15 June 2021

Ramblings from a graveyard, and other things.....

 The undiscovered country.....

I am in Hardwick Road Cemetery, King's Lynn. Literally, but not interminably...... And naturally enough, the environment lends itself to thoughts on mortality, and such.

This smooth lozenge in the photograph above, almost lost among the long grass, commemorates the life and death of Ordinary Seaman A W Bruce, RNPS, of HMS Ouzel.  

At first, as the long stems of grasses obscured some of the lettering, I made the error of thinking he may have been Andrew Bruce, Telegraphist, who died when Battleship HMS Barnham went down on November 25th, 1941, which was quite a story.
However, this was not the man (and I should have realised as I doubt whether that poor soul had a body to bury here.....) No, Ordinary Seaman A W Bruce was on HMS (or HMT) Ouzel, a trawler, acting as a Patrol Vessel (76 GRT), which struck a mine on November 3rd 1941 and sank in the North Sea, a half mile off Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire with the loss of all hands.  So why was this grave marked 25th November?  And then why, when I researched the death toll of the incident, was there no A W Bruce listed in the casualties?  

Again I leapt to conclusions, as the casualties were listed on The Lowestoft Naval Memorial which commemorates nearly 2,400 men of the Royal Naval Patrol Service who died during the Second World War and have no grave but the Sea. The memorial is situated to the north of the coastal town of Lowestoft, in a wooded garden, known as Bellevue Park. The memorial itself is on the edge of the cliff looking out across the foreshore and sea where in former years the men and vessels of the Royal Naval Patrol Service kept vigil.

So I surmised that perhaps A W Bruce had survived the mine and died later of wounds....

Yet again my negligence appals me.  Brushing aside the long grass, I discover that the date of death was 25th November, 1940 - not 1941!  So Archie William Bruce, aged 30, died aboard HM Patrol Craft Ouzel almost a year before his shipmates met their watery end.

What killed him remains, to me at least, in my ignorance, a mystery, but there is his story.....

In Memory Of

Ordinary Seaman


Service Number: LT/JX 202363

H.M. Patrol Craft Ouzel., Royal Naval Patrol Service who died on 25 November 1940 Age 30

Son of Robert James Bruce and Harriet Nicol Bruce; husband of Doris Lilian Kathleen Bruce, of Wallington, Surrey.

Remembered with Honour KING'S LYNN CEMETERY

Sec. 1. Grave 706.



Regarding my initial mistake, that is another, terrible, story.

According to the Records of the Royal Navy, HMS Barnham took part with QUEEN ELIZABETH, VALIANT and screen of eight Fleet destroyers for provision of cover to cruisers of 7th and 15th Squadrons carrying out search for military convoys on passage to Benghazi (Operation ME7).

November 25th - Under constant observation by enemy aircraft. Under attack by U331 and hit by three torpedoes which struck between funnel and X turret on port side. Ship sank in position 32.34N 26.24N within 4 minutes after the magazine detonated. (On VALIANT, the closest ship to BARHAM when she was hit, was the Gaumont News cameraman John Turner who shot 2 minutes of movie film, all he had left in the camera, of the sinking. This film became one of the most poignant shots in the whole war). Only 450 survived from the complement of about 1312. 

Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.... (Samuel Beckett, First Love). Christopher Ricks, The Prof, it was who first pointed out to me the clever use of the word must in this quotation...  let alone the mischievous use of no bone to pick.....  Or, let me think?  Was it the other way up? Did I point it out to Christopher?  We were in Cambridge, in the mid 1980s and I do vaguely remember our discussion. 

And it would only have been a year or so adrift from then that I had lunch with Mr Beckett chez Chartier in Faubourg Montmartre.  Godot, those were the days.... Happy Daze. 

A Tulip Tree (liridendron tulipfera), a native of North America and China, which can grow to 50 metres and has pale green tulip-shaped flowers. This tree was supplied by the Wisbech nursery of Messrs Sharp in c 1855/6.


Anyway it was a faulty valve that brought me hither....  Not so much a mitral nor a tricuspid, you know, but the valve on my Skoda's off side rear tyre, which I had had repaired after a small screw had caused a minor puncture last week, only to find it flat the next day at home.  Ho Hum, and back to the garage (who acknowledged fault in their valve core) to wander fitfully amongst the dead whilst said valve was bypassed and my treads could once more hold up against the wear and tear of revolution.....

Anyway, underneath the gloomy Wellingtonia, and not that far from the Tulip Tree, I read some of the stories of King's Lynn in days of yore.....

Such as that of Catherine Brown (1812 - 1863) first wife of King's Lynn sculptor and monumental mason William Brown of London Road.  Catherine was one of seven people to be killed in the Hunstanton-King's Lynn Railway disaster on August 2nd, 1863.  Her sandstone and encaustic tile monument was designed and made by her husband.

Apparently a bullock had gotten upon the line near Wootton, about two miles from Lynn, and it caused the excursion train, which had left Hunstanton for Wisbeach at about eight a.m. with some fifteen well-filled carriages, to leave the rails, causing disruption, injury and death in its wake.

Hard  by this elegant tomb is the memorial to her husband, William, and his brother, Edward. This was sculpted by King's Lynn mason Edward (1834 - 1888).  Of clunch stone, it is the largest monument in the Cemetery.

The cemetery is no longer active. Or rather, it is now passive, in that no longer may the living prepare themselves for the ground here.  The chapels have long since been erased, and all that is left is the shifting silences of the air around the stones and through the leaves of grass.

The stories remain, however, like that of George Cozens (1801 - 1869), hotelier, proprietor of the Cozens Commercial Temperance Hotel in St John's Terrace.  This was the last of Norfolk's temperance hotels, closing in 1969.  Apparently it once boasted that its stables could accommodate 120 horses.  

Perhaps.....  But not for me.

It's not just that this cemetery was in the vanguard of 19th century burial reform (I just love that tone - Stonehenge was in the vanguard of monumental masonry......)  But its establishment in 1849 marks it out as one of the first parochial cemeteries in Great Britain, anticipating the Burial (Beyond the Metropolis) act of 1854 by five years......  Its importance to King's Lynn as an early example of Victorian cemetery landscape is immense, and the variety of monuments it has to display is a bold reminder of the Victorian Way of Death.....

Did the Victorians have a different way of death?  Do the bones interred here feel better because of the landscape?  

To die, to sleep,
No more. And by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to — ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub. 
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil 
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Ah yes.  That phrase, devoutly to be wished.....

There's the rub.

[As I said to Samuel, not long before his death.  Could you please pass the salt?

And he said,

It would have passed itself......]

Oh, and I did get my car back......

[I wish to extend my apologies for the mistakes I made in initially putting this piece together, and wish to record my sincere thanks to all those who died at sea in the defence of our homeland.]

27 May 2021

My Very Own SpringWatch

 Spring Fever.....


It is spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want – oh, you don't know quite what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!

Mark Twain

Twain knew a thing or two - he even commented on his own demise, though of course he wasn't even Twain......

Anyway, Spring is the season of discontent - or perhaps of a kind of restlessness, as we emerge from both winter and lockdown.  Nature seems to have held back this year, with the cruellest April since Chaucer inspired Eliot's Waste Land.   In Norfolk we shivered and sheltered from strong winds and showers through to almost the end of May....,

But the rains have brought regeneration to the soil, and now the trees are in leaf, and everything is charged with the fire of life, bursting with pent up energy, making up for lost time.  Hares stop and start as if it were still balmy March:

Deer of all kinds are busy too:

Reeves Muntjac

Fallow Deer

And on the Wild Ken Hill Estate the Exmoor Ponies are up early in the morning:

The Ken Hill Estate is owned by the Buscall family, and this is where Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan are currently based with their team for BBC SpringWatch.  The estate covers some 4,000 acres, though not all in one piece.  Ken Hill House, or Snettisham New Hall, for instance, which sits in the middle of the reserve, is privately owned (by a retired city gent cum priest, I believe).  It was built as a retreat, not a country house (not a gentleman's House in 1878-9 for a Yorkshire industrialist, and was/is the first major provincial example of the Queen Anne or Domestic Revival style, a fusion of free Gothic planning with Free Classic detail. Apart from impressive architectural details, the house also boasts a game larder, from 1880 - not something that Chris Packham would necessarily approve of.....

Other parts of the Ken Hill Estate, by the way, include the house opposite mine, and my allotment - but that's another story.....

Anyway, while Packham attempts to recharge his Tesla, I embark on a SpringWatch of my own, trawling the woods for evidence of spring and rebirth and similar things to bring balm to my sorry soul.

There is plenty to see, and to hear.  Like this Sedge Warbler, belting it out atop a prominent twig. 

A Robin joins in, his varied song loud, but halting, as if he turns the pages of his music every so ofter:

Everyone is active, either staking aural claims to territory, or flitting from tree to bush, like this little Chiffchaff, in search of food and calling to his mate:

There's movement all around, as a Blue Tit takes off from a pine:

Or a pair of Linnets chase each other away from me:

In the water, an Egret splashes for a minnow:

And an Avocet sifts the muddy shallows for shrimp or other morsels:

A handsome Reed Bunting nervously does a high wire act:

While a male Stonechat proudly shows off his bling:

Everyone is hungry, and parent birds are busy gathering food for their broods, like this beautiful Meadow Pipit:

And this sleek female Blackbird (whose mate is busy singing the most gorgeous arias nearby):

Of course, Spring is not just about birds.  Although I hear reports of a shortage of some insects, perhaps, again, it's a late start to the year?  Here a Ladybird doesn't mind the nettles:

And this beetle (I'm sorry, but I don't know his name - could he be a Rhopalid Bug?) likes the flowers of Garlic Mustard (or Jack by the Hedge):

Spring is a time of rebirth. Slaughter (lambs) and rebirth. [I only recently realised that the slaughter of lambs at Easter was historically a way of preserving pasture to fatten the rest of the flock..... But Jesus was a shepherd so he would have known that.....]

Our own two daughters were born in Springtime, and indeed this piece is put together on Hannah's birthday as a special memorial to that day, several years ago, when Amanda brought her into this world:

And here are some flowers for both of them:  May Blossom (Hawthorn), whose scent is just divine:

Daisies, the bright joy of light:

Forget-me-not, the bitter irony of nature:

And the delicate red (or purple) dead nettle (or Archangel):

So..... Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan are in the neighbourhood, and can be seen socially distancing in a field every evening for the next couple of weeks.  OK, it's the vogue, but it does lack the intimacy and warmth of earlier programmes with a nest-like den and clever graphics.  But, hey.....

Anyway, though I was intending to buy them drinks in The Rose and Crown (where Chris has stayed in the past) and we are but a hare's leap apart, we have had to keep our distance, socially or antisocially, and so the above is my very own SpringWatch from the Ken Hill Estate. The official Springwatch cameras roll 24 hours a day and are monitored 20 hours a day. (I cannot compete with that....)

Members of the crew get around the sprawling site, that stretches five miles (8km) across, in a fleet of buggies and there are nine miles (14.5km) of cables being used by the technical team across the site.  (I cannot compete with that.)

BBC Springwatch at Wild Ken Hill: Behind the scenes
By Zoe Applegate and Kate Scotter
BBC News, East

I do like the programme, and have always enjoyed watching and listening to Michaela and Chris. It's great to know that some 4 million people will also be watching, and learning.  (And I do hope that dog owners will take heed of the warning last night about letting dogs off the lead in conservation areas......)

Apparently Sitting Bull had this to say about Spring:

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!

Yes - Spring Fever indeed! And I hope you may have enjoyed my personal SpringWatch.....

PS, For more about Wild Ken Hill, please see https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2021/04/a-lesson-in-rewilding.html, my earlier blog about a guided tour of the estate at dusk....

Thank you all, and Happy Birthday Hannah!

10 May 2021

Happy Birthday, Mr Zimmerman.....

Forever Young!

As with a lot of things about Bob Dylan, there is even doubt about his age.....  Received wisdom has his birthday as May 24th, 1941, but as this picture:

shows, which is borrowed from the cover of the official booklet issued with:

there is a possibility that in fact the man will enter his eighty-first year on May 11th, 2021.....

At least the year is consistent....

Just another story?  Like his early 'travels' as reported here:

At ten he ran away.....?

During his first nineteen years, lived in Gallup, New Mexico; Cheyenne, South Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Phillipsburg, Kansas.....


He was brought up in Hibbing and attended college in Minneapolis for around six months..... As Robert Shelton wrote in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (1986), Dylan didn't actually run away from "good ol' Hibbing" at all, except in his mind, where he kept running for years......

However, by the time Bob Dillon, or Bobby Dylan, or Bob Dylan as he became, was twenty he was making waves in New York City, and it was there that the late Robert Shelton first met him at Gerde's Folk City in June 1961.  

On Friday, September 29, 1961, The New York Times published Mr Shelton's review, in which he wrote: Mr Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.....

And the rest, as they say, is history.....

My earliest connection with Dylan was around '63/'64, though I cannot be quite sure.  Tim Binding (later the well-known novelist) lent me Another Side of Bob Dylan.....

And I bought the sheet music, to strum and wail with my cheap guitar.  And I also bought my own copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (see above) on September 16th, 1965.

By which time the man was a global megastar.....

Well you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and those amongst us who worship at the altar will already know most of what we want (or need?) to know.  Those who could never quite get past the whine and the vocal obscurities (my parents would never understand a word - I now marvel at the extreme clarity of his diction) will not thank me for going on.

However this is a birthday tribute and I want to  tell how much I am indebted to my friend, and I would like to impress on all unbelievers how sainted the Bob might be.  He's not perfect, but then nor am I (nor you, I suspect).  Check Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust:

Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling around
And snow in your hair
Now you're smiling out the window
Of that crummy hotel
Over Washington Square
Our breath comes out white clouds
Mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

Now you're telling me
You're not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
Because I need some of that vagueness now
It's all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you're offering me diamonds and rust
I've already paid

There isn't the time, nor is this the occasion, to catalogue all the achievements, nor some of the failures, of a sixty plus year career, which include, among other things, a Nobel Prize for Literature (2016).... (Wasn't he the guy that invented gunpowder?)

October 3rd, 1987

Me and Bob go back, way back. As I said, we were first acquainted around 58 years ago, though we didn't actually meet then....

It was on June 20th, 1989.  It was in Rome, when we were both trying to paint our masterpieces, that we actually coincided.  He was about to perform at The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, and I was an audient, but wandering backstage before the performance, I encountered a strangely garbed misfit, who could easily have passed for a Dylan lookalike.  

Hi Bob, I offered, tendering a pack of MS.  

Thanks, the figure rasped, taking a cigarette and waiting for me to offer a light.

I flicked my Zippo and took in the guy's outfit.  Some kind of hound's tooth, deeply knitted, or was it made of felt? A tight fitting suit with braided edges and stripes and a blazon on the breast.  

What you doin here? he asked.  Haven't seen you in a while.


I'm just keeping on keeping on.  

Smoke wreathed and eyes furtive.  I shifted slightly.

You know how you said, in San Francisco, in '65, in response to the question, Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?

Ha! And I said, Well I think of myself most as a song and dance man, y'know.....

And you also said you dig Rimbaud, W C Fields...

Yeah, he asked What poets do I dig?  Rimbaud, W C Fields.....  Ah, the family, you know the trapeze family, in the circus.  Um..... Smokey Robinson, Allen Ginsberg, Charlie Rich......

I will not say he was brilliant that night.  I've seen him perform several times and this was not his greatest night.  The guitars were too loud, his voice was shot; he mumbled and fumbled and failed (I would say) to engage with the crowd, and he went too fast....  But it was not a wasted evening.  Like bumping into Van Gogh in a field of sunflowers, my moment with his genius was a moment off guard, a few moments shared in a dark space.  We cannot all know each another, and ultimately the human race is just one of the many many viruses that plague this planet. But, from that particular happenstance, Bob and I were firm friends.

June 6th, 1991

On the above occasion we didn't actually meet face to face, though he did lean out of a car window, waving, as he was driven up to the Palaeur. And, in fact, we have continued in the same way, missing each other in many places from Scotland, to Key West. 

I remember calling on him a few years ago at Aultmore House, an Edwardian mansion near Nethy Bridge, in the shadow of the Cairngorms.  I was working at the time for the RSPB at nearby Loch Garten, where ospreys had an iconic nest.  I called at the house, waiting, as one does, for the echoes of the doorbell to die away.  Heavy footsteps approached, the door opened, and a man in a ten gallon hat blinked up at me.

Is Bob home, David?

Sorry buddy.  You just missed him. I believe he could be in Malibu..... If you want to call.....

Ah well.  I know we will catch up again soon....

An overview of his career tells that he hit the world stage in the early sixties.....

In 1969 he starred in a Jann Wenner interview in Rolling Stone:

In which he told all....

Or nothing.....

Is that the story?  

I mean, I just can't be spending my time reading what people write.  (laughter).

In 1973 he produced the sound track for, and had a significant role in, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

He's been written off.  He's come back.  He's produced art works to fill the Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai.  He's sold over 100 million records; produced 38 studio albums (at least....); written a novel (sort of); hosted a radio series; written part one of his memoirs.....  He owns 17 homes worldwide (at least that was the count once) and is worth $375 million - though who knows?

And he is still going.  Sixty years on.

Eighty years on.....

And for many of the millions like me he has been there at significant times in our lives....    Some lines touched us for no reason (The pump don't work 'cos the vandals took the handle....)  

Then I remember Kath Owen, from Pontypridd, yelling, I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough....! in an M6 underpass at Bailrigg....

My chosen moment, just now, relates to The Basement Tapes, which, when they emerged, were rough and unpolished.  One song, I'm not there.... later the leitmotif of Todd Haynes's 2007 film, now spins awkwardly in my mind.  As Greil Marcus wrote in Invisible Republic, The song is a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool...... The progression in the melody is unnoticeable and unbreakable, the sympathy between Dylan, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel absolute.

In the last lines of the song, the most plainly sung, the most painful, so bereft that after the song's five minutes, five minutes that seem like no measurable time, you no longer quite believe that anything so strong can be said in words: "I wish I was there to help her - but I'm not there, I'm gone."  There is a singer and a woman in the song; he can't reach her, and he can't reach her because he won't.  They might be separated by years or by minutes, by the width of a street or a thousand miles; there are moments when the music is so ethereal, so in place in a world to come, that the people in the song become abstractions, lovers without bodies: "She's my own fare thee well."

Now, remotely and unhappily, there is something of my life in these words, in this song....

Yeah, she's gone like the rain
Behold the shining yesterday
But now she's home beside me
And I'd like her here to stay
She's a lone, forsaken beauty
And it don't trust anyone
And I wish I was beside her
But I'm not there, I'm gone

I rang him, Mr Dylan, the other day. To catch up. To thank him. To offer him upcoming birthday wishes.

He didn't answer. 

Maybe he was in Nethy Bridge?



Happy birthday Bob!

You hear me?

Hey!  It's me.....

You remember?

We met, erm, forty, or so, years ago.....  Briefly....  You know?

Yeah, well.  Have a great birthday.

Yeah,  Whenever.....

The Traveling Wilburys, c 1991

Not everyone makes eighty.....

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young