Redenhall Church from Green Lane. Oil on Canvas 60 x 70 cm. ©

Rosefield Corner, Dicky Hill Oil on canvas 08 2020 40 x 70 cm. ©

Ripping Out the Rose-rows, Dicky Hill oil on canvas 2021 65 x 100 cm. ©

In 1960/61 I was a lecturer at the West German University of Marburg/Lahn. My professor asked me to lecture on ‘British Institutions’. I wrote the ‘Monarchy’ lecture as a socratic dialogue, performed by one of my students and myself. Many students thought it presented the German view versus the British view, but it was more complicated than that. Anyway, here it is – the view from sixty years back.

A. I was reading the Grune Blatt the other day (I read it regularly of course, like most students): the main article was about Farah Dibah. I find that when it isn’t about her it’s about ex-Queen Soraya, or King Baudouin, or Queen Elizabeth, or Princess Alexandra. Even the ex-Kings of Jugoslavia and Spain, and old Farouk, and people with claims on the throne of France are in and out of the newspaper every day. (I can’t imagine why they’re so newsworthy).

B. Yes, I agree with you: it is odd that in our democratic countries the common people are so whole-heartedly concerned with the affairs of Royal Families – the elite, who read the Times and the Observer, like me (Top People, you know), don’t learn so much about them. The Court Circular in the Times tells us what the Royal Family is doing, and we’re sometimes discretely told that the Queen is suffering from a slight cold, but there it ends, and a good thing too,I think. Constant prying into the affairs of the Royal Family is a danger to the Monarchy, in the long run.

A. My God. You don’t really approve of the whole thing, do you?

B. Certainly I approve of it. It’s a much better system than a Presidency, with all the dubious political shuffling that goes with it. Look at America, where the highest representative of the state will be the leader of a Political Party – where, in other words, he won’t have the respect of more than half the population. Or look at France, where the President is a kind of lay Pope – a respected spiritual leader who is unable to to use his temporal power to ge anything done. Or again. look at Germany. Imagine the Prime Minister of England announcing that he’d decided to become King, and then a bit later. that he had decided not to, after all What a lot of Humbug! No, our solution is much more satisfactory, far more dignified.

A. I’m not sure I agree with this view of the American or German Presidencies, but then I’d rather have the leader of the State a human being, with some admirable qualities, and some faults, like Heuss was in Germany, or Tito is in Jugoslavia – he’s a very good example. I’d always prefer human beings to dignified puppets.

B. This only goes to show what a Romantic you are at heart. Tito is really a mediaeval King who fought his way to the throne through personal combat, and united a grateful people. Very Balkan, of course. But he wouldn’t do in a democracy – after all, he’s not only President of the State, but President of the National Assembley too – very powerful, in other words. You can’t bracket him with Heuss.

A. It’s interesting that you should bring Democracy into it: in the first place this raises a problem of definition. The President of America has as much power as Marshall Tito: does that mean America is not a democracy? In the second place I have serious doubts as to whether a Monarchy is compatible with a Democracy. But we can come back to this in a moment, The question is, what does work in your Democracy. In other words, if you think Tito has too much power, how much does Queen Elizabeth have?

B. Can I rephrase that, “What’s her position”? Well, she’s the Head of State, and the symbol of the State. She’s the permanent part of Parliament: laws are enacted by her together with the Houses of Lords and of Commons. Some things are theoretically hers – the Queen’s Government, the Royal Airforce, the Royal Mail= this is a convenient fiction. She’s also Queen of some other countries – Canada and Australia, for example- and she’sthe Head of the Commonwealth, recognised as such by even by Commonwalth Republics like India, and lastly she is the temporal head of the Church of England, which is the official State Church.

A. Let’s take the first matter. If the Queen has to give her assent to laws before they can be enacted, this ought to mean that she can interfere by refusing to give her consent. But this doesn’t in fact happen, does it?

B. There’s a long delay -a number of years – before official papers about the Monarchare released, so it’s difficult tosay for sure what’s happening, but I think recent Kings have abided by constitutional practice and simply accepted what their ministers presented to them. All the same, the King has certain rights. Bagehot, in his English Constitution, put it like this

,,,the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.

and he pictures the Sovereign as saying: I do not oppose, it is my duty not to oppose, but observe that I warn.

The King often does this. Prince Albert, as he was dying, made suggestions about a message from the British Government to the Northern States in the American Civil War – it was so severe that if it had been sent, the North might have declared war on us. As it was, the message was softened, and they didn’t. Albert, , acting with Victoria, was fairly powerful. A constitutional monarch can’t really refuse to sign something in the long run, but he can put pressure in his Ministry. King Edward VII once delayed the announcement of official changes from early July to to late october simply by refusing to sign the necessary papers until his Minister explained to him in full detail what the changes would mean. [King Edward VII: A Biography by Sir Sydney Lee vII p.213 seq andp273 seq]

In those days there were Kings all over Europe, and they were generally related. The Tsar was a relative of Edward VII, the Kaiser was his nephew, and Leopold of the Belgians was his great-uncle. This meant that a good deal of diplomacy could be carried out by subtle hints in family letters . The Prime Minister would have an audience with Edward, who would write letter to Wilhelm, who would have a conference with his Chancellor. So that communications would be made without any official government notes. Edward himself had the concept of a sort of Trades Union of Kings. He refused to recognise the new King of Serbia until the assassins of the former king had been punished. He said:

.. I have another, and so to say, a personal reason. Mon metier a moi est d’etre Roi. KingAlexander was also by his metier ‘Un Roi’. As you see, I cannot be indifferent to the assassination of a member of my profession, or, if you like, a member of my guild.

We should all be obliged to shut up our businesses if we, the Kings, were to consider the assassination of Kings as of no consequence at all. I do regret, but you see that I cannot do what you wish me to do.

.. I have another, and so to say, a personal reason. Mon metier a moi est d’etre Roi. KingAlexander was also by his metier ‘Un Roi’. As you see, I cannot be indifferent to the assassination of a member of my profession, or, if you like, a member of my guild. We should all be obliged to shut up our businesses if we, the Kings, were to consider the assassination of Kings as of no consequence at all. I do regret, but you see that I cannotdo what you wish me to do.

This kind of Happy Families diplomacy has naturally died away. Within England, however, more recently, King George V persuaded Ramsay MacDonald to head a National Government; again, according to Herbert Morrison, George VI discussed particular death sentences with him when he was Home Secretary, Morrison did not accept his advice, but at least the King made his point. What it comes to is that the King sees all Government papers and signs many of them. If he is diligent in reading them he’ll have a very wide knowledge of what is going on, and since he is permanently there,and is above Party Politics,he’s in a good position to give impartial advice.

A. Assuming he isn’t also a normal human being with prejudices and preferences., but let’s stick to powers. It’s my turn to give an example. Have you read Lytton Strachey? Do you remember Queen Victoria’s advice to the First Lord of the Admiralty about the reform of the Navy?

“Her own personal feeling” she wrote. “would be for the beards without the moustaches, as the latter have rather a soldier-like appearance; but then the object in view would not be obtained, viz. to prevent the necessity of shaving. Therefore it had better be as proposed, the full beard, only it should be kept short and very clean.” After thinking over the question for another week, the Queen wrote a final letter, “to make one additional observation respecting the beards, viz. that on no account should moustaches be allowed without beards. That must be clearly understood.”

B. This is a very nice example of Victoria’s general tone. But I don’t see how it fits into the power question.

A. I admit I used it because it amuses me. But look at the way it is phrased: “on no account….. that must be clearly understood.” It sounds pretty uncompromising – almost dictatorial, What about Victoria’s memorandum to Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary in 1950, when she threatened to dismiss him if he altered dispatches after she had approved them, although the right of appointing or dismissing the Foreign Secretary properly belongs to the Prime Minister? Or what about her remark “a democratic monarchy is what she will never belong to”? If Albert had lived longer she might seriously have opposed giving the vote to the working classes. What is there to stop the present Queen from hindering the Government in the same way?

B, Nothing at all – except custom. That and the fact that Kings have become more and more democratic.

A, You mean more and more middle-class.

B. Perhaps, but as that’s the only class that’s left, it is democracy.

A. I suppose I asked for that. Anyhow, it all boils down to the fact that the Monarch has theoretically the power to do a great deal, but in practice doesn’t dare to do a thing.

B. There is one exception, The Monarch decides which people are to be honoured with the Order of Merit, The Garter, The Thistle, and the Royal Victorian Order. Apart from that you’re quite right. But it isn’t that the Monarch doesn’t dare, it’s that Monarchs havea great sense of duty – public service.

A. Oh, really. I thought I was supposed to be the Romantic. Let me put it another way. A satisfactory constitutional Monarch must either be very lazy or very stupid, or, if they dare to be intelligent, mustn’t use that intelligence to get anything done. The Monarch must try not to let anyone notice them until after they are dead.

B. I shouldn’t dream of contesting that Kings have been stupid and lazy, but you see it doesn’t matter! It’s the institution which counts, not the person.

A. Can you really believe that? What would happen if the next King happened to have a personality like Henry VIII – intelligent, wilful, and a natural leader? He’d hardly fit in, would he?

B. I imagine he’d eventually abdicate, as Edward VII did

A. And everything would go on as if nothing had happened?

B. I expect so.

A. We shan’t make much progress here. What about the second part of the Queen’s position, that she is the titular head of the Commonwealth. What powers does that involve?

B. None at all, as far as I can see. The Preamble of the Statute of Westminster of 1931 describes the Crown as the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nation. But you shouldn’t place so much emphasis on power. Symbolic

values often achieve a great deal. For example, during the War, George VII used to travel in from Windsor to work in Buckingham Palace. I’ve seen this ridiculed by AJP Taylor, but it must have been an immense boost to the morale of the British people to know that he was in England, and in London, during the worst German air attacks. Or again, for symbolic value, think of German President Heuss’ State Visit to London. I think that public respect for Heuss did a great deal to improve British feeling about the Germans.

A. This is probably a good example for the assertion that Presidents are just as good as Kings, for practical purposes.

B. On the contrary: Presidents change. and by vote. And the next one may not necessarily command as much respect as the last one.

A. I think you wll find that Monarchy is as vulnerable as Presidency: I doubt whether respect for the Monarchy would survive a succession of really bad Kings -and of course no-one can really make a King abdicate if he doesn’t want to, whereas a President is under control. What’s more, there’s a bit of a choice when iit comes to Presidents. Kings have an awful inevitability. But let’s come to the last thing you said about the Queen. About her religious position. Does this give her any real power,or is it just another formality?

B. The Queen is the temporal head of the Church of England. Her title to the Crown derives from the Act of Settlement 1701. which said:

The Crown shall remain and shall continue to the said most excellent Princess Sophia and the heirs of her body being protestant.

Because of this a King may not be a Roman Catholic or marry a Roman Catholic, and must swear to maintain the established Church. Before you go on, A, let me say that I can see the corner you are trying to drive me into.

A. In you go, all the same. Do you realise what all this adds up to? The King is obliged to carry out his Royal duties, which occupy most of his time and may work him to death, as they worked George VI to death. He may not go where he pleases or do what he pleases because his time and his person are at the disposal of the nation. He may not do anything positive for the good of his subjects except to warn ministers, and he must stand by powerless and watch these ministers when they do various things which make the nation appear aggressive or idiotic. He may not marry whom he pleases; he must choose from foreign Royalty – with one or two honourable exceptions a scruffy lot of rootless emigrees – or from British noble families, on whom I won’t comment, and furthermore, only from those of them who are Protestants. Naturally he can’t worship which god he pleases. And lastly, or perhaps first of all, he can’t choose Royalty as a career: it’s thrust upon him, and he can do nothing about it. Really, B, it’s intolerable. He hasn’t the democratic rights of his subjects, whom he is supposed to represent. Isn’t that a subtle corruption, the just British State with its head in an iron mask?

B. Oh come. No-one has to become King. And of course anyone who feels he can’t do the job properly can abdicate, like Edward VIII.

A. That’s a very naïve point of view, Kings are brought up as Kings: they are educated from the start In the idea that they are above the level of others, that they have a duty to the State, and so on and so forth.Your suggestion that no-one has to become a King would be a reasonable one if you could point out one example of an heir to the throne who refused to take up the crown. As for your example of abdication, Edward VIII provides perfect fuel for my argument. He abdicated and married, and then what? Does he seem to be living a full and satisfied life? I can’t believe it, Look at the photographs. Just consider this. After he had abdicated when he wrote an article in a Sunday paper in 1953. an article critical of the Labour Party, Herbert Morrison could write this – and remember that Morrison was a Labour Home Secretary, and, mind you, an important member of the Labour Party:

Such an expression of opinion critical of any political party on the part of any former Monarch is, I think, unfortunate. It confirms my personal view that ex- Monarchs are wise to be silent and not to live in a country or countries over whch they formerly ruled.

The Labour Party is the one which is supposed to believe in equality! In plain words when personal honesty leads him to give up the one job he has been brought up to do, when he realises that he’s not trained to do anything else, the advice from the Labour Party is, Shut up and get out. Take a more recent case. Mr Armstrong-Jones married Princess Margaret. He’s a commercial photographer: I’ve seen some of his photographs and they are really good, But from now on he won’t work as a photographer, because Royalty don’t engage in commerce. Another good man reduced to opening flower-shows and twiddling his thumbs.

B. I can understand your feeling here, in fact I think I more or less agree with you. Monarchs and Princesses ought to be allowed to live natural lives, and in Norway and Sweden they approach far nearer to the ideal than we do. I would certainly like to see certain reforms to the way the Monarchy is treated; some reforms have been suggested by Lord Altringham (a good Royalist if ever there was one). But you see what happened to him. He was abused in the daily papers, and his face was slapped in the street. The British Public just don’t seem ready for these reforms.

A. An argument I’ve heard before for not reforming anything of social importance that needed to be reformed – the Death Penalty, the Homosexuality Law – it’s even used about joining Europe, though there isn’t a scrap of evidence to prove that the Public are so unprepared.

B. Or a scrap of evidence to prove the contrary. So we shall stick to our very different estimates. But I want to return to your argument. I suppose that I should have agreed that a great deal of sacrifice is expected of a King and a Royal Family; fortunately their devotion to their indispensible office gives them the strength to make that sacrifice. Because my fundamental contention is that the Monarchy is indispensible. You’ve used Morrison: let me add Attlee, who was Prime Minister from 1945 – 51. He recently said that democracies with a Monarchy are more democratic than ones with a President. Well then, if the job is essential, someone has to do it: I’d hate the job – and I’d hate others too. Think of being a dustman – but there have to be dustmen; I think it’s terrible that there are still miners. I’d like to abolish mining, it’s degrading and appallingly dangerous, But you know that we have to have miners, and we also have to have Monarchs. But I expect you won’t agree there.

A. No, I certainly won’t. I would like to see the Monarchy abolished, and I don’t think it at all essential,

B. You know that Philip Toynbee said that wanting to abolish the Monarchy was the sign of a false radical?

A. Toynbee’s remark was a sillly one: all he really meant was that some things are more urgent than others. In any case I’m not the spiritual heir of Toynbee, or or of Atlee, or of Morrison, You can’t talk about ‘Radicals’ just like that, any more than you can talk about “The English.’ As I said, I’d like to do away with the Monarchy. But it doesn’t depend on me. It’s bound to come to an end anyway. We can’t tolerate this inequality in a democratic state. Think of the things which are hitched to it. An established Church – a kind of in-built religious intolerance. The Nobility – a self-renewing growth of class-distinction and social inequality. A focus for the most vicious of vitues, Patriotism ( you can’t deny that the extremest nationalists are the most fervent Royalists). An encouragement of inequality in education (since the Royal children will receive Public School education outside the State System). And the utter ruin of the design of our Postage Stamps.

B. Whatever you say, I should hate to see it all disappear, and I wonder how happy you would be with the mangled remains left after your reforms? But I won’t argue about these things, because I want to show you how impractical your ideas are. Supposing you had a party whose members had decided to abolish the Monarchy. Before those who were elected became Members of Parliament they would have to take the oath, which goes like thi:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to Law. So help me God.

Anyone who refused to swear wouldn’t become an MP. And if your Republicans did swear, they would have to break their oath to carry out their programme. For this they could be, and probably would be, tried in a court of law. Even withut the Parliamentary Oath they would probably be committing High Treason, which includes trying to kill the King, the Queen, or the heir to the throne, or starting a revolution to overthrow the Government (by action, not by speaking or writing). The punishment for High Treason, by the way, is Public Execution, so the Republicans might end up hanged in rows on Tower Hill, just as, in A P Herbert’s story, the whole Parliamentary Party was sent to prison for breaking the electoral laws. If the MPs got into Parliament, they might not be allowed by the Speaker to debate the abolition of the Monarchy, because it is quite ‘Out of Order’ to ‘utter treasonable or seditious words, or to use the Queen’s name irreverently, or to influence the debate’. Even if Bills were passed, they would have to be given the Royal Assent – and under the circumstances the Queen might refuse to give it – and she might be constitutionally right to refuse too. As long as there was any opposition in Parliament or the country it would cripple the Republicans, because the system is weighted very strongly in favour of the Monarch. The Republicans would have to keep on holding General Elections to make sure the Public were supporting them, otherwise they couldn’t find out what the Public thought, since there isn’t any machinery in England for the holding of plebiscites As the Queen was the head of the Established Church this would also lead to a religious conflict.

A. It’s alarming that we can’t abolish the Monarchy without fighting the Church down to the very last vicar. But at the same time that we can’t disestablish the Church without abolishing the Monarchy. It’s really an insoluble riddle.

B. Only insoluble if you want to disestablish the Church. Why not leave it alone? It doesn’t do any harm, nobody takes the least bit of notice of it – which may be bad for it spiritually, but at any rate stops it from being effectively intolerant. And the Church helps the National economy by putting all its money into steel shares. But I haven’t finished yet. The Queen is the figure-head of the Commonwealth, by the Statute of Westminster, which we mentioned before. If a member of the Commonwealth wants to alter its status, the other nations have to approve its staying in the Commonwealth. You will see this process in action soon, because South Africa has decided to become a Republic. If you had your way we might get the ridiculous situation of Britain being thrown out of the Commonwealth and Queen Elizabeth continuing to rule as Queen of Canada and Australia – I daresay they’d be glad to have her. We should be a minor hive-off, like the Irish Republic, only without the dignity of having fought for it. And so, eventually, your reform would take years to achieve, would split the nation, and wouldn’t bring about enough changes to justify the vast sums of money which would have to be spent on it.

A. Here we are, back at money again. How much does the Queen cost, by the way?

B. No, you can’t escape that way.The Queen’s grant from Parliament (The Civil List) was £475,000 per annum as from 1952. That’s not quie two pence per head of population. I don’t suppose they mind paying 2d per year for King or Queen, do you? The money covers a lot of necessary expenses, remember. Then on top of that Prince Philip got an annuity of £40.000. But consider what a marvelous tourist attraction they are. We must make millions out of that. Presidents don’t excite the tourists, but I bet you they don’t cost much less.

A. I’ve no idea how much a President costs, but you don’t tempt me into this argument. This is the big financier excuse – it makes money, so it can’t be wrong. I asked because I was curious, not because I wanted to change the subject. The fact that the Monarchy works and would take effort to change seems sufficient to convince you that it is right, But somebodyhas to think about the truth. If I am right, that it injures the moral health of the nation, and isn’t compatible with democracy – and I believe that I am right – then it will have to go in the end. However, in the mean time I shan’t go around in a dark cloak potting High Treason in dark corners.I shall just sit down peacefully and wait for the next bad king. He’ll do my work for me very effectively. I wonder how Prince Charles will turn out?

B. Yes, I wonder how Prince Charles will turn out too. And here , it seems to me, we might as well close the discussion, because we’re back where we started – the truth about Prince Charles is bound to be revealed to regular readers of the Grune Blatt.

The Wisdom Tree oil on canvas 49 x 40 cm

Raincloud on Claypit Hill . oil on Canvas 60 x 100
Green-Field Sky-Lines . oil on canvas . 91 x 91

Rose-Plants on Dicky Hill, Winter

It makes me want to cry

this tondo, the great head laid down, 

left the attendant, kneeling, comforting,

as light fades from the eye, and at the side

the skin thrown like untidy cloth

over the massive bone.

Of course I know it’s meant to make me cry: 

the poignancy is that he did not know 

he was the last great white 

male northern rhino on this world, 

who cherished him, or why.

We dwell on ultimates: the last 

wolf killed in Scotland or the last 

poem written by the last 

Bard in a language no-one knows.

It follows, when I die.

I am the last – my children are not me,

and after all, it is ourselves we cry for

Exeunt severally will not do, 

we wish to be unique, the unicorn,

which does not live in herds, 

led by a gentle lady, 

to applause

I’m very pleased to have a poem in this anthology – it’s great to be between the sheets with so many admirable writers. So how did this happen? Well, it’s not a simple story, even without the digressions

I was taught by a first-class English teacher called Harold Sheldrake, at Southend High School for Boys (and incidentally also by a fine Latin teacher, Dickie Coakes). Shel looked the spitting image of the standard portrait of Shakespeare we all know; he had studied in the rather rigorous London University syllabus, and gave us the benefit of it with his own sardonic twist. During WW2 he served in Egypt; where, unlike the other Tommies, he enjoyed the local food. it wasn’t till the oration at his funeral (which Robert couldn’t get to) that I  learned he had at one time been engaged to Herman Goering’s neice, I don’t know any more about that story. I used to go and visit him in my first years at Oxford: I enticed his wife, Vi, into image-making, which may have been some consolation for being kept up late by a garrulous young man with inadequate sensitivity to other people’s stamina, going on about.the wonders he was encountering. 

Also at the School was Robert Nye- two years lower down, I think. He knew of me, because he had seen me receive The Jope Prize for English (sic), money for books, with which I bought a copy of Keats’ Complete Poems and “Ulysses.”

I lent “Ulysses” to. Yvonne Patterson, who didn’t return it, so I had to buy another copy. If you’re still out there Yvonne…. .And yes I have read it, cover to cover. 

I knew about Robert because he was a published poet before he even left school, and I was able much later to send him a copy of an early poem of his which I  had admired in the School Magazine, cut out, and kept. Shel was sympathetic to young Robert, and used, so R said, occasionally to conjure a fag for him, away away from the main building , so that they could comfortably smoke and chat together.  Decades later I published my second small book of poems, which I dedicated to the people who really taught me something. This included Dickie and Shel, to whom I sent a copy. Shel was by this time almost 90. He  replied, suggesting that I should also send a copy to Robert. He said he wasn’t sure about the novels, but however thought Robert a fine poet.

I did as I was told. Robert replied, in a very friendly way,and thereafter we wrote to one another, and exchanged poems, with the occasional image from my wife and I. Robert’s poem “Instructions for a Burial” sprang from a picture of mine. There was also the occasional phone conversation (he had an extraordinarily young voice and it was a joy to converse with him). Part of our connection was quite local: “Runes,” one of his best poems, is about as a child running up Hamlet Court Road, which I knew very well. At the top of it, just over the London Road, was a primary school which might, at the poem’s point in time, have been educating little Helen Mirren, Robert speculated…..I said “Why not send her a copy?”. I don’t believe he did.

So there it was, this friendship with an old school-friend I had never met, and shamefully I never did go over to Cork to meet him in person. You think there will always be time, but there isn’i. On one occasion I said “Who shall I submit this poem to?” and he replied “The SHOp.”

THE SHOp: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Hilary Wakeman and Hilary Elfick The Liffey Press, 2020.

A Message

I walk into the bathroom in the dark,          

on tip-toe to avoid

two sheets of paper

laid out on the floor

They were not there before,

The walls, embarrassed, shuffle, They confer

“A Message from Her Majesty the Moon”

So now that’s clear,

I pull the light-cord

and they disappear.

Seems to me that some people are losing the point. A University is not simply there to provide certificated entrance to a trade or profession (see Newman “ The Idea of a University”) Nor do most people go to University mainly for parties & frolics & sport (though they are good incidentals), but to confer with fellow students studying the same stuff, or something entirely different, the name of the game actually being Life. the Universe and Everything, plus  how to get on with other people of a like or unlike mind. That is to say, in a learning community passing on what is known and skills for dealing with it, at the same time as questioning all of it without mercy.

Without that learning community (“Fellowship is life, and the lack of fellowship is death” – William Morris), most of the teaching (lectures, seminars, face to face tutorials) can be done perfectly well on-line, as we now perceive, at much lower cost, and doing without the ‘socialisation’. The question is, how important this ‘socialisation’ (an inadequate word) is to be to our British society?

What keeps emerging is a shocking lack of foresight. Didn’t anyone foresee that unleashing a population wave of young persons washing around the country would increase transmission of the virus? Has anyone up there produced a plan for what happens when the first University goes bankrupt?

Here are three pictures about fields taken over by rose-growing in the last two years. At full bloom the colour was harsh, in spite of the fact that the blossoms were predominantly pastel colours. Anyhow, it was a shock to the landscape.

Incidental Odds & Bits

What do you do with the by-products? A frend of mine wrote a thesis based on her interviews with sculptors who emerged in the ‘fifties, when she originally started an interrupted career. Because she was now back as a mature student, I read her thesis in the role of supervisor, though sadly I don’t have a copy. In it she tells of a sculptor who made large heavy works and lived in the country. But then there were problems, the family split up, and he moved to the city. What to do with the works? He hired a JCB and buried them in a large hole in the ground. Whether they were ever retrieved I don’t know: I don’t think the thesis told us.

All of us makars (a Scots word, mainly used of poets, which I’ve purloined to mean anyone who makes things which are not utilitarian, for their own sake: less pretentious than the word ‘creatives’), produce incidental matter, sometimes in profusion. What on earth to do with it?

One solution is to destroy it, or to arrange for it to be destroyed on one’s death, as Vergil did with The Aeneid, or Kafka did with The Trial etc., though the literary executors, Rufus and Tucca in the first case, (forbidden to burn the manuscripts by the Emperor Augustus), Max Brod in the second, failed to carry out their authors’ wishes.

Some makars produce while ignoring the possibility that no-one may see their work. In Stalinist Russia, alongside samisdat, which meant publication by many individuals using the simplest means of reproduction, there was also production for the bottom drawer. There is a memorable moment in a TV documentary when the British composer Kaikhosru Sorabji waves his arms at copious cupboards and says something like “All stuffed with music. All.- Will never be played. Never.”

In my case I have loads of byproduct. Partly because I find it difficult to throw anything away, especially if it took quite a lot of effort to produce. Even if it is crap. Partly also because, as my peers attended proper Art School and did their time in the Life Room, I felt obliged to do a lot of Life Drawing afterwards to catch up. However that may be, I have drawings, of whatever sort, probably in thousands taking up the cupboards and plan-chests Sorabji-style. Sure, most life-drawings are five-finger exercises, but some have value. As for scribbles about ideas – most of us would prefer to preserve Leonardo’s notebooks if it was a choice between them and his mostly insipid paintings. Who knows what is worth which?

Which brings us to the question of value, which I have to say, is not the issue. Some of the sketches/trials are far better than the works they were preparing for. We all know the case of Constable. It’s not in the the makar’s gift definitively to sift the good from the bad. It would be nice to know the difference at the time, but mostly we don’t. We try to wise up to what we can bring off and what we can’t, but we don’t do that either.

No, the problem remains: what are we going to do with all this stuff in the mean-time? And how much effort are we going to leave to someone else to sort out? I have thought of giving everyone a drawing (perhaps rubber-stamped “This Is a Christmas Card” on the verso), instead of the usual offering –but the Post Office have made that a costly solution. Or maybe ”Five free drawings with every painting bought?” “Three egg-cups with every ceramic vase?” “A free bagatelle for every symphony commissioned?”

My friend of the thesis tried a possible solution to a related problem: “ I tore up all of X’s horrible letters” she wrote to me, “and made them into a papier-mache statue. I thought I’d got rid of him, but instead I’ve made him immortal.”

Cafe du Medoc, Avenue Camille Pelatan. Rochefort-Sur-Mer, oil on canvas

A revised version of an earlier blog

This story has to begin at school,. That is to say, Southend High School for Boys. A custom-built, well-designed school on a large patch of land, in an anonymous style, neither ancient nor modern. it was run on the premise that it was a ‘Grammar School’ (which of course it wasn’t), and Cyril Sheldrake, the senior English master, who looked remarkably like the official portrait of Shakespeare (a resemblance that he did not reject) said that it should have just concentrated on being a good school without flummery. The designation”Grammar School’ had been purloined by the 1944 Eduation Act for the top ‘academic’ layer of schools The residue were taught in schools called Secondary Modern: there was supposed to be a third tier of ‘Secondary Technical’ schools, but they hardly got off the gtound. However, there it was: our masters wore black gowns, and full University fig on public occasions, leaving the Wood-work teacher in a manual brown jacket, and the Gymn-Master in nothing specific to cover his muscles.The school, with about 600 boys was predominately staffed by men; broadly speaking half left over from the 14/18 war, and half from men who had seen action in ’39/45.

There were three women-teachers as I remember it, Miss Bamford, Miss Gare and Mrs Alexander leading to  a song which started “Some talk of Alexander, and some of Mother Gare`’… but I don’t know how it went on. All I remember of Miss Bamford (who taught Geography) was that she once said to me “The trouble with you, Page, is that you think you know too much.’ I comsidered questioning the logic of this statement, ie ok in New Guinea Pidgin, but not in English) but didn’t. Mrs Alexander must have taught German: I only knew her as an RE teacher constantly talking about the Oberammergau passion play. Doris Gare, however, taught French in the lower classes, and was young enough that an occasional boy would pretend to have dropped a pen from his desk to look up her skirt while retieving it -vor trying to, anyhow. It must have been Doris who got the school involved in a French exchange scheme. 

My parents accepted that an exchange would be a good thing, so we signed up for it. I had of course experience of being put on a train to destination unknown, but that was in 1940, with the rest of Earls Hall Infants, carrying a large teddy-bear, and only for foreign parts as far away as Whaley Bridge in Lancashire, tho’ that felt foreign enough at five years old. This time foreign parts meant France. I don’t recall being apprehensive, or worrying about not being understood. In fact the effect of the experience was that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know French. I’m not saying my French is good, you understand – just that it is somehow ingrained, I was met at the Gare du Nord, by Monsieur Nash, a concierge who managed a warehouse in the Quatorzieme Arrondisment: I suppose he must have waved a placard with my name on it. I stayed the night at his place, and the next day he put me on the train to Rochefort-Sur-Mer. 

Oddly M. Nash was in fact English , but had lived in Paris since his youth. I don’t know how he managed through the German Occupation but in his blue cotton jacket  trousers and beret he looked like any other French working man. He had pretty well forgotten English: we spoke French and sign-language). I asked him what English words he remembered and he replied,with great relish. “PLUM-PUDDING?,”

When I arrived at Rochefort I would have been met at the station by Madame Masson and her son Paul, my exchange partner. A short walk up the road, and left into the Avenue Camille Pelaton took you to the Cafe du Medoc, a two storey building, red-tile-roofed, with small plane trees at intervals along the pavement. M. Masson would have been in the Cafe, in his role as Patron: it was open all week, early morning to late evening. and he hardly ever left it. I was given my own room upstairs in the house, so there I was in France.

Someone had matched our two families: I wonder who, and how they did it; I suppose you could say that we were at equivalent levels in society – and both walking distance from the Railway Station! However, my father travelled up to the City, every day, to work as a salaried Insurance Clerk whereas M. Masson rarely travelled anywhere, and ran his own business. Both families were aspirational for their son: perhaps that was the link.

At our sub-Arts & Crafts Revival semi detatched house in Prittlewell, we had bed-rooms, living-room, kitchen and bathroom, and a garden The Cafe ground-floor had a kitchen behind, with the public area also serving as a living-room. There was no bathroom, and the loo was outside the side entrance to the cafe, consisting of the usual continental hole in the ground with two foot positions, and a bar on the door to hold onto when squatting. It could be hard on the stomach muscles if someone outside was trying to pull the door open to take a pee, which, as this was a cafe, was often. The loo paper was quartered sheets from l’Equipe (the French cycle-racing paper) on a wire Baths were taken at the local Bath-house where you could luxuriate in an individual bath cubicle with unlimited, very hot, bright yellow water from the river Charente. silt and all. Otherwise washing was in the sink downstairs, or jug and bowl upstaires.

Cycle racing was important to the Cafe; as I was there in the summer holiday, it was the height of the Tour de France. M. Masson would stand on a stool each day to write the day’s final placings, with a stick dipped in white distember, on the large mirror behind the bar – cleaned off at the end of each dayready for the next set of results. He did leave the bar just twice that I can remember, and I was taken along to see the Tour pass – hours of commercial vehicles before and after, with a very brief flash of contenders. Those were the glory days of riders like Fausto Coppi. One rider who appealed to me was Robic, a fiery little man, who, when someone stepped in front of him, causing him to fall, picked up his bike and bashed the offender with it, before mounting and pedalling on. Paul and I had bicycles and rode around the town and country: later I often rode out of Rochefort by myself, sketching in the countryside. Something different was that the bikes, unlike English ones, had a police registration number. However, cycling was elevated by my experience in France: I rode (my longest expedition) from Southend to Coniston (where I learned that I had got into Oxford) and back again, and then regularly rode to work from Isllington to Walthamstow or Plaistow.

Life in France seemed easy-going, but depressed. The country, after all, had lost two major warson its own territory, whereas the Brits, who had not been invaded, could pretend that they had won. I was not particularly aware of politics at the time, except that my second exchange visit to France coincided with the Korean war. As the Americans pushed up the west coast, and were then pushed back again by the Chinese I discovered from the French Papers that National Service was to be extended from one and a half to two years: not a prospect I liked the look of. My brief time in the Sea-Scouts was enough of militarism. I can’t remember whether I dropped out or was expelled for not knowing my knots.

Madame Masson was a sweet-natured woman, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, ech time asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer.

Fort Boyard from L’Isle d’Aix, oil on board

Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as a not-quite ancient monument. On the coast one day we prized oysters off the rocks. Then we went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madame had brought a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters and we ordered a bottle of local white wine, drunk slightly wam in the sunlight: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a dingy we were given access to, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly; nobody seemed to notice, or think that was odd.

Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would probably have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.

The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”

Paul was smaller than me, with a fine voice. He loved singing. Some of the time, during the holidays, he had to do written exercises for some coaching-by-mail organisation, apparently common in France at the time. In between times, when we weren’t doing anything else, we played ping-pong on a table in the yard, and chess. He was a bit highly strung and kicked me if I took his queen; being bigger, I bullied him (sorry. Paul). At any rate it didn’t become a long-term friendship, and I don’t know what happened to him thereafter.

haystacks, Charente Maritime. pastel on paper

However, I realised, sometime then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece: I am a European by education and conviction, both townsman and countryman, and a human being on this (for the time being) unique planet.

The wasps take slivers from the shed

to make a paper home to raise their grubs.

Our forebears managed much the same for us:

My study’s paper; floor to ceiling books 

and files: this black one here for instance

holds the illicit letters you wrote me

(I hope you hoarded mine away as well),

Brown envelopes like fallen leaves – inside,

your calm Italic clarity describes

day to day news, but always ends with love

So urgent, and so strong.

Now we’re together, always, we don’t say

the things you say in letters:

more a diminuendo than a pause

from holding breath to hear the postman call,

or catch the post in time. And after all

The paper age is over: all that’s done. The Finns 

don’t even teach their kids to write;

the paperless perform

their offices in transit on their phones.

The paper age is over: bring back trees!

What’s left to us are these

last letters of our loves, our generations

that maybe‘d make some sort of sense hereafter

at least to wasps, or bees.


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