Ben. One word. [dramatic pause] Tampons. The future is tampons

It didn’t happen quite like that. But it might’ve if Mr McGuire could’ve foreseen where plastics might lead Ben.

It’s in the film, The Graduate, when a squirm-inducing party’s underway. Soignée women smoking. Slippery men drinking – oozing worldly wisdom and capitalism unbridled. Sort of.

Sleazy Mr McGuire takes Ben aside in a rather creepy manoeuvre. Tells Ben he should consider a career in plastics – because it’s the future.

How right he was.

Today there’s barely anything that once was paper or cardboard or wax or rubber – or whatever – that isn’t now plastic.


The water here is not left by the tide which is way out, this is just as you leave the road and is the result of the endless rain we’ve had

I went for a walk on our nearby beach yesterday. It’d been – ooh – roughly three months since last I was there, thanks to the wind and the rain. Yes, since mid-October there’s been barely a day without rain.

On England’s north-west coast it’s a hazard of habitation, precipitation.

This sanity-sapping rain brings with it a phenomenon that most people probably never consider.

But I worked in the water industry – and I do.

You see, sewage treatment and sewerage systems all rely on pipes.

Smallish ones take water-borne human waste away from our homes. Bigger ones join up all the homes. In cities, with large populations, even bigger ones deal with the effluent of homes and of businesses.

Sewers big enough to walk through. Believe me, I’ve done it.

All these pipes lead to treatment works. Some small, tucked down country lanes. Some massive, on city peripheries and industrial estates. Varying in complexity and efficacy.

But no matter how big, or complex a works, no matter how many pipes and drains are running clear, there’s always a deluge that can overwhelm the system.

And all around our coasts, overflows operate when there’s just too much rain.

It was plain they’d been in action, on our beach. Even if I hadn’t been living through the water torture it was obvious – there’s been an awful lot of rain.IMG_3810

Patches of speckled blue twinkled up at me everywhere – mostly shell fragments. But among them were other things.

IMG_3815Tampon applicators.

Panty liner wrappers and backing.


I didn’t see any cotton buds – also often blue. But they’re slender and easily missed.

And, seeing all this plastic, sewage-borne waste – plus the synthetic maritime ropes, plastic bottles and other detritus of nearby shipping – I thought about The Graduate and Benjamin.

Poor Benjamin, target of sleazy men’s career advice. Soon-to-be-lover of Mrs Robinson.

Yes, a video.

Yes, a video.

When that film was made people were already worrying about plastics.

The almost everlasting nature of the beast. The finite petroleum products used in their manufacture.

The waste of natural resources and the burden on our ecosystem.

My dad was one of those concerned people.

And I’ve followed in his footsteps.

The replacement of renewable materials with plastics is my particular bugbear.

Cotton buds, for example. The sticks used to be made of cardboard.

Tampon applicators used to be made of … cardboard.

Condoms – no, don’t be silly, they were never made of cardboard. But they were made of rubber. And lamb intestines. Both renewable resources. Well, not to the lambs I accept.

Anyway. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are now condoms made of newer materials: polyurethane, polyisoprene and – in the case of the female condom – nitrile. And even latex is often synthetic, not rubber, nowadays.

You can look these materials up if you’re interested – but where this is going, as you possibly guessed – is that all these synthetic materials are manufactured using petroleum products.

And so many things that once were made of paper or wood or rubber now are now made from plastic.

Paper plates. Paper cups. Drinking straws. Bags for greengroceries.

Trees are used to make paper.

Trees put oxygen into the atmosphere. They help stop floods – oh, wait, do you suppose?

Plant a tree, folks, help stop flooding and oxygenate the world!

Buy recyclable products – and I don’t mean plastic ones.

I know someone will tell me that we waste more resources and use more chemicals making and recycling paper blah blah blah – I don’t believe it! You can prove anything with statistics and the fact remains, petroleum is a finite and polluting resource.

But even if you don’t agree.


IMG_3811Don’t put plastic applicators, or cotton buds, or condoms or plastic backed panty liners (or tights – yes people do) down your loo. They have to be taken out by machines and by humans.

Panty liner backings are slippery creatures and can make their way through most mechanical filters. So can cotton buds.

And sometimes, what’s worse, these things go through a shredder, so that countless tiny bits of plastic end up in the sea. Pretending to be plankton. Being eaten by mammals.

Do you want that, really?

Do you?

Do you want our beautiful sea life – our porpoises and dolphins and whales and seals – to swallow your cast off plastics, so carelessly disposed of?

No, of course you don’t.

Bag it. Bin it. Don’t flush it.

And be like Benjamin. Ignore Mr McGuire.


Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

An invisible man and a nice cup of tea

On dimly lit suburban streets, in the hours before dawn, it’s as silent as our world can be.

Up in the lofty fir trees, knowing owls watch for prey.

Foxes prowl through tangled brambles growing beyond neat garden fences.

And six days a week, a bold human interloper joins in that world of the fox and the owl.

All year round, he makes his halting progress. Down avenues, round crescents. Up terraces, through lanes.

Gliding along, with a purr and a whine. The occasional rattle of glass on glass. Or the click of a latch on a rare shut gate.

He floats through this crepuscular world, powered by an invisible force.


‘He’ is Keith, our milkman. And electricity powers his milk float.DSCN1349 (2)

The forerunner of the electric milk float first took to the streets of London in 1889 – at the hectic speed of 2 mph. By the late 1940s fleets of the humming carriers were out and about and horses were everywhere being retired.

The milkmen of Britain have, ever since, been traversing our streets in these quiet, electric-powered vehicles.

They’re not as common as they were – but there still are brave businesses – and customers – who withstand the onslaught of cheap supermarket milk.

Our milkman sets off for work when clubbers have not yet come home. Before bedroom lights have been lit, or kettles boiled for our morning pots of tea.

We’ve not actually seen him, to be honest – he may be an invisible man for all we know. But the glass bottle’s there, by our door, every morning.

When the wind blows 105 miles an hour.

When the amber warning’s out for a flood.

When the snow falls – and sticks.

But Keith’s just one, small cog in a wheel of production and delivery that begins with a cow in a field.

One day (bear with me) I was taking in some donations for refugees. Got chatting to the man who’d delivered them – who offered to help transporting stuff around.

‘I can use one of the wagons after work,’ he said.

DSCN1350 (2)I knew he worked at Bates’ Dairy. But, I thought, that’s a bit bold – won’t he get into trouble?

‘Won’t your boss mind?’ I asked.

The response was just a smile. And it dawned on me. His surname. It was Bates.

And if you’ve read much of my blog you know how nosy I am. Always up for a visit to see machinery at work, making a product I like.

Before long I’d blagged my way into a trip round his business, a couple of miles away.

DSCN1318 (2)The Dairy’s one of the biggest private employers around here, with a staff of around 90. And it operates every single day of the year. Christmas day included.

‘The cows don’t stop for Christmas,’ as the man says.

He gives the staff a break on Christmas day, though. Is there himself to welcome the farm-fresh milk and load it into the tanks.

Then it can become the pasteurised, homogenised, skimmed, semi-skimmed or just plain whole milk that ends up on our doorsteps.

Talking of semi-skimmed – have you ever wondered how it ‘happens’?

Well, it’s made using the same machine that does the homogenising. To homogenise whole milk it’s forced through narrow pipes under pressure to hit a plate, with some force, smashing the cream and milk together.

To make semi-skimmed milk, first a centrifuge separates the fat from the whole milk, leaving skimmed milk and cream. To create semi-skimmed, some of the cream is returned to some of the milk and forced through the homogenising machine.

Voila! Semi-skinny for your semi-delectation.

The bottling plant does both plastic and glass – but the ‘rinse and return’ glass bottles first have to be cleaned. I don’t feel quite so guilty, now, about the less-than-perfect job we often do on rinsing – the cleaning is exemplary.

DSCN1340 (2)As the glass bottles are filled, piles of colour-coded bags of plastic containers sit in the wings, waiting their turn on the merry go round.

Watching the conveyor belt takes me back to my one, short-lived factory job, bottling condensed ox-blood. That’s where the similarity ends – bottles. No pools of smelly sticky blood here, I can assure you!DSCN1332 (2)

Bates’ Dairy is super-clean. Lots of stainless steel. Clean white coats and hats.

DSCN1321 (2)The floor’s wet, with milky water heading for drains. Men in wellies rush around in a non-stop bustle of activity, packing, unpacking, cleaning, checking.

The milk comes from farms to the north, east and south – all within what I’d regard as our local region. The plastic bottles don’t travel very far, either.

DSCN1339 (2)Bates supplies local shops, caterers, care homes, individual homes – and other people’s milk rounds too. No plans to supply supermarkets – and no desire to do so. What they do is enough.

Isn’t that refreshing? Enough?

Perhaps that’s because it’s always been a family business, since 1939.

Things have changed, certainly. It’s bang up to the minute, technologically speaking.

And I’m betting no-one in the family is sad to see the passing of the era of the ‘phone up right till the milkman leaves’ cancellation option.

Stevan Bates’ auntie apparently used to get the occasional 2.30am cancellation phone call. You can imagine how that went down.

Even to the casual passer-by it still feels like a local, family business. Thanks largely, I reckon, to the company’s brand identity.

DSCN1351The logo’s just the family name written in script, in blue, on an appropriately creamy background.

There’s a kind of lusciousness about it, like a clotted cream tea. It says comforting, reassuring.

Reassuring in a genuine, not-owned-by-a-hedge-fund kind of way.

It’s great to know it’s on our doorstep.

DSCN1361And so, write-up done, it’s time to put the kettle on.

Make a nice cup of tea. Dunk a biscuit.

Then put out the empties.

Rinsed, for return, thanks to Keith.

DSCN1347To find a milkman in the UK try this:      

Believe it or not there’s a milk float website with FAQs:
and Londoners can hire one

Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Standing stones, hillforts – and defying a guardian wind

It’s a dour day. Stoking the smouldering coals of melancholy.

And it’s further than it seems, the journey.

A sign catches my eye.

‘Stone circle,’ I read aloud.  Then add, to my own surprise, ‘let’s go’.

It’s a while before we can turn off this sliver of a road, hemmed in by bare twiggy hedgerows. But turn off we do, then start to climb through barely visible hills.

Park at the corner of a potholed track. Walk the rest of the way.

‘It’s really mild,’ I say, not bothering with gloves, ‘there’s barely a breath of wind.’

December should be biting, by now.

The path rises through green fields devoid of people. As paths mostly do, to stone circles.

The winter dampness numbs my fingers and nose. I stuff my hands in my pockets. Then take them out again, for balancing. The rain of months and the passing of feet has rendered the ground a quagmire.

We reach the top in mist. Air wet with myriad droplets.

Resilient turf is springy underfoot, reassuring after the slopes slick with mud.

And there are the standing stones.

Lichen dappled.

Weather worn.

Ghostly in foggy shrouds.DSCN1298 (3)

A dog pads to my side and sniffs. A black dog. I ignore it. Walk towards the stones while there are still no humans to spoil the moment.

‘This would be a good place to see the sun rise on the solstice,’ says the man who knows more about these places than do I.

I say nothing.

This is my weather for stone circles.

DSCN1288 (2)For magic and mystery. Mood and mist.

I want no clarity.

I want my fog of unknowing. Of wilful ignorance, you might say. The space where magic could exist, if I let it.

Reality intrudes. We must find our hotel for the night.

Next morning, convivial food having been eaten in the company of old friends, I hear my resident archaeologist asking after novelist, Mary Webb. She visited the hotel in which we spent the night.

‘Is there a house or anything, nearby’ he asks.

I cringe and walk away.

Mary Webb. Precious Bane. The House in Dormer Forest. Books that held me spellbound.
But literature’s not on my mind today. And this is my annual selfish day.

‘Let’s drive,’ I say, ‘to the nearest hill fort. Then, let’s just go home.’

The promised five miles are long, country miles, narrow roads toiling through a landscape of farms and cows. Fields speckled with sheep, warmly lit by muted sunlight.

I’m not deceived. Rainclouds gather – and threaten.

The car park is small and oppressed by trees.

‘They say it’s heavily wooded,’ said the man in the hotel, ‘but it’s not, there are wonderful views from the top. And it won’t be muddy.’

I fasten my duffel coat. Eye the gravelly path rising through the far-from-lightly-wooded slopes. Begin to regret the choice. It’s plainly quite a stride.

But at least there’s no wind. No rain.

Once the car park vanishes from sight, though, the guardians of the place perceive our progress.

The wind is conjured.

The fir trees shudder and toss their arms around.

A low growl of warning begins. A guttural discouragement.

Soon it’s a howl. A roar. A threat.

But on we plod. My hands cold. My own hair whipping my eyes to tears.

At last, emerging from trial by woodland, we leave the gatekeeper spirits behind.

And the wind lays low.

Ahead is a kissing gate. A cattle grid.

The views are fine indeed. Mist curls over far hilltops.DSCN1277 (2)

There’s nothing here, bar ditches and mounds and nibbling sheep. And a few dogs, walking their humans.DSCN1290 (2)

The hills circle around us like family. Several host similar forts, they say. I could imagine beacons lit on each. A ruby necklace of warning for a dark, dangerous night.

‘You know,’ says he who knows these things, ‘more recent thinking is that they’re not forts so much as community settlements.’

I imagine sunny days and lush greenery. Hens and cows and babies. Leather clothes and smoking fires.

‘I could imagine that,’ I say. Because I can.

‘But there is the small matter of all the sling shots in the ditches,’ he rejoins, ‘and why would pastoralists live at the top of hills behind ramparts?’

‘To keep the wolves away,’ I say, with little hope of convincing.

I’ve been re-reading the Box of Delights, a children’s book by John Masefield. A story of snow and wolves and magic and Christmas. ‘The wolves are running’ – the watchword known only to the good. A phrase that ignited a flame of fantasy the first time I read it.

Still does.

But archaeology can’t be about magic. Just evidence. Though I’d argue it’s still about mystery, archaeology. The bits ‘we don’t really know’.DSCN1282 (2)


I have no more heart for debate.

Eyes fixed on the ground, avoiding slippery mud, looking for gravelly traction, we trudge back to our world.

There’s barely a rustle in the woods.

The gatekeeper wind has retreated.

Seems not to mind that we’re leaving.

And – neither do I.

I’ve stocked up on magic and mystery.

Home beckons.DSCN1315

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The little matchgirl. A tale re-told. Part 2 of 2

nightA spiteful wind howls around the streets. Blows away the fog, the smoke – the warmth.

Jack Frost mocks the locked gates of the arcade. Dances through their iron bars, into the doorway where the little girl huddles. Touches her toes and nose and fingers. Nips at the elbows poking through holes in her threadbare cardigan.

Molly is fast asleep – and dreaming. Of hot stew and fur boots. Of feather cushions and roaring fires.

But Jack Frost’s teeth bite harder – and she opens her eyes. Looks at the matches in her lap. Thinks of that leaping fire.

Beside her a low brick wall rises up to meet the curved glass window. She takes a match and strikes it on the brick.

The light flares.

Molly smiles at the brightness and the sudden spurt of warmth. Holds the match to the window and sees its reflection. Leans closer.

Inside the window, a mannequin models a long fur coat.

The match goes out. The fur coat disappears.

There’s no going home, now, she knows. Without pennies her father will beat her. Without matches or pennies he may well kill her.

Tomorrow she’ll have to think of something. But tomorrow’s so far away.

And she’s so cold.

Molly ties the red flannel around her head. Takes a bundle of matches and tiptoes from doorway to doorway. In each she strikes a match and waits till it goes out, nose pressed close against the glass.

In one short evening Molly sees a world she will never know. Gold and wine. Books and chocolates. Fur-lined boots and cut glass decanters.

As the clock chimes midnight Molly finds the warmest doorway and lights the remaining matches, one by one. Imagines that each is a falling star, the kind you wish upon, as they die their beautiful deaths.

And then, she sleeps, still wishing.

At five o’clock the clock strikes. Long before the invisible dawn.

One of the iron gates groans as it opens. Groans again as it’s shut.

A woman, Elspeth, enters the arcade. Her job – to brush away any dirt that blew in overnight.

Her jaw hurts badly, today. But at least she’s alive. Thank God.

She puts the small lantern she’s carrying down. Bends to pick up a heap of old newspaper, blown into the corner of a dark shop doorway.

But it’s not newspaper. It’s a little girl.

Molly is barely alive. The woman picks her up. Cradles her in strong arms. Breathes warm breath on her face.

Molly dreams of a smoking fire, putting out a strange smell and wonders what’s burning. Her little eyes open and she sees a miracle. A face, shining in the dark.

The woman with the ugly face – for ugly it is – smiles as best she can. Molly gasps, startled, as the vision becomes real – and awful.

She wails.

The woman shushes her.

Elspeth, old at thirty, puts her shawl over Molly and bids her stay still while she cleans.

Her tasks over, she bears Molly, piggyback, all the way home. In the dark.

Elspeth’s jaw gleams when she speaks. When she smiles. When she’s silent.

She works, by night, at any job she can find, when it’s dark and no-one can see her. Stays at home by day, safe from the stares, the shouts and the spitting.

She’s had the worst of it removed, now. She should not die.

Not yet.

Molly is frightened, at first, by this ugly woman and her shining jaw.

But as she sips at a bowl of hot soup, wrapped up in Elspeth’s blanket, in the flickering light of Elspeth’s small fire, she thinks she understands.

The lady’s a saint. It’s just the halo slipped.

Perhaps her saintliness came from her words, not her thoughts.

Yes, Molly likes that idea. And she smiles the first smile that her ugly saviour has seen in months.

And so Molly sleeps. And dreams.

Feels safe.

Tonight she’ll eat bread with beef dripping.

Tomorrow, she’ll have a new job. Making matches, for the Salvation Army.

And for Christmas, this year, she’ll eat ham hock with cabbage.

Luck, at last, has visited our poor little match girl. But Luck, as we know, can be a fickle friend.

Fear not, though, for Molly.

For thanks to a stranger’s Charity, now, she will always know Hope.

And, this year, her first happy Christmas.


Merry Christmas (or whatever you’d like to celebrate), to one and all!

If you’d like to know a little of the background to this little match girl’s story read on:
For years in the late 19th century the match firm Bryant and May used white phosphorus for making its matches, even when it became clear that it could cause terrible sickness and death. It was very poorly paid work. The young women and girls who did it were not allowed to take time out for eating so ate while they worked which transferred the phosphorus to their mouths. ‘Phossy jaw’ began with pain, progressed to glowing bones, necrosis of the tissue and – if the jaw bone was not removed (and often even if it was) – to death.
The plight of the ‘match girls’ became famous (or infamous) when campaigner Clementina Black, an influential and early women’s trade unionist, gave a speech at a Fabian society meeting which was heard by journalist Annie Besant. Besant helped organise the Match girls’ Strike of 1888. Better working conditions were eventually agreed, but it took years before B&M stopped using white phosphorus and in the meantime the Salvation Army set up a matchmaking business using the safer red phosphorus – which B&M eventually took over.

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The little matchgirl. A tale re-told. Part 1 of 2


once upon a time

                                                        … when respectable heads were hatted and industrial smoke filled every lung, when automobiles were rare and horses and carts were common, then, lived a poor little match girl. Molly.

We join her one cold December day, as the clock strikes noon.

Grates heaped high with coal blaze brightly in many-roomed merchants’ mansions.

Glimmers of red peep out from meagre fires, damped down with vegetable peelings, in the terraces of the poor.

Factory chimneys, tall and soot-blackened, jab at a place where the sky might be – but instead is choking fog.

Molly is used to the smoke. So used to the smoke she doesn’t see it. Sulphurous yellow, grey or black – the guises of smoke are nature’s work, as far as Molly is concerned.

Molly has no coat to keep her warm. Her father sold it – came home drunk, again.

Her shoes are cast-offs – and too small. So small, they make her icy feet feel icier still.

Filthy water, churned from the grey-yellow slush by the wheels of horse-drawn carriages, seeps through the holes in their soles.

Christmas is coming – but that means nothing to Molly. There will be no tree, no presents.

She won’t be eating goose or beef. Just boiled potatoes, or turnips, or perhaps a bowl of watery soup – with bread, if she’s lucky.

But Luck is someone her family doesn’t know.

That’s why Molly is out on this miserable, chest-congesting day. Hoping to sell matches to gentlefolk. Trying to earn pennies, to buy some luck.

Molly makes her way to the smartest part of this grimy town. To a brightly-lit arcade of shops.

It’s warm in the arcade. But the man with the black top-hat and coat with shiny brass buttons will hit her legs with his stick if she tries to sit inside.

So Molly stands at the edge of the shop on the corner of the glowing tunnel. One side in the dark world, the other in the bright.

Marvellous riches are there, her brother says. Rings for ladies’ fingers, coats for gentlemen’s backs. Gloves and hats – and bowls full of flowers. Wonderful things, in that golden, forbidden realm.

But Molly’s not angry, nor envious – don’t presume to know how she feels. This is the way things are – how could she know anything other?

Molly holds her store of matches in what looks like a large red handkerchief. But it’s not a handkerchief, it’s cut from a red flannel petticoat that a kind old lady gave to her mother.

Striking a pose, with a false, bright smile, Molly keeps watch. Endeavours to catch the eye of each likely buyer that passes her by.

A man with a fat cigar. A man with a thin cigar.

A man tamping down his pipe tobacco.

It’s an ugly old ogre of a thing, his pipe. Molly squints to work it out.

It’s shaped like a head, has a face.

She won’t make a sale. The man has a matchbox, in silver, attached to his waistcoat watch-chain.

He scrapes a match on the serrated edge. The flame flares.

He puffs – and puffs – and smoke curls out of the ogre’s head. Molly shudders.

Smart ladies chatter as they approach – until they see the little girl. Edging towards the other side of the pavement they turn their heads and tut.

Little slattern, how dare she.

One lady – perhaps not such a lady – stops as she leaves the arcade. Takes something from a paper bag, hung by striped-string handles. Opens a little grey tin. She tilts the tin to the light, revealing a row of brightly coloured – what?

Molly doesn’t know what they are.

The woman removes a blue stick, inserts it in a tube, puts the tube to her mouth. Fumbles around in her bag – then sees our little match girl.

How much?’ she asks.

‘Tuppence a bundle, ma’am,’ says Molly. Her dad says they’ll pay it, at Christmas.

The woman rummages in her deep, beaded bag, but cannot find two pennies. She shrugs, puts the cigarette – a Cocktail Sobranie – back in the tin.

The sale vanishes into the fog. Soon she’ll be sipping cocktails, in a smart hotel. The staff will light her cigarette, for nothing.

A clock, somewhere, strikes four.

The winter’s day grows murkier. Darkness, unseen, saturates the world.

The arcade’s golden lights are almost painful, now, for Molly to behold.

The smoke – she doesn’t know it’s the smoke – makes her eyes prickle. She rubs with one hand and clutches the matches safely with the other.

The clock strikes five.

The man with the coat – and buttons – and hat – begins to close the arcade.

Soon all the light is gone, except for the dull, hissing, gas lights lining the street.

The fog becomes denser – or perhaps it just seems that way, now the light has stolen from the world.

Molly is frightened. She’s made no money and her father will be angry. She wonders if she can slip into the arcade before the big man notices.

A shopkeeper stops to chat. As the two men laugh, barefoot Molly– she’s left her worthless shoes behind – runs into the arcade.

Like a piece of newspaper tossed by a sudden gust, she flies into the corner of the nearest doorway – and nestles.

The red flannel settles on her lap like the breast of a wintry robin.

But tonight the world will grow bitter.

Please forgive any anachronisms. 




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Beheaded for flirting? LOL!

One of the things foreigners living in England always struggle with is identifying the social trip wires.

How do you hold your fork?

Is it a napkin or a serviette?

Do you need to go to the toilet, lavatory or loo?

And – perhaps more 2015 – when is it socially acceptable to use emojis or textspeak? (Tell me if you know the answer.)

IMHO  :-)   the fact that even the garden isn’t safe has always seemed just a tad ridiculous.
I mean, take the ordinary pink (or blue) mophead hydrangea. Is it an acceptable shrub for a middle-class, wannabe-upper-class, garden?

Say what?

You’d think the answer would be, ‘if you like it and if it’ll grow where you live, plant it. Who cares?’

Well, people do.

And when it comes to music, Gilbert & Sullivan – did I hear several sharp intakes of breath? – is a very, very pink (or blue) musical version of the hydrangea. Not a lace-cap one (they’re OK, especially if white). Just an ordinary, big-bloomed, blowzy one.

The production of the Mikado we saw last week was first performed 29 years ago. And it created a dilemma for the cultured classes then, in its own, small, artistic way.

Not only was it staged by the English National Opera (acceptable), it was – and still is – directed by a man who’s undeniably classy, clever and cultured. A human colossus of taste and style (don’t quibble with my construction, I’m tired, it’s December and I have a cold).

So what did those who needed to read all the class runes correctly do about this radical Mikado (for radical it was)?

I don’t know – and I don’t care. Because I enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan.

There – I’ve said it.

I can see the curl of sneering lip, the wrinkle of snooty nose. The not-quite-concealed smug smiles.

‘Aha,’ the point-scorers cry, ‘she’s failed!’

My own enjoyment of G&S – the Mikado in particular – goes back to my teenage years, revising for exams, with a very bad cold, at home. My parents had a two record set. I played them, again and again. Loved the tunes, could understand most of the words.

The first G&S production I saw in real life, though, was not the Mikado. It was an amateur production at my father’s school, combining the talents of his boys’ school and my girls’ school in Trial by Jury.

All I can remember about it is the boy I fancied. Gerard. Ges. Good looking, great singer. And a heartbreaker (not mine).

Later in life a boyfriend (well, actually it was a less-than-satisfactory relationship that never quite took off – though we had three attempts at it. He was very sporty – cricket and rugger – maybe that was the problem?)

– sorry, where was I? Got a bit distracted there.

Oh yes. Wicket-keeping, rugger-playing chap took me to see Ruddigore, one of the lesser known G&S works, in Oxford.

Ruddigore stands out for me because of one line. There’s a character called Margaret who tends to get a bit wild. The only way to calm her down is to say, in emphatic tones, ‘Basingstoke, my dear.’

Having worked a couple of years in Basingstoke I’m not convinced of its likely effectiveness.

But moving on.

Last week we went to one of those ‘live’ screenings at the cinema. It was a revival of the same Mikado we were fortunate enough to see all those years ago.

One reason it was and still is deemed so radical is because the set and costumes are all cream and black, the people are smart 1930s society types and it’s set in a genteel seaside resort.

Not a hint of oriental, cherry blossom Japan.

I could hardly contain myself at times, at the cinema. I was desperate to join in. Not just with the songs  – but the dancing. Tap dancing.

I challenge anyone to see this production and keep their feet still. It’s utterly, utterly joyous.


Lest you think this depressive leopard has changed her spots, there was something. More than one something.

The cast resplendent on stage (photo ENO web page 2015)

The cast resplendent on stage (photo ENO web page 2015)

I was not feeling too hot, world getting me down, life passing me by – you know, the usual stuff. It dragged me out of myself and threw me around like a Scottish dancer in a reel. I loved it.

But (again).

G&S are – IMO – great social commentators. As relevant now, in many ways, as they were in the nineteenth century.

And I couldn’t help but notice the parallels.

Mikado is the big man cetnre of course (photo ENO web page 2015)

Mikado is the big man cetnre of course (photo ENO web page 2015)

Titipu – the mythical place where the action is set – has an Emperor – the Mikado. To steady the young men of Titipu he’s set a law that ‘all who flirted, leered or winked (unless connubially linked)’ should be beheaded.

One poor chap, Ko-ko, was found guilty of said crime – but escaped by virtue of becoming the Lord High Executioner.

Ko ko the Lord High Executioner (phtoto ENO web page 2015)

Ko-ko the Lord High Executioner (photo ENO web page 2015)

The Lord High Executioner has a little list of people ideally suited to execution because they would not be missed.

I laughed, with everyone else, at the revised and updated version to which we were treated.

And I thought about Isis/Isil/Daesh. And Saudi Arabia.

Well, wouldn’t you?

Decapitation is something they seem to have in common.

It’s no laughing matter. But laugh we did.

And then there was the corruption. Epitomised by the Lord High Everything Else. And by the Mikado being able to say something was so to make it so.

Ko-ko and Katisha (photo ENO web page 2015)

And the discrimination.

The  agèd and ugly Katisha. Struggling to marry because of her looks and age.

I saw a fun amateur production in which Katisha was in real life a reasonably elderly lady.

She growled and prowled and shook her walking stick at Ko-ko (never mind how we got here) and asked:

“You won’t hate me because I’m just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty, will you?

Ko-Ko: Hate you? Oh, Katisha! is there not beauty even in bloodthirstiness?”

And here’s Ko-ko, hoping for an answer in the negative,

“Are you old enough to marry, do you think?
Won’t you wait till you are eighty in the shade?
There’s a fascination frantic
In a ruin that’s romantic;
Do you think you are sufficiently decayed?”

The game Katisha responds:

“To the matter that you mention
I have given some attention,
And I think I am sufficiently decayed.”

The maids being exuberant (photo ENO web page 2015)

The maids being exuberant (photo ENO web page 2015)

There was more that rang contemporary bells – I won’t bother you with it though (not even the blade and the vertebrae – no don’t ask). I’m aware that sometimes my perspective is a little warped.

And  I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in a long time.

But there’s still a teeny worry, at these contemporary parallels.

See, there’s this in Ko-ko’s list:

“… that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!


He’s got her on the list — he’s got her on the list;
And I don’t think she’ll be missed — I’m sure she’ll not be missed!”


  1. Promo video ENO

2. The 1987 version featuring Eric Idle of Monty Python fame as Ko-ko we saw  filmed (not very well) for TV – after this video of Act 1 Act 2 will follow. To see abit of the tap dancing go to 55 or 57 minutes mins on video 1 or for the glorious, exuberant  finale go to minute 58 in Act 2

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

For the record …

The British Prime Minister  has, it is reported, described political opponents who do not agree with his proposal to extend our involvement in the Syrian conflict as “terrorist sympathisers”.

I am not alone in being both shocked and angry.

I am not a terrorist sympathiser.  I have read, carefully, the cases that he and others have made, for and against the action he proposes. I am not convinced by his arguments, This makes me, I believe, a citizen with an informed viewpoint – not a terrorist sympathiser.


Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments