Saturday, 16 June 2018


Dublin Bay and Martello Tower

June the sixteenth, 16th June, Bloomsday. A day to celebrate the meeting on that date in 1904, of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, a young Galway lass working as a chambermaid in Finn's Hotel in Dublin. 

They walked on the beach at Sandymount. Within a few months they had run off together to Europe and she remained his partner and his muse for the rest of his life. His gift to her was to immortalise that day as the single day in which the entire action of his masterpiece Ulysses takes place from one side of Edwardian Dublin to the other.

This year there was no need to go to Dublin to re-enact the scene of Bloom feeding the seagulls at the O'Connel Bridge. There are herring gulls nesting on the highest chimneys of the house beyond the reach of all attempts at dislodgement.

Bloomsday visits have been to what is still very recognisably the city Joyce knew, have been greatly enjoyed in the past but this year I'll have to be satisfied with listening to a download of the BBC dramatisation of the novel and the glass of burgundy with gorgonzola cheese of Bloom's lunch at Davy Byrne's pub. ( It was Stilton that was available but it's all blue cheese)

Davy Byrne's pub

A breakfast of fried pork kidneys would have been a bit to much!

Joyce's stream of consciousness writing, recurrent themes, symbolism and parallels with Homer's original make for re-reading of the novel again and again. Every time, another jewel surfaces from the prose like gold in river gravel.
We followed the trail of Homer's Ulysses through the Mediterranean last summer (Blog 27 /10/17 ) Maybe next June we'll go back to Dublin and trace the paths of Joyce's heroes again.

Thursday, 7 June 2018


Getting off the train from London at our local station, I had a short stroll to the stop to catch the bus which would deposit me within ten yards of my house. All the pleasure of living in deepest rurality with roe deer in the field across the way yet within a few effortless hours of the capital.
My feeling of smug self satisfaction was somewhat dampened by the persistent drizzle and the timing of the next bus. However, there was a second hand book shop close by and where better to while away an enforced twenty minute wait.

A funny off-key bell and then the door opened on to a maze of wooden book-cases packed from floor to reach-up-high. The fiction section was a journey to the past, to books from my childhood on book-cases at home, to visits to the library, to school prizes chosen for their worthiness and to unsought Christmas presents given with the same good intentions. Names of old favourites, some barely remembered; titles from the spines of novels seen but never opened or opened, glanced at and closed within a few seconds; books I thought I should have read or ought to have read or maybe just thought I had read; famous authors and famous titles and many that were once widely popular but now out of print; they were all there.

Does anyone read Dornford Yates these days? He was hugely successful between the wars. Short stories, humorous tales, thrillers, crime novels, political and fantasy novels - there seemed to be no genre he couldn't tackle. He even wrote lyrics for a musical which ran to 124 performances!
He is still in print and even available as e-books. I've never read a word that he wrote.

Pearl S Buck, winner of the Pulitzer prize and Nobel prize for Literature has been honoured by appearing on a postage stamp in the USA. Why have I never read any of her works?

The book-shop reminded me of the public library I haunted as a child in the nineteen fifties. Our local one was located in what had been the county gaol. The alcoves for the different sections – children, adult fiction, non-fiction - must have been, now that I think about it, the old cells with the barred doors removed. I wasn't aware of any custodial significance as I searched for Just William, Billy Bunter or the latest sci-fi adventure. The books were reminders of the recent wartime shortages having no dust jackets and stout rebound covers. Occasionally, you would come across the stamped imprint "Salvage copy" which meant nothing to me at the time but bore witness to whence the book had been acquired.
"... and get me a good murder..." was the usual rejoinder from my mother when she asked where I was going though she also had a predilection for historical romances by Georgette Heyer which always seemed strangely out of character.

Browsing along the aisles of the shop, I spied a copy of East Lynne, that convoluted Victorian melodrama that was so popular there must have been a copy in every literate household in Britain. Famous for its misquote "Dead and never called me mother ", it was serialised, published as a whole, adapted for the stage many times, and made into a film on several occasions and in several guises. We had a copy as part of a set that included Lorna Doone, Robinson Crusoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. I did read Robinson Crusoe and The Count of Monte Cristo remains one of my all time favourites but East Lynne defeated me after a few pages.
The only version I have every experienced was a spoof, a five minute lampoon of the whole thing written for an amateur fund raising concert in the local church hall and very funny it was too.

Recently, I came across The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. It stirred even more memories of books encountered in earlier years when I seemed to have time to spend whole days with a book. He reminded me of The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne a book that I can now scarcely recall but which still evokes a residual feeling of enjoyment. Strangely, The Gorilla Hunters by the same writer, that I must have been given as present, sat, unopened, in its dust-jacket in my bedroom bookcase for years.
Arthur Mee, compiler of The Children's Encyclopedia deserves not to be forgotten. That strange collection of stories, facts many of which were dubious to say the least, jingoistic history, puzzles games, things to make and do which was so middle class that it assumed that the reader's family would have at least a maid if not a cook as well.

Detective writers featured prominently. Paper backs by Leslie Charteris whose hero, The Saint, had a little haloed stick man symbol and John Dickson Carr with his complex plots, were tucked into odd corners of the house usually by the same reader who had requested "a good murder" from my library visits.

In my early teens there were the satanic thrillers of Dennis Wheatley – The Devil rides out and others in that genre and then the discovery of Ian Fleming's James Bond. Does anyone actually read the Bond books any more or do we all just see the latest blockbuster film?

The rain stopped and I left the little bookshop but not before purchasing a couple of Simenon's Maigret stories just for old times sake. Do you remember the black and white T.V. series with the classic introduction of the match striking on a wall leading into the accordion theme tune? That started me off on them all those years ago but I haven't read one for decades. Time to revisit some old favourites and a few missed out on over the years.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Woodland walk

Jack-by-the-hedge or Garlic Mustard

The swallows have arrived in the last week or so. Bang on time, a year to the day from their last arrival. One can only marvel at their in-built calendars.  The numbers are down but they have been battling against persistent northerly head-winds so only the strongest will have made it so far. Hopefully, more will catch up later. 
The sun has, at last, started to shine though the temperatures are still low and the solitary bees that usually throng the early blooms on the flowering currant in the hedge are few in number.
 The nest boxes are occupied and the warblers are singing in the woods.


 I heard what can only be described as a musical duel between two blackcaps trying to outdo each other.  What to my ears was a bravura performance of trill and counter trill was the black cap equivalent of two guys hurling abuse at one another.
Not to be left in the shade, a wren struck up its disproportionately loud party piece. How such a tiny body can produce such a volume and quantity of song is a mystery.

Further along the path the blackbirds had given up singing and were chattering their alarms call from branch to branch.  The reason became obvious as a dozing tawny owl opened a sleepy eye to see who was disturbing his snooze.

Sleepy Owl

 Stoats were playing scampering around the tree roots and generally the woodland seemed to have come alive with a small dose of sunshine.

Crossing from the woods to an old path through the fields, I came across a thrush's anvil - a stone used by a thrush to break snail shells.  It had been busy judging by the amount of discarded remnants of banded snail shells.
Thrush Anvil

 Back home by the burn with the blackthorn in full bloom and the chiff-chaff in full song. A pleasant stroll.

The promise of sloes for the gin this autumn

Tuesday, 3 April 2018


On a recent walk through some local woods, I was aware of how all of us including some very experienced bird watchers relied on our ears before our eyes to identify the denizens of the trees.
The distinctive and surprisingly loud, pew pew pew of the nuthatch alerted us all long before it was spotted as did the repetitive tsee tsee tsee of the siskins.

Everyone knows the yellow-hammer's refrain of "a little bit of bread and no chee-eese" and, to my mind, the chaffinch sounds like a fast bowler approaching the crease - a few stuttering notes, then an accelerating run then a flourish of cheewoo on the delivery.

I downloaded an app on my i-pod which allows me to record a song for 30 seconds then have it analysed and identified. It has its limitations; it failed a trial of naming a buzzard from its unmistakable call but is usually pretty accurate.

I've just finished the Diaries of a Dying Man, the last work of the poet William Soutar.  His ankylosing spondylitis eventually made him bedridden for fourteen years from 1930 until his death in 1943.   His contact with the natural world was confined to his garden, mostly viewed through a bay window but his enforced immobility allowed him to become a wonderful recorder of the passing scene.
 He had a great affinity for the blackbird.  He compared it to the thrush whom he saw as a provincial country cousin compared to the masterful creation of the blackbird with its " solitary bright bill against the body's darkness"'s joy culminated in a single gesture- the flirt of a tail feather; and the magnanimity of life flowing in the rich simplicity of a song.

 Another entry has a blackbird whistling in the rain " the Caruso of the tribe"

I could have listened to him for hours, the interplay of notes was so varied, defiant, witty, confident, merry, bold - anything but melancholy.

This from a man with a poet's ear for sound in rhythm and rhyme.

He attempted, but admitted it was well nigh impossible, to translate the song into words.

chickee-chickee-chee: ti-ti-ti-titty-titty: chittie-cheea: tweeto-tweet-tweeto: what-ya-doin', what-ya-doin': hullo-hullo-hullo: chejoey-chejoey-what-what-what: gee-up, gee-up, hoo-hoo-hoo: get-away, get-away, get-away: you-would, you-would, you-would, would-you?: hoi-hoi-hoi-- have-a-look-at -me.

The sheer volume and exuberance of the blackbird's song make it difficult for the amateur bird watcher to distinguish the others joining in the chorus though the robin and humble dunnock try their best.  Thankfully, the wonderfully ascending scales of the sky lark only have the wind to outdo. 
The comforting cooing of the wood pigeon; the privilege of hearing the barn owl's screech or the tawny owl's hoot in the stillness of the night; the assurance of summer in the cuckoo's mocking call or the scream of the swifts on warm evenings: sometimes we are scarcely aware of them amongst all the noise we generate.
 We should rejoice in their presence.

Friday, 30 March 2018


Strutting about the garden  in the rain with his swaggering gait, a bandit, a reiver, a robber.
Predator, egg thief, hunter of the weak and vulnerable, snapper up of any unconsidered trifle.

A magpie.

Bird of ill omen; bringer of bad luck; portent of doom; one for sorrow.
Yet, beautiful. Not gaudy but stylish. Classic black and white with that brilliant azure wing edging and the long elegant tail glossed with purple and green.

A deadly beauty like an F16 jet fighter or a chased steel rapier, a beauty that kills.

Unafraid, he strolled about the lawn with his cocky, jerky walk and searching eye while the sparrows scolded from the safety of the hawthorn hedge.

Finding nothing of note, he departed.

Jessie Lamont, the poet born in our village, was inspired by the bird.

How I love you, magpie,
As you swiftly fly
From yew to willow tree!
On a stormy sea
Grey gulls may enthral,
But you are magical.
Bird, whom none befriends,
Bird, whose light transcends
Dark images of wrong,
To Beauty you belong!

I too, enjoyed my encounter but just to be safe, I tugged my forelock and asked after his family. No point in taking chances!