Forgotten Images from the Silk Road

Sitting on top of the world…en route from Pakistan to Uzbekistan

Just recently, I discovered a cache of photos taken from a second Silk Road trip that I made. The first trip, in 1995, lasted around a month as with a group I travelled from Bejing to Rawalpindi, across the West of China to Kashgar and Tashkurgan, then down the Karakorum Highway – a narrow road hewn out of the rock at great cost to the workers who built it, and replacing the old caravan trail barely big enough for pack horses. Around a year later, my(former) husband decided that he’d missed out, and would also like to see something of this ancient trade route, a branching network of roads traverses the terrain from East to West. The Silk Road network extends north and south into countries such as India and Pakistan, Russia and Syria. In the heyday of the Silk Road, from the early centuries AD until the 15th century (when new sea trading routes largely superceded it) it was the means by which exotic, innovative goods were traded from one part of the world to the other – silk of course, but also gunpowder, paper, rhubarb and exquisite carpets and ceramics. It was also the route for transmission of stories, art, and religious beliefs. You can read more about this in my previous blogs – Bazaars of the Silk Road and Suzani from the Silk Road.

My second trip – my husband’s first – was much shorter, and this time we began in Islamabad (next door to Rawalpindi in Pakistan), and flew up to Gilgit. From there we would travel up through Pakistan and onwards north to Kashgar in China, over the mountain pass into Kirghistan and to our final destination of Uzbekistan. The plane from Islamabad to Gilgit actually flies between the mountains, rather than over them, so if there’s a cloud in the sky, the flight doesn’t go. If it does go, you hope that a cloud or two doesn’t appear en route, and thicken into mist, since that could be a recipe for disaster. Our flight took off successfully – the alternative was something like a three day drive through unspectacular scenery. It also landed successfully, I’m pleased to say.

Arrival at Gilgit, at the time of a sombre religious festival. Some of the men standing on the rooftops were army snipers, on the lookout for any trouble

I had visited Gilgit before, and enjoyed its (then) fairly relaxed attitude, which welcomed foreigners. This time, however, there was a different atmosphere since it was just after the festival of Ashura when according to the BBC website:

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a solemn day of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein in 680 AD at Karbala in modern-day Iraq. It is marked with mourning rituals and passion plays re-enacting the martyrdom. Shia men and women dressed in black also parade through the streets slapping their chests and chanting. Some Shia men seek to emulate the suffering of Hussein by flagellating themselves with chains or cutting their foreheads until blood streams from their bodies.

There had been lashing, and many men strode past, wild-eyed, with open wounds on their backs. A tense atmosphere prevailed and army snipers stood on the rooftops, alert to any outbreak of trouble. This was not a place for tourists, and we kept our heads bowed and scurried on, pleased when we could set out on the next stage of our journey, up the Karakorum Highway and up into Kashgar, a place dear to my heart, with its huge Sunday market. From there we’d travel over the Torugart Pass into Kirghistan – new territory for me.

These gloriously painted trucks and buses are the norm for transport in the area. Our minibus was a lot less colourful, however!

The Hunza valley, up the Karakorum Highway is truly beautiful, and a stopping off point for mountaineers. The fiendish Karakorum mountains lure those who seek the ultimate challenge – ultimate in the case of Alison Hargreaves, an accomplished mountaineer who sadly died there in 1995 as a young mother in her 30s. These mountains have jagged, threatening peaks which loom darkly above you, and its hard to imagine anyone scaling them. But in Hunza below, apricot trees are laden with fruit, wild cosmos flowers bloom in the grass, and the terraces on the lower slopes are bright green with crops and grass fodder, grown with care and great industry by the local inhabitants.

Here too are the ancient forts of Altit and Baltit, presiding over the lost Silk Road kingdom of Hunza – other such kingdoms which you may never have heard of include Kashgaria and Sogdiana. Whole dynasties have risen and fallen in these regions and modern maps are sadly inadequate for understanding the layout of old Silk Road territories.

Relaxing in the ancient fort of Altit – or was it Baltit? Part of the Hunza valley is spread out below, although you cannot see here the full extent of the imposing Karakorum mountains

As it was my second Silk Road trip, and a shorter one, I documented it in less detail than the first, when I was eager to write a complete travel journal. Thus the pictures I have of mountains and nomadic people are somewhat loosely defined geographically now in memory, and I’ll share them without attempting to be too precise about their location. And what I’ll miss out here is our visit to the fabled city of Kashgar, now sadly with its Uighur and Silk Road culture diluted in recent years by Chinese domination and suppression. I took many pictures on my previous trip there, and perhaps because of that, I focused entirely on enjoying the vast Sunday market the second time round. But you can see more of Kashgar in my previous blog Bazaars of the Silk Road

But first the border crossing, from the far West of China through the Torugart Pass into Kirghistan. This was a prolonged affair, leaving one country and travelling several miles before entering the next. On the Kirghiz side, it was still the border post of the old Soviet Union, and guarded with maximum formalities. Although, as I speak Russian, I was able to chat to the officers who were delighted that someone, at last, spoke their native tongue!

Making new friends at the Chinese border! Always as well to have the guards on your side.

The peoples of this area mingle too – Tajiks, Kirghiz, and Uzbekis, for instance.There are still nomadic tribes or families, using traditional yurts, and perhaps migrating to town houses in the winter months.

Ever curious children (these ones probably from Hunza) above, and below a nomadic family, probably Tajiks who often have rosy cheeks and flashing black eyes.

The family below were yurt dwellers, at least for the summer months when they can graze their animals on mountain grass. The white felt hat which the man on the left is wearing is the traditional Kirghiz headgear. In the second picture, you’ll see that I took the chance to try ‘kumis’ which is usually made from mare’s milk, and tastes like kefir. It was delicious! Some swear by it as a cure for chestiness and other respiratory ailments.

Tasting kumis – fermented mare’s milk! Note that it comes out of an old goatskin (?) bag.

The yurts are easy to transport and put up again; they’re constructed on a pattern representing the cosmos, with the central crossing symbolising the four directions. You must always walk round sunwise inside a yurt, starting from the left hand side, even if what you’re coming in for is close to the right hand side of the entrance. Inside, they are cosy, and infants sleep snugly wrapped in their cradles, which can also be transported intact.

The cross poles of the yurt in the centre of the yurt, the heart of the universe
A Kirghiz baby in his or her bed, strapped and wrapped for safety

It was also an opportunity to try my skills on a horse again. The Kirghiz particularly love their horses, and on my previous Silk Road trip I’d also managed to blag my way onto a steed! They specialise in decorated felt and embroidered saddle cloths.

In the higher regions of Central Asia and Western China, yaks are useful for their meat, milk and as beasts of burden. They are also known as the ‘Tartary ox’.

Yaks, domesticated and hardy in the kind of extreme terrain seen below

Kirghistan has its own national hero – Manas. He is perhaps what Genghis Khan is to the Mongolian civilisation, a warrior king who fought battles for his people. The Epic of Manas in its present form dates from the 18th century, but was passed down orally before that, and is believed by the Kirghiz to be much older – they celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 1995! Its provenance is complex, but it seems to be based on historical facts much mythologised to celebrate the prowess of the superhuman hero.

A vast statue of the Kirghiz warrior king, Manas, which stands in Bishkek

If you’d like to watch this short video, you can see marvellous shots of the Kirghiz way of life, along with listening to plangent Kirghiz music, hearing a clip from the epic of Manas, and watching those curious white felt hats.

Kirghiz Music and Culture

Descending eventually down into Uzbekistan, a hotter and flatter country, we visited the astonishing cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Later, on a subsequent trip, I also reached Khiva, which is a renovated Silk Road city of magnificently tiled buildings. Buhkara has been a melting pot of different dynasties and peoples, and the Samanid mausoleum built in the 10th century includes influences from Byzantium, Persia along with Sogdian and Sassanian styles, plus, we were told, hints of the ancient Zoroastrian religion.

Here in Uzbekistan, the produce is lusher, the clothes made of lighter fabric. The famous ‘rainbow silk’ is still worn by the women. There’s a legend about how it came into being – it can be found in a blog from my original website: Images from the Silk Road – Rainbow Silk

The second girl from the left in the back row is wearing rainbow silk, a nationally-celebrated fabric

And so we rounded off the Silk Road trip in Samarkand and Bukhara, where I’ll round off this post with images, rather than a discourse. First of all, here is the Uzbeki style of building grand houses and palaces. Even smaller-scale, more domestic houses often have these charming decorated alcoves.

And then, the wonderful tiled mosques, perhaps even more magnificent than those I had already seen in Istanbul. Some have been restored to their full glory after becoming dilapidated in earlier years.

After the second silk road trip, I did follow up with separate visits to Syria, a more complete tour of Uzbekistan, and futher visits to Turkey, where I’d been travelling since I was a student. With images and source books, I looked further into the history of the Silk Road, its legends and its cultures, and from this came my children’s book Stories from the Silk Road, and illustrated lectures which I gave for NADFAS (now the Arts Society), and at various other venues including cruise ships. Some of the ports in the Black Sea, for instance, are old Silk Road ports, so it was more relevant to the passengers than you might think. And, of course, I can enjoy writing blogs such as this one, to share the images with you.

Thanks for joining me on my travels!

Blogs of further interest

Bazaars of the Silk Road

Suzani from the Silk Road

Cherry’s Cache – At the turn of the year

At the turn of the year – a photo taken at the winter solstice in Bath some years ago

I began this blog nearly three years ago, in April 2020. And before I go any further, I’d like to thank all of you who’ve been reading these blogs, whether regularly or occasionally. It’s a real privilege to know that they’re of interest. Whether Dartmoor or alchemy, Welsh fruit loaf or Huguenot refugees, there is, I hope, something for everyone. When I set up this website with the help of a professional web designer, we talked about drawing in an audience for this. However, when he heard the range of topics I’d be writing about, he was somewhat baffled. ‘If this blog appeals to one kind of reader, then the next might be for a different kind…’ And he didn’t quite know where to go from there. But as it reflects my own genuine range of interests, then we would just have to go with that, we agreed. I could hear the doubt in his voice!

A note about the images: Most of these are from the blog posts mentioned here – and it shouldn’t be too hard to work out which is which, if you’re so inclined!

Thank you, readers! I hope you’ll stay with the blog and I’ll just be running it month to month, seeing what comes up and what I might post. It may not be a ‘forever’ blog, as keeping up the quality is really important to me. But I hope that the posts will still have a presence on the net so that those interested in, say, embroidered samplers or Silk Road travellers or the goddess Kuan Yin or a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake, can still find my posts for these. And by the way, please do make use of the ‘Search Bar’ on the home page. You can enter any relevant keyword for the blog and it should show you the one(s) available.

A little later, I’ll be coming onto What the Stats Reveal – which posts are popular, and where do you all come from. In fact, if you’re going to be bored by the next section about my own writing history, skip on past….

The writing compulsion

I started writing books in my twenties (quite a long time ago!), and in the fifteen years prior to 2020, I was producing a book about every two years. I was caught up in a rhythm, of researching ideas followed by canvassing publishers and then writing the book itself. I was proud to have had a steady sequence of books published, but it was becoming exhausting. Starting Cherry’s Cache was a way of breaking the addiction. Yes, really –a blog, I thought, would be a harmless and rewarding way to channel the urge. No dependency on the whims of editors or the business (mis)fortunes of editors – and a chance to use pictures. Lots of lovely pictures! I’ve always relished matching images to words, which I could do in my talks and lectures, but rarely in books.

You may be sceptical as to a) the demanding nature of writing and b) its addictive qualities, so let me fill in the background.

The cycle of madness

Writing a book involves a cycle of madness. I say this a little tongue in cheek, but it’s not far from the truth. My book ‘Russian Magic’) includes this dedication to Robert:
I would like to thank my partner Robert [now my husband] for putting up with a writer who had her head buried deep in books while researching this project, and who went round muttering about Russian wizards and wolves, and frogs that were really princesses, whenever she came up for air. His loving support and kindness was a life-line to me!

The first phase of writing a book is not quite so extreme, since I relish the quest and seeing the identity of a book emerging from this. The research stage is exciting. Heady, full of promise and possibilities. I have a wide field of interests, and in the 2000s, the books I produced thus included family history, writing life stories, Russian folklore, feminine archetypes and traditional Tarot symbols. I was also tasked with updating my now classic history of alchemy.

But then reality bites, writing up of an outline, often chapter by chapter, and producing all the back up info without which the publisher won’t offer a contract. (Who are the potential readers? What other competing books are out there in the marketplace? Do I know, and do I care?) It can be a grind, but it’s also reassuring afterwards to know that there’s a solid framework for the book.

I usually write to a publisher’s contract. And I don’t mind deadlines – indeed, I love them. In my opinion they are a writer’s best friend, a great incentive to keep going, providing you’ve agreed a realistic delivery date, and you’ve a contracted commitment from a publisher. Nevertheless, the outcome isn’t always rosy. Several times during my career I’ve been badly let down when publishers go bust, leaving work unpaid, and a contract is suddenly no more than a useful fire lighter. Projects can also be cancelled after the months of preparation but before the signed deal. And once I had a script rejected, which is definitely a blow to an author’s pride. (It rankles, even now!) It happens, even with the best agents, which I’ve been fortunate enough to have. ‘You cannot force a publisher to publish,’ is the sum of it. I therefore advise all prospective writers to be philosophical, because there will be stones on your path as well as pretty flowers.

A somewhat relevant image, I think. Be philosophical if you want to be an author! That’s the essence of any advice I’d give an aspiring writer. Pilgrim’s Progress with its Slough of Despond and Doubting Castle is not so far off the mark – but maybe the Celestial City awaits?

The writing phase itself can both inspire and drain you. It’s like a slow wave building up that you must sustain, carrying its momentum forward. The book is always there in your mind, even on days off. And when the text is finally drafted, it’s time to turn to the editing stage. I try to have a short break between the two phases if I can, because it does help, to come back fresh to your deathless prose and see that it’s not quite so perfect as you thought. By the time my final draft has landed in the editor’s in-box (thank goodness for electronic submissions these days!) I often feel exhausted and empty, rather than exultant. It takes time for the well to fill up again, for energy to be restored.

But my final draft isn’t theirs, of course. Then follows what may be a long stage of working with a desk editor (the ‘ideas’ department) and a copy editor (the style and clarity monitor). Finally, with everything ready there’s usually a further waiting stage to get the book printed, unless you’re a celebrity author being fast-tracked for the Christmas list.

And now it’s out! But you’re still on the case, even if you’re longing to start on that next book or (probably better) lie down in a sunny place for several months. There’s promotion, social media posts (groan), and possibly talks and articles and book signings. The author is expected to be very actively involved now in marketing, and often the onus is on us to fix up events and create a social media whirl.

In the good old days of launch parties – though I seem to recall we fixed this up ourselves! R-L: Lyn Webster Wilde, Eve Jackson, myself and Lucy Oliver celebrate the launch of our books at Watkins Bookshop, London. These were for a series called ‘Compass of Mind’, published by Dryad, for which I was commissioning editor.

A new venture

This is not really an author’s moan, as I’ve loved the process overall, and the delivery of my book children into the world. Editors and agents have become close friends, and I’ve also been part of a couple of wonderful writers groups, in Stroud and in Exeter (link). But in the last few years, obviously older than I once was, I feel that I won’t embark lightly on that process again, of conceiving, preparing, writing and promoting a book. (Unless you want to make me a good offer, of course?)

And then the idea was born to start Cherry’s Cache, and fledged through attending a blog-writing course with ‘The Gentle Author’ in Spitalfields, in March 2020, something I’ve written about in an earlier post.

The occasion remains eerily clear in my mind because it was the last weekend we were all allowed out before the lockdown. Our course was a kind of safe space, whereas outside drinkers spilled onto the pavements in unusually warm weather, shoppers crowded the markets, with an eerie semblance of normality. In Cheshire Street market I picked up a Folio Edition of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’. It seemed fitting.

Back at home, totally at home for the duration, I was able to make contact with the Gentle Author’s recommended web designer. With his expert skills, we played with names and themes, and the blog itself was launched remarkably fast in April 2020. I put up three opening posts, so that readers would have something to delve into. And it became a constant delight for me to work on it during those long months of successive lockdowns, without the pressure of a given brief or the extended effort needed for a whole book.

Cherry’s Cache has thus been my main writing focus for a while, but instead of the once-a-week post of the pandemic, which I maintained for about two years, I’m now posting once every two or three weeks. It melds well with some of my other activities, such as volunteering as an Exeter city guide, working on esoteric subjects (see our Soho Tree blog), and rounding up memoirs and musings. In the last year, I’ve also returned to teaching creative writing online for Oxford University.

Below: so who am I really?

L-R: as painted by Robert Lee-Wade, in a floppy hat reading a book, ‘Grandma’ by Martha, or donning a gown for teaching at Oxford Summer School of Creative Writing?

All and none, perhaps.

Loving the Stats

One of the great things about running a WordPress blog is the ease of checking out your stats. I can prove that as of today, I’ve published 93 blogs – yes, really! I’m surprised too – and this is no. 94. And my word counts show that I’ve just hit the 200,000 word output for all of these. That could have made two whole novels. (But not quite ‘War and Peace’.) It seems that I haven’t switched from books to blogs to reduce my output.

I can also peer behind the scenes and find out who has read what blog and when. Well, not who exactly, but how many readers. And roughly where they came from. On the day my last blog went out (December 18th) I had over 100 from the UK and the USA, but also from Canada, Nicaragua, Ireland, Spain, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Kenya and Australia. Previous visitors were also from Bhutan, Japan, and Finland. Today is still young – but hello there, Sweden and Vietnam! (I hope that most of you do actually look at the blog, rather than harvest my info for future selling or scamming.) In June 2022, there were just under 2,000 visitors from the United States and 75 from Spain.

I can even see some of the search terms used, which luckily are mostly harmless, if often misspelt. One or two are incomprehensible: ‘south african jazz artist wearing zobra colours suit’ for instance. What did they find – and did they enjoy it? I can also work out which the winning themes are. As compiled recently, the all-time favourites have been ‘Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats’, (which seems to find favour especially over the Christmas period) followed by Enoch and Eli – Black Country Wit, and Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt. Other animals do well, since Dartmoor Ponies is in 8th place out of 90 posts, and I’m happy to see that my various blogs on our home town of Topsham are in the top twelve.

Sometimes, a tidal wave of views sweeps in, perhaps triggered by a referral from elsewhere. My account of the artist Anna Zinkeisen and her connection with the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar, something I researched at length and was proud to present, was little studied until suddenly, between March and May this year, she had nearly 1000 views. I’d love to know why. Perhaps it was a link on a study course? (Below: Anna Zinkeisen’s self-portratit and a page from her Zodiac Calendar)

And some posts – like Enoch and Eli, for instance, take a while to find their audience and then they seem to roll on merrily ever after.

Aynuk and Ayli were fishing in the canal:
‘Me mate’s fell in the canal !’
‘Owd it appen?’
‘I just took a bite ov me sanwich an me mate fell out.’


Gerrit?

However, some of my very early posts, while building a readership at first, have ebbed away out of sight.What indeed is wrong with ‘Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth – an Ancestor’s Scandal’? Nothing, in my view! I may bring wicked Gt Uncle Edwin back to feature again on a future date.

Until then, here’s thanking you all once again, and wishing you a very Happy New Year!

Laurie Lee – Stories and Serendipity

Laurie Lee at Sheepscombe, photographed by Chris Chapman, and reproduced here by his kind permission. (More about this occasion below)

Whenever I pick up a book of Laurie Lee’s poetry, I fall under its spell. This first happened when I was an impressionable teenager searching for something that would resonate with my own experience of the countryside. The pull of nature had been a part of my life since my early years, occupying a place in my heart which I couldn’t really express, but which Laurie Lee could. It touched me in a way both visceral and emotional. As a child, in an era when it was possible to roam safely, I would sit in a favourite tree for hours, or cross fields to reach a stream fringed with pink campion and bluebells. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a friend or my older brother. (It was more powerful, I discovered, without the grown ups.)

But at the time I began to read his poetry, I sensed that this instinct for nature was something which might slip away from me as I moved into my mid-teens. Another great nature poet, Wordsworth, was able to express that potential loss:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                          To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
            The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
                      Turn wheresoe'er I may,
                          By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

(Ode to Immortality)

Laurie Lee’s verse played a different part, in that it took me right into the heart of that experience, rather than just ruminating on how it once was; it gave me a way of holding onto that instinctive bond with nature, and also brought a special poignancy with it.

If ever I saw blessing in the air
I see it now in this still early day
Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.

Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round 
Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud.

If ever I heard blessing it is there
Where birds in trees that shoals and shadows are
Splash with their hidden wings and drops of sound
Break on my ears their crests of throbbing air….
(From ‘April Rise’)

A view across the Slad valley in Gloucestershire to the village which was Laurie’s home.
(Landscape and all other non-portrait photographs in this blog © Cherry Gilchrist)

I still have the edition of his work in the ‘Pocket Poets’series, which I bought when I was at school, complete with the marks I made to indicate my favourite verses.

In these poems, I found a deep understanding of the magnetic pull of the English landscape – the fields, woods, rivers and villages which have especially captivated me. I may be fond of Wales, Scotland and Ireland too – and have plenty of Celtic ancestry – but it’s the English countryside that I have been immersed in all my life. Even though I have always had the travel bug, roaming the world when I could, England is home, and I can’t give up the primroses smelling delicately of hazelnuts, the ancient hedgerows, and the village fetes enjoyed on a hot summer’s afternoon.

When I first encountered his poetry as a teenager, my travels abroad were limited to trips by boat and train to Europe. So when I read what Laurie Lee wrote about returning home across the Channel, I recognised what he was talking about. I, too, had fallen back in love with the English landscape on the boat train after what seemed like very exotic adventures abroad.

Cowslips on Minchinhampton Common, a few miles from Slad
Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile,
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights….

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

 (From ‘Home from Abroad’)

‘Everyone has a Laurie Lee story’

I first wrote a blog about his poetry on my author’s website, at the time when we were living near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, from 2007-2014. It was barely a fifteen minutes’ drive from Slad Valley, Laurie’s old stomping ground, which he celebrated in his popular poetic memoir, Cider with Rosie. And talking to locals in the Stroud area, I was excited to find the living proof of his existence, even though he’d died over a decade ago in 1997. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Laurie Lee’s old cottage

The First Laurie Lee Blog: written in Amberley, near Stroud

It often seems that he’s not quite gone from there. We are relative newcomers to the area, but practically everyone who’s been around Stroud for longer has a tale to tell about him. Just recently we watched the play of Cider with Rosie at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Two well-dressed middle-aged ladies behind us were discussing him.

‘So did you see Laurie Lee often, then?’

‘Oh yes! I used to meet him about twice a week, at the Imperial.’

(Hmm – interesting!)

My acupuncturist mentioned casually that he used to be her landlord, a musician friend related how he once gave performances with him, and a local, now well-established writer, revealed that she’d marched up to his front door when she was still a teenager, asking for advice on how to become a writer. Should she go to university or not? ‘You don’t need all that,’ he told her. And she didn’t, it seems.

So, as one who is often late to the party, metaphorically speaking, although I never met Laurie Lee, I can still revel in the legacy he left and the landscape he inhabited.

Yesterday, in brilliant sunshine, we walked up Swift’s Hill which lies on the other side of the steep Slad Valley. Ponies were basking in the sun, a buzzard or two soared overhead, and the primroses were out in the hedgerows.

Ponies enjoying the sun on Swifts Hill

We looked across to Slad, picking out the phone box, the pub, and the cottage we thought Laurie had lived in. There was woodsmoke – ‘having a bonnie’ as the garden owner told us later, when we chatted over the wall. The wonderful, steep-gabled grey stone cottages appeared along the route of our walk tracing the contours of the valley, ranging from charming but tiny abodes like something out of a folk tale to grander dwellings with many eaves.

When we drove back to Slad later, we paid a visit to the Laurie Lee bar at the Woolpack pub, Laurie’s local, hoping we wouldn’t get mistaken for tourists. Which in one way we were, of course – but maybe we were more pilgrims for an afternoon, on the L.L. trail.

We were not alone, but the atmosphere was relaxed, the bars uncrowded. We then visited at his tombstone in the churchyard, and later I looked up the poem ‘The Wild Trees’, which begins with the following lines:

O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermilion stars

and ends:
‘Let me return at last….to sleep with the coiled fern leaves in your heart’s live stone.’

Present Memories of Christmas Past

Writing now, in December 2022, I recall with pleasure how when we lived in Gloucestershire, we often attended Johnny Coppin’s annual Christmas concert, ‘All on a Winter’s Night’, held in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, and always packed out. (Once it was so much of a ‘Winter’s Night’ that unfortunately we couldn’t even get there, down the icy hill from Amberley.) It was an evening of music and poetry from the ensemble, plus favourite readings from Laurie Lee, as Coppin had collaborated with the poet in the years before his death. I have a copy of their ‘Edge of Day’, a CD first released in 1989, which includes this poem, ‘Christmas Landscape’. It opens thus:

Tonight the wind gnaws
with teeth of glass,
the jackdaw shivers
in caged branches of iron,
the stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth
of vole and badger,
silver agonies of breath,
in the nostril of the fox,
ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,
no food for the pilgrim;
the fruit tree is bare,
the rose bush a thorn
and the ground is bitter with stones…

You can also find the full recording on You Tube – but please support Johnny Coppin’s albums if you can.

At Swift’s Hill, above Slad – a steep climb!

The Laurie Lee Journey

There is something about Lee which has inspired people to seek out his haunts, both in Gloucestershire and further afield. Adam Horovitz, poet and author, lived in the Slad Valley too, and found his own childhood entwined with that of the Lee family. He himself has been drawn back to live here later on in life. After Laurie’s death in 1997, he witnessed others taking their own Laurie Lee pilgrimage around the area, and even a ‘Night of a Thousand Laurie Lees’ when a bevvy of tipsy cyclists, dressed in Laurie-type gear, careered from Miserden down to Laurie’s pub, the Woolpack at Slad on the first anniversary of his death. ‘More Lauries enter, all signing books, adjusting their hats and husking out requests for beer, their tongues parched with the effort of song and cycling….’ And when Laurie’s widow, Kathy, enters the pub, ‘Laurie suddenly seems alive and well and living on in the valley’s dreaming, in the moths and minds of everyone who lives there or passes through…’ It seems that people not only want to honour the poet, they want to be Laurie Lee.

The opening of ‘As I walked out one Midsummer Morning’ has acted as a call to other young men to follow in Laurie’s footsteps:

The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. She stood old and bent at the top of the bank, silently watching me go, one gnarled red hand raised in farewell and blessing, not questioning why I went. At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever.

Then follows his epic journey on foot from his Slad valley home to Spain at the time of the Civil War. It has inspired others to tread that path too, and then write about it likewise. Benedict Allen – the well-known TV traveller – set out to explore Lee’s journey in a programme which can be seen via the link below:

And very recently, I watched a documentary – Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview, described later. The morning after, I sauntered across the road to a charity Christmas sale, and on the second-hand book stall found a copy of As I walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P. D. Murphy – yet another young man setting out to repeat Laurie’s journey. What are the chances of me finding that book straight after viewing the film and deciding to write a new blog about Laurie Lee? But serendipity often occurs, when I’m writing these posts!

And today…

My own connection to the poet ebbs and flows, as the years proceed. As mentioned, the recent broadcast of ‘Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview’ has set me going again, and provided the direct inspiration for this current post. Here in the carefully compiled documentary, you can see Laurie himself, filmed in the late 1980s walking through the countryside, and coaxed into talking about his early life by David Parker, a BBC producer who’d gently persuaded Laurie to open up to a microphone and a camera, in a way that he usually avoided. (It may be accessible through Now TV, or try for other online options).

In this film too, the ‘Who is Rosie?’ mystery from his other well-loved memoir, Cider with Rosie, continues…was she a real person, who became Laurie’s first tentative girlfriend, with a foray into love and cider drinking under the hay cart? Or was she a composite character, the essence of those first awakenings he had with the cuddlesome village girls? We may never know for sure, but we find out a little more here.

A bonus for me is that this documentary also links our former Gloucestershire home with our current one in Devon, through the presence of photographer Chris Chapman. Chris is a Dartmoor-based photographer par excellence, but he spreads his net wider, and had an earlier career in television as a ‘reluctant presenter’, as he puts it. In this current film, he appears with some of his own iconic shots of Laurie Lee, having collaborated on the original project with David Parker. I am very grateful to him for giving me permission to use one of the most touching and interesting portraits of Laurie ever taken. When Chris sent Laurie a copy of the photo, he wrote back to Chris:

Girl looks at horse, horse looks at me, I look at you, You look at us. Perfect.

Indeed.

© Chris Chapman photography

How does he do it?

But before signing off, I can’t resist sharing Roger McGough’s question which many of us may ask – just how did Laurie Lee create his magic with words? Well, there might indeed be a spell involved…

I love the way he uses words.
Will they work as well for me?
Sorry, said the words.
We only do it for Laurie Lee.
But words are common property – 
They’re available and free
Said the words, ‘We’re very choosy,
And we’ve chosen Laurie Lee.’
I want to write like he does,
But the words did all agree,
‘Sorry, son, we’re spoken for,
We belong to Laurie Lee.’

(Roger McGough - Transcribed from Laurie Lee: The Lost Recordings )

Yes, well, some of my early poems were also influenced by Laurie's! But if Roger McGough can’t emulate him, what hope had I?
‘Living in our valley was like living with broad beans in a pod – it was so snug.’ – Laurie describes the connection with his landscape

Laurie’s poetry remains an inspiration for me – and helps me to reconnect with the landscape which I feel is in my blood, whether Gloucestershire, my childhood in Kent, or time spent in country lanes, bluebell woods, pasture, moorland, and river banks. The older I get, the more powerful I find the magic of our natural landscape again. What was discovered in childhood returns – and perhaps had never really gone away.

And if I am feeling a touch melancholy at the passing of time, then these words of his strike home:

Slow moves the acid breath of noon
over the copper-coated hill,
slow from the wild crab’s bearded breast
the palsied apples fall….

Slow moves the hour that sucks our life,
slow drops the late wasp from the pear,
the rose-tree’s thread of scent draws thin – 
and snaps upon the air.

(From 'Field of Autumn')
View from Painswick Beacon, further north from Slad – and a shot of Painswick village, also in Laurie’s area, as we arrive from an energetic walk with friends along the Beacon (they are the two closest to my camera). Perhaps the name ‘Golden Heart’ tells us something about this special part of Gloucestershire, and the poet it gave birth to.

Further Resources

Interviews with Laurie Lee can be downloaded on the BBC website

A description of the Lost Recordings project

An illustrated talk by Chris Chapman on the theme of his ‘Photographic Friendship’ with photographer James Ravilious.

Blogs from Cherry’s Cache on travel, landscape, and Gloucestershire

Travellers along the Silk Road

Bazaars of the Silk Road

Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common (which also celebrates the life of another local poet, W.H. Davies the ‘supertramp’. He famously wrote: ”What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare.’)

A Real Life ‘War Horse’

Dartmoor Ponies

‘The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding’ by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman (photography), a fascinating study of the Three Hares symbol, found from the Silk Road to the churches of Dartmoor. (no longer in print but copies may possibly be found second-hand).

Madness and Marat Sade

Crazy Times in Cambridge – Part Three

I’ve posted two blogs already about ‘Crazy Times in Cambridge’, but this third will deal with some seriously mad enactments, rather than just student exuberance and defiance.

In the early spring of 1969, a bunch of assorted students, friends and townies began to rehearse for a production of Marat Sade in Cambridge . Or, to give it its full title, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, written by Peter Weiss. It’s a play within a play, set in 1808, and featuring the inmates of a French lunatic asylum fifteen years after the French Revolution.

I’m proud to say that I was one of the insane band. We gave our all to the madness and chaos. Bruce Birchall, our alternative-style theatre director extraordinaire, strode around in rehearsals, thwacking his tall boots with a whip, in a suitably de Sade manner.  It was a stirring, primeval experience, which took up a disproportionate amount of both our study and leisure time, but engaged us completely. When we performed at Peterhouse College, one friend in the audience reported, ‘At first I was just looking at students acting as lunatics. But then you really did become lunatics.’ Praise indeed.

The photos below are taken from the sheets of contact photos for the production, which I’ve managed to keep hold of all these years.

Bruce Birchall, director, top left in shirt, the herald John Barker with a feathered cap, Julian Fellowes, in charge of the lunatic asylum, bottom left. And Jo Morgan, as Marat himself, in the bath, bottom row.

One of the poignant aspects of looking at these photos now is to ruminate on what became of those who took part. I have followed some over the years, and caught up with others more recently, thanks to the ease of Internet searching. Here are some of our varied destinies: human rights lawyer, initiated as shaman in Siberia, financial journalist, expelled from Cambridge for drug dealing, local radio commentator, imprisoned as member of the Angry Brigade, advertising executive, writer, died young of natural causes, computer scientist. A mixed bag.

Isabelle Feder, whose recollections are posted below, featured in this photo which was made into a giant-sized poster to advertise the play, and placed prominently in the window of Bowes & Bowes bookshop.

However, while doing the original research for this blog researching for this blog, in 2012, I was sad to discover that Bruce Birchall had died the previous year before in 2011. But a conversation about Bruce’s demise was to be found here.

As David Robertson remarks there (another of our troupe at the time): He was an ‘interesting’ indeed extraordinary character; some would say ‘colourful’; others, ‘impossible to manage’. He was both generous with his time, and relentless with his views. In the time I knew him, he would pick an argument in an empty room. Yet beneath a personal presentation that owed no debts to genteel bourgeois conformity, or even hygiene, lay a sharp mind, albeit one distorted, some would feel, by an intimidating monomania.

I’m afraid the ‘poor personal hygiene’ comment really was true! You didn’t get too close. As Margaret, then the flatmate of Gill, David’s future wife, also confirms: We used to hide the hairbrush when he came round as he had chronic headlice and would pick up the brush, stand in front of the mirror and brush his nitty knotty locks. He would look for it, and we would have to say ‘Oh where can the hairbrush have got to?’  

Gill, whose hairbrush was abused, seen here as an inmate of the asylum playing Charlotte Corday, the peasant girl who (in real life) hd murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. I think the girl top left is probably me.

Others have written up their accounts of Bruce during his post-Cambridge years, when he headed into urban radical theatre, squats, street events and the rest. He was also a grand master at chess, and some have remembered him almost solely for that. A brief resume remains here and another memoir can be explored here.

Spot me looming in the top row, third from the left – lots of long dark hair. The hand on the shoulder in the foreground belongs to Chris, my future husband (bottom right) – notable for the marks on the knuckles, where they had been stamped on by a policeman during the Denis Healey protests! (See Crazy Times in Cambridge Part Two)

Bruce and the Heir Hunters

Bruce Birchall was also the subject of an edition of ‘Heir Hunters’, a popular television programme chasing up inheritors of unclaimed estates. (Series 7, episode 6, aired July 14 2014), announced with the description: ‘The heir on another estate tries to learn more about her deceased cousin, a chess champion and radical playwright.’

From this I learnt that his mother was from an Austrian or German family, with the name of Wasservogel (‘Waterbird’), and his father was Sydney Birchall. Bruce was an only child. The estate he left was £100,000 – no one knows how he amassed this money. He certainly never seemed to have many worldly possessions, and was living in a Housing Association flat in West London when he died.

The heirs traced were his two first cousins on his father’s side, one of whom, Hilary, spoke about her childhood recollections of Bruce on the programme. He later became the ‘black sheep of the family’, chastised for not knuckling down to a proper job. A friend of Bruce’s from boyhood, Bill Hartstone, had come to see Marat Sade and said it seemed to be full of ‘dangerous-looking lunatics’. (Excellent! Just what we intended.) He also reminisced that Bruce had once played in a chess championship wearing a bathing costume – probably for practical reasons of heat in the competition room! Everyone interviewed, including the playwright David Edgar, agreed that Bruce was very clever.

Only two photos of him were shown, from boyhood -and if I try searching on Google images, the only ones which come up are the ones that I’ve already posted from the Marat Sade production.

Bruce watching his actors, while playing the role of Asylum Supervisor

Updating scenes of madness

My first post about Marat Sade appeared in 2012, on my former blog at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk (my blog has since migrated to here to Cherry’s Cache, in a different and I hope enhanced format). It produced a goodly flow of responses from others who remembered the production as a stand-out event in their student years; it even led to some happy reunions, as well as a lot more reminiscing. I’ll continue here with some of these conversations.

Did I remember, asked Isabel, the beautiful blonde standing above the crowd of lunatics, that we were dressed in real shrouds? No, I did not.

Did I also know that it was Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, who played the asylum’s director? Hah! I was vaguely aware that we were at Cambridge at the same time, and hadn’t been able to remember which one he was. Hello Julian – now Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – you were already practising the aristocratic role that would come your way later!

Julian Fellowes as M. Coulmier, with his ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’, watching the performance by the inmates of the asylum

Did I recall, asked Tim, that he had been crucified as Jesus in the production? Ah, yes…he had a splendid dark beard and long hair which made him a natural for the part.

And ‘she died young’, I was told by Margaret, pointing at the photo of the Dutch girl who had once described me as ‘very, very untidy’. As Else was some kind of anarchist, it seemed to me ridiculous then that she should notice or care about such things. Now I feel sad that she left us a long time ago. 

We were all, also according to Margaret: ‘So young! so pretty! so mad!’

In another photo, that features my own non-starring role, I can also see the hand of Chris, my future husband (bottom right), placed on the shoulder of the guy next to him. Note the black marks on its knuckles. This was the result of us joining in the student protest in March 1968, against Denis Healey – you’ll find the account in my earlier blog **** of how a policeman stomped on it

To crown this rather haunting experience of revisiting Marat Sade, I’ll add here some extracts which Isabel sent me from letters written to her mother at the time. (Included here with her kind permission.)

On 9 February 1968, she wrote:

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and I ventured forth to audition for the part of a mad woman in Marat Sade. I went to a rehearsal on Wednesday and we had to do the most amazing things. Still it was huge fun and like the man said – “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?”  

On 14 March her mood was darker, but triumphant:

The production of the Marat Sade has been going like a bomb. However, it’s terribly scaring and I spent the whole of Tuesday night having the most vile nightmares. I’m very proud of the fact that a large blow-up of a mad-me is adorning the window of Bowes & Bowes – FAME at last.”

Crazy times indeed. 

See also:

Crazy Times in Cambridge Part One

Turbulante Times in Cambridge (part two of ‘Crazy Times’)

Angels in the Roof

An angel in the roof of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (photo by Michael Rimmer)

Next time you’re in a medieval church, look up. Do you see angels? Are they gazing down upon you from the heavenly firmament, forever flying forward from the roof beams? If so, then the chances are that you’re gazing at an ‘angel roof’. Or else perhaps you are a close ally of the poet William Blake, who saw angels in many places on many occasions. Scorn not – he was a man of vision. See William Blake and the Moravians. Either way, ‘angel roofs’ are a fascinating but little investigated feature of British medieval architecture.

Angels at the Lying-in-State

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September this year, her body lay in state at Westminster Hall from Wednesday 14th to Monday 19th September. Thousands filed past her coffin, and the whole event was live-streamed on TV. Most of us have probably never viewed the interior of Westminster Hall before, and still fewer may realise that its construction back in the 14th century marked a special moment in English architecture: the creation of an ‘angel roof’. Take a look at the photo below, and you’ll see that there is a carved angel on the end of each roof beams.

Why Angels?

Why was the positioning of carved angels in a roof be so significant? You might after all expect to find them in churches and state buildings, given the importance of angels in Christian theology. But this kind of representation of angels was not a part of our architecture until the time of King Richard II. For his coronation procession in 1377, he decided that angels should be on hand to confirm his new status, which included a mechanical moving angel who bowed down and offered him a golden crown. Many angels appeared subsequently in other royal pageants and state occasions of his reign, either human players dressed as angels or further inventive mechanical versions. And then the carved ones were brought into play, when the angel roof of Westminster Hall was built in about 1395, leaving a lasting testimony to Richard’s urge for angelic recognition. Angels in general stayed in fashion too, and their evocation spread to the provinces too; in parish churches, it became common for ‘angel’ characters to appear in the Mystery Plays and other ecclesiastical ceremonies. And as beams decorated with angels began to be built in some of these regional churches, certain styles of angel became common – both the carved angels and individuals acting as angels tended to wear the same kind of ‘feather suits’!

However, despite Richard II’s endorsement of angels, an angel roof in a parish church was something of a luxury, not do-able everywhere in the country. The chances of seeing an angel roof in East Anglia are relatively high – elsewhere in the UK, they are low to zero.

But there is one here in Exeter, where I live, and rather surprisingly, it’s not in a church. Exeter city was once filled with medieval buildings, many of them blown to smithereens by wartime bombing raids, and many more demolished as a consequence of ill-judged re-development plans by the Council. The building does however stand in close proximity to the Cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, and inside Number Eight is the remarkable feature of an angel roof.  It is a hammerbeam roof, dated by dendrochronology to between 1417-1422,  with carved wooden angels stretching out from the beams. It is also, seemingly a copy in miniature of the roof at Westminster Hall; this was built by Hugh Herland, master carpenter to Richard II , and constructed as mentioned between 1393-1398.

No 8-9 The Close is the central building; the little passageway on the side leads to the entrance of the medieval hall with its angel
roof

The Mystery of Number Eight

But how did this come about? It’s tucked away down a side alley, largely unknown to visitors and residents alike, unless they visit the ‘Helen of Troy’ boutique which presently occupies it. The building is also known as the former Law Library of the university, but this only dates from recent centuries, and tells us nothing about its origins. The mystery and provenance of this extraordinary roof has long been argued over by historians, but now some light has been shed on this by Cathedral archaeologist and historian, John Allan. I’ll reveal his conclusion a little later on!

The angel roof at no. 8 The Close, Exeter

The Angel Roofs of Britain

So what is an ‘angel roof’ when it’s at home (or in heaven)? To pursue this further, I consulted an excellent study The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages by Michael Rimmer. Many of the details given below are taken from this book, as I fully acknowledge.

Angel roofs date from the medieval period, a time when churches were shaped, decorated, carved and painted to represent the spiritual world. As you stood in a church service (no pews then!) you would be immersed in the Christian cosmos, and seeing representations of its stories through the statues, vivid wall paintings and ehtereal stained glass windows. Mystery Plays were also performed in the churches at appropriate times of year, bringing alive the Bible narratives, and acts of worship were felt to be within the presence of Christ and the Virgin Mary, plus at least some of the saints and – in this case – angels. There was drama, passion and beauty all around. Looking up to the roof and seeing angels there would be like getting a glimpse of heaven itself.

Angel roofs, therefore, were in keeping with the general religious experience. Once, there were probably several hundred ‘angel roofs’ in England and Wales, some on hammerbeam (short beam) roof supports, some as non-supportive elements of the roof. They were built in the years following on from that first one in Westminster Hall, until the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century put a stop to such ‘idolatry’. One of the final angel roofs was built in about 1540,at Llanidloes church in Wales, according to Rimmer, and I would also include Cleeve Abbey in North Somerset, which dates from the same period.

The roof of the refectory, Cleeve Abbey, N. Somerset – left with a little section unfinished due to the onset of the Reformation, which denounced such idolatry

Locations of angel roofs

Around 170 angel roofs survive in Britain today, and the vast majority of them are in East Anglia. (A map from Rimmer’s book can be accessed at https://www.angelroofs.net/map.) There is also a smaller pocket of them in the West Country, with just two in Devon, of which 8 The Close is one. (I’ve not yet been able to identify the second angel roof in Devon. Rimmer’s map seems to point to the Great Torrington area, where archaeologist John Allan singles out Orleigh Court and Weare Giffard Hall as the two most notable medieval roofs there, but, as he says, these seem to be more adorned with beasts than with angels!)

Why do these two areas of East Anglia and the West Country host the most? The answer, as with many things, lies with the resources available: primarily money, timber and skills. Building angel roofs required great expertise, plus a lot of good timber and generous amounts of money to pay for it all. There were renowned master carpenters in both these areas, the far East and far West of England, and both areas too became wealthy from the medieval wool trade. Additionally, the required timber for the roofs was best transported by water, if it wasn’t to be found in the immediate vicinity, so again these two coastal areas had the right conditions. It’s probably no coincidence that these regions also boast the best carved church bench ends in the country, a testimony therefore to the presence of master carvers, and the money to pay them.

An angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter

What about the Reformation?

In the English Reformation of the 16th century, the new wave of Protestantism endeavoured to get rid of decoration which might be considered distracting and even idolatrous. Away with worshipping the Virgin Mary and the Saints, and all the statues and images which took attention away from purer forms of prayer! (Church music might have gone too, were it not that Elizabeth I was very fond of choral music, apparently.) But whereas it was easy enough to smash stained glass windows and break statues, it was actually very hard to take away angelic roof supports. Moreover, they were high up and thus almost inaccessible. So given that the Reformers generally wanted to keep the outward shell of a church, it would have been foolish to start knocking the roof about. On a recent trip to North Somerset, I was delighted to discover the angel roof in the refectory of Cleeve Abbey, (well worth a visit) which, as I mentioned earlier, was begun later than most, in the mid-1500s. This has been left intact, but there is a little stretch left unfinished, probably because the Reformation had just started to take hold, and the monasteries were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII. But we need to remember that not everything happened fast in those days; in his book, Rimmer considers that the Llanidloes angel roof of 1540 may have been completed after the Reformation began simply because Wales was a long way behind in catching up with the news!

The carvers

The actual creation of the angels, as opposed to the erection of roof timbers, was carried out by master carvers rather than carpenters. These specialists were highly skilled, highly paid, and tended to be peripatetic, and sometimes even brought in from abroad. Records show that the going rate was about 15 shillings an angel, equivalent to 30 days pay for a master carver of the period. There was scope for creativity, and angels often hold other objects and emblems, such as musical instruments, symbols of Christ’s passion,or the coats of arms of benefactors. Some angel figures may even be carved as ecclesiastical role-players – examples include a chalice bearer, a celebrant or a choir master in one church.

Keeping it pure and simple

But a surprising fact, in the face of such imaginative representations, is that nearly all of the roof angels were left unpainted. This is in contrast to the medieval habit of painting the interior of churches and their contents in bright colours. It may have been just too difficult to paint them, or to keep up their maintenance. Occasionally some angels, for instance those nearest the Chancel, might be painted, or coats of arms might be picked out in colour. But the natural look was the general rule.

A further angel from no. 8 The Close, Exeter, above. Arguably, the one below from Cleeve Abbey is finer, but the overall effect of the Exeter angel roof is imposing.

Not a church!

But despite the predominance of angel roofs in churches, very few are found in other contexts, and one of these is the Exeter angel roof . Indeed, only a handful exist outside parish churches – Coventry Guildhall, as well as Westminster Halll, for instance. What was Number Eight, Cathedral Close, therefore? It is, after all within the Cathedral precincts. John Allan, Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral, has come to a conclusion after many years of research, and wrote to me as follows: …. The purpose of the fine late medieval building containing the Law Library has been much discussed; it has been claimed as the chancellor’s house or as a building accommodating a notarial bureau. It was in fact simply a canonry. In other words, the house or complex of buildings inhabited by a canon, a cleric of the Cathedral.

On a tour around the Cathedral Close, John also told us something about the life of these medieval canons, which I’m paraphrasing here. Once again, quite a lot of it was to do with money! ‘In Exeter, canons had to be resident to benefit from the ‘Common Fund’(their source of a living), whereas in other areas canons without this obligation often stayed in their country residences. Although living humbly was in the basic ‘rule’ for canons, they were required to give generous hospitality, and so were expected to provide meals to all and sundry. Originally canons were required to live in humble abodes, but the argument they could muster to build something grander was, therefore, that while in residence they needed a big hall to do their duty of hospitality! Guests would regularly arrive at the door, and include choirboys, Vicars Choral, and so on.‘ So a canonry was also a kind of drop-in diner, and perhaps here the Canon concerned had a nice inheritance that he could spend on something lavish which would be admired, especially at times of feasts and gatherings. Bishops too were often judged favourably according to how much money they could spend on appropriate buildings, hospitality and city improvements.

Remains of another medieval canonry in Exeter, close to the Cathedral. The large fireplace can be seen, and there would have been another large-scale dining room to accommodate guests. (Site of St Catherine’s Almhouses)
Another dizzying view of Exeter’s angel roof

We have a building, and an angel roof, to treasure, in no. 8 Cathedral Close, Exeter. And I will be craning my neck now every time I visit a medieval church – or indeed a medieval hall! – to see if there is another roof full of angels to marvel at.

The angel roof at Westminster Hall, designed by Hugh Herland – the roof that started the trend! And has recently come into prominence, with the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II.

Sources

The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages Michael Rimmer (The Churches Conservation Trust 2015)

Red Coat Guided Tours – I was introduced to No. 8 The Close as part of my training as a Red Coat Guide for Exeter, which whetted my curiosity to investigate further. The wide range of tours are offered free throughout the year, with themes such as ‘Medieval’, ‘Introducing Exeter’, and ‘Cathedral to Quay’. Please click on the link to see these.

 

Turbulent Times in Cambridge

The second instalment of ‘Crazy Times in Cambridge’

At Cambridge, 1968 – Botanical Gardens

There was plenty of opportunity for some fun at Cambridge, for students in the late 1960s. Our hours were little troubled by lectures (unless we were scientists), and provided that we read the set books, produced our essays on time, and turned up for supervisions, we could do more or less as we liked. This was not necessarily a good thing. Even then, despite enjoying the freedom, I felt the lack of interactive sessions such as seminars, which played no part in the rather ‘hands-off’ teaching system. I missed the stimulation of classes and exchanges of views that we’d had, ironically, in the sixth form at school. I only understood the process at Cambridge some years later, when someone said: ‘It’s set up for graduates and their research – undergraduates are largely irrelevant.’ I loved my time at Cambridge for all the opportunities it offered, but these were largely extra-curricular. Ironically, it was only after leaving university, that I taught myself how to research properly, a skill which I’ve relied on ever since. No thanks, really, to the tutors.

So what did we do instead? Well, my previous post on Cherry’s Cache involved a dancing gig, as you may read in Crazy Times in Cambridge. There was also radical theatre, the subject of my next post, clubs of all kinds, parties, long discussions into the night, great acting opportunities and, in the sixties, student protests.

Our brand new college, New Hall, now Murray Edwards College, and then known also as the Great White Breast. The clue to the name is in the dome, which you can just catch a glimpse of here.

I was never a keen protester. However, our visit to the USA in the summer of 1968 had sharpened up my awareness of world affairs, and first-hand experience there had led me to be wary of police who attacked and arrested people for no good reason. And I knew we should take a stand against apartheid and war; it would be shameful not to. The chief focus of the day was the Vietnam War. In Cambridge we students also protested against the Greek Colonels, against Barclay’s Bank investment policy, against Government minister Denis Healey, and closer to home, against the University itself. This was largely due to its antiquated restrictions. Unbelievably, we undergraduates could be sent down for having a member of the opposite sex in our rooms overnight, for instance, and certainly for anything involving drugs. To be fair, it has to be remembered that the universities were in ‘loco parentis’ at this time. The age of majority was still 21, rather than 18, until 1970; most students therefore were technically ‘children’. Even though some rules were very outdated, the university was obliged to act ‘in the place of parents’. College ‘proctors’ patrolled the streets, especially at night, looking out for miscreants and misdemeanours. More of that later.

The Cambridge Senate House, occupied briefly by protesting students, who set up camp there for a few days. Nothing much else happened, as I recall.

In protest against the university – just what aspect, I can’t remember – there was a student Sit-In at the Senate House, normally closed to all but those with official business. I wandered in to take a look, just to check on who was there. I stayed all of 20 minutes, then strolled out again. Next day, I was summoned to meet the authorities, who asked what my part in the protest was. Fair enough – the tone was friendly, and willing to listen, but it meant that there had been some element of spying and identifying those present. I explained that I was merely ‘visiting’, and hadn’t been a protestor as such, and the matter was dropped.

The most dramatic protest staged by a single student, a college friend of mine, was to stand up at the start of her finals in English Literature, and declare: ‘Fuck exams!’. She then tore up her exam papers and strode from the room. I still feel rather sorry that she chose that path, after all that time studying. Was it worth it? And after all, our own college, New Hall, was liberal in its views, as a pioneering post-war college for women. It is still exclusively for women today, known now as Murray Edwards College, and has a very fine collection of women’s art

Inside the Dome, or Great White Breast, with some of the art collection on display.

So did I play any part in these protests? Yes – my boyfriend Chris and I joined in with the protest against Denis Healey in March 1968, who was visiting Cambridge at the time, and whose foreign policy displeased us. (I’m afraid I can’t remember how!) According to reports, nearly 1000 students turned out. We charged up Trumpington Street with the mob. ‘As he attempted to leave, they surrounded his car and lay down in front of it. As students threw themselves in front of Healey’s car, the police tossed them into the gutter, injuring many.’ (British Student Activism in the Long Sixties – Caroline Hoefferle) Chris didn’t get as far as any car surrounding posse, as he tripped up while running towards it, and had his hand stamped on by a passing policeman. (Accidentally, to be fair.) The marks on his knuckles didn’t go for years. I stuck to the margins, somewhat lukewarm in my efforts, and not entirely sure what Healey had done.

Denis Healey, Defence Minister in Harold Wilson’s government, whose policy displeased us

Then there was the major Vietnam rally in London, the now famous Grosvenor Square Protest in Oct 1968. This was where American Embassy was situated at the time, and the general intention was for a peaceful mass protest against the war in Vietnam. A call went out to all students in the UK, to join in. We climbed on a hired coach leaving from Cambridge early on the Sunday morning, sleepy-headed after a late night (of course), and took our seats yawning to be bussed to the capital. On the way down, somewhere near Cheshunt (no M11 then) a squad of uniformed police pulled the coach over into a car park, where a astonishing array of some further 40 police officers stood waiting for us. We were ordered to disembark, our bags were searched, and little polythene bags full of liquid red paint (which had been handed out on the coach) were confiscated. One girl had a knife with her, which they tried to confiscate too: ‘It’s for my breakfast!’ she said indignantly, producing her sliced bread, butter and marmalade as evidence. She was allowed to keep her harmless piece of cutlery. I don’t think they found anything else, and we were sent on our way again.

Thousands of students arrived in groups from all over the country. My rather blurry memories of the protest include my sense of anxiety when we marched down Oxford Street,and some of the hardliners (not in our own group) began to smash shop windows. And I felt downright fear when mounted police charged the protestors, in Red Lion Square as I recall. Another friend was in tears as she witnessed it, and I backed off as far as I could. This wasn’t what we’d expected. Surprisingly, looking at posts from the news coverage now, the reports are remarkably fair in distinguishing the thousands of peaceful protestors (the intention of the march) from those who turned violent.

My own engagement with protesting ended – it was not for me – but in my final year of university, the infamous Cambridge Garden House Hotel ‘riots’ occurred in Feb 1970. Although I wasn’t there, the severity of the official response shocked me with a profound and lasting effect . The days of more innocent protests, when students were largely indulged, were surely over.

According to the records, The Garden House riot was a civil disturbance at the Garden House Hotel in Cambridge on Friday 13 February 1970….The Greek Tourist Board had organised a “Greek Week” in Cambridge in 1970, with support from the Greek government, which was at that time a highly oppressive regime, a type of junta. Protesters against these Greek ‘Colonels’ over several days culminated with a crowd of several hundred demonstrators picketing a dinner for 120 invited guests at the Garden House Hotel. ‘The protesters picketed the venue – in a narrow cul-de-sac off Mill Lane, beside the River Cam – to discourage diners from entering. The noisy crowd attempted to disrupt speeches inside, with a loudspeaker…playing music by dissident Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. Protesters invaded the hotel’s garden…banging on the windows of the venue and climbing onto the hotel roof. An attempt to break up the crowd using a fire hose…failed, and violence broke out: the hotel was invaded and damaged…one policeman was seriously injured, others received minor injuries…Around 80 policemen accompanied by police dogs restored order by about 11 pm.’


Six students were arrested on 13 February, and the University proctors provided the police with the names of approximately 60 further students who they had spotted in the crowd. Fifteen students were finally tried at the Hertford Assizes in June and July 1970, on a variety of charges which included ‘riotous assembly, unlawful assembly, assaulting a police constable, and possessing offensive weapons….After a trial of seven days, the jury took nearly four hours to reach its decision. Seven of the defendants were acquitted, but eight students were convicted, including the six arrested in February and two others seen pushing in the crowd. All were aged between 19 and 25. Judge Melford Stevenson controversially gave harsh sentences to those involved…The sentences were criticised as heavy-handed….The incident led to a reform of the powers of the Cambridge University proctors.

The Garden House Riot, Cambridge 1970 – a protest against the oppressive Greek regime

One of those arrested was Peter Household, an old friend of mine; we had been at kindergarten together, where our mothers were both teachers. He was actually sent to prison for his part in the the protests. He was never, as far as I know, a violent person; our families had stayed in touch over the years, and the word back from his parents was that Peter had been pushed forward, colliding with a policeman. Even if he did deliberately push, it was hardly a violent attack. In hindsight, these sentences are considered to have been incredibly harsh and unwarranted.

Peter Household ‘playing with a tie’ as he put it, on his way to trial for his alleged part in The Garden House Riot

At Cambridge, we did indeed get an education, in more ways than one. The usual way of considering an Oxbridge education is that it may set one up for a good job (academic, Civil Service, scientific, what have you) and that it may also create a circle of contacts which will last a lifetime. It was also a place to launch a successful acting or directing career in theatre and television. But for some of us, it was the start of something different:

In his blog, Peter Household comments: My role in the protest was extremely minor, and my presence there almost accidental; but its effect on the rest of my life was total. Everything that happened from then on stems from the night of Friday 13th February 1970. And indeed, he recalls that being imprisoned with two other committed left-wing protestors began his real political education, an ironic consequence of the prison sentence, and something that has shaped his life path since.

My own path was shaped by something rather different at Cambridge– my contact with Buddhist meditation and with groups studying more esoteric traditions. But I was nevertheless a witness to some of the more radical and political initiatives, such as the protests described here.

Hilary Mantel – Words of Wisdom

‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they may be angels in disguise.’

Around forty of us sat poised, pens and notepads at the ready. We were all eager to catch the drops of wisdom which were about to fall from the lips of one of the most accomplished writers of our time. Hilary Mantel’s masterclass was a one-off, sold-out experience at the Budleigh Literature Festival in September 2018; I was one of those lucky enough to acquire a ticket.

Now, with the sad and sudden news of her death, I would like to share some of the notes that I made from her class. Hilary lived in Budleigh with her husband, in a penthouse flat with a glorious sea view that she said helped her to write. She was President of the Literary Festival, and usually gave a talk there each year. Once, Robert and I sat next to her at another talk and exchanged a few words, but I felt too shy to get to know her further – something I regret now. The last time I set eyes on her was during our week of renting a beach hut in Budleigh in July this summer, which was more or less in front of her flat – she swept out onto the balcony in her floating garments for a quick breath of fresh air – almost a dramatic appearance in itself!

Hilary leading our masterclass in 2018

She came from very humble origins, and suffered a great deal with ongoing medical problems, largely caused by poor care and endometriosis. To those who found her appearance or indeed her voice strange, her physical condition and medication were the main cause of this. It took a long time for her talent – genius – to be recognised, through her now famous ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy, and the winning of the Booker Prize twice over. If you’re interested in reading more about her life story, ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is a powerful memoir – one which I’ve often recommended in my Life Story writing classes.

The Masterclass
Hilary gave out to us generously throughout the day of the masterclass, starting with a look at the basic process of writing. Whatever our level of experience, she told us, it’s something that we never finish learning. ‘We’re all beginners. Every day when I sit down to work, I’m a beginner too,’ she told us. And the process is always unpredictable. ‘Sometimes words come out in an undisciplined torrent, sometimes it’s like pouring treacle’.

I took copious notes that day, and this is a selective version, organised into a short form for general interest. It’s aimed at being a faithful view of how she talked, and what she said, while drawing from her experience, and responding to our eager questions. Everything quoted in direct speech accords as exactly with her own words as possible. I write this as if she was still living – I don’t feel ready to relegate it to the past yet.

Hilary’s Wisdom – the process of writing
It takes a lifetime to write each book. ‘Everything you know and what you are is in that book, either on the lines or between them.’ And it won’t always work: ‘Experience does teach you to fail – and fail again – and to fail better. Nothing is wasted – not time, not paper, nor the stories that seem to go nowhere – everything remains in potential.’ It may be frustrating to fail, but ‘this frustration makes writing a fascinating trade.’ Accepting that has been part of her own journey: ‘I wish I’d stopped assuming that every good idea I had must turn into a novel.’

One tip, if you have a project not working, is to ask yourself if you’re working in the right medium. If in prose, try to think instead of how it might work visually, or as dialogue. ‘Sneak up on it with a camera.’ And there could be a staged option too; when she works with complex factual material, she often asks herself how it might be presented as a theatre or radio play. ‘This usually helps you to crunch down on what’s needed. Whatever medium you’re working in, make use of other ones to help you. Ask yourself, “Am I working in the right form?”’

The sweep of Budleigh beach – Hilary Mantel and her husband lived in a top-floor flat in one of the white houses on the left

Drawing from memory
And sometimes even the wayward stories will come good. One that she couldn’t finish for years was finally solved when she had to wait on a platform for a train for a very long time. ‘Such periods of time are frustrating to civilians, but to writers a gift.’ As she allowed her mind to go into idling mode, and to play with memory, she recalled a girl from her childhood who gave her just the right idea for her character.

She often asks herself about puzzles from the past – ‘Why was this person like that?’ Or why did she herself respond in a certain way to a person or situation? ‘When you look back you can see yourself as a character in a story. If you exercise your memory you will never, ever be short of material.’ ‘Strive to think well of yourself and your experience because everyone has a pot of gold in their memories.’

Memories don’t always make sense – you may ask yourself what was that about? But, she affirmed, the sense is extracted as you write. ‘Be willing to leave things in suspension as you write; learn to live with them incomplete. You don’t have to resolve everything for the reader either. Your task is to arouse the reader’s need to know, not to satisfy it. If your story works, it will open up in the reader’s mind a great many questions – in fact that’s a huge favour you’re doing for someone.’ In other words, questions are just as important as answers.

The Festival Programme one year after the Masterclass, with Hilary as top billing; she was also the President of the festival

A collage of ideas
Hilary told us how she tends to put her books together like a collage, with snatches of conversation, and images for instance. She has a display board, which used to be a giant pinboard, studded with index cards. But now it’s a whiteboard, where she plays unashamedly with ‘nursery school’ materials such as coloured pens. She uses pictures, writes salient points, and draws characters as if they were on stage. ‘Feel free to enjoy yourself!’ she told us.

‘Ideas come from the paths you didn’t take – the unused parts of yourself. If you are a woman, inside you is the man you could have been and vice versa.’ Other roles may also be within you, so ‘let those people out for exercise!’

Don’t judge ideas too quickly. ‘Ideas enter your life as strangers. They might look shabby at first, but they might be angels in disguise.’

Writing freely and dreaming, is always worthwhile. And reading is never a waste of time. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader.

The book tent at the Budleigh Literature Festival

The story at work
As a basic premise:
Plot – is ‘what happens’
Characters – are actors, and must be interesting
Structure – is how to unfold the story, deciding what goes where

Characters
Your characters need the capacity to act, grow and change – and that ‘change’ is ‘the plot in action’. You need their desire to make the story go forward; your characters must want something that they struggle towards, and then the change occurs as they struggle. ‘Characters come to life through showing them in action.’

‘Also ask of your character: “How do their mind and emotions work? What filters do they protect themselves with?” And you must write a book from your whole body, not from your head.’ She found it difficult, she admitted, to get out of her head and into the body: ‘Try to look through people’s eyes, listen with their ears, feel their sense of touch. Get an all-round sensory experience.’ This way, your character will really ‘be there’ in every paragraph.

We all have an instinctive appreciation of a good story, and it’s essential to have that ‘good story’ in our writing. ‘Without that – nothing!’ Screen writers are adept at this – so if you’re stuck, use a screen-writing book to teach you how to put in hooks, mark turning points, and time the different stages of a story. Though, in her experience, you don’t have to follow this rigidly. It doesn’t all have to be laid out beforehand: ‘The best ideas come when you’re actually writing’. Even the ending of your story will often emerge while you’re writing it.

Budleigh Beach – the waves and countless pebbles an inspiration for writing. The pebbles are actually famous, being around 250 million years old, washed across from a river in what is now France. Each one is markedly individual in colour and size, yet all are washed to a smooth finish. Each one has a story to tell…

Editing…
The motivation is ‘to make the best book I can’. You learn to take pleasure in shortening your writing. Cutting leaves you feeling better. And over the years, with the changes from typewriters to word-processing, editing is not so laborious as it was. But simple cutting and moving text is not editing. To edit – step back, ‘interrogate every element’. It might turn into a crisis, if you realise that you need to do a big re-write. But it creates a more powerful book.

Focus closely on dialogue; every unit (the paragraph, in her case) should bring about change in the story. Tighten it up after first draft. She herself aims to reduce dialogue by about a third, and finds this very effective.

As for structure, you’ll know if it isn’t working because you start to bore yourself! Improvements are often to do with shifting the order of events or making changes of pace. Again, if you really need nuts and bolts advice, the screen-writing books are helpful. With your reader, act like a shepherd gently herding your sheep – they don’t know which way you’re sending them, but you can get them to move along in that way.

Read your work aloud – not just dialogue, but everything. Rhythm really matters, and should flow. Reading aloud will detect ‘false notes, weaknesses, redundancies’.

First chapters often get changed later on: ‘You can be proud of it! No one is looking over your shoulder. You have freedom. Write the book you would like to read.’

As for getting advice from others: ‘A book is not a democracy.’ You do not have to account to the world for what you’re doing. If you’re going to take advice though, take it from the best.’

If you have the option, set your work aside for a while – put it in the drawer: ‘The secret is, in the dark it changes!’

Hilary’s own ‘go-to’ book for editing is The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.

Once you have an editor, with a publisher, the situation changes. Editors are good at finding the problems in your work but not usually so good at providing the right solutions. So if they point out the problems, provide your own solutions. Remember that the editor is trying to ease the path to the reader, so don’t be too defensive in response to their comments. And later, at copy-editing,, line-editing stage, the editor is your best friend, helping to bring consistency to the book.

In general, though, be protective of your work. You need to intuit who it might be worth showng it to. Ask yourself what it is that you want to get back from them. Encouragement, yes – we all need it. But asking for technical advice is different.

And finally
‘The time to write is now. Write it the best you can. Don’t worry about the market – write what you want to write. In time, if you keep faith, you’ll create the market for your product. Identify the story, get it on the page. That’s it.’

Tweet from Lucy Worsley: ‘In 2009, a lady came to a conference we had at Hampton Court, about the life of Henry VIII. She sat quietly at the back making notes. She was reputed to be a novelist. I did not know then that a goddess was walking among us.’

Please note: Although I have no copyright over Hilary Mantel’s words as such, this post as an edited version of her class is copyright to Cherry’s Cache website. If you wish to share it, quote it, or use it in any way, please get in touch via the contact form or via my author’s website at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. I will most likely be happy to assist!

On the occasion of the masterclass, I presented Hilary with a copy of my book ‘The Circle of Nine‘, which she appeared pleased to receive!

Crazy Times in Cambridge

Part One: The Animation Festival

This is the first of three blogs, looking back at the time I spent as a student in Cambridge from 1967-70. Yes, I know, it’s a long time ago, and perhaps I wouldn’t admit to it were it not for the fact that it was a fascinating period, as we entered the era of street theatre, protests, hippie gear, and other stuff (I shan’t talk about the illegal bits!) And also, having fun, sometimes in very peculiar ways. This story is about a stage appearance of an unusual kind.

In 1968, I received an unexpected request. Could I take part – at short notice – in the Animation Film Festival? It was apparently a festival in its second year, as a film article tells us: – ‘It was non-competitive, and the current Cardiff Festival is its descendent.’

The same year in Cambridge, 1968, in the Botanical Gardens. I was proud of my white fur muff, which was rather surprisingly in fashion, along with the compulsory maxi-coat. Mine was purple corduroy.

But I was a person, not a cartoon… surely the point of animation films is that they’re already on screen, good to go? This one, however, apparently required a live body, specifically a girl with long dark hair who could do a bit of dancing on stage. Just gyrating and waving arms…like on a tropical island…nothing too choreographic. I was doubtful. But, I was told firmly, the Dutch director (of international repute, name lost in the mists of time) needed one! It was urgent – the event was already publicised. Surely I could give it a go? Perhaps I could…. after all, how hard could it be? Although I was somewhat lacking in precision and delicacy, as a dancer. I did not get beyond the first year ballet class as a child. And what if it was something sleazy? But, I was reassured, it was all above board.

It was too late now to back out- I could but try.

I felt pretty daft in the grass skirt, and as for bare midriffs, I’ve never gone in for them, having a scar on my stomach following an emergency operation as a new-born baby. No time to worry about that though, as on cue, I wiggled my way sideways onto the stage, while suitable Hawaiian music played. Not that there was much stage to wiggle on, with the cinema screen just behind me. It was both simultaneously terrifying, and hysterically funny.

A lasting memento…here I am, dressed for the first and last time in a grass skirt, in front of a few hundred people

And then what? This was, after all, a festival of animated films. There was nothing on the screen itself except – as you can see – a palm tree and a simple tropical backdrop. This was apparently some kind of clever cinematic joke. ‘Oh God, I get it now – it’s me who is the ‘animation’!’ The penny dropped for the audience too, who roared with laughter; I simpered and continued my waving and teetering until signalled at last to stop.

The director seemed very grateful – maybe too grateful, when he then invited me out to supper? I declined and resolved never to dance in public again.

Perhaps some day, someone will discover this photo and claim it as an important milestone in animation history. Perhaps they will track me down and explain my significance in cinematic development? Perhaps…but no, better let sleeping grass skirts lie…

I’ve not found trace now of this actual film, but a little more about the festival has come to light.
In this analysis of the 1968 festival, we get a description of the festival theme film: ‘All the programmes were given a lively send-off by the festival film, Cambridge Steam Engine, made by Charlie Jenkins and Heinz Edelmann of Yellow Submarine fame. Queen Victoria sits unamused, screwed firmly to the screen, while coloured railway-engines cavort behind her, growing stranger and more tube-like until the last one, an op-art octopus, sinks slowly beneath the surface, the captain at the salute on the bridge.’

The lead-in film to every screening at the Cambridge Animation Festival

And joy of joys, we can see it for ourselves! Here’s the film, titled ‘The Transformer’, on the BFI site.
It’s delightful, and I have vague memories of it, watching it now. But I’m struck by the fact that my film was the opposite – in Cambridge Steam Train, Queen Victoria stays regally still and fixed on screen, while the train chuffs back and forth behind her – in my appearance, the palm tree stayed rock steady while I dance languorously in front.

The article’s author describes the set-up, and then singles out a raft of short animations for praise. Mine was not among them. Is this good or bad? Well, there’s still time to be ‘re-discovered’ – perhaps!

Two ‘forgotten books’ – written with enthusiasm, now rarely making an appearance. Curiously enough, the short story on the left, written for students of English, looks rather like me in my late teens – even though I never met the illustrator!

The Antics of Mercury

An Alchemical Dialogue by Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636)


‘Philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad.’

An alchemist and would-be philosopher, who grapples with the elusive Mercury

Mercury was playing tricks ahead of time – there was a glitch and hold-up between publishing my last post (‘The Ship of Night’) and the automatic notifications being sent out by email. Automatic, did I say? Mercury can surely play games there too! ) Anyway, here is a tale of the merry prankster – and if he’s showcased somewhat later than first intended, it’s his own fault.

In 1997, I was asked to lecture at a conference in Prague, to be held on the theme of ‘Alchemy and the Hermetic Tradition’. There was a fascinating mix of delegates from the USA , the UK, and from Prague itself. The city had only been open to the West for a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was a wonderful new chance to meet those with similar interests. Prague itself has deep connections with the alchemical tradition, and so in between sessions we wandered the streets, marvelling at the alchemical symbols and signs adorning many of the old buildings in the streets. A medieval tower, moreover, had been turned into a temporary exhibition of alchemy, with each storey of the tower representing a stage in the alchemical process. And a replica of an alchemist’s laboratory had been set up in the museum at the castle, where alchemical experiment was once practised. The trip is curiously linked too in my mind with twists of fate, and the making of history. One morning, as a bunch of us was entering the gates of Prague Castle, a fellow delegate rushed over to tell us all about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. She and her partner watched the news late at night, and suddenly the reports started coming through. (And, as I prepare this blog for posting, we have just had news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II…the sense of both shock and finality are strangely the same in both cases. Even though now separated by 25 years.)

To view some of Prague’s alchemical sites, take a tour here . And for an old alchemical laboratory, discovered in Prague in 2002 after my stay there, see Speculum Alchimiae, also reviewed here.

The tower where the Opus Magnum alchemical exhibition was held

As well as a lecture, I also gave seminar on the theme of ‘Hermes and the Caduceus’. It was in full swing when a young man, bearing a large white flip chart and pens, suddenly strode in through the door. ‘You asked for these’ he said. It seemed that a representation of Mercury/Hermes himself had entered the room in his role as scribe. We fell about laughing.

To add a little more live alchemy to the experience of the conference, I decided to stage informally an adaptation of a dialogue by Michael Sendivogius, an early 17th century alchemist who had lived in Prague towards the end of his life. The city at that time was a hotbed of alchemists and magicians, searching, experimenting, writing, and conferring under the benign patronage of Rudolf II. As we performed it, I realised that this was probably the first time the dialogue had ever been spoken aloud since Sendivogius wrote it in 1607.

So here’s to the revival of the dialogue, which is adapted from the original text, to be found in this extract from the writings of Sendivogius. You are welcome to perform it too, if you choose! In it, Mercury gets to have the last laugh – his apparent folly is his wisdom, and the would-be alchemist and spiritual sage is a victim of his own vanity! You can read more about Hermes aka Mercury in my previous post.

Oh – and in the process of adapting it, I couldn’t resist adding in a few responses of my own – hence the Commentator.

Below: old houses in Prague, adorned with mythical and alchemical symbols

A Dialogue between Mercury, the Alchemist and Nature

Michael Sendivogius, 1607

On a certain bright morning a number of Alchemists met together in a meadow, and consulted as to the best way of preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was arranged that they should speak in order, and each after the manner that seemed best to him. Most of them agreed that Mercury was the first substance. Others said, no, it was sulphur, or something else. These Alchemists had read the books of the Sages, and hence there was a decided majority in favour of Mercury, not only as the true first matter, but in particular as the first matter of metals, since all the philosophers seemed to cry with one voice: “O our Mercury, our Mercury,” &c., whatever that word might mean.

But a consensus, a fraternity of alchemists was not to be:
Just as the dispute began to run high, there arose a violent wind which dispersed the Alchemists into all the different countries of the world — and as they had arrived at no conclusion, each one went on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone in his own old way, this one expecting to find it in one substance, and that in another, so that the search has continued without intermission even unto this day.’

One of them, however, determined to grapple with this tricksy spirit. He is sure of his superior abilities, but somehow success eludes him…Let us enter the scene at this point:

NARRATOR: We first meet with our alchemist as he is struggling to get to grips with mercury in his glass vessel. He’s read all the books, but somehow he can’t seem to get the right results. He tried heating the mercury over the fire, but it evaporated and disappeared. Like many an angry man, he blames his wife.

ALCHEMIST: No one but you has entered my laboratory; you must have taken my mercury out of the vessel.
WIFE [sobbing]: No, no, not I!
NARRATOR: Well, the Alchemist tries again, mixing the mercury into various disgusting concoctions with all sorts of substances such as blood, hair and urine. He tries metals and minerals, salts and sulphur, but nothing very alchemical happens. Then he suddenly remembers that dung is a good thing to work with, so he gets his hands deep into the shit! It’s no good. He falls asleep, exhausted. But lo! In his dream an old man comes to him, and advises him to charm the mercury in the way that you would charm a serpent. The Alchemist wakes up shouting joyfully:
ALCHEMIST: Serpents are charmed! Now what is it that I have to say – yes, “Ux, ux, Ostas!’
NARRATOR: And with that, Mercury appears, laughing his head off.

The ‘Second Key’ from Basil Valentine’s alchemical engravings, published 1618. Mercury as he might apear to the alchemists.

MERCURY: Why dost thou trouble me my Lord alchemist?
ALCHEMIST: Oh ho, do you call me your Lord? I have found a bit to bridle you with; wait a little, and you shall soon sing the tune that I bid you. (angrily and imperiously) – I conjure you by the living God – are you not that Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: (pretending to be frightened) – Master, I am Mercury.
ALCHEMIST: Why would you not obey me then? Why could I not fix you?
MERCURY: Oh, most high and mighty Master, I implore you to spare your miserable slave! I did not know that you were such a potent philosopher. I see now, to my own great cost, that your Worship is a high and mighty and most potent philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: (with a smile of satisfaction) – Now at last I have found what I sought. (in tones of thunder) Now mind that you obey me, else it will be the worse for you.
MERCURY: Gladly, Master, if I can: for I am very weak.
ALCHEMIST: What is the matter with you?
MERCURY: An Alchemist is the matter with me.

An alchemist’s laboratory

ALCHEMIST: Are you laughing at me, you false rogue?
MERCURY: Oh no, no, Master – as God shall spare me, I spoke of an Alchemist – you are a philosopher.
ALCHEMIST: Of course, of course, that is quite true. But what did the Alchemist do?
MERCURY: Oh Master, he has done me a thousand wrongs; he belaboured and mixed me up with all manner of disagreeable and contradictory things, which have stripped me of all my powers, and so I am sick, even to death.
ALCHEMIST: You deserved such treatment, because you would not obey.
MERCURY: I never yet disobeyed a philosopher, but I cannot help laughing at fools.
ALCHEMIST: And what is your opinion of me?
MERCURY: Oh Master, your Worship is a great man, and mighty philosopher, greater by far than Hermes, both in doctrine and in wisdom.
ALCHEMIST: Well, I won’t praise myself, but I certainly am a learned man. My wife says so too. She always calls me a profoundly learned philosopher.
MERCURY: I quite believe you. For philosophers are men whom too much learning and thought have made mad. (sniggers quietly)
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, what am I to do with you? How am I to make you into the Philosopher’s Stone?
MERCURY: Oh, my master philosopher, that I cannot tell. You are a philosopher, I am the philosopher’s humble slave. Whatever he wishes to make me, I become, as far as my nature will allow.
ALCHEMIST: This is all very fine, but I repeat that you must tell me how to treat you, and whether you can become the Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t you can’t.


COMMENTATOR: I cannot help interrupting here, as the voice behind the Narrator – this is a splendid saying, isn’t it? I’m going to store it up for future use. ‘If you know, you can, and if you don’t you can’t.’

Alchemist at work – 17c, Teniers

ALCHEMIST: You talk to me as a simple person. Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of great princes, and have always been regarded as a very profound philosopher.
MERCURY: I readily believe you, my Master, for the filth of your brilliant experiments still cleaves to me.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, are you the Mercury of the Sages?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but you should know best, whether I am the Mercury of you philosophers.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me only whether you are the true Mercury, or whether there is another?
MERCURY: I am Mercury, but there is also another.

NARRATOR: With these words, the Mercury vanishes. The Alchemist shouts and calls aloud, but there is no answer. He carries on with his experiments – he fails – he curses Mercury and Nature too. Nature herself wants to know what’s going on.

NATURE: Mercury, what have you done to the Alchemist, and why will you not obey him?
MERCURY: It’s not me – he’s the problem!
NATURE: Well, you should obey the Sons of Knowledge who seek to know me!
MERCURY: All right, Mother Nature, I will – but who can satisfy fools?

NARRATOR: Nature smiles, and departs. The Alchemist, meanwhile, has prepared some ‘excrements of swine’ – that’s pig shit to you – and is smearing Mercury with it.

MERCURY: What do you want of me, you fool?
ALCHEMIST: Are you he whom I desire so much to see?
MERCURY: I am, but blind people cannot behold me.
ALCHEMIST: I am not blind.
MERCURY: You are as blind as a new-born puppy. You cannot see yourself: how then should you be able to see me?

COMMENTATOR: Ha! That’s another good one.

ALCHEMIST: Perhaps you do not know that I have lived at the courts of princes, and have always been called a philosopher. My wife says so too.
MERCURY: The gates of princes stand wide for fools. I quite believe that you have been at court.
ALCHEMIST: You are, undoubtedly, the Devil, and not a good Mercury, if you speak like that to philosophers.
MERCURY: Well, my philosopher, what do you seek, and what would you have?
ALCHEMIST: The Philosopher’s Stone.
MERCURY: Of what substance would you make it?
ALCHEMIST: Of our Mercury.
MERCURY: Oh, my philosopher, then I had better go: for I am not yours!
ALCHEMIST: You are none but the Devil, and wish to lead me astray.
MERCURY: Well, I think I may return the compliment; you have played the very devil with me. You sow me in dung; and you reap dung. Verily, you are a good husbandman!
ALCHEMIST: Yet the Sages say that their substance is found on the dunghill.
MERCURY: What they say is true, but you understand only the letter, and not the spirit of their injunctions.
ALCHEMIST: Now I see that you are perhaps Mercury. But as you will not obey me, I must once more repeat the words of conjuration: ‘Ux, ux, ostas!’
MERCURY: And what more do you want of me? Am I not obedient? Do I not mingle with all things that you ask me to amalgamate with? Do I not suffer myself to be sublimated, precipitated, amalgamated, calcined? What more can I do? I have submitted to be scourged and spat upon till my miserable plight might move a heart of stone. I have done all that any metal or mineral can do. I do whatsoever you make me do. If you make me a body, I am a body. If you make me powder, I am powder. How can I be more obedient than I am?
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, then, what you are in your centre, and I will not torment you any more.
MERCURY: I see there is no escape. If you will, you may now understand me. It has nothing to do with my form that you now see. My centre is the fixed heart of all things, immortal and all-pervading. I am an immortal body. I die when I am slain, but rise to stand before the judgment seat of a discriminating judge.
ALCHEMIST: How in all the world am I to understand you, if you answer my questions in dark parables?
MERCURY: Whatever is with me, I love; and to that which is born with me, I impart nourishment. That which is naked I cover with my wings.

Alchemical exhibition, Prague

ALCHEMIST: I see plainly that it is impossible to talk to you. If you do not answer my questions better, I will torment you again.
MERCURY: Have pity on me, Master, I will gladly tell you all I know.
ALCHEMIST: Tell me, are you afraid of the fire?
MERCURY: I myself am fire.
ALCHEMIST: Why then do you seek to escape from the fire?
MERCURY: Because my spirit loves the spirit of fire, and accompanies it wherever it goes.
ALCHEMIST: Where do you go when you ascend with the fire?
MERCURY: Every pilgrim looks anxiously towards his country and his home. When he has returned unto these, he reposes, and he always comes back wiser than he left.

COMMENTATOR: And that, I have to admit, is a beautiful sentiment. I shall ponder it.
ALCHEMIST: Do you return, then?
MERCURY: Yes, but in another form. I am fire within; fire is my food and my life; but the life of fire is air, for without air fire is extinguished…Add air to air, so that both become one in even balance; combine them with fire, and leave the whole to time.

The two Mercuries, portrayed in Atlanta Fugiens, by Michael Maier (1617)

ALCHEMIST: What will happen then?
MERCURY: Everything superfluous will be removed. The residue you burn in fire, place in water, ‘cook’, and when it is cooked, you give as a medicine, and have no fear.

NARRATOR: Nature re-appears, to scold the Alchemist once more for his mistreatment of Mercury.
NATURE: You do nothing but cross me, and deal with my children against my will…my obedient son Mercury you torment in the most fearful manner.
ALCHEMIST: Then I will in future deal with him gently, and subject him only to gradual coction.

NATURE: That is well, if you possess understanding; otherwise, you will ruin only yourself and your possessions. If you act in opposition to my commands, you hurt yourself more than him.…

ALCHEMIST: But who is that Mercury?
NATURE: Know that I have only one such son, he is one of seven, and the first among them; and though he is now all things, he was at first only one. In him are the four elements, yet he is not an element. He is a spirit, yet he has a body; a man, yet he performs a woman’s part: a boy, yet he bears a man’s weapons; a beast, and yet he has the wings of a bird. He is poison, yet he cures leprosy; life, yet he kills all things, a King, but another occupies his throne; he flees from the fire, yet fire is taken from him; he is water, but does not wet the hands; he is earth, and yet he is sown; he is air, and lives by water.

NARRATOR: But alas, it seems that the Alchemist just isn’t ready to give up his pride and greed.

ALCHEMIST: Now I see that I know nothing; only I must not say so. For I should lose the good opinion of my neighbours, and they would no longer entrust me with money for my experiments. I must therefore go on saying that I know everything; for there are many that expect me to do great things for them.

NATURE: But if you go on in that way, your neighbours will at last find you out, and demand their money back.

ALCHEMIST: I must amuse them with promises, as long as I can.

NATURE: And what then?

ALCHEMIST: I will try different experiments; and if they fail, I will go to some other country, and live the same life there. There are many countries, and many greedy persons who will suffer themselves to be gulled by my promises of mountains of gold.

NATURE: Such philosophers are only fit for the gallows. Be off, and take with you my most grievous curse. The best thing that you can do, is to give yourself up to the King’s officers, who will quickly put an end to you and your philosophy!

Alchemy may be a path to madness for some, but if you’d like to read more about its history, and see how it can relate to everyday life in the modern world, you might enjoy these books.

The Ship of Night – Part Two

This is the second part of my story, written on request for the anthology ‘Tarot Tales’, and based on the drawing of five cards from the Marseilles Tarot pack. The first part (read here) brought me from a city garden invaded by foxes down to the old quayside, and onto a boat setting out on a mysterious ‘Moonlight Cruise’:

I took my place at the prow of the boat, where I found myself sitting next to a stout middle-aged lady in a buttoned-up navy mackintosh. She was a warden, she explained, in an old people’s home, and had to work some very awkward shifts. She’d taken the cruise before, and it covered those difficult in-between hours very nicely, particularly when she was transferring from day to late-night shift, and needed something to keep her going until she started work.


‘There’s one or two other regulars here,’ she said, nodding over at the other side, to a hunched-up man in black, who sat fingering a straggly grey beard. Next to him a young couple sank blissfully into each other’s arms. To my unspoken question she replied, ‘Once you’ve seen it by night, you want to do it again. What you see by day seems rather tame by comparison.’


The boat was filling up now, with some twenty to thirty passengers. The captain decided that this was enough, and turned on the engines; with that quiet chug chug chug noise we left our moorings and set off through the docks. Little flickers of light caught on the rippling, slapping water, and indeed the water was brighter than the surroundings, for we quickly left the populated quayside and turned off through waterways flanked with heavily built warehouses and derelict yards. Where there were windows, they were barred, and where there were boundary walls, they were topped with barbed wire. On the paths which ran by the water, once unloading bays, I could make out grass and weeds, and it looked as though this part of the city had been deserted for a hundred years.


In fact, said our captain, a cynical and amusing commentator, it still had life in the day, and might in time have more. The usual planning disputes were raging between industrialists, conservationists, and city council officials.


‘I’ve not time for age for its own sake,’ said Rita (my companion) darkly, which I thought was strange, given her profession.


‘If you look over to your right,’ said our gallant captain, ‘you will see that Webber’s Bank has won its appeal to rebuild, and that demolition is already in progress.’ All eyes turned to gaze upon a half torn-down building which looked, in this dim light, like something out of a craggy Romantic landscape painting.


But as we turned the corner by the side of it, this image was rudely shattered by the rubbish we encountered. In the water itself, bits and pieces bobbed up and down – plastic sacks, old bottles, screwed-up paper bags. On the edge, where we could now see behind the ruined façade, were dusty piles of bricks and rubble, and perhaps twisted pieces of iron and broken planks, though it was hard to make anything out clearly. The female lover gave a little scream: ‘Aah! Rats! I saw them move!’ But, before anyone in the boat could react, came the sound of a sniggering, husky laugh from the darkness of the shore. We all turned sharply, and as the boat slid gently past, I could make out the stooped figure of a man, raggedly dressed, looking towards us with a mocking grin before bending back to his task. A sack lay near him amidst the rubbish, and with a long pole he turned over the piles around him, picking over the debris and putting choice finds into his sack. The captain waved to him as we passed; he was obviously a familiar character in these parts.


Now we passed into a kind of leafy tunnel. I had lost track of direction, and could only guess vaguely what part of the city we were in, but I reckoned that we were still fairly central, and that somewhere above us busy roads stretched away, and that the people who frequented them probably had little knowledge of what went on in these watery depths below. I think the trees were willows; it was hard to see, but I detected a gentle brushing of the water with their drooping branches. The two path was grassy now, and the captain told us stories of how the barges came into the city from the furthest parts of the country, patient horses plodding, dreaming of a full nose-bag at the end of the day, brown, monkey-faced bargemen with robust wives, washing strung out along the bow, and a couple of kids playing with broken pottery shards picked up as treasures along the way. It was as if the waterways themselves had not forgotten, and here, submerged below street level, there was nothing to interrupt the old dream that resounded day after day.

The old dream of the river, near Bristol

There was a child on board now; probably about six or seven, leaning against his mother and curled up into sleep, thumb in mouth She smiled when she saw me looking. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she said. ‘He was determined to stay up and see it in at midnight; he loves to try and stay awake. I promised him he could come, even though I knew he wouldn’t manage it. I’ll tell him in the morning that he did the whole trip. It’ll make him happy.’


Most of the company were lost in their own thoughts, or, in the case of the lovers, in each other. The bearded man that I had noticed at the start of the voyage seemed restless though, muttering to himself and looking anxiously at a tattered paperback book that he held. Perhaps it was just a collection of pages, because I couldn’t see any cover, only torn pages which he thumbed feverishly, as if he were trying to find and then memorize his favourite poems. But there was no hint of enjoyment in his face, only a driven, haunted look.


‘You say he comes here often?’ I asked Rita, as discreetly as I could.
She nodded. ‘Yes, a few times.’
‘For pleasure, do you think?’
She shrugged, in a dismissive kind of way. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I wonder if he has a home to go to? But then I suppose if he was a down-and-out, he wouldn’t have the money to come.’

She clearly did not want to follow this up, and I stayed silent, ashamed of passing comments on my fellow passengers of which she plainly disapproved. ‘Do you enjoy your work?’ I asked her, in a feeble attempt to remedy the situation.


She smiled at me unexpectedly, a warm, beaming smile. ‘Oh yes. Oh very much. Old people are so rewarding. Very special. They are the perfection of a whole life-time. Unless you can understand that, you don’t know them at all.


By now, we were floating down a broad stretch of water at ground level.


‘This is the main waterway out of the city,’ the captain announced. ‘The motorway of dockland. We shall be going a little further. And here we’re taking a swing to the left, to avoid the weir. All marked out and perfectly safe, even at night.’


I could hear the rushing of the river weir. I suppose we must have emerged from the completely artificial canal and dock network into a natural but structured watercourse. I wire rope and a string of fluorescent flags showed up on the right, and the boat veered away from them. But just as we turned, there was a movement from the other side of the boat. The hunched man’s mutterings had grown fiercer. He stood up, and in the space of what cannot have been more than a few seconds, hurled his book, then his overcoat, and then himself into the water. I gasped, and stood up to cry out, then found myself yanked firmly back to my seat, with a warm hand pressed heavily over my mouth. I struggled, but Rita held me firm.


‘Be quiet!’ she hissed.


I looked around, and up at the captain, but he and Rita were already exchanging glances. He raised an eyebrow to her, and she nodded with assurance. Satisfied, he straightened the boat into her new course, and delivered a few more comments into the microphone about features of the landscape. I couldn’t believe it. And none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. The lovers, who had sat next to the man, were by now at the whispering, tickling and giggling stage of their embraces. Everyone else looked vacant, as if the slow flow of the water had glazed over their minds and eyes.


I turned sharply to Rita. ‘Why don’t we stop? Why don’t we rescue him?’ Not that I could see him any more – he was gone with barely a splash, swallowed up by the racing waters that swept down in torrents to the river below.


She pulled out a package from her brown plastic shopping bag and calmly unwrapped a selection of sandwiches. ‘Eat one, my dear. The egg ones are the nicest – the ham wasn’t up to much today.’ Almost hypnotised by her assurance, I took one.


When she saw that I had bitten into it, she said, ‘It was his time, dear. The way he wanted to go.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sighed. ‘For a writer,’ (had I told her that?) ‘you don’t look very far, do you? When one of my gentlemen, or ladies, is ready to go, and I am as sure as I can be that the time has come, then I will be there to see them off.’
‘You mean – suicide?’


‘Not exactly. Oh, no, I wouldn’t hold with that. That’s a war against yourself, isn’t it? No, those who know that their life is drawing to a close. And that’s the greatest perfection, you know. And quite natural, too. You look at animals – they know when it’s time. Well then. Some of my clients don’t want to catch lingering illnesses and have doctors prodding them and all their relatives weeping over them. How would you like to die like that, in a home or a hospital? Not much, I expect. Not a pleasant last memory to take with you, is it? So I make sure they can get out and about, and find it as they want it. By water this time. He loved the sea, that one…Used to be a writer, once, like you…Took him several trips before he felt familiar with this place and knew just where he wanted to go.’


I made as if to get up and look over the side of the boat, but she pulled me back. ‘don’t be foolish, dear. That’s one thing you must never try to do, try and follow them – they’ll go clean and quiet if you let them.’


I was shaking. ‘I’ve witnessed a death, then. Something I haven’t seen before. I might have seen more – I might have learnt more.’

Charon: the ferryman of the dead


Rita shook her head kindly. ‘That’s not the way to know more, half going with them. That’s the way to do yourself a mischief and maybe them, too. There’s plenty more to learn and to see if you’ll be patient.’
I was thoroughly jolted now. Was this a sleeping world, or a waking one? Was it night or day? What did she and the captain know that I didn’t…? We were approaching a barrier. Heavy, steel doors loomed up before us in the water, dark water slapping against them as the boat dropped speed and came to a pause at the place where they blocked our way, tightly closed. On a short quayside to our left, a little cottage snuggled into the high guarding walls around, and one light still burned in an upstairs window.


The captain whistled, then called, ‘Diz! Diz! Open up! – Short for Disraeli’ he told the now stirring passengers, provoking a few titters of disbelief.


We could hear the sound of footsteps in the cottage, then a few grumbling noises as the front door was unbolted and opened. A dark, squat little man moved out towards us. Though his movements were slow, I sensed tremendous physical power in his presence, something of the wrestler’s strength in his body.


‘Come on, Diz. You’re supposed to have had these open for us.’
‘You’ll have to pay.’
‘You must be joking! We’re regulars.’
‘Everyone has to pay. Double rates at night.’
‘They’re always like this, Rita told me. ‘He’ll have to pay, he always does in the end.’
‘Extra levy, I’m afraid,’ said the captain. ‘Fifty pence each.’


There was some complaining, but he was firm. No, it wasn’t on a per boat basis, but was per head. And yes, the child too, even if he was under sixteen and asleep. He was sorry, but there it was. As I turned towards the moonlight to see the contents of my purse better, the coins that I was taking hold of slipped from my fingers and fell into the water. By this time, the great steel doors were opening, making surprisingly little noise, and the boat was sliding gently through into a dark stretch of water beyond. The captain’s mate came towards me with his leather bag to collect my fare.


‘I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my money overboard. I haven’t any more.’
He shrugged, and grinned unpleasantly. His teeth were yellow and pointed, and he reminded me, for the first time since I had stepped into the boat, of the foxes at home.


‘Well, you’ll have to get out, won’t you?’
I looked at him in disbelief. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Them as doesn’t pay gets off. We don’t wait, and we don’t accept any debts. Out.’ He jerked a thumb towards the bank and nodded at the captain, who steered in closer to the shore.


I glanced around, but no one seemed interested in my plight, any more than they were in the man who had jumped overboard. Rita had disappeared too. I would have shouted, I think, but before I had a chance to do so I found that I was being heaved ashore by the captain and his evil-mouthed assistant. It could have been funny, or at any rate, ridiculous, but it wasn’t.


And then the boat was gone, and I was standing on a narrow path, with nothing but darkness ahead and steel doors, firmly closed again, behind me. Then I really did shout. I bawled, and hollered. Surely the gate-keeper would hear me and come out. But he didn’t. I began to grow hysterical, I am ashamed to admit, and was beating my fists against the metal, making a noise fit to wake the dead, when I felt a quiet tap on my shoulder. I spun round. It was Rita.


‘Well, dear, you’re one of the lucky ones, aren’t you?’ She seemed amused.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sure you didn’t really want to go any further, did you? Wouldn’t you rather be getting home now?’

And indeed, I suddenly realised that I was dead tired and would like nothing better than to be back in bed. ‘I always get out around here myself. It’s not much fun further on.’ Her tone somehow gave me the impression that this was a great understatement.
‘How do we get out?’
She gestured. ‘Put your hand over there, to the right. You’ll find a little metal ring that hangs loose. It’s set into a lion’s head, actually – very pretty, if you could see it by daylight. Reminds me a little of Venice. Lions everywhere there. Just feel for it, and turn it very gently.’


I could feel the lion’s head all right, and the metal teeth and jaws that I had to reach into to grasp the ring. I did as she said; the ring turned, and a small inner door set into the great doors swung open. We stepped through it, back onto the little terrace in front of the cottage. There were no lights at the windows now.


‘What do we do now? It must be miles back. And I’m not sure I could find the way.’
‘Oh, nothing to worry about. Just take that path up there – ‘ she pointed to a narrow track that I hadn’t noticed before, leading up steeply behind the cottage. ‘It’s a bit of a scramble, but you’ll come onto the road, and there’ll be a bus coming along shortly.’
‘I’ve no money.’
‘There are free late-night buses.’ She chuckled. ‘Part of the council’s attempts to make life safer at night. They never think who they might attract onto the buses this way. But you’ll be all right.’
‘Are you coming too?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve my own way back. I’m due to start work soon, not too far from here. Well it’s been pleasant meeting you.’
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.’
She smiled, ‘I wouldn’t count on it. Night encounters, you know, quickly forgotten. I expect you’ll sleep well enough tonight, though. Pleasant dreams!’


I took the path she indicated, and scrambled up to the top. Although bushes scratched at my clothes, and the earth was dusty and slippery, I made it without mishap. On the level high above the water, which was now well out of sight, I came out suddenly into urban life again. The track emerged between two houses, and in front of me was a main road, still lit, with a few late-night dog-walkers about and a bus stop close to hand. The shop windows, garishly illuminated and full of electrical goods, cheap clothes and furnishings, looked unreal. Was this the everyday city I was so familiar with?


I did not have to wait long, although it was no ordinary bus that turned up. ‘Party Special’, its indicator proclaimed. Not, it appeared, a party as in an outing, but as in party – good time and knees up. The driver stopped for me. He was merry, but sober, which was more than could be said for some of his passengers.
‘Welcome aboard, madam! Seats for singles on your left, couples on the right, dancing in the middle, bar at the rear. No charge, you’re welcome.’

The inside was decorated with balloons, and twirled silver festoons, and all around a couple of dozen partymakers were obviously having a wonderful time. Music blared out, and the standard of dress was more like a trendy disco than a city transport bus. A young man, a little drunk, but good-humoured, tried to pull me into a dance. I resisted, feeling boringly sober and out of place in my trousers and warm sweater. Then – oh, what the hell – I thought, and let him lead me into some kind of exuberant dance. I let the rhythm of the music sweep through me. It had been a crazy enough night – let it become a little crazier. At the end of the number, he put his arm round me and grinned.


‘City centre,’ called the driver. ‘Your stop, madam. It’s been a pleasure having you aboard. Mind how you go.’

Five more minutes, and I was home. The city looked quiet, unperturbed, nothing different from usual. What had I expected? There was no noise from the garden either. Rita was right; bed was very welcome.

Just before I drifted off, just before the images started to flow, I seemed to see her face bending over me, and heard her voice saying:
‘Drops, dear. Little drops. That’s what a really satisfying dream is like, isn’t it – the kind that tells you everything without needing to go through it all.’


Yes, I thought, that’s what I would hope for now. If she bade me sleep well, I certainly did.

17th century painting by Bernhard Keil (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing a Tarot Story

Here is how the cards appeared to me, for the weaving of this tale. And would a different order for these cards might perhaps tell a different story?

You might like to try your own version of this; pick a set of five cards (five is the number of creativity) sight unseen, from a Tarot pack of your choice. My own view is that a traditional set like this, honed and smoothed over the centuries, has more potetntial and fewer distracting details than most modern, individually-designed sets. You could also try with just three cards, for a ‘flash fiction’ story.

Tarot writings

My writings on Tarot have focused on the research and interpretation that I’ve carried out for five decades now, investigating its history, and practising Tarot divination. It has also run alongside the task I inherited of writing and presenting The Tree of Life Oracle. My task with Tarot may be done – or it may not! Recently, I found myself drawn to the inspired art work of Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the Rider Waite Tarot pack. You can read more about this in my blog ‘A Pixie in Bude’. Perhaps there are yet more fascinating pathways that will open up in the mysterious world of Tarot.