There’s nothing like being ill just before Christmas. We dragged round to get the tree, and left it in the hall long enough for Julian to spray it in protest at the Burnham wood aspects of the yule branch.
I washed the cat pee off, cut the bottom off to get it in the stand, then left it in the living room for 2 days while getting up the strength to get the decs down from the loft, an annual torture as I hate the loft ladder, but given A’s capacity for falls, there’s no way I’m letting her up there.
So it was all a bit gritted teeth, and we didn’t even put on our favourite seasonal record (Wassail! John Kirkpatrick, since you ask) as we usually do.
And then I started unpacking the decorations.
My mum gave me all her tree decorations earlier this year, on the grounds that she and dad can’t be bothered with a tree anymore.
So, in the box are:
very early 20th century decorations rescued from my Great Aunt Mattie’s house when she died – pine cones and berries and a little cottage. (I love that cottage when A & I we first had a proper tree together I bought a replica).
I’m guessing about the vintage of these things but…
1950’s cellulose angels
and what I refer to as the turnips – baubles with points to their bottoms a bit like onion domes on Russian churches.
1960s: bulls’ eyes – Baubles that have bites out of them and a bit of a Mod feel, and snowflakes and something that looks like Sputnik.
1970’s: psychedelic plastic tat – all day-glo orange and swirly patterns and bits of card and foil, and most importantly, see-through.
The photo cannot do these glorious things justice, they have to be held in the hand and turned to and fro, to catch and filter the light. I adored these as a child.
And then there are the icons of our modern era (relatively speaking) Our first proper tree was in about 1984. We bought the decorations from Lewisham market, and the back-of-a-lorry shop round the corner. a Fanfare please for… kitten-in-a-sock and Pink Bunny, without whom Christmas doesn’t have a hope.
I do occasionally make an attempt at a refined elegant tree, we once had two, one with all the glitz, and another one with nothing but glass on it. (We actually have too many decorations now for only one tree, no matter we get the largest that will fit in the house.) I prefered the glitz.
The crowning glory of our tree (he says) is Cedric. Cedric is a teddy bear in a dress and angel wings who normally sits on the bookshelf with his more conservatively dressed buddies Adrian and Clive, who have matching jumpers and cricket flannels. Cedric lives for his two weeks in the spotlight (or fairy lights) A & C are grateful for the rest from him going on about the view.
So tree finally dressed, and in appropriate mood, the final addition to the event is the cherub’s candle driven carousel. This the ultimate kitsch item, which I can remember being entranced by aged about 6. You aren’t the video because A was chatting in the background, so you’ll have to imagine the incredibly annoying tinkling that gets louder as the candles get hotter and send the cherubs flitting about faster and faster, in hysterical tribute. How did I ever find that sound attractive?!
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen
For the past week we have been asked to remember:
Remember, Remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
and to remember the fallen of the great war.
So what is memory, what is memorable, and what is remembrance?
As a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist I take exception to the brutality underlying the demand to remember Guy Fawkes; the burning in effigy of anyone is deeply suspect and whilst the anti-catholic fervor of these celebrations is largely forgotten these days there are pockets where it is enacted with determination (Lewes springs to mind.)
For most people Guy Fawkes’ Night is an excuse for pyrotechnics, and for the first time in a very long time, it seems to have been limited to the actual night and the day before.
Now, I like fireworks, despite having one drop on me when I was stewarding a display once, fortunately a good thick coat was ruined but that was all; but what is it we are asked to remember?
That some people felt strongly enough about a protestant led government they were prepared to attempt to violently disrupt it? The barbaric (to us) brutality with which the would be perpetrators were executed? Yet another magnificent failure? The family loyalty that prompted one of the conspirators to warn his cousin and thus betray the whole team to torture and death? It’s a pretty bleak story, 400 years old, and but for the publicity machine of the time would have been long forgotten. But there are still places where Catholic and Protestant hate each other enough to want to blow each other up, places where brutal regimes inflict horrific death on those that don’t agree with them, yet we forget, ignore, dismiss all of this as though it were commonplace; and celebrate a four century old nine-day-wonder every year, around bonfires, with shrieking and banging and cascading explosions lighting up the sky, baked potatoes and toffee apples. The war to end war:
What a contrast, one week to the next.
I wonder what it was like for traumatised soldiers to experience Guy Fawkes night? Did they cower and hide and wail like our cats do as the barrage of rockets explode all round them?
Remembrance Sunday, and 11th of the 11th have been hard to ignore this week, the media have been in full swing, and I’ve listened to some interesting radio programmes about the history of Remembrance, from the first unveiling of the cenotaph (empty tomb) in 1919, the burial of the unknown warrior at Westminster Abbey in 1920, the resurgence of a 2 minute silence on the 11th as well as on the nearest Sunday since the 1990’s… and a neatly put explanation of how the death of a soldier in war is now exceptional, unusual, noteworthy; compared to the decimation of an entire generation 90 plus years ago.
I also listened to a programme about the Forester’s House at Ors, where Wilfred Owen sheltered as his wrote his last letter home, a vivid account of cooking potatoes for around 30 soldiers crammed into a basement. The house is now an art installation with Owen’s poems and that last letter projected, broadcast in English (Kenneth Brannagh bringing a magnificent warmth to the readings) and French, and embedded throughout.
I was force-fed Owen’s poetry as part of my education, and it put me off a bit, I found his restraint unappealing, I was with Siegfried Sassoon, raging in protest: it’s time to go back and review that.
On Holiday in Belgium a few years back I turned down the opportunity to visit the war graves, feeling that I knew enough, didn’t need my nose rubbing in it, would find it distressing; I think this Owen memorial would be worth a visit, and if I was there, I might also go to the Menin gate. I’m not sure, I come back to that Stalin quote, about when it is a single individual, known to you, it means more than all the thousands; too many to comprehend, to encompass. But one of the special things about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the effort that went (and still goes) into finding the story of the individual behind every one of the graves, and the names where there is no grave. Their website is a marvel of vignettes. No one in my immediate family died in either world war (a statistic that surprises me) but tracing family history back, I found a few distant relatives, and I was truly impressed with just how much information had been garnered for some records.
Flicking through TV channels we stumbled across the Royal British Legion’s ninetieth anniversary service at the Royal Albert Hall. I watched to the end, hypnotised by how regimented it was, men in busbies and cheesecutter caps, swaying involuntarily having been stood stock still for at least an hour, with thousands of poppy petals drifting like bloody snow to lie at their feet, on their shoulders, on their headgear. I found myself wondering how many poppy petals, and thinking not enough; the petals to represent the dead of two world wars would fill that space, and reminded of the Beatles song A Day in the Life (Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall); and thinking about who we should remember: combatants yes, on both sides, and ambulance crews, and nurses, and fire crews, and civilians and those shot for ‘cowardice’… and thinking, but what is this for?
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who lose track of what and why we are remembering, ditto.
It is my intention this evening (energy permitting) to go to the ‘sing around’ at a local pub, and at some point to sing. A and I have been talking about what we might sing. It being Remembrance Sunday has influenced our repertoire, so we will be singing some of the following, depending on how many slots we get and whether someone else has the same idea: Only Remembered(John Tams, used in War Horse), No Man’s Land (Eric Bogle), I want to go home(Oh what a lovely War), and Down by the Riverside.(traditional spiritual) anda version of Three Ravens an ancient song picked up by Thomas Ravenscroft in the 1611.
The reasoning being that they are all wonderful tunes, poignant words, and are in keeping with the original intentions of Remembrance day, apart from the Ravens, which is my own personal take on what war is all about.
I willingly remember the dead of world wars and believe to forget would be dreadful, but I have no intention of celebrating war or military might.
Every time I listen to, or sing, No Man’s Land I remember as a child when visiting relatives, dropping in on an old lady who lived nearby, and the faded photograph of a young man in uniform, which she reached down from the mantelpiece and put into my hand.
My man, she said, and cried.
I expect she told me his name, I expect she told me how he died, if she knew. I don’t remember; but I remember that photograph. He would have been dead sixty years when we met.
Evey time we walk round the local cemetery we read aloud the names of the dead, in among them the individual war graves scattered among the ivy and wild flowers, and the inscriptions, in particular one that stands out from the prescribed text:
I who loved you most, miss you most.
The continuing saga of the cats who have owned me. Earlier episode here
One of the things about Hattie, (we rarely called her Harriet) was that she had a ritual of staring out of the window every morning, which we attributed to her ‘checking outside was still there’.
It turned out we were right. When we moved house the first thing she did in the morning was look out of the window, and she screamed, and ran to the other window and screamed again. Completely unconcerned at being in a new house, she was horrified that Outside had Changed! It took several days before she recovered.
The demise of Zappa and the move to neutral territory did something to improve relations between Hattie and Morph but they never became friends. Morph, despite his laid back adoration of his humans rather despised Hattie’s despot tendencies and she knew herself to be queen empress and thought him beneath contempt. It wasn’t a peaceful home, we had the bottom half of a house, with massive basement, on the corner of a very busy road. I feared for the cats, but they had no interest in going near the traffic, and the back garden at least had a high wall (until a drunk drove into it). We had to make the garden from scratch and Hattie would come and help. Morph would sit on a windowsill and gaze at us in horror. Hattie disappeared several times while we lived there – she was adventurous and was gone for three days in heavy snow, and two one summer – that time she came home with no voice and a wound to her neck and throat – a very close call that kept her home for a long time. Hattie adored visitors, and was especially fond of our friend C who would move in while we were on holiday, and once spent Christmas with us – Hattie was surprised and delighted to wake Christmas morning and find us and C there, and I heard her holding a lengthy conversation with C on the way to her breakfast, using a vocabulary of chirrups and murrips she never used to us – I can’t help wondering what she had on her mind.
We were broken into on roughly a six monthly basis in this place, which did nothing for Morph’s nerves, and he used to literally climb walls, wailing at what he imagined were doors (weirdly, we had been round the property before it was converted and there hadbeen doors where he did this) – we called this ‘importuning arbours’ from a quotation used by (I think) Ruth Rendell in a Wexford book, when he or Burden mutters
such closets to ransack such arbours to importune.
Never tracked down where it’s from but I’m guessing a Jacobean revenger tragedy by Myddleton or someone.
Morph’s nerves caused him to hide a lot and he spent part of every day under the covers in my bed, lying as flat as he could… he got sat on regularly. As he was double jointed he could get into the tiniest spaces, he once spent a week behind the built in fridge, eventually coming out for a peice of stilton – he loved smelly cheese.
Eventually we could stand the strain of living in this house, lovely though it was, no better than Morph, and owing to a death in the family inherited enough money for a deposit and moved swiftly to our beloved current home, a mid terrace 1920’s house in a quiet street with a middling sized garden backing onto a railway cutting. The cats thought they had died and gone to heaven; Hattie regularly went peacefully to sleep in the middle of the lawn. (I say lawn – patch of grass would be more accurate).
Harriet was a mighty hunter, and brought us in daily mice, birds and rats. In the first week we et her out she killed three enormous rats, too big to get through the catflap. We once saw her sitting apparently completely relaxed beneath the bird feeder, then as a sparrow landed, she leapt up vertically, smacked it and landed, with the bird dead of a broken neck at her feet. Surgical strike by Harriet Jump Jet. We gave her a round of applause, then moved the feeder higher. She bounced up and down under it for a few days before admitting defeat.
Morph only ever caught one mouse, it was the smallest thing I ever saw – about the size of the first joint of my thumb. We reckoned Morph must have been sleeping with his mouth open and the mouse ran in mistaking it for its hole… Morph was very proud of himself.
Not long after we moved, we were joined by a third cat and completed this particular dynasty.
Madge (Her Majesty Magdalena Montmorency Mountjoy) was found up a tree during a rain storm in the garden next to where I was working. The guy living there was up a ladder trying to persuade her down as I arrived for work. I offered assistance and between us we got her to ground level, at which point she ran in hysterical circles shrieking, and running up and down the fire escape. I managed to gather her up, and as she did not resist, took her into the office, dried her with paper towels, fed her milk and dropped her in my pending tray where she went to sleep. By lunchtime the rain had stopped and I let her out to see if she remembered her way home. She started the circling and screeching routine again, so I left her in charge of my desk and went home for some cat food. She ate happily and went back to sleep, this time less conveniently in my in tray. At the end of the day, I tried again to convince her to find her way home, without any joy. So I plonked her in the back of the car, and drove home, with a friend’s story of their cat getting loose in the car and sitting on the driver’s head with paws over her eyes, at the forefront of my mind. I needn’t have worried, Madge perched herself and peered inquisitively out the windows, and let me gather her up without any concern when we arrived home.
Explaining to A that we had a visitor, I shut Madge in my room with food and a litter tray. We weren’t planning on her staying, I was sure she had a home, close to the office and I just needed to put up notices. We developed a theory that Madge had tripped up her old lady once too often, and left home in a huff when the staff stopped working for her. At any rate she worked out how to turn the door handle and came out to introduce herself to Hattie and Morph. Morph was thrilled, but Madge swore at him, and he never ever forgave her. In the end, no one claimed her, and for a month or so, every visitor who came over the doorstep had her virtues paraded as we tried to find her a home. we didnt think three cats and only two laps would work Then I noticed that this sunny animal was looking gloomier and gloomier and we decided we were being mean and should just adopt her. Morph wasn’t pleased, and Harriet refused to acknowledge her existence. We settled for an uneasy truce, with Madge very much knowing her place, and almost never getting lap. In fact on one occasion when she was having a cuddle, Morph came in, gave her a look and said ‘Keck‘, I don’t know what this means, but it clearly was not kind – Madge slunk away immediately and didn’t show her face for a couple of days.
By this time Morph was getting quite old, and was loosing it a bit. We would be sitting in the living room and these terrible tragic wailings would be coming from the hall (King Lear, we called it) if we went out and checked Morph would immediately stop and make cheerful noises. Then one summer night we came back from dinner with a friend and went up the garden for some air with Morph toddling at our heels. I looked down, and said there’s something not right with this cat. He was swollen up like a balloon. we tossed a coin for who was going to risk their driving licence (we’d walked home, as we’d been drinking) and raced to the vet. It turned out that he had a tumor which had started bleeding, and there was nothing to be done.
Harriet now ruled unopposed, and took up Morph’s wailing duties, and was just as cheerful if interrupted. She really was magnificent, this tiny scrap of a cat, ruling the entire street. No cat dared cross her path, they would cower away form even a look. She even kept the local foxes in order: she was asleep on the garden seat one day when the ancient dog fox woke her up by sniffing at her, she leapt up swearing and boxed his ears.
Harriet didn’t last much longer than Morph, becoming increasingly fragile and her kidneys beginning to go; none the less, in her final hours, she chased a piece of cellophane around the hall, frightened a neighbouring cat into caniptions and received visitors graciously. That cat had style.
Harriet’s death left Madge an only cat, and she could hardly believe her luck. She had always been a disgusting pig about food, taking vast bites and scraping what wouldn’t fit in her mouth off with her paws. She stopped doing this and we realised she had been golloping her food because if she didn’t Hattie took it off her. Not having to fight for her food she became quite ladylike. It took a long time to convince her she was allowed to be cuddled and no one was going to say Keck ever again.
Sadly this late dawn was not to last. Aged only thirteen (Hattie and Morph had both made it to eighteen) she was diagnosed with lymphoma and went down hill very rapidly. I spent her final day hand feeding her kitten milk drop by drop off my fingers, which she thoroughly enjoyed, although every time I got up to go anywhere she tried to follow me.
So for the first time since I was eighteen I had no cat. For three months I couldn’t bear the idea of another animal, but the house, although a great deal cleaner, felt very empty without a small furry body bundling up to the front door when I got home from work, so we soon started looking for a new feline family. But that’s another story.
Clytha Castle has been on my list of places to stay for a long time – a folly in the best sense; it is a pinkish rendered, Gothick, castellated and turreted confection on a small hill in Monmouthshire – with panoramic views of Skirrid Fawr and Sugarloaf. It is gloriously daft – every opportunity for a Gothic arch or alcove has been enthusiastically taken up, and one tower is ‘ruined’ and probably was built that way.
We haven’t been before because it sleeps six and we need the perfect group of friends. And so we collect the perfect group (Jn & S and Jm & T & Daisy the dog – I’m not a dog person, but I am a Daisy person. She has an endearing habit of sitting by you and resting her head against your back or knee, and she is always willing to have her stomach tickled. She is a very responsible animal, and a pleasure to walk with.)
Clytha castle is surprisingly big. The impression the building gives is of pink sweeping curves everywhere, intersecting the green curves of lawn and hill, and the grey curve of the ha-ha that stops the cows clambering into the garden. I had imagined, like so many follies, that it would be mostly trompe l’oeil, but aside from its ruined tower and absurdist curtain wall, it is a fully functioning building: mainly a solid square tower, but attached to the tower is a circular stair turret and embracing that, a curved passage that connects one half of the tower to another where a ground floor bathroom and bedroom are tucked away.
Up the stairs this layout is replicated, (although the bathroom is less successful, extraordinary 1980’s tiles and a bath too narrow to get both shoulders into!) then a further short flight takes you to the best bedroom at the top of the square tower, which A and I get, much to my delight. This is painted a not entirely successful shade of apricot which could do with being a bit yellower, but has 3 sets of Gothick arched windows on two sides, and a beautiful marble fireplace, on which delicate oak leaf carvings overflow the recessed arches in the spandrels.
Up a further flight of stairs is a half-height door which takes you onto the roof. The battlements are too tall to see over, but the Landmark Trust, every thoughtful and trusting that their guests can look after themselves, provide a sturdy bench just high enough to give a view.
Back down stairs, a long narrow stone paved passage takes you to the kitchen in the round tower. Landmark specialise in round (and occasionally octagonal) kitchens, although this is larger than most, with a vast scrubbed table to eat at. Once again, Gothick arched windows and alcoves abound. Satisfyingly, the stair turret and the round rooms have doors that curve to fit. The living room (more Gothick Arches) has a massive door which opens onto the spectacular view, and we spend a fair bit of time sitting with this door open looking at the view. This is what I call gracious living… There is something about the house that reminds me of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s classic, The Little White Horse (without any justification that I can think of, since the house in the book is far older).
There are owls in the woods, and they start calling early.
After dinner we go out to look at the stars and play with T’s astronomy app which, once fed the co-ordinates of where we are, will, if pointed at a constellation or individual star, tell us its name. It even knows about some of the satellites. This is great fun but you get a terrible crick in your neck. It’s a bit weird that, when resting my neck I lowered the iPad and it happily informed me of the stars beneath my feet. If there is another clear night (sadly in doubt) we will take the deck chairs out. When we go to bed I take the walking map with me.
Saturday morning we are all up ridiculously early, and are out of the house well before nine. The weather is cloudy verging on hazy sunshine and the mountains have reappeared from their early morning cloud cover. Walking across the parkland, we come across some soft brown calves and their parents. They are very sweet and have dramatically deep voices. We are distracted by them and head the wrong way as we reach the road, which means we get to see the gateway of Clytha House which is rather fragile looking but once again Gothicked to death.
We retrace our steps and find the riverside walk along the Usk, which changes its character very quickly; one minute shallow and rapid over rocks, the next as still as a mirror. Daisy is desperate for a swim, but the sides are steep, so she is told no. Then we come to a stream and Daisy, ignoring all demands to the contrary, heads into it and from there into the river. Fortunately there is some reasonable access so she is given sticks to retrieve and comes back wet and happy. Buzzard wheel overhead, rooks, crows and a raven put in the occasional appearance.
Our combined map reading is not very efficient; partly because Jn, Jm and T stride ahead so much we often overshoot a turning, partly because I’m just out of practice, partly because the stiles are overgrown and uninviting. One alleged bridleway is so overgrown there is no way it could be ridden along, you would be decapitated by over-hanging branches. The hedgerow here has been recently planted, about four feet away from where it has at some stage been grubbed up, leaving only the occasional hawthorn. There is another large group of cows and calves, this time in the same field as us, so Daisy is put on her lead and we creep past sheltering behind the meagre cover of the hawthorns.
I get stung all up my arm trying to get over one particularly untended stile, however once over it we are in a field that seems to have had some kind of failed mustard crop that is roughly equally grass and little pale yellow flowers, with a healthy smattering of chamomile and speedwell along the edges. We miss the next junction as well, do a bit of judicious trespassing and find the path again, via a wheat field edged with wild Lupins which have gone to seed. Daisy puts up a pheasant, much to her delight. As we approach the castle, sun gilds a corn field below the Sugarloaf. Despite it being only 11:30, we have lunch!
Before we came away I was frantically trying to finish some work, and swearing at the bank for their useless internet service, and was somewhat distracted, so I left behind half the ingredients that I had carefully purchased for my share of the cooking. So A & I went into Abergavenny for shopping. It isn’t a particularly interesting town, but it has a deli, a good second-hand bookshop (very high quality stock, but a bit overpriced) and a priory church and tithe barn, at which (the church) a wedding is going on – all the men are wearing plain black kilts, with silver daggers instead of those giant safety pins. When we get back everyone but S (who is cooking) has collapsed into bed. We follow suit for a short while and then we reconvene in the eggshell blue living room, J embroidering like a 19th century lady, T reading his kindle, J and A reading newspapers, S reading her book, and there we sit until Daisy demands another walk. Sitting in the kitchen over supper, I glance up, and there are a dozen or more bats flitting about the turret.
Sunday morning and four of us (and Daisy) set off for another local walk, much briefer as we have guests for lunch. We head in the opposite direction and take a loop round the back of the local pub through a few fields of horses and sheep, much to Daisy’s disgust, as she has to be back on the lead. She isn’t a bit interested in chasing the wildlife, but after yesterday’s pheasant best to be safe. We are heading confidently for a stile, when we find that the woodland beyond is so completely impenetrable that there is no point even trying to climb it. Fortunately the house nearby has a drive that takes us to the lane, and as it is undoubtedly their wood that has been so neglected, we feel no hesitation at all in once more trespassing. We climb steeply up hill, take a sharp right and find ourselves back in yesterday’s Lupin and wheat field. We arrive back in good time to make preparations for lunch and then sit down to wait, and wait and … Our guests are nearly an hour late. Fortunately all the food is cold, and the sun is out, so sitting in the courtyard waiting for them is no hardship. With the addition of our guests we have reconvened the group that met at the Old Place of Monreith seven years ago (aside from the child who wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye at that point).
We drink and nibble and then eat, and then take our guests on a tour of the establishment. They are suitably impressed. We set out deckchairs and sit in the sun admiring the view while the child and the dog race about getting properly acquainted. Cake is eaten and regretted.
A strange car appears, and S goes off to deal with them, which is just as well as she is a lot more polite than I would have been. They claim they ‘saw’ that there was a castle and thought they’d like a look round. They have come up a difficult to find, unmarked drive, through a closed gate and past a private sign; to a castle that is not visible from the road.
So we can’t look round then?
They go reluctantly, stopping to gawp on their way. We are furious. I long for a shot gun. I am very proprietorial about ‘our’ castle. Daisy barks thoughtfully as they disappear, having not stirred from her patch of sun the entire time they were there. We agree that none of us would have the gall to drive up to private premises and demand to be shown round. Our friends head home as it clouds up and we all collapse onto sofas with our books until it is time to set out for a meal (that we don’t really want anymore!) at The Bell in Skenfrith, about 30 minutes away. It is raining a bit, but we take a walk round the castle beforehand, and go and speak politely about the weather to the River Monnow.
The Bell does lots of local and organic, and ought to have been good, but like many well thought of eateries, the starters are good and the mains aren’t. I come off least well with a very bland pea panna cotta, not one of the constituent parts tastes of anything much; and Jn’s Brill is lukewarm. I wouldn’t have chosen this dish, but it was the only vegetarian option. The boys both go for a starter as main and do considerably better than the rest of us. I could have done this too, I suppose, but there are only 2 veggie starters, and I don’t much like beetroot. The heritage tomato starter is excellent however, the bread rolls straight from the oven are not bad and S’s Rock Bass is apparently good. With aperitifs and one bottle of wine, it comes in at nearly £30 a head for two courses, which I don’t think is justified. The consultation with the river seems to have done the trick, it has been raining heavily while we were eating, but stops before we leave.
On the drive back a furry something disappearing into a hedge is claimed variously as a stoat or weasel, personally I think it was a cat!
Monday and despite T’s insistence of an 80% chance of rain it is a beautiful sunny, chilly morning. But we are slow to get going or make a decision as to where to go. Eventually we agree on White Castle and a circular walk utilising part of Offa’s Dyke and the Three Castles walk. The weather is perfect, bright, blowy and brisk. The castle (which A & I visited when on holiday with friends at Longtown about fifteen years ago) is just as good as I remember – enough standing to be able to get to the top of one of the towers, plenty of steps to go up and down, and sufficiently ruined to give a magnificent echo. Views all round spectacular. The walk also has just the right amount of views, hills, rivers and bridges; and the rain, which we can see settling in on Crug Hywel, doesn’t reach us until we are back at the car. We drive back to our genteel pink castle and eat leftover curry for lunch and then distribute ourselves around the living room in varying states of sleepiness, until it’s time for Daisy’s afternoon walk. A, Jn and I take her through the wooded pit (a small quarry once?) beside the drive, and out onto the hill for yet more views and once more the rain holds off until we arrive back. I settle down with a book from the shelf, The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail, by Byron Rogers, a very entertaining and sometimes moving collection of essays about Welsh characters and eccentrics. T & Jm provide an excellent dinner. No one stays up long.
Tuesday and the weather is undeniably Welsh. It’s blowing a gale and raining, although the forecast is that it will clear by noon.
We decide this is the day for the Big Pit at Blaenavon, but all set off separately as the site is large and we don’t know that we all want to do the same things at the same time. Impressively everything on the site apart from parking is free. A & I start with the ironworks, which have been there a Very Long Time (1790ish). They are exquisite in the way that only industrial architecture can be – towering brick chimneys, perfectly balanced arches, furnaces like miniature ziggurats, and within reason you can wander wherever you want, peer into anything you want, touch anything you want – including in the range of workers cottages. In the damp aftermath of rain it is very atmospheric indeed.
Jn & S have opted to go to Abergavenny market and nearly run us over as they drive past as we are crossing back to the car park. We coincide again at the Big Pit entrance, and then don’t see them again. We don’t spot Jm & T at all. After carefully inspecting the video and notices about the underground tour we decide it isn’t for us, 50 minutes crowded together in confined spaces – not my sort of fun. However we take a look at the exhibitions and wander around the winding gear house and various workshops. The pithead baths are spectacular, and the exhibitions well done. We trundle into town for something to eat, as the miner’s canteen doesn’t have anything on offer that appeals to me, though A would have been very happy with the cawl. Beans on toast and tea later, we head back to Clytha.
Wednesday, and we decide to walk a stretch of the Brecon and Monmouth canal from Abergavenny and come back along the disused mine railway. The walk takes us from Abergavenny castle down to the Usk, through a field of cows, along the river to the Llanfoist Bridge, across and past the cemetery, and under the head of the valleys road. Then (counter intuitively) up a very steep incline, to the canal, embedded in the side of the Blorenge mountain. (Can’t help thinking Blorenge sounds like an unhealthy fizzy drink, or possibly something a bit like porridge.)
We have the canal almost to ourselves and it is, despite the roar of the h.o.t.v. road, remarkably peaceful. There is a sheer drop to one side, masked by copious tree growth that doesn’t look all that stable – you wouldn’t want to lean your full weight on any of those trees. The incline on the other side of the canal is equally steep, and once again the trees are hanging on for dear life. Three bridges along, we climb up and onto the track of the disused railway which is probably the one that originates at the Big Pit of yesterday’s visit. This gently drifts back down to where we originally started climbing. Five and a half miles, which felt like only three.
Thursday, and we wake to drizzle, which dampens our spirits a bit, but we set off for Tintern Abbey by the route the sat nav insists on despite the fact we want to go via Monmouth and the river route. It is actually very pretty, just not what we intended. It has more or less stopped raining by the time we get there, but despite this it is still grey and overcast, which actually suits the abbey well. It being many years since A & I were there we are happy to look it over again. Jn & S were there a lot more recently but manage to enjoy it again and take great amusement from suggesting the monastic lifestyle to T, who is never far from a smart phone and a bag of chocolate biscuits. We drive back the way we meant to go, but it isn’t as dramatic as we remember – the trees along the road have grown considerably and the view of the river is only glimpsed occasionally.
Back at our castle I go back to bed, having been awake since five and up from not long after, and then mid-afternoon, Jn A and I take Daisy for a walk round the Clytha estate. By now the sun is out and the light that intense gold of the end of summer, and it is hot. Daisy finds a way into the river again, points out the stiles we have missed, and has a thoroughly good time until we are on the home run, where we hit two tall stiles in succession with no alternative route for dogs, or at any rate adult Labradors. We manage to woman handle her over the first, but the second is set into an uphill slope and we cannot manage to lift her high enough. She is patient but won’t help, and there is nothing to be done, but phone T and get him to come and rescue his dog. Daisy rides home in the car and we finish our walk, which takes only another 15 minutes.
T has promised us a supernova with dinner, but it clouds back up, and there are no stars to be seen, exploding or otherwise.
I was going to call this dancing with cats, but decided it was derivative, and inaccurate! Spurred by the sad demise of my next-door-cat Cundy, a cat of great age and fortitude, who will be much missed by her family, and generations of schoolchildren and commuters who have been indelibly marked by her engaging manner and sharp teeth…
So I thought I would write about all my cats. So if you are not a cat person, you can stop reading.
My earliest cat memory is the arrival of Tiptoes, when I was two or three, Tiptoes was ‘my’ cat, only he wasn’t; my cat was Timmy and Mum was passing Tiptoes off as Timmy because Timmy had been run over and she felt I was too young to understand, so a replacement was swiftly found. He didn’t look much like Timmy either, Timmy was mostly tabby, and Tiptoes had much more white on his belly and feet. My memory is of a woman arriving with Tiptoes in a basket, and Mum saying how lucky we were that she had ‘found’ him. I think I thought she had actually kidnapped him, and had only brought him back reluctantly. I definitely smelt a rat, as it were. Tiptoes was very good with us children, and I don’t remember him ever having a cross word. In age he got very stout and lazy, but I loved him. I was very much reminded of him by Judith Kerr’s Mog books.
Next up was Leroy, who arrived from a school friend as my sister Rosi’s cat when I was about fourteen. Leroy was black and shiny and full of bounce, and was named after the Queen song Big Bad Leroy Brown; which Rosi hoped he would grow into, but he was always a bit of a stay at home shy thing, apart from disappearing for three days and then wandering in very casually. Leroy had brittle bones as a kitten and broke each of his legs in turn, one of them twice. We were terribly worried the vet would think we were abusing him. Leroy adored my dad, but it wasn’t reciprocated, and he settled into devotion for my mum, which left Rosi catless. I don’t think she minded much.
When I left home I was briefly gardenless and therefore catless, although my landlady got kittens for her son, (Gin and Tonic… I wonder what became of them?) just before I moved on.
So my first grownup cats were Zappa and Wolfie. Zappa was named for her lightning stripe tabby markings, and for Frank Zappa, and Wolfie for Wolgang Amadeus Mozart, showing my cultural diversity there! They were disappointingly unenthusiastic about music given their namesakes; they both cowered from any rock music, and Zappa was given to stalking the radio if there were choirboys, and hitting it if there was harpischord music. Wolfie left home for two weeks in the middle of a snow storm, and was found by the diligence of my neighbour Melissa who knocked on every door in every street in a half mile radius, long after I had given him up for dead. He wasn’t a bit grateful, and swaggered about with a ‘bad boy’ expression for days, and took to hanging about with a gang of young cats in the neighbourhood, (I never thought they really did that, but it turns out TopCat was based on fact!) and Melissa once found several strange cats in her living room, apparently having a meeting, Wolfie was one of them. Wolfie had an endearing/infuriating habit of leaping at you from the backs of chairs, regardless of whether you were walking away, cooking, whatever; and then digging in his claws to hang on. Not a good trick when the person launched at has just got out of the bath. Wolfie didn’t last long, he was too adventurous, So Zappa was briefly an only cat, which she grew to like.
Zappa had opinions and liked to get her own way. If she thought you should get up in the morning she would place a delicate paw on your eyelid and flex her claws very slightly as though planning to prize your eyes open. She once putted A’s watch into a glass of water, in a bid to get us up. It worked, but there wasn’t any breakfast!
Zappa & Wolfie were the offspring of a next-door cat who was known only as Mother. Subsequently I moved into that house, and assisted in getting Mother spayed after I hand reared (and failed to rear in one case) a brood of 5 that she refused to feed. We gave her a name at this point, Alice, which didn’t seem to make her any more inclined to love her kittens. Alice had a habit of sitting with her feet in her food bowl to show you how empty it was. Unfortunately she liked putting her feet in other bowls too, and there was a bit of an environmental health issue with a pumpkin pie one Hallowe’en… At the point we moved in, she had 3 kittens still at home, 2 from the final litter (Nelson and Lafayette) and 1 from a previous one (Midnight). What she thought about having her daughter back to add to the throng I don’t know. Lafayette was crazy and lived in the basement except when we were alone in the house, when he would occasionally come up for company. It later turned out that all the cats were using the basement (which was unfit for human habitation) as a latrine. We spent an uproarious time cleaning it out, including finding a Gladstone bag completely full of urine. We boarded up the door, and Lafayette had to cope with more company.
Alice and her brood, and her human family, later moved to Wales, where Lafayette became a prodigious hunter and only came home if the weather was really cold.
Then Cecil joined us. Cecil Robert McDuff, long name for a small cat, another Tabby & White, was found in a telephone box by A’s middle daughter. He lived with us briefly, but got a bad case of adolescence and joined the gang that Wolfie had founded. Zappa disliked him, and once threw him off the bed and across the room, although she would occasionally wash his fur… just enough to make a clean patch for her to rest her head on and use him as a pillow. He allowed this for some reason, but one night he went out on the razzle and never came home. I hope he ran away to sea- it would have been just his style.
Then there was Edie. We adored Edie. She was a tortoiseshell, and beautiful. We first met her screaming hysterically on our doorstep. we thought she must have recently moved to the street and got confused, so we sent her away. I feel so bad about that. A week later, I was home in bed ill with flu, and I could hear a cat crying, and saw her on the other side of the road, at someone’s door, and then the local Tom came and boxed her ears, and she rushed across the road into our basement area. I staggered down from the third floor and went to see what was going on. it was pouring rain, and she was cowering in our coal hole. I persuaded her out with food and discovered that the collar she was wearing said ‘My name is Snowball, my home is nowhere, please look after me.’ I was distraught that she had been living rough on our incredibly dangerous road for a week. And now she wouldn’t trust me. We spent a week with both the front and back doors open at every opportunity trying to persuade Edie through to the back garden where she was at least safe from cars and toms. It was cold too! Zappa looked very much down her nose at Edie initially, claiming that she was all fur coat and no knickers, and a painted madam and all sorts. Edie was a charmer though, and Zappa was putty in her paws. Once we had convinced Edie we wanted her to stay, she set about converting Zappa and soon they were playing NATO tank exercises up and down the stairs. Edie had obviously been brought up with radiators, she would lean on the gas fire and there were regular singeing smells and a startled Edie would rush away smoking. She never learnt. We didn’t know how old Edie was, but she was quite mature, and she and Zappa used to lie lovingly in each others arms in an armchair. I was glad of this because Edie wouldn’t tolerate sitting on a human lap, she was terrified of being picked up, and the best we could manage was that she would sit beside me with a paw on my knee and purr and purr. We did eventually manage proper cuddles but she had clearly been traumatised.
Edie had admirers. There was Vernon, who loved her so much he sat all day in the rain and gazed at her while she sneered from the window sill; and it might have been Vernon, or some other cat, who brought her a pigeon: Zappa held the steps to the basement area like Horatio at the bridge while Edie ate it, then the admirer was sent packing. Vernon actually moved in briefly – that all day in the rain convinced me he didn’t have a home, but he was long-haired, and didn’t suit A’s asthma, and the girls teased him dreadfully. He went to live with a friend, and was teased just as much by her two resident felines, but at least she didn’t have asthma.
This happy partnership sadly only lasted a year, Edie was run over on the road behind our house, but not before she had converted a friend of A’ s who had previously had a phobia of cats. Saint Our Edie, as she is still known in our house if one of us maunders on about her qualities for too long.
We were worried about Zappa following Edie’s demise, she spent part of every evening around her supper time staring down the garden, looking for Edie; so when A’s eldest broke up with her boyfriend and moved home to her dad with two cats, one of whom retired under the spare bed and refused to come out, we offered him a home. Morph had had too much trauma in his young life, bought from a market stall, coming from a broken home, split up from his litter mate Chas, who had gone with the boyfriend, then introduced into a house with a boxer puppy; he was in the depths of a nervous breakdown, and guess what? retired to the basement. We got him out by putting his food bowl on a higher step every day, and then gradually taking it through to the kitchen. Zappa took offence at him, and he at her. She made a ritual of chasing him up and down stairs every day, and she wasn’t playing as she had been with Edie. It was also clear that they were competing for my attention, they were both fond of A but there was a battle going on to be my chief cat. Shortly after we got Morph clear of the basement, we took on another cat.
This was Harriet, and she came from a guy further down the road who ‘collected’ animals. She and her brother were allowed to play in the street, and we were concerned about them having seen cats come and go about every 3 months, including the glorious Gloriana who used to drape herself round my neck in the garden. We went and asked if we could have Harriet. No arguments were proffered and she had a collar round her neck the second she was in the house. Fortunately for everyone, Harriet decided A was the woman for her, and didn’t try to usurp either Zappa or Morph.
Harriet settled in and wasn’t going to run away from Zappa, unlike Morph. Morph wanted to be her uncle but she wasn’t interested. It was a pity really, if they had ganged up a bit Zappa would have calmed down. Sadly we never had the chance to find out how this would have worked out, Cats don’t last long in New Cross and Zappa was run over on that @***## road, aged only 7, a few days before we were due to move house to somewhere marginally more peaceful.
I’m only half way through this tribute to the felines in my life, but blogs are meant to be short and sweet, and this is over 2000 words, so watch out for part 2 at a later date.
I’ve been decorating the living room, and the piano was really getting in my way – too heavy to move! Solved that, (thanks Muireann) with a bit of lateral thinking and a long pole.
So my imaginary blog reader is now asking themselves: Why is she on about pianos? Can she even play the piano? Naah… I can pick out a tune with one hand, I can make up and instantly forget a random cluster of pleasant-sounding chords and seemingly connected notes. I sometimes think I don’t really have a right to own a piano, given how little I make of it. However it got me thinking about my relationship to the beast in the parlour.
The first piano I had anything to do with was my Gran’s. It was a black, highly polished upright, very respectable with thickly coated keys that slipped under my fingers very satisfyingly, and I remember it having a nice rounded deep mellow tone.
it was a place for silver framed photographs and glass paperweights, and in my extreme youth, for posting shiny new Christmas pennies between the keys.
As we each got old enough to show sufficient interest my Gran started teaching us to play. As she lived several miles away this was too sporadic to have much impact, but I remember announcing my intention to learn properly when I was about seven. In this I was heavily influenced by my then school teacher the lovely Miss Woodward (who played clarinet) and some jealousy of my old sister who at the time was current recipient of Gran’s efforts to inculcate some music in us.
I remember my Mum asking me very earnestly whether I really meant it, and me being rather cavalier in saying yes, having not the slightest idea what I was signing up for. I think we were on a train at the time, on our way to our annual holiday at a once imposing Victorian seaside resort that was rather down at heel by then, but that’s a whole different story.
I’m not sure about the exact circumstances but it’s my story, so if I’ve elaborated or rolled incidents together that’s my prerogative.
As I remember it, this holiday was the first week of the school summer break and therefore coincided with my birthday, and when we got back Mum announced that a lady round the corner would be giving me lessons once a week in future. This lady (was she called Mrs Gardiner?- it’ll do) had two very impressive grand pianos side by side and nose to tail in her living room. Her house was an exact replica of ours, but seemed bigger, I can’t imagine we could have got two grand pianos into our house. I don’t remember how much this cost but it was measured in Guineas I think seven for ten weeks. There wasn’t really any such thing as a Guinea any more, but it was a delicate way of asking for more than a pound. So once a week I went for a lesson, before school, and a couple of times a week I went to practice when Mrs Gardiner had no other pupils.
Not long after this, another neighbour, Mrs Hall of whom I was very fond, offered the use of her piano for practice, so instead of Mrs Gardiner, I went to Mrs Hall most evenings for an hour at her small upright in her very dark back living room.
And then mum bought me a piano. I think Mrs Gardiner sourced it, as it came from a house in her road, where the incumbent had died. It cost five pounds, and probably cost more than that to get it shifted down the steep garden steps and up the road to us.
This was a beautiful piano. A double hammered upright in walnut veneer, we called her Emmeline – she had scrolled feet and tiny candelabra barely big enough to take cake candles and had two bronze medals awarded at a Paris exhibition… not personally I assume. The piano tuner Mr da Souza, was in love with her. I loved that piano. I held a concert for Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Hall to celebrate her arrival. I think it was probably at this point that I realised not everyone was quite as enthusiastic about my vast musical talent as I was. My dad once made some comment about me thinking I would have to choose between being a world-famous author or a world-famous concert pianist; I took him seriously at the time…
Mrs Gardiner began giving lessons at my school and I got to hear how much more talented her other pupils were compared to me, and because (I think!) I now could have free lessons at school, I was also put in for piano exams at the conservatoire in Blackheath.
I passed, but I didn’t enjoy the experience – I don’t think I was very well prepared, either in my ability, or my understanding of what was expected. I remember Mrs Gardiner commenting that she’d had feedback about her pupils all being rather tentative in their touch. I think she was terribly hurt by this and we all thrashed the piano conscientiously for a bit then went back to our lady-like habits.
I can’t remember when I stopped having lessons, or when I stopped playing, but I know I got very self-conscious about playing Emmeline. I know there was one occasion when I went to practice before breakfast and just sat there, looking at her, thinking it was too early and someone would hear me.
Mum sold Emmeline to be turned into a drinks cabinet… She says it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but I remember it distinctly, and still regret it.
My next piano was rescued from an empty flat when I worked in housing. I was still uncomfortable about people listening to me play, so I wouldn’t put it against a party-wall, and consequently it ended up living in the hall. This was an almost dead piano. The piano tuner said the frame was cracked and euthanasia would be kinder. I resisted – there was nothing more soothing after a tough day at work than to crash about on a piano that gave as good as it got. So there it stayed in the hall, until the house had to be underpinned, (no connection!) and it was ridiculous to store it, so I gave it away.
I missed it as soon as it had gone, but it was many years until I got the latest. Neighbours were moving and the children had outgrown wanting to play. I went round and looked a bit doubtfully at this enormous rather unattractive player-piano. Mindful of the old wreck I’d rescued before, I got in touch with the piano tuner, who referred me to a player piano specialist.
The specialist looked it over said it was rather a good piano but that the player function was adrift, and I rashly decided to give it house room, rather against A’s wishes.
“Will you play it?” she asked suspiciously.
“It will play itself,” I replied, having not asked enough questions.
Men came to move the monster 2 doors up to its new home … well they tried … player-pianos weigh about twice what a normal one does. two hours of cursing sweating and effort from the men and mild hysteria from me, and the monster was squatting in my dining room, a little too close to the door, but notionally where I’d asked for it to be. The men went mopping brows and still cursing. And there it still sits: I only want it moved a couple of feet but it is completely impossible without specialist equipment. Occasionally I worry that it will actually cause the need for more underpinning.
Then I discovered that this type of player piano (an Angelus) was discontinued in the late 1920’s and you can hardly get rolls for it, almost any other make would be no problem. The specialist said there was no point fixing the mechanism unless I had something to play on it. Sometimes I think about taking out the pipes and bellows to relieve the weight.
The neighbours sometimes comment when they hear me playing, but I don’t mind so much these days.
Early music is a passion I share with my partner A, and a chance discovery led to the inspiration for an historical novel, The Cold Time.
Sometime in 1993 , arriving early for a film at the Odeon at Marble Arch, we headed into HMV to browse, and I picked up a new release in the early music section: Sinfonye’s the sweet look and loving manner.
Dire title, I thought, lovely cover– a medieval painting of two women in a garden. Look like lesbians I thought, turning over the CD to discover that what I had was recordings of very rare songs, written by women in 12th and 13th century Languedoc. I couldn’t resist, I bought it, loved it, confirmed that one of the songs was indeed written by a woman for a woman; and I was off- research, research, research!
I found The Women Troubadours a book of transcripts of the songs with English translations and brief biographies by Meg Bogin. There was sufficiently little real information to leave plenty for my imagination to fill in. I found all the songs interesting and full of personality, and apart from the song that started it all of, Domna Maria written by Beiris de Romans, I found my title in a song by Azalais de Porcaraiges (Portiragnes 5m east of Béziers) which follows the traditional troubadour motif of using the seasons and weather as a metaphor for her love life:
Ar em al freg temps vengut
quel gels el neus e la faingna
e.l aucellet estan mut
c’us de chantar non s’afraingna
-e son sec li ram pels plais-
que flors ni foilla noi nais
ni rossignols noi crida
que l’am e mai me reissida.
Now we are come to the cold time
of ice and snow and mud
and all the birds are mute
for not one inclines to sing;
and the hedge-branches are dry
no leaf nor bud springs up,
nor calls the nightingale
who woke me once in May.
before going into a strange litany of (apparently) places she’s saying goodbye to because she will never see her lover any more.
To God I commend Bel Esgar
and the City of Orange
and Gloriet’ and the Caslar
and the lord of all Provence
and all those who wish me well
and the arch where the attacks are shown.
I’ve lost the man who owns my life,
and I shall never be consoled.
The references are obscure, but I think, from having visited Orange, and researched (oh the research) architectural terms, that it is her lover, Raimbault d’Aurenga’s home she is referring to: Gloriet is a term used for a tower, and the arch with the attacks is a Roman triumphal arch which at the time she was writing was effectively Raimbaut’s front door. These days it is marooned on a traffic island on the ring road with heavy trucks pounding past. I love this vignette of loneliness, it is all the more challenging to realise that what seems to be a complaint against the medieval equivalent of not returning her calls, may actually be in response to Raimbaut’s death.
As I researched further I discovered there was overlap with the Cathars in terms of time and territory, and loosely at least in politics and got some interesting responses when I discussed my research with friends and family.
A lot of nonsense is talked about the Cathars, and as an atheist I have to make a bit of effort to relate to it all, but I was quite shocked by how ruthlessly the Cathars were treated; I remember mentioning this to my mum, whose response was ‘they’d all be dead by now anyway’ and a friend, who got cross and seemed to think that being distressed by people being tortured and burnt alive put me in some ‘anti catholic’ bracket, which hadn’t even occurred to me: I had been thinking of the crusade as a land grab by the French, rather than anything motivated by genuine religious feeling of any kind. Once she had raised it, of course, the whole religious angle became more of a motif in my research.
So, more research; too much research. I have an entire bookcase of ‘essential’ reading that I shall probably never finish, obscure books about Jewish ghettos in Provence in the thirteenth century, articles on littoral erosion … books on attitudes to death, building techniques, farming practices, the position of women and the persecution of heretics, more than half of them are in French.
I had lessons to refresh my French (not a lot of use with a medieval vocabulary- you would not credit how long it took me to cotton on to Terre Sante meaning the Holy Land and Outremer overseas, nor the likelihood of coming across témoin (witness) and blessé (wounded) during your average French class) I now own an enormous French dictionary which is too heavy to lift, as well as smaller Provençal, Latin and Spanish dictionaries, just in case!
We spent a total of five weeks over a two-year period touring Cathar castles and hilltop villages, abbeys, rivers, pilgrim spots, mountains, graveyards, springs and ruins. The biggest realisation I made (apart from how much further apart everything was than I had expected) was that part of the reason the Albigensian Crusade was successful must be that most of the castles they were attacking were effectively facing the wrong way- expecting attack to come from the south.
I met Stevie Wishart, director of Sinfonye a while back, at an early music festival at the South Bank, and thanked her for setting me off on what sometimes feels like a wild goose chase, but has widened my horizons considerably, in terms of musical taste, philosophical and architectural understanding, to say nothing of languages and travel!
Quick update, follow this link for the Radio 4 Early Music Show special on Trobairitz, not sure how long it’s up for but while it’s there, an hour’s music that’s spot on.