Friday, 12 September 2014

Morris Dancing in Dartmouth

May I start for apologising for the fact that I just did not find the time to reply to you comments last week. Must try and do better!

Many years ago, I found myself working alongside a chap called Ken Hudson. His spare time seemed to be divided by two very different activities. He refereed football matches (and there are few sports more popular than soccer in this country) and he was a member of the Dartington Morris Men – a Morris Side that is (as the name suggests) based in Dartington – (and there can be few activities less popular than Morris dancing in this country).

My friend Ken Hudson, left, with Robin Springett with the Royal Castle in the background.
After a while we both moved on as people do and we lost touch. That was about twenty-five years ago. Then, a week or so back we received a lovely surprise: a letter from him. Ken is still a member of the Dartington side but I have yet to ask whether he still referees the odd soccer match. I will next time I see him.

Adam Garland
Nobody really knows when Morris dancing as it is now practised started but there are written records dating back to the 1400's which mention them and then there is this from the mouth of another member of the Dartington side, Christopher Farr.

'According to hear-say in the Cotswold village where I was brought up (Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire) Morris Dancing first came to England in 1367 when the dance was brought back by troops in John of Gaunt's army after the battle of Najera, which is in Northern Spain.'.

This could well be the case (and some say the name derives from 'Moorish dancing' – Spain had been occupied by the Moors from about 700 ad until the mid-1700's and their influence is evident to this day both in architecture and culture. However it started, it is a tradition with a history of over five hundred years.

The Dartington Morris Men follow the Cotswold tradition (there are other slightly different traditions who practice different but similar dances) and so are member of The Morris Ring which is an association of the sides that follow the Cotswold way. The boss man in Morris Dancing is known as the 'Squire' and so it is that the top man in the Morris Ring carries that title. The Squire of the Ring serves for two years and then hands over to someone else over two events. The first is a feast during which the old Squire gives his successor the Chain of Office and the Badge. The second is a ritual during which the outgoing Squire dances himself out, the incoming Squire dances himself in and then receives the Staff from his predecessor.
On the left a retired rocket scientist (Jim Gailer) with a retired tree surgeon (Peter Metcalf). And what do they have in common?
They are both members of the Wessex Morris Men
Now it happens that Ken is the Squire of the Dartington side and another member of that side, Robin Springett, was the Squire of the Ring and his two year term was up last week-end. The Morris Ring members descended on Dartmouth for the week end: the feast was held on the Saturday evening and the second part of the ritual – the hand over to Adam Garland from the East Suffiolk Morris Men – took place on Sunday in the Royal Avenue Gardens.

Marcia and I toddled off down to Dartmouth to watch the proceedings and to enable me to take some video. Click here if you want to see that video.

Most countries have some form of traditional culture and most treasure it – but in England it is far from treasured. During one of the lulls, Marcia was chatting to Anthony Frost, a cabinet maker from Sherborne who belongs to the Wessex Morris Men, and they were wondering why that should be the case. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales the old traditions are being kept very firmly alive and it would be nice to think it was the same in England: perhaps it will become so once again.

Marcia with Anthony Frost
Final thought: everything comes out in a book sooner or later. I will leave you to brood on that.

Two dogs for the price of one this week. Please note: these are not just any old blog dogs - they are Morris Men Blog Dogs.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Requiem to a tree

We all know that when the wind speeds get up above about fifty miles per hour that we can expect damage – and especially to trees.

It is rather unfair to dig up the past, but those of us who watched the weather forecast on 15 July 1987 will remember a comment from Michael Fish who was presenting the programme.  'Earlier on today,' he said, 'a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't'. Later that evening we were hit by a violent storm with gusts in excess of a hundred and twenty miles per hour tearing down power lines – and toppling trees many of which caused serious structural damage to buildings as the fell.

This is the earliest photograph of the tree that I have in my collection. It was taken by my sister-in-law in March 2004.
One odd outcome that followed that storm was that, over the next few weeks, the emergency services were sometimes overwhelmed by the accidents to people who, either because a tree was causing them problems or they decided there were opportunities to make a fast buck, bought themselves chainsaws to saw up the timber but, lacking experience, injured themselves – often quite badly.

Early April, 2014.
All of which brings me to the fact that what one does not expect is for a tree to fall when there hardly a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. It has happened twice to my knowledge although I did not witness the actually fall in either case.

The last photograph I was to take of the tree, June 2014.
The first time was when we lived in Avonwick and a beech tree growing in the bank beside the lane than ran down the side of the house split in half, one half remaining upright and the other falling across the lane, blocking it but causing no injuries. We had had a period of dry weather and one of the local farmers told us that the rooks had deserted that tree a couple of years before. 'When rooks desert a tree,' he said, 'you know it's in trouble and the best thing to do is to have it down quick as you can.'

Then, the other day, the same thing happened to a pine here in Dartington. Again nobody was hurt. Anyway, the pictures tell the story and, as you can see, the tree is being sawn up. The smaller branches have been chipped and the chips used to create a soft bank over the steps leading to the rough area below down which the larger parts of the tree will be rolled by hand to where heavy lifting equipment can be brought.

Meanwhile I have news of another literary festival. This is on a completely different scale to Ways With Words or any of the other literary festivals. For a start you can attend the literary events (which take place during the day) free of charge although it will cost you five pounds to go along to the village hall and take in a couple of hours of musical entertainment in the evening.

The key to this festival (this is its fifth year) is that it ends up in a village hall. Quote from the website: 'The Charmouth Literary Festival is very much a village affair and we want you to enjoy a day of words and music in a relaxed easy manner, having the added advantage of being located in a beautiful place by the sea. Bring a picnic lunch if you wish, come with a friend or come alone and enjoy a literary day with a little night music.' Anyway, since I rather like the idea of small festivals of this sort, I thought I would tell you about it.

This wire-haired dachshund (a breed both of us love and one we are tempted to try out even though we have said 'no more dogs') answers to the name of Brian - unless, of course, he has other thoughts in his mind in which case . . . 

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Week in Pictures

This has been an odd week. Falling down the stairs was not a very clever thing to do and i am afraid it took a few days before I was back to normal (if my usual state can be described as such).

First thing in the morning on Saturday the light between the trees in the garden and over the fields was rather spectacular. Most of the day was spent doing very little and feeling quite miserable (but rather bucked by the nice comments under last week's blog) so when Marcia suggested she drive us up onto Holne Moor, I jumped on the idea. It was lovely to just sit there and let her take the strain.

By the time we were up on the tops near Combestone Tor (Forgotten Laughter country, of course) the evening sun was creating those lovely long shadows that bring the countryside to life. I love this part of the moor where there are little fields bounded by stone walls - built thousands of years ago using nothing but muscle power - in stark contrast to the open moor that surrounds them.

We went as far as the bridge over the Dart at Hexworthy where we stopped for a cup of coffee. As you can see, the river was running very low but that should not have been a surprise as we have had so little rain. 

Since I had started the day with a photograph of the morning sun shining through trees, it seemed only right and proper that I also took one of the woods by the bridge lit now by the evening sun.

The heather is beginning to come into flower on the moor. This is the brighter and rather larger Bell Heather which often grows in amongst the gorse (we also have the smaller and more muted Ling). When the sun is shining the gorse's brilliant yellow sets off the gorgeous deep red of the heather. We were a bit too late so this photograph is rather muted. Still nice, though.

The dry summer has resulted in the reservoir at Vennford being lower than I have seen it for many years.

Driving down off the moor, the last of the sun's rays caught the tower at Buckfast Abbey.

Tuesday and we had to pop into Totnes to stock up on some food. Clearly someone else had the same idea - a young gull (probably a young herring gull) eating out of a dish with "CAT" on the side. Was he (or she, of course) stealing some offering intended for a moggie or is some kind hearted (if misguided) person deliberately put out food for him/her?

Also in Totnes on Tuesday was the man who sells a production of his own called The Bag Issue. For seventeen years he sold The Big Issue - a weekly which is produced by a group of that name which helps the homeless. Sellers of The Big Issue receive half the price for every issue they sell and are encouraged to use this experience as a stepping stone to finding more permanent employment and a home of their own. Why the gentleman in the top hat no longer sells that one and has created his own paper is a long story. Suffice to say that you do get a bag as well as the latest issue when you buy a copy from him.

When Marcia did the laundry over the week-end she was a touch over zealous: not only did she load the washing machine with our dirty clothes, she included my mobile phone. Now, there is no question but that after many years of faithful service this piece of (once modern) technology was in great need of cleansing. Sadly, however, it was unable to survive the event although we were able to rescue the SIM card. Thus it was that on that Tuesday, I found myself in our local mobile phone shop where Matthew helped my choose another model. It is quite simple but it has two features I really like: it closes (which means no more accidental calls thanks to the interaction of keys and mobile in my pocket) and it has a big screen which I find easier to read. Thank you Matthew.

While we were sitting outside The Brioche drinking a post-shopping cup of coffee, a car pulled up alongside us and this little person was left inside - agitation in every pore. The photos were taken through the glass so are not very good but I hope you will agree that three pictures are worth three thousand words.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Every now and then we have to make important decisions. For both Marcia and me these are moments we tend to dread – we both have enough imagination to see all the things that can go wrong with whatever route is under consideration. In the end, of course, this leads to inertia: the 'do nothing' option becomes increasingly attractive. At these times we start talking about 'sins of omission and sins of commission'. Would one rather be found guilty of the former or the latter?

Once again - there are no photographs that belong in this blog so . . .
On Tuesdays there is a flower seller in Totnes market. It is one of two sisters who grow all the flowers themselves in a wonderful old walled garden. Marcia loves bunches of cut flowers and far prefers the simple ones in season to the exotic. Here she is treating herself to just such a bunch.
Before tackling that subject properly bear with me as I wander down a small by-way. Have you ever thought how odd it is that there is only one 'm' in omission but 2 in commission? It seems that omission comes through late Middle English from the Latin 'omissio'. Commission meanwhile comes to us via Middle Enrlish and Old French from the Latin 'commissio'. This is an entirely unsatisfactory answer but it does have one advantage: you can't blame the English – it was clearly the fault of the Romans.

Not very much to say about this one except it was taken in La Fourchette.
Back to the decisions we have taken not that long ago. As you may know I have been working on some books which deal with 'Marcia Willett's West Country'. The first of these, Marcia Willett's Dartmouth' is essentially finished but how to publish it has been up in the air for some time. Obviously the initial intention was to publish them as 'coffee-table' books with lots of pretty photographs and so on. The problem with that route is that the books would then be extremely expensive and neither of us felt over happy with that. So we decided to explore the ebook option. In part this has been driven by the number of people who we know now read ebooks – most of them on a Kindle. Having costed this out and come to the realisation that it would then be available at about the same price as a standard paperback, we decided to go for it with one important proviso: that I could master the required software and publishing requirements of a book which will still have quite a lot of pictures and a few maps.

At least once a year we have lunch at Turtley Corn Mill where there are a number of free range birds who add a certain something to the occasion. We have been here before, you and I, but I don't think I have put up a photograph of one of their peacocks. Why once a year? Well, we have a friend who lives nearby and we have got into the habit of lunching together in order to celebrate our various birthdays.
This is a major step up from publishing simple text books (books containing nothing than text – not textbooks which are something quite different) which art I have already mastered using a format known as epub..

Illustrated books of this sort are new in the ebook world and rely on a new format called epub3. The software arrived about a fortnight ago and I have been on an extremely steep and very muddy learning curve – the sort where sliding backwards is far easier than scrambling up with finger nails dragging in the ooze. Probably my fault, really. The very best software comes with a full range of support from the suppliers – come down the price range to something that is really just as good in technical terms and you soon find out why this is far cheaper. There is no meaningful technical support at all – you are on your own playing with this and that until it all falls into place and you finally hit that EUREKA moment.

You may remember that there were a lot of problems with the weather damage to the front wall of the medieval building in Totnes' High Street in which the shoe shop 'Conkers' is housed. I put up a picture of it shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins. The work is now finished and the result is very satisfactory. Note the gargoyles on the key stones over the windows - one of which appears below..
Thus it is with great pride that I can announce that I think I have cracked it (but won't be sure until the first book is finished, uploaded to Amazon and then downloaded again – keep all fingers crossed). Doesn't mean the book will be available tomorrow as it has to be properly formatted and so on but we are talking weeks and not months.

And then, on Wednesday, I fell down the stairs. No bones broken and nothing sprained but plenty of bruises and I was pretty groggy throughout Thursday. So there you have it – pride goes before a fall.

Meet Guinness. For those of you who do not live in the UK I should explain that Guinness is a drink which started life in Ireland (and the Irish are good at this sort of thing) and migrated to the UK. I have no idea whether it has arrived in the US or south of the equator and so I apologise if I am telling my grandmother how to suck eggs. Anyway, the thing is that Guinness is a very dark stout which has a very white head when poured. Thus the black and white theme runs through many Guinness advertising campaigns and this ten-year-old Tibetan Terrier when a puppy was pure black and white. Time, however, has brought some grey into the equation (as many of us know it does). He remains, however, a delightful character.

Friday, 15 August 2014

To Marcia

This week's blog is really not so much about Marcia as to Marcia.

The time for frolic is over – you have a book to write.

Ways With Words was great fun and I am so very glad that you enjoyed listening to so many of your fellow authors and doing so through the eyes of a writer. Apart from anything else, we had great fun when you came home afterwards and we talked through what you had heard, the questions that had been asked and the answers that had been given.

Since there are no suitable photographs to go with this week's blog, I am asking you to indulge me. I know that bugs are not your favourites but here is a fly sitting on the table in the garden in front of my Sony Handicam.

These chats confirm me in what I felt all those years ago when I acted as an usher for this festival: many authors when they appear in public get between their readers and their books. I am convinced that your decision to eschew festivals was the right one. Better by far to let the books speak for themselves – it's what they are good at.

And here he (she?) is again in close up. My, and what big eyes you have!

There are no such things as universal truths when it comes to talking about writers and especially novelists. Within the world of fiction there are so many different genres and even that is a simplification: some novelists are supreme story tellers (Mary Stewart is one example) and some story tellers can make the characters jump off the page while others succeed because the story is so fascinating that the characters are almost secondary – true of “who dunnits” (which is not to say that writers working in that category people their books with cardboard cut outs).

Gardeners will, I am sure, sympathise - green fly on the roses. Grrr.

Some novelists are superb at tackling issues (Joanna Trollope being such a one) and, of course, there are those who set their books in the past and enable us to feel that we really are there living in that place at that time (Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel spring to mind).

Whilst talking about historical fiction I would like to mention two authors who stand head and shoulders above all others in my particular favourite area: the Royal Navy in the late 1700's and early 1800's. They are C S Forester and Patrick O'Brien. Now I feel terribly guilty because I have left out some who run them a close second (such as Alexander Kent – the pen name of Douglas Reeman who, under his real name writes about the second world war, as does C S Forester) but it would be tedious to mention the names of all the writers whose works I have read and enjoyed.

Wer were looking for the location of the next book when we came upong this stick up on a bank beside the road. It is about  four foot long. Did it come from the model village at Babbacombe? Probably. Why is it stuck out in the middle of nowhere? No idea.

Some create a magical and fantastical world (as does David Mitchell) and then there are genres that in general terms I do not read and know little about such as sci-fi.

Then there are a few who tackle writing differently: they enter into the minds and souls of their characters, into their joy and pain, their hope and despair. The story ceases to matter – what matters is how the people (they are no longer characters for they have become friends) cope with whatever it is that life throws at them. Such novelists are rare – yours is the name I would put in brackets when thinking about them.

The Dartington Summer School was a different matter and I know that you found some of the concerts you attended extremely moving. Listening to music has has changed so much during my lifetime. Now we have the very greatest artists available to all of us on CD's or on various bits of technology such as iPlayers that listening to second-rate live performances is not always an entirely rewarding experience (and that is true no matter what music we are talking about). But, and this is a huge but, as I know from my own experience, making music with others is a profoundly satisfying experience and most of the people at the festival were not just “audience” as they were at Ways With Words but performers as well: music makers listening to other people making music and making music for other music makers. I am sure that is why you found some of the performances so emotionally charged.

Another passion of mine, corrugated iron. What a wonderful example this is!

You are quite right: the “feel” at Dartington was very different during these two annual events. It would be difficult to know which one I preferred. There was always a great buzz during Ways With Words but it was very much driven by the audience – the “performers” gave their talk, listened to the questions, answered the questions, signed the books they sold after their talk – and then left. During the Summer School there was a different buzz: the performers generally speaking were around for most of if not all of the festival, the average age was far younger (although some were far from young) and many people were walking around carrying their instruments.

So, at risk of repeating myself, the time for frolic is over – you have a book to write. I will stick my neck out and make a prediction: it will be your best to date.

I have a thing about collies. They are probably the most intelligent of all the breeds that I have had (although my cairn terrier ran my collie cross a close second and they were, probably as it happens rather than anything else, very good friends). This chap, patiently looking at his master while the silly man in front of him keeps clicking away with his camera, is known as Nahuel.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Birds, Bugs and Flight

One of my brothers-in-law worked with this guy and put me onto his site. If you love birds (and most who look at my blogs know that I do) you really will be in awe of these photographs.

Birds, Bugs and Flight: I guess you have to start somewhere, so I'll just ...: I guess you have to start somewhere, so I'll just share a few pics from this month - so far... At the RSPB Burton Marsh reserve on 1...

Friday, 8 August 2014


The week that was has been a completely off the wall. The exact opposite of normal. Now, as you all know, this is entirely Marcia’s fault. Left to myself I would live a perfectly reasonable in which nothing ridiculous happened and life would be staid and proper. Not when you live with the company I keep.

We are in the very early stages of a new book revealing itself. Whispered conversations only partly heard, shadows with figures who dissolve when you turn to look at them and feather-light touches on the shoulder. Thoughts of plots fleet past, leaving behind the thought that they are utterly silly, impractical, risible even. Meetings between characters are seen – but are they true or is this one of those convenient but unlikely coincidences much favoured by story tellers?

Everything is very vulnerable and fragile: it is all very frightening and we know from bitter experience how difficult it is to hold onto these fleeting impressions and there are two ways in which they can be utterly destroyed.

The first is to talk about them. In fact Marcia refuses to mention any of her ideas to anyone apart from me and even then there comes a moment when the discussion turns from being productive to utterly destructive. Now, after thirty books (including those she wrote as Willa Marsh) we both recognise the signs and change the subject in time. It was not always so. There have been quite serious problems when, usually thanks to talking too much, something that would prove to have been very important indeed is put aside. Only when the book is nearly finished does Marcia realise that a certain strand or even character glimpsed in the early days and then ignored has to be brought on board. The last time this happened, this character made a ‘first appearance’ in the first chapter and had to be woven into the whole book so that the seams were undetectable. It says much for Marcia’s professionalism that only two people knew anything about this: her agent and me. Nobody else noticed but that was thanks to weeks of hard work and so this time (we always say this) we are determined not to let it happen again.

The second is that intrusive force that cannot always be ignored that some call real life (but which, to Marcia at least, is the opposite – her places and her characters are far more real to her than what goes on around us). Last week ‘real life’ forced itself upon us. This again was all Marcia’s fault – Wednesday was her birthday and all of her friends wanted to have a part in that and I include here all those who so kindly wished her well on Facebook. 
Probably the most exotic floral tribute was from one of Marcia's nephews who sent her this wonderful orchid. They are supposed to be very long lived but with our track record when it comes to pol plants . . . 
The strange piercing noise that her mobile makes when it received a new text filled the air from first to last, people kept arriving with flowers and the sun shone. 

So it was that we found ourselves sitting in the sun, two glasses of wine to hand, as Marcia opened her present including two knitted mice (about which I refuse to comment – the photo is all you need other than we understand that one is called Quentin and the other Clemmie).

Unfortunately her sister Bridget was unable to come down for Marcia’s birthday as her husband had a hospital appointment on that day (he will be having surgery on a knee early in October) so they arrived to spend yesterday with us. Luckily the sun shone on Dartington and we had lunch outside the White Hart.

Arum maculatum, otherwise known as Cuckoo Pint, growing in our garden. These berries are extremely poisonous as they contain oxalates of saponins which are, or so I am reliably informed, amphipathis glycosides. I felt your week would be incomplete without this information.

Anyway, guzzling these attractive fruits in excess will certainly land you in hospital so it is fortunate that they don’t taste very nice.

All of which meant that for two days Marcia had to turn her back on those whispers, shadows and other revealings. It would have been worse had Tuesday not been a very productive day and now, as I write, she has drifted off to her own particular Narnia to pick up where she left off.

Also in the garden, the lovely old rose that clambers over the fence from next door has been attacked by these voracious little fellow. Heads down sucking all the goodness out of the plant. Sorry, little greenflies, you will have to go.
Only two problems with life next week. One of our favourite charities, the Rowcroft Hospice which runs hospices here in the south west of England, is running a ‘book sale’ week in order to raise funds and various authors in the area agree to give talks and to meet and greet people in the shops the charity runs. On Tuesday, Marcia will be in their Totnes shop from 10 am to noon and is looking forward to meeting any of her readers who happen to be in the town on that morning.

The other is that the man calls on Friday to service the boiler. Essential if Narnia is to be warm this coming winter.

I shall fill in those two hours taking a few photographs of dogs for the blogs. Stocks are running down. See you next Friday.

I can't tell you how much I hate going shopping!