Tuesday 30 January 2024

A REVIEW of Northanger Abbey a play by ZOE COOPER


HEN:  Sam Newton : Henry Tilney.  

CATH Rebecca Banatvala: Catherine Moreland 

IZ:      AK Golding : Isabella Thorpe


Jane Austens Northanger Abbey is often seen as a bit of fun. A swipe at the popular Gothic novel genre of the 18th century. A swipe at the gold diggers such as the Thorpes looking to get themselves advantageous marriages to better themselves financially. The personal development of a young girl supposedly with no hope of a prestigious marriage,plain looking, coming from a very average country family, poorly educated, inexperienced in life and who lives in a dream world of fantasy her life enlivened by the vicarious thrills of the Gothic novel. Zoe Coopers play inspired by the novel has all that but each of those elements are seen in an entirely new way making us think about Austen’s novel differently and perhaps more reflectively. It certainly made me think of Austen’s own life in a different way because of this play. 

Walking through the entrance to the Orange Tree Theatre which is located opposite The Orange Tree public house in Richmond upon Thames we were greeted by a smiling lady welcoming us. Two other ladies , one scanned the bar codes on my phone tickets and the other handed me the copy of the play script I had ordered online. We were welcomed effusively, all smiles and kind words. The  process of arriving at and entering the theatre  was honestly heart warming. The Orange Tree Theater is located in an old Victorian School House. We found our way into the Lower Circle, a bank of four rows of continuous benches encircling the whole arena with the performance space in the middle. An upper balcony provided more rows of seating encircling the upper level. Intimate, cosy Shakespeares Wooden O. “All the World is a stage.” (As You Like It.)  Deep pink carpeted arena and a pink balcony . The whole theatre is small and compact. Five sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling. In anticipation of ,”Balls,” no doubt.

We found our seats and on my seat there lay a white envelope  with my name on it. I wondered what it could be. I opened it and was very pleasantly surprised to see that I had received a handwritten message welcoming me personally to the Orange Tree Theatre.

Zoe Cooper has used an academic approach to literacy criticism. Her play is about what lies under the surface of Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey. Queer Theory represents a belief that inborn benign differences between people entitle everyone to equal rights. It is a  way to analyze art, literature, music and the world around us. She has picked out personality traits and also how relationships between the characters work together.

The seats filled up and the three actors who are to perform for us appeared from three different corner entrances.The prologue began. The  actors, made eye contact with some of the audience ,conversed between each other as to who will do what and who needs to don which costumes. This whole improvistaion style lent itself to a fluidity between the three  characters, who play all the parts between them, in their relationships and in their sexual orientation. 

The play  begins. Sam Newton dons a full length dress with bulging lump positioned pregnantly over his stomach. He lays on the chaise long  in the middle of the arena groaning with  agonising birth pains that he / she  is obviously beset with. At this part he plays ,Mam, (a northern term for Mum or mother) Mam is Mrs Moreland  about to give birth to , they don’t know at first the sex of the baby.After much histrionics, screaming, crouching, pushing and heaving the baby is born.

CATH and HEN/MAM ”A boy!”

IZ/MIDWIFE “It must be a boy…”

CATH No, it can’t be because we are doing my/birth.

As you can imagine There is a lot of slipping in and out of different rolls at this point. It’s hilarious.Although I do wonder at all the mothers in the audience, what they made of a male actor portraying child birth. 

It was at this point in the play,at the very beginnng, that the term ,Pantomime ,came to my mind. Those of you who are British you will already know exactly what I mean.

”Oh no we don’t!” 

“ Oh yes you do!”

“He’s behind you!”


( Groan as much as you like!!!!)

But for those of you not British, I won’t hold it against you, ( another well used pantomime innuendo)I will explain briefly.

A pantomime ,is usually based on a fairy tale such as Cinderella.It is an exaggerated form of play, that includes men dressed as women, and women dressed as men.  There is a lot of audience participation, like shouting at the actors. Pantomime actors do expect to be shouted at by the audience.There must  lots of corny jokes, loads of innuendos and pots of gold. Oh yes and its performed specifically for children.

This play has many elements of Pantomime although it really is not a Pantomime at all.The serious points being made are too important.

The play, for all its fun and humour, takes this Austen novel and dissects it analytically into various  levels of meaning.

The beginning I referred to,  the birth of Catherine Moreland , CATH, suggests you question male and female rolls played by individual actors but also the inner feminine and masculine side.

The character of Henry Tilney, HEN ( another one of those northern terms, for a well loved female friend) lover of lace and choosing female clothing for his sister, supposedly, is one example. Henry also gets as much of lifes experiences from novel reading as Catherine does. A supposedly female pursuit.

The role of John Thorpe, on the other hand , the absolute opposite of HEN, also played by Sam Newton, is the supreme pantomime act. A thigh slapping, horse goading testosterone fueled, egotistical  maniac.He remnded me of Rik Mayal in the early episodes of Black Adder. Iwonder that his whipping horses, goading them on to faster and faster speeds, is a sexual metaphor or maybe not so much a metaphor . bestiality is not unknown. Would he have beaten Catherine like his horses if ever they did marry.?

The important relationship though in this play is that of Cath and IZ. They love each other not just on a platonic level. The second act ends in the two of them kissing.They knew soon after they first met I think, although perhaps Cath didn’t have the words for what she was experiencing.  Izzy has her male  side. She ,”decks,” a soldier with a punch. Some  soldiers about town had begun to pester and threaten them. It is quite a threatening moment when the soldiers become aware of Caths accent and country origins. The ,”country,” is played on. “She must be used to cunt try matters” the lead soldier, played by IZ by the way quickly slipping between different characters, is  sinister and worse than John Thorpe who is bad enough of course. At other times IZ tells us she  dresses in a man’s great coat and hat and wanders the streets unchaperoned and unknown.  In the play Catherine dreams of a marriage between herself and IZ taking place in the grounds of her fathers vicarage,her father marrying them and soft petals falling from  the cherry tree above. 

The use of ,”Mam,” a northern name for mother, is the name given to  Catherine Morelands mother. Catherine speaks with a northern dialect, probably a Bolton accent, north of Manchester  as do her mother and father.  Isabella Thorpe and John Thorpe speak with more received pronunciation. The English aristocracy, of which Jane Austen writes a lot in her novels,we always  imagine, from the films, speak with received pronunciation. But are we sure in the 18th century that they all spoke with  received pronunciation? Did some of the aristocracy speak with regional accents? Why shouldn’t Austen’s characters speak with a regional accent? 

In this version of Northanger Abbey the village ,CATH comes from is not  Fullerton a southern Wiltshire village near Salisbury as it is in the novel. It is a northern village hence her northern accent. I wondered why? This play is having its world premier here in the South at The Orange Tree Theater in Richmnd upon Thames, which is a wealthy upper class sort of place. However from Richmond the play will travel to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in North Yorkshire, The Theatre by The lake in Cumbria in The Lake District ( very beautiful too I must add) and the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. All, apart from The Orange Tree, are in the north of England. Zoe Cooper has written the script to make people feel at home, ‘up north.’ as much as ‘down south.’The emaphasise on the north in the play  creates an awareness of the north south divide in the Untied Kingdom. Often the so called divide  is seen as a joke but economically it is a real thing. That north south divide would have been there in Austens’ time. Industry happened ,”up north.”Spending the wealth derived from the industries happened,”down south.”

Is Catherine the writer of this novel? Is Catherine Moreland  Jane Austen? She actually says at one point. “I am the writer.” And the ending of the play suggests so too.We can discern this near the start of the play when the Allans bring Catherine  to Bath. The carriage ride is an adventure full of dangers and  highwaywomen ( already Cath’s inner life is emerging,excited by a dangerous woman). Of course none of this actually happens. The Allens are a little spooked by Catheirnes wild imagination. Remember Emma Woodhouse,  thinks she can direct relationships between people. Has Catherine Moreland  achieved it in the fictional /reality of her mind?  

CATH makes her drab life in a drab country village with ordinary boring parents exciting through her reading and imagination.You wonder what Jane Austen’s life as a spinster would have been if she hadn’t written novels.A pretty drab colourless sort of life I think.I am reminded of Harriet Benn, the impoverished vicars daughter who lived in Chawton  near the Austens and Austen often mentions in her letters. And the question arises, what did women do about their sexuality if they didn’t marry in the 18th century? Is it possible for a human  to cut themselves off from being a sexual person, from being themselves? Of course not. Can we expect that of Jane Austen or Catherine Moreland?. If they didn’t find the right man because the right man was not out there for them what close relationships did they have? Do all of Jane Austens heroines need and want a happy ending? Is marriage really the happy ending? I often shudder at what happened to Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice.

Zoe cooper has chosen her words very  carefully and creates maximum impact, sometimes in a humorous way but always she makes us reflect.Towards the end of the play John Thorpe and Cath are at a ball.CATH has tried everything to deflect John Thorpes attentions . He on the other hand takes ,no, for a ,yes. He just thinks she is playing hard to get. 

HEN/JOHN THORPE: Still never mind,we are here now. Despite your games! Or perhaps because of them. Dancing together!

CATH:I am not dancing with anyone. I am dancing near many people. That is the custom for country dancing is it not?... Our dancing is polymorphous.

HEN/ JOHN THORPE: Polymorphous! Polyamorous! Poo Poo.I consider the country dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity to one man and complaisance to him are the principle duties of both…”

This is a little out of the blue.Polymorphous is understandable, but  where did  polyamorous come from?This throws a whole new light on to the play. Sexual fluidity, different sexual orientations, have all been explored but the idea of polyamorous makes us think again. Who? where? what? Quite something for John Thorpe to come up with at this juncture.

I have begun to think Northanger Abbey is a sort of shadow autobiography of Jane Austen written by Austen but through the mind of Catherine Moreland? We can map the events and characterisations in the play on to Austens life. The men Austen knew and had those truncated relationships with. Did she really want to marry a man? She had strong life long friendships with  females. Like CATH she had  brothers and lived mostly a country life apart from her sojourn in Bath of course. It is worth thinking about. This play certainly makes you wonder.  

There is a two part ending to the play.We have the bit where Cath has been returmed home in a sudden abrupt manner by General Tilney because he believes she is poor and certainly not the heiress he thought she was. Henry turns up at Caths village soon after. He is mortified by his fathers actions and asks her father for her hand in marriage. In this version CATH has discovered herself. She knows her true love is IZ. Henry himself perhaps has to learn his true nature yet. 

“CATH: No.We.That is not…

Because I did betray you,Henry. And it is..

That would not have been enough for me anyway. And it must not be enough for you either.

IZ/HEN…And I don’t expect that you and I shall ever see each other again.

An epilogue occurs. 

HEN: And some years later…

CATH , when visiting a shop sees a female figure examining a new volume. It just happens to be this play script. When she turns it is IZ. IZ has discovered herself in this volume. CATH recalls being under the cherry tree at the start of this story in her garden at home ,”where I started to write.”

So, no traditional happy ending but a reflective ending.

The play is acted strongly by the three very good actors. Sam Newton and Rebecca Banatvala both trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. AK Golding trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.They are very believable in their parts , parts that sometimes alternate between two characters, the same actor playing each part, characters that change their sex and sexuality, changes that often are denoted by a simple piece of costume. 

Zoe Cooper plays with words adding meaning and depth. After her first menstrual period enacted during Act One Scene 3 while playing rough games with her brother Nigel, specifically re-enacting Boewulf  Nigel goads his sister telling her ,

” Real life women cannot have any  sorts of adventures and must only be sensible …and subservient.” 

Nigel repeats the word, subservient, making much of it, he having recently read it in Dr Johnsons Dictionary. 

It is a  word that describes the plight of women in the 18th century. Something that Austen in her novels shows women struggling with and sometimes overcoming or at least finding ways to manage. When she first arrives in Bath with the Allens she is pronounced ready for ,”balls.” Even I had to stifle a giggle.There is of course the mysogenistic soldiers encounterd by IZ and CATH on Milsom Street who play with the word ,”cunt-ry.”

Austen herself did not like the name Richard. Some aversion to the King Richards in medieval history. She says as much in her own youth when she wrote,”The History of England.” CATH’s father is called Richard to CATH’s mortification. Play on words and word jokes pepper the play. Austen would have loved it. 

Online video of the play: 


The Orange Tree Theatre:



Tuesday 28 November 2023

Brixton Pansies ON RAILTON ROAD a review

On Saturday 18th November my wife Marilyn and I attended the matinee performance of ,”ON RAILTON ROAD,” performed at The Museum of the Home,in Shoreditch.  The play has been sold out. A great success. I  bought our tickets on line about three weeks ago. We were lucky to get tickets.  

 The Brixton Pansies, specifically formed by Ian Giles and Louis Rembges  to produce this play ,”On Railton Road,” take their lead from the  ,”agitprop, ”style used by the Brixton Faeries whose play ,”Mr Punch’s Nuclear family,” was first performed in 1976 . That play is combined as a play within a play within ,”On Railton Road.”   Agitprop  is a conjoining of the words ,agitation,and propaganda, to create a politically themed  art. It originated in Russia to promulgate political ideas. The Bolshevics used the  ,”agitprop train” to travel all over Russia spreading their ideas.   The concept  came to Europe in the 1920s and became associated with the dissemination of political ideas.

RAILTON ROAD from Google images

The play, “On Railton Road,” has been written and performed to commemorate the gay community that lived on the Railton Road, in Brixton,  in the 1970s and early 1980s. It relates the struggles they had to survive and to get recognition and legitimacy. It was a fight to normalise gay lives.  

A play about a community living in squats is an apt play to perform at The Museum of The Home. The museum is about ,”home,” in all its manifestations. 

Railton Road

Marilyn began her teaching career in the late 1970s and early 1980s at St Helen’s Primary School  next to Brixton Police Station close to the Railton Road. She taught the children of people who lived in some of the squats on Railton Road. There was a whole mix in the area.  It wasn’t just the gays who lived there. This is mentioned in the play although the play is specifically about the gay community and its struggles.

The different communities didn’t all get on together. The police stirred up hatred towards themselves and the  government of the time and eventually it was the police , with stop and search policies targeting, in particular the black community, who  ignited  the Brixton Riots. This play does not deal with that particular issue. It is mainly about discrimination against the gay community. It is important to see the gay community, though,  in a wider context. 

“On Railton Road,” is one aspect of the cultural mix at the time. It is important social history informing us of the experiences of people who lived it. The play is also  a lot more than just a history lesson. It informs us how gay people  lived together in those squats and their dreams and aspirations and fears.

Number161 Railton Road from Google images.


There is a lot of humour that  informs us at a deep level. The opening scene is the kitchen of a squat , number 161,  Railton Road. Ned, a young man who has met Philip, one of the long term squatters, turns up wanting to see Philip. He obviously has a crush on him. Because of their situation as squatters and gay squatters  at that,  there is a sense of suspicion and lack of trust of anybody new turning up. A lot of joky banter is an obvious defence. The fridge in the kitchen becomes the topic of intense discussion. The plug socket, the source of electricity , the likelihood of fusing the whole house, the possibility of death by electrocution are all subjects for banter. They deflect from Ned wanting to meet Philp and confuse and bamboozle him. 

The fridge and the squat as a whole are all on precarious terms with the local infrastructure and societal norms. The fridge becomes a metaphor for the precarious situation of the gay community. Exaggeration, banter and loudness  cover deeper things.

The theme of Ned and Philips relationship  explores the different feelings desires and wants of these two characters. Ned ,perhaps naively, wants a monogamous relationship. Philip wants to have more fluid relationships. Their interactions reveal how relationships are for gay people. Theirs is a narrow example of possible relationshsips. It also begs the question what other forms of relationships could be formed? Daire at one point mentions  a party when they are all requested to sleep with somebody they haven’t had sex with before. Daire is a character who aims to shock and Ned is suitably shocked. Was a comment like that meant just to shock or was it for real? It opens up ideas about other relationship possibilities. Much of what is said and done in passing requires a deeper analysis on a second reading or watching.   

There are some great comic  cameos of life in the Railton road squats. Should the meat be eaten? Can the so called  ,”goats milk,” provided by the next door squat be  put into their tea? The next door squat does not have a fridge. We get the idea that all food is suspect apart from vegetables that is. There is a  pervasive  sense of suspicion that imbues all the interactions in the play. There is an edge to their lives.

Facilities are shared between the squats. Garden walls between the properties have been knocked down. It is as though they are creating their own ,”Eden,” their own world. Going beyond the environment of their community always has a sense of risk. Breaking into the local Brockwell  Lido and swimming at night when nobody is around is seen as breaking into the ,”real world.”  Sinking bellow, the black water, kissing in the moonlight,  acts of freedom. 

There are the two strands of affirmative action, peaceful and violent, argued over. (Reminded me of the two strands of Suffragette action) Casper wants to blow up W H Smiths, who have banned the publication Gay News for a number of reasons. Daire wants a more peaceful approach by educating people with demonstrations, banners and street theatre. It certainly makes you think about what is effective and can anything be effective? What processes bring about change?

Lambeth Town Hall

The legal processes with the council to get  ownership of the properties on the Railton Road is dealt with in detail. How can they get the money to put down a deposit? The tortuous scene when Marie goes to Lambeth Council to get recognition for the squatters is a lesson in dealing with officialdom. Admitting to being squatters is not the right thing. She is ignored. The council only deals with Registered Housing Associations or Housing Cooperatives. You have got to get your terms right. The interaction with the council official is comic, sad and serious all in one. The squatters need to become something recognisable to the government. They turn to Croydon Council and get registered as a Housing Cooperative. Jargon , hoops to jump through, becoming legitimate, playing the game, all come to mind. You’ve got to join them to be recognised by them. Laughable if it wasn’t serious. Once they are official Lambeth Council recognise them.

The non-relationships with other communities in the area is discussed and the effects it has on the gay community. Atom, explains. 

“ The Jamaicans came to London, Casper. To Brixton. A huge established community on top of another established community. And then came us.   Layer upon Layer. And at the moment we are refusing to lace together.”

The landlady of the  George Pub ejects the gays from her pub. “Talking to people,” was not acceptable apparently. This reveals some of the tensions living in the area. Those layers one on top of the other, not .”lacing together.” The landlady of the pub is a sort of Margeret Thatcher.  As the pub landlady she has to make an income from the people locally. She tolerated the gay community for a while . The black community are banned form the pub too. It makes you wonder how she made an income.The ,”talking to people ,”is telling though. What was the talking? Maybe it was an attempt  by the gays to ,” lace together.,” the community, make links, break down the barriers. We don’t get to know. The landlady could sense friction perhaps? It makes you wonder cynically that keeping the different layers of society at odds works for her more than if they ,”laced together.”

The George pub was burnt down during the Brixton Riots.

 What appears to be acceptable within the area are things such as  The Gay Centre  and a 24 hour hotline that has been set up for the whole country. The lack of enthusiasm by the  gays for these gay facilities shows their ineffectiveness. The phone line is meant to give support and advice  but is mostly abused by pranksters. Why keep that going?

The second act shows that the  gay squatters communty is eventually fragmented. Have they lost? Or are they just absorbed into society?Casper goes back to his parents in Hampstead. Some of the activists in squats came from wealthy middle class backgrounds and could return home when things got too difficult. Others had to stay. They had no choice. There is a  reference to one of them claiming benefits and others who didn’t have to claim benefits. Many kept quiet about where their money came from it seems.  Philip becomes head of English at a secondary school.Daire writes a play for street theatre (possibly to be performed outside of W.H.SMITHS).  A  looping reference to the play now being performed here in the museum in 2023. Daire also has obtained a mortgage. How normal can he get? There is reference to deaths of friends. “Who is still with us? “ A reference to aids. 

So much is got into this play.  On one level it is light, comic and loud. But it is densely layered , a well structured play and  reveals levels of social comment and personal relationships.

Things are systemic in our society and makes me think the only way to change is to start again. Maybe on one level I am with Caspar. I think that is called, revolution. 

Apparent change can be superficial.. We only have to look back in history not too many generations.  Families, the patriarchy , attitudes to relationships and sexuality, how have they  changed? Do things get better or do they  morph into something just as virulent.  

Taken from a book of photographs from Ian Townson's archive.

 Interspersed throughout the play are scenes from another play, “Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family.“ This was first performed in 1976 by the agitprop group, The Brixton Faeries. It takes the  familiar Punch and Judy seaside story from Victorian times and uses it to show the nuclear family with Mr Punch as a misogynist and homophobic father. Things go wrong for Mr Punch when his wife challenges him and exerts her rights. Mr Punch strangles her. He kills his son who he discovers is gay. He is taken to court and the judge exonerates Mr Punch telling him as the master of the house he was put under intolerable stress by his family. It wasn’t his fault. He leaves the court blameless, free to start a new family. The patriarchal family reforming itself. 

One of the main strands of ,"On Railton Road," is about family. Are we born into a family or can we choose our family? Can we form new sorts of family? A family should be about love, acceptance nonjudgement. A dream perhaps. The play illustrates the underlying attitudes of society as a whole to the family, patriarchy and gays.

Although this play is specifically about the gay squatters on the Railton Road in the 70s and 80s it is much more than that. By looking at one aspect of society it makes us think much more broadly about the whole of society. How is it structured? What are its prejudices?How does it work against so many people ? Why do these systemic prejudices occur, whether it is homophobia or racism or sexism?  How is the struggle to be continued?

The acting is joyous. There are  flamboyant performances throughout that are larger than life. The audience sits either side of the stage and the play is performed in the middle. We felt as though we were  in the action.  

A musician plays and sings to provide background music.  I often got side tracked to focus on her quiet beautiful voice and playing.

The play ends with quotes from some of our greatest poets. 

Chaucer: so fair a garden do I know of none.

Milton: They hand in hand with wander steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way.

Spencer: “Where justice grows there grows eke greater grace.”

Shakespeare: “I know a bank where oxlips and the nodding violets grows.”

A world that is within grasp?.


 We as a society still find it difficult to normalise different groups. In a way there should be no groups, just people, and an acceptance of everybody as they are. There are debates about how we teach sex education in schools? This government, a right wing one, is heavily involved in what and how we teach. The National Curriculum is not education. It is a particular set of things our government think we need to know and understand in the way they want us to understand them. Schools are required to discuss with parents what they are going to teach in sex education. It is the only curriculum area where that happens. Does that mean it’s the parents who write the sex education policies in schools? Is this a way  for society to progress or is it a way of freezing our attitudes and nothing changing? The teaching of history can’t be far behind when it comes to government control. The right wing press say and write WOKE with a snarl of disgust. In its simplest definition it means being aware and awake to things. That can only be good. So how can change occur? We need a much more open societal discussion about sex education and different sexualities and what it means. (The  ,”talking,” that was attempted in The George and got short shrift.) 

Recently there was an outcry, during the covid pandemic, about relationships between teenage boys and girls. Some girls decided to publish on social media the misogynistic and rape culture they experienced from certain boys of their own age . Schools were named. This seemed to be more so with single sex schools and, rather pertinently ,seemed to happen more in private schools than state schools.  Good sex and relationship  education  should be a priority for all schools taking into account all sexualities. 

The conservatives, and in particular Rishi Sunak ,are against transgender children even being allowed to discuss and explore their sexuality.  They are  condemning children to suffer in silence. That is a form of torture if ever there was. We are who we are. 

Maybe the answer is to look at family life, school and society again. What should a healthy family look like? What should a healthy school look like? What can we do to change things? It takes a lot of open conversations which of course are not allowed incase some people are upset. We know who will be upset of course.

Some Christian churches are tentatively accepting gay marriage. Some refuse to condone gay marriage. Systemic homophobia is part of societies fabric still. We still live in a very narrow thinking society. What can be wrong and dangerous about people wanting to be themselves and all of us joining the conversation.


  The Museum of The Home is in a struggle to have Robert Geffrey’s statue removed. He was an enthusiastic promoter of slavery in the 17th century. The Museum of the Home would like to set his statue  within the context of his life and times, so an informed discussion about his life can take place. A museum,   part of the establishment, is at odds with the establishment. How can things really change and develop so we live in a world fit for everybody?


W H Smiths:  

From the Ian Townson archive. 

“ Throughout his time living in the Brixton gay community in the 1970s, Townson took part in demonstrations regarding other political causes including antifascist solidarity with working class struggles, the W H Smith campaign to defend free speech, defence of Gay News against prosecution and many others.”


“ In January 1978 W. H. Smith dropped Gay News from distribution after a  row with the paper over its coverage of the ,”Paedophile Information Exchange.” W. H. Smiths action prompted widespread backlash causing protests outside of its branches  and at the firm’s Annual general Meeting.”


The Ian Townson archive: https://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/collections/ian-townson-archive

Brixton Faeries: https://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/brixton-faeries/

Brixton Pansies at The Museum of The Home: https://www.thereviewshub.com/on-railton-road-museum-of-the-home-london/

The Museum of The Home: 


“The George,” pub Railton Road Brixton:


Saturday 14 October 2023

THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE (NHS)and my recent experience with it.


Aneurin Bevan.


On the 5th July1948 the National Health Service was born. An apt use of personification. The NHS has helped bring ,probably, tens of millions of babies into this world during its 75 years of existence. The NHS took a while to gestate and come into existence, get born. The minister of health in the Clement Atlee’s post war Labour government, Aneurin Bevan, the son of a Welsh coalminer, who left school at the age of 14, brought it to fruition. He inaugurated the NHS at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, Manchester. The motivation to create the NHS was to provide a good healthcare for all. It had three founding principles which are still paramount today; firstly; the service was to help everybody, secondly; healthcare would be free and thirdly; the care required would be based on need rather ability to pay. The NHS was to be  financed by the government from taxation. This how it is still financed today, with all the problems of rising costs and staffing issues and continually developing new drugs, procedures and modernising technologies that come along with that. It is an ever evolving organisation which needs managing with foresight, imagination and adaptability.

Before the NHS was actually inaugurated many people for decades had thought health care in the United Kingdom was insufficient and needed revolutionising. In  1909 a minority report by the Royal Commission on Poor Law headed by the social reformer Beatrice Webb argued for a replacement to the Poor Law which was still in existence since the time of Victorian Workhouses. However many in authority still believed that the poor and individual citizens should be responsible for themselves.This appears plausible but the vast chasm between the poor and the wealthy made this approach not only narrow minded and promoting self interest but was deadly for the less well off in society. The poor could not afford health care. In one way you could say that the nay sayers believed in a  Darwinian approach, the survival of the fittest.  From every moral ,social and even economic argument that was not right. Just from a societal economic point of view, If you have a healthy strong population at all levels of society surely the country will profit? We all know if we are healthy and strong we are happier and lead a better life. But, as always, what many had been used to, been brought up to, with attitudes and beliefs from the past ,it is always difficult to overcome. People find it difficult to accept change. Many powerful arguments for change were  disregarded by the Liberal Government under Lloyd George. This did not deter those who wanted change and knew change was necessary. Dr Benjamin Moore from Liverpool had a pioneering vision and wrote a book called “The Dawn of the Health Age.”. He was the first to use the term  National Health Service in his book. He helped create a state wide  Medical Service Association in 1912. In 1929 the Local Government Act required Local Authorities to run medical services for everyone.On the 1st April 1930 the London County Council (LCC) began to run services in London for everyone.They took control of 140 hospitals and medical schools and abolished the Metropolitan Asylum Board.  London had the largest healthcare service at that time. 

Dr AJ Cronin wrote a novel called “The Citadel” published in 1937.It promoted new ideas about medical ethics inspiring ideas about a National Health Service. In 1938 “The Citadel, “was made into a film which many of the population watched in cinemas.

A site showing the effects of the London Blitz 1941. (70,000 civilians died. and many more injured during the entire Blitz on British cities.)

By1939 the outbreak of World War 2 came about.The people of Britain were to endure the Luftwaffe Blitzs. All the major industrial cities and ports around the coast of Britain were bombed.Casualties dead and injured were going to be inevitable. Out of wartime necessity a health service fit to react was needed.  For the period of wartime a National Emergency Hospital Service was instigated and run by the Government.

This was the first iteration of our National Health Service. Out of wartime necessity it was proved that a health service run by the government for everybody and free at point of need could work.

In 1941 the Ministery of Health was in the process of agreeing a post war health policy. In 1942 The Beveridge Report recommended ,”comprehensive health and rehabilitation services.” This was supported by all parties.

When the war ended people had got used to the National Emergency Hospital Service and expected it to continue in some way. The cabinet endorsed the White paper put forward by the Conservative minister for health, Henry Willink in 1944 which set out the guidelines for a national health service. It was to be funded by general taxation This is still the way it is funded to this day in 2023. Initially everyone including visitors to Britain were to be included. Reciprocal agreements were made with other countries  and it was to be free at the point of delivery. This is a fundamental principal that has continued since its founding. When labour got into power in 1945 under the Clement Atlee  post war government Atlee got his minster of health Aneurin Bevin to take on the completion of the national health service.which he successfully did. There was and always has been a cross party consensus and agreement about the NHS.The British people consider the NHS a fundamental part of being British.

The National Health Service.


Just after my 71st birthday in June this year, I noticed I was having stomach problems. There was nothing major just some niggling symptoms that didn’t seem to go away. I felt fit and strong. I went out  jogging most days in the local park. Marilyn was obviously more worried about my symptoms than I was. She persuaded me to phone up my doctor.I described to Dr Chang over the phone what was happening. I remember telling her I actually thought it was one of the pills I was taking that didn’t agree with me.I take statins and clopidogrel for a high cholesterol level which, by the way, is no longer high. My last test showed my cholesterol  was at normal levels. Dr Chang sounded doubtful it was the pills and invited me  to her surgery that afternoon for a physical check-up. She first felt my stomach. She took my blood pressure and then she took blood samples to send off to be tested. She gave me a ,”poo,” test kit to take home and return to the surgery the next day which I promptly did. The following week Dr Chang invited me back to her surgery. She told me particles of blood were found in my poo. She organised a CT scan, an MRI scan and a colonoscopy for me the following week at Queen Marys Hospital in Roehampton.

So, in brief, this is what has happened to me in the hands of the NHS.

I had a CT (computed tomography) scan followed, days later by a an MRI  (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Both of these took place at Queen Marys Hospital Roehampton. They showed up a number of things I was  certainly not expecting. I was given a colonoscopy at Kingston Hospital. You really do not want me to describe that one. In essence, I was diagnosed with  various polyps showing up inside my colon. However, there was also a large tumour inside my colon. An apparently benign  cyst was also discovered on one of my kidneys. I had to go to Teddington Hospital, for an ultra sound scan on my kidneys. The nurse doing the ultrasound was very off hand and blaze. No concern over my cyst whatsoever. A good thing, I think. 

Every Monday there is a conference in the Kngston, Surrey area  between a number of top cancer specialists who deal with problems like mine. Two specialists from the  Royal Marsden looked at my scans and results alongside the specialist from Kingston Hospital and a cancer specialist from Croydon Hospital. The two Royal Marsden specialists thought my tumour was a T2 tumour. The others thought it was a T1 tumour. What is the difference, you might ask? There are four layers to the colon. A T1 tumour has only entered the first layer. A T2 has entered the second layer. By the time it gets to a T4 tumour you are in big trouble. The tumour is beginning to spread around your body and a single operation can’t stop it. So what to do? The four specialists couldn’t decide. The two from The Royal Marsden thought I should have the section of my colon with the tumour inside removed and then that would be that. Things would heal up and in the future the  stoma I would have could be reversed, and I would be mostly back to normal. The other two specialists thought I might possibly get away with it being removed internally without cutting into the colon. I went with the Royal Marsden surgeons decision which the surgeon at Kingston also changed his mind towards. He was, after all, going to do the operation on me. The specialists at The Royal Marsden are the country’s top cancer specialists. I was told I might be in hospital for  seven days , possibly a little longer and I would certainly be up and walking the day after my operation. What could be so bad?

The Main Entrance to Kingston Hospital.

Friday 18thAugust Marilyn and I drive to Kingston Hospital at 7am, eventually find a parking space and walk to the building called Kingston Surgical Centre. I register at the reception desk. Oddly enough I have no worries. I don’t feel nervous. A nurse takes me to a room where I change into a hospital gown that reveals my bare backside. When the nurse comes back she gives me another gown to wear in reverse to cover my posterior. Marilyn gives  me a kiss, wishes me good luck and tells me she will see me later that evening. Two lovely anaesthetists take over .My wristwatch is taken off me and put into a box which is labelled with my details. One of the anaesthetists is a Scotsman with a big red beard and I remember the other anaesthetist being jolly and jokey. 

I remember nothing else until I wake up and I am hallucinating. I think I am standing on the ceiling. There are pleated curtains all round me. I can’t get my bearings. I don’t feel any pain until I try to sit up and I get some stabbing jabs in my stomach. I have tubes coming out of me everywhere. One down my nose into my stomach drains my stomach. A black rubber tube coming out of my left side drains blood into a bag attached to my side. I learn that its draining blood out of the operation site. A tube coming out of my bladder drains into a container hooked on to the side of my bed. I only discover that one when I want to go to the toilet and discover there is no reason for me to go to the toilet now. Everything is collected in containers which the nurses empty.I have two drips coming out of my right arm, a saline drip  and an antibiotic and then of course there is the stoma bag . I have two buttons to press. One brings me a nurse. The other gives a me  a dose of morphine if I need it.

Somebody, I think it was the surgeon in one the meetings, with Marilyn and myself, before the operation said that I would feel as though I had been ,

”run over by a bus.” 

A medical technical term I think. In reality after the operation I felt as though I had been run over by a bus and it had then reversed back over me. All my energy and strength had disappeared. Marilyn, Abi and Emily  appeared round my bed. It was an emotional moment.

The stages of recovery I went through included not being able to eat, my stoma not working and dehydration. I was sick a lot.  I was given ,"St Marks Solution, "an extra strong type of Dioralyte. I had to drink a litre a day. It was like drinking sea water. I was sick again. Dehydration was my biggest problem after the operation. I was always on a saline drip, antibiotics and that bloody ,”seawater,” solution. Getting up and walking I could do although on a couple of occasions my blood pressure plummeted and I  had to be helped to a chair. A dietician  visited me and urged me to eat. I felt as though I had to do as I was told. So I ate and then vomited.

Eventually my body seemed to adjust. I started eating. I got stronger and I got home.

I am feeling good now, taking walks and  driving the car again for short journeys. I can’t describe to you what Marilyn has done for me. She has been totally focussed. My diet and the physical changes to my body I still have to get used to,but I am getting there.

I was in hospital for three weeks. Where did the idea of seven days come from?


The main story I want to tell you though is about the doctors, nurses and staff that looked after me and dedicated their expertise and their love to my recovery. Over three weeks I got to know some of them well.

The first nurse I met was soon after I woke from my operation. He was a short ,jolly ,smiling young man form the Philippines. He rolled a trolley up to my bed with a computer screen and keyboard surmounting the trolley. On his screen he literally had everything about me. Every dealing I have had with the NHS throughout my life including every detail about my recent operation and treatment. He spoke to me gently as he took my blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. He took a blood sample out of my arm and he adjusted the drips going into my right arm. Being an exteacher I know how important it is to know people by name and use their name when you meet them. 

Over the next few days  the nurses changed.The first set of nurses, including my gentle , kind gentleman from the Philipines disappeard apparently and a new set took over. This happened in a three day cycle. Every three days the same nurses would  come back on rotation. They worked a shift system.I got to know them all eventually by name and also something of their lives. 

During my three weeks lieing in a hospital bed I had blood taken everyday. The catheters that joined my arm to various drips had to be replaced almost daily because they tended to come loose after a while. The doctors and nurses ran out  of finding suitable veins. They always did in the end but as the days passed finding a good vein was difficult. One young nurse got upset because she couldn’t do it and got a more experienced nurse to place the catheter in my arm One day that same young nurse recognised Abi when she came in to see me. She was in the same year as Abi at The Ursuline Convent. They were able to have a chat together. 

One nurse came form Poland. She was the ward sister on a few occasions.She was short and stocky. I. got to know her quite well. She once was a Polish  international weightlifter. She bemoaned ever being persuaded to take up the sport. Ever since she retired from weightlifting she had to keep to a certain diet and also do exercises to keep her muscles up to a certain level. If she didn’t it would affect her body and wouldn’t do her heart any good. She and her husband loved visiting the Highlands of Scotland and went deep sea fishing off the Scottish Coast. 

Another muscular looking young man who told us it was his 21st birthday one day, had an amazing back story. We all told him how we wished we were all 21 again and assured him he had a whole life ahead of him. He went quiet and said to me.

” I have already had a whole lifetime behind me.”

 I was surprised and asked what he meant. He told us that from the age of 16 he had gone into the Royal Marines and travelled the world. He had been discharged at the age of 19 and went into nursing. He was an expert free climber on rock faces and he was an expert scuba diver. He was so keen now to develop as a nurse and was applying for all sorts of courses.Us old fogies were taken aback to say the least. There were so many surprising stories like these behind many of the nurses we had.

A tall young Irishman , very brusque and dry sense of humour was our ward nurse a couple of times. He didn’t appear very often. He told me he lived in north London and it took an hour and half to drive to Kingston. I asked him why he did it. He said he loved nursing. He was registerd with a system called ,”bank,” which draws on nurses when and where they are needed. He said he only worked two days a week as a nurse. He is also a property developer. He and his wife have just bought two houses to renovate and sell on. He has building skills and his dad and brothers are all in the building trades. He said that was where he was going to make his money. I said , 

“Why do you continue to nurse?” 

“I will always be a nurse. I love  it too much. I can combine the two careers .” 

I remember one night when  a gentleman was moved on to our ward. A jolly West Indian nurse was in charge of us. He had all sorts of problems. He must have had fluid on his lungs and was finding breathing very difficult. This jolly nurse  worked the whole night on him getting hold of oxygen  and a pump to drain his lungs and the rest of us lay awake, all night, in silence listening. A doctor turned up at one stage and approved the nurses treatment and then left. She pulled her desk and laptop close to his bed so she could be with him all the time. She saved his life. That morning he was sitting up eating his breakfast.

Another nurse from Guyana was a ittle disgruntled one morning. She had been watching the Women's World Cup. She told me she had once been an international footballer with the Guyanese team and had played against some of the women in those national teams. She was past her playing days now of course.

The doctors came round every day to assess how we were doing They were so helpful and built up our confidence. Every other day the specialist ,who had  performed my operation, came to see us. He usually had student doctors with him who stood around smiling and listening. Kingston is a University Hospital but we also got nurses and doctors from St Georges Hospital in Tooting. 

I always felt that myself and everybody else were so well looked after and cared for ,and this was during the time doctors, nurses and specialists took turns on strike demanding better pay from the government. Even during strike days  they did not miss a beat. Maybe it was because we were all serious cases . I did ask a nurse one day ,when  the specialists were striking.

“Well what’s the difference today?I don’t notice anything different. “

She just said, 

“There will be no operations today.”

There were three other men on my ward who I also got to know well. We were all retired from our respective careers, a maths teacher, a  cancer research scientist  who  used to work for The Royal Marsden and had lead a team developing radio therapy( I kid you not, nobody escapes the BIG C) and an ex government scientist  who worked on artificial intelligence at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and me an ex primary school teacher. We  enjoyed each other’s company. We formed a team and the nurses called us ,”The Gang.” We all had had similar operations, not exactly the same though. Three of us are dealing with stomas. Anthony, on my right had escaped having a stoma. His colon was able to be re-joined during his operation.

Then I met ,”Magic.”He was there every day. He was an old Italian man who delivered our lunch and dinner to us. He knew I couldn’t eat much. He offered me delicacies such as cheese on crackers , which oddly enough I craved. 

“ Red Leicester?” he whispered to me giving me a sly sideways grin. 

“Oh yes. I’d love Red Leicester.”

On one occasion Magic gave me an apple. Apples are something else I began to crave oddly. However I couldn’t eat the skin.I asked Magic if he had a sharp knife I could use to peel it. We were only given blunt knives for our lunch and dinner that wouldn’t cut through blancmange if you tried. Magic looked at me. 

“I got just the thing,” he said. 

He came back with a knife, his knife, that was so sharp I could have shaved with it. Magic stood beside me while I peeled the apple in one  continuous strip.

“Wow Mr Tony.” 

He smiled.

After using that knife I have wondered since whether ,Magic, does a bit of freelance surgery on the side. I don’t know how he got the name, Magic. I heard the nurses calling him that.


Last week the Labour Party had its national Conference at Liverpool. This particular conference was important and what was said , everybody in the country needed to listen to. We are coming up to a general election next year and the Conservatives are bankrupt of deas and indeed any moral standing after the debacle of recent years They are a mess and we really do need a proper change of government. Talking about the National Health Service and what Labour will do for the NHS ,Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party is reported to having said in his party conference speech.

“Sir Keir noted that the shifts he planned for the NHS would be funded by cancelling ‘non-dom’ tax status, which allows someone who was born in another country to pay tax in the UK only on their UK income.

He said: “We will invest that money in boosting capacity, we will get the NHS working around the clock and we will pay staff properly to do it.

“More operations, more appointments and more diagnostic tests.

“You will be seen more quickly in an NHS clearing the backlog seven days a week.”

However, the leader of the opposition warned that reform of the health service was unavoidable, arguing that, without it, the NHS would “remain on life support”.

“We must be the government that finally transforms our NHS,” said Sir Keir.

“We can’t go on like this, with a sickness service.

“We need an NHS that prevents illness, keeps people healthy and out of hospital in the first place.”

Labour has also unveiled a new fund which has promised to give the NHS state-of-the-art equipment and new technology in order to help cut waiting times.

Sir Keir said: “We must use technology to overhaul every aspect of delivery, move care closer to communities [and] deploy the power of artificial intelligence to spot disease quickly.”

Suella Braverman , our present Home Secretary,should actually spend some time visiting hospitals and wards throughout the country. Our nurses and doctors come from all over Europe and the world. The NHS is a fantastic example of how  immigration can improve and strengthen the UK and not weaken it and drain it of its resources as Suella would have you believe.


The NHS has strong roots in the British people’s psyche. It has become a bedrock of our nation. At the 2012 Olympics in London there was a massive display featuring our NHS at the opening ceremony. This year, we have celebrated 75 years of the National Health Service. Our present government, a conservative one under Rishi Sunak, discusses and promotes new ways of how to develop and strengthen the NHS continually as a major government concern and policy.But words don't help. Only real action willhelp the NHS to develop. The NHS has problems with staffing, with pay demands, with overall funding and with its development and modernisation but these issues are always being addressed and plans are always in action to deal with them. It is affected by the economic problems caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was strongly affected by the COVID pandemic and had to learn fast how to deal with that and people did die. It is not always successful, and disagreements about so many issues are permanently on going but it will always be a vital part of the life blood of Britain. The NHS is always in flux but its FANTASTIC!!!!. 


Information about the structure of and how the NHS is run from  the government website.


The NHS provides healthcare services to more than one million patients every 36 hours, and the vast majority of these services are free at the point of use for UK residents.

Many people think that the NHS is a single organisation with a central recruiting team, however this is not the case. The NHS is actually made up of multiple organisations, with each individual organisation having its own recruitment team and list of vacancies.

The structure of these NHS organisations varies slightly between the four UK nations, which is explained in more detail on the Health Careers website. In England, the organisations making up the NHS include:

National bodies that oversee and regulate NHS services

Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) that plan and commission care for local populations

Healthcare provider organisations

Primary care organisations – independent businesses offering NHS services, including GP practices, dental practices, opticians

Acute (hospital) trusts – providers of hospital-based NHS services

Mental health trusts – organisations which offer mental health and social care services

Community trusts – providers of community-based services, such as district nursing, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy

Ambulance trusts – organisations which offer NHS transportation services emergency and non-emergency care

WEBSITE: The NHS provides healthcare services to more than one million patients every 36 hours, and the vast majority of these services are free at the point of use for UK residents.

Many people think that the NHS is a single organisation with a central recruiting team, however this is not the case. The NHS is actually made up of multiple organisations, with each individual organisation having its own recruitment team and list of vacancies.

The structure of these NHS organisations varies slightly between the four UK nations, which is explained in more detail on the Health Careers website. In England, the organisations making up the NHS include:

National bodies that oversee and regulate NHS services

Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) that plan and commission care for local populations

Healthcare provider organisations

Primary care organisations – independent businesses offering NHS services, including GP practices, dental practices, opticians

Acute (hospital) trusts – providers of hospital-based NHS services

Mental health trusts – organisations which offer mental health and social care services

Community trusts – providers of community-based services, such as district nursing, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy

Ambulance trusts – organisations which offer NHS transportation services emergency and non-emergency care

Sunday 6 August 2023

PILGRIMAGE ? A meditation on pilgrimage and walking round my local park.



Geoffrey Chaucer depicted in an early version of his Canterbury Tales.

Between 1386 and 1387 Geoffrey. Chaucer lost favour  with King Richard II. Chaucer’s mentor, John of Gaunt and advisor to the king, was out of the country and the Duke of Gloucester, who disliked Chaucer, was in the ascendancy. Chaucer had time then to reflect and time to write his,” Canterbury Tales.” Perhaps it was the loss of his prestigious jobs alongside this humbling period of his life that put Chaucer in a more contemplative mind. A mind leaning towards pilgrimage and its attendant spiritual benefits. Chaucer felt enabled to say it how it really was. The Monk, The Friar, The Prioress, The Priest and The Wife of Bath, to name a few, are as nuanced human beings as they come, good and bad and perhaps, inadvertently, reveal the corruption in the church and life at the time.

 The reason for ,"The English Reformation," is echoed in many of the things Chaucer highlights. about some of his characters. Profiligate prelates, the selling of indulgences, an ever richer church, it is all there in Chaucers tales. It makes you wonder , reading the obvious cynicism Chaucer has towards the  churchmen in his tales, an internal reformation of the church didn't happen sooner. The actual  reformation rupturing the Roman Catholic Church came later with Martin Luther's  95 theses, causing the setting up of new Christian denominations? But I suppose, equally cynically, if the status quo worked for the church, the government and the crown,   it could  continue and ordinary people, those worst affected by the churches greed and ,"worldliness," could do nothing. "The English Reformation," one hundred and twenty two years later, in 1509, was itself a mixture, of self importance, greed, power, theology, religion. A heady mix. 

It took a King, Henry VIII, who was having marital struggles connected with producing a male heir, to cause a rift with Rome about what he could and could not do. "The English Reformation," was backed by a majority of his top clergy schooled in the new theologies, or who were just merely cowards. Those who opposed Henry's changes among the hierarchy lost their heads. 

Chaucer begins:

“When in April the sweet showers fall

And pierce the droughts of March to the root….

…..Then people long to go on pilgrimages

And Palmers long to seek the stranger strands of far-off saints….”

So Chaucer writes about a longing to go on pilgrimage. 

Definitions of what pilgrimage means are many and various. Recently John Lodge and I, have encountered  The British Pilgrimage Trust and the  250 walks they promote. On their website they describe pilgrimage,

“Pilgrimage is a” Bring Your Own Beliefs,” practice – we exist to ‘advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit.’

The nature of pilgrimage

Pilgrimage (n.): A journey with purpose on foot to holy/wholesome/special places. Pilgrimage is for everyone, promoting holistic wellbeing via pilgrim practices and connecting you with yourself, others, nature and everything beyond. To turn a walk into a pilgrimage, at the beginning set your private ‘intention’ – dedicate your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks.

The ,"Trust,"goes on to explain;

"In Britain, natural landmarks such as wells, springs, trees, caves, islands and hilltops, and pagan sites such as stone circles and barrows, as well as ancient churches and cathedrals reveal a diverse and still unfurling cultural landscape, open to all who wish to connect to these pilgrim places. Public Rights of Way in England and Wales and the Right to Roam Act in Scotland – freedoms particular to Britain – give us a unique opportunity to explore a vast network of green footpaths.”

A pilgrimage then can be about going to a place that is special to us.  The destinations for pilgrimage can be limitless.


The Pilgrims Progress.

The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyon, published partly in 1678, is an allegory about the human journey through life from birth to death. Bunyon was a Puritan and a noncomformist. He spent years in prison because of his beliefs. Like ,"Christian," the main character in Pilgrims Progress, Bunyon was  beset by guilt and a strong awareness of sin.  That seems a very destructive stance and not at all good for mental health. Original sin, guilt, constant atonement is a debiltating state to be in. Its about trying to achieve the unachievable perfection that only an imagined god can be. That is such a hopeless desperate way of being.  Life should be joyous. Humans are humans. That is what we have to negotiate. 

John Bunyon has left his influence  though. His writing has made generations think of their lives from birth to death as a pilgrimage. Some of the characters and the places ,"Christian," his lead character, meets and visits on his journey have influenced writers such as  Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. William Makepiece Thackery’s Vanity Fair is named after a location in Bunyon’s Pilgrims Progress. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women reference the Pilgrims Progress in some detail. It was written in simple language and could be read by many.  


To promote holistic wellbeing is a primary aim of The Pilgrimage Trust. Wellbeing is an important consideration in helping us live in the 21st century and that makes The British Pilgrimage Trust attractive to many people. People can go on adventures that affect them positively with regards  to their , physical, sensory and spiritual well being. The physical and sensory experiences are reasonably easy to explain but what of spiritual experience?

I often wonder what that word,”spirituality,” means.  Is it a mixture of physical, sensory and emotional interactions? The word, spiritual, can lead us down many, rabbit holes.  It seems to me to be something outside of ourselves. The sensory experiences and physical experiences are part of it but add emotions, thoughts, and our human interactions and then, are we getting close? In many ways it is best to stop trying to analyse and let,"spiritual," experiences just happen. Many refer to Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus in The Acts of the Apostles as the most famous example of a spiritual experience. He imagines God speaks to him. But what sensory, physical, emotional and social experiences brought him to that?

I read some of the posts on The Pigrimage Trust site about short pilgrimage walks, a day in length. One lady  described a silent walk beginning at  the 15th century St Mary’s Church in Chilham, a seven mile walk to Canterbury. She was with a group but they walked in silence. I suppose walking in silence must focus yourself inwards even while being with others. Contemplative orders of Monks and Nuns come to mind. She wrote about her purpose of pilgrimage, experiencing the journey, nature, sounds, sights, the actual experience of physically walking in a given environment.  She experienced the other people through their  proximity to her. You can learn a lot about people just being in their presence without talking. She finally reached the site of Thomas a Becket’s shrine, now an empty space. Even an empty space can hold meaning and experience it seems.

 Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields, Motspur Park (London Borough of Merton)

It got me thinking . Could I go on pilgrimage in the area I live? Could all the elements of what people describe as the process of pilgrimage be experienced, walking from my front door to my local park, Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields and  walking around the playing fields, about a kilometre in circumference and then returning home? I have walked and run this often. It is sensory. The physical act of walking from one place to another, no problem. But what about the spiritual part? There used to be a Chinese gentleman, he must have been in his eighties, who used to stand in the middle of Joseph Hood Park performing tai chi.His body moved rhythmically and purposefully. He looked as though his  mind was engaged and he seemed completely focussed. I once watched a lady sitting cross legged in the centre of the park , straight backed, elbows on knees, hands with fore fingers and thumbs pressed together., meditating, with birds chirping in the trees, the wind blowing gently, the sun shining from a blue sky, the ground warm and firm beneath her. Were these two experiencing elements of pilgrimage entering emotionally and thoughfully into themselves in these ways? The Chinese gentleman and the lady were experiencing something.They both looked at peace and at one with the world.

Immersing in a process ,  becoming lost in a process mentally, emotionally and  physically  is that pilgrimage? Is that spirituality?  Could becoming immersed in a novel, a painting, a poem, a photograph, a play, a film, a song, a piece of music, be aspects of pilgrimage? Pilgrimage, perhaps, is  limitless and experienced in a myriad of circumstances.


My pilgrimage then. 

Out of the front door. Dressed in a T shirt, sports trousers, walking shoes. I turn right down West Barnes Lane towards the park. Silver birch trees line the road on the grass verges. White, paper thin bark. Peeling in parts. Small, pale green blade like leaves fluttering. Garden shrubbery, hydrangeas, climbing roses, box hedges, sometimes interspersed between the roadside silver birches, cherry and copper beeches grow. Sky, sometimes cloudy, sometimes blue. a breeze that lightly touches, cools. Nowadays this area  is covered by roads of mostly 1930s housing with front and back gardens.  Getting into a striding pattern. My walking shoes  cushion against the stones and the  cracks in the pavement. Weeds grow here and there. Some with brightly coloured flowers. Whats the difference between a flower and a weed?  Leroy is outside of his house cleaning his ,"souped up," HONDA CIVIC TYPE R (315 bhp). I tell him ,"Hey Leroy that car should be in an art gallery." He's used to me telling him that. He replies,  "Not this one. It's not perfect." It looks it to me.  The sound of its engine driving down our road is like low rumbling thunder.  I cross West Barnes Lane  between parked cars. Keith is backing his van out into the road. He sees me and waves, continues reversing out and heads off towards Grand Drive. I approach the shops. EKLEE fruit and vegetable store on my right.Shelving along the front of the shop filled with a myriad of coloured fruits and vegetables. EKLEE is an Iranian owned shop. A lovely family run it. They sell a wide choice of fruits and vegetables, some you wouldn’t normally get in a British green grocers. A variety of peppers, ginger roots, a whole range of chillies and a long long shelf of fresh herbs. Strange shaped and coloured tomatoes among the cabbages and the potatoes. 

I turn left down Marina Avenue towards the white pillared and black wrought iron gates to the park. The pillars are 1930s art deco in style.A car park , tree shaded to my left. A large expanse of green grass extends into the distance. 


"Mares tails," in the sky over the Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields. ( Cirrus clouds)

The  grassy area of the park is surrounded by trees. To the right there is the millennium wood, planted in the year 2000,  for the millennium. The foresters who look after the vast number of trees lining roads and  the copses and small forests inhabiting Merton’s parkland  concluded from their evidence that some of the woodland on that sideof the park near the giant unused gasometers, had got to a stage where it could no longer regenerate and that new planting on that side of the park was needed. It is satisfying to know the council cares for our environment. The arguments circle around how quickly change and development should be made to our environment. Too slow, too fast, just right. What to do? It will be uncomfotable. 

My feet pace the grass. Even paced at a comfortable speed. Swish of boots on grass. Grasses interspersed with clover flowers, daisys now and then, a dandelion, buttercups in season, the brown earth seen through thinned out grass. I love soil and what it is. Sycamores shade the pathway, now drooping with the weight of thousandsof ,”helicopter,” seeds clumped in tight groups at the end of branches, at the end of twigs. The crunch of dried twigs underfoot.  I see three Muslim women, dressed in hijabs. One of them leads the other two, who face her,  in exercises. I hear her commands."Squat, trunk twist, hold arms out in front."She gives the commands and invents the exercise movements and  they all copy. Sometimes I see them walking the perimeter of the park like I do. Purposeful striding. I have taken to saying ,"hello." They reply, ,"hello,"and sometimes wave. They  are of different ages, grandmother, mother, daughter, perhaps? They are here every day, bar rain. I come here in the rain sometimes.

Mothers push their young in buggies, often doing laps of the park before attending the playgroup that takes place in the sports pavilion. Many people are in the park walking their dogs, throwing sticks or balls for their dogs to chase and retrieve.  Some joggers. It is a place alive with birds, chirping, as well as  people. Sometimes a jet airliner rumbles overhead coming out of Heathrow. A train passes once in a while  through Motspur Park Station. And I continue, breathing rhythmically, almost imperceptibly, arms and legs moving forward comfortably. It feels like entering into my self. This is a journey of experience and self discovery.


Concider the meaning of ,"existentialism ,"which in turn connects to  ,"natural law."The various religions  are based on ,"natural law,"to a certain extent which is a sort of universal moral standard that comes from nature and what it is to be human.  The various religions  make their own laws, which they say come from natural law but are interpretations  and unbalance the meaning of what is to be , "human." Many people get left out or are marginalised by religions.  Chritianity certainly hasn't got a good record. As one  example the Catholic Church and its attitudes to women. The hierarchy of the church  is a patriarchy. The Protestant Church of England has gone  some way to address patriarchy but still many within its clergy  are against the ordination of women. Attitudes towards the LGBTQ community raise some strong issues too.Christian churches  use the Bible to argue their point. The Bible  causes more problems than it solves.  In the 17thand 18th centuries the Bible was interpretted idealogically promoting the rights of slavery for Gods sake!!!.If we are going to explain creation and the world  and being human through the Bible that is a very poor , week, starting point. It only gets us so far. We have to concider ourselves in the ,"now," to interpret the world. Our moral code should come from simply what it is to be human and have human interactions. 



There are many trees on my walk and I end up meditating on them. They keep me company.

Many religions incorporate the concept of a ,”tree of life.” The Celts, who’s religion pervaded our islands before Christianity revered the oak tree. In reality, whether you think the oak and other trees are religious symbols or not, trees are complex ecosystems that provide life for a whole range of living organisms, birds, insects, lichens, mosses, squirrels; they provide oxygen for our atmosphere and much much more. They even provide food for us and keep us cool in their shade when the planets temperature rises.Over centuries trees have provided building materials and helped add nutrients to the soil. I have hugged a tree. It feels very pleasant. 


Standing inside a forest of ancient trees the feeling is the same you get standing in the aisles of a magnificent cathedral. It is no coincidence that the stone pillars holding up the roof of a cathedral  remind us of the trunks of trees. Often a complex  fan structure of stone ribs support  the roof of a cathedral  and  look like the complex patterns that the branches of trees make.These are connections between nature and religion. So my walk around my local park with oaks, elms, ashes, sycamores and plain trees have religious connections, if you look for them. 

Ancient Assyrian Stone panel depicting the tree of life from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (Room I) 

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Returning to Chaucer's ,Canterbury Tales.

 Chaucers pilgrims walking to Canterbury , have the apparent aim  to reach the shrine of Thomas a Becket and pray for his intercession providing a heavenly favour or gift. The walk Chaucer describes and the stories the pilgrims relate, tell something else. The stories of the pilgrims  become  intrinsic to their pilgrimage and the passage of time; days and weeks. The end is hardly concidered. 

Two examples of the stories that Chaucers pilgrims tell. 

The Pardoners Tale is a story about discovering ,Death.Three friends want to kill , Death,because they have been told that a character called ,Death, has killed one of their friends.They discover gold under a tree on their search for Death. Through avarice and greed for the gold they turn  against each other. 

“Exactly in the way they’d planned his death

They fell on him and slew him two to one. 

Then said the first of them when this was done.

Now for a drink. Sit down lets be merry

And as it happened, reaching for a sup

He took a bottle full of poison up

And drank; and his companion, nothing loth

Drank from it also, and they perished both.”

They indeed find ,Death, when ,Death, of course finds them. The lesson for all the pilgrims from this story is obvious. 

Another story, that of The Wife of Bath, is pertinent. A woman of the Middle Ages, speaks to men and women of today. Her prologue shows she has the authority and experience  to tell us about sex and relationships. She herself has experienced many relationships.She married five times, her marriages being some good and some bad. We learn how she dealt with her various husbands. She is disapproved of by some of the other pilgrims who think marrying five times must be against the laws of god. She adeptly justifies herself by interpretting stories about marriage and married people in the Bible in her own way. The Wife of Bath is a  persuasive talker.

The Wife of Bath.

Her story she sets in the time of King Arthur and a time of fairies. It is about a  Knight who rapes a maiden. Visceral stuff. He is taken prisoner and condemned to death by the King. However the Queen asks for the power to reprieve the Knight if he can answer one question. She asks the knight,

“What is the thing that women most desire?”

The knight is given one year to find the answer.His journey is a journey of self discovery and a developing understating of women. 

An old lady he meets along the way gives him the answer and at the end of the year  he reports back to the Queen.

“ My liege and lady, in general,” said he

“ A woman wants the self same sovereignty 

Over her husband as over her lover

And master him; he must not be above her

That is your greatest wish whether you kill

Or spare me; please yourself. I await your will.”

All the women of the court nod and agree with his statement. He has saved his life.

However he has a promise to keep. He promised the old lady anything she asks.The old lady comes forward and demands that he marries her as a reward for her help. He agrees, although very reluctant because of her old, wrinkled appearance. He actually finds her physically repellent. But she has saved his life. She then gives him a choice. Have her as a young beautiful girl or as the old, shrivelled lady he sees before him and take the consequences of either. As a young beautiful maiden others will be attracted to her and want to tempt her away but as an old lady nobody else will show her interest. After some thought he gives her the choice to make. He gives her mastery over him. She turns into the beautiful young lady ( a fairy). 

He has learned his lesson. Is it realistic though to believe he has become a different person? I am not sure but The Wife of Bath makes an important philosophical point.She was an early feminist surely? 

The stories told by the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales are allegories that explore and explain many of lifes fundamental issues. The relationships between men and women, death,  love, class and religion. Many things  we still discuss and think about today.

There is a strong element of realism in The Canterbury Tales. The characters know how to play," the system." For example,The Monk, is  a sneaky character used to the good life. He uses his charm and hius positon as a monk withn the church to do very well in life offering forgiveness and indulgences for money. 

It is interesting to note that the pilgrims who met at the Tabard Tavern in Southwark were strangers from various walks of life, both male and female. There is something ,"modern," about the Canterbury Tales; a,"melting pot," using an image from the 1960s.

It’s the process of the pilgrimage that really counts in the end, not the arrival at Becket’s shrine.  


The Tabard Inn Southwark in 1810.

The British pilgrim Trust are promoting a newly discovered pilgrim route. They call it the Old Way. It is marked on the Gough Map that is held by The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is the first known map of the British Isles created in the 1370s. The ,"Old Way,"is a route from Southampton following the south coast to  Canterbury.  The  towns and villages, that still exist today, featured on The Gough Map, are the stopping places on the route. You might wonder why it begins in Southampton? In the middle ages Southampton was a major port, as it remains to this day, linked to European ports. It was a place many merchants from Europe entered England. A port for merchants was also a port for pilgrims from Europe to begin their pilgrimage to  Beckets tomb in Canterbury.

The route is described in detail on the trusts website with maps , transport links and places to stay for the night. John and I must do the ,"Old Way," one day. 


The Gough Map 1370.

https://britishpilgrimage.org/the-bpt/. (THE BRITISH PIGRIMAGE TRUST)

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22120/22120-h/22120-h.htm   (THE CANTERBURY TALES by Geoffrey Chaucer)