Wednesday, 28 October 2015


After a gap of many years, I've started to read all the Cadfael books again. I bought them all in the mid to late 1990s. This followed the TV series starring David Jacobi as Cadfael, but I hadn't seen very much of that. I simply picked up the second Cadfael book written by the author Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters), began reading, and became hooked. Watching the TV version mostly came after the books, not the other way round.

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk, who takes his vows late in life, in his mid-fifties, after a varied and wordly - but not wicked - life at home and abroad, chiefly as a seaman and soldier. His background is very different from most of the brethren at Shrewsbury Abbey, as are his personal skills - among them medicinal knowledge, which enables him to move amphibiously between cloister and town without constantly asking leave. But of course he must attend the fixed-time prayers at the Abbey just as any member of his Order. He doesn't mind; it was the very regularity of the Benedictine life that drew him in, that and coming to rest in one spot, after a life spent roving.

The date is around 1140. The Norman hold on England is complete and vice-like, and feudalism is rigidly enforced. But Wales is still free and proud, not yet the object of conquest; Cadfael is Welsh and knows the language and the people; he's welcome there. Shrewsbury is a border town looking west to Wales as much as east to the rest of England. The English political atmosphere is tense, with some loyal to Stephen, some to Matilda, in a struggle for the throne. The Church is already accumulating land and wealth, but for now remains idealistic and uncorrupted, at least in places distant from London. It is an organisation as yet untroubled by the doctrinal schisms to come; still single-mindedly serving the spiritual and corporeal needs of the local people, high and low.

The Cadfael books are strong on mediaeval history and social conditions - definitely part of their appeal for me. But the main reasons for liking them are the character of Cadfael himself, and the mysteries - mostly killings - he steps in to unravel. He is not at all modelled on Sherlock Holmes or any 'modern' detective; he remains credibly of his time, and completely within the limitations of his time - so he knows which plants are poisonous; what a knife blade or arrow can do to a body; and he has access to local experts; but no modern scientific theory or knowledge. And behind it all, and very much in his mind, is a belief in the will of God and the agency of God in ordinary affairs.

That total belief in an omniscient deity - absolutely required for a credible mediaeval monk of course - is not so stressed that it puts me off. Cadfael knows that people of flesh and blood normally commit crimes, not a supernatural being. But that being might nevertheless be nudging events or be showing some sign; and he seems to assume common-sense, goodwill, and a forgiving understanding of the all-too-fallible human heart in the actions of the God he has made his vows to, and trusts. Which, broadly, is the type of reasonable entity that, if I believed, I would also place my trust in. So the pervading religious background to these books doesn't jar on me.

You can infer - correctly - that a stiff, unbending, rule-minded, easily-annoyed, angry, vengeful heavenly authority wouldn't command my allegiance, even if I were looking to give it. Nor, come to that, an arbitrary spiteful deity subject to mood swings, petulance and double-dealing, whose favour might be won or lost in an instant - as typified by the Greek or Norse gods.

Back to the books. I've finished the first, A Morbid Taste For Bones, and the mid-series prequel, A Rare Benedictine (which recounts how Cadfael gave up adventuring to become a monk), and I'm about to start One Corpse Too Many. If I stay with him, it'll be months before I get to the end of the series. I wonder if I'll have the perseverance?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Harvest Festival

I'm about a month late writing this up, but never mind.

Harvest Festival: a church phrase very meaningful when I was very young, and (for a while) obliged to attend church on Sundays, and not (as I am now) able to look into churches whenever I like, when nobody is around, out of sheer, unforced personal interest. There's a world of difference between finger-wagging compulsion, and stern social sanction, and anything done happily simply because you want to, whether you believe or not.

My childhood experience of church wasn't all a matter of fidgeting boredom and not wanting to be there at all. There were things I really rather liked. Certain rousing hymns and carols, for instance - generally the same ones sung at school. Not because of the words so much (they were archaic and rhymed awkwardly), but because of the tune - although I could sing along to some lusty hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers with genuine gusto. Another hymn that comes to mind was the one that begins:

We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land...

This wasn't an easy opening, descending as it quickly did into a deep bass after the high of 'scatter'. Young throats couldn't manage it very well. But the men's voices could, and the tune was extremely evocative of the old countryside, and the mellow end of the year, when the fields had been harvested and thanks were due for all that abundance. A pre-industrial, country scene indeed, when vicar and squire ruled the local roost, and nearly everyone else was a labourer of some sort. This was the society that Thomas Hardy wrote about - cruel and unkind for the destitute or dependant; and still full of dissatisfactions, jealousies, and impossible yearnings for others much better situated. The glue of this society was the land, and what could be made of it. The crops were the visible sign that seed, sunshine and rain, hard labour, and God's grace, would sustain everyone - provided all pulled together and did their allotted work. It was a simple connection - that of sweat with whatever was dug up or picked or herded.

I suppose that in a much simpler age, with a slow rhythm to it, regulated mainly by the season, it was easy to see the hand of a Deity in making - creating - food enough, at least in the good years. And it must have been supernaturally significant to crowd into a church and see the good things of the land spread around within, a colourful expression of fruitfulness, unconsciously pagan, but in any case a matter of very real rejoicing.

Harvest Festival is still alive in country churches. I came across one of the best displays of fruit and vegetables and flowers I have ever seen in the parish church at Stockland in south-east Devon. Stockland is in a side-valley of the River Yarty, one of the two rivers that flow south and merge at Axminster (the Axe being the other). It's this sort of countryside, and this kind of church:

I met an older lady near the church entrance. She urged me not to miss the Harvest Festival flower display inside. I needed no further persuading. The flowers were extremely well done.

But, you know, I thought the displays of vegetables even more impressive. Once again, an expert hand had arranged the fruits of the earth to best advantage. There were also tins and bottles and pots and packets of this and that, which I thought detracted from the visual purity of the display. But they had mostly been covered up. Some of the tins provided a good firm base to pile vegetables upon, so that the display wasn't all on one level. Taken as a whole, it was all very artistically arranged.

These pictures were taken with my new Panasonic LX100 camera. As hoped for, it seems to get great results in the subdued light you find in country churches!

The church was a big one, as you often find in West Country villages. There was - as is often also the case - a wall memorial to a particularly esteemed past vicar, in this case The Reverend William Keate, 1711-1777:

What praise of him! Or was it all eyewash? Country vicars and rectors were frequently anything but the humble servant of their flock, especially if they hunted with the squire and superintended the local school. He sounds a jolly sight too zealous for modern tastes!

I enjoyed Stockland church, and felt thrilled to have secured my pictures.

Did the congregation of 2015 have anything in common with, say, the local people who came to that same church in 1750 or 1850 and sang hymns of thankfulness for another good harvest? Beyond a love of their village church, and wanting to celebrate? It was worth pondering. I fancied that anyone who came to live in a place like Stockland would be inclined to join in and continue the conscious tradition. Not from religious zeal, but from wanting to be a part of the unfolding, evolving, history of their chosen patch of countryside. A final resting-place.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Vince Cable

The third well-known person I heard speak at Appledore was Vince Cable, only a few months previously the Business Secretary in the Conservative-LibDem Coalition Government. So far as I could judge, he was very capable in that job, a necessary and sensible anchor in the Cabinet, a solid big-beast LibDem presence who was seemingly more effective than Party Leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg in checking the more extreme instincts of the prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

In the months since the end of the General Election - at which, like most LibDems, he had lost his seat - Vince Cable had written a book - or put the finishing touches to one long in preparation: he probably foresaw the Libdems' electoral disaster, and the disappearance of any personal need to hold his tongue. It was a book all about the economic battles within the Coalition. He was going to talk about it. I didn't of course understand economic theory one bit, but I fancied that he would be a good speaker and put his points across well.

This wasn't his first book on the financial fortunes of the country. Its predecessor was The Storm, the 'storm' in question referring to the looming financial crisis that became apparent to him in 2006, and gathered pace from 2008, involving the near-collapse of the banks and the ensuing recession. He said wryly that this latest book should be called After the Heart Attack, because essentially the country had suffered a financial heart attack, and was still only in the convalescent stage. Our money troubles were not yet over - as the book would explain. He said enough about the contents of the book to make you want to buy it and read his analysis very carefully.

But I was more interested in the man himself. It isn't often that you get a chance to see a politician so close up, and even though ousted from his position of responsibility, he would be an interesting study. Once again, I had a seat close to the front, and could see his expressions and gestures clearly:

This was just his opening address to the audience, before he sat down in the chair provided. He was supported and introduced by another MP who had lost his seat, local LibDem Nick Harvey:

There were some pretty intelligent questions from the audience, when the speaking was over. Obviously, Vince Cable had a record to defend - both his and Nick Harvey's really - but I got the impression that he was satisfied with what he had been able to accomplish while a big wheel in the Coalition, and was relaxed about it. So relaxed, that I suspected this 72 year old man had now stood down from elected party politics permanently.

He was the second 'political' speaker I heard at the Festival. Was he in any way like Ann Widdecombe? (See the recent post on her) No: chalk and cheese. They were from different parties and had different beliefs. Strangely united in just one thing - they had both appeared at different times on BBC TV's Strictly Come Dancing. Not a programme I had watched for years, so I didn't see either of them perform. But apparently light-footed keen ballroom dancer Vince Cable had done well out of sheer ability. More-ponderous Ann Widdecombe had described how, from the outset, her professional dance partner had decided that she must do as little footwork as possible - so she was danced around, held aloft, or suspended from wires. I'm sure she must have looked great in the costumes they wear for the programme, though.

Naturally I bought the book. However, the Festival organisers arranged the book-signing a bit too efficiently, and there was no chance to swap a few light-hearted sentences with him - and perhaps get a photo - at the signing-desk. Still, he wrote me a clear message:

To Lucy
Very best wishes,
Vince C  XX

Two kisses? Well, you know, I seem to have this fascination for men...Vince and me...yeah...

But later on, I realised that the 'kisses' were in fact just the 'able' of 'Cable' - the man putting all his calligraphic effort into that rather impressive V-for-victory 'Vince' and slurring the surname into 'C-squiggle'.


Terry Waite

Well, I finally got to meet him. Terry Waite, humanitarian, writer and campaigner, hostage negotiator, one-time Special Envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and forever famous for being held as a high-profile hostage in Lebanon from 1987 to 1991, the first four years of that in solitary confinement. The last fact is a crucial one. How did he survive the poor conditions, the deprivation of human contact? It argued immense inner resources. He seemed to epitomise the notion of 'no surrender' - not a violent defiance, but a calm one, impressive and inspirational in his patience and refusal to despair - and I had always been keen to meet him if ever I could.

Actually, I saw him twice in the same evening. First, at his public talk on his life and work (and - very incidentally - his writing career and latest book) in the Parish Church in Appledore.

Second, at the reception one hour later in an Appledore art studio, open only to Friends of the Appledore Book Festival - and I was a Friend. I arrived a little late from the other end of town. Not wanting to beat about the bush, I went straight up to him and said 'Mr Waite! How very tall you are!' Which was no less than the truth. He is aged 67, and is a dizzying 6 foot 7 inches tall (quite a coincidence in figures, that).

I had a question ready for him, which I didn't think anybody would have asked. I'd noticed that he was a patron of the Romany Society. I knew this had nothing directly to do with gypsies - 'Romany' was the pen-name of George Bramwell Evens, a countryside-loving Methodist minister, wayfarer, writer and radio broadcaster of the 1930s. I asked him why he had become patron. He explained that he'd always had a love of the countryside since a child, and Romany's appreciation of rural plants and animals appealed to him.

He must have been surprised at my question. It wasn't about Christianity, nor the Middle East, nor some aspect of being a long-term hostage. I had done my homework, and in fact did have some other questions, such as what had been the special thing about Christianity that had called to him and sustained him; whether he thought the decline of religious feeling in the UK threatened the recruitment of people like himself to the cause of peace; whether he thought America should stay out of the Middle East, having such a toxic record there; why Russia might think itself more acceptable; and what had been the key psychological techniques for enduring solitary confinement - had he treated it as something akin to a hermit's retreat? But instead I asked him about Romany.

Somewhere in my photo archives (it isn't where I thought it was) I have a picture of the dust cover of a book written by Romany titled Out With Romany Again, implying of course that it was a sequel to an earlier book titled Out With Romany. Well, there was the author, sitting near his horse-drawn caravan, stroking his faithful dog Raq. His clothes looked a bit dishevelled, the collar of his shirt all askew; but it didn't matter. This was a man at peace with himself, and at one with country life, promising to share his experiences with the reader. I wonder if Terry Waite thought about the gentle green countryside of his Cheshire boyhood, when confined in a tiny room somewhere in Beirut - bookless, without pen and paper, and only his thoughts to draw upon; or when dumped in a car's boot to be moved - bound, gagged and blindfolded - from one hideout to another; or when threatened at impossibly short notice with death by shooting - as he was more than once. (What would I have thought of, if ever faced with the same?)

I didn't have long with him at the studio. He was besieged by other people wanting their own moment with him. He was bulky to match his height, making all the other men look small. His captors all those years ago must have found him impossible to intimidate. He actually went back to see them in 2012, to reach out to them and heal the past. Not many would have done that. A big, big man. Look how he stood head and shoulders above everyone else at the studio:

Earlier on, at the church, on the stage there, he hadn't seemed quite so tall. But still impressive. He was introduced by the vicar, dressed casually for the occasion.

Terry Waite described his experiences as a hostage negotiator, and later on as a hostage himself, at some length. Although he did mention how he physically deteriorated at the time, it had not left him bent and gaunt in his older life. Far from it. He seemed outstandingly robust. And there seemed to have been no lasting mental damage. As you can see, he could smile and make easy jokes; and in fact his latest book was an experiment in humour. But I thought that basically he was a very serious man, very much committed to the humanitarian causes and principles he had always championed.

I didn't buy his book. For one thing, no matter how funny it was, I hadn't got a sense of humour and it would therefore have been a waste of money in my hands. For another, I wanted to get a quick meal. It wasn't as quick as I hoped, and I had to eat it at the bar, in conversation with a local artist-photographer called Pete. It was a big plate of pub grub.

I managed to eat it all. I don't think Terry Waite would have detected my chip-breath.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Ann Widdecombe

One of the first speakers I saw at the Appledore Book Festival in late September was Ann Widdecombe, once a Minister in John Major's Conservative government of the 1990s.

Already an author - see the titles above - she retired from politics in 2010 and plunged into the national 'speaking circuit'. On holiday, I seemed to see posters all over the place, saying that Ann Widdecombe would be speaking at this or that local venue. She seemed assiduous in getting around the country and making her viewpoint known. It was certainly a good way to put her personality (and personal history) across to the general public. I have little doubt that despite holding some contentious beliefs - some of them rather cross-grained, and against what you might regard as the lax mainstream of modern British life - an awful lot of people wanted to listen to what she had to say, even if they felt opposed to her own way of looking at things. This had been how I felt too. I couldn't share her religiosity in any way, and found her over-dogmatic on several topics. But it didn't dampen my keenness to hear her if the opportunity came. Well, it did come. I wasn't disappointed.

The Church at Appledore was packed, mostly by women. A lot of people see Ann Widdecombe as the epitome of the no-nonsense, dauntless, outspoken woman, somebody who has plenty to say and says it well. I wasn't quite in the front row, but I had a good view of her throughout. Here she came:

She'd just written another book, of course, but concentrated on how she began to write, and the various problems that beset an author who was a former politician - for instance, how it took a very long time for politically-minded acquaintances to accept that she had retired from that kind of public life, and did not have to pay any heed to 'what voters might think'. Or how the subject-matter of the books themselves was derived.

She triumphed over portliness. I'm not sure I would myself have worn riding boots with that green dress, but nevertheless they looked very expensive, no-nonsense riding boots, and they definitely assisted her stage presence. As if it needed any assistance whatever! She was a clear, frank speaker, who did not mince her words. She gave quick, definite replies to questions. It was most refreshing to hear somebody who did not hedge or prevaricate. She spoke her mind - exactly what the audience wanted. I felt great admiration for her. Here are some shots, which radiate aspects of her forceful personality:

No, she wasn't looking directly at me! (Or at least I hope not!)

In the next shot, she was directing the lady with the roving cordless mike to some person in a back row, who wanted to ask a question. It was very much on the lines of 'That lady in blue three rows in front of the font, seven in, sitting next to the man with the green jacket and red hair!'

When she had had her hour (which I'm pretty sure over-ran) she left to lots of smiles and a great clapping:

I could have joined her in St Mary's Hall, where she was signing books. But I was waylaid by friends Jayne and Vicky, and walked away chatting to Jayne. But actually, I'm not sure whether the feeble Melford personality could have withstood the exposure of sitting close to this most formidable woman at the signing-table - or at least, I'd have been much more comfortable talking to her in a less formal kind of social situation. But it was not to be.

I'd certainly like to hear her speak again.