Friday, 31 July 2015

The Cloud of unknowing.

You jolly nearly didn’t have a blog this week.

I am extremely cross with myself, but the other morning, Wednesday, on my way to the bathroom for the first time that day, I completely lost balance. In trying to regain it I managed to crash into one door frame with my left hip, then into another with with my right arm before ending up on the floor. Apart from the fact that I am now so stiff I can hardly walk it is yet another reminder that as we get older a fall can have terrible consequences. This time I was lucky and I shall now try to take more care. I am pretty certain that these sudden losses of balance are as a result of the cocktail of drugs I am presently swallowing.

It has, or course, slowed up work on the companion. I have now finished all the Country pages bar one (Indian Summer) and I had rather hoped to see that finished this week so that I can get on with the next section: the characters. Whether or not these will be in the form of family trees or not I have yet to decided but I do know that it gets very difficult keeping track of them all. I am hoping that there will be a bit of very clever technology that will enable me to do what I want.

It is nearly seven o'clock on Thursday evening and I am lying on the bed in my dressing room looking over a blue sky, framed on the left by the huge oak tree in our garden and at the bottom by a fir tree and a flowering fruit tree (I think not a cherry) the other side of our neighbours' cottage and of that all I can see is the chimney with some new cowls fitted recently. It hasn't taken long for both crows and gulls to use these little domes as an excellent look-out. I use this as a day bed when I can't get around as I feel the change of view - and atmosphere - is good for me.

The window faces due south so the sun is shining brilliantly on the cumulus clouds that are constantly forming and reforming (while some are just dissolving until nothing is left) as they move gently from right to left pushed by a fairly gentle westerly wind. According to the Cloud Appreciation Society, the average life span of a cloud is no more than eleven minutes. I am sure they are right but there is one near the horizon that has been entrancing me for over twenty minutes. I know, I know - eleven is an average. This fellow had been subtly changing his shape and the valleys and hills are being wonderfully lit by the sun now dropping to the horizon. What a way to end the day.

I wonder how many people have heard of this society? The first time I came across then they had decided that they had discovered a new type of cloud and the were trying to have this acknowledged by the authorities. In this they succeeded but more to the point they produced one of those documentary films that combine great charm, are visually stunning (in this case the actors were the clouds) and leave you feeling that the world isn’t such as bad place after all. You are also left feeling that the actors were the clouds) and leave you feeling that the world isn’t such as bad place after all. You are also left feeling that those who run the society are nutters – very nice nutters, but nutters all the same.

I started with the title, 'The Cloud of Unknowing' because I knew I would want to come back to it. It was first written in the middle ages (the writing rather suggests the late 1400's) but as to who wrote it, we shall never know. It was the first known guide to contemplative prayer. There are many books offering various translations and takes on the subject but it is one of those that will go on attracting people to add to that group of somewhat esoteric Christian thought.

I have found God in many places and very rarely in a church but there are some among us who who do make a connection using the sort of contemplative prayer outlined in The Cloud of Unknowing. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

More ramblings from Rodney

I continue to brood on Mili’s question. After a while you realise that there is no precise centre in any society for any activity.

Trees this week - just some rather nice trees.
If I have usedd these before, I apologise.
A simple answer when thinking about politics would be ‘Westminster’ or ‘Downing Street’ or even ‘The Houses of Parliament’ but that is not true. Up and down the country there are councils charged with the mundane day-to-day provision of services. Oddly this is an extremely difficult task or, to be more precise, delivering all the services to the satisfaction of all the people is extremely difficult. Without all these other centres our society would fall apart. Actually you can divide people into two (this being rather simplistic): those who when thinking politics do think 'London' and those who think about what is happening at either county or district level. It all depends on what effects you most.

When it comes to sport, I suspect that each sport has a precise centre. Not being a great follower of sport I can’t talk outside the few I know anything about. 

Tennis: Wimbledon without a doubt – it was the birthplace of tennis and should be the precise centre for the world let alone the UK. 

Rugby: here you have a problem because rugby is divided into national teams (even when playing in the world cup) but for England that it Twickenham. Scotland looks to Murrayfield in Edinburgh while the Welsh have the most modern ground in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

And so it goes on, no matter what context you choose the high probability is that there are going to be a number of candidates for ‘precise centre’. After brooding on this off and on for the last fortnight, the only one I could come up with was Wimbledon so perhaps that should stand for the UK as a whole.

It is, I suppose, inevitable that one looks back over life when you are somewhere near the end and find yourself pondering on the things you did that you are still glad you did and those you really, really wish you had not.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

When you think about it old Omar hit the nail on the head. One thing pleases me enormously: I know nobody who I really hate and the ones that come close to that are politicians who have done things that I consider to have been morally unacceptable. Top of that list would be Tony Blair for his support in two wars I feel we should not have fought: Iraq and Afghanistan. Even then I don’t really hate the man even though I do hate some of the things he did.

Meanwhile I have met many people who have proved to be delightful and who have given me great pleasure: I hope that I reciprocated and they got something from me. Some seem to find that most of the people they meet are generally unkind and unfriendly. I find that hard to believe: ask yourself this, ‘how many really nasty people do I know?’ Quite: the vast majority of people are fine – the problem is that the headlines and airwaves tend to be cluttered with stories about the few that have gone off the rails and this distorts the way we see the world.

There are quite a few unpleasant and nasty people in Marcia’s stories but by the end of each book all such characters have also demonstrated that they really could not help themselves (Tristan in Postcards from the Past) or that they wanted to do everything they could to mend their ways and atone for what they had done (Gillian in The Courtyard).

As to the few sins of commission I can remember committing, I did what I could to atone for them but nothing can ‘wash out a Word of it’.

What does bug me is the sin of omission: things I could have done but for one reason or another didn’t and now, of course, it is far too late. It was too late when I walked away in the first place.

One in particular: a friend of mine was going on a short cruise from Chichester (where he kept his boat) over to France and then west to the Channel Islands before returning home. Would I care to join him with two others? At the time I had just started rehearsals with the choir I then conducted (we were to perform The Crucifixion by Stainer) and this would have delayed matters for a fortnight. So I refused. What I should have done was to get the organist to stand in for me (she would have been quite able) but . . .

The Companion is going well and I am beginning to think that I shall have time to finish it. Certainly until it is done I shall fight this tumour with everything that I have got. It is my tribute to Marcia and so very dear to me.

Back next week.

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.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The three stages of writing a blog

One of the problems when it comes to writing the Friday blog is that at the moment, for obvious reasons, we are doing very little - thus there is very little to report. To make matters worse this week the weather has been horrid down here (and, yes, they were enjoying wonderful sunshine and a heat wave further up country). Throughout my life I have needed a real connection with nature to get any creative juices I may have to start moving, albeit sluggishly, and I have missed any such input this week. Oh well: some you win and some you lose. This need is the theme for the pictures.

It may be something on a large scale . . .
. . . or something quite small.
That paragraph may read oddly to those of you who know that I often write the blog in one or other of the cafés we patronise. (Incidentally, as soon as I typed that last word I realised that it sounds dreadful. There is a muddle here between patronising in the sense of supporting and in the sense of being condescending to. Anyway, I meant the word as definition one.) The thing is that there are a number of mental steps towards producing anything such as an article, a blog or even a letter to a friend.

Something on the coast . . .
. . . or something inland.
The first step is to create a mental space in which words can jumble around together, make connections and begin to make sense of what you want to say. This is why there are times when people talking to you at the wrong moment can be so incredibly irritating – without realising it they are making this step very much harder.

Something wild . . .
. . . or something cultivated.
Hopefully during step one some sort of theme will present itself and the time has come to move on to step two. This is what I would describe as ‘the deep brood step’ when you investigate the various directions in which you can go, try to decide what will be important and what will not and the order in which those selected should be written. This is usually completely mental – at least for me. No notes and yet, when I have finished, I will have explored every strand to the very end even if I am not sure which (if any) will live to see the light of day. Quite often this takes place (in part at least for it is a step often broken into a number of ‘steplets’) in the middle of the night.

Somewhere bleak . . .
. . . or warm and lush.
Now we settle down to write. A bit of buzz, things going on to give out some energy: I’m not sure what it is and it could be quite mundane but you do need something to get you started. When you are actually writing you do not want to be interrupted – you very seriously do not want that. Most of the time there will be a certain phrase that you are holding on to in your head until your fingers have caught up and it is written. Until then it is in great peril. The wrong word at the wrong time and it will be lost – and probably lost for ever. So, no interruptions means you have a choice. Bury yourself in your study or work in one of the cafés where you know people will leave you alone – partly because I am sure there is a good deal in my body language that says ‘do not interrupt’ (I have been told that when I am writing I look very unapproachable) and partly because I am sure that people are terrified that if they do talk to you you will bore the pants off them.
Something big and bold . . .
. . . or small and shy.
If the last sentence puzzles you I would say that Totnes is a great place for people who want to be writers and these are only too pleased to have someone stop and ask them what they are writing. Once the question has been posed the flood gates tend to open and the poor questioner is now a captive audience for however long it takes. 

This week steps one and two were taken in bed – step three in my study while (oh the irony of the situation) Marcia is sitting in Totnes outside Seeds and enjoying a spot of mid-morning coffee in the sunshine. This I know as she has just sent me a text to tell me so. Mind you, this is a reward for doing the shopping so it would be churlish to complain.
Humour me. What do think this is?
Finally, I love reading your comments (both here and on Facebook) and emails. Most days I receive over a hundred emails and it is with deep regret that I can’t answer them all. As time goes on I spend more and more time asleep and I really can’t keep up but please don’t stop. I find them very encouraging and a great source of strength so many, many thanks to you all. I will, of course, answer as many as I can.

Friday, 3 July 2015

It just so happened . . .

Over the last few months I have read – a lot. Thanks to my rotten sight these are all ebooks (mainly Kindle) and I have two bits of equipment on which I read: an Acer Iconiatab and a much smaller and lighter Nexus. The Acer does all sorts of things, most important of which is that I usually write this blog on it – simply because it is reasonably portable and has a full size on-screen keyboard which means I can pound away at my usual breakneck speed. Then I email it to my PC as an attachment.

Since I can think of no sensible way of illustrating these random thoughts, I thought I would start with this picture of Marcia standing beside one of the old and much distorted trees on the Dartington Hall Estate.
Early on I decided that I would have something pretty serious on the Acer and something light and undemanding on the Nexus for last thing at night. As of today, it is The Towers of Silence by Paul Scott and some of the French Foreign Legion yarns by P C Wren. It was the latter (and especially the three Geste stories) which raised in my mind this week's literary question: what should be the maximum number of coincidences allowed in a novel?

Then, simply because the next book which is Summer on the River is set in Dartmouth, I thought we would look at some odd aspects of the town. Hopefully, many copies will leave this shop on publication day: August 28th.
P C Wren overdoes it to the extent that some of the stories are, frankly, risible. However, not everything that at first looks like a coincidence is one. If you cast your mind back to The Sea Garden, you could say that it was unlikely that Joss would be related to the family on the Tamar. Actually this was quite reasonable. The only true coincidence in that book was that the daughter of one naval family should be a highly talented artist and that David happened to have married a one-time naval wife. After that it would have been surprising if she had not come across her relatives in the small naval circle to be found around port of Plymouth.

Some of the characters visit Alf Resco which is just down the hill from the two houses in which they live. (Photo Sarah Perring)
Of course some books spring out of a coincidence. Had Polly not decided to visit her hairdresser, one also patronised by Cassandra, and to do so at the same time, none of the events later recorded in Thea’s Parrot would have happened. But then, if I had not been leaning on the gate outside the old Victorian House in which I had my office in Kingsbridge when a certain Marcia was looking to carry out some interviews for the market research company for which she worked . . .

Dartmouth is full of steps. I can't remember how many it was from the level part of the town to the family house up on Mount Boone but it was well over a hundred. Not great fun when carrying heavy shopping.
I think we should allow a few coincidences but they should not be overdone. Nor – another problem with P C Wren – should characters be able to escape from seemingly impossible situations. Marcia and I call this the ‘with one bound he was free’ syndrome. 

In odd corners you will find narrow lanes . . .
One could equally well level that criticism against Buchan and many other writers of adventure stories and thrillers. So often these scenes are the result of the villain doing something profoundly stupid – at least if the intention is to achieve whatever end he – or she, of course – seems to have in mind. When he wrote Mr Standfast, Buchan falls into this trap. Why, oh why, did Ivery leave Hanney trapped in the cellar at the Pink Chalet instead of simply shooting him. After all, Ivery had Mary and the information he wished to pass on to the Germans and his reason for keeping Hannay alive was very unconvincing. Almost inevitably ‘with one bound Hanney was free’ and Ivery’s plans in ruins.

. . . such as Bayards Hill which links South Town, and so the Merchant's House and the Boat House, to Bayards Cove, the Dartmouth Arms and Alf Rescos. It was hurrying up this hill that made Claude feel a bit odd - but that is another story.
One is reminded of that scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco (the ugly) is lying in a bath of soapy water and Elam (a man he has wounded and, as a result, has only one arm) comes to kill him. Elam is busy explaining that he is seeking revenge when Tuco lifts a gun out of the suds and fires. ‘When you have to shoot,’ he says, ‘shoot! Don't talk’. Good advice.

You may be interested to know that this is the 200th blog in this format. Another eight and it will be four years since I switched from the blog on the web site.