Thursday, October 29, 2015

welsh pilgrimage…

When they first got married, my parents rented part of a house in Handsworth, Birmingham from a Welsh lady named Ella Northwood. This lady became a great family friend and my brother and I subsequently came to know her as “Auntie Ella”. My parents later bought the house (for £300!), but our association with Ella remained for the rest of her lifetime.
Ella came from the small Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys and I well remember visiting her there on a fairly regular basis during my childhood.
Well, yesterday I decided to drive to Llanrhaeadr on a day-long mini-pilgrimage. Moira and I have visited perhaps only two or three times together over the course of the last 40 years or so (staying overnight at a guest house on one occasion), but the last time I was there was over 15 years ago, in 2000, with my brother Alan - just a few months after my mother’s death the previous August.
It was very strange walking through the village again after such a long time. Many things hardly seemed to have changed at all and yet, of course, everything HAD changed.
As a child, when we first visited Ella, we used to stay in the tiny home of her mother and father, Mr and Mrs Howell at the top of Park Street. Ella's parents both worked for the Post Office. Her father drove a post van; her mother was a postwoman and her WALKING round in the hills and valleys of rural mid-Wales was an incredible 17 miles a day! I probably first knew her when she was in her late fifties (but I always felt she looked much older?) and she certainly continued her daily round until she retired. I remember her as being thin and wiry, and that she walked with a slight stoop (something to do with carrying mailbags perhaps?), but obviously VERY fit!
Ella eventually rented a house at the bottom of Park Street, where we used to stay quite frequently in my youth – but it’s now in an awful state (huge screen at the front, plus large tarpaulin hanging across half of the front facade, plus a disintegrating roof etc etc). Apparently, according to the woman in the newsagents, it’s been like that “for several years”.
So sad.
One of the main highlights of our stays used to involve visits to the impressive Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall (about 4 miles out of the village) – one of the “Seven Wonders of Wales”, with a total drop of over 70metres (in three stages – the largest about 40m).
As you might imagine, my trip yesterday triggered lots of different memories, including the following (thankfully, my brilliant brother Alan has been able to clarify a few of the details – he’s a bit like our mother when it comes to such things, thank goodness!):
* I can well remember the small living room and the range at Mrs Howell’s house – and the iron (literally iron!) she used to heat up on the range!
* When I was about 10, I recall giving Mrs Howell a small drawing of the waterfall (quite detailed I seem to remember) and she kept it on the wall next to the range.
* At about the same time, I also remember once finding a “Roman spear head”(!) somewhere in one of the field beside the waterfall (ok, I admit I WAS slightly embarrassed when someone pointed out that it was from the top of some old railings!).
* We used to play cricket on the severely-sloping field at the back of the Howell’s house and tennis (of sorts) on the village tennis court at the back of The Wynnstay Arms Hotel.
* I recall taking part in the village carnival (in 1964?) vaguely dressed as one of the Beatles and carrying a small plastic guitar!
* I can certainly recall the steam trains at the near-by station (and subsequently seeing their rotting carcasses following the Beeching cuts of the mid-1960s).
As I walked through the village yesterday, I realised that I’ve known Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (and the land around the waterfall) for over 60 years (blimey!). They remain amongst my fondest childhood memories.
I wonder how many more times I will get to see these places?
Photo: Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall.
PS: Ella's husband, Charlie, died towards the end of the war (this information is ALL down to Alan!). He was born Robert Charles Northwood 28/04/15 in Cleobury Mortimer and educated there, but ultimately joined Birmingham Police. Married Ella Howell (nurse at Birmingham Infirmary - Dudley Road Hospital) 05/08/39. Enlisted Royal Artillery 15/10/42. Their son Roger (Charles Roger) was born 04/06/44. Lieutenant 292521 'Charlie' Northwood died from injuries 27/11/44 and is buried at Venray Cemetery Netherlands. Like so many war stories, all very sad.
PPS: photo link on facebook to Llandraeadr-ym-Mochnant/Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall album.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

foyles… and other bookshops

Moira and I have been regular customers of the excellent Foyles bookshop ever since it opened in Quakers Friars, here in Bristol, five years ago.
It’s a lovely place – one that makes browsing pleasurable (they also have a comfortable café… although the quality of their coffee, to my mind, leaves much to be desired!).
Sadly, the extent of the titles stocked seems somewhat limited – a situation no doubt echoed, at least to some extent, in bookshops throughout the country – and invariably one ends up having to order specific books.
Well, we’ve just discovered that Foyles will be re-locating to a smaller (sorry,”cosier”!) shop in Cabot Circus. As their publicity confirms: “we’ll be honest: we’re moving to a cosier shop, and that means we’re having to do some work to trim back our shelves a little – which will give more focus on the books that our readers really want to read” (… shorthand for “more popular”?).
In these days of Amazon (and their "tax-avoiding" status!), I suppose we should just be grateful that we still have Waterstones, Blackwell’s and Foyles in Bristol.
Foyles clearly acknowledge that many people enjoy the convenience of ordering books online and are keen to underline that: “Our range doesn’t end at the end of our bookcases though – Bristol will be the second shop in the chain to adopt our brand new instore digital ordering platform, via which customers will have easy access to over half a million titles”.
Unfortunately, it’s a double-whammy. Not only will you have less chance of them stocking your book, but also the alternative click+collect or order online facility will almost certainly be more expensive than an Amazon alternative. Ironically/incredibly, today's situation (where buying in store or online or click+collect is the same price) is slightly better than it was a couple of years ago (see my blog post of January 2013) , when it was actually cheaper to click+collect or order online from Foyles than to buy it from their bookshop!!
We’ll continue to buy our books from a bookshop whenever possible – even if it doesn’t make economic sense – because we just love bookshops. The sad fact remains that perhaps within 20 years, bookshops are likely to have become an absolute rarity… our grandchildren’s children will be asking their parents to tell them stories of the days when people actually used to buy books from bookshops. No way!
PS: When our children were growing up, I have lovely memories of spending several hours of Saturday mornings with them at the wonderful Book House bookshop in Thame, Oxfordshire (and it’s still going strong:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

september/october 2015 books

More book stuff:
Oxford Fall (Veronica Stallwood): After reading a fair amount of non-fiction recently, I decided that a crime novel would make a “pleasant” change (especially as it was based around Oxford)! Well, it proved to be a massive disappointment. I found the “plot” painfully contrived and hugely unconvincing. The main character (Kate Ivory) is an author who takes a temporary, summer school job in an Oxford college. When one of her students (knowing that she’s writer) suggests that “I suppose you only write well when you are truly inspired”, our Kate replies: “If you want to earn a living as a writer, you have to produce a book when it’s needed. Inspiration rarely comes into it”. Well, for me, this summed up everything about the book (Kate seemed to be speaking on Stallwood’s behalf)… inspiration certainly didn’t come into it!
Lenin’s Kisses (Yan Lianke): This is our book group’s next book. This long book (500 pages) was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. It’s an extraordinary novel. It tells the fictional story of a small, remote village populated almost entirely by disabled people (197 blind, deaf and disfigured citizens) who enjoy a peaceful, mutually supportive life out of the sight and mind of the government… until their crops are wiped out by an unseasonal snowstorm. It’s at this point that a county official dreams up a scheme (a travelling freak-show!) intended to raise money for the village’s citizens and for the district (and for the county official, of course). But I don’t want to spoil the story, so I think I’ll leave at that… It’s a satirical, political fable which “movingly chronicles the price that Communist China’s rush to get rich has exacted from its vulnerable rural majority” (as the Spectator put it). Although it took me some time to really “get into it”, it’s a brilliant, thought-provoking, hugely-inventive and ambitious novel (well translated by Carlos Rojas)… which echoes many of the greedy characteristics of our own western capitalist society of today.
Notes From A Big Country (Bill Bryson): Published in 1998 (some 2-3 years after Bill Bryson had returned to New England after spending nearly 20 years living in England, UK), this is a collection of articles from his weekly column in the Telegraph. I do like Bryson. He seems a really nice bloke… and he writes very amusingly and his stuff is ridiculously easy to read. It reads a bit like Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America”… My only concern is that it all seems to be SO easy… I read his “take” on computers, bureaucracy, politicians, the environment, shopping and the like and think: “I could have done that!” He also has his moments of being a bit of a grumpy, moaner – just like me! We could be brothers?
One day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn): I first read this book some 40 years ago (the only other Solzhenitsyn book I’d read was “Cancer Ward” in 1978). It’s set in a Soviet Labour Camp of the 1950s and describes a typical day of Ivan Denisovich, a typical prisoner (he was accused of becoming a spy after being captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war during World War II. He is innocent, but is sentenced to ten years in a forced labour camp). Solzhenitsyn, himself, was in such a camp (arrested in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin - where he stayed until he was released in 1953, on Stalin’s death). As you imagine, it’s bleak, cruel, unremitting and very, very cold (they’re only exempt from working if the temperature gets below minus 41 degreesC!). It’s about survival, making the most of the appalling daily food “allowance” and avoiding the wrath of the guards. Denisovich counts the days until his release (3,653 days) - although he acknowledges that he’s unlikely to be allowed to return home to his family… simply to be sent into exile. Powerful and frightening, but also a testament to the endurance capacity of the human spirit.
Bernice Bobs Her Hair (F Scott Fitzgerald): It took me ages before I read “The Great Gatsby” (only a couple of months ago) and so thought I’d follow it up with another one. This is a book of short stories. Essentially, they provide a snapshot of America in the 1920s – albeit the America largely inhabited, it seems, by twenty- and early thirty-somethings and about square-chinned, successful males and beautiful women and their mutual quest for living the “high life”… or maybe I’m just too cynical! Very readable.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

henry v: live cinema broadcast…

This was a first for Moira and I. We love going to Stratford to see the RSC performing but, for various reasons, we’ve been unable to get there over recent months. So, last night, we went to the Showcase Bristol Cinema de Lux (yes, I KNOW – not the Watershed!!), to see the “live” broadcast of tonight’s Stratford performance in one of our local cinemas… and VERY good it was too!
It probably helped that we “knew” the theatre from our various visits over recent years, but the adjustment to viewing from a cinema was much more straightforward than I’d imagined. In the theatre, we tend to try to sit fairly close to the stage anyway, but the cinema ensured a perfect “seat” throughout and had the added advantage of being able to achieve “close-ups” of the actors at the key moments. We’ll certainly be back for more live broadcasts in the future.
It wasn’t quite like being in the audience in Stratford, but it was definitely the next best thing… and we walked to the cinema and bussed home afterwards (so incredibly convenient and cheap compared with the cost of overnight accommodation and travel costs).
One of the key reasons for wanting to see the play was that it featured our friend Alex Hassell as Henry (yes, I know from the reviews that it seems that EVERYONE wants to be Alex’s friend – we claim his friendship having met him – and Emma - a number of times through Felix and Hannah!)(Ursa absolutely adores him!!). Well, we might be a little biased, but we were HUGELY impressed. I thought he was exactly how Henry should be (what do I know?) – growing through the play from a naïve, hesitant young king to an assured, sensitive and resolute leader. Not the jingoistic warrior we’ve all seen from Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film (partly funded by the government at the end of WW2 and with Churchill underlining the need for it to be a morale-boosting opportunity).
I’ve just checked some of the newspaper reviews… 'Alex Hassell bears himself with hypnotic self-possession. It's career-making stuff' (Daily Telegraph); 'Alex Hassell exactly catches the conscience of the king’ (Guardian); 'Mr Hassell demands to be considered as one of our top-league actors' (Daily Mail)… you get the general idea!
As you would expect from the RSC, the entire cast is first-rate (Oliver Ford Davies made a very good Chorus). Although her part as Katherine is relatively small, Moira and I were very impressed by Jennifer Kirby’s performance.
A really excellent evening!
PS: the cinema was virtually full to capacity (they’d sold all the tickets) and, despite there being a fair amount of popcorn evident(!), it proved to be captivated audience (ie. well behaved!). I did, however, find the smell of the hot food carried in by a handful of people somewhat off-putting!! Oh dear, I’m such a grumpy old man!
PPS: It felt strange at the end, NOT to join in with the applause from the theatre audience!

Monday, October 19, 2015

the numbers game…

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book “Notes from a Big Country” (published in 1998 and compiled from his regular column in the Telegraph - he’d recently moved back to the USA after living in England for nearly 20 years). In one of his pieces, he was writing about the USA’s national debt – not because he was particularly interested in the American economy, but more because of the figures involved ($4.5trillion)… “but what does $4.5trillion actually mean?” he asked.
I found his following explanation both entertaining and pretty “gobsmacking”:
“Imagine that you were in a vault with the whole of America’s national debt and you were told you could keep each dollar bill you initialled. Say, too, for the sake of argument that you could initial one dollar bill each second and that you worked straight through without stopping. How long do you think it would take to count a trillion dollars? Go on, humour me and take a guess. Twelve weeks? Five years?
If you initialled one dollar per second, you would make $1,000 every 17 minutes. After twelve days of non-stop effort you would acquire your first $1million. Thus it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10million and 1,200 days – something over three years – to reach $100million. After 31.7 years, you would become a billionaire, and after almost a thousand years you would be as wealthy as Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. But not until after 31,709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar…
That is what $1 trillion is.”
I’m still trying to get my head round this!
It’s a bit like someone telling you that you’ll have to wait another 700-odd YEARS before you can celebrate 1million DAYS since the birth of Christ…
Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it.
Note: I’m aware that, in the past, “trillion” has meant difficult things in the USA and in the UK. Apparently, these days, they mean the same (one million million) – it used to be one million million million in “British English” (according to Wikipedia).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

golfing at studley wood again…

Pete, Ken, Steve and I used to play golf at Studley Wood EVERY Friday afternoon… and we kept this up for about three years.
Those Fridays hold very special memories for all of us.
Sometimes (in the winter, for instance), we only managed to squeeze in four holes before it got dark – ridiculous really, but we’d made a commitment to each other that, despite our incredibly busy working lives, long hours and hectic schedules, we’d try to keep our “golf dates” sacrosanct.
Well, today, for the first time in ages, our golfing fourball rode the fairways once again!!
As I mentioned on facebook this morning, it was going to be the first time I’d have swung a club since playing in France at the start of June… and I predicted that “it could be messy”.
Well, it was rather…
Actually, I should qualify that… yes, it was very messy for me (not my finest round of golf), but the other three played really well. Unfortunately, Pete drew the short straw and played with me and we ended up losing on the 17th green.
But, hey, the score didn’t really matter (oh no?)!!
Actually, we had a BRILLIANT time – enjoying each other’s company, being on a golf course together again… and beautiful weather.
Very special people. Very happy times.
Photo: the inevitable selfie on the 18th green (Steve, Pete, Ken and me).

Monday, October 12, 2015

cara dillon at st george’s…

Ruth and I went along to St George’s, Bristol last night to see/hear Cara Dillon and her band perform.
She was absolutely excellent – stunning voice and wonderful musicians.
I’ve long admired her music (I play her “Hill of Thieves” CD, from 2008, pretty frequently) although, I have to admit, that was the last CD of hers that I bought…
I’d originally bought a ticket for her last St George’s concert (some two years ago?) but, stupidly and annoyingly, I forgot to turn up!! Something had cropped up late that afternoon and I’d agreed to help out… but, by the time I’d got home, it was early evening and I completely forgot all about the concert (and only remembered the following day!)…
Anyway, last night proved to be a really impressive, engaging occasion – music and a few stories (we particularly liked her story of her 5 year-old daughter insisting on attending the previous night’s concert in Frome, where they live, but ONLY if she was allowed to wear her “play high-heel shoes” - and her “Frozen” dress, of course!). Lots of negotiating apparently followed…
Actually, I had no idea that she lived just a few miles away in Frome (no doubt, lots of my Frome friends will be telling me she’s their best friend… or their close neighbour!). The other thing I didn’t realise until last night (isn’t google wonderful!) was that her husband Sam – who is a key figure in the band – is Seth Lakeman’s brother (Seth – the hugely-talented folk singing, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist). Musical excellence clearly runs in the family – and I’ve subsequently discovered that Cara, Sam and Seth (together with Kathryn Roberts) played together in the band “Equation” in 1995.
During the course of the evening, the band also played a number of instrumental pieces and Cara Dillon demonstrated her own impressive multi-musicality by playing various whistles and the bodhran (she also plays the fiddle).
One of the songs she sang last night was “Garden Valley” (which she first recorded in 2006 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra). She explained that the band hadn’t performed it for some time until recently… and were suddenly struck how poignant the song was in the light of the recent/current Syrian refugee crisis. I agree (the sound on this youtube clip isn’t exactly brilliant, but it’ll give you a flavour).
If you get a chance to see/hear her perform “live”, then I suggest you grasp it with both hands.
You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, October 09, 2015


Moira and I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth”.
We obviously knew we weren’t exactly going to be in for a bright, heart-warming time… and this clearly proved to be the case (you know the story, the characters, the key lines from the play etc!).
From what little I’d previously heard about the film, I realised it was going to be a dark, bleak and somewhat bruising. It was certainly all of these things, but much, much more.
The photography/cinematography is stunningly impressive – shot on the wonderful, beautiful, stark Isle of Skye - and its dramatic, timeless setting sets the tone for the film from the very beginning on the bruising, bloody battlefield.
Actually, it was all very, very bloody!
This was definitely NOT like watching a Shakespeare play on stage (indeed the film can only be described as being “based on” the play – and a stripped-down version at that… which is fine). Normally, after perhaps five minutes, I find that the dialogue suddenly clicks in to focus (not quite the right word?) and I can thereafter hear/recognise/understand what’s being said. With this film, I have to say, I struggled to “hear” throughout – a combination of Scottish voices/accents and typically mumbled cinematic dialogue… but it actually didn’t matter. You could follow what was happening (and I think this would have been the case even if you didn’t know the play).
Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his infamous Lady (Marion Cotillard) are both excellent in the leading roles – a battle-weary general/tortured soul encouraged to commit regicide by his ruthlessly ambitious wife. It’s a film about murder, guilt and self-loathing…
Oh, and one of the lasting images from the film, for me, was the haunting portrayal of the witches - simply, and beautifully, depicted.
Powerful and quite brilliant.
Photo: the witches looming on the battlefield...


Thursday, October 01, 2015

brixham drawing project...

Across from North View Steps

Fishing Boats
I was contacted by our lovely friend Tanya a couple of months ago. Over the past couple of years, she’s made very generous comments about my drawings and was now suggesting that Moira+I might like to stay at their Brixham house in exchange for some drawings of the town…
As you might imagine, it was no contest!!

Harbourside Facades

New Quay Inn, King Street
What a wonderful opportunity to spend time in a beautiful Devon fishing port - overlooking the harbourside, the marina and the rows of hillside houses (she sent us some stunning photographs taken from her property… just in case we had any doubts - we didn’t!)!
I ended up completing eight drawings in total and have, with Tanya’s agreement, posted them here in their entirely (I’d previously only posted extracts on my “one day like this” blog – double click on the individual images to enlarge).

Well, we’ve now returned from our week in Brixham and it really did prove to be a lovely time – we were very fortunate with the weather and we’d forgotten just how beautiful the town was (it was a few decades since either Moira or I had last visited!).
The views from the house’s living room windows were spectacular  – overlooking the harbour, the marina and the busy fishing fleet. It reminded us of the views from another favourite seaside upper floor living room - at Upper Saltings in St Ives (where one could happily stare out at the ocean for hours on end!). Absolutely mesmerising.


Quay Facades

Tanya’s house was ideally located – just a three minute walk to the harbour or the marina (admittedly down lines of steep steps, but hey!) and within 10 minutes you could easily be walking along the sea wall/breakwater to the small, white lighthouse. Lots of excellent restaurants and cafés (eg. we enjoyed a very good supper at the Rockfish restaurant and an equally good breakfast at the Breakwater Café!). We also met up with our great friends Gail+Ian in Totnes and visited the National Trust’s Greenway (former summer home of Agatha Christie) – in the case of the latter, partly via steam train! Lots of excellent coastal walks too: we walked to Berry Head (30 minutes) and also beside the sea in the other direction to The Grove woodland (again, say 30 minutes).

Harbour Boats and Houses


After this very enjoyable experience, we’re now looking for more lovely friends who have properties in Venice… or Florence… or Tuscany… or the west coast of Ireland… or (as you can see, we’re not fussy!).
Life is tough.