Friday, 17 July 2015

It all depends on what you mean . . .

A few days ago I received an email from one of Marcia’s earliest readers who ran an on-line chat room about her books: Mili Arroya. In it she included the following paragraph.

Since you enjoy (as I do) challenging questions, or at least those that even though easy could carry ambivalence, here is one for you, and if it is (which I have no clue) interesting enough feel free to share with others. Which is the precise centre of the United Kingdom?

Be patient, I shall return to that question although I suspect that the answer will be rather disappointing.

So, let us wind the clock back to the late 1940’s and 1950’s and for an hour each week we shall see a very thin and very inquisitive young boy glued to a radio programme called ‘The Brains Trust’ (although in those days we called a radio a wireless).

The format was extremely simple: a chairman would read out a question to the three experts (and they really were experts) sitting in the studio and each in turn would answer from his or hers expertise and then they had a general chat. None of this was scripted or rehearsed, nobody knew what the question was going to be until the chairman took the next card out of its envelope and read it out but it worked, it really did. Much of it went over my head but trying to keep up because you want to is the best way to learn.

So who were these experts? The three that spring to mind with no real thought are Julian Huxley the great biologist, C E M Joad (Cyril) the philosopher and psychologist and Jacob Bronowski the mathematician and biologist who later hit the small screen with that fantastic series ‘The Ascent of Man’. There were many others but that will give you a feel as to the quality of these panels. The first progamme was broadcast in 1941 but as to when I started to listen, I really don’t know. Clearly I heard enough episodes for the way these people thought to make an impact on my thought processes which I try to keep as logical as possible. I should add that these people seemed to be having great fun and at times they were so funny that I would laugh until I cried.

There was an attempt to relaunch it in the late 1990’s under the chairmanship of Joan Bakewell with panels including A S Byatt and Richard Dawkins. The revival was short lived. THere was also an attempt to create the idea in the US but that was also short lived. There the panel were given the questions before the programme started and this seemed to kill the required spontaneity.

All of which is so that you will know that I stole one of Professor Joad’s catch phrases and have used it ever since. No matter whether the panel was dealing with a simple question such as, ‘how do flies land on the ceiling?’ to more weighty matters like, ‘Is abortion ever justified?’ at some point he would say, ‘It all depends on what you mean by . . .’. So. Mili at the moment the best I can say is, ‘It all depends on what you mean by “The exact centre”.’

Clearly there is nothing in this week's blog calling for photographs but now that we have left behind my thoughts on The Brains Trust and with an eye to the fact the Summer on the River is due to be published next month and is set in Dartmouth, I would show you a few more pictures of the town. Some, I suspect, some of you will have seen before or elsewhere. Sorry about that, I fear I failed to keep a record so have to rely on a pretty useless memory.
Anyway, I though I would start with a family connection. In those days this was a Congregational Church in which my paternal grandparents worshipped, my father and one of his sisters taught in the Sunday school and my parents were married. It became a United Reformed Church and now it seems they call themselves quite simply a 'Christian Church'. I think I like that.
I realise that this was really what you are getting at Mili: there are many ways your question could be interpreted but for the moment I am going to duck it – to do it justice it would require a great deal of thought and brooding. Should I come up with anything remotely sensible, I will share it with you. Keep watching.

The Flavel Arts Centre, situated behind Flavel Church and obviously modern. is doing its best to be the cultural centre in this part of the world.
It is more than an arts centre: all sorts of other activities share this space including Dartmouth Town Library which was in sore need of a new home.

Meanwhile, I have been busy adding a couple of features to the Marcia Willett Companion web site. These are to enable you to have your say on all sorts of matters: I want to know what you think about the site and especially if there are things you would like to see there that are missing. I want you to be able to have an inter-active chat about the books. So what I have done is this.

The tones in this photograph make it seem older than it really is. Castle with the roof of St Petrox church to the right taken in the 1950's.
On the home page where the news is posted it is now possible to leave comments. This is the right place for comments about the site generally and matters you want to draw to my attention. Then, as a sub-page to each book, there is, as an example, HM Chat. This is where I am hoping you will start discussions about the books – in this case Hattie’s Mill. You can start a new thread by putting up a comment using the panel headed Leave a Reply or answer an earlier comment by using the Reply button under that comment. There is also the possibility of sharing these pages using the WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and Google buttons or simply ‘liking’ the page.

Very modern now. I took this last summer. In the background Kingswear.
The Lower Ferry uses floats which are controlled by tugs (built in the town when there was still a shipyard). They are extremely cumbersome and it is an education to just sit and watch the skill the boatmen use as they approach and leave the ferry slips. Here, it being summer time, there are two floats in operation and they have to work as a team so they may carry the maximum number of vehicles over the river in the minimum time. Even so, at peak times, long queues are not uncommon.
So, to leave a comment, go to and then either leave a comment on the home page or go for the book about which you wish to comment. Finding the link to leave a comment on the home page is not easy: it is on the end of the ‘tags’ and looks like this |Leave a comment|.

The Cherub is now a pub but in former days was built by one of the town's merchants, It is generally accepted that this is oldest building in the town.
To leave a comment about a book is a bit easier. ‘Point’ to the book title (on a PC you will get a little hand with the first finger extended – on a tablet you use your own finger as I am sure you know), drop down to the one labelled XX Chat and click or tap on that.

Fairfax Place is one of those areas which remain true to their medieval past.  See below for the detail of the house the other side of the red car.
However, please remember that this is work in progress. The nine later novels from The Way We Were have yet to have either Country or Chat pages. I am working on that and they will go up as soon as possible.

There are some fine examples of decorated plaster-work in the town. This is one of my favourites.
Some of you already know that I made a serious mistake earlier as regards the site address. There is really no excuse: I was using the site Title rather than its address and how someone with as much experience as I have could make such a silly blunder is hard to understand. Personally I put it down to the little men who live in the hollows under the hills of Dartmoor and who are very cross with me because I refuse to tell people about them.

Accidents happen and some of the buildings on the opposite side of the road were badly damaged in a fire in June 2010. My friend and one time colleague, Sarah Perring, was there to record this scene.
The photograph was of the top end of my favourite walking stick. These are made from blackthorn by a chap up on Exmoor. There are a number of blackthorn bushes, near his cottage, which are in a little dell where the wind rarely touches them. This is important: the branches he will use need to grow straight. He selects a main branch and bends it down so that it is at about forty-five degrees to the ground; holding it there with a couple of pieces of rope pegged into the ground. He removes all shoots on that branch except those pointing up and even some of them if they are too close together: all of these are potential walking sticks. For the next few years he watches as these grow and any that deviate from being upright and straight are removed, as are most of the buds that grow on the ‘sticks’ and then, when they are the right size, he cuts them out of the main branch and carefully carves the head which is, of course, made from main branch wood. Finally he varnishes the whole stick and produces something rich and gorgeous. I have no idea how many ‘sticks’ he would be nurturing at any one time.

Back to decoration. The roof of the bandstand is supported by pillars cast in Victorian times. Recently they have been painted and are looking very good indeed. We have lost the art of decoration: perhaps it is considered too expensive to be worthwhile. Possibly but I think it's a pity.
The results are beautiful sticks which are much more comfortable to use than conventional hooked walking sticks. The only downside is that you can’t hook them on a spare arm if required.

In Summer on the River, Marcia talks about the quite tiny lifts that people have installed to take them down to the houses on the waterfront.
This is one such lift.
It’s a business requiring a great deal of patience and I have no idea how many sticks he sells but he seems happy enough. He sells them - or perhaps I should say sold them as I bought mine at least twenty years ago from a tobaconnist in Barnstaple that I am sure no longer exists. Later I heard his story from a man I met in Simonsbath.