 1835) but my guess is that it was the burial chamber of an Etruscan Pearly King.....

The Theatre Royal is the second oldest theatre in the country, which may be why Gerry and the Pacemakers performed here last year....

But all is not old, nor,

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying.....

There is Yasmin.....

Who smiles, and chatters; who grew up here and loves the place and is just the best antidote to a Waste Land......

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings....

Thank you Margate!

Waste Land?  What Waste Land?