A shrine, a power station and three (female) astrophysicists

I’m doing a little trip, on my own. Archaeo-man’s off to Africa, archaeo-ing. Me – I’m making a pilgrimage.

It begins well.

A leisurely start – mug of tea, dipping a biscuit. Gazing out of the window at the birds and trees.

No emails, not today, I’m showing them who’s mistress. Taking a slow, gentle, saunter into reality.

I switch on the radio for the news, like I always do the morning after he flies. There hasn’t been a plane crash on his route – so I know he’s reached Africa safely.

Then the phone rings. The connecting flight left without him. Airlines are being difficult. The trip was booked by the university’s travel agents, only they can sort it out.

Catapulted into frenzy, my morning speeds by in a blur. Contact the university, sort out the flights. Rearrange the meeting with the Heritage Commission in Lusaka. Contact Pioneer Camp, change the airport pick-up.

But his ancient phone’s not set for international – I’m blocked. And stumped.

I decide to abandon my jaunt. I’m feeling too stressed, now, to undertake a pilgrimage. I ring the place I’m staying to cancel – but there’s no reply.

An hour later a text breaks through from South Africa, ‘On my way!’

And I change my mind. I won’t be in time to bathe in the healing waters today, but, hey.

The drive’s going well till I take a wrong turn, end up stuck in a small town, its centre blocked off by police. Stifling my curiosity – it’s later than I’d like – I ask for directions, finally reaching Holywell as the clock says half past four.

I head straight for the well, just to say hello. I’ll visit properly tomorrow.

The shrine looks grey, sad. A little dishevelled. The faces of the people in the shop are blank, like posters faded in the sun – still there but saying nothing.

This isn’t how it was meant to be.

holywell 010Back up the steep hill I pull into the convent guest house. Ring the bell. Sister Josanna appears a few minutes later with keys.

I’ve interrupted their prayers.


holywell 015My room is small, above the single bed a crucifix and palm cross.


It might still come right.

At 7 pm I sit down, alone, for dinner.

On my table is a single red rose. Each windowsill holds a Christmas cactus in a copper pot.

The sound of nuns giggling filters through a set of double doors. It seems they’re amused at a priest’s singing. I feel like a worldly, jaded soul.

It’s been a long time since I had oxtail soup. Pork chop, cabbage, roast potatoes next. Then a slice of yellow ice cream. The meal served and cooked by Sister Mary, from India.

Breakfast’s at 8.30, she says. I smile.

Mass is at 7.30, will I be attending? Of course, I nod.

Ah well.

I retire to the lounge with a slim book about the Bridgettine nuns and the sanctuary they gave to Jews in Rome during World War II. By nine o’clock it’s finished and I’m ready to sleep. But I can’t.

I switch off the alarm at four. Rise at six.

Showered, dressed, but not in the mood for holiness, I make my way to the chapel.

Peeking out of an upstairs window I see pastel-coloured knickers and little white bras hanging on a line and feel ashamed, an intruder in a private world.

The chapel is small and intimate, the paucity of nuns poignant. They all seem to be from far flung places – the young priest, too. There’s much singing, but the intonation of the Indian-accented voice leading us is so different, it makes the familiar strange.

At last it’s my time for the shrine.

holywellToo early to bathe. Can’t stay for the noon-time service or to view the relic – a bit of Saint Winefride’s finger.

The people in the shop – also of far Eastern origin – are smiling. Recovered from the 200 schoolchildren who wore them out.

My disappointment ebbs away.

The water in the bathing pool reminds me of the waste-water lagoon of a factory I once lived near. Quite a pretty shade of turquoise. But I doubt I would have bathed.

Two of the Byzantine-looking tents I admired last time have lost their coverings and stand forlorn.

A spring reputedly sprang up when St Winefride’s head was severed from her body (then miraculously re-joined) when she refused a would-be rapist

holywell 032But the bubbling spring, the statues, the  flowers and  sad entreaties from the troubled in mind and body, they work their magic.

holywell candles

I light a candle for a sick friend – and one for Atheist-man in Africa – and leave. Nothing resolved, but no longer disappointed.

I take the low road home. It feels desolate, poor, a lost world.

Then it happens.

A vast, steaming power station rises on my left and a pulse of sheer excitement ripples through me.

I want to laugh – feel I could shout for joy.

It’s strange and I really don’t understand it.

Later, turning on the radio, I find myself listening to three women academics – astrophysicists – discussing the sun.

Mutually respectful, they applaud each other’s views, air their own confidently but humbly. Like academic nuns.

They tell me the sun’s a mass of gas, dust and energy. That sound moves through it in waves. As if it’s breathing.

And I get that feeling again.

The sound of the sun.

I can’t fathom it.

Dust and gas and magnetism – yes – but where did it come from?

Where is it?

And – where are we?

It’s a mystery.

And so, yet again, I set my mental compass to questing. Science can take me so far, but then …



Posted in In Britain now - and then, Religious for a year: Atheist-man's experiment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The button box, the relic and global obsolescence

I took my button box out of the cupboard a couple of weeks ago. Ever since then I’ve found myself wandering over to look at it, or gazing at it when I’m sitting nearby. I don’t know exactly why. Am I remembering times past? Family life? My childhood?


Or perhaps it’s simply an affectionate fascination with the old toffee tin – yes, a tin not a box – and its contents. Which are not only buttons – and not only useful.

Buttons are in the majority – there was an amazing variety but at some stage I decided to make a necklace using the best. And where’s that necklace now? Ah, well. There are still plenty to remind me of my mother’s old coats – big, bold buttons that are so 1950s, that speak of three quarter sleeves, fur cuffs and long leather gloves.

P1000223Other odds and ends bring back uncomfortable memories of girly adolescence. Contraptions of plastic, elastic and metal for holding up stockings. The bits that would eventually tear away from the suspender belt. We had spare ones in the button box for mending.

And, forget sexy, by the way. Thick, ribbed, grey school stockings were not remotely sexy. Nor were the suspender belts that held them up.

Worse were the flesh-coloured elastic belts that restrained the bulky pads we resorted to once a month. I always found it slightly creepy, that flesh-coloured elastic. A remnant of it lurks within the tin.

A younger friend asked me what a button box was for – her family has one, too, and she’d never thought to ask. Like many family things, it’s just there – rarely used, these days.  I suspect that sewing-on buttons and mending are chores that have gone with the wind – or with Primark and its ilk, more like.

But back to the box.

Inside – perhaps one of the reasons it was always so enticing – was a small, very dark blue rectangle. It was made of two pieces of tough fabric sewn together tightly, by hand, around all the edges.

This rectangle contained a holy relic. I’m sure someone told me whose and what – I used to hope it wasn’t a piece of skin – but I forgot long ago. I’m guessing it was from one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

But now, whenever I look at the tin, along with the affection and urge to scrabble through its contents, comes an uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

I took the relic out. And now I have no idea where it is.

In the old days, anything that had been blessed and was to be disposed of had to be burnt. Imagine what you had to do to a relic! If you had the temerity to rid yourself of it in the first place.

I didn’t want to rid myself of it, but I didn’t think it was the ideal location for something holy.

What did I know?

If I’d left well alone, it would still be there, where it rested for tens of years, untroubled except by amber glass beads and mother-of-pearl buttons.

But now I’m beginning to see the button box as something bigger even than a receptacle for a holy relic.

A symbol of a different world.

A world where my mother’s dressmaking scissors are still my favourites – sharp, heavy, a perfect ergonomic design – after who knows how many years. Where the crimson, satin-edged, Witney wool blankets that warmed the night for my parents still grace my bed today.

Where if something worked, you carried on using it. And if it broke – and if you could – you mended it.

I still use a mobile phone I bought more than ten years ago. It doesn’t do email or movies or take photos. I don’t need it to do that.

But the commercial world’s conspiring against me.

One day I’ll have to buy something that does all the things the PC and laptop I have at home – where I work, where I spend most of my time – do. I’ll end up either being inconvenienced or disadvantaged – or both – if I don’t acquire a ‘smarter’ phone. It feels like a conspiracy. Like Microsoft giving up on XP felt.

Think conspiracy’s too strong?

The BBC (with the Open University) has just begun running ‘The Men Who Made us Spend’ on TV. Watch it if you can. It’s on iPlayer. It proves what we all really know – the commercial world does conspire to make us spend, or, more specifically, to make us buy – and buy again. Built-in obsolescence, that’s the thing.

It gives a classic example. Way back when, light bulb manufacturers, led by Osram, got together and decided to reduce the length of time their bulbs would carry on working.  To make us buy more. That’s a conspiracy, in my book. (And, yes, I know the thickness of the filament makes a difference to the brightness as well as the life of the bulb – but their profits increased, I rest my case.)

Whether you could call the incessant launching of new, slightly different, annoyingly revamped phones, tablets, computers and software every five minutes a conspiracy is a moot point. I guess it can only be such if you accept that consumers willingly collude in a conspiracy that ultimately makes them spend.

Whatever it is, I’m tired of it.

And one day, when the earth is covered by waste metals and plastics, polluted by chemicals that damage our very existence, maybe someone will hold the lead conspirators to account. And not just by taking their money to fix it (if it’s not too late).

Paying their fair share of taxes would be a good start for some of them, don’t you think?







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‘How f—ing useful is that exactly?’ (part of quote from graffiti artist Banksy)

Banksy wasn’t coy, he used the whole f-word, but I won’t:

‘The key to good graffiti is economy. A simple splash of paint in the right place at the right time is all it takes. An old lady with a pencil can bring down a government by drawing an X on a ballot. And scribbles from a spraycan can convert a slum into an art gallery. But then you would ask yourself “How f—ing useful is that exactly?”‘

I was sent this quote by a man who studies rock art. He has a penchant for graffiti. And pavement art. It’s possibly significant that when he sent me this he was in San Francisco, though he’s actually from South Africa.

He either didn’t see the full version, or edited it, because tracing the source online I found this:

‘An old lady with a pencil can bring down a government by drawing an X on a ballot paper. A single letter H when painted on the floor is powerful enough to attract helicopters. A few licks of white paint transformed the donkey into the zebra. And scribbles from a spraycan …’ etc

So I suspect there was a bit more going on than – possibly – a provocative suggestion that decorative graffiti is useless.

I’ve been seeing some art lately and wondering about usefulness.

Mondrian and his studios. The artist famous for distilling the essence of things into lines and colours. I thought I understood it. A day or two later I realised I didn’t.

I look at his work and like what I see.

But is it useful?

Grayson Perry’s tapestries. ‘The Vanity of Small Differences.’ The man, with his alter-ego, Claire, is almost a work of art himself. I’d visit again and again if I could – though I wouldn’t want to live with them.

They’re a moral tale for our times – for all times.

Now that’s more like it.

These brushes with art set me thinking. And right on cue for long thinks, we snatched a few days of anti-social-media time. No email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter – nada.

Not even sat-nav.

june 2014 liv wales 227

View from Aberdaron beach as the tide ebbs

I like maps. You never know what you’ll find down those wrong turns. And we know how to find Aberdaron.

It’s a seaside settlement, right at the end of north Wales.

The village is grey. Stone grey, slate grey. White paint relieves the many shades.

june 2014 liv wales 182

Bardsey Island – Ynys Enlli

Pilgrims have for years arrived here, en route to Bardsey, isle of 20,000 saints.

A long, sandy beach laps-up the sea. On a good day the oh-so-white clouds and the brilliant blue sky lift your soul straight up to heaven – no need for a perilous pilgrimage, braving the seven currents that gate-keep the island.

june 2014 liv wales 245

In a simple stone chapel on the edge of this Welsh-Wales world, RS Thomas – poet and priest – cared for local souls.

Facing the church are cottages. Old and small. Thick stone walls and tiny windows. It’s a place to keep the sea out, not ask it in for tea.

Years of being a small, hard-pressed community, battling the elements to wrest out a living, have created a cohesion, both visual and human.

But since our last visit things have changed.

A cottage on the hill’s been renovated. Big, blind-looking picture windows gash the front.

The corrugated iron shack that housed the local bakery has gone. A new – thatched – building has taken its place.

june 2014 liv wales 157‘The only thatched bakery in the country,’ says the proud owner.

Indeed. And the only thatched roof in a village of slate. But – the bread’s still good.

And the National Trust has built a Visitor Centre.

Awash with art and poetry, it’s a brave – or foolish – departure from ‘interpretation’ as we know it.june 2014 liv wales 141

Though there are many words.

Words on the audio guide, words in the air, words on the artefacts, words on the wall.

None telling anything ‘useful’.

Colourful collages of local geology. Poetry. No actual information.

Some ‘artefacts’. Agricultural ephemera. Words painted on each item.

Even the pebbles (in case you can’t make it to the beach?) are worded.

But there’s respite from the words.

In the gift shop.

Bright shopping baskets. Nautical stripy tops. The usual scented soaps – and mugs – and figurines.

No books.

What a relief …

The land – apparently – cost £1.5 million. The art-farty, factless exhibition a mere £950,000. It swallowed 60 much-needed parking spaces – for what?

The windows, the bakery, the Visitor Centre all feel out of place and – for me – have ever-so-slightly spoilt Aberdaron.

Sometimes, though, what makes us uncomfortable makes a point. Grayson Perry’s work, for example, is far from comfortable, but makes me think.

Graffiti on the headland above Bardsey could – arguably – do the same thing. But it doesn’t. It says nothing to me, except, what a lovely view you’ve spoiled. I don’t understand its language, if it has one.june 2014 liv wales 196

Back in the village, chatting with a local woman, I mentioned the windows. The same person, she says, undermined a whole row of houses by digging out the sand beneath the house for a wet room – or something equally life-improving.

Perhaps uncomfortable aesthetics are a symptom of something more profoundly wrong. Like spots are of chickenpox.

The Centre, the thatch, the windows aren’t going to bring down a government. Let alone a local council unconcerned about its own conservation areas.

But one of them could – will – bring an end to my National Trust membership. That vacuous Centre is just what this tip of Wales doesn’t need. It needs parking spaces. Information for tourists in summer. A space for the community to gather in winter.

I’m told a promised community space has not materialised. But then, this wasn’t for the community was it?

Let’s hope the long journey from London doesn’t put off the target market.

What’s that? An H for the helicopter?

gone in aberdaron seascape

Words by RS Thomas on a calm Aberdaron sea

Posted in Art and jaunts, Llyn Peninsula, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Golf. Just when I’d begun to …

I won’t say accept it, that would be silly – what difference would that make to anything (or anyone)?

Tolerate it, perhaps? No, it was a smidge more positive than that – but anyway.

A few days ago I opened the garage door and led out my plum-coloured steed to bask in the warmth of the sun. No,  don’t call the RSPCA – it’s not a horse. It was just a silly metaphor – or do I mean analogy? Whatever – it’s a bike.

I was going to say, no-one would keep a horse in a garage. But I know someone who did. A chap called Fingers who – of course – had none on one hand.

He was a rag and bone man. Had a garage behind the Victorian house in which I took out my first mortgage. A flat in south east London.

An Irish man called Sammy mended washing machines in a sort of large, glazed shed at the bottom of our garden. He was almost always there, alone. Or chatting with Fingers.

After the Harrods bombing by the IRA (we were in the Science Museum at the time and were evacuated through the basement) I’ll be honest, I began to wonder about him …

But back to my sunny day.

It wasn’t just sunny, it was warm. The two don’t often coincide here.

And seeing sugar-plum bike standing there, all idle and shiny, I thought, why not? Let’s go for a spin.

Despite a yearning to feel the wind in my hair, I donned my helmet (with very bad grace) and pedalled off up the road.

There was hardly a whisper of wind to ruffle my hair. Which was squashed firmly beneath the health and safety head-wear.

A few minutes later I was going up the only ‘hill’ around. I made it to the top without resorting to dismounting and pushing. Proud of myself, I was. And not so breathless that I was distracted from the reward that greeted me as I reached the (let’s be honest, not very elevated) crest.

Tall, strawberry-blonde grass, rustling – ever so slightly – in the tiniest of breezes. Coltsfoot flowers, dotting the scene with points of yellow, like stars dot the Milky Way. Poppies playing the harlot round the edges.

And beyond it all, tantalising – the electric-blue of the sea.

Down the shallow slope lay a cluster of angular white buildings. They reminded me of an early aerodrome, in the days when to fly was to travel in style. If slowly.

Royal Birkdale. The golf club.

It was a scene out of Poirot, if you see what I mean. Sort of nineteen thirties and unspoilt.

Now. Fast forward to today.

I’m distracted as I drive (four wheels, no helmet) past on my way to the supermarket. Rehearsing the ingredients I need for tonight’s pasta. Determined not to forget the window cleaning stuff.

On the way back, window-cleaning fluid successfully purchased, driving at a sedate 30 in a 30 mph zone, I turn to relish the sunny sea.

But something’s changed.first outing new camera 017The grass is shorn. No cheery yellow coltsfoot or daring scarlet poppies.

first outing new camera 015And the aerodrome of my imagination? Eclipsed by a massive temporary structure in white. As if a vast crime scene has been discovered and a CSI squad has moved in.

It’s for the golf. The Women’s Open.

I guess they don’t want flowers.

Ah well.

At least the sea’s still blue.



Posted in Lancashire and the golf coast, In Britain now - and then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Songwriter Gerry Goffin died.

A woman I know tweeted, ‘he wrote with the heart and head of a girl’. Didn’t he just.

I don’t need to hear this song. The Carole King version. It’s in my head for all time.

What girl who grew up in the English-speaking world of the sixties or seventies doesn’t know it off by heart, I wonder?

Then, the pill had arrived but the underlying morality of the age was as slow to change as the proverbial tanker is to turn around. At least, so it seemed to me. But then, I was Catholic, educated at an all-girl secondary school run by nuns.

This morning, hearing a clip on the news, I was transported instantly to the corridor where our lockers were, standing with the flipped-up lid balanced on my head while I stashed records and books, sweets and gym kit.

The other side of the corridor was one of the six Marias in our class.

I could see something was wrong. Tears were rolling. Beside her, a girl we all knew to have ‘done it’ – many times with the same person – was standing next to her offering consolation.

Yes, Maria had done it. The boy had told her he loved her, that he would have to leave her if she didn’t.

You know the rest, don’t you?

It makes me wonder how the girls of today feel. Do they still want sex to be the signature of love? Do they want marriage, or a long-term partnership, when they give themselves completely, so sweetly?

We old ones read about the pressure of online porn, the vajazzles and Brazilians and – well I won’t go any further than that – we can all imagine.

And speaking as one who, before the days when images were hidden in email readers, once received pornographic images, unsolicited, that have burned themselves onto my brain forever, like the words of these tender, moving songs, I feel sad.

We’ve been watching the American TV programme ‘Two and a Half Men’. One of the men spends his life bedding women, drinking and writing jingles. How appropriate then for an insight into (what the scriptwriters see as) the way women think.

Three days is more or less his commitment limit. He ditches them, having bored himself by an excess of enthusiasm for the physical. And when we see their reactions, the women are more often than not upset, betrayed, let down. They were in it for love, or some kind of commitment.

I wonder how much things have changed, underneath all the razzle-dazzle and junk-sex?

I remember as a student climbing over the gate at my all-woman college after a late night. They locked the door at midnight in those days.

And I remember the first time I didn’t. I blame the platform shoes, they wouldn’t go through the railings.

I remember thinking – will he still love me tomorrow? But even more so, I remember thinking, do I still love me, now?

I hear Carole King, whether it’s ‘Natural woman’ or ‘You’ve got a friend’ or ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ – and the softness of the pain is still there, the anxiety, the striving, the questing and soul-searching.

You may regret the passing of the thrill of the chase, the heady whirl of that fall into love – but think what else you ditch along with it.

Give me settled. Well, most of the time.

Who’d be a teenager?

Not I. Sigh.

Carol King and James Taylor, music to be adolescent (forever) by

Carole King and James Taylor, music to be always adolescent by. The price is Dutch guilders by the way not pounds

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Cadbury. Not so sweet.

I have a personal mind-trainer. He reads things like New Scientist. Digests the tough stuff, regurgitates it in easy-to-assimilate chunks.

Sometimes he’s on the receiving end of, ‘please – shut up! I can’t cope with any more.’ But even then, something’s usually slipped in and stuck.

So the cobwebbed crevices of my disordered mind are full of fragments. Ill-remembered, but ready to be re-awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince. Or, if he’s not available, the nearest internet search engine.

One such fragment relates to a study of that oh-so-perverted collision of tastes. The kind that excites the jaded palates of spoilt, western, junk-food junkies.

Salt, sugar, fat.

It’s highly addictive. If you taste it you just want MORE!


When it’s combined with mushy food – gumming advised, teeth optional – then so much the better. Because the act of chewing tells our minds we’re eating, helps to create that sated, full feeling. And I’m guessing that the harder we chew the more we feel we’ve eaten.

So, if you take a soggy outer casing that purports to be a bread roll, fill it with a soft slab of pre-masticated meat, slather it in slippery, glossy, fruity, creamy, sweet goo and salt the lot generously …

Thousands of calories (well, hundreds) will slip down your gullet with little more than a roll around your mouth.

And – bingo! There’s room for a slice of cherry pie.

Or …

… a Cadbury’s Ritz Cracker.

I’ve been waiting years to have a rant about Cadbury.

It had already become a super-sized kind of Cadbury, pursuing – so I’ve learnt this week – aggressive tax avoidance policies. But Kraft dealt the mortal blow.

Took over a treasured part of my personal heritage. My early memories. Teensy fingers of chocolate, wrapped in silver foil. A penny apiece – just the size for a tiny tot.

Cadbury had been British since 1824.

Its Dairy Milk Chocolate came to dominate the market because of the health benefits of the extra milk it contained (‘a glass and a half of full cream milk goes into every bar …’).

Cadbury’s Quaker owners built housing and amenities for their workers at Bournville. It wasn’t just philanthropy, it kept them fit for work.

Cadbury wasn’t alone. William Hesketh Lever built Port Sunlight for the Sunlight soap factory workers (now part of Unilever). Sir Titus Salt built Saltaire village round his woollen mill on the River Aire.

Enlightened capitalism, you might say, at its height.

Kraft bought Cadbury with the help of a huge loan from RBS – yes, the British bank bailed out by the British taxpayer – promising to keep its big plant near Bristol open for at least three years.

But of course, Kraft ate it up and spat it out. Transferred production to Poland. The CEO, a woman, I’m sorry to say, refused to apologise for misleading us.

It seemed the profits were OK, but not enough.

When is enough, enough?


Soon there were so many varieties of everything Cadbury it was bewildering. And of course, biggest-ever everything.

Display stands began to multiply like weeds after the rain.

The classic multinational sales push. Dominate the world. Make more, sell more.

Increase the margins, reduce the quality.

Taste? They’ll keep on buying it – just keep on changing it. Adding new and more exotic combinations.

Of fat and sugar and salt.

Like the chocolate Ritz cracker.

What this says to me is what we all know far too well.

The big confectionery giants don’t give a damn about quality, flavour, obesity. Like big tobacco, they know exactly what they’re doing.

They’re not interested in making things that cheer up our lives, occasional treats to brighten the gloom of a dismal day, now and again.

No, they’re in the business of creating a product that packs 183 calories into a nice big mouthful (35 g). A combination of fat (30% of your daily saturated fats), salt and sugar that almost guarantees you’ll wolf it down in one and go back for more.

Handy, then, that our local supermarket has packs of these things on sale for £1 (about $1.70 as I write).

Three wolfable portions – at 183 calories each – for £1.

To do the easy maths for you – that’s:

90% of your daily saturated fats and 549 calories.

For a snack. A treat. A lunchbox, pocket-money purchase.

So, Cadbury, for me you’re up there with tobacco. And the folk who invented alco-pops.

You know exactly what you’re doing.


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‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.* Really?

June. Winter in the southern hemisphere. The year 2011.

A man walks into the bar – yes I know, I use it too often.

But there’s a reason. Besides the fact we’re often in the bar, before you say it.

This is not food. But this is where eating takes place, outside, at Pioneer Camp Lusaka

This is not food. But this is where eating takes place, outside, at Pioneer Camp Lusaka

This man, dressed in hunter’s green, deposits a plastic carrier bag full of stone age tools on the table.


And someone – someone close to me – just has to know where they’ve been found.

So we make an early start.

Driving in the chill of early morning, sweatshirts on, vents closed.

Sounds of the night fading, sounds of the morning winding up, all-but drowned-out by the diesel engine.

Double double hazard

Explosives in a hurry

Five hours later, a tomato and cheese sandwich in my hand – and it’s warm, not to say hot.

OK, it’s hot.

And time to venture off the tarmac.


Into the unknown.

The dirt road’s underlain with rocks that in places are almost impossible to straddle with four wheels. So we drive at an angle through minor chasms, churning orange dust as we go.

On our way (sic) to the hunting concession

On our way (sic) to the hunting concession

Beside the track are villages. The huts are a different shape here. It all feels unfamiliar – and I begin to feel uncomfortable.

We’re heading for a hunters’ camp, down by the river. But the afternoon is waning – and still we’re going uphill.

We come to a fork.

Sven said there’d be a sign when we came to a fork in the track. Then it’s straight on all the way.

There is no sign.

We stop and I ask a woman. She waves an arm at the left fork. We take it.

The GPS seems at odds with where we’re going. Or do I mean the other way around?

The warmth is beginning to dissipate. Not a good sign. We need to arrive, soon. Before dusk settles into night.

We drive, and drive, but still we’re going straight – if not up – and we should be going down.

Ominous signs – not the kind we want – begin to worry us both.


This is hunting territory. Professional hunting territory.

The combination of rifles and wild animals is not appealing. And it’s an empty place. No villages. No people.

Pristine huts. Built for effect? Plainly not lived-in. I feel as if we’ve strayed into an episode of ‘The Prisoner’, Zambia style.

We take a chance and turn off the trail but we’re still not heading down and we turn back. Drive a bit further, then try another turn.

Now I’m feeling scared.

I scare easily. But then I’m used to being scared in this scary wonderful country, so I hold my tongue and try not to show my fear.

Then the miracle we’ve been looking for happens. A man appears on a motorbike. Stops us.

Relief makes me happy. I smile a big smile at him and he smiles a big smile back.

He’s on his way to our camp.

Correction, he was. Now he’s passed on his errand to us – a message that someone has died – and he’s going home.

So we ask the way. He smiles.

I resort to pointing. That way?

Yes, he grins.

A worm of doubt wriggles in my brain. Just to be sure I point the other way.

That way?

Yes, he grins.

Every way is the way. And we don’t know which way he was going before he heard us and came to find us.

I can understand why people shout when they’re trying to be understood – but there’s no point.

Miracle-man leaves.

It’s really growing dark now. And we’re lost.

We could roll up the windows, sleep in the car, I say, hoping he won’t agree.

He doesn’t. But he’s not yet ready to abandon all hope.

The sun’s gone down, the last glimmers piercing the dense woods around us, when he turns around. We drive, anxious, the feel of it in his driving. Not really sure if we’re going to find our way back.

Eventually, when no hint of light remains in the air, we reach the fork without any sign.

A relief.

But by night, the track that was a nuisance becomes a nightmare, driving down hill worse than driving up.

We’re tense. It’s been nine hours. And we haven’t stopped at all.

I try the cellphone that’s been so useless for so long. At last there’s a weak signal and I phone the only reachable place we know of where we could spend the night.

It’s full.

We drive on.

The sides of the track are higher now, rising above us, darkening the route still more.

With an almighty clang we hit rock and jolt to a halt.

Archaeo-Man’s façade cracks.

I’m sorry. I’m so, so, sorry …

It’s all right, I say. Try reverse, it’s probably nothing.

He reverses. Get outs, inspects the damage.

It’s minor. We’re fine.

We hug, sharing our fear at last. A fear shared isn’t halved, but we both feel better.

Then the cellphone startles me by ringing.

Bridge Camp. Someone’s cancelled. Do we want a room?

Do we!

Tarmac regained, we drive slowly through the cool of the night, windows open to let in the freedom. Drive over the great Luangwa Bridge, marvelling at the river way below, the stars way above.

The room has two beds with sheets. The loo’s in a shack down the track. The screens have gaping holes. But there are mosquito nets.

It’s been nearly thirteen hours since we set off and Archaeo-Man’s been driving non-stop. I suggest biscuits, cheese, a tumbler of wine. He shakes his head.

Just sleep.

He sits and stares. Stunned. Or dazed.

I open the Provita biscuits, pull out a slice of cheese. Pour a plastic tumbler of wine.

He smiles, a ghost of a smile. I think we both want to cry, but don’t.

We sleep in our clothes. Not a great night’s sleep. At five am – after the loo door’s banged many times – fifty or so motorcyclists rev up and leave.

I’ve not been to Bridge Camp before. The beauty of the view darkens as my gaze grazes the slave ship anchor hanging in the way.

Slave ship anchor

Slave ship anchor

An all too solid reminder of the people who were sold – and bought – down this particular river.

Luangwa River nearing confluence with Zambezi

Luangwa River nearing confluence with Zambezi







But today we’re drinking tea. Eating bacon, eggs, and toast. There’s even fruit.

Last night’s just a nightmare – we’re awake and the sun is shining.

I wonder if we’re going to try again.

He smiles, just.

Some other time, eh?


* Robert Louis Stevenson:

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,

and the true success is to labour.’

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No such thing as coincidence? So, what’s this thing with Barbara, Piet and Dag?

It could be a commandment for the fictional detective:

thou shalt not believe in coincidence.

But I’ve always had a penchant for connectedness. To me that’s what coincidence is – and it’s what we do. We’re social beings. We seek connectedness.

Today I’m procrastinating. Should be writing the bigger thing. The book. But instead I’ve been reading a chapter in someone else’s: On Pilgrimage, by Jennifer Lash.

I’ve read the whole book several times. Usually when I’ve dropped the thread of my voyage through life, can’t quite place myself in my own landscape.

But not today. Today it started when I was packing a silly present to send to my godson. A contraption into which you put an open ‘beverage’ can, then place a chicken over it for flavoursome cooking.

Beer, I suspect will be his beverage of choice.

I sifted through my stash of cards seeking something suitable to write an explanatory note. And I came across a postcard from Lincoln cathedral with this on the back:

A Pilgrim Prayer
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gauge,
All thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

[Sir Walter Raleigh]

So, I took On Pilgrimage off the bookshelf, then returned to sifting through the cards.

At the bottom of the box were some very big ones. Sculptures in a park. Forms by Barbara Hepworth.

Her work trips a switch in me.

I feel a connectedness.

And I had the urge to write about her. Not for the first time – nor the twenty-first time.

Instead, I went to Google.

For some strange reason an image came unbidden.

Construction crucifixion. A homage to Mondrian by Barbara Hepworth. In the grounds of Winchester cathedral.

Construction crucifixion homage to Mondrian.  Public domain image by Suzanne Knights

Construction crucifixion homage to Mondrian.
Public domain image by Suzanne Knights

So, seeking connections, as I do …

A major Mondrian exhibition started this weekend in Liverpool. I plan to go this week. And we once lived in Winchester.

I know, pretty tenuous connections – but you must admit, at the very least it’s a coincidence of timing.

And, despite all I’ve read and seen I had no idea this work existed – till today.

There’s an element of bloody-mindedness about my devotion to Barbara.

A woman born in Yorkshire in 1903 becomes an internationally renowned artist. But Henry Moore, another Yorkshire artist, ALWAYS eclipses her in this country.

They were rivals. There are scholarly debates. Did Barbara pierce a form before he did?

Who cares? I like her work. And I find the person – the woman – utterly intriguing.

I see pictures of her odd young head, that broad, interesting forehead. See images of the older Dame Barbara, diminishing in stature as her work grew bigger. And I see my history tutor at college. I’ll call her Mrs X.

A quirky, wren-like woman, Mrs X was a highly respected scholar. But she spoke like a dribbling tap – and terrified many of her students.

Judging by the portrait on her wall, she’d been a beauty when young.

The vulnerability of age, the decaying of her mortal frame, hit her hard. The Dubonnet, kept in a cupboard in her study, was a well-known source of comfort.

One day, when a friend and I were having a tutorial, she made a sad confession. She’d been put on drugs to help her stop drinking.

In an awful side-effect for a woman whose life revolved around book-learning, her sight had almost vanished. She couldn’t even mark our essays.

I liked her, kept in touch till she died. I still have her last letter.

Perhaps Barbara was nothing like her. And perhaps she was. But I feel an empathy that’s hard to explain in any other way.


Harbour, St Ives, Cornwall. Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives during World War II and stayed

Harbour, St Ives, Cornwall. Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives during World War II and stayed

I imagine her, cooking dinner for her triplets and her artist husband during World War II. Growing vegetables, looking after others.Her own creative space the gap between bedtimes and bedtime.

That husband – Ben Nicholson, left her.

Despite the heartache, was she relieved, at last – to be free?

Free to be selfish – about her art?

I think about her in her latter days, in her lush, secluded upstairs garden. Sleeping across the road from the studio where her more titanic pieces took on life.

And I think about a work I have not seen. One that fills me with awe, nonetheless.

Image from the official Barbara Hepworth website http://barbarahepworth.org.uk/commissions/list/single-form.html

Unveiling ceremony for Single Form, United Nations Secretariat, New York, 11 June 1964. Image sourced from http://barbarahepworth.org.uk

Outside the United Nations secretariat building in New York is a towering sculpture. Called Single Form it stretches 21 feet – 6.4 metres – into the sky. The UN building dwarfs it, but there’s no mistaking its presence.

Dame Barbara made many, smaller ‘single forms’ along the way.

One, in sandalwood, from 1937-8, belonged to United Nations Secretary Dag Hammarkskjöld. He was an admirer of her work – and a friend.

But it was not he who commissioned the monumental single form. Because it’s a memorial.

Dag Hammarskjöld was killed, in a plane crash, in 1961.

In Zambia.

Anyone who knows me – or my blog – knows about my connectedness with Zambia.

But there is more.

I turned to the chapter on Taizé in the pilgrimage book. It’s background for a church scene I’m writing featuring my priestly detective.

I’d read the first page when the phone went. I put down the book – and only then noticed a subhead below the chapter number. A quote.

‘In our era, the road to Holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.’

Dag Hammarsköld

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How my prejudices are suffering a setback, plus, probing some great (an exaggeration) unknowns

It’s discombobulating living here.

It’s not just the things I don’t know, it’s the things I didn’t know I don’t know.

First, there’s the golf.

I don’t like golf on principle.

Bunch of men getting together and perpetuating their networks of power. Masons without the aprons.

I’m sure some of it’s like that. But seeing the folk who pass by here, I’m not so sure I can reject it unreservedly any more.

All sorts of colours and types of clothing. Not seen a single set of plus fours or a tweed cap.

Young men dashing along. Older women stopping to chat by every green. Young women with dynamic swings. It’s so not what I expected.

The people using the course look normal – whatever that is. And the younger men don’t seem to have time to talk, let alone share Masonic secrets.

Of course, it’s not Royal Birkdale, just down the road. There, I daresay, it might be a bit more like my vision. We sat one evening near their entrance drive, eating fish and chips in our car (big mistake – still smells), watching the light fade over a glistening sea.

You should have seen the cars. Wheeuw! Expensive. Assuming some people have two I reckon they spent more on motors than you would on the average house.


Moving on to the second prejudice …

Mock currants.

I hate mock currants.

Did hate mock currants.

new april2014 012

Mock currant, April, before the leaves are out on the birches

Just outside our fence, on the wild bit of ground between us and the manicured greens, there’s a large stand of mock currants.

Now, I’d only ever seen them clipped to manageable shapes and sizes in suburban gardens. But you know what? They grow to be enormous. And when they are enormous, and all in bloom – wow – they look fantastic. Smell wild – but look fantastic.

(I still wouldn’t want them IN the garden, mind.)

OK, now for the third prejudice.

Plastic windows.

They’re everywhere. And I still can’t understand why they can’t make them to fit better with our style of architecture – improve their aesthetics.

But now we’ve lived near the sea in the north of England for nearly ten years – oh – give me plastic any day!

No painting, No peeling. No rotting.

And warm.

So, middle class readers, have I lost you yet?


Well how about this final one then?

Toby Carvery.

Aha! Thought that might do it!

Well, the first night we spent in our new house there was NO WAY I was about to cook a meal. I’d been on my feet for days cleaning, packing, directing a nice man in serious pain with a locked knee who had a whole house to pack up virtually alone.

We’d been told our new neighbours ran the nearest Toby Carvery. And one of our – uncontestably middle class – friends was positively gleeful. He loves carveries.

So, pointing our snooty noses down, we braved carvery world. And found it good.

Not that I’d go every day or anything. Or for my birthday.

But if you’re hungry. Feel the need for a good, old-fashioned British roast. Five different vegetables. Yorkshire pudding (with anything, not just beef) and stuffing and apple sauce and gravy and horseradish sauce and …

… did I say it’s only £5.99?

OK. Enough prejudice. Let’s move on (if you’re still there) to the unknowns. Which largely fit under the heading:


My little office backs onto a patch of trees. We have a bird bath – well, an old dish that should sit under an earthenware plant pot. This is a recipe for total distraction.

I’ve learned that wood pigeons slip on wet leaves.

That robins can fall off twigs when they stretch out too far for seeds they can’t reach.

That there’s a bird called the garden warbler I’d never heard of (we have them).

That all birds, of every hue and every size just love to splash around and make a mess. And that they drink their bath water. Eeurgh.

In my head I’ve designed a bird shower. It would depend on them knowing where to stand. I’m not sure it will ever make it into production.

Then there are the trees.

The pine cones on the fir trees turned upside down and spat at the world. I never knew they did that. Now things like candles have grown that look as if they’re about to turn into new needles – and possibly new cones.

Early morning in May, view from balcony towards the coast

Early morning in May, view from balcony towards the coast

I’ve seen many kinds of brown butterfly.

Brown butterfly on the hydrangea petiolaris

Brown butterfly on the hydrangea petiolaris

And discovered that an amazing trajectory can be achieved by some golf balls. Yesterday one flew past my window heading this way from the wrong direction, hit the fence and ended up going the opposite way and landing in the lavender.

I still can’t work out where he was when he hit it.

He came and retrieved it and explained in halting English (he was Swedish), ‘sorry, my hand slipped’.

That didn’t help – but I’m not about to try and emulate him just to find out. It’s one thing abandoning some of your prejudices, it’s another changing your behaviour. And, anyway, I’m rubbish at ball sports.

So there we are. But before I go I have two more failed prejudices I really ought to reveal. To you, of all people.

1. People who blog.
2. Emoticons ;-)

Posted in Lancashire and the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The eye of the beholder. An experiment (do try this at home)

A bottle cap from a beer bottle. A clear plastic tray from an over-packaged quartet of peaches. A silver coin.

The box is gradually filling with objets – not d’art, just objets.

A disposable cigarette lighter, its liquid fuel visible in a tube of clear blue plastic.

A snowstorm with the New York skyline inside.

‘A paperclip – how about a paperclip, this big one?’

It’s solid and chunky, matt silver, the metal slightly ridged.

He looks up, underwhelmed. Goes back to cutting a plastic wrapper down one side so the gold foil within is visible.

I still think the paperclip’s an interesting one – a challenge – but I shrug and put it back.

We’re trying to amass enough items to give a class of students one object between two or three as a basis for discussion.

Yes, we’re talking his occupation here, the university teaching side of his life – archaeology.

It’s the most fascinating class of the year – well, I think so.

He hands out items and asks the students to look at them as if from a basis of no knowledge. As if found by an extra terrestrial or a future archaeologist (or possibly one and the same).

To observe them, try to divine their function – if there is one. Use the evidence seen by their eyes and felt by their fingers. Focus on the why and the wherefore. Apply what they know about humans.

And – here’s the really interesting bit – estimate their likely value.

It’s very revealing about our attitudes.

Try it for yourself next time you have a bag of crisps (that’s chips, to you, US-English speakers).

Cut or tear the empty plastic bag to reveal the foil inside. Do your best to dodge your preconceptions. Try to be objective. See it for what it is, not what you know its purpose to be.

It’s disconcerting. At least, I think so.

Countless bags like this are landing in bins or being discarded willy-nilly, all over the world today. Every day. Yet, without knowledge of its contents, what is it?

Gold, indicating it’s precious.

Almost unbreakable, implying it’s highly valued.

Writing we can’t (as extra-terrestrial archaeologists) yet decipher.

So, symbolic maybe? Or religious?

Now take a look at the lighter. That’s practical, surely?

But what about that clear blue plastic? Is it a symbol of the sky that’s gone dark and needs illuminating? Something only to be used by magic men or women, interceding for the oppressed serfs of humankind?

Shake the snowstorm, watch as New York’s obscured by a blizzard of synthetic snow. Is it a plea to the weather gods to give respite to a world that’s become too warm, that never sees a snowflake, even in the depths of winter?

It seems like a very potent thing. No, it can’t be just a toy. Or can it?

And on you go. It makes for a really good conversation over dinner. Leaving a few items on the table, taking more and more extreme views, becoming more and more aware that we can never, ever, be objective.

We’re humans.

We make things and use things.

We believe in things we can’t see. Worship things (and people).

We create art and admire it.

A beautiful piece of engineering, though, is still seen by its function not its artistry – and do we really consider its value? Beyond the merely commercial I mean, beyond the price tag on a shiny, white, four-wheel drive or a sleek, black, low-slung convertible.

Or perhaps I mean its cost?

In these days of global warming, of food shortages for some and gluts for others, of an impending, self-made global crisis – if you believe the vast majority of the world’s serious scientists – what do we value?

Do we value our petroleum enough to do something different with this precious resource? To stop using so much plastic? Stop throwing away crisp bags with gold linings as if they were worthless pieces of rubbish?

Do we appreciate our precious finite resources, like metals? Treat paperclips as things to be valued – re-used, recycled, not thrown away?


If we don’t understand cost, can we ever appreciate value?

No answers, just thinking …


[Thanks to Tess for her ‘Finders Keepers’ post which prompted this http://tessross.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/finders-keepers/ ]

Sierra Exif JPEG


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