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Posts Tagged ‘beatrix potter

the week they pretended the world wasn’t broken

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This has been the week of the G20 in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg. It’s been a week when the leaders of the developed world have orchestrated the grand illusion that things are going to be all right. The world’s had a bad infection, it’s true, but the good news is Dr Obama’s on the case and the patient’s off the critical list. (Obama’s a bit like the political equivalent of House, it seems. A less curmudgeonly variant. What they have in common is that they both know with absolute certainty that whatever illness the economy’s got, it’s not Lupus.)

Of course the week’s been more about saving political necks than changing anything very much about the way the world works. The whole thing was a transparent media event, the straightforward massaging of electorates – or consumers, as they’re now called. A week to persuade the world to renew its faith in free market capitalism. Confidence is the new magic bullet and this week was a gun to fire it. Dr Obama’s job was to squeeze the trigger. For some reason I’m reminded of Burt Lancaster in Valdez is Coming.

Of course, in the movie of this episode in the history of world I’d have Barack played by Will Smith and Gordon by Walter Matthau. My real first choices would be Cate Blanchett for Barack and Morgan Freeman for Gordon, but I’d worry in case this alienated my audience. Casting Sarkozy would be slightly trickier either way, because in both cases I’d want to avoid having one of those films that mix computer-generated animation with footage of real actors.

On Thursday morning I had to go to a meeting in North Shields first thing. Margaret asked me if I could drop a box off for Brenda for her on my way back.

I got there at about eleven o’clock. Mrs Byro was coming out of her appointment as I arrived. She really is an extraordinarily small woman, probably no taller than Noel Edmonds. And her dress sense too is remarkable – for the rigour with which it comprehensively denies the eye all and any aesthetic satisfaction. But Mrs Byro turned out to be a surprisingly articulate woman, albeit one who speaks in a somewhat alien accent, to my ear an odd mixture of Jewish American and Low Polish, perhaps with just the hint of Belfast.

‘Hello, there,’ she said. ‘Have you come to see Brenda too?  She’s marvellous, isn’t she?’

I nodded. She smiled, as if in her eyes we were now members of the same tribe, one of those human beings who cannot live without a shaman.

‘I’m worried about the deer,’ she said. ‘Do you think we’ll be all right?’

‘The deer?’ I said, wondering if perhaps I was mistaking an adjective for a noun.

‘Yes, the deer. The roe deer. I often go to stay with my sister up near the Thrunton Woods, you see. Do you know the Thrunton Woods? Well, they have a lot of deer up there, you know. Yes, and they say some of them have started to bite the necks of other deer.’

‘Really? Neck-biting deer? Do you mean affectionately?’

‘Oh no. Oh no, not like that that.’ For a moment Mrs Byro looked flustered. She seemed to blush a little.

‘So these deer attack the other deer?’ I said. ‘Why?’

Mrs Byro came a little closer. I gazed down at her, as a man in a lighthouse might gaze down at an unexpected visitor. She looked up at me, her eyes glazed like those of a bewildered rodent.

Bloodlust,’ she said. She swallowed deeply. ‘Bloodlust. Some of the roe deer in the Thrunton Woods have become vampires.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Vampire deer? That’s not something I’ve ever heard about before. Are you sure?’

‘Oh I’m sure,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely sure. My sister says she’s seen it with her very own eyes. These creatures are shameless. They are breaking the laws of nature.’

I shook my head in an understanding way. The Mrs Byros of this world have a way of turning us all into doctors. I touched her shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I said, as if confirming my prognosis. ‘Most deer aren’t like that, I’m sure.’

‘That’s what Brenda said. That’s exactly what she said. She’s a marvellous woman, isn’t she?  I hope she’s as much help to you as she has been to me. I really don’t know where I’d be with out her.’

Mrs Byro ambled off. She somehow reminded me of a walking proggy mat, albeit one little taller than an armadillo. I looked at Tristan and made a what the hell planet is she from gesture. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

‘She pays the bills,’ he said.

‘How are things with you?’ I said. ‘What are you doing here on a work day? Have you come clean with Brenda about having no jobs on?’

‘Yes,’ Tristan said. ‘We finally had a heart to heart. I told her I wasn’t going to pwetend any longer. I told her that if she can’t love a poor man as much as a wich man then we have no future. I’ve cleared the air. I think it’s done the twick, mate. I think we’re cool now. Fingers cwossed, eh? Anyhow, how are you, my fwiend? I hear you’ve been on holiday.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I had a week in Bowness a couple weeks ago. It was good. I went to Brantwood and a few other places I hadn’t been to and did a bit walking.’

‘Bwantwood? Oh that’s a lovely place, isn’t it? My first wife used to love to go there. She loved Wuskin. She loved all that Arts and Cwafty and Pwe-Waphaelite stuff. When the kids were little we used to take them to Coniston evewy summer and we always went to visit Wuskin’s gwave. For Claire it was a sort of annual pilgwimage. She loved those places.’

‘You’ve got kids, Tristan? I didn’t know that. Do you still see them?’

‘Yes, I’ve got two, Effie and Gabby. They’re twins. I speak to them on the phone evewy week and I go down to see them whenever I can. They’re at university now and I’m vewy pwoud of them. They’re my kids, and nothing in the world matters more to me than them. They loved Bowness too, now I think of it. They loved getting the fewwy over to the Hawkshead side. Have you ever been on that fewwy?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘In fact I was on it when I was there. I went over and walked up to Hilltop.’

‘Ah, Beatwix Potter, eh? Effie and Gabby loved Peter Wabbit and Jewemiah Puddleduck and all that stuff. We always used to take them to Hilltop so they could see the house and the pub that’s in the books.’

‘The Tower Bank Arms.’

‘Yes, that’s it. We always had a glass of cider and a packet of cwisps there.’

‘So did you ever hear about Florence Nelson?’ I said. ‘The woman who murdered a love rival on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ Tristan replied. ‘Evewyone knows that tale. Flowence Nelson, the Steamwoller Murdwess. She was a bad un’, that one. You have to admire her determination though.’

‘Because she took driving lessons and planned it all so patiently and meticulously?’

‘No, because of the jailbweak.’

‘The jailbreak?’

‘You didn’t know that she escaped? Oh, there was no stopping Flowence Nelson. It was a bit like that film, The Shawshank Wedemption. She dug her way out of Styal pwison with a spoon. It took her over thwee years. She went on the wun. They say she dwessed as a man and hid out for months in a wuined house near Gwange Over Sands. She lived on birds’ eggs and bewwies. She knew that Ned Perfect had taken up with another woman, another wed-head. A hairdwesser fwom Twoutbeck Bwidge called Amelia Pond. They say Ned and Amelia were engaged to be mawwied. Flowence had made her mind up, they were both going to pay the ultimate pwice. They would never be wed.’

‘Florence had her sights on Ned too?  I thought she adored the man!’

‘She did. She worshipped the gwound he walked on. But hell hath no fuwy and all that. From the minute Flowence bwoke out of that pwison carnage was inevitable. But first she had to find another steamwoller, which isn’t that easy for a woman on the wun disguised as a man in the Lake Distwict. Night after night she went out on a moped twying to find one and secwetly watching Ned and Amelia to discover their woutines. Eventually one moonlit August night she found what she wanted, an Aveling and Porter parked up in a roadside barn at High Bowwans. It was in perfect nick and in just the wight place. The stage was set for one of the most infamous cwimes to ever take place in those parts.’

At that point Brenda came through. She said hello to me and asked me if I’d brought a box for her from Margaret. I pointed to it on the table.

‘Oh that’s excellent,’ she said. ‘Has Margaret told you we’ve ditched the fleece and fun idea?’

‘Yeah, she told me. She told me you’ve gone back to the sunglasses idea. So what are you going to call your shop this time round, The Sunglasses Shop?’ I was aware that previously Brenda had dismissed my slightly more fanciful suggestions. I was trying to avoid being flippant.

‘Oh no,’ Brenda replied. ‘That’s far too prosaic. I’m surprised that you of all people would suggest such a thing.’

I shrugged, as if to acknowledge my stupidity. ‘Sorry, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Just a daft idea. So what are you calling it?’

The Maids With The Shades.’

‘The Maids With The Shades,’ I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘It’s memorable.’

As I drove back along through Seaton Sluice I wondered whether the old man I’d walked with through Far Sawrey wasn’t Ned Perfect after all. It sounded as if Ned too may have ended his days flattened into the tarmac somewhere along the quiet shores of Windermere. No wonder Pippa’s kids never found him in the woods. Next time I see Tristan I must remember to get him to tell me the rest of the story.

When I got home that night Margaret was resetting the time on all of her twenty three stopped clocks. She was setting them to nine minutes past nine. I asked her why she’d chosen that time.

‘Brenda advised me that it was a good time for any stopped clock in 2009.’

‘Just because of the 09 thing?’

‘No. Brenda says nine is a very special number. It is a number full of hope. It encourages and anticipates fulfilment. She says this is because it is the last single number and stands at the brink of ten. Ten represents a goal or aspiration in life.’

‘So nine minutes past nine is a special time. Yes, that makes sense. I can see that. But why not nine minutes to nine?’

‘Well, that’s something you had better ask Brenda, isn’t it?’ Margaret said, slightly dismissively. ‘I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to explain.’

‘I met one of Brenda’s, er, patients today,’ I said. ‘A diminutive tatterdemalion of a woman who has convinced herself there are Dracula deer in Thrunton Woods. Probably a suitable case for acupuncture. Or reiki, perhaps. Anyhow she told me that Brenda’s a marvellous woman.’

‘She is. She’s very clever. You’re probably the only person who doesn’t see it.’

I nodded, as if I agreed. ‘How are things with her and Tristan?’ I asked. ‘They seem better than they were.’

‘Do you think so? Well, they aren’t. Actually I don’t things are at all good there. There are quite a few things about Tristan that I think Brenda’s isn’t happy with at the minute. If he doesn’t watch himself he’s going to lose her.’

‘Her birthday’s coming up soon, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes, the fifth of May. Four weeks on Tuesday. I’ve already got something for her.’

‘It’s not a pair of Wayfarers, is it?’

‘No.’

‘Phew!’

I went out for a walk down to the beach. I had a look at the new beach huts they’re putting up along the promenade. They have all the usual charm and authenticity of copycat retro seaside ornaments. If you didn’t recognise them from photographs you’ve seen of Whitby, Cromer, or Brighton they’d be failing to do their job. Like every other old coal town, Blyth is now more of a commodity than a community. What you see is more about branding than social need. I walked on into the dunes to Gloucester Lodge farm and then back up home through the old campsite and across South Beach Estate.

On Saturday it was dry in the afternoon. I went to my dad’s on the bike, although it turned out to be so windy that I wished I hadn’t.

On his visit to the library this week my dad had got out a locally produced book on the history of the Isabella Colliery. It’s one of those documents that doesn’t really have a clear focus and is largely a compilation of the memories of the usual community suspects, with the inevitable variations in quality. It does contain a dialect poem of sorts about Plessey Road, though. It’s entitled Plessy Waggon Way. It was written by Thomas Thirlwell and published in Blyth in 1903 in a book called Blyth and Tyneside Songs and Recitations. The piece celebrates the improvement of the road from Newsham to Blyth. Here’s the fourth verse.

The say thor’s noo commenced te run
Tom Allen’s three-horse bus se gay
Ne doot the Newsham foaks ‘ill cum
Te Blyth each week te spend thor pay
They’ll catch the fra Willow Tree
Te smoke outside or smile inside
Then roond bi Blyth the seets they’ll see
Wye lads, they’ll get a clivvor ride
 

It’s a piece with more social than aesthetic value.

It was sunny today. I was going to go out the Thrunton Woods to look for wildlife, but I didn’t have much petrol in the car and didn’t feel like going to the garage. I walked from the door, up Plessey Road and then on up the bridleway into the fields which follows the course of the old wagonway. I turned off on the track over to Low Horton farm and then crossed the bridge over the Spine Road on to the Heathery Lonnen. I stopped for a minute or so and looked over to Horton Church. I wondered if I should try again to find the Nightingale’s grave. I decided not to and followed the lane north down to Bebside. I crossed the railway and went down past the crowded Asda car park.  I came back over the reclaimed Isabella Colliery land. When I got home I discovered that Hugo had a new car on his drive, an orange Bond Bug. Hugo was standing, big as a pirate, hands on hips, gazing at it, when he noticed me going up my garden path.

‘Here, mate,’ he shouted. ‘What do you think of her? Isn’t she a little cracker?’

‘It’s a Bond Bug, isn’t it. Fletch?  You don’t see many of those these days.’

‘Aye, that what she is. You don’t see many ‘cos there’s not many left. Me mate says there’s less than a thousand left in existence. These things are like hen’s teeth nowadays.’

‘So can you still get parts for them?’ I asked.

‘You can if you know where to look,’ Hugo replied, gnomically. He probably meant a secret scrapyard somewhere.

I went inside and told De Kooning about the Bond Bug. We went into the kitchen and I made myself a cappuccino. The two packets of onion seeds were still lying on the bench. I took my cappuccino and copy of The Observer into the conservatory. I was reluctant to open it. It’s been the week of the G20 and Jade Goody’s funeral. There’s only so much good news one man can take.

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the happiest man in the world

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near-sawrey-tower-bank-arms

I spent all last week in Bowness. I rented a very comfortable, secluded house in the woods near Longtail Hill. From a picture window in the living room I could see over the town to the head of the lake and the Fairfield Horseshoe and the other hills above Ambleside.

On Tuesday it rained. I drove down to the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, a gallery I’ve always liked since I visited it some years ago and first saw Paula Rego’s paintings there. The current exhibition is of the paintings of Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Bevan’s work until last Tuesday. He was an excellent painter. His best stuff was done in the last twenty years or so of his life, in that magical age for painting that flowered with the Post Impressionists and bloomed with amazing vitality for fifty years or more. Bevan – who the catalogue describes as a Neo-Realist – was cut down in his prime in 1925 shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

The Cumberland Market Group have nothing to do with Cumberland, despite the exhibition being in Kendal. The catalogue suggests the exhibition was originally shown in Southampton, and the Cumberland Market in question is a square in London in an area to the east of Regent’s Park, just south of the basin of the Regent’s Canal. Bevan had a studio in the Square and did some enchanting paintings of it, one of which is on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It catches the geometry of the place with an apparent exactness, but the pastelly colours are beautifully modulated – lavenders, pinks, blues, greys, and creams. Some of the other paintings of the area in the catalogue deploy darker tones and have a greater tonal contrast, but all seem architecturally remarkably true in their detail. His best known paintings it seems are those involving horses. He does a mean horse, that’s for sure, catching perfectly their muscular grace and skittish dignity. But again it’s his composition and use of colour that impressed me most, the exactness, the control, the limited palette, the strong dark blues and the orange-tans of the coats of the horse traders. Bevan’s a painter I can hardly believed I missed.

On Tuesday night it snowed a little. On Wednesday morning I decided I’d take it easy. I wandered down to catch the ferry across Windermere. Bowness was a Viking settlement a thousand years ago and there’s been a ferry here since at least that time. The ferry now carries cars as well as pedestrians and cyclists. It crosses the quiet lake slowly, fastidiously, as if undoing history, as if recalibrating time. I’ve read that as we get older time passes more quickly because our metabolism slows down. The ferry trip from Bowness to the Hawkshead side of the lake seems to somehow alter the metabolism of the world. As you step off you could imagine that days, months, even years might pass before you make it through the woods. Each step might take an hour. You’re in the kind of place where nothing might ever change, where eternity starts to make sense. I decided I’d follow the waymarked path to Beatrix Potter’s old house at Hill Top in Near Sawrey, a distance of only two or three miles.

As I made my way up the hill and through the lanes and woodland paths to Far Sawrey it began to snow again. There was little wind and straight up and down soft hail stones dropped quietly all around me. I put out my hand and caught a few. Although I saw almost no-one on my walk there, there were quite a few visitors at Hill Top. The snow had stopped and as I entered Beatrix’s house the sun came out. The rooms of the house are quite cramped and dark brown. The doorways are low and the windows are small, as is Beatrix’s four poster bed. No wonder she felt such an affinity for rodents and other small creatures, I thought. Of course, the truth is I don’t know that much about Beatrix Potter either, although I’ve seen the film with Renee Zellweger, of course, and I’ve got a Peter Rabbit teacup that someone once gave me.

While I was strolling back I caught up with a white-haired old man walking slowly ahead of me with a wooden staff. He asked me if I’d been to ‘the Potter house’. I said I had. He remarked that he could tell I wasn’t a local and asked if I was on holiday. He told me he lived near Lindeth. I told him the house I was staying in was in the woods not far from there, near Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel. The old man reminded me that Beatrix Potter’s family used to rent that house in the early years of the last century, another thing of which I happened to be ignorant. He told me Beatrix loved the house and bought it for her mother in 1915. It seems Beatrix wrote and illustrated a couple of her stories while she was staying at Lindeth Howe with her family a hundred years or so ago.

‘You know this place well,’ I said to the man.

‘It comes with living here for so long,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never been further north than Grasmere and only once been south of Kendal. I went to Morecambe in 1957 for my sister Janet’s wedding. But I always say you don’t need to go far to see the whole of human life. Cast your eyes around these hills. There’s nothing much that’s happened anywhere else in the world that hasn’t happened to the folks that live right here – or nothing much that matters, at any rate.’

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘You’re probably right. But for the rest of us those things don’t happen in a place as beautiful as this. You’re lucky to live here.’

‘Yes, I know that. And there’s not a man on earth who could tell me otherwise. I’m the happiest man in the world. No man could have had a better life than I’ve had, I’ll tell you that.’

As we came out of the woods going down the hill just past Bryers Fold, the old man pointed over the lake towards what I took to be a house on the hill above Storrs.

‘Do you know who lived there?’ he asked. I shook my head. My ignorance was about to exposed again, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Should I?’

‘No, you won’t,’ he said. ‘It was Florence Nelson.’

The name meant nothing to me.

‘Who was she?’ I asked. ‘A writer? A painter?’

‘No, nothing like that. Florence was a murderer. Everyone around here knows the story of Florence Nelson. It all happened nearly fifty years ago now. Florence was a beautiful but rather eccentric young woman. She had her eye on a man called Ned Perfect. One day she got it into her mind that another local lass, the buxom and very alluring red-head Sharon Sweet, also had her eye on Ned. Florence saw Sharon giving Ned an orange one day and she decided there and then that her rival would have to die.’

‘Love’s a messy business sometimes,’ I said.

‘But not usually as messy as it was going to be for Sharon,’ the old man said. ‘You see, Florence had at that instant also decided on the way Sharon was going to die. She was going to be flattened by a steam roller. There were a couple of snags, though.’

‘Florence didn’t own a steam roller?’

‘Yes, that. And she didn’t have a licence to drive one either.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, you see, Florence always regarded herself as a good law-abiding person, and she was not about to take a steam roller on a public road unless she was fully qualified to do so. For the next nine months she went to Lancaster every Saturday morning until she passed her test. She purchased herself a second-hand steam roller, a Wallis & Steevens Advance six tonner. She painted it bottle green and hid it deep in the Black Beck Wood. She waited for her opportunity. She knew that every Sunday Sharon walked from her home up near the golf course all the way down the hill, straight over the crossroads and down Longtail Hill on her way to the service at St Martin’s. There’s no footpath on this road. Florence watched Sharon for weeks. Everyone knew you could set your clock by Sharon and Florence soon discovered that every Sunday at exactly thirteen minutes to one Sharon came around the blind bend near the bottom of Longtail Hill and, head down, continued climbing towards the junction. On the following Sunday Florence drove her steam roller out of woods and made her way up to the crossroads at Ferry View. She waited there until fifteen seconds before thirteen minutes to one, at which moment she threw the throttle wide open and set off hurtling down the hill. An instant before the machine hit her Sharon looked up and saw Florence at the wheel. There was a fixed deadpan expression on Florence’s face. No glimpse of pity, no glimpse of glee.  No glimpse of any emotion but blind determination. Sharon was flattened beyond all recognition. Her remains were almost seven feet wide and over twelve feet long. She was identified by the silver crucifix she always wore and the wide arc of her lovely red hair embedded in the tarmac. Some say strands of Sharon’s hair can still be seen there, even after all these years.’

We crossed the road and followed the path through the woods and on towards Claife Station. It was a bright afternoon and the sun was glittering on the lake.

‘Florence was sentenced to incarceration for the rest of her days, of course,’ the old man continued. ‘She was sentenced six days before the day on which she would have married Ned Perfect. Throughout the trial Florence never once expressed the slightest remorse for what she did. She always blamed Sharon for her own fate. For Florence death was the price any woman would have had to pay if they even so much as dared to bat an eyelid at Ned. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. No, not by any means. Florence Nelson wasn’t finished yet.’

At that point the old man asked me to walk on as he needed to relieve himself and was becoming desperate. He said he’d catch me up in a minute or so at the ferry landing, which was only a hundred yards or so further on.

At the ferry landing I sat on the seat looking up Windermere past Belle Isle to the snow gleaming up high on Rydal Head. The ferry arrived about ten minutes later. The old man hadn’t made it on time. As the ferry slowly crossed the lake to Bowness I kept looking back for him. The white-haired man was nowhere to be seen.

On Thursday I drove to Coniston to go for a walk on the snowy fells. Before I did so I went to Brantwood, the house on the east shore of the lake which was Ruskin’s home for the last twenty five or so years of his life.  Owen Vardy had described it to me as ‘astonishing’, and he was right. The house is spacious and light and full of beautiful paintings and furnishings and books and objects from nature. There were a number of Pre-Raphaelite pieces, which I thought to myself were sure to have had Owen swooning on his visit. He loves that sort of sublimated metaphysical yearning. Brantwood sits on the hillside overlooking the lake and has fine views across to the Coniston Fells – Dow Crag, Swirl How, Wetherlam, the Old Man himself.  To live like this in a place like this could only ever be a privilege.

At the little bookshop I bought a couple of postcards and a little Penguin paperback from the Great Ideas series – ‘On Art and Life’ , which contains two essays by Ruskin, the first being ‘The Nature of Gothic’ which was first published in the second volume of ‘The Stones of Venice’ in 1853. The Ruskin quote on the cover of the paperback is “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. Few socialists could fail to admire Ruskin and to admit their debt to him. Even my dad’s got a soft spot for him.

I drove back down the tortuous undulating singletrack road into Coniston village. I parked at the Tourist Information Centre just opposite the internet café. On my way towards the fells I stopped off at Ruskin’s grave. He died in 1900 at the age of eighty one. Someone had placed two small bunches of fresh yellow daffodils beside his headstone. The whole graveyard was full of scattered purple crocuses and dense clumps of droopy snowdrops. I glanced up at the mining cottages. I headed for the the Old Man and the snow.

As I drove back into Blyth on Saturday for once the place looked drab and uninteresting to me. It looked messy and run down. For a brief moment it didn’t look to me at all like home.

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