Who am I?

Last week I picked up a piece of old clay-pipe in a field gateway.  I thought it would make the subject of my next blog-post, so I placed it on the side of the laptop and began to type.  If you’ve read my previous entry, you’ll know that the pipe never featured.

If you know your bird-lore you may now be ‘picking up’ on why I wrote about magpies instead, and what that implies about the state of my coat pockets.  What might not be so clear is what the clay-pipe looked like, or what I mean by ‘old’.

Since I’ve shifted back to magpies, perhaps that won’t matter.  The purpose of this piece could be to tell you about how, or why, I pick up broken things that other people have thrown away.  Although put like that, it does sound as if I’m just a collector of rubbish.

Let’s try for a positive spin.  ‘Collector of rubbish’ suggests a strong civic conscience.  Perhaps I like to tidy up litter. If that’s so, why pick up a piece of clay pipe, and how come I put it on my laptop instead of the bin? This spinning is harder than I expected, and we’re back to the composition of that pipe again.

Let me call it a shard, then.  You’re taking a kinder view of my habit, aren’t you?  It is, after all, a word with gravitas.  You’re likely to connect it to museums and galleries, places of serious study.  Perhaps I’m an amateur archaeologist, following an ambition to build up a cabinet of curiosities. *

Cabinet_of_Curiosities_1690s_Domenico_RempsI do like drawers and boxes.  I’m not so good with labels though, still working on the one for that pipe fragment.  Once we start to think about pipes, even clay ones, there are so many possibilities.  I didn’t want to set out with a huge descriptive passage, but now I realise I should have done.  You’ve probably already pictured it, so whatever I say will cause a fracture in the imaginative bond we’ve formed, and I can’t help feeling that the pipe is, after all, important.

What if you think it was a piece of drainage pipe?  My stopping to pick up something like that would certainly affect the way you view me.  It affects the way I view me, anyway.

Let’s be clear about this, the writer provides the only clues a reader has to go on, and I found my piece of pipe at the edge of a field: it’s reasonable then to assume an agricultural connection.  In this area, old land-drains can be made from red or yellow clay, and you’ve yet to be told that my piece was creamy-white, or that it was small.

This is starting to feel like a series of cryptic clues.  If only I’d said from the outset that I picked up a segment of old clay tobacco pipe.  I could have been more precise, and told you it was the junction where the bowl meets the stem. Then, instead of meandering along this maze of suppositions, we would have reached somewhere very different by now.

Painting: Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps  (1620–1699)

Photos: Left, my pipe fragment; right, Clay pipes at Bedford Museum, photographed by Simon Speed.

A room with a certain view.

MagpieThere’s no denying that a magpie is a handsome bird.  The trick to keeping that white shirt so pristine is a mystery that would be worth millions, if it could be translated to our laundry industry.  Imagine the sales pitch, ‘Chemical-free cleaning for a happy environment.’  How welcome would that be to soap manufacturers, I wonder?

As for that petrol-like gleam of blue on those black wings, hood and tail, it out-sheens any silk I’ve seen.  Up close, the birds have glamour.  Usually, around here, they’re seen from a distance, as a flash of monochrome, flitting out of the way of cars.  They are, after all, fine refuse collectors, and despite their handsome dinner-jackets, they relish road-kill.

magpie nestThis spring a pair of magpies have moved into a tree across the road.  They’ve constructed their twiggy des-res at the apex of the thin branches at the crown, it looks precarious, I get vertigo just thinking about sitting up there by the hour, but the design is clearly first rate.  Despite strong gusting winds during the last month, the nest remains firmly lodged, and Mrs Magpie seems to be brooding her eggs.

Mr Magpie flits back and forth, bringing home the groceries.  It’s a lot of work, searching out food for a growing family, which our Magpie couple must have factored in when they decided on this spot.  It is, after all, a prime location with several handy garden food stores.  He’s taken control of my bird-feeders, especially the inverted terracotta fat-feeder designed to favour acrobatic blue-tits.

Lacking the agility for swinging upside-down to feed, Mr Magpie paces along branches, assessing the problem from all right-way-up angles.  That’s when I have a chance to observe without being observed, to admire his elegance.  Any other time he keeps one eye always on the house, ready to depart at the twitch of a shadow, but this prize keeps his focus. He can reach the edge of the pot from a parallel branch, if only his beak would bend.

He’s not dainty, or delicate.  He drops onto the grass to eye the mush of fat and seed from below.  How solid he looks, as if he’s a regular at the gym. There’s no denying his qualities as a pin-up, but does that image tell the whole story?  I can feel the twitch of a smile, watching him pace, peering first this way, then that.  When he dives up, beak reaching, stabbing into the pot, gulping down fragments of plunder, I’m tempted to laugh and cheer.  He tries so hard to hover there, the effort is at odds with his usual economy of movement.

This fellow’s not sunny, or funny though. See how the other birds hurry out of his way?  They’re far from charmed by the sophisticated demeanour.  They know that Mr & Mrs Magpie are not ideal neighbours, that with their presence the garden has transformed from a gentle landscape of domestic intrigues into one laced with menace.

Book review: Elizabeth & Mary: cousins, rivals, queens. By Jane Dunn

The past, so L. P. Hartley, famously wrote, is a foreign country.  You must excuse my borrowing the well known quote for my own purposes, I’ve had my nose buried in a double biography at every available opportunity this past week.  So effective has the emersion been, that I’ve felt myself stepping across a border with each entry or exit from the pages.

elizabeth and mary by Jane DunnWhere was I?  In the Elizabethan era, jaunting between England, France and Scotland with two of the most prominent women of the period: Elizabeth herself, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

I thought it would be a simple read, a matter of fluffing out facts I’ve already absorbed.  These two are, surely, high on the list of the most dramatized characters from Western history, aren’t they?  Aside from the significance of their own lives, they were peripheral characters to other significant adventurers who’ve been the subject of page, screen and stage interpretations.  At one time there seemed to be someone striding across the TV screen in tights, padded knickers and a cloak most Saturday afternoons.

With so much written, I didn’t think much more could be added.  Elizabeth never married.  She fell in love with unsuitable men, may have had affairs with them; wore a ruff, had ginger hair (later replaced with a wig), could be kind, but was mostly masculinely imperious, and signed a lot of death warrants, including one for her cousin Mary.

elizabeth 1stI think these things can be considered documented facts.  I also understand that they allow a variety of interpretations, so that portrayals of Elizabeth can range from evil through all the nuances to benign.  Mary’s life can likewise range from gullible victim to foolish martyr. So I opened this book without expecting much.  I was prepared to abandon it.

The thing with writing about two such famous, such prominent, characters, is that most readers are likely to know the key events.  So Dunn’s preface ensures we’re all starting at the same place.  She opens with the end of Elizabeth’s life, on 24th March 1603.

Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take to her bed at last.  To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, ‘My lord, the crown which I have borne so long has given enough of vanity in my time.’

Ah, detail.  I presume it’s authentic, that somewhere a witness had noted this down.  Reading it, my caricature version of the elderly Queen begins to humanise, and wonderfully, I feel a pull I recognise.  Is it, can it be, that I’m being hooked?

These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  This same crown had been the focus of Mary’s ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth’s throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.

Now I know what the focus will be.  How will Dunn work it?

Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy.  When pressed by Parliament to sign Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone.

She’s going to explore motivations and consequences.

Sixteen years before Elizabeth’s own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four.

mary queen of scotsThere’s a lot to love about this book: the way Dunn twists back and forth along her timeline to provide context and explanation for key events; her use of short extracts from letters and diaries that really bring characters to life, and the alternative motivations and conclusions she adds to the traditional take on events.

Of Mary, after the murder of her second husband, Dunn writes:

Certainly the extent of her culpability and her state of mind were a much more complicated story than any of the simplistic characterizations that have shadowed her from this moment to the present. Mary was still only twenty-four years old.  She was without any real political support or disinterested advice, she had been ill, and was certainly under great duress.

The rumour and gossip soon spread.

As a former Queen of France, Mary might have expected kinder treatment from her traditional allies but in fact it was Elizabeth who emerged at this time as the most sympathetic voice, showing more concern for Mary’s plight than outrage at what the world was whispering.

Glimpses of surprising women, that’s what hooked me.  Sorry can’t stop here longer, I’ve got to see how Dunn spins the rest of their stories.


Strong characters drive the story.

Eve-Myles-Keeping-FaithFor the last eight weeks, we’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Faith Howells as she attempts to sort out the mess of intrigue, corruption and loss that happens after her husband, Evan, disappears.  That is, we’ve been watching a Welsh TV drama called, Keeping Faith, on BBC 1.  Faith’s trying to discover what’s happened to Evan, with not much help from the police or her community, but she’s attacked each new obstacle with grit, ingenuity and warmth, so we’ve mostly cheered her on.

I’m not saying she’s got it right all through.  There have been moments of blatant idiocy when we’ve shaken our heads, agreeing that no mother would do that.  In the first episode she drove off into the night leaving her three small children alone in the house, for at least an hour.  ‘Really?  Would she?’

The answer was yes, she had to.  ‘Get used to it,’ this incident warned us, ‘we’re dealing with a woman who’s impetuous.’ She’s generous and loving and loyal, but she sticks her neck out and trusts.  Of course she does, we should have got that from the title, ‘keeping Faith’ is about playing with all aspects of the meaning.

And, do you know what?  We began to like her all the more for it once we’d accepted who she was.  Faith is a clever lawyer, but she’s been away from work, having children and looking after the family.  She doesn’t know what’s happened with Evan and their law partnership. His disappearance forces her back to the office. As she picks up the cases Evan should be dealing with, we see how capable she is. When she begins to untangle the clues we are on her side, sharing her confusion and trusting her intuitions.

The odd’s against Faith got darker each episode, her list of potential allies diminished, and what did she do?  She grimaced, sucked in a breath, painted on a fresh smile as required, and turned back to her battle.

Eve Myles and Demi Letherby in Keeping Faith (2017)Maybe what our outrage really meant was, no mother should do that.  It’s easy to sit in judgement when we’re safe, but drama is about what happens when the supports are taken away.

One of the first pieces of writing advice I remember being given in script-writing classes was, ‘Put your characters on the edge of the cliff, then make them find a way back from it.’  That’s where Faith’s been, episode after episode.  Each of the people she thought she could turn to have failed her at a crucial moment.  She’s been driven to the edges of literal and metaphorical cliffs, by ill-will, indifference, fear, prejudice, resentments and avarice.

What keeping faith has meant for Faith, is that help has come from unexpected quarters, as a result of her generosity and goodwill.  Characters are not simply good or bad, daft or smart, they’re more complicated.   They don’t all keep tidy houses, sometimes they get drunk, they make questionable choices, they take risks, and too often, the past impacts on the way they make decisions.

I was involved in the action, wondering what, how and when, and willing everything to work out comfortably for Faith and her children. It’s only in retrospect I see the shapes of this drama.

KeepingFaith with Aneirin Hughes

Cats, apples, Isaac Newton and Carl Kahler.

I have a little book, called 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization.  I consider that a nice title, a real hook for someone who finds felines fascinating – that’s me.  I got the book at Christmas, and liked it also because it perfectly fits the narrowest shelf of my favourite bookcase, and since I was midway through reading some other books, that’s where it’s rested for the last few months.

That top shelf is tricky to fill, let me tell you.  In the past, I’ve layered comatose paperbacks on it, which is just not pleasing.  It’s perfect for audio tapes, but my cassette player is in my car – yes, it’s that old – so I keep my half-dozen boxes in the glove-box.  But I digress.

Returning to my compact gem: Sam Stall has trawled through history to create a collection that is, at times, a little stretched. A cat is named as co-author of a research paper, because it had been written with an authorial ‘we’, at a time before word-processors, which meant the whole thing would have needed to be retyped to replace the ‘we’ with ‘I’.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl KahlerI’m not worried if there is a little exaggeration involved.  This, I think, is one of those pass-along books that are heaped on the bookshop counter at Christmas time.  It’s a stocking filler: it’s a story filler, too.

There are plenty of snippets of information I like. For instance, did you know Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?  His feline companion kept distracting him with demands to be let in and out of the house, so he developed a solution.

This, I think could be part of a new story. It could be that the fit will be thematic rather than the story centre, and I’ve no immediate suggestion on how or where that might happen.  It will though.  Trust me.

Let the idea sink in slowly.  Don’t necessarily try to picture Newton.  Writing about Regency Britain could be a little demanding.  Think about cat flaps. Maybe sleep on it.

Have you heard the story about the woman who returned home from shopping to find her Rottweiler dog choking?  She took it to the vet, who rushed the dog off for an operation.

As the woman drove home the vet called her mobile, and told her to wait in her car.  She pulled up, the police arrived, rushed into her house, and arrested a man they found hiding there.  His left hand was wrapped in a bloody towel. The vet had extracted two severed fingers from the dog’s throat, then phoned the police.

It turned out that the burglar had crawled through the dog-flap, somehow not suspecting why there was such a large access point.

This isn’t a story either, it’s an anecdote. It could be more, though.

Add in that Carl Kahler picture, at the top of the post, and I think I’m beginning to see a way with this.