Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sepia Saturday 13 : Walking Snaps

Most family albums here in Britain will probably contain a photograph of people walking. During the 1920s and 30s, most popular holiday destinations had a shutter (*) of photographers who would take photographs of family groups as they walked along the sands or promenade and attempt to sell them prints for collection later in the day. The firms that offered this service would have names like "Walking Snaps". I am quite fond of the type of photograph they came up with because they would not be over-posed and they would avoid the "absent photographer" syndrome that afflicts many photographs of the post-studio period of family photography.

The above picture is a good example. The two older people are Abraham and Alice Moore who were featured in my Sepia Saturday post a couple of weeks ago (The Curious Case of The Milliners' Wedding). Here they are older and, from the state of the fur coat on Alive, a little more prosperous. But you could never tell with Alice Moore - perhaps by now she was working in a fur shop and had once again borrowed some of the stock! The man on the right of the photograph is their son Harry and the woman to his right is Annie Elizabeth - my fathers' sister. 

Of the four, Auntie Annie is the only one smiling. This is no great surprise as she always had a finely developed sense of humour and could see the fun in any situation (it was always fatal to go to a funeral with Auntie Annie as she would have you falling about in the church aisle with laughter before the end of the proceedings). I have written about Auntie Annie before : she did not have a particularly happy life. But she would always find humour in any situation - even walking out on a cold morning with her miserable looking parents-in-law in tow.

(*) People may not be aware that the correct collective noun for a group of itinerant photographers is a "shutter of photographers". This is hardly surprising as I have just invented the term.)


Friday, February 26, 2010

A Festival Of Postcards - Light

Every couple of months, the very talented Canadian genealogist, postcard collector and blogger, Evelyn Yvonne Theriault, edits a theme-based Web Magazine entitled "A Festival of Postcards". The theme for the March edition of "Festival" is "Light" and the following is my contribution.


During the great postcard boom of the first decade of the twentieth century, all tastes and interests were catered for. The avid postcard collector could fill his or her album with pictures of cuddly pets or colourful panoramas, sacred hymns or sexy hers. Amongst a certain clientele, a sober combination of uplifting words and stylized etchings were always popular and several postcard manufacturers published cards which featured the words of popular hymns of the time. 

The words of the hymn "Lead, Kindly Light" were written by a young priest, John Henry Newman, in 1833. He later would tell the story that the words came to him as he was trying to return to England from Italy and the ship he was travelling in became becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio. The words reflected the desire of the homesick traveller to be safety led home and, one assumes, to salvation. Newmans' hymn became one of the most popular of the Victorian age and therefore was a prime candidate for the religious postcards of the golden age.

Shortly after this postcard was published, the hymn - along with that other Victorian favourite "Nearer My God To Thee" - suffered from a bad press when it had the misfortune to be one of the last hymns sung by the passengers on the Titanic before it struck an iceberg and sank.

The above postcard was published by the Leicester firm, Henry Garner - Living Picture Post Card Co (HGL) and is No. 121 in the series. I am not sure, but at a guess I would say that it was printed in about 1905. It has not been postally used.

The Festival of Light edition of a Carnival of Postcards will be published in March. I will provide a link to it as soon as it is available, but in the meantime you can find out more about the project by visiting the Festival of Postcards blog.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Theme Thursday : Bottle

I blame my father. I have never been able to work out why he made me a member of the Sons of Temperance movement when I was only three years old, but he did. He wasn't a teetotaller himself nor did he hold particularly strong views about drink. My brother - who was enrolled at the same time - always claims that it was the influence of the chap next door - for some reason he was always known as Wiggy - who was big in the Sons and who collected our weekly sixpence. For whatever reason, I became a card carrying member. Long before I was ever tempted to sip a milk stout or pass through the swinging doors of the public bar, indeed long before I had lost my milk teeth, I was a fully-fledged, stone cold sober abstainer. Before people get too worried, I have to say that it didn't last long. Wiggy mysteriously vanished from our lives (the rumor was that he had run off with the barmaid from the White Horse) and natural teenage rebellion set in. I took to alcohol with the enthusiasm of a convert and I have never looked back since. 

Before I go much further I need to put in a word of warning of the "do not try this at home" variety. I am well aware of the potentially harmful nature of alcohol, both in a medical and a social sense. I am also aware of the fact that many people have a very real problem with potential addiction to alcohol. However, I have been blessed with a meritorious relationship with alcohol : I am able to enjoy its effects without in any way becoming dependent upon it. One night I am quite happy to go to the pub and have three or four pints, and then for three or four nights I am happy to have nothing more intoxicating than a mug of strong tea. And so I am able to enjoy alcohol, and all the things that go with it : the real ales, the cozy pubs, the industrious breweries, the sun-stoked vinyards and the salt-lashed distilleries. And, of course, the bottles.

Strangely enough, bottled beer is not at the top of my alcoholic hit parade. Call me traditional if you like, but I always think that beer should gush out of a hand-pump under the guidance of a comely barmaid (OK, call me a traditionalist and a sexist if you like). Lager I drink out of bottles and I prefer it that way, but that is mainly down to the fact that it is difficult to find a half-decent draught larger in this country. Wine should come from bottles - never boxes. But, in my mind, the finest content of any bottle must be a single malt whisky. Pride of place in my room is given to a small collection of single malts which I have acquired over recent years. I am working my way through them, when the spirit takes me, so to speak. When the last drop is eventually consumed you might think that all I will be left with is the bottle. But there will also be a warm aftertaste and a powerfully rich memory.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Postcard Of The Week : The Language of Flowers

Getting the message across to your over-enthusiastic lover is something that is now achieved by text message or by Facebook status. "bck off u prat" might do the trick or perhaps you could change your Facebook status to "not currently in a relationship". Our Victorians predecessors might not have had access to the wonders of modern technology, but they too had their ways of sending a potent message to the object of ones' affections. During the latter part of the nineteenth century this was by flowers, or to be more exact, by the language of flowers.  Like a perfectly composed text message, each type of flower had a meaning so you could choose your flower and highlight your meaning. Send someone a bunch of Amaryllis and you were complimenting them on their "splendid beauty", Foxgloves implied insincerity and a couple of French Marigolds meant you were as jealous as hell. 

It sounds fairly easy and straight forward, but the road to true love has always been subject to the occasional pot hole, and you had to be certain that your beloved was reading from the same code book as you were. According to the rather splendid website "The Language of Flowers", meanings changed over time and you had to be careful that you weren't sending out the wrong message so to speak. If a chap got a bunch of azalea in 1883 it meant "romance" and he could start twirling is moustache in eager anticipation, but if they were delayed in the post until 1892 by then it meant "temperance" so he could put the bottle of Madeira away and go in search of a cold bath.

By the first decade of the twentieth century some of the uncertainty had been taken out of the process by the intervention of new technology - to be precise, the postcard. You could buy a picture postcard with a picture of the flower, which was much easier and cheaper than sourcing a bunch of African Violets. To be doubly sure the postcard would have the correct interpretation printed on it, and to be absolutely certain, it would often have a dramatic little picture to ram home the message. So be warned : don't go around cajoling people without good cause, or you might have a postcard falling through your letter box.

The above postcard is one of several  "Language of Flowers" postcards from the collection of my Uncle Fowler. Published in the "living Picture Series", it dates from about 1903. It has not been postally used.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Praise Of Bits And Pieces

I have always been a great fan of bits. Break something up into a couple of dozen pieces and it always seems much more palatable to me. When Tolstoy started writing War and Peace, he published weekly chunks in a popular magazine (Dickens used the same approach with most of his novels), and this has always seemed to be a useful approach to literature. Many of my blogging friends use the same approach with their stories, and blogging itself appeals to me because of its' bitty nature. And one area where I find a bitty approach to be a particularly valuable one is with history. 

Recently the BBC started a major collaborative project with the British Museum called "A History Of The World In 100 Objects". The series is nothing short of superb, but - confined to the unfashionable radio as it is - it has not received either the publicity or the acclaim it deserves. The idea is quite simple : get someone to select 100 objects from the collection of the British Museum that, in one way or another, reflect the history of the world and then spend 15 minutes each day talking about them. With such a brief, and with episodes with titles like "Jade Axe" and "King Den's Sandal Label" you would be excused for thinking the series might be as dry as a Saharan water-meadow. But it is not : it is a luscious, informative, entertaining feast. This is partly due to the skills of the main presenter, Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum. It is partly due to the way facts about historical objects are cleverly woven into insights into the contemporary world by guest contributors - whether it be the timeless tragedy of refugees or the way clothes represent deep social and economic trends. And it is partly due to the website which accompanies the project which allows you to see the objects in great detail. But, for me, it is mainly due to those daily 15 minute bite-size pieces.

Object 26 : Oxus Chariot Model 600 BC, Central Asia

So far the series is about a quarter of the way through, but the episodes that have already been broadcast are still available to replay on the BBC website, For listeners on the move you can even download the episodes as podcasts and take them with you on your mp3 players and i pods as you walk your dogs or jog your jogs. Museums are normally thought of as being treasure houses, but, in this case, the treasure is the radio series and its wonderfully bitty approach to history.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sepia Saturday 12 : Kate The Barmaid

My picture this week is of my maternal grandmother, Kate Kellam. Kate was born in the smallest of the English counties, Rutland in 1877, the second daughter of Albert Kellam and his wife Catherine Moody. For whatever reason, Albert seemed to move around the country with a degree of frequency that was unusual in the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the 1890s he and his wife and their two daughters had a grocers' shop in South Wales. And then, in 1891 at the age of just 38 Albert died. Catherine married again (to a splendidly named gentleman called J. Robinson Thickpenny) and the family's perambulations started again. By the time of the 1901 census, Mr and Mrs Thickpenny were living in Middlesborough, North Yorkshire and their daughter Kate was a live-in waitress at a coffee shop in the same town. Shortly afterwards she found her way to Keighley in West Yorkshire where she was working as a barmaid in the Queens' Head Tavern in Cavandish Street. How she finished up in Keighley is a bit of a mystery but there was some family story about her having been "adopted" by the landlord of the Queens' Head. If so, it would have been a strange adoption as she would have been in her mid-twenties at the time. However she got there, it was in Keighley that she met my grandfather, Albert Beanland, and they were married in either 1902 or 1903. Their first daughter, Amy, was born in 1904 and my mother Gladys followed in 1911. As regular readers of News From Nowhere will know, I have declared this week "Save The British Pub Week".  So at the end of the week it is most appropriate that I celebrate Kate the barmaid in my Sepia Saturday post. Alas, the Queens Head in Keighley is long gone.

For other Sepia Saturday posts go to the Sepia Saturday Blog

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gone To Rack And Ruin

We are coming to the end of "Save the British Pub Week" here on News From Nowhere. Today I thought I might share the stories behind three popular pub names as these always provide a fascinating insight into social history. The three names are chosen for no other reason than I wanted to know their origins so decided to try and trace the stories. I have to confess that, of the three, the only one I have ever regularly drunk  in was a "Marquis of Granby" which stood opposite my place of work thirty-odd years ago.

The Swan With Two Necks:
By tradition, the reigning monarch owns all swans in Britain (don't ask me why, it is just one of those quaint/silly British traditions). The only exception to this general rule is that of two London Guilds (the Dyers' Company and the Vintners' Company) who were granted the right to own a limited number of swans back in the 15th century. So people knew whose swans were whose,  swans would be marked with a cut or nick in the lower mandible of the poor creature. Those of the Dyers' Company had one nick, those of the Vintners' had two nicks, whilst the rest were unmarked and belonged to the monarch. The sign of the swan with two nicks became a popular symbol of vintners (wine sellers) and was eventually corrupted into the pub name - The Swan With Two Necks.

The Marquis Of Granby :
John Manners, the Marquis of Granby, had a successful career as a soldier and later a politician in the eighteenth century. He served as a Colonel in the guards during the Seven Year War and was later promoted to the position of Lieutenant-General. When he left the army he became a politician and served in several of the governments of the mid-eighteenth century. One particular cause he devoted a significant amount of time to was in providing help to disabled ex-soldiers and he funded a scheme which encouraged disabled non-commissioned officers to take up the trade of publicans. It would appear that in grateful thanks, many of those who benefited from the scheme named their inns and taverns after their benefactor.

The Pig And Whistle :
There are two theories as to the origin of this particular name. The first is that it is a corruption of two old drinking terms - "peg" and "wassail". A peg was a measure in a drinking vessel designed to ensure that the drinker obtained full and proper measure, whilst "wassail" was a popular drinking salutation (you would raise your glass and say "wassail" and your drinking partner would raise theirs and reply "drinkhail"). Peg and Wessail soon became corrupted into Pig and Whistle. The second theory is that "pig and whistle" was a popular 17th century phrase meaning odds and ends of little consequence. To "to go to pig and whistle" meant to go to rack and ruin. 

Come to think of it, Rack and Ruin would be quite a good name for a pub. Wassail all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Theme Thursday : Bell

The Thursday theme for this week is "Bell". Not only are we all posting around the theme of bells, we are also ringing our collective bells in support of fellow-blogger Barry Fraser in his fight against cancer. There is a bell high on the wall near the exit of the Chemotherapy Unit at the hospital in Ontario, Canada where Barry has been receiving treatment. There is a tradition that patients completing their last treatment of chemotherapy, ring the bell as they leave. Whenever it rings the nurses and volunteers and other chemo patients pause for a moment and applaud. Today Barry will complete his last treatment and all his blogging friends are trying to ensure that the bell is heard throughout the world.

As regular visitors to News From Nowhere will already know, my posts this week all relate to the sad demise of the British pub. Since I posted yesterday, the chances are that another five or six pubs have closed their doors for the last time. For no other reason than a burning desire to preserve our national heritage, I have been trying to visit as many surviving pubs as I can before either they all close or I fall over from exhaustion. To mark Theme Thursday I am reposting an entry from my Commonplace Book of Beer which concerns a visit I made to the Blue Bell in York a couple of years ago. My friend Subby was asking about pubs in York the other day, so I hope he will find this post interesting. Later today, I will be ringing a bell for Barry, and I also intend to drink a decent pint in his honour. Cheers Barry.

The Blue Bell, 53 Fossgate, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 9TF

The Blue Bell is not the easiest York pub to find. Go down Fossgate and you will find the unpretentious redbrick frontage squashed between the Army and Navy Shop and a music shop. From the outside you might find yourself wondering why you made the effort. If it is a crowded day, or if you are searching for an olde-worlde pub, or if you suffer from claustrophobia you might find yourself wondering the same thing once you get inside. But if you want to see what a typical pub would have looked life - and more importantly, felt like - 100 years ago you will rejoice that your map-reading skills were up to the task.

It is the size of pub which makes no economic sense in this day and age. There are two rooms : a tiny public bar and a similar-sized smoke room. If more than about a dozen people decide to patronise the pub at the same time, the overflow has to make use of a narrow wood-panelled corridor. The secret of its charm is that it has not been "improved" since it had a major makeover in 1903. And because the interior is now listed it should remain safe for generations to come.

When I called in they were preparing for their annual beer festival. Boasting the availability of some 25 real ales this sounded a remarkably silly idea. They were busy stacking beer casks up against every available bit of wall - and there are not many available bits of wall. Unable to quite get my feet comfortably under the table I was sitting at, I investigated only to find two kegs sitting there ready for stacking.

I had a pint of Adnams bitter which, for some reason, didn't quite match up to the singularity of the interior. It's not what you would call powerful nor does it deliver any great subtle tastes. But it went down well and I would still be willing to try a second pint just to check on my conclusions.

As for the pub, I am already planning a return trip in time for the beer festival. That should be an event to remember.

Take a look at other Theme Thursday posts HERE

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When I'm 89

In the year 2037 I will be 89 years old. If I continue to lead the good, healthy, creditable life I lead now I might just about make it (most of my family tend to stay around for a long time). But do I want to make it past 2039? I ask the question because I discovered today that if pubs in Britain continue closing down at the rate they are currently closing at, the last British pub will call time in 2037. It is a sobering thought - and the last thing a beer lover like me needs is a sobering thought.

It has become Save The British Pub week here on News From Nowhere (it wasn't planned, it just emerged, like the smooth gush of a foaming pint emerging from a polished brass beer pump). Earlier today I had a look at a number of websites devoted to British pubs in order to find one which would somehow give a taste of the delights of a decent inn, pub or tavern to people who have never been able to sample them in person. Perhaps the best designed and best maintained site is, but there are a number of things that I don't understand about the site. In the first place there is a strange reluctance to say who runs (and who funds) the site. Mention is frequently made of how "we" have searched the streets for as many good pubs as possible, but there is no clue to who exactly the "we" is. The other problem I have is that when I used the search facility in order to find a good pub near where I live, the nearest it could come up with was one twenty odd miles away in Derbyshire! I'm all for being discriminating in your choice of good pubs, but that is somewhat ridiculous.

The other day I came across a quote from Toni Morrison on Kim's Mouse Medicine blog : "If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it". Perhaps I should start designing the perfect pub website. But that might interfere with my drinking too much and I can't do with that. Whatever happens, I have only 27 years left.

The sign-up Linky-Dinky thing for Sepia Saturday 12 is now up on the Sepia Saturday Blog. Sign up now if you are posting sepia this Saturday.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Postcard Of The Week : The Black Lion, Ireby

This week seems to have turned into "News From Nowhere Pub Week". This was not my intention : however if there is one thing I have discovered in my years of blogging it is to go where the current takes you. At the moment the current is sweeping me towards the pub and I am not prepared to swim against that particular current. My vintage postcard for this week features a photograph of the main street of the township of Ireby in Cumbria. I have never visited Ireby, but from what I have read it is a charming spot with a 12th century church and fine views towards the Lake District mountains. According to what records I have been able to find, Ireby used to have two pubs : the Sun and the Black Lion. In keeping with the sad trend I seem to be highlighting this week, the Sun closed down a few years ago, but the Black Lion is still going strong  - although it has now been renamed "The Lion". I am not sure why it was thought necessary to change the name : the Black Lion is not an uncommon name for British pubs and relates to the heraldic sign of Philippa of Hainault, wife of King Edward III (1312 - 1377). Name changes aside, the Lion has a good reputation these days and gains an coveted entry in the annual Good Beer Guide published by the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA).

The postcard is from the collection put together by my Great Uncle Fowler. It was published by the firm of Beaty's of Carlisle in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was postally used in January 1907. It does look like a nice little place and a grand little pub. It is still snowing here at the moment, but in a month or twos time, when Spring is on a promise, maybe I will just take a trip up to Cumbria and pay both place and pub a visit.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Turn Right At The Red Lion And Left At The White Hart

"History runs through the pubs of our land like some giant circulatory system with beer in its veins. They are an integral part of our country's fabric. Pubs have seen it all. Unless you choose mountains, moors or motorways, it is impossible to be more than five miles away from a pub. Want a village pub? Look for a church spire. Want directions? Turn right at the Red Lion and left at the White Hart".

The above words are not mine - I have taken them from an excellent website called "Pubology - Drinking In History" - but however long I had sat down and however many fine beers I had consumed, I doubt if I could have expressed my love of pubs any better. Although beer has always been the fuel that has powered the rise of the great British pub, it is not simply about beer : the delight of a good pub is the way it creates a neutral environment of fellowship based on nothing more than chance encounter. In this, a pub shares many of the attributes of a vibrant blog community. 

There is nothing vibrant about the current state of the English public house. Five years ago two pubs a week were closing down in Britain, now the figure has risen to five a day. Pub beer sales have now sunk to the lowest levels since the depression years of the early 1930s. Whilst alcohol consumption has increased, that increase has been driven by cheap supermarket booze consumed either in the isolated silence of the home or the social aggressiveness of the street corner. 

There are calls in Britain at the moment for the introduction of minimum prices for alcohol. The proponents of such a policy claim that it would both reduced the alarming amounts of alcohol being consumed at the moment and support pubs which, all things being equal, cannot compete on price with supermarket discounting. It is an argument I have a good deal of sympathy for, but an argument which will probably be lost in this crowd-pleasing election year in the UK.

Some years ago I started a blog - Great Yorkshire Pubs - within which I tried to chart my attempts to visit as many great pubs in my native County as possible before they closed. The current state of closures has encouraged me to merely record as many as I can, even though neither my wallet nor my liver can justify sampling all of them. In the last week I have discovered that two of the local pubs I have frequented on many happy occasions, closed for ever whilst I was away on holiday. It is sad, but it strengthens my resolve to photograph as many as I can before it is too late. And also to call in and sample the fare of at least two or three of them a week. Wish me well in my mission.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sepia Saturday : The Curious Case Of The Milliners' Wedding

The decision about the first photograph I should submit for the new Sepia Saturday blog was a fairly easy one. It is one I have used a lot this week as it is the one I chose as the header for the blog itself. I have featured it on News From Nowhere before and explained a little of its background. But that was back in 2008 when the only followers I had were my friends Jane, Edwin and Mark and my dog Amy. So I will simply reprint the earlier post and send my apologies to J, E and M. I don't apologise for repeating myself to Amy because I sometimes suspect that she doesn't listen to me as I read out my daily draft posts.

Irrespective of anything else, this is just a gorgeous photograph. Again it came out of one of those boxes of old photographs which are handed down. There are no firm details as to who the subjects of the photograph are other than a scribbled note in pencil on the back which states "Harry's Father". I must confess that the handwriting looks suspiciously like mine and therefore it appears that at some stage, I half identified the happy couple and then abandoned them to a fate of dust and scratches at the bottom of a old cardboard box. For this I feel guilty and I am therefore determined to make some amends. I need to track down the details and release them to the waiting world. It will be like one of those wedding reports you see in the local paper. The difference will be that it will be a little late in appearing (as it turns out, 108 years late).

The Harry was the clue, for as regular readers of the Blog will know, I had an Uncle Harry. He was married to my fathers' sister and was therefore not a direct blood relative of mine. Luckily, amongst the various documents I have accumulated over the years, I have a copy of his birth certificate. He was born in 1903 and his parents were Abraham Moore and Alice Moore (formally Rotheray). So the chances are that this could be a photograph of Abraham and Alices' wedding. The one problem with this is that they all look a little too affluent . Abraham is listed on the birth certificate as being a "Piece Taker In" which sounds as though it is a run-of-the-mill textile process. Could a Piece Taker In have afforded those magnificent hats or attracted a girl from a family that could. The census records suggest that Alice's father was a "Butter Factor" : once again not likely to be able to afford all those ribbons and bows.

The crowning piece of evidence was in the 1891 census records. By now Alice is 16 and her occupation is listed as being a "Milliner Apprentice". We therefore have a possible solution - the hats were stock in trade, borrowed for the big day from the brides' workplace. Whatever the explanation, it does seem likely that it was the wedding of Abraham and Alice which took place in the Spring of 1900. So, a little late in the day, we can finally publish the picture, and the report :

"The wedding took place on Saturday 23rd April 1900 of Abraham, son of Smith and Margaret Moore of Percy Street, Horton, Bradford and Alice, eldest daughter of Thomas and Lydia Rotheray of Smiddles Lane Bowling, Bradford. The bride wore a dress of starched white silk ....."


Friday, February 12, 2010

Piecing Things Back Together

I have been home nearly a week now and I am gradually beginning to piece things back together. I am getting used to the grey skies and the icy winds. I have already picked up a cold and my sun-burnt red nose has been replaced by a constantly dripping tap. I have made a start on removing all the spam comments left on my blogs by some idiot called "S" during a thirty minute spamming frenzy whilst I was away (this is the reason that I have had to re-introduce the annoying word verification process for comments). I am back on the diet after putting on countless pounds and there is a long and hungry slog ahead if I am to meet my new target and claim victory in my bet with my friend Harry. Amy is glad I am back and as we walk the frozen paths of West Yorkshire her little tail wags in enjoyment. But my mind is still back on the other side of the world, with the warm blue sea and the heart-warming sun. I console myself by converting some of my holiday photos into on-line jig-saw puzzles and piece together the memories. The process of slowly reconstructing such a pleasurable holiday is soothing and is - up to a point - helping me to live with my sore throat and runny nose. Beyond that point I have learnt to rely on a decent single malt.

To see the original image the jig-saw is based on go to my Daily Photo Blog.
And a final reminder - sign up now on the new Sepia Saturday blog if you are sepia posting this week.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Theme Thursday : Reflections Of A Magnetic Personality.

I am a bit of a rationalist really. Show me a mystery and I will point you in the direction of a scientific explanation. I may not understand the science, but I can put you in touch with someone who can understand it and that is more than enough for me. Show me a crop circle and I will show you where an obese cow sat down. Tell me about a ghost and I will tell you about a drafty window and a dirty lampshade. Fly me into the Bermuda Triangle and I will fly out again sipping my complimentary beer and reading my in-flight magazine.

There are, I suppose, a couple of exceptions to this general principle : phenomena which can easily be explained by rational scientific principles but to me just seem like magic. The first is magnetism. I dare say that if I look it up in Wikipedia, there will be a perfectly rational explanation for the force of magnetism, indeed, I can half remember explanations from school science lessons. But I cannot hold a magnet in my hand and feel that force it creates on another magnet or piece of metal without somehow thinking that here we have something beyond my primary school science comprehension. Take a common fridge magnet and hold it very close to the fridge door. Feel the force. That is something which I have difficulty either rationally explaining or rationally understanding.

The second is a reflection in a mirror. Now if ever there was magic, surely that must be it. A flat surface has the ability to produce a perfect likeness : a mirror image. Arrange your mirrors carefully and it creates a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. I suppose the reflections go on to infinity, but the mathematicians tell us that infinity does not exist and therefore how can a mirror? Why is it that my dog Amy can be driven to distraction by my tuneless whistling, but does not react when a perfect mirror image of herself suddenly appears in front of her? I drew all those little diagrams when I was at school : the light rays bouncing back, an image being formed. I know the scientific principle. But, for me, I still see something delightfully irrational when I look in a mirror. Something magical. Something simply beyond my understanding.

This week the theme for Theme Thursday is Mirror. Check out how other bloggers have interpreted the theme by visiting the Theme Thursday Blog. And a quick advert for the new Sepia Saturday Blog. Sign up now and join in with the Sepia Saturday fun this week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sepia Saturday

The new Sepia Saturday Blog is now officially up and running. Hurry on over there and sign up to participate in this week's historic Sepia Saturday.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Doing The Rounds

One of the great things about coming back after being away for a week or so is the sheer pleasure of doing the rounds of all my favourite blogs and discovering what is going on in your worlds. After just a few months of communal blogging - it took me two and a half years to discover other bloggers existed - I seem to have friends all over the world : friends with whom I share the ups and downs, challenges and absurdities of day-to-day life. Therefore it is a great pleasure to visit all my friends and see what they have been up to. A's started a new blog; B's started a new book, C's got a new job, D's much happier, E's starting afresh, and Abraham Lincoln has taken yet another fabulous bird picture!! I suppose it is the kind of gossip amongst friends that many lucky people take for granted : but I always listed the difficulty in keeping up with mindless day-to-day gossip as perhaps the great disadvantage of being deaf. That is just one reason why all the friends I have made via blogging - and all their news, all their joys and all their sorrows - are very special to me. If the title of this post "Doing The Rounds" makes it sound like some kind of routine chore, it is far from that. It is a delight.

(I apologise to any of my blogging friends who don't see themselves in the above composite illustration. You are there, I assure you, it is just that in the course of editing the image whilst watching a football match on the TV I seem to have lost several layers of faces!)

Finally, an announcement about a relaunch for Sepia Saturday. Kat and I are working on a new dedicated Sepia Saturday blog which we hope to have up and running in time for the coming Saturday. As soon as it is half-decent we will post links.

Monday, February 08, 2010

All Good Things Come To An End

Ah well, all good things come to an end. Last Friday morning I was swimming with turtles and scuba-diving over a coral reef off the coast of Barbados. 24 hours later I was driving over snow covered moors on the way back from Manchester Airport. The photograph above shows our ship - the P&O liner Oceana - in Acapulco. The skies were blue and the breezes were warm throughout the entire holiday and a good and restful time was had by all. I will neither bore you nor depress you with endless photos of gorgeous holiday destinations - if you really want that I will be featuring a few of the photos I took whilst away on my Daily Photo Blog during the rest of February.

It is going to take a few days for things to get back to normal here - you guessed it, we haven't unpacked the cases yet - so I apologise in advance if, over the next few days, some of my posts are truncated and my comments are succinct. Whilst away, I made one or two decisions about future projects which might impact somewhat on the content of the blog over coming months : but more of that later.

Despite the cold, despite the snow, it is good to be back.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

'The Haunted Bridge'

...No, not something AB came across on the Panama Canal. I’m sneaking in to the blog while he’s away to tell you a little more about my collection of ghost stories set on the Oxford Canal. You may remember AB came to the launch party at Hallowe’en, attended by Colin Dexter (see post of November 3rd).

Here's what I say in the Introduction, to give you a flavour of the book and explain how it came about:

'When I wanted to write a ghost story for a competition, I knew exactly where to set it, - the derelict quarry at Shipton-on-Cherwell, one of the spookiest places I know. They’ve broken my heart by surrounding it with a high fence now, so you can no longer climb the secret staircase beside Baker’s Lock, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s as unearthly and magical and extraordinary as I describe. I wanted to share my experience of this wonderful place, before they turn it into a housing estate or an eco-town or fill it with unsold cars, or worse, sanitise it into a visitor attraction with steps and nature trails and barricades to stop you getting too close, like poor old Kirtlington Quarry.

And having written The Death Trap, I kept thinking of more places and events connected with the Oxford Canal which would make the perfect setting for a ghost story, - the ruined manor at Hampton Gay, the deep lock at Somerton, the Shipton Railway Disaster. In fact, I realised, I could write a whole volume of them.

I have loved the Southern Oxford ever since joining my sister Katie and her husband on a cruise from Banbury to Oxford. That was back in the 70s, when the fighter jets still startled one with a sudden deafening roar as they took off from Upper Heyford, and you might still have to operate the old swing railway bridge across the Sheepwash Channel. Katie and Desmond went on to own a pair of hotel boats, and I cadged a trip whenever they had a spare berth. When I married Edwin, I insisted on a canal-based honeymoon, and he became as bitten by the bug as I was. We used to hire from Aynho, and then from College Cruisers, eventually buying one of their boats for our own. Edwin has now converted Worcester to diesel-electric drive, and we can glide through those beautiful wooded cuttings and hear nothing but the birds. In a way these stories are my tribute to the canal.

I should say at once that although the places and historical background are real, none of these are accounts of genuine sightings. I’m sure there must have been a few, in a place so full of history and tragic stories, but I have not come across them.

I’ve arranged the stories in geographical order, as one might travel north along the canal from Oxford. Edwin has drawn you a map, so you can see where each story takes place. Like their surroundings, the stories become increasingly spread out as they leave the bustle of Oxford, finally ending in that remote, bleak area of countryside between Napton and Braunston, a Landscape of Ghosts where the past seems so much more real than the present.'

The book is now available on Amazon:, as well as via my website

Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...