Saturday, 31 March 2012


Today is the birthday of philosopher Rene Descartes, born in La Haye en Touraine, France (1596), called the father of modern philosophy, but he considered himself a mathematician and scientist. He became interested in philosophy when he heard that the church persecuted Galileo for his scientific theories. Descartes realized some of his own theories were also controversial, so he wrote a book called Discourse on Method (1637), about the necessity of doubt in scientific inquiry. He also wrote about beginning to doubt everything about his life, even the fact of his own existence. But in the process of doing so, he realized that he couldn't doubt the existence of his own thoughts, and he produced his most famous line: "Cogito ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am." Some years ago, I adapted this pithy phrase for my mother, who almost single-handedly supported the post-WWII retail boom: "Depenso ergo sum" - I shop, therefore I am.

Today is also the birthday of the poet Andrew Marvell, born in Winestead, England (1621). His most famous poem is "To His Coy Mistress," a favourite with undergraduates in my time, written to convince a woman to sleep with him: "Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime," .... "But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near."

The Archbishop of Canterbury has commented this morning (Sat March 31) on the finding that less than half of all British children know the words of the Lord's Prayer. He points out that, quite aside from being deprived of a vehicle specifically recommended by Our Lord, those children are also unable to recognise the many allusions in our whole literature and culture to such core equipment. On my bookshelves this morning for instance, I noticed Andrew O'Hagan's novel Our Fathers (surely an allusion to the first line of the prayer). Even the title of this year's British entry in the Eurovision Song Contest 'Love Will Make You Free' echoes the New Testament lines John 8: 32 'And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'.


Condign is a useful English word, meaning apt, appropriate, as in 'condign punishment' = fitting the crime. It is rumoured from Moscow that, following the arrest of the Pussy Girls for singing an anti-Putin anthem at the altar of the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the congregations of two Moscow churches SS Cosma and Damian (Fr Alexander Borisov) and the Dormition(Fr V Lapshin) signed a petition asking the authorities to show clemency.The authorities, according to rumour, reacted with fury and have threatened to 'take over' both churches. Both incumbents, Borisov and Lapshin, were friends of Alexander Men whose free and frank priorities led to his death in 1990 at the hands, it is also rumoured, of those same authorities. I have suggested elsewhere that condign punishment for the Pussy Girls might be to serve in their church choir for a year. Then I remembered the scene in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, where the protagonist Paul Pennyfeather, a prep school master, finding himself towards the end of the novel in prison, communicates a message during the singing of the hymn 'Oh God Our Help in Ages Past':
All over the chapel the men filled their chests for a burst of conversation.
'Oh God our help in ages past' sang Paul
'Where's Prendergast today?'
'What aint you eard? 'e's been done in'
'And our eternal home.'

I laughed so much looking for this passage that I have decided to take the book on the train south today (for a funeral on Monday).

Lastly, I am delighted to report that my erstwhile mountain of books on the floor has melted to a mere couple of sorted piles. While shelving, I have found the strength to chuck quite a few. Some have gone to find new homes through the kind offices of Katherine Clemmens' Moffat Book Exchange, others have gone to Moffat CAN. In my haste to get the books onto shelves, I lowered my sights from attempting alphabetical positioning. This has resulted in a pleasing effect, whereby books in the same genre jostle as if at a disorderly and unlikely cocktail party. Looking just now along the rows for Decline and Fall, I noticed Rose Macaulay next to Gogol and Virginia Woolf next to Dostoievsky.

Friday, 30 March 2012

A hero of our time

A Scotsman ploughs a lonely furrow, commenting on English usage in faraway Moscow, safe from the slings and arrows of the politically correct consensus - do visit his blog for gusts of non-pc fresh air A recent post mentions the current 'jerrycans' furore and Moffat, birthplace of Hugh Dowding architect of the Battle of Britain victory of 'the few'. I live in Moffat now, but was born in north Kent, a hop and skip away from Biggin Hill, under the skies where the B of B raged and where the dreaded V2 rockets later droned overhead until their engines cut out and they dropped silently with their deadly cargo onto their victims. Our house was built in 1939 on the edge of farmland, in a former orchard. One day my mother looked out of the kitchen window and saw a light aircraft landing in the garden. The pilot got out and asked my mother 'Which way to Biggin Hill?' In a re-run of the 1969 Harry Salzman Battle of Britain film on TV the other day, two young pilots were sent up into battle with only 7 and 12 hours training respectively. On the subject of TV, in an otherwise good documentary last night on BBCTV4 Art Nouveau - Sex and Sensibility, the presenter Stephen Smith pronounced 'Cymric' 'simrik' - clearly not connecting the word with Plaid Cymry which is pronounced to rhyme with Cumbria because both refer to our indigenous culture, the 'fellow countrymen' or 'cymbrogi'. In the language spoken by all those aborigines, the letter 'y' is pronounced 'u' - so it is Bob Dull'un, Dull'un Thomas and so on. Tut Tut. Or should that by 'Tyt Tyt'. Before we leave the subject of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts etc or in Russian 'Moderne' we all have a treat in store in October when we will celebrate the publication of our Moffat Book Events chairman Andrew Wheatcroft's new book on The End of Empire. Goulash and Tokay all round (it's the Austro-Hungarian empire we're talking about)!

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Rake's Progress

I had two tickets for Scottish Opera's The Rake's Progress in Glasgow yesterday. By Thursday last week, it had become clear to Elly and me that we weren't going to make it, so when we got back to Moffat, on our knees with exhaustion, I gave them to some one else who was going and suggested she go up to someone in the queue at the box office and give them away. I saw The Rake designed by David Hockney at Glyndebourne in 1975. Ten years earlier, one of my school friends based not far from Glyndebourne and its eccentric founder, who would travel to London on business wearing tennis shoes, spent an idyllic summer as a programme seller at Glyndebourne, and having a precocious affair with a local playboy. In those days, the auditorium was small and tickets were very difficult to get, but we were lucky to have a neighbour in London whose aunt was the librarian at Glyndebourne and got them that way. The librarian was married to someone called Spike Hughes, a jazz musician and author of the successful 'The Art of Coarse...' (fishing, gardening, cricket etc) series of humorous guides to various pursuits. The neighbour co-founded the game- changing Chinese restaurant Mr Chow and ran what he called his 'dingy nightclub' in Jermyn St. All this could be the subject of a novel, I suppose, in which I would play the part of a dazed onlooker akin to that of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Except that, in so many ways, life itself is so much more exciting and strange than most novels. The dentist has just rung to cancel my checkup appointment in Lanark today! Hooray!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A Woman's Life

I was explaining to my younger daughter Elly, after a visit to my mother (aged 95) on Friday, that my sister (I promise that's the last female relation in this sentence) had attended a domestic science academy after leaving school. This was because of the quality of lunch. We were 8: my mother and sister, myself and my daughter, my cousin Mary and her youngest daughter Sarah, the outgoing carer and the incoming carer. Before lunch, Nancy put her head round the door before she set off down the drive to the lodge where she and her airline pilot husband live. In fact, now that I count heads, the only men present were Olly (aged 11 months) and Nancy's husband who could be spied in the far distance, with a wheelbarrow in his shirtsleeves disappearing into a clump of trees.At first I did not recognise him. 'Is that your gardener, Mum?' 'No. That would be Jonathan planting out his potatoes'. My sister was sent (not too strong a word for it), aged 17, to an establishment run by two women, Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, called Winkfield after passing a respectable number of school exams, to learn how to arrange flowers and make delicious light lunches, pending marriage (it was presumed and expected by my father) to a man who would make some effortless kind of living ' in the City' or on running the family estate. Explaining this to Elly, it sounded like the Middle Ages. 'How dreadful' she said. Of course, my sister gradually escaped from these expectations, making herself into an internationally-recognised artist in her own right, as well as an expert in Duchamp and all things Dada. It is Gloria (A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle ) Steinem's birthday today, and 40 years since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique that became an overnight best-seller, advocating what became known as 'feminism'. The moral of this story is not that learning how to prepare a delicious lunch is a waste of time - I wish I had. The moral is that the only constant to prepare our children for is change. To enjoy life, you must expect it and meet it cheerfully. After all, you never know when you might have eight to lunch.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Henry James's funeral

I used to be on the list of guides to Chelsea Old Church, which entailed reporting for duty for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon with another local resident and sitting chatting while a steady trickle of visitors came in and looked round the various monuments therein. One quiet Sunday afternoon, my friend Sheila and I were gassing away, vaguely aware that a young couple were looking round the church. They were French, and explained that they had come to see the plaque commemorating the novelist Henry James, who became a British subject just before his death during World War One. After they left, we were stunned to see that they had each left £20 in the collecting salver by the porch. Sheila and I decided to use the money to provide a leaflet about the great man, which I wrote and she designed. Sheila was - is - a considerable artist with a studio in Chelsea. During World War Two she was drafted, as an art student, into the British army's map-making service based in remote rural West Wales, and just before I left the house that had been my home for 38 years in December 2009, her work, with other contemporaries', was honoured with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. This story of unexpected generosity has a twist in its tail. While researching the text for the leaflet, I became intrigued by the guest list at Henry James's funeral at the Old Church, which will be the subject of a paper I will be giving at an international conference in London at the end of June.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Cross - cultural fertilisation

A reader has commented on the arcane rituals associated with the working of the raffle at the end of a Moffat coffee morning. Ticket holders draw up chairs in front of the table below the dais, where the tickets have been sold. The ritual requires three officers: a holder of the ticket stubs where buyers names and contact details eg telephone number have been inscribed; a prize fetcher who selects the prizes in strict order and a disinterested figurehead (in the case of Moffat Book Events' coffee morning, me) who draws the prize-winning tickets one by one out of a wicker basket holding all the eligible tickets. I am proud to be able to claim that I introduced the concept of the raffle to Moscow. I was at a conference where some valuable object was donated and the question arose: how most fairly to award it to a member of the audience. Conversely, I successfully persuaded the organisers of the Jan 2012 W G Sebald gathering in Aldeburgh to adopt the immensely sensible Russian practice of dealing with questions to the platform from members of an audience. Questions are written on slips of paper and passed to messengers roving up and down the ends of rows to the platform, where they can be dealt with one by one. This only works fairly if every slip is seen to be opened and dealt with, of course. This method deals with time-wasting speechifiers and encourages people to make their questions more precise. Diffuse, ill-framed questions can briskly be paraphrased by the speaker when he addresses them, or several similar ones be lumped together or self-evidently be demonstrated to already have been asked. This Russian method, however, permits insults or even death threats to the speaker, as was the case at public gatherings where Fr Alexander Men was the speaker, which warned him of his fate but did not daunt him.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Arthal and Morvidus

I follow a Dark Ages history blog, Senchus aka Tim (The Men of the North) Clarkson. An intriguing photograph of a stone carving on his blog today, about the monastery at Dacre in southeast of the Lake District caused me to look up the origin of the 'Bear with Ragged Staff' emblem, adopted by the earls of Warwick. The earldom was created in 1088, and could be inherited through the female line - an unusual feature. Wikipedia explains: The heraldic device of the Earls of Warwick, the bear and ragged staff, is believed to derive from two legendary Earls, Arthal and Morvidus. Arthal is said to mean "bear", while Morvidus was said to have slain a giant "with a young ash tree torn up by the roots." Another web page explains that Arthal was a legendary king of the Britons as accounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was the second son of King Morvidus and brother of Gorbonianus. Arthal began as an evil king bent on destroying the nobles and undoing all his brother …(interested parties can read on in the original). What has this got to do with the price of fish? First: what weight to place in language tradition over (say) other evidence - the stone carvings are known locally as 'the Dacre bears' although one of them looks more like a lion. Second: I take issue with historians of the Dark Ages who slip - misleadingly - into using modern political or geographical expressions such as 'Wales' and Scotland'. If you were sculling around Britain in 900AD in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, you wouldn't have described yourself as being 'in Scotland'. Third: the tradition of a title being capable of inheritance through the female line is intriguing.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Vernal Equinox

Today is officially the first day of spring: the vernal equinox. The axis of the earth is in alignment with the centre of the sun, the hours of day and night are more or less equal. From now until midsummer, the days will get longer. And so it goes. Appropriately, I had a red letter day yesterday. Note for anoraks: a 'red letter day' is so called because church calenders print saints and other feast days in red. I met David Borthwick at Crichton to discuss taking part in the exciting course he is launching in September, on Environment, Culture and Communication. The course will be operated as a hub with spokes linking in with two other environmentally-minded courses, aimed at more at technologists. The three distinct 'majors' will have linked modules, enabling participants to broaden their exploration of the field.

In the nick of time, before I sank beneath piles of unfiled documents, unshelved and unsorted books, I was helped to sort out my office systems and library yesterday by Marilyn Elliott and Bernie (Moffat Ramblers) McDougall. Many thanks both!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Venus and Jupiter

Last night at 6.30pm I looked out of my west-facing first floor kitchen window and saw the once-in-a-generation conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. These two planets are millions of miles apart, but for a week or so they have appeared extremely close in the sky. If you look this evening, Venus is the brighter of the two, higher in the sky, with Jupiter - also brilliant - below and slightly to the left (last night anyway). Talking of generations, it was Mothering Sunday yesterday so three generations of our family ranging in age from 68 (me) to rising 1 (Olly) set off in the sun for a very festive lunch at Moffat House hotel. I have developed a passion for beetroot in my dotage, so chose a salad containing same for my starter. Not content with having had beetroot for lunch, I made myself another beetroot-based salad for supper. Russians use beetroot a lot, and I made a mixture from memory: hard boiled egg, chopped raw onion and beetroot - flavours that go together surprisingly well. There is a widespread belief in the West that Russian food is vile - derived from experiences in Soviet hotels run by Intourist. In fact, Russian food is absolutely delicious, made from fresh local seasonal or pickled ingredients, far better than French to my taste. For lovers of the word, may I commend a blog by Ian Mitchell, an Old Etonian Scot who spent his childhood in South Africa,now resident in Moscow: English Language Etiquette for Russians ( Ian is the author of three remarkable books: The Cost of a Reputation, concerning a libel case harking back to the controversial repatriations of combatants at the end of WWII and two thought-provoking, funny books exposing the activities of the RSPB and other wildlife and 'heritage' organisations on the west coast of Scotland Isles of the West and Isles of the North.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Coffee morning

Happy Mothering Sunday aka Mother's Day! Moffat Book Events made £400 at our coffee morning yesterday, thanks to many helping hands who will all be thanked via the Moffat News next week. We had sad news yesterday: our Moffat Book Events chairman Adam Dillon, minister of St Andrew's church in Moffat has resigned from MBE because of a health crisis at home. We wish him and his family all the best at this difficult time.

I began Mother's Day aka Mothering Sunday by firing off a squib in the direction of the Financial Times, whose TV critic and associate editor John Lloyd will be one of our guests at Russia: Lessons and Legacy, our international Moffat Book Events conference Sept 14-17.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Editor

Your Companies editor Sarah Gordon started her article about the Encyclopedia Britannica switching from paper editions to online (FT March 17/18 2012 'Battleground over web content shifts decisively to quality') with: 'The forests will benefit'. When the red mist had cleared from my eyes, I tried to imagine a serious journal of record starting an article in comparable circumstances with the words 'Cider apple trees will breathe a sigh of relief' (at the cessation of cidermaking) or ' Welcome reprieve for stalks of wheat worldwide' if vitamin pellets ever replaced bread. Hello Sarah! We in the commercial forestry sector grow trees, in rows, to be harvested to make stuff. They are a crop, right? And once they have been felled and taken away to make paper, pallets, houses etc we plant some more! Magic, isn't it? Ms Gordon is welcome to come and see how its done any day here in the southern uplands of Scotland.

Yours sincerely

Elizabeth Roberts

I could have added, for the benefit of those who are worried about Anthropogentic Global Warming (AGW) that, for their 30-40 year growing cycle, commercial forestry trees suck in enormous quantities of CO2.

A batch of our Zacharry's trademark freshly-brewed non-alcoholic spruce beer, rich in vitamin C, was a sell-out at the coffee morning so I have asked Jim Hurren o/c the forest brewery to make another batch asap. Cheers!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

St Pat

Happy St Patrick's Day! St Patrick was, of course, a Cumbrian meaning 'fellow-countryman' or Briton. All Brits to this day still share 80 per cent of their DNA, from Kirkwall to Cornwall. He was born just down the road from Moffat in a village a mere 45 miles away. In those days, in 4th/5th century, there was no country called England or Scotland therefore no border. According to today's BBCR4 Today show, the man we now know as Patrick escaped from his father's royal court to Ireland to avoid a career choice - tax collector - being forced on him, rather than (as was formerly believed) being captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Whichever it was, in Ireland, after trading in slaves, or being one for a while, Patrick returned to Britain and decided to go off to train for the church, in Rome. Wikipedia says his colour was originally blue but now it is green to match the shamrock whose three -part leaf on one stalk he used to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity. It's a lovely clear blue sky and sunny day for our Moffat Book Events coffee morning in one and a half hour's time starting at 10.30am at Moffat Town Hall. There will be a freshly-brewed batch of spruce beer from our forest and lots of delicious home baking, books (of course) a raffle and much else besides.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A movie mystery

I have asked if the Burns Film Centre in Dumfries can obtain for screening a short film called The Good Ship Citizen. It was produced by Elisabeth Murdoch to be shown at the cinema beside the Dome on New Millenium Eve.

The film starred Vic Reeves, Angus (Pirates of the Caribbean; Midsomer Murders) Barnett and my elder daughter Abi Roberts. When we (Abi's family and friends) arrived to see it on New Millenium Day Jan 1 2000 the poster next to the cinema was still advertising the film but when we got inside it was explained that the film had been 'pulled' at the last minute at the behest, it was said, of Peter Mandelson.

It has since, much to our disappointment, proved impossible to obtain a copy or even see the film.

Well done, Jimmy

Hooray for my cousin James Ingram who prepared all the original scores (and many others for over 20 years) for Stockhausen's 'Wednesday' which will be performed, as originally intended but never so far achieved, by a string quartet hovering in 4 helicopters above Birmingham UK - as part of the 'cultural Olympics' in July.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Joy of Leafletting

Tina called in to go leafletting with me yesterday afternoon, to invite people with gardens to open them for our 'Open Gardens' event on Sunday May 27. We walked up Well Road and took a left along a residential cul de sac, noticing a rivulet running through the development that must be channeled underground to join the Birnock Water then the River Annan to the sea. The pieris are flowering, also cowslips and chinodoxa. The honeysuckle is putting out its pale purple leaves and a pair of ducks, a drake and a duck, appear to be considering a nest opposite my bedroom window on the edge of the ditch of the old mill leat. Tina and I considered the merits of an exotic paper white birch compared with the grubbier native variety, also gravel versus wood chip mulch. We visited a very pretty courtyard garden facing east. Its owner was at home and told us when we gave her a leaflet that her garden gets so little sun that plants grow exceptionally tall to reach the light, little border plants achieving heights of 5ft, which then are broken by the wind. There are some wonderful hedges in Moffat, and there is a case to be made for a guided walk to admire the magnificent houses hidden in side roads, built in the golden late afternoon of Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Tina kindly brought me a bag full of those lovely orange hedge lilies crocosmia which will flower in my new garden later this year. We took them round to the garden and I showed her the space for our new Moffat Gallery, which will open for its first exhibition during Beyond the Garden Gate.

There's an article about hoarding in The Independent. Am I a hoarder? I fear that I have hoarding tendencies, and hereby resolve to clear up some of my more pointless accumulations. In other words: spring clean.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


I am readingWatermelons by James Delingpole. Delingpole argues convincingly that apparently innocuous terms like 'sustainable' and 'renewables' conceal an authoritarian leftwing political agenda. If you think 'green', 'carbon footprint' and 'eco' are nice words, read this book.

Another book that I am also remembering this morning is Clochemerle, a 1934 French satirical novel by Gabriel Chevallier centering on the installation of a urinal in a village in rural France. The book was made into a series by the BBC in 1972 with a starry cast headed by Peter Ustinov. The reason for my remembering is that I am part of a small community group intent on improving the facilities in two villages along the Upper Clyde: Crawford and Abington. Time will tell whether we will experience the civic uproar caused in Clochemerle.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

After lunch

This year's Women of Dumfries and Galloway lunch at Easterbrook Hall, Dumfries yesterday prompted many thoughts. The object of the lunch - raising money for educational purposes - was achieved. So many applied for tickets that the number turned away almost equalled the number of us who sat down. Is it unfair to comment that Sarah Mackie, a young farmer-turned-director of Tesco's 'Scottish office' might have sourced a professional speechwriter to provide her with a lip-licking speech instead of what she delivered: her CV? Anne Widdecombe was on her fifth speaking engagement of the week, and what she delivered was a well-polished series of jokes. To her great credit, she insisted on a 'Q and A' with the audience, a first apparently for the Women of D&G (what??why ever had this not been a staple for years?). She also spent a great deal of lunch time circulating around the tables, a real pro in the best sense of the word.

Today started on a sad note, with news of the death of C, an old friend. He had burned the candle at both ends, so when his lifestyle finally caught up with him we, his family and friends, could not be surprised, but he will be missed for his kindness, his enjoyment of life and for helping us celebrate the moment despite the sadness that underlay his partying.

Friday, 9 March 2012

..and lunch with Anne Widdecombe

A busy day today. Went at 9.0am with my grandson Zac aged 4 to Small and Tall, his nursery and was told sternly to 'stop singing' on our way. I was married to a musician and both our daughters trained to sing professionally. What an irony that I sound like a corncrake. I am in my 'nines' for lunch today with Anne Widdecombe in Dumfries at the 2012 The Women of Dumfries and Galloway lunch. Meanhile, I am waiting in for Martin Tabor of Land Use Consultants in Glasgow, to whom I loaned my collection of archaeology and other history books about the Upper Clyde Valley. He and I are working with a small group of residents to provide visitors to the area with facilities and information about an area rich in all sorts of relics. One of my favourite hidden monuments is to the railway workers who died of cholera building what is now known as the main West coast line. They were buried in a mass grave, only sanctified years later by a belated visit from the Bishop of Glasgow or some senior cleric - I will have to re-visit it to check. That area of south Lanarkshire, where I used to live, is packed with fascinating sites that people usually whizz past on their way north. We aim to slow them down and encourage them to stop, or encourage day visitors, with a series of stunning architect-designed shelters and stop-off points accessible by Segways, bikes or on foot. Our leaflets for Beyond the Garden Gate will be available in the next few days, as well as a press release.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Thanks to The Writer's Almanac online for the following:

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Harris, born in Nottingham, England (1957). In 1987, he was working as an investigative journalist when he decided to take a vacation in Italy. He was lying on the beach, listening to the German tourists talking all around him, when he suddenly imagined that he was living in the victorious German empire. He got up and went swimming in the ocean, and by the time he came back to shore, he had an outline for a novel about what the world would be like if the Nazis had won World War II. That novel was Fatherland (1991), and it became an international best-seller.
Harris went on to write many other books, including Enigma (1995), about British code breakers during World War II, and Archangel (1998), about the search for a secret Stalin diary. His most recent novel is The Fear Index (2011).
Harris said, "It is perfectly legitimate to write novels which are essentially prose poems, but in the end, I think, a novel is like a car, and if you buy a car and grow flowers in it, you're forgetting that the car is designed to take you somewhere else."

Harris took his readers to a darker place in The Ghost (2007), which suggests that the wife of a UK Prime Minister resembling Tony Blair was a CIA agent who kills her husband. The film version by Roman Polanski won many awards and bears re-viewing for its bleak aesthetic and spare, downbeat script.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


I enjoyed attending the UKIP conference in Skegness yesterday, much as I enjoy watching BBCTV's Question Time, with the important difference that at the UKIP conference you could actually discuss the issues with the speakers both at sessions and in the intervals between sessions.

Coincidentally, today is the anniversary in 1797, of a peaceful transfer of power, for the first time in the US modern times, from George Washington the first president of the United States to John Adams. George Washington was overheard to say to his successor:
'Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'"

There were convincing arguments made at the Skegness UKIP conference for: Britain being better off out of the European Union(by former Treasury advisor Professor Tim Congdon, supported by IMF data) ; lower taxes; business, particularly small business and sole traders; grammar schools; law and order; a points system for immigration such as that used in Canada, Australia and the USA; retention of the United Kingdom and 'common sense'. All of these are perfectly tenable points of view, possibly mainstream in the public if not at Westminster or Holyrood. Nigel Farage devoted most of his address to the conference to an impressive plea for UK government intervention in the case of a businessman extradited to prison in America without the US authorities submitting any evidence to a British court - a clear violation of habeus corpus.

I left Skegness glad to have witnessed, and taken part in a corner of, the UK democratic process on a weekend when Russians are going to polls in an election that many voters seem justified in fearing will be fixed.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Bad Hotel Experience

Connoisseurs of the genre may appreciate the following account of my stay in Skegness last night:

After a rail journey lasting eight hours with three changes of train, I arrived at the entrance to the hotel, at 5.30pm on Friday March 2. As I entered the gravel forecourt, I was disheartened to see that most of the the gold lettering that once bore the hotel's name on the right hand side of the wall had fallen off except for two letters hanging at a lopsided angle. I went to check in just in time to hear the assistant behind the reception desk tell another arriving guest on no account was he to ring the bell beside which there was a notice ‘Ring Bell For Assistance’.

“It’s been one of those days” she said by way of explanation.

After being asked to pay (by Mastercard) in advance for my two nights’ stay and having completed an arrival form, I was given a wooden numbered fob with electronic entry card and two keys attached and took the lift to the first floor (pressing ‘3’ in the lift as instructed by the receptionist). On exiting the lift, I entered the appropriate corridor to access my room; the aroma of cigarette smoke was faintly in evidence despite a ’no smoking’ sign on every door. I tried to open the door to my room via the electronic entry card, but failed. I left my case by the door and returned to the reception desk . The receptionist offered to help, adding ‘I may not be able to – it’s only my second week”. She also remarked on the smell of cigarette smoke in the corridor, before using one of the two keys to open the door to my room. I had chosen the hotel online because it offered a seaview from a balcony. On entry, there was a small sitting room with leather sofa, TV, tea-making equipment, a coffee table with a vase of white artificial lilies and an occasional chair of plastic woven basketweave. It was a fine evening, so I opened the balcony door onto a scruffy asbestos and brick balcony with a yellow artifical lily bizarrely attached to one of the wrought iron railings, three garden seats and an abandoned water bottle.

Through a connecting internal door was the bedroom with a companion to the occasional chair in the sitting room, a wardrobe, double bed, and, in the window alcove, a mahogany dressing table with matching dressing table mirror and stand, and a mahogany chair, upholstered in red nylon velvet, stained on the seat. Next to the bed was an antique bedside light on an ornamental brass base with a parchment shade ornamented with crystal drops and fringe of what looked like dead hair in spidery wisps, sitting on a tiny round bedside table. There was a pervasive and persistent stink of stale human body odour emanating from the ancient divan base of the bed, which (as I was later to discover) made sleep impossible.

The ensuite bathroom was a strange mixture of contemporary fittings, DIY and ancient stained lino. The signature style-setter however, was the grime-encrusted loop of the multiply-knotted string of the light pull.

I was due at the opening night dinner of the UKIP conference – the purpose of my visit to Skegness -, and from a cursory inspection of the dilapidated guest houses I had passed on my way on foot from the station, I decided I had no option but to stick it out for one night.

After a sleepless night, at 5.30am I went to make myself a cup of tea. I looked carefully at the first cup and saw a brown mark on the inside, which proved on scraping it with my finger nail to be a deposit left by the previous user.

I am checking out today.

Friday, 2 March 2012


I'm off to Skegness today with my sceptical reporter's hat on. Appropriately, today is the birthday of a journalist and novelist I much admire: Tom Wolfe, born in Richmond, Virginia (1931). He wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He also wrote The Right Stuff (1979), about the American space program. Though he viewed nonfiction as the best way to comment on the really important things in life, he also wrote three novels: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), A Man in Full (1998), and I am Charlotte Simmons (2004). His fourth novel, Back to Blood, is due out this year (2012).
In an essay published in 2007, Tom Wolfe argued that the newspaper industry would stand a much better chance of survival if newspaper editors encouraged reporters to "provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories." He said journalists should use four literary devices in their work -- "to make the reader feel present in the scene described and even inside the skin of a particular character." They are: 1) constructing scenes; 2) dialogue -- lots of it; 3) carefully noting social status details, "everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of speech"; and 4) point of view, "in the Henry Jamesian sense of putting the reader inside the mind of someone other than the writer." Well, I will try to follow Wolfe's advice.
For many years I have been curious to discover what makes UKIP, and their accident-prone leader Nigel Farage, tick. Are UKIP members Little Englanders or (worse) the NF in respectable disguise? I am going to have a long, hard look at them gathered in the Lincolnshire seaside resort made famous by the poster of a manic fisherman skipping over puddles in the sand. Will Skegness be bracing in a good way? The only way to find out is to go and put a metaphorical toe in the water.

I will report back tomorrow.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Paper Garden

I am reading a very surprising book,The Paper Garden by Toronto-based author Molly Peacock, published by Bloomsbury. Why surprising? On the face of it, a book about Mrs Delaney, a real 18th century figure, who spent the last twenty years of her long life cutting out flowers from tissue paper and sticking them on black backgrounds might be a yawn. But the writing sparkles, it is written in colloquial - sometimes even slangy English, and the narrative covers far more than the protagonist's cut and paste technique. I am only on page 53, but I am beginning to see how this most unusual, clever, ground-breaking story is going to use this - quite literally - flimsy excuse to investigate subjects of enduring interest to us all, such as: marriage, ageing, families, friendship, the nature of art - in other words Life and all its challenges. Also, purely as an object, this is a beautifully-produced book, by Bloomsbury in association with The British Museum, with many pretty touches such as the typeface, expensive paper, lovely colour illustrations. A five star recommendation.

Now: a quiz question to which I genuinely wish to know the answer - where did all the woad go? We are told that our forebears decorated themselves with woad, a blue dye that is made by boiling up a plant. You would think that therefore the plant would still be found growing in many a corner of a British field or hedgerow. But no. It does not grow wild anywhere in Britain. If you need some blue woad dye, as we did 12 years ago for my younger daughter's wedding outfit 'something blue', (in her case a garter), woad seeds had to be bought and the tender plant cultivated. I will raise the question with our garden historians during Beyond the Garden Gate May 26/27.