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Reflection 4: The waiting room

….every seat is taken, even the available space on the floor.

But there, sitting on his school bag, a uniformed teenager

So obviously dragged out of his bed before time,

Hair uncombed, face unwashed, tie unknotted, flies unzipped……

He will complete his attire as he walks through the school gate.

School file open, he pretends to complete last night’s assignment

All the while checking the latest pics on Instagram……..



Reflection 3: The waiting room

…..sitting next to me, a dapper gent

Neatly turned out in pinstripe suit and patent leather shoes, but……

…no bowler hat and umbrella (yet another stereotype shattered).

Aggressive financier or model banker?

Lives on a salary or has the champagne lifestyle of the mega-bonus earner?

Do I detect evidence of excessive city greed?

He scrolls pages on his iPad……surreptiously I take a peek

….ah yes, checking the stock market in preparation for the day.

Will he make a killing today……..?


Istanbul: day 2

When people tell me they have been to England, then qualify it by saying they only went to London, I sometimes gently point out they haven’t really been to England. The same goes for any ‘honeypot’ tourist destination, and it certainly goes for Istanbul. My arrival in Istanbul was preceded by nearly ten days of cycling through some of the remoter regions of west Turkey, where tourists are rarely seen, and a living is still laboriously squeezed out of small plots of land or meagre herds of goats.


The humble people in the countryside welcomed me warmly as a fellow human being, gave me glasses of tea and waved goodbye as I headed off. In Istanbul, however, I am simply an economic unit on legs. Traders and touters steadfastly ignore fellow Turks in favour of the ‘bags o’ money’ foreign visitor, and they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. For instance, no sooner had I stepped out of a restaurant having eaten, a waiter from the restaurant next door tried to persuade me to step over his threshold. Even when I told him I had already eaten, he insisted. “maybe you wanna dessert…or a nice Turkish coffee?”. Please go away and leave me alone…..! We Brits don’t like having our personal space invaded.
As a city, Istanbul is very much ‘in your face’, but it is also a captivating place. My visit to the Topkapi Royal Palace provided a stunning panorama of the Bosphorus


as well as an insight into the gloriously self-indulgent lives of the Ottoman sultans, who not only had several wives, but also a harem of concubines to keep them busy. One sultan officially had 15 sons and 18 daughters….and I’m told he died a happy man…..
The backpacker’s hostel I’m staying in has a lot of fascinating people arriving and leaving in a constant flow, and some even of my own generation. Like Roger


a UK born Australian living in Melbourne….he’s here pursuing his amateur passion for photography and shipping, so is spending hours every day monitoring traffic flow through the Bosphorus. Then there’s Alexander


from Russia in the same dorm as me. We had no language in common until I discovered he had been in Cuba long enough to pick up some basic Spanish. So an Englishman communicated with a Russian via Spanish….how rare must that be.
Then when I met Agacir from Brazil (middle)


we chatted at length over a range of topics, somehow taking advantage of the Latin-based connectedness between Spanish and Portuguese. And no, he wasn’t in Europe just to escape the world cup, but had come to visit his son Alex


who is doing a study placement at Budapest University in Hungary. And they weren’t the only parent and child partnership I’ve met these last few days.
And in case your wondering how you might deal with a bad day at work, take note of this


It may not be a cure for the bad day, but…….

Obscure links: Colmworth/Marriott Hotels

Cycling does much more than give me exercise. It takes me into little hidden corners of our countryside and gives me the odd lesson in history. Colmworth is a little village in north Bedfordshire that I have cycled through ‘zillions’ of times, but it was only recently that I stopped and discovered a little known historical link.

A certain Elizabeth Stewart, born in Colmworth in 1829, emigrated to America and settled in the Marriott Settlement in Utah. There she married and became the second polygamous wife of John Marriott, founder of the Mormon Marriott Settlement in 1855. The Mormons had been a much persecuted religious community, and John had served as bodyguard to Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Elizabeth Marriott (née Stewart) from Colmworth  bore three sons and seven daughters. Her son Hyrum Willard Marriott fathered several children himself, one of whom was J. Willard Marriott, the founder of the international chain of Marriott Hotels. Click here for more information.

From little acorns………….

Obscure links: Kimbolton Castle & Spanish bureaurocracy

I love obscure links. They sometimes demonstrate serendipities that make the world and its history even more fascinating. At the heart of my village stands an imposing castle, Kimbolton Castle, the ancestral country home of the Montague family (better known as the Dukes of Manchester). When the Castle was owned by the Wingfields, it was used as the last place of imprisonment of Queen Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, and it was here that she died in 1536. Now, hidden in the sorry episode of Henry’s divorce from Catherine, lie the seeds of a phenomenon that would be eventually exported, via the Holy Roman Empire, to Spain (and many other countries) and is still alive and well to this day: the use of red tape.

The first use of the term “red tape” can be traced back to Henry VIII when he besieged the Pope with missives requesting the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Each of the 80 petitions were individually bound with red tape. The use of red tape was then taken up by Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) to distinguish important administrative documents from others. And the habit has stuck ever since. Even today, in an age of computerised administration, important state documents are still bound in red tape in Spain.

However, mention the term “red tape” to anyone and you will be greeted with a deep groan and probably several hours of anecdotal stories of trying to get a passport or a visa,  change a bank account or change names on an airline ticket. Spain is not alone in suffering from excessive red tape, but it has the skill honed down to perfection!! Watch this (it does have subtitles):

The Book of Fathers: Miklós Vámos(Hungarian)

Hungarian literature does not feature as a high priority amongst translators. But when Milklós Vámos published The Book of Fathers (2000) in Hungary, he sold over 200,000 copies, and it caught the attention of the world. It now appears in 14 different languages. But does its commercial success reflect its quality as a piece of fiction? Opinions differ.

The structure of the novel is most unusual. Historically, it begins in the year 1705, and in neatly constructed 35 page chapters (each with a reference to a sign of the zodiac) proceeds to tell the patrilineal story of 12 generations of the same family, through the eyes of the first-born son of each generation. Each generation is set against its own relevant historical backdrop, and we learn from the concluding ‘Author’s notes’ that the whole novel is an attempt by Vámos to create a fictional autobiographical history to fill the gap left by his own ignorance of where he came from and who his own ancestors were.

The great strength of the novel (in my humble opinion) lies in its historical settings covering, as it does, over 300 years of Hungarian history. We learn much about the dominance of the Hapsburgs and the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the 1848 revolution, the attempts to regenerate the Hungarian language, the plight of the Jews in the 20th century, followed by the grim days of communist rule. In terms of the multi-generational family history of the Csillags, feminists will have a field-day ripping this novel apart. Its myopic argument that all that is worth inheriting in a family is passed down through the male blood-line, that every first-born child has to be male and will have extraordinary powers of perception and imagination, and that women in general serve only as the child-bearers of society…………. none of this will win the hearts and minds of female readers.

What we have here is the grim reality of Hungarian history (“One well-known fact is that Hungary…has lost every important war and revolution since……1490”) over-layered by a story infused with surreal, male-supremacist characters whose world is governed by the supreme need to sire the next male heir.

Houseboaters being ‘socially cleansed’ around Olympic site

Chris on his houseboat

I love to tell people that I have a younger brother who lives on a houseboat near the centre of London, and then wait for their reaction. For many, houseboat-living is essentially connected with the beautiful tranquil countryside, rivers and canals, wayside pubs and flowery meadows, canal locks and pretty marinas……. The reality of urban houseboat-living, however, is a little different. It is an ‘alternative lifestyle’ in one respect, but for some it is the only alternative.

Notwithstanding, perhaps the most famous London houseboat dweller in recent years was Richard Branson who, through the upwardly mobile years of his business development, lived with his family on a narrow boat. But for many, living on a river or canal may be their only choice, for a variety of reasons…..but chiefly economic. So, when GB won the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and the East End of London became the favoured site, not everyone was ecstatic with the prospects.

Nearly 200 houseboats are moored either within the Olympic park or just outside. Loosely applied legislation about residency has allowed these dwellers to have permanent, or semi-permanent, moorings along the River Lea, but with the approach of the Olympics, British Waterways are now doing their utmost to drive them out. Reasons for this: unsightliness of houseboats, security, temporary lettings for boats during the Olympics at inflated prices…..etc. The permanent dwellers, of course, see this as discrimination and something akin to social cleansing.

Of course, I agree with the houseboaters. Who wouldn’t want to support a sibling to hang on to his home? Click here for a Guardian news report. What are your thoughts?

Incendiary: Chris Cleave

Having read Chris Cleave’s second novel (On the other hand) I was intrigued to read his first. Incendiary is a novel-length letter from a working class wife and mother to Osama Bin Laden, following the death of her husband and son in a suicide bombing of Arsenal football stadium, which ultimately claimed the lives of over 1000 people. As I worked my way through the story, the striking similarities with the dreadful bombings in London, now known as 7/7 (July 7th 2005), convinced me this was a fictional parallel story feeding on that event, which had claimed the lives of 52 people and injured 700. I had this confirmed (or so I thought) by the publication date on the front credits page, which was 2005, and I assumed this had been quickly written in the months following.

So it came as a big surprise to find out later that the publication date had, in fact, been July 7th 2005, the very day of the London bombings. My first reaction was that it had been an amazing stroke of coincidence, almost prophetic. In any other circumstances, this coincidence could have meant the meteoric launch of a new writing career, but for Chris Cleave and his publisher, it meant just the opposite. The trauma and carnage that stopped the country (and many parts of the world) in its tracks simply consumed all the available column inches in all the media, and a work of fiction from an unknown author was never going to poke its nose through the dense smoke screen.

However, undeterred, Cleave went on to write a second novel, and on the success of that his first novel eventually became a bestseller. Worth reading. I would recommend it highly.

The Outdoors Show: ExCel Exhibition Centre, London

Should you ever venture to one of the country’s mega-exhibition centres, you need to be prepared ………… The newly extended ExCel Exhibition Centre (in the docklands of London) is over 100,000 sq metres in size. If you can’t begin to imagine the enormity of that, try to picture 14 football pitches all located under one roof………..absolutely massive!! You will need comfortable footwear or even a pair of skates to get around, and expect to cover several miles in the process.

The Outdoors Show on January 12-15th was really made up of four different shows, which sounds like a bargain for one entry ticket. But really a false bargain……….you cannot physically do all four shows in one day (nor, I imagine, would you want to). It would be like trying to visit four large museums in a day………. (you know the feeling).

My primary interest, of course, was cycling, and it was good to discover a number of innovations and new products that will ‘tweak’ the interest of any serious cyclist. The big challenge is to allow your interest to be tweaked but to keep a tight grip on the credit card. You go to these events as a willing, pliable customer, and the exhibitors know it, and do everything to persuade you to part with your hard-earned pennies. However, there are many cost-free goodies for the punter too. The samples and freebies spill out of nearly every stall: pens, water bottles, puncture repair kits, T-shirts, competitions to win expensive bikes……… I made several rounds of the sports nutrition stalls sampling all of their wares (energy bars, energy gells, drinks…) and ended up so hyped that I had to jump on a turbo-trainer to burn off the excess carbs!

I remain convinced, however, that these expensive (and chemically enhanced) high energy sports products are really no substitute for nature’s wholesome alternatives: bananas, dried fruit ‘n nuts,  fruit juices….etc. It’s in such areas as these that you encounter the ‘clash’ of two cultures in cycling:  the mentality of the long-distance cyclist versus the short distance, adrenaline-rush mentality of the competitive cyclist. We may all look the same as we carve our way along country lanes in pelotons, but our individual goals can be very different.

Do cyclists improve with age?

I was born into a family of few sporting traditions. Apart from an uncle (who died in WW2) who had been a notable amateur footballer and an uncle in Ireland who had played hurling for Tipperary in the all-Ireland final in 1937, I had few role-models to follow. But my youth was dominated by sport, especially in my teens: football, cricket, tennis, ice-skating and cycling. In my 20s, these gave way to more racquet sports, principally squash and badminton until, one day, tired of pulling muscles, wrenching my back and twisting ligaments, I sought professional advice about which sports were the most injury-free. The two options I was given were: swimming and cycling. It was at that point, in my late 20s, that I took up cycling as a serious sport and (as the saying goes) have never looked back since.

Bill Duffin in 2010. Photo by kind permission of

But what I never considered at the time was the longevity of any particular sport in a person’s life. I know we can all pick out someone who might still be playing football, tennis or badminton in their 70s or 80s. Some may even continue aggressive contact sports like rugby into their later years, but the numbers are very low. If you look, however, at the growing number of people who continue enjoying (or even take up) non-contact sports in their later years, you will find that sports like running, swimming and cycling are going through a boom period.  If you were to draw a graph of these athletes’ lives, when are they likely to peak at their sport and to what age could they reasonably expect to continue?

I see people in the world of competitive cycling breaking all kinds of records at ages when they really should be wearing slippers and smoking pipes. I cycle in the same club as the legendary 87 year old Bill Duffin who, in 2011, broke the national 10 mile time trial for his age group. He completed the distance in 28m 23secs, at an average speed of 21.15 mph……very good by anyone’s standards. Another octogenarian and cycling companion, Peter Etheridge, has broken 13 bones in his body in separate cycling incidents and is still able to put in very respectable mileages at a good brisk pace. Then I received this cutting from one of my brothers, telling me that Arthur Gilbert is still competing in triathlons at the age of 90. Is there no limit? Apparently not!

A speculative 17th century encounter………..

Edward María Wingfield

At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:

During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany

Nicholas Ferrar

the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?

I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.

Notes from a Big Country: Bill Bryson

When you pick up a book and begin reading it, you usually have to make some mental shift to engage with the writer’s style, use of language, direction of story line…..and much more. Some of these shifts are so acute you will either falteringly read your way through the entire text or you will give up after the first few chapters. I find that if I cannot ‘connect’ with an author’s style or storyline within 20 pages, it goes back on the shelf or back to the library.

Bill Bryson, however, is a writer I connect with immediately. He is a keen observer of life. After spending many years living here in the UK and revealing all our foibles to the world at large, he returned to his native USA and discovered that, after so many years away, there was much about his own country that was ‘foreign’ to him. He has a sharp eye for the minute detail of life, and his observations (even when at their most critical) all seem to emerge from his own fundamental love for his homeland and fellow Americans.

This makes an ideal bedtime read. The chapters are made up from his weekly columns to the Mail on Sunday over an 18 month period, so they provide ideal ‘reading-bites’ to send you gently into the world of nod!

The Diary of Anne Frank

One of those fondly-remembered books of my early years of reading, I found a return to it in later life especially rewarding. Even now I still struggle to correlate the maturity and expressiveness of Anne Frank’s writing with the reality of her tender age. Her two years of incarceration in a ‘Secret Annexe’ in German-occupied Holland happened during her formative early teenage years, when most youngsters have their minds on things other than serious reading and writing. But her declared intention of becoming a journalist and writer in later life provides the background to the deep urge she has to express her life in words and, in the process, to keep depression and despair at bay during the difficult years of isolation.

Her deep desire to be much more than ‘just a housewife’, to become a famous writer and live on in the minds of people long after her death, made the following words her epitaph:

‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and express all that’s inside me!’

If you haven’t re-visited this book for many years, or even read it at all, I would recommend it highly.

You know what I mean…….?

We Brits famously use language for a variety of reasons other than to mean what the words actually say. Take, for instance, the notoriously increasing use of reverse psychology in teenage language over recent years. Years ago, when something was exceedingly good, it was either ‘fab‘ or ‘ace‘, or some other monosyllabic grunt that obviously meant ‘very good’. But as we entered the nineties and noughties, these expressions morphed into ‘cool‘, ‘wicked‘, ‘sick‘, ‘insane‘ and ‘dark‘, and a plethora of other words too rude to mention here.

This habit of understatement (even reversing the meaning) really hit home a few years ago when, near Alicante in Spain, I entered our hotel restaurant one morning for breakfast and asked the waiter how he was (¿Qué tal estamos, hombre?) and he answered in a most uncharacteristic way for a Spaniard (No muy mal). I had never heard anyone ever use that expression before. So I asked him what he meant by it. And he replied “Well it’s what you British people are always saying: not too bad“. Now this got me thinking. What do we Brits actually mean when we say “not too bad“?

David Cameron

Are we simply undecided about our current condition and this is a convenient way of sitting on the fence? Are we afraid of really declaring our cards by saying we feel great or awful (as the case may be)? Or is it simply unBritish to be upbeat about our own physical and mental condition? What would a psycholinguist say?

Linguistic subterfuge in our use of language was further confirmed when a friend passed on an Anglo-EU Translation Guide. At the moment of writing, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, is confronting some of our EU partners with some very tricky questions and possible changes to the constitution of the European Union. I am absolutely certain that language will be very carefully selected to both declare our intentions publicly and to hide some of our real goals and objectives, with the hope that much will be lost in translation anyway. But back to the Translation Guide. It would seem that the reverse psychology of teenage language is also shared by adults at all levels. When someone says “I hear what you say“, does that mean they are really listening? No not at all. It really means “I fundamentally disagree with you”. But a non-British person may not appreciate the subtlety. So too for the following: “With the greatest respect” (I think you are an idiot), “That is a very brave answer” (I think you are insane), “Very interesting” (That is clearly nonsense), “You must come to dinner” (I’m really just being polite) “I only have a few minor comments” (I think you should completely re-write this) and my favourite “I’m sure this is my fault entirely” (It’s actually your fault entirely).

One of the plainest speakers in recent times has been the King of Spain, Don Juan Carlos. A few years ago at the

Juan Carlos, King of Spain

Ibero-American summit, when Hugo Chávez was at his most rumbustious, Juan Carlos lost a little of his customary self-control. Chávez said some very negative things about Spain and Spanish politicians, and the King lost his rag just inches away from a live microphone, saying “Why don’t you just shut up!!” (¿Porqué no te callas?). A most unkingly thing to say at any time. The nett effect was that this linguistic sound-bite circulated the globe virally in a matter of seconds, it was picked up by a ring-tone company, and by the end of the

Hugo Chávez

day they had sold over half a million ring-tones of the King shouting to ChávezWhy don’t you just shut up!!” For a brief moment, the King had done wonders for a small sector of the Spanish economy. And this led to many other spin-offs: mugs, scarves, T-shirts, framed wall-mounts, bracelets and a host of other things, all proudly displaying the defiance of their King in front of the iron man of Latin America. In fact my own study is now draped with a large scarf which shouts at anybody who comes in with the intention of disturbing me: “¿Porqué no te callas?

What goes around, comes around.

There is an unwritten code amongst roadies that you should always stop when you see another cyclist in distress. The distress could be mechanical or personal, but your offer of assistance could be the only hand-up that comes their way. It happened to me over two years ago when I came off my bike on black ice and broke my femur. A passing cyclist (who happened to be driving to a meet-up point with a fellow cyclist) stopped, called an ambulance and stayed with me till the paramedics arrived. I was eternally grateful to him and to a local resident who stayed with me until I was whisked off to hospital.

But we have to bear in mind the reciprocal nature of giving and receiving. Just the other day, I passed a young cyclist walking by the roadside, pushing his bike up a hill. I stopped and asked if everything was OK. There was a long pause while he stopped, unplugged his iPod earphones, and eventually said: “Wha’s tha’ yuh said?“. I repeated my concern and asked if I could help him. “Ah, naw mate….. it’s just this bugger of a hill….I’m completely f…..ed!”. So with a clear conscience, I climbed back on my bike and enjoyed my descent down that very same hill.

The very next day, 20 miles into my journey to meet up with some cycling friends, I punctured. It was a complete blow-out. I was riding on the rims before I could stop the bike. So I inserted the new spare tube I was carrying. The tyre proved impossible to get back on without a tyre lever, but I knew using a tyre lever ran the risk of pinching the tube…….which, of course, I duly did. So my only spare tube was also punctured. Then, by chance, a passing motorist stopped and offered assistance, declaring he was a cyclist himself, and would I care to drop by his house in the next village where he could give me access to his workshop. Ten minutes later, he was offering me a brand new tube and a track pump to inflate the tyre. He would accept no payment for the tube, but simply asked me to say “Hi” to some of his friends he used to ride with in his racing days.

Jamie Carpenter is a Home Improvements Craftsman by trade. If I were to contract someone to work on my house, he would be the kind of guy I would trust.  If you live near him and need such services, look him up. He lives in Cranford, Northants  Tel:01536 330617 Mob:07870 442018  Email:

Budapest compressed

Buda Castle

I like to compare three day city-breaks to compressing large documents into a zip file. The contents of the files remain the same but the memory space occupied on your hard drive is much less. In like manner, the city you fly into for a lightening break maintains its usual size and intrigue, but the space it occupies in your life is compressed into just three days. I think of it as travelling ‘zip-file

The 'blue' Danube

style’. So to do our visit justice, my thoughts should also be compressed into a zip-file. What about text messaging language?

St Stephen's Basilica

Surprisd 2 fnd r hotel wz jst 2 doors frm d Turkish Embassy n a short wlk frm d ‘pink palace’ of d Korean embassy. jst as wel w’r on a fixed-price pkg deal!

Xmas marts fil us 2 d brim w carols, swEt cke n ht mulled wines, n dazzle us W d brite colours of twinkling lyts n gft stalls. Mulld wine is a heady treat wen d temp S below frezn!

On a sunny dy, d Danube realy s blu, Buda Castle rears ^ on its west bnk gazing

Night view of Buda Castle

broodingly ovr @ d remarkabl Parliament bldg on d east.

U cn cruz ^ n dwn d Danube, av evry fizikl ache adressed @ 1of d mne ancient spa baths, or st& n 1dr n d wide opn space of Heroes sq.

Hungary hs suffered a rugged n crippling recent past, bt hs risen frm d ashes of cmnst turmoil w a ;0) on its face. Budapest, I must cnfess, is a CT of supreme finesse n progress.

Christmas market

Market outside St Stephen's Basilica

Making 'chimney cake' - delicious!

Mathias Church

Ploughing Songs: Damian Croft

When a book pierces the outer membrane of one’s consciousness, like a computer the brain rattles through a multitude of reasons why one should, or should not, open the cover, glance at the title page, read the opening lines and………………  read or not to read it? I generally find a friend’s recommendation a powerful reason for embracing a book, and when it comes from the author himself, one who once sat in your classroom many years ago pretending to be absorbed in the learning of Spanish irregular verbs, your inducement becomes conclusive.

But much more than a favour to a former student, I found myself re-reading this volume of locally-inspired short stories simply because I wanted to re-visit some of the locations I know so well as a local resident and inveterate cyclist. But if I could ride a bike as eloquently as Damian writes, in his evocation of the local countryside and its people, there would be a certain poetic charm about turning the cranks. A short story writer faces a number of literary challenges: to engage you from the very first line of each narrative, to ensure you have connected with the main character(s) before you turn the first page, to harness your attention over the short-term, and enthuse you sufficiently to keep you turning the pages onto succeeding narratives that require a repetition of all the above.

Ploughing Songs is a book of short stories whose roots lie deep in the soil of Cambridgshire and, as you read them, like the coming of Spring, they burst into flower adding remarkable hues and tones to the sometimes undistinguished prairie landscapes of this part of rural England. And the engagement of the reader is achieved not only through intriguing tales that appear to come from the author’s local experiences, but also  through his bewitching use of descriptive language.  In Slip Jig I loved the description of Jessica: “her hair was growing wild and great long strands of a clematis-like mane flowed round her punky pre-Raphaelite face”. And in Ploughing Song, the solitary character of Stokes is beautifully encapsulated with: “Stokes barricaded loneliness, quietude, emotion from his soul by way of a singular, life-consuming hobby. I doubt it was a solution he’d meditated on, just one he’d arrived at with the slow, inevitable passing of years. As if it were a smouldering vocation that welled inside him like an unquelled violence”.

Ploughing Songs is a most eloquent memorial to the author’s deceased friend, Stephen Morley, thatcher.

To purchase a copy, click here.

Latin as a school’s ‘lingua franca’

Ushaw College (photo courtesy of Tony Gardner, taken from a hot-air balloon)

On a recent return visit to my ‘Alma Mater’ (Ushaw College, Durham) where I spent my formative teenage years living a quasi-monastic existence, I found myself plunged linguistically into the faintly forgotten past of  a truly classical education. If I were to preface this by saying that four of my the eight O Level subjects (GCSEs) at Ushaw were classical, namely Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History and Greek History, you would not be surprised to discover that the language of everyday College-life was riddled with, and indeed coloured by, classical vocabulary.

Furthermore, the dreaded annual ‘Reading-up’ ceremony was a clear demonstration of the importance of the Classics. The ceremony might be kindly described as the public acknowledgement of academic success, but the reality was somewhat different for the majority of students. Academic success was defined solely by your ‘success in Latin’, which for some was an annual ceremony of humiliation, because “many were called, but few were chosen”! Reading-up was an idiosyncratic ceremony (introduced with the words ‘Quod

Reading-up (Year 7)

felix faustumque sitmeaning ‘May it bring happiness and luck’!) where each year-group lined up in front of the whole College, and the results of the end-of-year examination in Latin were read out (in Latin, of course!). As your name was read out, you climbed back up to your seat in the Theatre. If you were in the top band, you hastened back to your seat soonest,  holding your head up high. If you were an ‘also-ran’, you suffered the utter humiliation of waiting for the previous 49 names to be called out, to be left there standing alone, before you could crawl back whimpering to your seat, which was inevitably at the top of the Theatre, making your retreat into oblivion long and painful. So unjust was this evaluation of  academic worth that students who were brilliant mathematicians and scientists were left stigmatised by their lack of success in Latin.

Aerial shot (courtesy of Tony Gardner)

But how did all this emphasis on the classics (especially Latin) impact on our everyday language? Well, ground-floor rooms were linked by an ambulacrum (corridor), homework was written up in a manuscript (exercise book), a period of evening silence was a magnum silentium,  an oral examination was known as a viva voce, and anyone who left the College before completing his studies, was referred to as Abiit re infecta (‘he left without the matter being completed’). Year groups were given singular names like Underlow (year 7), Low Figures (year 8), High Figures (year 9), Grammar (year 10), Syntax (year 11), Poetry (year 12) and Rhetoric (year 13). A permitted lie-in in the morning was called Aristote, the peculiar hat worn by clergy was known as a biretta, and a day free from classes was christened a Greek Playday!

At a much more prosaic (anglo-saxon) level, the terms we used to name some of the indescribable dishes served in the refectory were even more memorable. Pod (steamed pudding whose weight bore no relationship to its size!), Dead baby pudding (a forbidding swiss roll filled with red jam), Fly pie (pudding made of pastry and raisins), Squirt (jam spread on pastry, served with custard), Slops (any dessert like rice pudding, semolina, tapioca, sago etc…), and our bowels were kept in constant motion with regular servings of prunes and figs!

But frequently it’s the comic pidgin Latin that sticks in your memory: “Caesar ad sum iam forte, Pompey ad erat, Caesar sic in omnibus, Pompey init sat”!

Vento semper ut tuum in dorso. (May the wind be ever at your back!)

(Acknowledgement: grateful thanks to Pat Hurley who compiled a short dictionary of Ushaw vocabulary)

Ushaw College: a class reunites

Ushaw College

I have reported elsewhere on this blog (click here) about the closure of Ushaw College, for 203 years the principal Catholic Seminary in the north of England for the training of priests.  A general gathering for the final Grand Day last March (Old Boys Day) to mark the closure of the College ignited the idea of a first reunion of my own class in the College, which turned into a 50th anniversary celebration of the year many of us started our College careers (1961).

But these things do not happen without a prime mover, and our reunion would not have happened without the initiative and sterling efforts of Peter Forster, who dedicated many months and hundreds of hours in laying the foundations for what turned out to be a very happy and successful occasion in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Durham (only 3 miles from Ushaw). People were tentative and a little nervous about renewing contact with old school friends they hadn’t seen in over 43 years. Would

St Cuthbert´s Chapel

we all revert to our teenage personae, and use those dreaded nicknames we were glad to be rid of when we left the College? A master-stroke was to include partners and spouses. It must have been a daunting prospect for them, but they all settled happily to meeting a sea of new faces and learning some of the ‘truths’ about the lives of their men-folk which pre-dated their relationships.

A lively, convivial meal was happily interrupted by a Skyped video-conference with one of our class-mates living in Minnesota, also by the reading of a letter from another whose clerical duties prevented him from attending. And a couple of powerpoint slide-shows brought to life a host of faded black & white photos which happily showed all of us in our better-looking days, and

At table

brought to mind many anecdotal stories! For the Ushaw School 61-74 slide-show click here, and for the School 61-74 Portraits slide-show click here.

Although several at the reunion lived within a short radius of Durham, some had come considerable distances, including one from Rome, one from Normandy, and one might  have come from Dublin but for the sad news of his house being flooded by the recent rains.

For those who could stay the following day, we were treated to a final guided visit of the College before its definitive closure, and we now await news of how this remarkable property will be deployed in the future.

Gathering at Ushaw: back at the scene of our time

Little Bee…..but on the other hand……

If serendipity were a science, it would become subject to analysis and provide evidence for the forecasting of future happy events. However, the concept of ‘serendipity’ is so difficult to define that it was voted as one of the ten most awkward English words to translate into other languages. At its simplest level, it refers to a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’. Here is an example of something that happened to me recently. I copy the email that I sent to two unconnected friends who live 4000 miles apart:

Hi Libby and Peter!
you two don’t know each other. In fact, you live about 4000 miles apart (Libby lives in Michigan, USA and Peter in Northampton, UK). But something remarkable has recently linked you both. Let me explain………….
After a delightful weekend with Libby and Ed in Michigan, we were given a book entitled Little Bee,  to be read and passed on to someone else (in the excellent World Book Night tradition). However, a week before Jenny and I had set off on our tour across the American continent, Peter had sent us a book entitled The other hand, and I told Peter I would keep it for when we returned to the UK.
On the long journey back from the US, I read most of Libby’s book, and found it deeply moving and very disturbing. When we got back home, I sat down in my study only to be confronted by Peter’s book awaiting my return. I noticed that the author of both was Chris Cleave, but was puzzled that he had written both books in the same year, one published by an American, and the other by a British publisher. Very strange. And neither edition made any reference to the prior publication of the other (most books give a list of previously published works by the same author).
Then I read the opening lines of both books and discovered they were one and the same book, but with different titles!

I love reading books recommended by friends, but to be given two identical books (albeit with different titles) by two unconnected friends so many miles apart, within the space of three weeks………………………………… a mere coincidence? I’ll let you decide.

And this is a book I can heartily recommend to anyone. It deals with the tricky problems experienced by an asylum seeker in the UK, and the ending is a little unexpected. I say no more.

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