Sunday, 23 August 2009

Amanuensis

T here on behalf of Gaw. He just wanted to let you know that the operation went well, and he is on the road to recovery. He sends thanks to everyone for their kind wishes.

And for those of you who have been reading this, you will realise that the fact he asked for the Review section of the Saturday paper within very few hours of the anaesthetic wearing off means that they did not remove anything vital.

UPDATE:

T again. I'm afraid some complications mean that Gaw's absence is a bit longer than anticipated. It all seems to be under control, though, and we expect him to be out of hospital within a week. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. No important reading matter updates but he is still ploughing through the weighty tomes, no doubt in search of ideas for posts.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The surgeon gets to work

I began this blog at the beginning of the year as I was bored. The boredom was provoked by having to hang around the house: I've been ill on and off for over a year now, work and trips providing occasional punctuations. Nothing life-threatening or totally incapacitating, just something uncomfortable, debilitating and frustratingly stubborn.

Anyway, I've now exhausted all pharmacological avenues in the search for health and tomorrow will go under the knife, the first of three operations. Radical but, I'm assured, a sort of cure. I therefore forecast very light blogging for the next week. Very light everything in fact.

However, I'm casting my mind forward to that glorious day of feeling entirely well and wondering what will become of the blog. Well, having begun it merely to fill time, I appear to have stumbled across something which has really shocked me in its enjoyableness. I can hardly express how much fun it has been to write up my various musings and observations. And it's been a pleasant bonus that there are some out there willing to regularly read them, and even occasionally comment. So, I'm expecting blogging to continue, at least for as long as I have a thought in my head.

First, though, the op. I'm pretty squeamish, but surgery is something that surely holds intrinsic interest for everyone (literally, I suppose). Some of the best passages in Claire Tomalin's superb biography of that proto-blogger Samuel Pepys, concern his surgery for the 'stone' (a stone in the bladder, formed through the agglomeration of minerals in the urine, which if not voided becomes progressively more painful).

The preparation for the operation was really quite pleasant:
The sick person was advised to cultivate a calm frame of mind and to avoid anger or sadness; he should feel confidence in the surgeon, even affection (all this modern-sounding advice comes from contemporary manuals). And surgeons were encouraged to give their patients an honest account of what they were to undergo. Wine was not allowed during the preparatory weeks, only sweet drinks made from almond, cucumber and melon, and a diet of fresh meat, chicken, pigeon, eggs, butter, barley and water-gruel. In the days before the operation Pepys would have been given warm baths - possibly an unprecedented experience - and kept in a warm bed. His belly would be rubbed with unguents, he would be bled in the arm and given gentle purges, until the final day, when he was left in peace and simply served with a good meal.
On the day of the surgery a lightly boiled egg was recommended...He had a last bath, was dried, told to take a turn or two around the room and offered a specially prescribed drink made of liquorice, marshmallow, cinnamon, milk, rosewater and the whites of fifteen eggs - six ounces to be swallowed with an ounce of syrup of althea and other herbs, a large dose for a nervous man to swallow.
Then things turn rather less pleasant:
After this he was asked to position himself on a table, possibly covered with a straw-filled bag into which he could be settled while the process of binding him up began. Some surgeons thought it wise to say a few reassuring words at this point, because the binding was terrifying to many patients. They were trussed like chickens, their legs up, a web of long linen strips wound round legs, neck and arms that was intended to hold them still and keep their limbs out of the surgeon's way. The instructions for the binding alone take up several pages of one manual; and when it was done the patient was further bound to the table. He was shaved around his privy parts, and a number of strong men were positioned to hold him fast: 'two whereof may hold him by the knees, and feet, and two by the Arme-holes and hands... The hands are also sometimes tyed to the knees, with a particular rowler, or the knees by themselves, by the help of a pulley fastened into the table'. Meanwhile the surgeon lubricated his instruments with warm water and oil or milk of almonds: the catheter, the probe, the itinerarium, the specular, the pincers, small hooks and so forth; he also had powder to stop bleeding, sponges and cordial waters to hand. There were no anaesthetics, and alcohol was certainly not allowed to a patient undergoing surgery to the bladder.
Finally, the unpleasantness really gets underway:

The surgeon got to work. First he inserted a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, through the penis into the bladder to help position the stone. Then he made the incision, about three inches long and a finger’s breadth from the line running between scrotum and anus, and into the neck of the bladder, or just below it. The patient’s face was sponged as the incision was made. The stone was sought, found and grasped with pincers; the more speedily it could be got out the better. Once out, the wound was not stitched—it was thought best to let it drain and cicatrize itself—but simply washed and covered with a dressing, or even kept open at first with a small roll of soft cloth known as a tent, dipped in egg white. A plaster of egg yolk, rose vinegar and anointing oils was then applied.

I'm grateful that today we can rely on more than a sponging of the face and the application of eggs for relief. (Reminds me of how you were advised to temporarily patch up a leaking car radiator in the old days: drop in a raw egg). But what was it with all the eggs? A couple of dozen of them figure, at least. After all that, I'm not sure I could look an egg full in the face ever again.

The stone was described as 'very great': the size of a real tennis ball, with a diameter a little over two inches. Pepys had a little display case made for it and intended to celebrate the operation annually, on 'Stone Day'. The excellent surgeon, a Mr Hollier, was attached to St Barts, a medieval charitable foundation set up by the City of London. My surgeon has the same affiliation, another of London's continuities.

But thank God for the odd discontinuity! We really are very lucky to live when we do. Anyway bon chance et bon courage! (French always sounding devil-may-care when shouted with sufficient gusto).

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rooted cosmopolitanism: staple foods

More historical pedantry proving that cosmopolitanism (rooted, rather than rootless) can give us what we think of as most uniquely our own (more here and here).

First, fish and chips. Couldn't be more British? True - now, anyway. But it began life as the mixed race (or dual heritage, if you prefer) Whitechapel-born child of the potato-loving Irish and the piscaphilic Jewish.

Once the Irish could be persuaded to try their favourite staple French-style, the two were deep-fried together, a method of cooking fish introduced by the Jews. It made a tasty, nourishing and convenient meal that happily meant some religious dietary requirements could be observed, especially on a Friday, when a fish supper appealed to both Jewish and Catholic traditions. Adapted further - spoilt really - in the more barbarous parts of the country through the addition of mushy peas (wrong, just wrong).

Secondly, the ice cream van: as exotic as Macdonalds. Its origin is to be found in the back streets of Clerkenwell, a home for nineteenth century Italian immigrants (whose descendants still run some excellent delis and cafes in the area).

Some of these Italians entertained the London public with organ music accompanied by a capering monkey. Others, from different regions of the home country, made ice cream, selling it from stalls. An obvious synergy there.

Following some intense merger and acquisition activity a new food and leisure conglomerate emerged: the organ-grinding ice cream seller, horse-drawn or hand-pulled. Watch my monkey caper whilst sucking on a delicious ice! No wonder it caught on.

Like all good entrepreneurs, the Italians kept an eye on technological innovation. Motorising the barrel organ was only a matter of time: the modern-day ice cream van, complete with whippy cones and 'o sole mio' chimes arrived in the 1950s, a clarion call to ices. Shame about the monkey.


Motorised Italian barrel organ, with ice cream, without monkey

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Comprehensive Grammars

OK, it might be Toby Young's idea, but don't let that put you off; it's a good one. Taking advantage of the Tories proposed 'Swedish schools' policy, which will allow people to set up their own state-funded schools, he aspires to create locally what he calls 'a Comprehensive Grammar...a school that embodies the ethos of an old-fashioned Grammar but which has a non-selective intake'.

Everyone thinks they're an expert on the education of our young people - I guess, because everyone used to be one. So here's the benefit of my expertise. I went to a comp, a big one, that when I arrived was poor but improving and is now improved (one of the best in the county, I understand).

I think it was good at providing the broad mass of pupils with a reasonable education. I also think it provided an excellent social education, one which it would be impossible to receive in the independent sector. But it fell down with those who weren't at all academic - it didn't provide much to interest them, there being a bias towards academic rather than vocational education. Paradoxically, perhaps, it was also poor at supporting the academically gifted: pupils were rarely pushed to aspire for the best.

(My guess is that a statistical analysis of state school results would show the greatest failures at either end of the bell curve.)

The worst conditions for the bright kids were in mixed-ability sets, which in my experience were disastrous. Typically, the not so academic pupils had little interest in the subject and wanted to fool around. Eventually, the more academic ones (such as myself) gave up trying to learn and threw their lot in with the trouble-makers (or at least this is what I put my poor grade in 'O' Level History down to, which, as I went on to get two higher degrees in the subject, does seem a bit anomalous). Thankfully, only a couple of subjects were taught mixed-ability.

The best atmosphere for learning was when there was a bright, uncompromisingly academic teacher, accompanied by a group of bright pupils. Information and method would be imparted with clarity and discipline. But, at certain points, intriguing thoughts might be pursued or a challenging problem addressed. Ensuring that the methodological foundations are in place is of the first importance. Then it's these diversions and 'reading around the subject' that give you the polish to go from a reasonable grade to good or good to excellent.

But why didn't this happen enough? I think the main reason was there didn't seem to be the will, outside of a small handful of teachers, to pursue a more demanding approach. I hate to say it, as I like my old school, but there was a default culture of mediocrity, of doing OK and no more. Could the teachers, a good proportion of whom weren't that bright, have managed to implement a more demanding approach? Certainly not all, but I'm sure enough to make a real difference.

As I said, the school also failed the non-academic. But perhaps a sort of Comprehensive Technical Grammar approach could be implemented for these pupils?

So focusing on culture and aspirations - rather than selection - would have a good chance of improving standards for the widest possible number of pupils, in my view. But the foundation for this ethos has to come from those traditional educational enablers, discipline and competition. Young says:
I needed a disciplined, competitive environment in order to thrive and I suspect the same is true of a lot of other children too.
I mentioned at the beginning that the school was poor but improving when I arrived and is now improved, being one of the best in the county. I'm absolutely sure that the improvement coincided with the arrival, just before me, of a new headmaster, Mr Saunders.

I thought he was a bit of a bastard, actually (of course). But then this was the key. He imposed discipline, partly by having something of an aura (he was a tall, bald, bespectacled man who wore dark grey three-piece pinstripe suits and had a horrible buck-toothed bark). He continually stressed the importance of learning and strictly adhering to certain (traditional) standards of behaviour. That is, he acted like a Grammar school head. But one man is rarely enough to go the whole way, what with fifteen hundred pupils, over fifty teachers, and a Local Education Authority to contend with.


Mr Saunders, the perfect head for the Comprehensive Grammar


UPDATE: A culture of mediocrity seems to be actively encouraged in the state sector.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A healthcare crib

Healthcare reform: not something I would usually find interesting enough to post on. But as it may come to determine the success of Obama's presidency, I feel I should know something about it. Helpfully, Paul Krugman has written a simple summary of where the US may be heading, with the help of a very clear international healthcare system typology.

I feel better for knowing. And can now start ignoring it again.


H/t to the clean-cut, no nonsense, probably smokes a pipe, Thomas P.M. Barnett.

Night terrors

Worm reckons day-sleeping (something new-dad Brit is having resort to) can contribute to night terrors. My experience leads me to agree. I can't blame my diurnal snoozing on something as glamorous as Worm's nightclubbing, though.

When I was a student (second time round) I often found it a struggle to leave the college bar of an evening; this meant I couldn't help napping with my head ensconced in the creamy pages of a dog-eared tome the following afternoon. And lo! the night terrors began.

I experienced them just a handful of times but they took a peculiar form. I would wake in the early hours to feel a presence at the end of the bed. 'Opening' my eyes (still partly asleep) I would see hovering there the pale figure of a little old man, sunken cheeked and balding but with wispy white tendrils of hair brushing his shoulders. He invariably wore a silk patterned kimono wrapped tight around his shrunken form.

Gratifyingly, in a way, my response was to leap out of bed and, with a blood curdling scream, attack the little blighter. Of course, I ended up crashing into the opposite wall of my small college room.

Naturally, living in a communal house in the grounds of a communal college, this sort of thing gets noticed. I know it freaked out some, who assumed the house was haunted (or at least, that's what they claimed).

In the years immediately after leaving college - perhaps half-a-dozen times - I felt a similar presence but not in its original charming form. Thankfully, I learnt to moderate my response: a sharp gasp before rolling back over to sleep.

'The city's uncounted population'

London is a peculiarly ancient city. There are cities with older buildings (Athens, for instance) or housing an older institution (Rome and the papacy). I can't think of any, though, that are home to so many long-established but continuing institutions, some still located on the same sites or, even, still housed in their foundational buildings. Parliament, Crown, Inns of Court, the City with its Mayor and Guilds, the produce markets, even the London crowds and their gathering places.

Much of this has arisen outside the state - created to meet the needs of self-organising citizens - and so has underwritten London's organic, spontaneous quality, its notable anarchies, organised or otherwise.

I'm not sure the imagination is capable of encompassing the richness and depth of the sedimentary layers that support today's city. Reading The Noble Revolt whilst away, describing how the clash between the king and a cabal of nobles triggered civil war, I was struck by how some of the important precedents cited by the disaffected of the early 1640s dated from the parliamentary struggles of the 1380s, more than 250 years earlier (this period itself being more than 200 years after the Conquest). London and its institutions must have felt impressively ancient nearly five hundred years ago.

Despite occasional vandalism (the botched and whimsically ignorant attempt to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in 2004 springs to mind), continuities persist. And not just in the names of offices and institutions: as Bunny Smedley has remarked, The Noble Revolt's story of elite politics - with its smears, personal hatreds and manipulation of popular emotions - has close parallels in today's politics of spin.

London almost features as a character (or characters) in its own right in The Noble Revolt. It does too in Hilary Mantel's fine novel Wolf Hall (another holiday book). It's a sympathetic study of Thomas Cromwell, conducted through some terrifically written dialogue and internal monologue. He's portrayed as fascinatingly adept and canny. A self-made man: learned, cosmopolitan, practical, resourceful. I found this written portrait particularly compelling having been transfixed by the beadily detailed one (above) by Holbein in the Frick; so psychologically absorbing, I struggled to tear myself away.

The novel could be read with benefit alongside Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, a contrasting companion piece (mirrored at the Frick where Holbein's portrait of Cromwell shares a room with his one of More (below): the air fairly crackles). But despite disclosing very different sympathies with these intriguingly matched adversaries, both books contain - or rather, are contained within - marvelous evocations of the city.

Mantel's story rotates around the royal court - microcosmically representative - where 'man is wolf unto man'. The predatory and bestial is never far away and England's founding mythologies play out in the background. But this isn't an exercise in psychogeography. The book is rooted very much in quotidian reality and human preoccupations: power, love, ambition, greed, amusement.

Nevertheless, a book about ancient London wouldn't be complete without a diversion through the city's strange bestiaries. Anne Boleyn, on her processional journey from Greenwich to her Westminster coronation, travelled the first part via the arterial Thames (the river is brilliantly described throughout). The party then proceeded on land:
Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall, Cheap, Paul's Churchyard, Fleet, Temple Bar, Westminster Hall. So many fountains flowing with wine that it's hard to find one flowing with water. And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, leathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed in their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.
Without doubt, the city's populations - past and present - have been wonderfully well-served by these books.


[Thanks to I'vebeenreadinglately for starting off this train of thought].

Gaw

I comment on this blog and elsewhere as Gaw, a name I didn't consciously choose. Blogger asks you to give yourself a user name and not really understanding how this would be used, I just put in my initials (which I'd also used on the blog address to make this 'ragbag' blog my own).

Then, when I started commenting on other people's blogs whilst logged in (blogger ones anyway) I appeared as 'gaw'. Soon people started addressing me as 'Gaw', so this is what I changed it to.

Gaw: pretty meaningless, I thought, but that's fine. But then, when out googling, I came across a word 'gaw'. Following the usual procedures, I wikipedia-ed it. It actually has two meanings, which seem oddly pertinent. The first is a verb:

gaw

See also Gaw.

Contents

[hide]

editEnglish

editEtymology

Old Norse .

editPronunciation

editVerb

gaw

  1. (obsolete) to stare or gape


The second is a surname, derived from a noun:

Gaw

See also gaw

Contents

[hide]

editEnglish

editEtymology

From Scottish Gaelic gall (foreigner or stranger), meaning:

  • (Irish) a person from Wales or England who immigrated after the Norman invasion, or
  • (Scottish) a person from Scandinavia or the English-speaking lowlands.

editProper noun

Gaw

  1. A surname.

editReferences



To summarise. Firstly, to gaw is to gape and stare (surely related to gawp, to stare stupidly). It's obsolete. Secondly, a gaw is someone who immigrated from Wales to Ireland after the Norman invasion (I meet the timing criterion, albeit loosely, but ended up in England - so, not exact but close).

Uncanny.

Monday, 17 August 2009

A fortnight playing the aquatic ape

Since first hearing about it, I've found the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis intriguing. The Daily Dish picked up on a talk given by one of its main supporters, and helpfully summarises the extant human features that support it:
As compared to the great apes, their nearest living relatives, humans exhibit many significant differences in anatomy and physiology, including bipedalism, almost hairless skin like some marine mammals, hair growth patterns following water flow-lines, increased subcutaneous fat for insulation, descended larynx, vestigial webbing between the fingers, vernix caseosa, a hooded nose, muscular nostril aperture control and the philtrum preventing water from entering the nostrils, voluntary breath control like marine mammals and birds, and greasy skin with an abundance of sebaceous glands, which can be interpreted as a waterproofing device.*
(No mention is made of it here, but subsisting on a diet of shell-fish is also adduced as facilitating a leap in brain size: granny was right about the benefits of fish. The first human journeys, through which the species colonised the planet, also appear to have been made along coasts).

The hypothesis's attraction for me is quite personal. I find it impossible to relax fully on holiday without water and sunshine. Warming up, whilst stretching out with a good book, alternated with frequent dips to cool down is a sine qua non of hols.

It's obviously not just me either: isn't it striking that as soon as man had the material and technological ability to do so, he (and wife and kids) vacated to a sunny, little sandy inlet (or its equivalent)?

I guess it's a bit like that brilliant Ken Russell film Altered States: as we get on the plane or cross the water we're preparing to make the (sometimes traumatic) reversion to a primaeval coastal past. Palms itch, perspiration breaks out, feelings of seediness and fatigue almost overwhelm. Then, arrival: strip down, jump in, wallow about: back to our true state of nature. The addition of fresh seafood and a form of fermented fruit juice helps too.

Here I am emerging from my hotel bedroom on a recent seaside trip:



* I'm persuaded by the 'weak' version - hanging out in rock pools for a few thousand years - more convincing than the 'strong', which posits we lived almost amphibiously, otter-like.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Umbrella

Back in London after a peaceful, sunny holiday. Reading the passage below, I feel I'm in real need of an umbrella:
Oh, what a good friend to a man is an umbrella in rain time, and likewise at many other times. What need he fear if a wild bull or a ferocious dog attacks him, provided he has a good umbrella? He unfurls the umbrella in the face of the bull or dog, and the brute turns round quite scared, and runs away. Or if a footpad asks him for his money, what need he care provided he has an umbrella? He threatens to dodge the ferrule into the ruffian's eye, and the fellow starts back and says, "Lord, sir! I meant no harm. I never saw you before in all my life. I merely meant a little fun." Moreover, who doubts that you are a respectable character provided you have an umbrella? You go into a public-house and call for a pot of beer, and the publican puts it down before you with one hand without holding out the other for the money, for he sees that you have an umbrella and consequently property. And what respectable man, when you overtake him on the way and speak to him, will refuse to hold conversation with you, provided you have an umbrella? No one. The respectable man sees you have an umbrella, and concludes that you do not intend to rob him, and with justice, for robbers never carry umbrellas. Oh, a tent, a shield, a lance, and a voucher for character is an umbrella. Amongst the very best friends of man must be reckoned an umbrella.'
An upswelling of enthusiasm, which appears apropos of not much at all (well, rain), in George Borrow's 'Wild Wales'. He must have felt his 'eulogium' needed a bit of explanation, footnoting it as follows:
As the umbrella is rather a hackneyed subject two or three things will of course be found in the above eulogium on an umbrella which have been said by other folks on that subject; the writer, however, flatters himself that in his eulogium on an umbrella two or three things will also be found which have never been said by any one else about an umbrella.
Rather bizarre - endearingly so - but I'm convinced. Must try not to lose it.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The playful ogre

One of the books I've been reading on holiday is Byron Rogers' biography of RS Thomas, which I somehow missed when it was published in 2006. It's a great success, seeming to capture him more than the earlier one by Justin Wintle, which set out as a quest in search of the man and poet but whose quarry ultimately proved too elusive.

This must be partly down to Rogers being as familiar with Thomas's context and some of his subject matter as the poet himself: he's a Welsh-speaking son of a Carmarthen farming family. What's more, Wintle was too straightforwardly ingenuous. Rogers, on the other hand. has a sidelong, mischievous approach, anecdotal and full of asides, ironies, and sly observations; fully aware of the absurd. It seems to catch a crafty, taciturn Welshman, it's best to set on him a crafty, garrulous one.

It's an amusing book with some vignettes that threaten to tip over into the fully comic (incredibly, a BBC producer who'd spent time with Thomas claimed he'd met three truly funny men in his life: Lenny Bruce, Ken Dood...and RS Thomas). Rogers had known Thomas for many years, another strength.

Some characteristic themes emerge. His houses are always cold, literally close to freezing (when he and his artist wife rented out their retirement cottage, all the new tenant had to do to get a new council house was invite social services to inspect his current dwelling). Rogers quotes from an earlier interview he'd conducted with the poet, who was generous with his time and tolerant of the published article's detractions:

'The house is cold, even austere. Cold pastels, pale waxed wood, the white skulls of sheep and dogs laid on a bleached oak chest, [his wife] Miss Eldridge's pale fantasies in oil and watercolour, and, in one of the drawing rooms, the feathers and bodies of dead birds which both Thomases have picked up, and preserved, so a burglar might think himself in the house of a taxidermist with an artistic bent. In one of his poems Thomas had written about the 'strict palate' and the 'simple house', but after a half-hour of trying to be Heathcliff I asked whether we might have the second bar of the electric fire. He smiled, which is to say his lips curved suddenly downward. 'My wife always says people would freeze in our house'.

A pretty good cameo of Thomas, that. Austereness, to the point of mild sado-masochism, leavened somewhat by humour. Capable of personal kindnesses – sometimes to painstaking lengths – but with regular displays of misanthropy, that ran deep.

He was also much more artfully self-conscious in the construction of a persona than one would have guessed (that house could have come out of World of Interiors). Even something of a fake: he spoke English (his first language) with an implausible cut glass accent, originally adopted to annoy Welsh nationalist students at Bangor; he seemed to feel most comfortable socialising with the English upper middle classes and was a snob; he sent his reluctant son off to an English boarding school and didn't bother that he never learnt Welsh. These all seem highly unlikely revelations to anyone who's read the poetry, which is quoted throughout. A regular reminder that art is mysteriously capable of utterly transcending personality.

Perhaps one of the most striking conclusions to be drawn from the book is that this determinedly taciturn, undemonstrative and non-tactile clergyman was quite probably one of the greatest love poets of recent times. Rogers reckons the poem below, written about his first wife shortly after her death, 'as delicate and lovely as anything in the English language', making a parallel with Hardy. There's something about its delicate interweaving of the natural and the human that reminds me of Esenin (peasants, nature, narod, God: is Thomas a Russian poet?):

'We met
under a shower
of bird notes.
Fifty years passsed.
Love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
'Come' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.'

(The Sunday Times printed this poem in 1995, on his nomination for the Nobel Prize; he requested the £100 fee be paid to his soon-to-be second wife, as 'compensation'.)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

More dead dogs

Holidays always make me reminisce, which accounts for another post involving family history. I've got no idea how boring a topic this is for readers. But I feel justified - if I don't write this stuff up, I can't think who else will. Yes, I owe it to future generations. Grand.

It follows similar lines to 'Tales of Welsh Tractors', in that it features canicide. Please don't get the wrong idea - my family likes dogs, almost all of the time. Having written it up, I also see some analogies with the play Jerusalem.

If you've read my previous post, you may know a bit about my Nain's family, the newly impoverished Thomases, who farmed a number of small tenancies in the valleys north of Cardiff. (If you haven't, this is all you need to know). The main farm used to stand on the slopes of one of those valleys, sitting above a typical industrial South Walian village.

I say 'used to stand' as it's finally been engulfed by the village's remorseless rise up the valley side - a few years ago the farm and its outbuildings were converted into quite nice commuter homes for Cardiffian professionals. I would guess its land is now devoted mostly to the pursuit of 'equine leisure' (I wouldn't be surprised if there were now more riding stables in the valleys than there were ever mines and foundries).

The 1950s saw the first big lurch upwards in this process of development with the construction of what would eventually become a very large council estate. At the time, Dad and his parents were living on the farm with a host of other relatives in what we would now call an extended family unit.

The new estate was built largely on the bottom fields of the farm, which must have been sold by the land's owner or compulsorily purchased. This upset the extended family unit and Dad decided to take action. Although just a young boy, he jumped on his horse, grabbed an axe, and proceeded to chop down all the builder's signs on the new development. For some reason, no action was taken once his misdemeanour was discovered.

Anyway, the estate went up, and was gradually extended. As was the already well-extended Thomas family unit, to such an extent that Dad and his parents overspilled into one of the council houses for a few years (you see, we're nearly all of us villagers, really).

However, this period of peaceful co-existence was not to last. As the 1960s wore on, the council house tenants, satisfied at finding themselves in their own place complete with back garden and on the edge of open fields, thought it would be nice to get themselves a dog.

They had the resources, space, the weekend leisure. However, when all householders went out to work for the day, what they didn't have was anyone at home to look after the creatures. And what a mess they made! Better turn them out in the mornings and let them in again when back from work.

But this led to daytime strays. And if you collect enough daytime strays together, you get packs. And when packs of dogs are free to roam neighbouring farmland you get what must be for dogs an exhilarating bit of fun: the sheep hunt.

The consequences were, I suppose, inevitable. A cutting from the local newspaper survived into my youth: one photo of Dad kneeling down, broken shotgun over his arm, inspecting a recently killed dog. Either in the background, or pictured in a separate photo (I forget) is a trailer, full of similarly dead dogs. In all he must have killed dozens of the bastards.

The story was reported in non-sensational terms, and was broadly, if sadly, sympathetic to Dad. But this was a time when farming was seen as a serious business, mostly concerned with the provision of food - this substance still being regarded as the stuff of life rather than a lifestyle accessory. I leave it to you to imagine how the story would be reported today, and whether Dad would have been well-advised to have his image in the paper.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Assisted suicide, old style

[I'm on hols and blogging in occasional moments of respite from the pool, etc.].

I haven't been following the debate on assisted suicide closely (it's a bit depressing, after all). So when I say I haven't heard much acknowledgment that there's always been a fair bit of it about, often sponsored by understanding members of the medical profession, it may be because I've missed it.

In any event, I believe the usual procedure is that, following a family conference involving sympathetic doctors, an excess of opiates is administered to the patient for the purposes of - with some understandable euphemism - 'pain relief'. I'm not sure that in every instance the patient consents.

I would have thought most families have some connection with this situation and my family is no exception. However, one instance, confirmed by my Great-Aunt J____ just before she died last year, had the emphasis unduly on the assisted end of the process. Indeed, the element of suicide was negligible, and only present at all if we engage the sentimental concept that Welsh men of a certain temperament have a tendency to self-destruct.

My paternal grandmother (Nain in Welsh*), Auntie J____'s sister, was from a farming family that had once enjoyed considerable wealth from coal undertakings. A direct ancestor was the archetype of the widowed little woman who takes on her late husband's enterprise, and makes an improbable success of it. She was so successful as to be considered a founder of the British export coal trade, a trade that established the metropolis of Cardiff, whose docks early last century shipped more coal than any in the world. She must have been worth a few bob. I believe she appears, as herself or thinly disguised, in a number of romantic novels.

But the wealth was created a couple of generations or so before the arrival of my Nain and, as is often the way, by then there was very little of it left. A disadvantageous second marriage, which diverted wealth down another branch of the family, and ensuing litigation were factors. But probably just as important were inheritable and somewhat contradictory family tendencies to unbalancing overwork and reckless hedonism (tendencies seemingly present at the inception: I was told the matriarch lost her husband to a faulty coal-crusher, inspected on a Sunday whilst wearing an over-long cloak; but this may have been an earlier family member).

The matriarch's son was known as The Gentleman. The soubriquet may have contained an acknowledgment that one of the things that gentlemen could afford to be was heedlessly dissolute. He enjoyed luxury and gambled a fortune away. Family legend has it that in some game of chance he lost a street of houses in Cardiff to the Marquess of Bute (the local magnate).

Following the assiduous efforts of The Gentleman there doesn't seem to have been a lot left other than a few farm tenancies and some way-leaf payments (one of the subjects of the litigation I believe). My father grew up on one of these farms and I was born on another (see this post for a story connected with the latter).

So the Gentleman's son, Nain's Papa, was probably dealt enough to give him a sense of position but not enough to afford it. He was stereotypical, in a way, being the martinet to his wife and six children at home and indulgent to self and others in free-and-easy fashion when out and about, which he very often was. I remember Nain recounting with tears in her eyes how she took on the milk-round as soon as she was big enough to drive a horse and cart, setting off at dawn or earlier year after year, but almost never being shown any signs of appreciation, let alone love (I think he may have stroked her hand once).

Drink and women were his downfall (gambling wasn't mentioned, though he had a weakness for horses – as did most of the family, so perhaps it didn't seem worth mentioning). One apparent virtue was hard work, but in reality and as with some other family members, the form it took added it to his vices, being manifest in unsustainable bursts of intensive labour that left him laid up, sometimes for days.

You've probably already guessed that his wife, Nana as she was known to me (she died shortly after I was born), was a matriarchal angel, long-suffering and almost endlessly tolerant. She exhausted various avenues in the attempted reform of her husband, including removing all alcohol from the house and successfully persuading the village's pubs not to serve him (she was formidable too).

But it was to no avail: apparently his lady friends in the village would host him in turn, lavish with their home-made wines and ciders (photographs show him as handsome, in a high cheek-boned, wolfish sort of way with a twinkle in his otherwise milkily pale, rather vacant eyes; I would bet he also possessed some charisma).

So the years passed. Uproarious, swinish drunkenness was interspersed with bursts of insanely hard work, driving himself and others. Bacchanalian absences exchanged themselves for similarly long periods spent in bed. Hare-brained schemes chased themselves into oblivion. His lack of appreciation of family was compounded by fierce, irrational tempers. And by the time he was in his fifties he was pretty much what the Welsh call 'twp', loosely translated as 'off his head'.

An extended stay at Bridgend (the usual locational euphemism being used here too) was medically recommended. But the shame of it! And anyway what sort of life could the silly bugger look forward to now? Thankfully, Auntie J____ was a sister at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, she had contacts with understanding doctors. And following the usual conference there was what I would hope was an atypically early and heavy administration of the right sort of narcotic. Papa passed away; peacefully - if unavoidably - compliant for once.


* As a South Walian in those days, she was not a Welsh speaker (she did, though, use a number of Welsh words without being fully aware she was doing so), making it unusual for her to be called 'nain'. However, her husband, my Taid, was a Welsh speaker from the North and they adopted his family's naming habits.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Wild Wales, the wild Irish and others

[Just so you know, this is one I wrote earlier and has been posted whilst I'm on holiday.]

Apparently, Muslim extremism is on the wane in Europe. I can't say I'm that surprised: I always suspected a miserably self-denying death cult was unlikely to become - or remain - that popular.

The article relating this was also arguing that European Muslim populations have become more integrated into their host societies in recent years. Defining and determining integration is a slippery job and the piece's conclusions are mostly based on inferences. It's also something a paper like the Observer would want to be true (wouldn't we all?). But I feel there's something in it.

Concerns about mass immigration are sometimes dismissed with the argument that Britain is a mongrel nation anyway; that it's been repeatedly invaded by immigrants from the Cro-Magnons onwards. This isn't true. Britain might well be mongrelly, but that's mostly down to the English having worked over their archipelagan neighbours at a time before the idea of a pure pedigree nation state had been invented. Mass immigration, on the other hand, is a rare phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the last time it happened - and also involved a potentially threatening religion - it turned out all right, eventually. I'm referring to the 'Barbaric and Papist Irish', as I think Milton called them, who started to come over in large numbers in the nineteenth century.

I found a reminder of this whilst strolling through George Borrow's 'Wild Wales'. I bought a copy, second-hand, at Hay-on-Wye: a blue pocket-size hardback printed on good quality paper (no foxing), illustrated with black-and-white photos and for the ridiculous price of £2.

It's a wonderfully relaxing book. It straightforwardly recounts Borrow's vagarious walks across the country, the conversations with people he comes across on his way and his learned ruminations on bards, poetry, travel, Wales, language, landscape, traditions, ale, character and nationality.

It has a few odd and memorable incidents featuring the wild Irish. They appear fairly regularly in Wild Wales, and are portrayed as an alien and often threatening intrusion (or at least threatening to the locals; Borrow always retains his cool). Caricatures of the Irish abound in writing and illustrations of the period, particularly in newspapers, and it might be argued that Borrow's portraits follow the usual lineaments.

However, I think Borrow, whilst undoubtedly having a taste for picturesque characters, can be broadly trusted in his descriptions. He certainly shows more sympathy to the Irish than the society around him, a sympathy partly generated by his broad-minded pity for their poverty-enforced exile. It also, surely, comes from the same source as his love of gypsies: wild and ragged the Irish may be, but they also possess a sort of freedom. Nevertheless, they remain a rough, ready and superstitious crew; there's a deal of truth in every caricature.

Anyway, here's his account of an incident at Caer Gybi (Holyhead on Anglesea), from where the ferry to Dun Laoghaire still departs. He's taking a stroll down the pier when he comes across 'two or three dozen of Irish reapers...well-made middle sized fellows with rather a ruffianly look...[with]...shillealahs either in their hands or by their sides'. His presence provokes 'a great commotion amongst them' and he's approached by one of them:

'He stopped within a yard of me and took off his hat. He was an athletic fellow of about twenty-eight, dressed in brown frieze. His features were swarthy, and his eyes black; in every lineament of his countenance was a jumble of savagery and roguishness. I never saw a more genuine wild Irish face — there he stood looking at me full in the face, his hat in one hand and his shillealah in the other.

“Well, what do you want?” said I, after we had stared at each other about half a minute.

“Sure, I’m just come on the part of the boys and myself to beg a bit of a favour of your reverence.”

“Reverence,” said I, “what do you mean by styling me reverence?”

“Och sure, because to be styled your reverence is the right of your reverence.”

“Pray what do you take me for?”

“Och sure, we knows your reverence very well.”

“Well, who am I?”

“Och, why Father Toban to be sure.”

“And who knows me to be Father Toban?”

“Och, a boy here knows your reverence to be Father Toban.”

“Where is that boy?”

“Here he stands, your reverence.”

“Are you that boy?”

“I am, your reverence.”

“And you told the rest that I was Father Toban?”

“I did, your reverence.”

“And you know me to be Father Toban?”

“I do, your reverence.”

“How do you know me to be Father Toban?”

“Och, why because many’s the good time that I have heard your reverence, Father Toban, say mass.”

“And what is it you want me to do?”

“Why, see here, your reverence, we are going to embark in the dirty steamer yonder for ould Ireland, which starts as soon as the tide serves, and we want your reverence to bless us before we goes.”

“You want me to bless you?”

“We do, your reverence, we want you to spit out a little bit of a blessing upon us before we goes on board.”

“And what good would my blessing do you?”

“All kinds of good, your reverence; it would prevent the dirty steamer from catching fire, your reverence, or from going down, your reverence, or from running against the blackguard Hill of Howth in the mist, provided there should be one.”

“And suppose I were to tell you that I am not Father Toban?”

“Och, your reverence, will never think of doing that.”

“Would you believe me if I did?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“If I were to swear that I am not Father Toban?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“On the evangiles?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“On the Cross?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“And suppose I were to refuse to give you a blessing?”

“Och, your reverence will never refuse to bless the poor boys.”

“But suppose I were to refuse?”

“Why, in such a case, which by-the-bye is altogether impossible, we should just make bould to give your reverence a good big bating.”

“You would break my head?”

“We would, your reverence.”

“Kill me?”

“We would, your reverence.”

“You would really put me to death?”

“We would not, your reverence.”

“And what’s the difference between killing and putting to death?”

“Och, sure there’s all the difference in the world. Killing manes only a good big bating, such as every Irishman is used to, and which your reverence would get over long before matins, whereas putting your reverence to death would prevent your reverence from saying mass for ever and a day.”

“And you are determined on having a blessing?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“By hook or by crook?”

“By crook or by hook, your reverence.”

“Before I bless you, will you answer me a question or two?”

“I will, your reverence.”

“Are you not a set of great big blackguards?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“Without one good quality?”

“We are, your reverence.”

“Would it not be quite right to saddle and bridle you all, and ride you violently down Holyhead or the Giant’s Causeway into the waters, causing you to perish there, like the herd of swine of old?”

“It would, your reverence.”

“And knowing and confessing all this, you have the cheek to come and ask me for a blessing?”

“We have, your reverence.”

“Well, how shall I give the blessing?”

“Och, sure your reverence knows very well how to give it.”

“Shall I give it in Irish?”

“Och, no, your reverence — a blessing in Irish is no blessing at all.”

“In English?”

“Och, murder, no, your reverence, God preserve us all from an English blessing!”

“In Latin?”

“Yes, sure, your reverence; in what else should you bless us but in holy Latin?”

“Well then prepare yourselves.”

“We will, your reverence — stay one moment whilst I whisper to the boys that your reverence is about to bestow your blessing upon us.”

Then turning to the rest who all this time had kept their eyes fixed intently upon us, he bellowed with the voice of a bull:

“Down on your marrow bones, ye sinners, for his reverence Toban is about to bless us all in holy Latin.”

He then flung himself on his knees on the pier, and all his countrymen, baring their heads, followed his example — yes, there knelt thirty bare-headed Eirionaich on the pier of Caer Gybi beneath the broiling sun. I gave them the best Latin blessing I could remember, out of two or three which I had got by memory out of an old Popish book of devotion, which I bought in my boyhood at a stall. Then turning to the deputy I said, “Well, now are you satisfied?”

“Sure, I have a right to be satisfied, your reverence; and so have we all — sure we can now all go on board the dirty steamer, without fear of fire or water, or the blackguard Hill of Howth either.”

“Then get up, and tell the rest to get up, and please to know and let the rest know, that I do not choose to receive farther trouble, either by word or look, from any of ye, as long as I remain here.”

“Your reverence shall be obeyed in all things,” said the fellow, getting up. Then walking away to his companions he cried, “Get up, boys, and plase to know that his reverence Toban is not to be farther troubled by being looked at or spoken to by any one of us as long as he remains upon this dirty pier.”

“Divil a bit farther trouble shall he have from us!” exclaimed many a voice, as the rest of the party arose from their knees.'

Borrow departs and there is no further incident.