Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


A few weekends ago I finished a book. Nothing remarkable in that statement, I hear you think. But this book closure was long, long overdue. Nine years to read a mere four hundred and seven pages is a little tardy, if not downright inexcusable. So, please sir, may I explain?

HV Morton's travelogue In Scotland Again (the 1965 reprint of the 1933 text, hardback with damaged dust jacket) was purchased by my dear mother-in-law at Haslam's Bookstore in St Petersburg, Florida, sometime in the late 1990s. She paid the princely sum of $7.50 for this gem of a book (the price sticker is still there on the inside cover) and it found its way into my possession in England where it languished sadly on a Portsmouth and then a Dartmouth shelf for many a year. Eventually, still unread, it was packed and, with us and dogs and cats, shipped to New York in 2001 where it rested on another shelf for five years. Never has a dust jacket lived up more to its name!

At a moment in time my daughter Kate was in her 3rd Grade (or was it 4th?) in school, and a regular duty was to pick her up from Our Lady of the Hamptons Roman Catholic primary school in Southampton at two-forty each afternoon. Whenever it was my turn the vagaries of my schedule and an instilled fear of being late (thanks, Royal Navy!) due to traffic meant that I was usually far too early. I needed a diversion, and a constructive one at that, so one afternoon picked Morton's book off my shelf, dusted it down, and took it with me. And in (I think) 2005 I began to read it.

The book lived in the glove compartment of that car for a few years, taken out at least three times a week, and then replaced. When that car gave up the ghost it was transferred to a new car. For a couple of years it was still read a few times a week as I waited for the school bell. But then the final bell rang and Kate transferred to the High School in Riverhead and the routines changed completely. It stayed in the compartment under a pile of other papers, and when that car's lease ended it was removed unceremoniously and placed back on the bookshelf. Where it remained for four and a half years.

In the autumn of 2014 (Oh my, that's now!) I was staring at the books on that shelf and remembered how much I had enjoyed the first hundred or more pages of In Scotland Again. So I picked it up, dusted it off again, and finding the page marked by a folded school concert flyer, began to read it again.

To the end.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Time Called

So Nichol’s has closed.  The tatty cardboard sign may say “Closed for refurbishment” but nobody’s fooled.  It’s closed.  And that’s sad news and when I heard it I didn’t believe it.  I drove the short highway distance to investigate and read the sign for myself.  Then I peered through the windows into the gloomy interior that had been stripped of most furniture and décor.  I saw, and believed.

Nichol’s was a pub, and the closest thing to an English pub in this part of the world.  Perhaps that was due to the tenancy of Simon who moved here from London in the 1990s and created a perfect watering hole.  It was he who introduced Fullers Ale, shepherd’s pie, toad in the hole and steak and kidney pie (in addition to a good choice of burgers, steaks and fish) and who remained the genial host until his retirement in 2007.

Fallow years followed under new management.  Menus were changed and the once top-quality ingredients were replaced with lower grade meats and produce.  Staff came and went and customers drifted away, and we heard of rows and worse than rows behind the kitchen swing doors.  And then for a short while the lights were turned off.

Yet turned on again when a man with the uncertain name of Ziggy took the captain’s chair.  Burgers and burghers rebounded, and within a few weeks Nichol’s had regained its reputation for being a place where the bar and the food were excellent and affordable.

So what happened?  We heard of wars and rumors of wars but nothing definite.  Not that it matters.  A local institution has gone.  It was the perfect place to eat out informally without breaking the bank, and enjoy a well-kept pint of English beer.  It was where we celebrated many birthdays and took many guests.  And a reliable place to order take-away.

I will miss Nichol’s, that small un-Hamptons shack-like pub with eclectic wall décor, perfect burgers, a well-stocked bar, and possibly the best bouillabaisse I have ever eaten outside of France.

Now where?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

November 5th.  Guy Fawkes Night, and although few people build and light their own bonfires these days, choosing instead to attend community events, it is still a night for traditional flames, fireworks and food.  As a boy in rural Worcestershire (and later in the grounds of the vast Victorian rectory to the north of the city) it was a most special evening.  A tall pyre was built and a guy ceremoniously placed on its top.  When the sun had set the match was struck and the flames roared to our satisfaction until the effigy of Guy Fawkes could be seen no more. My father would then take charge of the fireworks, stored for safety’s sake in large biscuit tins (the many-layered assortment kind) and the next half hour would involve rockets, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, odd triangular fireworks that showered red then blue then yellow and finally green sparks.  And lots more rockets – each sent on a specific course:  One to Fishguard, another to Llanelli, and others wherever we had family and friends.  (The fact that they landed in the nearby road was lost on our child-like enthusiasm!)  And finally my mother would appear with hot soup, rolls and sausages which we devoured as the embers of the bonfire died down.

The traditional litany for that evening was:

"Remember remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot..."

But if truth be known that was, like many "traditions", a Victorian creation.  The earliest rhyme that we are aware of dates to 1742 and begins:

Don't you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made' em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.

Hmm.  The Victorians were always the better hymn-writers!

The rituals of Guy Fawkes Night were more than family fun, and more than the commemoration of the foiled attack on the King and Parliament on the 5th of November, 1605.  The historical closeness of it all lay in the fact that the Gunpowder Plot was part-conceived in the parish where my father was the rector.  This was more than history – this was our local history.

I hope that tonight, up and down the land of England, bonfires are lit, fireworks light the eyes of the young, and food is enjoyed.  And people recall their history.  Perhaps they might even like to read the Collect for Deliverance – strangely omitted from Common Worship and other modern liturgies.

O GOD, whose Name is excellent in all the earth, and thy glory above the heavens; who, on this day, didst miraculously preserve our Church and State from the secret contrivance and hellish malice of Popish Conspirators; and on this day also didst begin to give us a mightly Deliverance from the open tyranny and oppression of the same cruel and blood-thirsty enemies; We bless and adore thy glorious Majesty, as for the former, so for this thy later marvellous loving-kindness to our church and Nation, in the preservation of our Religion and Liberties. And we humbly pray that the devout sense of this thy repeated mercy may renew and increase in us a spirit of love and thankfulness to thee its only Author; a spirit of peaceable submission and obedience to our gracious Sovereign N; and a spirit of fervent zeal for our holy Religion, which thou hast so wonderfully rescued, and established a Blessing to us and our posterity. And this we beg for Jesus Christ his sake. Amen.

I wonder why.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

All Hallows' Eve

Today is the feast of Saints Simon and Jude but few if any will be celebrating such an apostolic day, and there are no physical signs in the community that, yes, today is a true Red Letter Day.  For all eyes are turned to Friday night, the eve of All Saints’ Day. All Hallows Eve.  Halloween.  And from that extravaganza there is no escape.

My boyhood memories of Halloween are more than sparse, and I think it fair to say that we did little if anything to mark the day.  I do recall bobbing for apples in an enormous half-barrel, towel tied around my neck.  And also visiting the manor house where apples were suspended on strings from a frame of bean poles.  But that is about it.  There were no pumpkins, carved or otherwise (it was a rare vegetable in the garden of England) and absolutely no costumery.  All in all it was a non-event.

There is some valid research about the roots of Halloween, and a lot more dreadful scholarship.  A pan-European, Celtic, pagan, Christian, voodoo, African, medieval and modern festivalOne can believe what one chooses about where the popular event is grounded.  But the unavoidable truth is that what we call Halloween in 2014 is unmistakably and unashamedly American in manufacture.  Its provenance draws on a broad variety of immigrant traditions, often reinvented, which have been harnessed to an aggressive marketing culture – and can be dated to no earlier than the 1920s.

I mean no harsh negative criticism.  It’s all a bit of fun, although the retailing of what is essentially a “nothing-fest” gives rise to some concern.  For Halloween is essentially meaningless and empty.  And to me it is ever-so-slightly alien.  And why is bright orange the adopted Halloween color?

Decades ago in a Worcestershire village we didn’t have illuminated witches, skulls, spiders or ghouls in our gardens.  In October we had celebrated other things closer to home as the harvest drew the farming year to a close.  And then we looked forward to a party that was very real.  Wood was piled up in fields, and old clothes, tied up with sisal, were stuffed with newspaper to shape the effigy of the Guy.  Forget Halloween.  We were anticipating November the Fifth!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Coots in the North and Other Stories

Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.

As a young boy growing up in a part of England that could not have been further from the sea, and which contained no lakes of any description, those were the first words that I read by the author Arthur Ransome. I cannot remember the year but it was so far back in time that I prefer not to try. Swallows and Amazons and its sequel Swallowdale were a formative part of my pre-teenage years. A large vicarage lawn was my Windermere (or was it Coniston?) and a variety of wheels, that included a home made go-cart, an old tricycle and an ancient iron funeral bier, were my boats (or were they ships?) From the sloping grass bank outside my father's study window to the far corner where a gap in the tall hedge allowed passage to the orchards a long sea voyage could be imagined. And it was, with storms and pirates and the occasional shipwreck, survivable only by my mother appearing with corned beef sandwiches and pop. How she walked on water remains a mystery, but that is what mothers surely do.

Those two books, Puffin editions from 1962, are long lost copies, but many years later (again, more than I care to count) I found their titles again in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester, England. And so, as a grown man (debatable) I sailed to Wild Cat Island once more.

I think my passion for “All Things Ransome” was ignited when, on moving to the United States, I unpacked those two paperback volumes and placed them on a shelf. It has not been so much an obsession but rather a gentle desire – not only to read all that he has written but also find out more about the man and experience the places that inspired him. Thanks to the internet and e-libraries I have read most of his works written in and around the 1917 Russian Revolution; almost all of his fishing essays; and possess all of his twelve books in the Swallows and Amazons series. Yet I have ever been aware of his “unfinished” book in that run of adventures, but until now have not seen it.

Hugh Brogan is Arthur Ransome's most accomplished and masterful biographer, and in going through the author's papers after Ransome's death in 1967 he came across what he described as “buried treasure.” The first five chapters of the thirteenth, last and never completed (or entitled) Swallows and Amazons adventure. Brogan threaded the papers together (“tidied them up”) and he gave the work the title, “Coots in the North.

Three days ago I received my copy, long overdue because the cost of this volume has been prohibitive. But I knew that a paperback copy was published by Random House Books in 1993. Difficult to find as collectors pounce on such editions, but I ran one to ground.

Joe, Bill and Pete were sitting on the cabin top of the Death and Glory.

And so am I!

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's a Wrap

There is always a certain excitement when a yellow card is found in Box 264 at the little Wainscott Post Office. It is a sign that a package awaits behind the counter. And such a card was there late this afternoon. I handed it to the Postmistress and in return she handed me a Priority Mail envelope. What could it be? I had ordered a few things of late. Rushing home I was distracted by dogs and telephone and other mundane tasks. The package lay unopened until it was time to open it and a bottle of wine. It was a book. An inexpensive paperback. But a volume that spoke of ending or completion. 

I will share it with you shortly.