Monday 15 December 2014


Waterstones chief executive James Daunt
James Daunt, the Chief Executive of Waterstones,

I read an article in this Sunday’s, Observer, entitled

Whisper it quietly, the book is back … and here’s the man leading the revival

The man in question is James Daunt, the Chief Executive of Waterstones, the main High Street, quality bookshop chain we have in Britain. The article stated,

“The news that, for the first time in a long time, Waterstones is beginning to show signs of modest growth (new shops; new optimism; new markets) is symbolic of a sea-change in the world of books. Whisper it discreetly, but the book is showing signs of making a modest comeback, with British bookselling exhibiting the symptoms of an unfamiliar, fragile optimism.
During the first decade of the new century, this sector cornered the market in gloomy predictions that the end of the world was nigh. The digital revolution, plus Amazon, plus the credit crunch, seemed to add up to a literary apocalypse. There were moments, some CEOs in book publishing now concede, when they could hardly see a commercial way forward. A mood of panic quickly spread, with many dire predictions.
In Britain, hardbacks were said to be on the rocks, libraries doomed, the ebook all conquering, with the Visigoths of online selling storming through the high street. Among writers, with the tumbleweed blowing down Grub Street, the garret loomed.”

Lets imagine a certain scenario leading up to Christmas. I am sitting at home. I have my i-pad on my lap, lounging comfortably on a sofa. I look up AMAZON in my GOOGLE search box. I click on the heading, books. Recently  I read a review of a book by Andy Miller entitled, A Year of Reading Dangerously. The title sounded interesting. I wondered what wild things could have been happening in Andy’s reading adventures this year. Looking at the book on-line, without moving so  much as an arm, I  moved a finger or two, gliding my hand over the virtual keyboard on the screen in front of me and typed an enquiry that revealed there was a link to a similar book written by Henry Miller. The surnames are a coincidence by the way. I thought then there must be some depth, some profundity in this apparently flippant Christmas stocking filler. A couple of clicks later I accessed my AMAZON account and paid for an e-book version of the above tomb and there it appeared in my i- book app.

I clicked on it and perused the introduction. I had a look at the chapter headings and then clicked it off to read further at a later date, bookmarking the page I had got to.
I then proceeded to click on my TESCOS account, reviewed my last food shopping list, adjusted a couple of items, added McVities Chocolate Biscuits and sent my order in. A few more deft movements of my fingers only, required.

In my head, I must admit, and this must be a throwback to Neanderthal times, when I would have actually had to drive my car, park it and walk to a book shop in Wimbledon, or drive a mile to my local TESCOS and walk the aisles pushing a trolley, I imagined the people who were about to do the work for me, in my place. I still have an inbuilt memory of actual human contact and interactions. A fault perhaps in my programming. I recall the inconvenience of other people around me, waiting in queues,  using my VISA card and having to press the digits on the card machine to enter my code and then all the trouble of carrying and bringing my purchases home!!! My goodness, the time wasted.

So this brings me back to the above article in the Observer. How can book shops be making a comeback, even a tentative come back? What on earth is going on? AMAZON, like some far off alien force has zapped all actual shops. They bring everything to my door. E- Shopping with TESCOS has eliminated the need to walk around the shopping aisles making that tedious effort to lift an arm, flex the fingers of  a hand,grip an item and then place it in a trolley. There was the matter of having to make the effort of using my legs too, of course!!! And meeting real flesh and blood people!!??

So what is it about holding a book in your hands and having to physically turn the pages? A book, has weight. It is a solid object. You can feel its texture. You can dog ear the pages. In a whisper, you can scribble notes in its margins. If you want to, you could deface it . Various autocratic and draconian regimes have even done that. Burning piles of them have been known. A real solid paper and card book, with real print and real pictures, some are works of art in themselves, is something you can touch, smell, taste, if those are your wants, and experience its presence through all your senses. You can actually hear it too. It makes quiet sounds when you turn the pages or loud sounds if you drop it from a height and it causes screams, as it flutters through the air, when , in a fit of anger, you might want throw it at someone. It is something, even apart from its cerebral content, that we can have a relationship with.

What might be happening then, with Waterstones as an example? Is the world  now readjusting to a more human scale? Is internet shopping being rebalanced so we can become human again?Are people now wanting to get back some elements of a real, physical world of shopping? And when the dust has settled I wonder in which favour the balance might be weighted?

Sane human beings need contact with people  and all manner of things including solid paper books through the use of our senses. It is how we make relationships. If a lot of those points of contact are removed and we are only left with the cerebral bit, the thought process bit and everything else is imagined in our heads, or, perish the thought, a generation or two down the line, they might not even have the memory of a full sensory life, then we are doomed as a human race. We cannot be human.

Long live experiences which bring us into real contact with people and real contact with things, including books. Long live Waterstones and all the independent book shops all over the country. I hope you are surviving and not only surviving but are a real valued part of your community.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

A story about Charles Dickens for Christmas!!!!!

A news article, published today on the BBC website, describes how Charles Dicken’s lobbied for his own personal letter box to be installed in the brick wall that separated his garden and house at Gads Hill, from the main road.

Gads Hill Place at Higham near Rochester.

In the 19th Century, when the postal service was in its infancy, Charles Dickens lobbied for his own personal letterbox, writes Kathryn Westcott.
It's Christmas 1869 and Charles Dickens, prolific letter writer, is hurriedly finishing off a correspondence. "The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this," Dickens reveals to his friend Charles Kent.
The postman was a familiar sight at Dickens's Georgian home, Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent. A postbox, installed by the postal service at the author's request, was one of the earliest wall-boxes to be introduced in Britain, following the introduction of the pillar box across the nation by fellow writer Anthony Trollope in 1852.
Dickens had personally lobbied for that postbox in 1859. Perhaps acting on a tip-off by friend and writer Edmund Yates, who worked in the Postmaster General's office, he replies to a correspondence from Yates stating:
"I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad's Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood. Captain Goldsmith's house is up a lane considerably off the high road; but he has a garden wall abutting on the road itself..."

Rochester Cathedral

In August of 2009 my friend ,Clive, and I drove down from London to Rochester for the day. We visited many of the Dickens sites, such as Rochester Cathedral, where Edwin Drood, Dicken’s final and unfinished novel plays out its dark and mysterious plot. We stood outside of  Satis House at the end of the High Street which Dickens used in Great Expectations as the home of Miss Haversham. We lingered outside the old town hall, now Rochester Museum, where Joe Gargery took Pip to be indentured.

Satis House.

 We found the Swiss Chalet situated behind buildings off the High Street, now removed from Gads Hill. It was a present from a friend, Dickens had it constructed in his garden.  It was where he escaped to write in privacy. We photographed The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel where, not only Dickens and his friends sometimes stayed, but where the illustrious Mr Pickwick resided.Rochester and, The Bull, mark the start of Pickwicks travels.

The Bull
Without a doubt Clive and I made our way out of Rochester across the bridge over The Medway and up to the top of Gads Hill to visit Gads Hill Place, Dickens final residence and where he died.
Gads Hill Place is an imposing, large Victorian house set back from the main road within ample grounds. Shrubs and trees shade it. A crescent drive enters, from the road at one side, arcs round to the front door of the house and then curves round to the other side of the property to re-enter the main road again. A brick wall fronts the property separating it from the pavement and main road.

The tunnel to the Swiss Chalet.
There are two unique features to Gads Hill Place and gardens that are observable from outside. The most obviously noticeable are the steep sloping steps that lead from the front of the house down into the ground to a wide, high arched tunnel. The floor of the tunnel is cobbled. It leads under the road to where a small plot of land is grassed over, surrounded by shrubs and trees, with a bench to sit on. On this piece of land Dickens had his Swiss Chalet initially erected. When you study the tunnel and its entrance and exit you can imagine Dickens briskly entering the tunnel and emerging the other side to climb up the opposite set of steep steps to his Swiss Chalet.  I wonder how much the process of using the tunnel created a sense of entering another world?

The Swiss Chalet Dickens used for writing. It was here that he was writing Edwin Drood before he died.
The other feature is something you might miss. It is a dull  metal oblong plate, about thirty inches in height and about ten inches wide fixed into the brick wall fronting the road. This piece of metal is covered in flaking red paint and has patches of rust covering it. On it is embossed the words, LETTER BOX."

Dickens letter box at Gads Hill Place.

Underneath that title is a royal crown with the capital letters V and R situated either side.
Under the crown are the words ,"cleared  at," Two  holes made below this statement show where a metal holder was positioned to take the collection time sign.This is the letter box Dickens lobbied to have installed at Gads Hill.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month 1918

6,Platoon B Coy
1/15 London Regiment
My Dear Peter,
                        Thanks so much for your letter received today. I was jolly gla dto receive it as I have often wondered how you  were getting on.Really we are quite alright out here, heaps of grub,good billets and under the circs are very comfortable.
Do you know Peter I haven't had a letter from home for eleven days and since my arrival in France six weeks ago I have had only two letters from them (Susie and William McGinn,mother and father) don't you think its jolly rotten of them. If you write to them please jog them up a bit for me.

Dear Peter, I hope you will write often and I will write you as often as poss; You see sometimes we are very busy and haven't much time. To day I haven't time to write any more so must say good bye.
Your loving brother,
P.S. Love to Ettie (Peters girlfriend and future wife.)

This letter was written by my great uncle, William McGinn, in 1918 from France.There is a sense that he was feeling pressured but trying to hide it. by blaming his mother and father for not writing to him. Reading Jill Knights account of the movements of the 1/15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) for that period makes me think William was suffering stress when he wrote the letter. 

There are two parts to the letter. Both parts begin with, Dear Peter. Perhaps they were written at different times in the day, between activities. The second part appears to be written in a hurry. The handwriting changes. It slants to the right and is more of a scrawl in parts. He finishes hurriedly,

“ I haven’t time to write any more, so must say goodbye.”

I found a calendar for 1918. On his way to France, after training, at probably the army camp on Wimbledon Common, where many of the rifle regiments trained before going over to France, he first wrote a postcard from Southampton.The date of the postcard  is dated Tuesday 5th February 1918.

Once across the Channel and disembarked at Rouen, he wrote another postcard home.The postcard from Rouen, is not dated.

  William says in the letter, dated the Thursday 14th March, that he has been in France for six weeks. Between the Southampton postcard dated 5th February and the letter written on the 14th March it is exactly five weeks and two days. He must have sailed for France almost at the same time he wrote  the Southampton postcard.

He died on Monday of the 1st April, two weeks and four days after sending the 14th March letter.

Battalion names got complicated, especially as the war progressed towards its finale.
Field Marshal Haig  restructured the Army in February 1918 in preparation for the expected German offensive. The 1/15th Battalion, London Regiment, which was The Prince of Wales Civil Service Rifles, became part of the 140th Infantry Brigade, London Regiment which was itself part of the 47th London Division. Many regiments and battalions were  disbanded and the soldiers were used to strengthen other battalions and brigades. The Civil Service Rifles continued to remain as a unit but it was connected to other groups.

According to Jill Knights book,THE CIVIL SERVICE RIFLES IN THE GREAT WAR,(All Bloody Gentleman), the Spring of 1918 was wet. The Civil Service Rifles were deployed at Ribecourt and Flesquieres during the month of January. They saw little action in that time but there was continual shelling and aerial bombardment of their positions.

In February they were brought up to full fighting strength with the arrival of one hundred men from the disbanded 6th London Battalion. Those reinforcements must have also included William. They spent most of their days hiding in dugouts and foxholes. Jill Knight states that sixty three men  reported sickness from gas attacks by the end of February.During the eleven weeks, from the start of January to the 19th March, only two men were killed however.

On the 19th March the 1/15 London (Civil Service Rifles) were required to defend the right flank of the whole British Army and on the 21st March the Germans began their offensive. At one stage, because of gas attacks, they had to wear box respirators continuously for six hours. William was a member of B company but the whole of C company was surrounded and captured by the Germans and taken prisoner. Many of C company died in the assault. William was lucky to escape. The Germans were resisted and the British Army was kept intact.

The Civil Service Rifles were withdrawn from the front line to rest for a while. They returned to the front on the 29th March at Aveluy Woods for three days. Aveluy Woods  is three kilometres north of Albert and a few kilometres south of Arras. They suffered fifteen casualties from shelling. William was one of those.
William McGinn, my great uncle.


Wednesday 29 October 2014

Jimi Hendrix and Jane Austen Are Friends!!!!!!.


  Johnny Allen Hendrix was born on November 27, 1942 in Seattle ,Washington  and died on September 18, 1970 in the London Borough of Kennsington in the heart of London from reputedly a drugs overdose.
 Jane Austen was born in Steventon Hampshire on the  16th December 1775 – and died in Winchester on the 18th July 1817 reputdly from a disease called Addisons disease, a problem with the immune system, which causes it to attack the outer layer of the adrenal gland (the adrenal cortex), disrupting production of steroid hormones aldosterone and cortisol eventually causing the break down of the immune system. Not an unsimilar affect to Hendrix’s overdose. In both cases their bodies stopped. . One hundred and sixty nine years separated their births. What if these two geniuses had ever met?



They both spent time in London and enjoyed the metropolis and this might appear at first their only connection.  However, Hendrix  had a great respect and affinity with the 18th century, especially in the person of the German Composer, who emigrated to England ,George  Frederick Handel, who  like Hendrix, came to London for fame and fortune. Hendrix loved The Messiah and Handels Water Music. Hendrix was a gatherer of all sorts of music which he then assimilated through his own creative mind into new and exciting compositions. He did it with the Beatles Sergeant Peppers anthem and also the "sacred", Star Spangled Banner which he reinvented in his own style at the Woodstock Festival and gave it meaning to a new generation. Then of course there were his own original compositions made about life’s many ,”Experiences.” 
In comparing Jane Austens compositons with those of Jimi Hendrix,Cross Town Traffic, for instance, has connections with Austen’s Northangar Abbey, The Gods Made Love, is comparable to the love of  Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Hendrix wrote ,Little Miss Strange, and of course Austen had a few strange ladies portrayed in her novels, Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse for two. Hendrix was concerned  with money matters, homes and relationships just as Austen was. There are many ideas and themes shared by the two. In many cases the same sentiments were expressed by both.

So one day, let us say,  Jimi Hendrix was walking along The Strand towards The Royal Courts of Justice. The reason,  let me reassure you, a mere matter of a minor smoking misdemeanour and possession of a very small amount of cannibus. Who should be advancing towards him from the other direction but Miss Jane Austen herself on the way to pay her tea bill at Twinings, also on The Strand.

JH.  Hey is that you Jane? Great to see you girl.

JA.  Hello Mr Hendrix and how are you faring? 

 J.H. I've been reading the lyrics of that amazing dude Bob Dylan, man?

J.A. Mr Dylan? I do not recall that gentleman.

J.H.  I love Dylan, man.  I met him once, back at the WHA club  on MacDougal Street in New York.

JA Ah New York, named after that most delightful of Yorkshire cities. Such a shame it is no longer within the power of this realm.

JH.  Yeh cool,Jane. Peace to all men.I hate war. Doods die man.When I met Dylan I think both of us were pretty cosmic at the time. Our minds were with the stars. Do you dig? Hey, hows things with you? Where are you hanging out  now girl? What you doin' in London Jane?

JA It is so delightful to see you again Mr Hendrix. I am here visiting my brother Henry, who lives a few hundred paces from this very spot, in Henrietta Street.  However, ordinarily,I am living with  my mother, such a nuisance, but that is by the by and my sister in-law in Southampton along with my best friend Martha. Martha is such a problem.  She chases after vicars you know. There is a Dr Mant in Southampton she just will not leave alone whatever I say to her and no matter how much I implore her. I tell her it will all end in tears.

JH. Check that sis, hee hee hee. It’s the other way with me girl. I’m the one chasin the chicks round here. You dig!! But  hey Jane  Hennrietta Street, Its so cool. I really dig those street musicians in Covent Garden. I get inspiration for my song writing in places like that. Real cool man.

JA We hope to visit the theatre while we are here. I know Kean is performing in Lear.By the way,I do like your miltary attire Mr Hendrix. I didn't know you were a military person. You quite remind me of my dear brothers . They look smart too in their Royal Naval uniforms.If I recall we met at The Marquee Club in Soho last was it not?  A gentleman most proficient on the guitar was playing, a rather strident number if I remember, called ."White Room." Mr Eric Clapton I think. He certainly played a virtuoso performance displaying much passion.I could feel my cheeks quite blush at all the energy he manifested in his bodily movements. His suggestion of a, "white room with black curtains," has quite influenced us all in Castle Square as to our choice of d├ęcor. My ears didn't stop ringing  for days.

JH.   I got blacked out windows in my pad too. I need head space. Time to think. Time to create man. I live next to where that dude Handel lived. He was some musician.You, ever checked out his stuff?

JA Yes, I have heard Mr Handels Messiah performed in St Pauls Cathedral. A most exhilarating experience. I sang so heartily with the chorus. I don’t like to complain but I must say, Mr Hendrix,  our house in Southampton is such a bother. The first man we hired to look after our garden was, in your parlance Mr Hendrix, not a cool cat.Our garden is now putting in order by a man who bears a remarkably good character, has a very fine complexion, and asks something less than the first.  The shrubs which border the gravel walk, he says, are only sweetbriar and roses, and the latter of an indifferent sort; we mean to get a few of a better kind, therefore, and at my own particular desire he procures us some syringas. We talk also of a laburnum. The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive currants and gooseberry bushes, and a spot is found very proper for raspberries.

JH Hey Jane  that sounds cool . Gardens are pretty neat. I love the smell of flowers. I love inhaling. My idea of a garden would be to have a swimming pool. I want to get up in the morning and just roll out of bed into a swimming pool. Swimming in a cool pool followed by some chic giving me a massage. Woo! I can just see it now. 

JA A swimming pool? I don’t think I have ever heard of one of those. It sounds very interesting.Is it like the baths in Bath? As far as the inside of our house goes the alterations and improvements  advance very properly, and will be made very convenient indeed. Our dressing table is being constructed out of a large kitchen table belonging to the house. We have the permission of Mr. Husket, Lord Lansdown's painter -- domestic painter, I should call him. Domestic chaplains have given way to this more necessary office, and I suppose whenever the walls require no touching up he is employed about my lady's face.

JH. Hey Jane I love your wit. I could do with a bit of that  in my songwriting. I can just see the painter doing things to  my lady.

May I ask, how is your latest musical endeavor proceeding Mr Hendrix? I must come and hear you when you next perform. I enjoyed the conflagration you started when you set your guitar alight last time I was at The Bag o Nails club, I think that was the place in SOHO? All that consternation and screaming. I wish we had balls like that  in Southampton and Bath. It was all so, humerous and enlightening. Such fun.

JH I’m writng a number called Little Miss Strange.Its goin on my new album Electric Ladyland..

JA Oh Mr Hendrix I do like that title. Electric Ladyland. All my novels have ladys in them who wish to acquire lands. I am not sure I understand the term electric though. You must tell me some time over a ,"joint." That, is, what you called that stick of twisted paper with brown leaves inside, that I smoked with you? I really thought you were going to set me alight like you set your guitar alight. Ha! Ha!However, it did make me feel so good. I felt quite giddy and skittish. I went home afterwards and wrote a scene in my novel, Northangar Abbey. The heroine, Catherine Moorland,  begins to imagine all sorts of terrible things. I don’t think I could have created that scene without the profound influences that seemed to overcome my whole being smoking that ,"joint." What an unusual name, ,"joint."

JH.  I’ve just remembered. I’m looking for pretty girls to appear on the album cover of Electric Ladyland. Jane. Would you like to pose?

JA Oh Mr Hendrix, pose, I do not pose.But thank you anyway. I shall look forward to seeing the cover though.  It is a great delight to have met you once again. I do hope we shall meet again soon. Perhaps, as I said, at another of your concerts. Next time do refrain from smashing your guitar into the stage. You did look so aggressive and I know you are not at all like that.Such a sweet man.. I could almost write you into one of my novels. Now do keep the flaming guitar though. That is so jolly and of course warming to the senses and the excitement it causes is so great. What, is that you do, by the way, with your instrument sticking up from between your legs? You look so excited as you seem to polish the shaft.I really must go now.I have to get to Twinings before he closes.

JH I dig that Jane.

Oh, my mind is so mixed up, goin' round 'n' round_
Must there be all these colors without names,
without sounds?
My heart burns with feelin' but
Oh! but my mind is cold and reeling.

Is this love, baby

or is it confusion?

JA Oh Mr Hendrix, you are a one. I must go Mr Hendrix, Goodbye.

And so our two geniuses part. One to pay a fine for drugs possession and the other to pay a bill for tea,
As Jane crosses the road to Twinings door she mutters in a distracted sort of way.

JA  Born Under A Bad Sign,

Been down since I began to crawl

If it wasn't for bad luck

Wouldn't have no luck at all

Oh my goodness. Now where did that come from?  It just popped into my head.I must tell Mr Hendrix about it next time I see him.


The Official Jimi Hendrix website:

Guitar World Jimi Hendrix's Final Interview from September 11, 1970

Rolling Stone 1969 Sheila Weller interview with Jimi Hendrix  

Jane Austens letters  Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye

Emma    by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics)

Northangar Abbey by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics)

Mansfield park by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics)

Persuasion by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics)

Sense and Sensibillity by Jane Austen (Penguin classics)

Friday 19 September 2014

Scotland remains part of The Union.

The results of the independence election in Scotland gave the YES voters 45% and the NO voters 55%. Scotland is to remain in The Union.
Things, however, will never be the same. A whole batch of devolved powers have been promised Scotland. The three major parties, The Liberals, Labour and The Conservatives have made promises which now need to be enacted upon.

Gordon Brown, our last Labour Prime Minister, in an impassioned speech arguing for a NO vote,, before the voting began on Thursday stated,

"....the Scotland Act would establish a new rate of income tax, devolve stamp duty and create borrowing powers for the Scottish parliament."

He said he expected to see other tax-raising measures, benefit levels and powers over transport handed to Holyrood.

More powers have been promised The Welsh Assembly. Northern Ireland and its needs require attention too and now England itself, which has never before been thought of in terms of devolution needs to be considered as well. Our whole constitution will be examined and changes will be made.
Should powers  be devolved to cities and rural counties? Will this create economic and industrial power houses of our cities? The process will be long and arduous. It is not the responsibility of one political party or one section of society.

The discussion in Scotland and now the discussion in the rest of the United Kingdom is going to create a new constitution and a new union for the future. The United Kingdom is now in the process of recreating itself. This could be the boost needed to energise the UK and make it develop in innovative and creative ways. A very exciting time.

Tuesday 16 September 2014


The Union Jack fluttering above the beach in Lyme Regis on the South Coast.
On Thursday 18th September in the year of 2014 the Scottish people are voting for independence.
They are voting to separate themselves from the rest of the United Kingdom and go it alone as a separate political and economic entity. They could of course vote to stay as part of the United Kingdom too. However, at this moment, two days before this momentous vote, the decision of the Scottish people hangs in the balance.

The people on these islands began to appear about 500.000 years ago and then the Ice Age came and they disappeared. About 12000 BC the climate warmed up and the ice melted. People returned. They could walk here because the land that later formed the British Isles was joined to Europe by a land mass. This land bridge, called Doggerland later disappeared under rising sea levels Evidence for hunter gathering has been found in the remains of bones and in cave drawings. To hunt, especially the larger animals like mammoths, bison,elk and  aurochs, people needed to group together. At this stage only small groups would be required to hunt and trap large animals. It is easy to see how small communities probably family sized communities  needed to work together and it is easy to understand that they would form traditions within families and also pass down family stories. The seasons and the weather patterns also ruled their lives.This early instinct to form small communities and work together developed through the centuries and millennia.

We can look back at the vast expanse of the history of these islands starting from hunter gatherers and the requirements of their lifestyle  to the appearance from Europe  of people who had started to  farm and so formed static permanent communities and built houses and huts. The Neolithic period or New Stone age was the time people formed themselves into tribes and became far more powerful because of their numbers. Vast building projects like the  stone circles at Avebury and Stone Henge and giant mounds like Silbury Hill in Wiltshire , the hill forts such as the vast Maiden Castle in Dorset, used for protection from neighbouring kingdoms, were built. They required great technological ingenuity and the development of tools. The coming together of tribes into kingdoms required leaders, holy men , traditions, rituals and beliefs. They created strong powerful and increasingly wealthy communities. Later, metals began to be smelted naming the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Celtic tribes moved here from Europe in about 500 BC and brought new traditions and technologies.

The Romans invaded in 43 BC, stayed a few hundred years and built  towns and roads and then left. Invaders from Europe came,. The Angles and Saxons and they formed Kingdoms like Mercia and Wessex. These kingdoms often fought each other. The Vikings came and invaded and took their part of the country mostly in the north in an area termed The Danelaw. The Saxons fought back under Alfred the Great and stemmed  the tide of Viking authority. William the Norman invaded in 1066  and took over a country  we could recognise today as England stretching from the South coast up to Northumberland and the borders of Scotland.

Between 1282 and 1283 Edward I invaded Wales and built massive castles at Caernarvon in the north and Pembroke in the south and a whole range of other castles throughout Wales to keep it subjugated and placed it under English rule. During the 1290’s he turned his attention to Scotland. He didn’t manage to subjugate Scotland. There were defeats as well as successes but war was an expensive undertaking and Edward I had problems with taxation. His son Edward II continued the Scottish campaign but was unsuccessful too.

Scotland began its joining with the United Kingdom when Elizabeth 1 died childless and the Tudor dynasty came to an end. Her cousin, James VII of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was invited to become King of England. He accepted and became James I of England.The crowns were united but the countries stayed separate until full union was achieved through the act of union in 1707. The forces of trade and influence within Empire brought us together. There was a need to be together for the greater good.

The Tudors had tried to subjugate and rule Ireland but had not proceeded much beyond Dublin and The Pale.After the English Civil war Cromwell sent armies to Ireland to subjugate them. The Irish had been royalist in sympathy and would have caused a problem if they were not controlled. It was a severe and brutal campaign and Cromwell is hated in Ireland to this day. Ireland's joining the union was a parallel coming together with Scotalnd. It achieved its act of union in 1800. Differing forces of religion and trade played their part. Also in both cases Scotland and Ireland were seen as routes to invasion from England's enemies. It was better for all, economically and militarily to be together.

The history of the United Kingdom, is therefore bloody and often cruel but it is also the history  of a coming together which enabled growth, industrial and agricultural revolutions, great art, music and literature.  This creative force occurred because of the forging together of four united countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into a place that is so unique and special and has this deep shared history. It is in the gradual unifying of the whole that it has become an amazing and special place.

It is easy for nationalists in Scotland, or England, Wales and Ireland to want to separate from the others because of a deep sense of remembered hurt, pride and belief in their traditions but they are not looking at the whole picture. They are being selfish and ready to damage the whole for their narrow beliefs and so doing they are going to diminish the strength and power that comes from being together rather than apart. The British Isles, The United Kingdom, is going to be a smaller place not just in land mass if the YES vote wins on Thursday. The strength derived from being together will be weakened. We will not be quite so amazing.

Rather like those early hunter gatherers who needed each other to help bring down a woolly mammoth otherwise, as individuals they would not have been able to survive,  we all need each other now in our four countries to stay strong and grow. Within a group it is still possible to have individual traits, traditions and beliefs. Often strength and creativity is derived from the diversities within a whole. A synergy is formed. The history of our islands has been one of struggle, pain and war, but through the searing heat of that melding together it has made us unique and special.

A piper in Princes Street next to Scott's monument. I hope we can call this bit of land part of The United Kingdom come Thursday!!!!

Saturday 30 August 2014


A Penguin book using the original colour system.

Marilyn went off to her usual Saturday morning car boot sale in Raynes Park this morning. When she came back she brought me two presents. First, a bar of Belgium chocolate made from coffee beans from Madagascar, which sadly, exists no longer, and secondly a copy of Claire Tomlin’s, "Jane  Austen :A life," she picked up from a second hand book stall. This edition was one of a series of books chosen to be republished in Penguins original format  to commemorate Penguin being the publisher of the year in 2007.

I already have the original Penguin paperback version of ,"Jane Austen: A life," with the pale green cover, a print of Steventon Rectory in the background and prominently to the fore, Cassandra’s sketch of Jane. I also have an e-book version on my i-pad for when I take friends to Jane sites so I can easily find quotes from Claire Tomlinson about the place we are at.This 2007 version of Tomlin’s biography of Jane is different from the 1997 edition. Penguin have used, in this commemorative edition, the cover system that they originated when Penguin was founded by Allen Lane in 1935. 

There are  many aspects of the style which are iconic. Penguin books and their distinctive covers were something I was used to when I was growing up in Southampton. Penguin published only the very best in academic writing, in novel writing, philosophy, history, poetry and writing of all types. They were also renowned for helping to develop the best new writing talent and were never afraid to promote new ideas and subjects in philosophy, science and history. One of the key concepts that Allen Lane wanted to promote was the idea that the best writing should be accessed by the whole population. Penguins were first sold in places like Woolworths and W.H. Smiths for 6d.

The style of my commemorative edition of, "Jane Austen; A Life," is simple. The cover is divided into three broad horizontal bands of colour, from top to bottom, navy blue, white and navy blue. The title and authors name are printed within the white band, in a simple black and white print , created as a modern serif type script, Gill Sans named after Eric Gill the artist. The text type is called Monotype Baskerville Roman, created by John Baskerville in 1923. Below this in the lower blue band is the iconic Penguin symbol. The colour bands were designed to denote what type of book they were.  The Claire Tomlin biography of Jane Austen is dark blue because biographys were dark blue. Green, was crime fiction, cerise, travel books, red, plays, yellow was used for that very important genre, miscellaneous, light purple were letters and essays and grey was world affairs.

The layout of a Penguin book was encapsulated in a four page book of instructions that included, indenting of paragraphs, spelling, punctuation, letter spacing and word spacing, capital letters and the use of italics and footnotes.The instructions were called, Penguin Composition Rules, and these guidelines were written by the typographer Jan Tschichold. He stayed with Penguin from 1947 to  1949 before returning to Switzerland.

The story goes that Allen Lane wanted a logo and name that would be attractive to all. A secretary at 8 Vigo Street, just off Regent Street where Allen Lane had his office,, overheard a conversation about using an animal logo. She suggested a penguin. Everybody liked the idea and Edward Young, the illustrator, was sent off to London Zoo where he spent a day sketching penguins in all sorts of poses.

Allen Lane also developed his publishing house with brands called Pelicans and King Penguins.

Saturday 21 June 2014


Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham retreat of Horace Walpole.

"Heaven nor hell shall impede my designs," said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather ... uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast. ... Manfred ... saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air. “   Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764.)

Challenging heaven and hell, preparing for damnation, seizing innocent young girls, receiving messages from the grave, levitating paintings and a mood of melancholy. In this short passage Horace Walpole encapsulates all that we have come to understand as, Gothic Horror. Otranto, is regarded as being the first Gothic novel and a book that influenced the writing of Gothic novelists such Ann Radcliffe who wrote and published The Mysteries of Udolpho  (1794). Ann Radcliffe in turn was an influence on Jane Austen who wrote Northanger Abbey. Austen of course makes fun of the genre but she includes all the Gothic horror elements that Horace Walpole promoted in Otranto. The concept of all things Gothic is encapsulated in Horace Walpole’s building, Strawberry Hill that consists of light and dark, mystery and intrigue and all shades between.

Horace Walpole (1717- 1797) the 4th Earl of Orford was the seventh son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Britain who first came into power under George Ist. Robert was a Whig politician who believed that parliament should hold the power and also wanted  a limited extension of the franchise. He also believed in the promotion of talent over birth. In a way the Whigs were the forerunners of the Liberal party. Although he was never called a Prime Minister, Robert Walpole effectively became the prime minister when he was given the posts of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

He dominated British politics for nearly thirty years. He was embroiled in political intrigue and accused of bribery and corruption. His own party, The Whigs, managed to get him to resign in 1742. He became The first Earl of Orford. Before leaving office Walpole managed to acquire various incomes for his offspring including some lucrative sinecure posts for his youngest son Horace, who therefore throughout his life never needed to work and earn money because of these lucrative endowments. Horace was the Comptroller of the Pipe and Clerk of the Estreats ( that was a job with the exchequer, ostensibly handing out money to government departments). In his twentieth year he became the Usher of The Exchequer. He also had a share in the collecting of customs. Altogether his income was nearly £3000 per year. He had to do absolutely nothing to obtain this income and he was provided with it for life. Horace Walpole was therefore able to pursue all his interests, including going into politics as the Member of Parliament for Kings Lynn, which had been in his family through his father’s connections. It was a was termed a, ”rotten borough.” A rotten borough was a borough in control of a local politician or member of the gentry. It had few and in the case of, Old Sarum as an example in Wiltshire, virtually no voters. The Member of Parliament for a rotten borough was not elected, the seat was given to them to gain influence. Horace Walpole was never at the centre of government but he knew all the powerful people. He was able to give a good account, in his letters to friends, of the political intrigues of the time. He especially was very good at describing the great and good detailing their personalities, habits and eccentricities. Things history does not often record.

Horace Walpole was an historian, collector, social commentator and a writer. His fascination with history led him to collect Renaissance Maiolica.  Maiolica, was a refined, white-glazed pottery of the Italian Renaissance and was adapted to all objects that were traditionally ceramic such as dishes, bowls, serving vessels, and jugs of all shapes and sizes. It was also used as a medium for sculpture and sculptural reliefs, as well as floor and ceiling tiles. The latter were rectangular, laid side by side across specially adapted joists. Maiolica is distinguished by its white, opaque glaze, due to the presence of tin-oxide, a powdery white ash. Walpole also collected Holbein drawings,  works by contemporary 18th century artists such as Joshua Reynolds. and he also had an interest in arms and armour

Over a period of forty years (1747 – 1790) Walpole turned a 17th century house in Twickenham into a Gothic masterpiece. It was named Strawberry Hill. In Walpole’s life it became a famous tourist attraction. Walpole designed the house, the interiors and the gardens himself with the help of friends such as Richard Bentley and John Adam, the architect.

Horace Walpole was also a novelist but more importantly he was a letter writer and it is his letters that give so much information about people, events and places. He was an insatiable recorder of his times. His letters covered, politics, antiquarianism, literature and the social life of the time. He had a close group of correspondents. Each received letters covering a different theme. Walpole’s old school fellow, George Montagu received letters about social anecdotes. Sir Horace Mann, Britain’s representative in Florence, received letters about politics. The letters are, alongside Strawberry Hill House, his most important legacy. His letters are renowned for detailed opinionated descriptions of places and people. He caused controversy amongst his close correspondents because of his often unflattering and all too realistic descriptions of famous and important people. He showed their inadequacies and unsavoury habits as well as recalling their talents and achievements.

Horace Walpole

Here is a description of Versailles in a letter to his friend Richard West, dated Paris, 1739. Horace Walpole was touring Europe with his school friend from Eton days, Thomas Grey, the poet.
“They say, we did not see it to advantage, that we ran through the apartments, saw the garden en passant, and slubbered over Trianon. I say, we saw nothing. However, we had time to see that the great front is a lumber of littleness, composed of black brick, stuck full of bad old busts, and fringed with gold rails. The rooms are all small, except the great gallery, which is noble, but totally wainscoted with looking-glass. The garden is littered with statues and fountains, each of which has its tutelary deity. In particular, the elementary god of fire solaces himself in one. In another, Enceladus, in lieu of a mountain, is overwhelmed with many waters. There are avenues of water-pots, who disport themselves much in squirting up cascadelins. In short, 'tis a garden for a great child. Such was Louis Quatorze, who is here seen in his proper colours, where he commanded in person, unassisted by his armies and his generals, left to the pursuit of his own puerile ideas of glory.”
This is not only a deprecating description of Versailles but also a character analysis of Louis XIV (le Roi Soleil) in not too flattering terms.
Walpole’s style is personal and conversational. You get a strong sense of his interest, humour and enthusiasm; his feelings and thoughts are expressed vivdly in his letter writing. His personality comes to the fore.

The Letters of Horace Walpole.

Horace Walpole’s grand Gothic creation, Strawberry Hill House at Twickenham, could be said to encapsulate in brick and stone its creator’s personality. I had the privilege of walking around the rooms of Strawberry Hill House recently and so in the spirit of Horace Walpole here is my description of that visit.

Strawberry Hill

“Marilyn and I drove Emily to work. She has just completed her degree in International Business Studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University and has been taken on at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s house, in the role of an internship. We arrived early on Sunday morning, the skies cloudless and blue. As we swept into the car park to the left of the house through the heavy oak framed gates with their deep dark red painted delicate filigree work in iron, depicting leaves and branches, the bright white walls of the castellated, turreted,  and perpendicular Gothic extravagances met our gaze. It was breath-taking; awe inspiring. The glowing bright whiteness of the walls dazzled. Our imaginations soared. An air of fantasy, mystery, and whispers of a dark medieval, spiritual past pervades the whole. We entered the house on the ground floor at the back through archways reminiscent of an abbey’s cloistered arches and alcoves overlooking wide and distant stretching lawns. 

Gloomy and mysterious corridors and landings.

Emily lead us in single file through dim and narrow corridors up a steep and winding staircase that lead to a small landing with gothic arched doors leading to rooms. The shape of this small lobby with its asymmetry, sharp corners, niches and doors set at angles, disorientated, created a sense of mystery and even unease. The creator of a place like this must have enjoyed mysteries, playing with the subconscious and plumbing the darker depths of our personality, creating wonder and unease in equal measures.

Blue plaque

The first room we entered, emerging from this gloomy, moody, confined chamber was, The Gallery. If Walpole , with his dim , dark, mysterious corridors wanted to suppress all expectations and put us in a gloomy state of mind  before revealing something fantastic and overwhelming, he couldn’t have been more  successful. Entering, The Gallery, we emerged into light and space  canopied by a three dimensional ceiling of intricate shimmering golden webs. The ceiling is fan vaulted like the roof of Kings College Cambridge Chapel, the fantastic roof of Bath Abbey and the vaulted roofs of many chapter houses in medieval cathedrals across Britain. The gold is so bright, so shiny, so intricate, it astounds and lifts the spirits from the depths of gloom with such a rush we actually gasped. It is a long gallery and has three deep set alcoves interspersed evenly along its length. The centre alcove is also a fireplace. Each alcove is comprised of a canopy consisting of an intricate web of gold echoing the ceiling of the room. The alcoves also comprise mirrors and brightly painted portraits of Walpole’s family and friends. The ceiling is created with papier mache and the walls are hung with a rich crimson Norwich damask. The combination of the bright shimmering golden ceiling, the golden alcoves and the deep bright red wall covering creates a rich and emotional experience. The red almost creates its own warmth. Red is blood, anger, rage. Gold is wealth, power, a heavenly thing. All these overt messages were coming at us with such power and force.  We felt as though we were inside a Gothic dream and indeed we were.

The Long Gallery

From The Long gallery we walked from one breath-taking room to the next. Each room pulsated with a sense of differing emotions. The Tribune, was very special to Horace Walpole. It was the room where he kept his most precious objet d’art. He only allowed his closest friends to enter here. It is now empty of all Walpole’s artefacts but the decoration has been replaced and renovated.  A wide curved window recess in front of us as we entered immediately gives one the feeling that the room is round. Equally  curved recesses to the right and left of this small room add to its round effect. However these recesses, although dominating the shape of the room are the sides of a square.  It has a roof reminiscent of the domed octagonal shape of a cathedral chapter house. I am thinking of the chapter house at Salisbury Cathedral in particular.. At the apex of the domed ceiling is a glass flower shaped window, a sky light, with sixteen equal edges to its form. A hexadecagon flower.

The Tribune

Another room called, The Round Room,  is carpeted in crimson and  also has the crimson Norwich damask wallpaper on its walls. It has a magnificent scagliola fireplace consisting of a creamy stone overlaid with green, brown and red branch and leaf motifs. The point that draws your eye in this room though is the window. It is set in a curved bay and has medieval motifs in stone and glass throughout it. Medieval kings look out from their glass badges. Coats of arms in stained glass are set between intricate and slender stone mullions.

Other rooms that we visited briefly included, The Library, which once again is full of medieval religious motifs. We visited The Great North bedchamber and the Holbein Chamber too.

 Horace Walpole allowed people to visit his house and issued tickets on application to that effect. The visitor in Walpole’s time entered by the front door. This is an unusual entrance. Marilyn and I explored this entrance too. The front door is an oak iron studded medieval facsimile above which a perpendicular arched window, leaded, with stained glass, surmounts the entrance.It is set in a white painted, stone, crenellated arch. High stone walls to the left and right of this entrance create a narrow high walled tunnelled effect that gives the sense that these walls are there to protect the house behind them, much as a castle’s outer walls protected the inner keep of the castle. 

The front door.

To the right, a narrow, pathway,  leads to, “the monastery garden,” set behind a delicately arched frieze. A small stone cell reminiscent of a monk’s cell or even a castle prison cell acts as a sort of sentry box before you reach the main door. A statue of a tonsured monk is placed on a pedestal inside this small stone room.  The first surprise for a visitor as they enter the house is the entrance hall with subdued lighting. The walls look like medieval wood panelling but this is a wallpaper designed to give a three dimensional effect and look like carved oak. A grand staircase twists up to the floors above with a large metal stained glass lantern hanging from the top of the high stair well. It has red, yellow and blue glass in it and the three lions of England emblazoned in gold on one of its facets. We sombrely walked up this medieval extravagance of a staircase and saw how our tour should have started if Horace himself was our guide.

The staircase.

The last  word about our tour of his house should be provided by Horace Walpole himself.
At the door, before you enter, is a wooden lectern with Horace Walpoles instructions displayed. They read....." Mr Walpole is very ready to oblige........"

                                                             Horace Walpole instructs.   

And of course , here is your ticket.

A room in Strawberry Hill.


Strawberry Hill was built in stages between the late 1740s to the 1790s. It was used for private entertainment and as a private retreat. The first phase of Strawberry Hill consisted of stone coloured Gothic interiors with stained glass in the windows. The library, built in 1754, encapsulated many Gothic principles. It was the centre of Walpole's ideas and the centre of Walpole's antiquarian and scholarly endeavours. John Chute, who lived at The Vyne, in Hampshire, designed the bookcases based on a door in Old St Paul's Cathedral. The chimney piece drew ideas from tombs in Westminster Abbey. The rooms in the State Apartment provided large formal spaces for entertaining. There were sufficient medieval influences but the overall decoration reflected modern state rooms in the classical style.

For Walpole, physical objects were, " doorways," to the past. Walpoles collection of ceramics was the largest and most varied in England. It ranged from Greek pots, Renaissance majolica, and modern porcelain. Walpole believed that his collection of enamels and miniatures was the, " largest and finest in any country." By 1797 he owned about 130 miniatures, painted in watercolour on vellum or ivory, and nearly forty enamels.

The monastery garden.

From the 1770s, Strawberry Hill became famous for 'Works of Genius … by Persons of Rank and Gentlemen not artists', including amongst them the painter and designer Lady Diana Beauclerk and the sculptor Anne Damer.

Horace Walpole's ,”Anecdotes of Painting in England, “published by the Strawberry Hill Press between 1762 and 1780, was the first history of English art. The Anecdotes included sections on sculptors, architects and engravers, and an 'Essay on Modern Gardening'.

Emily, with Marilyn in the background as we toured Strawberry Hill.

Horace Walpole died in 1797. He left Strawberry Hill to Anne Damer, a sculptress who was his cousin’s daughter. In 1811 it passed to his great niece Elizabeth Waldegrave. In 1839 her grandson John inherited the house . He married Frances Braham, the daughter of a famous opera singer. He, however died within a year of the marriage. Frances then married John’s brother, the seventh Earl Waldegrave. He was sent to prison by the Twickenham magistrate’s bench for riotous behaviour. When he was released he felt so annoyed with Twickenham that he decided to sell Walpoles collection in what was termed The Great Sale. He then let Strawberry Hill rot and decay. The Earl died in 1846. Frances married twice more. During her third marriage to Granville Harcourt she expanded Strawberry Hill. She enlarged the hall, added a new floor. She created the horse shoe entrance at the front of the house and pushed the main road back away from the house. She added a drawing room, dining room, billiard room and further accommodation for guests. She raised the tower and added Tudor style chimney pots in the style of Hampton Court.