Friday, 25 May 2012

Musical Parenthood – the Agony and the Ecstasy

( All musical opinions here are personal and untutored)

Every year in Britain, year in, year out, around 700,000 babies are born but more than a million musical instruments are sold. You will not be surprised to learn that over 300,000 of these instruments are the recorders beloved of infant and junior schoolmistresses, and 200,000 are electric guitars – more than one for every two boys born. Acoustic guitars are not far behind, even if many seem to migrate to charity shops. More surprising is the sale of 300,000 portable keyboards – but perhaps many of these are Christmas toy keyboards for toddlers rather than band background blasters. That leaves about 200,000 for all the rest – woodwind, brass, “bowed instruments” and pianos, in which latter category digital models now heavily outnumber acoustic pianofortes, “free to collector” as they are often now advertised.
So EVERY CHILD must surely be learning an instrument. Well of course they are – either their parents are musicians, in which case the tradition must be cherished, or Mum or Dad failed to become musicians themselves, in which case they are desperate for their children to do better. Perhaps most couples are “mixed marriages” – a musician with a would-be musician, and this can be an especially potent background.
I’ve lots of personal experience of this – both as a semi-willing young learner myself (becoming a just-about-half-competent pianist) and as a single and a double parent ferrying my children to guitar, piano and violin lessons up dark and narrow back lanes in ingeniously secluded Derbyshire towns and villages. These days, the opportunities for young learners to perform in public are at least as great as in the mythical golden ages of the parlour song and of the competitive festival, perhaps greater than ever before. In addition to the annual concerts put on by instrument teachers and the Christmas and Easter concerts at school, there are the frequent performances by the Music Centres which have recently sprung up in nearly every town, rehearsing on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning and encompassing wind and string groups at every level from absolute beginners upwards. Well, nearly every level – every level except GOOD, you might think. Musical parents must steel themselves for about a decade of concert attendance at which your hands will be worn out by clapping and your seats made sore by sitting through far too many pieces played excruciatingly badly by far too many children including your own. The piano, at least, makes its own sound sound, and woodwind instruments, even the reedy recorder, can sound lovely at an elementary level, but teachers of other instruments seem rarely to select performance pieces that are both sufficiently challenging (not ALL on open strings) and can sound nice when played by learners. The intermediate brass will threaten to damage your inner ear, and as for strings! Well, the violin played by any but very skilled players makes a sound which is either excruciating or hilarious or both together. Every tune is out of tune and it is difficult to suppress either uncontrollable giggles or a tetanic grin of anguish. One of the most memorable ordeals of my youth was sitting in the front row of the choir, visible to everyone in the Grammar School hall, trying to keep a straight face and suppress an explosion of mirth during the mixed-masters-and-boys string quartet. Of course, our parental love and pride and the civic comradeship with other families does overcome the mirth and loathing and the tedium. It is wonderful to see how children so young learn to find their way through the intricately interwoven instrumental parts of consort pieces and how a generation seems to be growing up without the terror of performing that afflicts so many of their elders, myself particularly. Soon we will be as confident and competent as the Eisteddfodaued Welsh.
And then, suddenly, after all those years of striving and suffering, there is a joyful emergence. Suddenly the string players are good enough to join the PDSO, the Peak District String Orchestra, Founded by Pat Curteis and now conducted by Ian Naylor. Every year, a highlight is the Peak District Music Centres Christmas Concert at the Buxton Octagon. In the first half, we listen to the long progression of all the preparatory, junior, training and intermediate groups. Apparently angelic children, some pieces flatter, some over-strain their capabilities. Uninhibited applause, a re-run of the growth of our own children condensed into an hour and culminating in Jason Curteis’ spirited conducting of the ambitious and almost-there Intermediate Strings. I sit up tensely, willing them to get it right, rejoicing in the sweet passages, lamenting those slightly out-of-tune high passing notes.
Then the dash and the queue for the interval drinks, peering over heads to locate those acquaintances seen four times a year before we find our seats again for the second half and the patiently-awaited turn of the senior group of all, the PDSO, to play. Their first piece will be the Adagietto from Symphony Number 5 by Mahler. There is a hush – and suddenly we are in a quite different world. Bows and the conductor’s hands are raised and still. There is movement, but at what moment did they begin to play? Silence has become an almost inaudible whisper; the whisper swells and then sweeps into the first full chords, and, once again I’m prickling with emotion. This is what all those years of practice and performance were leading too – this beautiful, to my amateur ears exquisite and finally professional, sound. The dynamic and emotional range, the rich colours, the intensity and control, the communication between the conductor and the players – the orchestra are an enchanted unity and we are spellbound. Instead of the customary telegraphed winding up to a thunderclap ending that composers usually lay on, this piece dies away as gradually as it began. Finally the sound is imperceptible. The bristle of raised bows is still, the conductor motionless. Is that the end? The audience in the Octagon is absolutely silent. We hold our breath. Then Ian lowers his hands. We explode into applause. I cheer. They’ve done it again! Maybe there were one or two moments when the texture wasn’t quite right, or the timing slightly ragged, but it is early days, only a term since their most senior and accomplished players left, as they must each year, to go to University or Music College. How can they survive that annual loss of their most brilliant? But every year they do. (and, stop press March 09, they have one more, another concert that again felt like the best ever!) What a privilege to hear such an orchestra – what a privilege to play in it!
Not every piece will be performed with such intensity of course – there will be lighter or more rumbustious compositions during which the grins and shared laughter (which characterise the weekly practices) will be seen flickering round the benches – but every year Ian does come up with his Great Romantic Number, which will absolutely slay the audience. The first year I heard them play it was the shivery Nimrod of the Enigma Variations, then another Elgar, the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, then Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – and this year the Mahler. Ian usually turns to the audience to introduce the Great Romantic Number, and his introduction goes something as follows – I hardly exaggerate at all, though I will stir several intros in together. The “greatest” actually applied to the Tchaikovsky.
A few words about our first piece tonight. This is almost certainly the greatest piece of music ever written for string orchestra. The lyrical initial theme is taken and reprised in a climax that is technically about as near perfect as can be. Of course, Mahler wasn’t happy composing it, to quote from his letters:
I am still working on the string piece, it will be as good as I can make it, I suppose, but how good is that? There is nothing for it but more discipline, work, work and discipline! (here Ian looks pointedly at the orchestra) Your ever-unhappy friend, Gustav.
Well, now we are going to play it for you – and it’s an extraordinarily difficult piece – it CAN sound like a landslide of lost notes – but it won’t when we play it, will it!! Here it is.
So, when they didn’t win their category in the 2007 national youth final at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, we were all outraged – they wuz robbed! – how can there really be youth orchestras elsewhere in the land better than the PDSO? Well, I suppose there is Chetham’s School, and the Yehudi Menuhin. The wonder of the PDSO is how a consort of grade 6 and upwards (and upwards +++) players can be inspired to play so impressively together. Update: In the 2009 Festival of Youth Music the PDSO at last WON their category; we don’t yet know whether they will be included in the Albert Hall concert. This last Summer, as part of twinning celebrations, Derbyshire hosted the Toyota Junior Orchestra, who played with formidable professionalism, and our daughter Ruth generously admitted that they were, well, just perfect! – but then they are the so-focused Japanese who rehearse at the end of EVERY school day, not just once a week! The Toyota juniors paid a complement to their host culture by playing a Benjamin Britten piece at once enchanting and little-known to most of us audience, and also joined with the Derbyshire City and County Youth Orchestra for a mind-blowing symphony. The City and County Youth Orchestra gets together for short residential courses just twice a year and in a few days, often under under Peter Starke and the section tutors, work up a classic or a seldom-performed work that will have you standing up and shouting for an encore! I have the CD from a couple of years ago. Almost finally, I should mention the tumultuous Wirksworth Music Centre, one of the longest established, most various and most inclusive (even of adult learners and people from Matlock!) and therefore requiring most stamina from its audiences. A host of groups currently culminate in David Francis’ Senior Strings and Chris Dixon’s Senior Recorder Consort, small groups particularly hard-hit when players leave, but both getting better and better just now!
As regards singing, rather than playing, old school-choir and choral-society hands like myself have long been bewailing the decline of school singing, perhaps because it is seen as girlish in mixed comprehensives. No-one is coming through and we are all getting older, we observe, although there is now a new wave of popular everyone-can-sing choirs who are in great demand. Round here, The Fishpond Singers and Derbyshire Diva are sucking up all the singers and would-be-singers. Formed only a year ago and already making an intriguing sound, neither childlike or “adult” is the Derbyshire Youth Chorale, twenty odd young people drawn from Derbyshire schools and directed by “King Phil”. They paid a return visit to Japan in October for a very busy week of performance and workshops and were gobsmacked by the place and their reception.
So, all is far from lost in the world of classical music here in Derbyshire; all that parental investment is worthwhile, the kids take off – and I haven’t even mentioned all the Rock Bands, and the Folk Groups, and the leaders and mentors who (sometimes) guide them, but that is another story, or rather stories.
DJM January 09

The Dave Mitchell Bookmark Collection: Meditation on a Theme

Let’s go out for the day – I wonder what’s on this weekend? A quick scan of The Independent’s weekly listings comes up with Roger Bacon at the Tate Modern or Isamu Noguchi at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. What about Arlo Guthrie on tour, or Julius Caesar at the Tobacco Factory? Maybe something completely different – Blackburn Rovers versus Hull City, or An Evening with Joan Bakewell? What’s this – The Dave Mitchell Bookmark Collection? No, I think we’ll give that a miss.

Actually, it’s a fantasy that the Independent would even list my worthy exhibition. Having a collection of bookmarks must be a specific diagnostic test for nerds. I am indeed wearing an anorak even as I type this out. Within the anorak is a hairy sweater, on my chin is a less hairy beard and on the table lie my short-sight spectacles – and I used to be a Morris Dancer. In the old Eagle Comic days (yes, my age is uncool too) I would have been an applicant (failed) for the role of Giglamps, the weedy bespectacled swat of the fourth form. I remember that in comic strip adventures the resource and intelligence of Giglamps would turn out to be vital at a crucial moment, and indeed it is people like me, or as I try to be, that RUN THE WORLD! You un-nerds are all in our power. BEHAVE, or we’ll stop ordering books and let the lights go out! Alas, not much worldly status or wealth comes with the power to keep the Power on; maybe we’ll get our revenge by wiping your hard-drives…but the main thing is that some women really do go for us, despite the contrary myth.
Stop rambling – the Bookmarks! I’ve been buying and selling second-hand books for 35 years “How long?” 35 YEARS. Between the buying and the selling I do usually open the books to make sure there are words inside (describing the bookseller’s quick appraisal-scan technique would make another article), and sometimes there is a bookmark inside as well – if it’s doing its job, then that is where the book will open. I promptly take the bookmark out and KEEP IT! Why?, or perhaps Why not? The deep motivation is probably an adaptation selected by evolution, the desire to combat the general increase of entropy, as evidenced by stamp-collecting and the general desire not to throw anything away – Collecting as a thermodynamic strategy. Nearer the surface, I think I am fascinated by the window bookmarks afford on cultural history, on styles of commercial art, on fashions, on social movements. Should nothing else from our civilisation survive, you could reconstruct our entire way of life from them – maybe.
Now I’ve confessed. Maybe you will never grace these (many) steps again, preferring to frequent the (lesser) establishments of those more sporting booksellers who leave the bookmarks in. I have already been punished once for my cupidity, when I missed one of the most beautiful bookmarks I have ever seen, Victorian and in the shape of a champagne bottle, which a regular customer triumphantly showed me AFTER he had bought the book it was in, as if it wasn’t enough to be escaping with all our most precious volumes.
How many bookmarks have I accumulated? Ivan, our book-pricer, and I seem to fill a pocket file every few months, and after a year’s overfilling they get too thick for the filing cabinet and have to be stored somewhere else. I keep finding nests of these bulging files in odd corners of the house and shop, with labels like Bookmarks IV, 1983-85. Supposing I put aside only one bookmark a day (and we have a throughput of more like a hundred second-hand books a day) then that’s some 350 a year. Multiply by the aforesaid 35 years, or 49 times 25 times 10 if you are a mental arithmagician – and you come out with about 12,000. Is that a lot?? End to end they wouldn’t even stretch for a mile, let alone “to the moon and back”. Certainly no gull-infested EC Bookmark Mountain. At ten to the square foot, I could exhibit them on twelve hundred square feet of wall space; say 150 feet of eight-foot high wall, or around the walls of a single 50 foot by 25 foot room in a museum or art gallery. The Dave Mitchell Bookmarks Room. We could even do it in the shop – if I first got rid of the books. I can’t, so has any kindly curator out there a spare room in an art gallery? It would make a change from all that white space with a video, an arbitrary installation and a bored curator in the middle, like they do at the Arnolfini. Contemporary Art galleries do seem to follow in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of Conspicuous Consumption – “Look how much expensive city-centre space we can afford to do nothing with.” Why not waste the space another way – by letting the Dave Mitchell Collection of Bookmarks see the toplight of day. The only expense would be blu-tack. Actually, no – displaying them without damage is a challenge, even if you are content to see just one side. It might be necessary to cut 12,000 holes of just the right sizes in several reams of card sheets.
If I can’t exhibit them, then what? Maybe I could get a Ph.D. bursary to study them. I already have a Ph.D. – are you allowed two? It would be nice to be a “Dr. Dr.”, I think they have them in Germany. Some Aspects of the Unwitting Testimony of the Bookmark? Certainly bookmarks do constitute a witness to social life and its changing emphases. Lots of flourishing private and public organisations seem to think that they just haven’t made it if they are not, in addition to the TV programmes and the Books-of-the-Series, up there in bookmarks alongside the libraries, the margarine adverts and the anti-litter campaigns. I suppose that bookmarks can be viewed as moles, or sleepers or fifth-columnists, going to ground between the pages of quite unrelated and innocent books, ready to leap out and influence the unsuspecting reader at any time for centuries to come, books being a long-lived species (see our article on The Ecology of Books). Maybe the whole point of bookmarks is that there is no need to go to an exhibition; they are out there waiting to assail your eyes whether you like it or not, telling you to wash your hands, visit the citizens’ advice bureau or insure your life. Bookmarks – benign influence or virulent influenza? Yes, there’s definitely scope for a grant-application somewhere here, but I need classical scientific or medical terms for bookmark and bookmark-collection – any suggestions? Compilatus Libersignorum?
If all else fails, I suppose I could start slipping the old bookmarks back into new books – we have some 40,000 new volumes in stock, we could put a historic bookmark in nearly every one of them. Could be a good marketing stunt!

Phil’s Court Report: A Christmas Carol 2009?

A Derbyshire bookshop owner is facing what a judge has described as a lengthy jail sentence for breaching health and safety regulations involving his staff and customers.

Conditions at Scarthin Books of Cromford were described as Dickensian and worse than a Victorian workhouse.
Derby Crown Court heard how the eccentric owner Dr David Mitchell, 65, made staff risk their lives by climbing into a tiny cupboard above rickety ancient stairs to remove cardboard boxes for recycling and then haul them for miles across ice and snow to fill up his van.
One shop manager, Wendy Cooper, 59, broke her fingernail and suffered a fractured eyelash in the trek across the wilds of Derbyshire. Other staff suffered similar injuries.
Mrs Cooper told the court: “How can a woman of my age and in my condition expect to lump bloody great sheets of cardboard across treacherous roads and fields in the snow. It’s not on. But we’ve all suffered intolerable hardship and we are often made to carry out tasks which are in blatant breach of health and safety regulations.”
The court also heard how Mr Mitchell would walk through a shop full of customers wearing a cap and nightgown counting money and complaining that people weren’t spending enough. Customers were also subjected to constant obnoxious smells although, in his defence, Mr Mitchell said this was caused by cabbage cooking in the cafĂ©.
John Pidcock, 84, the shop’s expert on rare books said he was often forced to work. On one occasion, he told the court, he fell through a window when he lost his balance while carrying boxes of books during gale force winds.
Guy Cooper, a manager at the bookshop for 119 years, said although Mr Mitchell allowed staff a day off at Christmas he made them work until midnight even though there were no customers after 6pm. “We mostly had to vacuum, polish and feed Dave’s chickens,” said Mr Cooper.
Defence barrister Barrel O’Laffs said his client, who pleaded guilty to 31 breaches of the Safety At Work Act, had not been able to make any improvements to the shop since buying it in 1974 because all profits went towards restoring a ruin in his garden.
“I know I didn’t have planning permission but it’ll look very nice when it’s finished. I know a very good builder who only charges me £5,000 a day.” said Mr Mitchell.
The judge Mr Justice Bertrams bailed Mr Mitchell to appear in court again in the New Year and told him “Unless you start looking after your staff, valuing them, making them warm and paying them a living wage you’ll go to jail for a very long time. It is clear throughout this case that you have also spent far too much money buying second hand books. This must cease.”
Mr Mitchell said he would try but the current economic climate meant he had difficulty feeding his own family because he had to maintain the shop’s stock.
Mr Mitchell admitted outside the court he had promised the staff a very large Christmas bonus for looking after the business while he went on sabbatical leave. “Unfortunately, it won’t be as big as they think” he said. “Oh, and a Merry Christmas to all my customers.”

The Good Ship Scarthin

Composed by the Lewd Lady of Church Lane for Christmas 2008

The Waves (and Grumblings in the Fo’c'sle) seem to have risen higher since The Ballad of Scarthin Books of Yesterchristmas

Well, here we are again, dear friends,
At Scarthin’s Christmas do,
Despite the fact that finances
Are deeply in the poo.
We brush aside the credit crunch,
Shrug off the Wall Street crash,
For we, the cabin staff and crew
Are clearly on the lash.
Our skipper squints myopically
At his aperitif,
Then smiles a happy, gappy smile,
For he’s mislaid his teeth.
He’s always losing something,
Like cheque-book, specs and bag,
But when the timbers resonate,
We know he’s lost his rag.
He steers us blindly into storms
And battens down the hatch,
Yet still the bilges fill with dross
That we just can’t dispatch.
Our pilot on the poop deck
Peers through his telescope;
No orders in the offing, help!
There is no bloody hope.
“We’re doomed, we’re doomed”, his Guyness moans,
“No time to fiddle-faddle;
For, methinks, that we are up
Shit Creek, without a paddle.
“What say we mount a mutiny
Proclaiming UDI,
Stick head honcho on a raft
To do a Captain Bligh?”
“No, no, calm down”, his good wife soothes,
“We have to ride the storm.
We’ve got the crew to do it, see,
There’s brains, you know, and brawn.
“Our purser, for example, has
A very high IQ;
He’s also big on other things,
Like dumplings, cake and stew.
“He’s magic with the sextant
Punctilious with the log,
And when the yardarm has been passed,
He dishes out the grog.
“He is a cognoscente,
And for our benefit
Displays his erudition. Yes,
He is a shining wit.
“First Mate Phil’s a bonzer bloke,
A wizard at the wheel;
He trims the sails and tries to
De-barnacle the keel.
“But Captain and Commander
Loves the little sods;
He thinks it’s quirky to display
Moth-eaten gastropods.
“So, under cloak of darkness,
Phil and Bosun Dave,
Scrape the little buggers off
Into an unmarked grave.
“The bosun’s into teddy-bears,
But otherwise he’s sound;
He’ll always fly the flag for us
And never get us drowned.
“He whistles all of us aboard,
Diverts us with a jig,
Performs the sailor”s hornpipe,
Then slopes off for a cig.
“Our not-so-ancient mariner
Stoppeth one of three
And buyeth books both old and rare
To swell his Ivanry.
“Full oft he sitteth on the deck
And telleth wondrous tales
That helpeth our poor matelots
Forget all their travails.
“There’s Orpheus, our Midshipman,
Who’s musical to boot.
He can quell the raging storms
By plucking on his lute.
“We’ll send him up the ratlines,
And say, “Now Mr Hunt,
If you can pacify the waves,
‘Twould be a cunning stunt!”
“The rest are able seamen,
Jolly tars all told;
There’s Plimsoll Pam and Jaunty Jen
Though they are getting old.
“They’ll never climb the mizzenmast
Nor do the crow’s nest thing.
Perhaps they’re just some jetsam that
Himself can safely sling!
“And then, my love, there’s me as well,
Supporting, never faltering,
I keep a tight ship and ensure
The seamen aren’t revolting.
“I supervise the cargo and
Facilitate the freight.
Just like Magellan, I was born
To circumnavigate.
“I’m good at all things nautical,
Can tie a mean Turk’s head,
But when I splice the mainbrace, well
My two cheeks flush bright red.
“And don’t forget the cabin staff
That scrubs this Ship of Fools,
Nor, of course, the galley slaves
Led by our precious Joolz.
“With meagre rations they knock up
Comestibles so fine,
Like onion bargee, baked lascar
And schooners full of wine.
“And, so, you see, dear husband mine,
Despite their many faults,
You’ll never find a better band
Of jolly jacks and salts.
“They’ll guide us through the tempests,
They’ll nurse our creaking craft,
They’ll do it all for peanuts,
Because, thank God, they’re daft!
“As for the ship in which we sail,
Our listing, leaking lugger,
If it collapses then ‘twould be
A veritable bugger.
“With decks held up by acro-jacks
And timbers like a sieve,
The chances are it will implode
And none of us will live.
“So, what’s the point of worrying
Have faith in props and crew;
We’ll reach the harbour then we’ll start
The whole charade anew!”
At that the pilot smiled and said,
“Each shipmate is my mucker,
And as for you, my darling wife,
You’ve always been my succour.
“Together we will plough the main
And grapple with the gales,
We’ll even shoot an albatross
If it improves our sails.
“So, Merry Christmas to us all
Aboard the Scarthin Boat,
May Santa Claus bring gifts enough
To keep us all afloat!”

The Scarthin Slug-Moat

The Scarthin Slug-Moat (Slugmoat)

Is the moat leaking? Has the hot sun evaporated all the water? Has it subsided at one corner, leaving the opposite corner dry? Have wilting leaves bridged the barrier? Are there actually slugs and snails trapped inside the perimeter? Has a heron taken the goldfish? These are some of the worries of the carrot castellan.

A Snail’s Pace

Snail-racing is an old Scarthin tradition. As snails (and slugs) are difficult to direct, we race then outwards from the centre of a sort of Darts Board with successive circles at 10, 15, 25 cms. etc. The fit snail can easily manange 10cms. per minute from a slimey start, getting up to a maximum speed of some 15cms. per minute, though a certain randomness in direction finding reduces the average cross-country range to no more than 5 cms., or two inches, per minute. On warm, damp Spring nights, when slugs and snails do their worst damage to the horticulturalist’s newly-emerging tender shoots, these predators have at least six hours of bird-free darkness in which to make it to their munching grounds and back, giving them a range of some 180 X 5 cms. – about 9 metres or 30 feet. A farmer can, perhaps, afford to lose much of the productivity of such a belt around the margins of a 2-acre field, a hundred yards across, but unless a gardener’s plot is more than 60 ft. square, measuring from the nearest hedge, wall, shrubbery or uncultivated path, then the slugs and snails will meet in the middle. One muggy night in May or early June and every delicious infant carrot will have been nibbled to the ground.

When a problem is almost insoluble, there will be many solutions – think of the Doctor’s proven Cures for overweight, for arthritis, forgetfulness, cancer, melancholy or laziness – particularly when conventional medicinal magic bullets are distrusted. Even I, a classic pre-1968 square, scientific-optimist-Black’s-of-Greenock-Anorak eschew the magic bullet of the slug-pellet, having been told that birds will eat the victims and be poisoned in turn, but I refuse to turn to the alternative medicine of beer traps, milk traps (for those who don’t like wasting beer) or barriers of soot, sand, lime, crushed egg-shells or double-whammy combinations of the above. Nightly expeditions with torch and tin-can can be very effective in reducing the depredations of the wolfing-packs. In my hot youth, I used to hurl my catch over the roof of an adjoining bungalow, blissfully ignorant of their fate, or that of any passers by. Nowadays I self-righteously heave them into the woods or onto a neighbour’s wilderness. But can I keep it up over a wet Summer of rampant weed-cover like those of 2007 and 2008? Just one night missed, as with fox-and-hens or caterpillars-and-cabbage, can result in irretrievable loss. Sometimes I mark captured snails with white or fluorescent tippex (getting hard to find) before lobbing into the wild. This allows the statistician to make some estimate of the total snail population, as well as measuring their mobility.

In the absence of slug-pellets, old wives masquerading as gurus crowd in – beer traps, milk traps (for those who don’t like wasting beer) or barriers of soot, sand, lime, crushed egg-shells or double-whammy combinations of the above are advocated but are tedious to install, can vanish in a night’s heavy rain and are at best only partially effective. My preferred solution requires capital expenditure but is then almost maintenance-free and has a working lifetime of years, perhaps decades. It is the SCARTHIN SLUG-MOAT (or for Google’s Sake SLUGMOAT).

A four-metre length of four and a half inch (yes, the imperial measure survives in the width, but not in the length) half-round black or grey plastic guttering will cost you about �10. If you buy two of these, plus two two-metres lengths and four corner joining pieces, the total should be about �40 and, after a thumb-straining struggle to join them up you have the Slug Moat enclosing an area of eight square metres at a capital cost of �5 ($9 for international readers) per square metre. Of course, the cost arises from the linear scale of the boundary, while the area is proportional to the square of this. A hectare could be enclosed by four hundred metres of gutter and still only four corners at a cost of no more than a thousand pounds, a cost of 10p (18c) per square metre. In the Fenlands of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, most fields are surrounded by water-filled dykes, so if draw-bridges and tractor-washes were installed it should be possible to render both the slug and snail extinct over large areas, thus restoring the state of affairs achieved, according to Bede, by the prayers of St. Guthlac of Crowland in the seventh century. Bede recounts the saint’s perigrinations around the settlement of Snaildyke but the site of this is now lost.

My aims are however more modest. Most gardens are not as flat as the fens, so the first need is to level the site, the partially-filled moat acting as its own spirit-level. Otherwise one end or corner may need to be raised on an earthen bank where erosion will produce gaps under the guttering through which the shape-changing slug can intrude itself. The second need, in hot dry weather, is for regular topping-up every couple of days, or a dry bridge may be formed. I have surprised the occasional particularly intrepid snail ducking its way through a shallow section, rather like a caver forcing a short sump! I have experimented by submerging snails on the inside of a bucket. The snail will leave its shell safely stuck to the side, but will emerge and questingly extend upwards. It will escape and survive so long as its extreme proboscis-end – and they are good at stretching themselves – can emerge above the water-line and reattach itself. The rest of the body and the shell (which cannot re-stick under the water-line) are then hauled up to safety. You can’t help but applaud. As a result of some natural occurrences of this experiment, there may be an evolutionary trend in our showery climate towards a ducking-ability in snails and slugs. At least they don’t yet swim. This hypothetical amphibious tendency does mean that the interior of the slugmoat should be swept for intruders regularly. You do not want to trap them INSIDE. In the warmth of even a wet Summer, insects will deposit eggs in the moat, which may become a seething soup of larvae and a significant source of midges. One solution is to introduce small goldfish to consume the eggs and larvae. Hence the final theoretical problem of defence against the HERON – a bizarre consequence of the defence against arthropods that I rather hope one day to encounter, and to which even I have not yet imagined the solution. DJM Sept.08

Cistercian Cricket

Page under Re-development following Accidental Demolition

Cistercian (or Castle) Cricket – Sample Rules

I am personally a student of architecture and fascinated by mediaeval history, but I would no more want to inflict these wet interests on my family than I would want to sing madrigals in a pub bar. So when we go exploring ruins, it is with three main possibilities in mind – firstly to look for a memorable spot for a picnic, secondly to play hide-and-seek or one-two-three-out (Llanthony Priory or Bury-St-Edmunds Abbey ruins are good for that) and thirdly to have a game of soft-ball family cricket. The latter is always possible on unmanned sites but may require some cunning and discretion on “pay-to-get-in” sites, usually run by English Heritage, Cadw or Historic Scotland. There is no problem on ramifying sites such as Fountains Abbey, where there is lots of room and privacy beyond the East End of the Church or at castles where the defenses are still high enough to hide large parts of the Bailey from the Visitor Centre. The most delightful site for picnic and cricket I have found is Llawhaden Castle in Pembrokeshire, a classic Ministry of Worksed castle, with close-clipped green lawns surrounding high fragments of walls, towers, gatehouse and some other lower buildings, all surrounded by a dry moat and too out of the way to need more than a tiny carpark, and, mercifully, unmanned and open all year. Here the batsman can loft the ball into the moat, through high, yawning windows or into a ruined staircase. The ricochets are mutiple and baroque! Down through the woods in the valley of a little river is a classic ancient Pembrokeshire church, with its potential tower of refuge. As for Hide and Seek, by the way, the best two castles I know are Warkworth in Northumberland and The Little Castle at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire. The important characteristic is that each of the several floors of these castles are linked by more than one flight of stairs, so that the hiders can move up, down and across, and the seeker know he/she must employ second-guessing, re-searching of already-searched corners and frequent doubling-back to have any chance of catching someone. Once there are TWO seekers, it becomes possible to close in on the remaining hiders, but at Warkworth, the complexity can still be used to great effect! Ah! Those days! Anyway, here, at last are some sample Rules of Family-and-Friends Cricket – TRIBAL cricket, at its best.

1. The ball shall be bouncy
2. There shall be only one batsman at a time
3. The umpire, if any, will have no authority
4. The stumps being against a wall, there need be no wicketkeeper
5. The bowler shall be related to the batsman
6. The pitch being in a secluded part of the lawns, there need be no interruption
7. Bowling is allowed, but chucking is encouraged
8. Runs are scored as usual, but in addition:
9. Any number of runs may be run
10. The batsman may also acquire merit by striking the ball into a window embrasure, turret, tower, dungeon, moat or undercroft
11. Especial merit accrues if the ball is struck into a garderobe
12. The batsman is out if the ball cannot safely be retrieved
13. The batsman is out if the ball cannot legally be retrieved
14. The batsman can be bowled out, stumped out or caught out
15. The batsman can be adjudged out by general acclamation
16. Catches count, and attract special merit if the ball has ricocheted off any wall, staircase, buttress or other stonework not adjudged to be the ground
17. The game goes on until all are hungry, exhausted, bored or chased off by the custodian
18. The game will be memorable

Beach Cricket

The rules of Cistercian Cricket apply, except as follows:

1. The stumps being in the middle of featureless sands, there shall be a wicketkeeper
2. The wicketkeeper must be prepared to run a long way
3. The fielders must be prepared to run even further
4. There is no custodian
5. The participation of strangers cannot and should not be avoided
6. The fielding side may not dig extra holes in the wicket
7. When mothers or girlfriends bat, the field shall crowd in menacingly
8. When fathers, big brothers, or (especially) boyfriends bat, the field shall retreat respectfully
9. Children are rarely declared out
10. The sea is within the boundary of the ground
11. The players may agree that the sea can catch the ball (assuming the ball floats)
12. The incoming of the tide shall not stop play
13. The last man in (the sea) is the winner
14. Beware of flying bats

An irrelevant but strongly-felt P.S.:

Facilities: There are no facilities at this site other than the hotel. A direct quote from the Brecon Beacons national Park page on Llanthony Priory.

I can’t let this mean-minded bureaucratic entry go un-derided. And that is my more polite second draft. I know what it is like to be a PRIVATE enterprise providing an unsubsidised public cultural service free-of-entry-fee while being ignored in the publicly-funded literature. It must be said that the Wikipedia article also fails to convey the unique appeal of Llanthony. This ruin has ALL the facilities you could possibly desire! (but ware opening times out of season) In particular, a vaulted mediaeval underground bar from which you can bring up your beer or your coffees, and lemonade and crisps for the children, and sit with your back against the transept wall in the westering sun while the children chase each other among the pillars. Nearby is a campsite; you can book an evening meal or bed-and-breakfast at the hotel; the arches of the Nave frame the moor-topped hills that bound this deep and winding valley and among which are the most wonderful (if muddy) walks and cycle- or horse-rides. There are other Wonders in and near this valley, Cwmyoy Church in particular, and see our pubs page. And there are TWO loos on hand. This Pub in an Abbey is of course an anomaly; no doubt Cadw would like to close the one off from the other and dowse the joy of experiencing mediaeval hospitality – just as English Heritage have managed to kill the experience of visiting a Castle in a Farmyard that used to entrance (can that be right?) the visitor to Wingfield Manor, near us in Derbyshire. For more than ten years I have been visiting the Vale of Ewyas annually. It neither withers nor thrives excessively and each return is a joy and a relief, though this year the Min. of Ag. bureaucrats had managed to outlaw camp fires. End of mini-diatribe. DJM Nov. 09

The Two Cultures – the Latest Score

by Idiot in Residence

When I ”Googled” the following phrases for UK Web Pages, I got the following number of “hits”:

Artist in Residence 141,000
Writer in Residence 49,600
Poet in Residence 21,600
Composer in Residence 20,000
Scientist in Residence 375
Engineer in Residence 5
Mathematician in Residence 2
Idiot in Residence 0 (well, there’s one now!)

I rest my case! (Prodnose:) “What case?”

Comments encouraged! Dave Mitchell

P.S. Googling the World leads to somewhat less stark results, America is less benighted and even has a few hundred “idiot” hits, many care of Harvard University, where “typically English humour”, under threat in the U.K., maintains a tenacious hold in its new home!

Fibonacci Goes to the Loo

Fibonacci has a Pee in Pisa

Not many people know thatLeonardo de Pisa, better known as Fibonacci, came upon the celebrated sequence of numbers named after him (usually called his series or just theFibonacci Numbers) during a visit to the loo which he made, as he tells us in his Liber Abaci, on a Spring day (“dius vernalis”) during the year 1198. The term urinal is derived of course from the Latin verb urinare, to urinate, water your horse, point Percy at the porcelain or otherwise euphemise.

This was not Leonardo’s first visit to the official Pisa peeing place, and he had had many opportunities to observe the reluctance of patrons to stand next to each other while performing. Whenever possible, new arrivals would make for a stall well separated from other customers, the aim being to leave at least one empty stall between you and your nearest neighbour.

It ocurred to Leonardo to wonder how many different ways there might be of accommodating clients at the urinal such that no-one would have his privacy invaded by another standing right next to him. Being a mathematician, his irresistible instinct was to consider not merely particular cases, but to consider the general case of a urinal with n stalls and to search for an algorithm (a term newly borrowed from the Arabic) with which to arrive at the solution to this general case. Suppose we designate an empty stall by a zero (a concept but lately imported via Arabia from far-sighted Hindu sages) and an occupied stall by the number 1 (unity). For instance, a seven-berth urinal with three occupants might be represented by (1,0,0,1,0,1,0), this being a case obeying the no-near-neighbours rule. Then, beginning with the zeroth case, a urinal of size zero, we can list all possibilities:

Number of stalls zero: only one case, there being no possible patrons: ()
Number of stalls 1: two cases; one patron, no patrons; (0), (1)
Number of stalls 2: three cases; (0,0), (0,1), (1,0)
Number of stalls 3: five cases; (0,0,0), (1,0,0), (0,1,0), (0,0,1), (1,0,1)
Number of stalls 4: eight cases; (0,0,0,0), (1,0,0,0), (0,1,0,0), (0,0,1,0), (0,0,0,1), (1,0,1,0), (0,1,0,1), (1,0,0,1)

A curious sequence, thought Fibonacci, I cannot easily see how it can be expressed in terms of n, the number of stalls, but the generating algorithm is clear enough, I can obtain each term simply by adding the previous two, yielding the sequence
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, … and so on ad infinitum (or ad urinatum?).

Leonardo has cheated a little by inserting a first term rather difficult to interpret. The modern reader may like to check a few higher order cases. Having an Italian love of symmetry and the spheres, Fibonacci goes on to consider the case of a circular urinal – presumably reached axially via a spiral staircase( to the top of a tower? Could the lean of Leonardo’s local tower have been caused by water weakening the soil beneath the foundations) so that the array of stalls is joined round behind, finite but boundless. The result of this investigation is not so celebrated, but has an interesting feature. The reader might well like to derive the sequence and algorithm and contemplate the male self-repugnance that is implied!

Calculate while you Urinate! (to our male readers; ladies just calculate while you imagine)

translation and commentary DJM January 2008

Incidentally as this article had climbed only to page fifteen when I Googled worldwide in November, still not many people know of the above; so welcome to the select set of those who are not members of the set of those who don’t know of the above.

Hill-Fort Football

 A Brief History and Hitherto Unwritten Rules

Even if we discount the testimony ofAsterix the Gaul, it is certain that the inhabitants of Maiden Castle played football. Everybody at all times of history has played football – using tight bundles of willow, inflated pig’s bladders or empty wasps nests sewn over with leather (maybe). Every Peak District footballer knows about sloping football pitches and the advantages to one side or the other (usually the home side) that they infer (infer, infer ?? - try confer). One of the oldest and most curious forms of sloping-pitch football is Hill-fort Football, originally played among the ramparts and ditches that protected iron-age hill-top townships – until the Romans came along.

Hill-fort football has the advantage over, for instance, Fell Football, as practiced in the Lake District, that you don’t usually have to descend a thousand feet to retrieve the ball before taking a goal kick. The goal is set on the crest of a grassy, earthen rampart, preferably sheep-nibbled to improve the bounce. The goal can be as narrow, or as wide as is needed to produce a sporting game – the deeper the ditch or the steeper the bank, the wider the goal, maybe the whole perimeter of the fort for earthworks as mighty as those of Maiden Castle or Old Sarum. There may me just one goalkeeper, or rampart-holder, or many. Stationed at the bottom of the ditch is one attacker or many. If there is a ditch on either side of the rampart then so much the better, for the advantage of the rampart-holder is materially reduced if he or she is bombarded by ascending balls from both sides at once. The aim of the attackers is simply to boot the ball past or over the head of the rampart-holder and (preferably) into the further ditch. When this occurs the successful attacker and rampart-holder change places. The game continues until those in the ditches concede defeat or until all are lying panting in the flowery grass. Mixed-sex games do not last very long.

The search for iron-age hill-fort foot-ball goal-post post-holes (to twist the tongue with a thicket of hyphens) has not yet born fruit. It is not that a great deal more digging is needed but rather that enough archaeologists need to be convinced of the reality of the sport, for archaeologists generally find what they seek, being selected largely for their imaginative powers of interpretation.

Becoming now too old and infirm to effectively fulfill my wonted role as formidable ditch-bottomer, I must be content to hand on the knowledge of this ancient and modern pastime of Merry Britain to further generations.

Butler, Butler, turning right…

Is the first line of a satirical ode that, from internal evidence, was written in 1955: The full text is as follows :

Butler, Butler, turning right In the forests of the night
Canst thou say who is to be Next Prime Minister but three?

Treasury or Privy Seal Which is best to do a deal?
Or a Secretary of State? Or wilt thou just co-ordinate?

Leader of the House or what? Can it be that there are not
Traditions whereby those who lead Automatically succeed?

What the time and what the tide? Time is always on thy side:
Thou art only fifty-three; Who knows what the tide may be?

… Can we fairly put it thus Say that thou hast missed thy ‘bus?

R.A.Butler was in fact (I think) appointed Lord Privy Seal in the Autumn of 1955. Famously, he never did become Prime Minister, but added celebrity (and Prince Charles) to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1965. The Trinity clock,telling the hours Twice over with a male and female voice, as Wordsworth recollects in The Prelude, used to punctuate my late-night lab-note writing-up. But I am straying into a thicket of hyphens . (Try Googling that, as a test of web-penetrability!)

P.S. another verse by the same author is remembered to concern Woodrow Wyatt, including Wyatting has broken out or similar phrase.

DJM 22nd. November 2007

M25 Cycle Race


The question of who was first to cycle completely round the M25 is controversial. The late Forster Quinn claimed to have pedalled the 118 miles in 6 hours 35 minutes and 11 seconds (but 2 minutes 14 seconds could be subtracted for a pee into a newly-pebbled French Drain near the Sevenoaks junction). He began his (anti-clockwise) ride just before midnight on Saturday June 15th 1986, wearing a “Motorway Maintenance” fluorescent jacket and carrying bogus electronic equipment and transmitting aerial, which seem to have worked because, though several police cars slowed for a chat, none became suspicious. The Dartford Tunnel (the bridge not yet having been built) was, as he put it, ”The scariest thing since the Mont St. Bernard!” Memorably, pedalling east just before the M11 junction Quinn reported passing another cyclist travelling west on the opposite hard shoulder. With the exception of a “cheery wave” the two ignored each other, so the identity and itinerary of this other pioneer remains a mystery.

Has this pioneering achievement ever been repeated? Quinn, alas, died last year, with his achievement almost forgotten. Despite extensive private enquiries, reading of cycling journals and “Googling” I have drawn a blank. In the twenty three years that have ensued, the M25 has become some three times busier, CCTV coverage is now continuous and specialist policing highly organised. It is extremely doubtful that any attempt would last for more than five or ten miles. We all seem to have internalised the ban on pedestrians and cyclists from motorways so meekly and completely that trespassing in Buckingham Palace Grounds is more frequent, while railway lines are relatively over-run with explorers. However, all this is due to change for just one day next Summer in a unique spectacular organised by the British Olympic Society to give the world a foretaste of the spectacles to be expected at the London Games of 2012!

After prolonged consultations with industry, tourist, motoring and cycling organisations, the Department of Transport has sanctioned the COMPLETE CLOSING of the M25 for a period over the Spring bank Holiday Weekend. Just think:


Starting at 9p.m. on Saturday 29th. May, all entrance sliproads will be closed, preventing traffic from joining the motorway. Comprehensive diversions will be in place, though it is to be hoped that many people and businesses will re-schedule their travel arrangements. All normal traffic is expected to have left the Orbital Motorway by 11p.m., though the police do expect to have to escort a few eccentric drivers from the highway. Work will go on through the early hours of Sunday 30th to convert the clockwise carriageway into parking lots and through-access for logistical and emergency traffic, the anticlockwise carriageway being reserved for cylists attempting the full or part circuit. Curiously, intuition suggests that the “inner”, anticlockwise carriageway should constitute a considerably shorter circuit than the outer, but a quick revisiting of Pythagoras may convice you that the dffrerence is only of the order of a hundred metres.

Ticket-holding and cycle-carrying vehicles will be allowed onto the parking areas from 3a.m.on the morning of Sunday 30th May with the OFF being broadcast from loudspeakers and flashed from overhead gantries at 8a.m. It is expected that most participants, particularly families with children, will cycle only for a few “pedules” of 10 miles or so each, and will then be transported back to their starting-points by a fleet of Bikebuses, more familiar on continental roads than in the U.K., which are simply coaches towing cycle trailers. In order to allow time for those who wish to make the attempt to cycle the full 118 miles, the Motorway will remain closed to normal traffic until midnight on the Sunday, so that normal congested traffic conditions will doubtless return on the morning of Bank Holiday Monday, 31st May

How many will participate? The organisers are hoping that CYCLATHON M25 will dwarf even the London Marathon. Could this be the first single athletic event to attract more than a million participants – the World’s Largest Sporting Event Ever? No limit to entries is envisaged, but the sooner would-be particpants apply for tickets, the better the organising joint working party will be able to scale up its preparations. Please register your interest ASAP with The Department of Transport, who, as usual, will probably need a nudge to get them moving. Good luck on THE DAY!

DJM Scarthin Cycling Group updated 10/09

Running up Everest

Running up AND down Everest

On May 29th 1988, over the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend, Scarthin Books helped celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest , which may be taken to be 8,848 m (29,028 feet) high. With the co-operation of The Heights of Abraham and the sponsorship of Scarthin Books, a team of four by no means elite athletes set out to commemorate the first ascent by running up and down the full height in Matlock Bath. Masson Hill, which rises a full 240 metres steeply from the Derwent Valley, was an excellent location for this endeavour. An extreme runner could no doubt achieve this feat double-footed in under 24 hours, in our case we decided that a relay team of four would still find this a sufficient work-out! The team was made up of Oread Club member Rob Tresidder, Scarthin Books proprietor Dave Mitchell, both then in their forties, and Paul Hopkinson, Peak Park footpaths officer, and a friend, both in their twenties. Appropriately, the average age of the team was exactly 35 years.

The precise altitude of the summit on Masson Hill and the base-camp outside Hopkinson’s Hotel on Matlock Bath Parade were surveyed by Fred Chapman and Mike Coveney, Civil Engineering friends, and independent verification of the attempt arranged. Each runner ran nine legs, Rob ( who, with a little help from many friends including myself, completed the Bob Graham Round later that year) had most left to run the 37th leg, and the whole team finally ran up West Bank to the point needed to complete the exact Everest altitude from sea-level. (Interestingly, the Bob Graham Round is said to involve 28,500 feet of ascent and descent in the 24 hours allowed.) Legs generally took about 18 minutes – maybe 12 up and 6 down – slowing to 20 minutes or more towards the end. Rob threw in a 17 minute leg which Dave just managed to pip at a few seconds under the minute. Obviously, elite athletes in their prime would easily lower these times, and the total overall time of 11 hours, 2 minutes and 7 seconds.

We submitted this World Record, we presumed, to the Guiness Book of Records, but they turned it down as too route-dependent. Atually, selecting a good route was a large part of the fun. I trained for it myself by running up and down 900 metre Lake District heights several times, up to 11,000 feet (to mix units) in the day. Fewer, longer legs would perhaps be more satisfying. The gradient of the chosen route is obviously a factor; for ascent it should probably be as steep as remains technically easy, with the fastest descent perhaps by a longer, easily runnable route. At Matlock Bath, the up and down routes were the same. At the time, I heard of proposals to emulate our feat at the Wrekin in Shropshire and, even, up and down the stairs of a high building. The team could certainly be reduced to three members, indeed to two, which I would certainly have been able to cope with in youth or middle age. Now, I fear that the four man version would be beyond my running (if not walking) capacity. A Bob Graham could do the whole thing, and I have dreamed of that too! Life as a bookseller and serial father is too full. Why run up AND down, you might ask? Well, visual or radio/phone communication might make an “up only” event possible, with sufficient runners, but the satisfaction of passing the baton diectly, the exchange of commendation and encouragement, the team “bonding” would be lost.

I missed the chance of doing it again at the 50th anniversary in 2003 – I was injured and, of course, “very pushed”. Now, after yet another renaissance in 2005 and 2006 I’m injured again. Maybe it’s “the end” this time. BUT, I have a new team in mind, so perhaps 2008 will see a fresh, “old fogeys’” attempt in the 50 and 60+ category??? Watch this site. No. better still, beat our record!!! (maybe you already have).

Dave Mitchell 22nd. November 2007


A Diatribe (not the usual sort) on British Weather.

It is time to welcome the reader to the Loyal but not so Ancient Society known as BREWUP!

Formed to celebrate the wonderful climate of the United Kingdom.

This acronym has been cunningly formulated so as to be our battle cry:

UP with Br itain’s E xcellent W eather!

Let us begin by quoting our National Poet – but who/whom might that be? Milton? McGonagall? Chaucer? Pam Ayres? Tennyson? Clive James?

NO, who other than RUDYARD KIPLING, in the fourth verse of’The Roman Centurion’s Song;

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June’s long-lighted days.

It is time these evocative lines were set to music by our National Composer – but who/whom might that be?
Purcell? Lloyd Webber? Elgar? Lennon? Vaughan Williams? Sting? How about John Tavener?

The Centurion’s sentiments are echoed by a frequent exile FROM Britain whose work seems to takes him to locations with extreme climates, whether tropical beaches, Alpine snowfields or burning deserts – namely James Bond. In Dr. No James regrets the hot ugly winds of the Caribbean and thinks longingly of the douce weather of England: the soft airs, the “heat” waves, the cold spells – “The only country where you can take a walk every day of the year” – Chesterfield’s Letters? Like Bond, I haven’t managed to track down this quote to Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield.

To quote Taylor and Yates in their British Weather in Maps: British weather is made up of complex and baffling phases and sequences that defy classification and systematic interpretation. Let us rejoice in, not spurn such invigorating and fertile unpredictability, as does Marjorie Allingham in Cargo of Eagles: The rain was falling in a sweet, relentless fashion as it does in spring in London and it was all very peaceful and pleasant if uncompromisingly wet. Not that it is often wet in summer, or how could there be Test Matches, Wimbledon and innumerable Open Gardens?

What is the programme of action of BREWUP? As the present membership (six) makes all meetings less than quorate, our mandate remains provisional, but our aim must surely be to celebrate our best of all possible climates for doing almost anything at almost any time of year! How absurd to flee to latitudes suitable only for shrivelling prunes and sun-drying tomatoes.

Englishmen! You CAN be mad dogs in the mid-day sun of Britain! In between playing tennis at Wimbledon or cricket at Lord’s, run up a mountain (bare-chested but carrying the full British Mountaineering Council stipulated emergency clothing, shelter and food (no need to worry about drink), then pop down to the coast for a bit of digging in the sand, finishing up with a cream tea in the (Olde) Vicarage Garden! Sun-tan is out, Weather-beat is in!

The Summers of 2007 and 2008 tried the faith of the fellowship of BREWUP. Can Britain’s weather really be The Best of All Possible Climates! Can faith overcome The Problem of Rain? All the subtleties of Meteorolgical spinning may be required, but will not be lacking!

Our fore-parents, unsoftened by unsustainable sun-seeking, gloried in the British climate during the poignantly-doomed Long Weekend of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. The outdoor Lido Pools of the New Bath Hotel and the exposed Raven Hall Hotel were crowded with bathers, as photographs still on display show. Look now, and a dry, cracked-concrete cadaver occupies the site of our grandparents’ fresh-water frolics at Ravenscar, while a small group of us struggle to stop the paradisical New Bath pool going the same way.

The following, very cheesy, Boy Scout chant does conjure up some of the spirit of those days.

The First appearance was in 1921 as a song in the Boy Scouts Gang Show.


What’s the use of wearing braces?
Vests and pants and boots with laces?
Spats and hats you buy in places
Down the Brompton Road?

What’s the use of shirts of cotton?
Studs that always get forgotten?
These affairs are simply rotten,
Better far is woad.

Woad’s the stuff to show men.
Woad to scare your foemen.
Boil it to a brilliant hue
And rub it on your back and your abdomen.

Ancient Briton ne’er did hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck or knees or where you sit on.
Tailors you be blowed!!

Romans came across the channe
All dressed up in tin and flannel
Half a pint of woad per man’ll
Dress us more than these.

Saxons you can waste your stitches
Building beds for bugs in britches
We have woad to clothe us which is
Not a nest for fleas

Romans keep your armours.
Saxons your pyjamas.
Hairy coats were made for goats,
Gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas.

Tramp up Snowdon with your woad on,
Never mind if you get rained or blowed on
Never want a button sewed on.
Go it Ancient Bs!!

Copyright holders please contact us!

As the quorum for motions to be passed is 6, the society remains verbose but otherwise inactive. If you would like to swell the membership by 14.285714% recurring, please contact David Mitchell, at Scarthin Books, Cromford, Derbyshire DE4 3QF, phone 01629-823272, fax 825094 or e-mail us at

To quote Spike Milligan, or was it Neddy Seagoon,

It’s all free, folks!

A Lukewarm Reception will not be enough to forge the Olympic Pewter Medal!

Since London last hosted the Olympic Games in 1948, the number of competitors has more than doubled and the number of countries participating more than trebled. In disciplines with measurable performances, the Olympic Qualifying Standards nowadays would have won Gold Medals sixty years ago. Yet despite the dazzling advance in the level of achievement of Olympic sportsmen and sportswomen and the inexorable increase in the competitiveness of events, the International Olympic Committee still awards (with a few exceptions) only three medals: Gold, Silver and Bronze in each event.

The London 2012 Organising Committee is reportedly brainstorming as to how to follow the spectacular Beijing Olympics despite a budget that must be smaller in real if not in currency terms. Here is the answer:

Introduce an Olympic Fourth-Place Medal

It is not simply that the level of competitiveness has increased so greatly over the last sixty years; the awarding of only three medals has always been inadequate. Most finals in athletics, swimming and rowing, for instance, are contested between eight finalists; it seems natural that the top half of these, four, should be graced with the additional honour of a medal (getting into an Olympic Final should itself be more recognised for the achievement it is). Surely no more advocacy is needed, only practicalities remain to be resolved.
There is the question of who is responsible for the current paucity of provision of medals -the International Olympic Committee, I imagine, or has the London Committee the freedom to update medal-giving? Has the British Olympic Association any powers or leverage (pronounced to rhyme with beaveridge, not Beveridge)? Whoever you are, get off your conference seats and make some decisions, quick!

There remains, however, one significant area of controversy – of what should the medal be made? I have my own ideas, but asking friends and family has uncorked crates of creativity and lateral thinking hitherto bottled up, not all of which has been over-written in the soft-drive of short-term memory. We do have lots of choice – the periodic table lies open before (some of) us, and why not an alloy, or ceramic or plastic or other newly-fashioned material.
To start at this silly end, why not a medal in teflon, lurex, lycra, gortex or velcro -generous sponsorship would be forthcoming. More naturally, how about crystal or clay or coal, or coal’s more precious relative carbon fibre, or could we afford a semi-precious mineral such as jet or topaz or amber? Amber Medal is nicely alliterative and the material was anciently worked, like gold, silver and bronze.

Just a thought. Should we be choosing the BEST material for this medal however, wouldn’t the FOURTH-BEST be more appropriate?

Whether for best or fourth-best place, metals pure or alloyed must surely be favourites, however. Tungsten has been tipped, but too morbid a sound; must be mined by Auks in Moria. Aluminium? Too many syllables. Copper? Already used in Bronze, likewise Zinc, I think. Tin? Strong historic links with Britain, at least since it attracted the first Roman invasion, but has a “tinny”, “tin-can” sound. Britannia Metal, or Sheffield Plate? Patriotic choices, but too much of a mouthful.

There is another way of doing it of course, insert the lately more valuable PLATINUM at the top, for first place! It seems invidious so to demote Gold, Silver and Bronze to second, third and fourth and thus to seemingly devalue a century of previously awarded medals, but there is a precedent -the addition of A* as the top grade in English and Welsh GCSE and A-level school examination results, despite the doubt cast on the excellence of previous mere A grades. So adding in Platinum for first place might be a typically British solution – but might bring anathema rather than plaudits down on our heads from the watching world.

Personally I think the right choice is, rather obviously, PEWTER. This is, like bronze, a respected traditional alloy, one with a strong British pedigree and one which has been used for striking medals in two nations which wield particular influence in the World and whose support we would particularly need – France, the nation of Baron de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics and America, still a colossus despite being nudged off the top rung by China. In France a pewter medal was struck to commemorate the Storming of the Bastille, in America in honour of President John F. Kennedy.

You may think that the Olympic Fourth-Place Pewter Medal might be a laughing stock, well so it might, but only for a short while – and do we not need some humour to lighten the emotions of the medal ceremony? In any case it is interesting that, of the three medals thus far awarded at the Games, the Silver is somewhat marginalized as the least popular of the three -perhaps because it carries with it the failure to win, while the Bronze carries with it the simple pleasure of being up there on the rostrum, without the canker of near-miss if-only regrets. It is this wholesome pleasure in simply being present that would be transferred to the Pewter Medal -or the Medal of whatever Substance might emerge from the more democratic and protracted ponderings that this article MUST arouse.

Finally, if the IOC, the London2012 or the BOC won’t budge, then the CITIZENS OF LONDON should award the medal themselves, inviting the nobly fourth-placed in each event separately, or in a GRAND FINALE out onto the streets to be honoured by the people! This could take place in Trafalgar Square, at Hyde Park Corner or could involve elevation in the London Eye and could even upstage the official medal ceremony.

Come on London: here is how you can rise to new heights as an unforgettable host for the Olympic Games! – and after all is not London Pewter not the very best!

The Ecology of Books

The Ecology of Books – Read them or Drive over them?

A book that’s really old is worth a pot of gold!
Each aged tome deserves a caring home
Today’s blockbusters? – turn to heat – or EAT !
“I just can’t bring myself to throw away a book – any book” is a sentiment that a second-hand bookseller will hear almost every day. This reverence for books, widely-shared in our supposedly pluralist society, is not far removed from the fundamentalist practices of the strict Jew, who, for fear of destroying the name of God, hoards all obselete papers in a “genizah”, or the Moslem who considers any disrespectful treatment of a copy of the Koran to be sacrilegious. It would seem that horror at the execution of heretics AND their works, Nazi book-burnings, Ray Bradbury’s story “Fahrenheit 451″ and family memories of “book-binning” by ignorant executors are all indestructibly enshrined in our folk consciousness. Simultaneously, we cannot ourselves destroy books, yet fear that they might fall into the hands of philistines who gladly will. “If anything happens to me, my children will put the books in the skip – I just want to know they’ll go to a good home” is another sentiment frequently expressed by our older clients. What will ACTUALLY happen to our libraries “if something happens to us” is that executors, auctioneers, booksellers, market stalls, jumble sales, charity shops and “book-banks” will engage in a game of PASSING THE BOOK. No-one wants to be the one to do the dirty deed, each pretending that a good home will eventually be found for Best Wine Buys 1967, Macaulay’s Essays Volume 5 only, The M.&S. Book of Collage and A Visitors Guide to Blenheim Palace. Surely people are desperate for books in the Third World?
These sentiments are now QUITE OUT OF DATE, and it is my business to convince you of that.
The time taken to write a book hasn’t changed much over the millenia – maybe a month, maybe a decade, but more likely six months to two years of diligent toil on the part of the author. The difference is that before the age of printing, the “writing” was literal – the finished product being just ONE copy. Fear of fire sometimes restricted the work to daylight hours. Even in the early years of printing, the cost in human time of producing the paper, setting the type, screwing down the press, collating , folding, sewing and binding was so great that the value of each finished copy was still the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of pounds, and to destroy it was, in effect, to annihilate weeks of human life. Burning heretical books rather than the author himself was very effective. Nevertheless, despite the labour-intensive nature of early printing, over-production was becoming a problem in Rome as early as 1472. Forty books published in a year! Three hundred copies of each!! Too many printers were flooding the market. “Our house is full of printed books but empty of the necessities of life.” complain the firm of Sweynheym and Pannartz in their petition to Pope Sixtus IV protesting against the loss of their monopoly.
What of today? The number of titles printed annually in Britain has doubled 17 times since Caxton started work around 1475. The production of perhaps 10 books per year in the late fifteenth century had become 1000 by 1725, 10,000 by 1922, 75,000 by 1991 and 125,000 by 2003. At first production doubled every ten years or so, but between 1500 and 1900 the doubling period slowed to about 50 years.. Now we are in the midst of a second, computer-generated printing revolution, with a doubling every 18 years. Perhaps a third of a billion copies of books are sold every year in the U.K., and yet this flood of typography is still accorded a reverence more appropriate to the days of illuminated manuscripts. How to compare the intrinsic worth of today’s assemblyline-printed books with the handmade products of yesteryear? How to decide the fate of these sacred volumes? As A P Herbert’s fictional rebel Albert Haddock debated during the war, how to decide whether a book should best be sent forward to the troops as reading material, or shredded and converted into shell casings?
In an egalitarian world, the value of a human-being’s work, whether writer, printer, bookseller or reader, can be taken to be some 3000 Kilocalories per day- the energy in food we need to survive. Away with comparisons of merit and differences in wage-rates! ECONOMICS should become THERMONOMICS. Energy inputs in the form of fossil or renewable fuels, and from materials such as paper and leather, can be measured in the same units as human effort. Thus we can calculate the thermonomic cost of making a book, and compare this with the energy that could be recovered by destroying it! For instance, burning or eating a modern paperback book would release about 3000 kilocalories of energy, almost two-thirds of that obtainable by burning the same weight of coal and more than twice the energy from eating the same weight of Mars Bar.
An illuminated manuscript on vellum, taking a scribe several years to complete can hence be objectively valued at several millions of kilocalories, a thermonomic value far outweighing its potential for warming barbarian vandals or for feeding their goats. A modern paperback, however, which can be sold at the equivalent of no more than one hour’s work, is worth only a few hundred kilocalories in human effort, about one tenth of its fuel value.(What, I might ask, IS the point of reading a bestseller that so many others have already read for you? – but that is another question). Publishers rarely resist the temptation to let the presses roll out another few thousand copies, at a “run-on” cost of pence each.
All mass-produced modern books are worth far more as fuel than as repositories of human wisdom; it is our DUTY to recycle them.
Recycling books, however, is not straightforward. As a second-hand bookseller, I am in the front line of coping with today’s overproduction, being widely considered to be the best staging post on the way to that GOOD HOME that everyone desires for their beloved but unwanted collections. In more than thirty years, many are the ways I have tried to dispose of books. Here are a few.
SELLING. Sir Stanley Unwin remarked in his “The Truth about Publishing” that however difficult it might be to write, print or even read a book, the most difficult matter of all was to SELL it! He was right; we can sell no more than a quarter of the books we are brought, and no more than a half of those we accept. Over thirty years, this disparity has had serious consequences for my way of life and for the buildings I inhabit.
CHARITYING. At two or three books for a pound, you can shift several hundred a day at the Village Fete, Festival, Wakes or Well-Dressing,- but two-thirds of your stock will remain at the end of the day.
SURGERYING and SHOPDROPPING – smuggling magazines into dentist’s waiting rooms, or slipping books OUT of your poacher’s pockets onto the shelves in other bookshops, is a very satisfying operation but can only be employed on a small scale.
DROWNING. Though the slightest damp can mar a book for ever, entirely destroying it by water is well-nigh impossible. After months under a brick in a bucket, it will bob to the surface readable and entirely unconsolidated for the purpose of:
BURNING, which produces an unmanageable froth of ash from the unconsolidated book. Maybe a very large stove with a fierce draught would cope, but the fumes produced are almost certainly unacceptable.
COMPOSTING. Inspired by a friend whose library had turned to soil in a leaky garage, we established the “Millennium Book Compost Heap”. After five years it had shrunk to a mass of grey clay with messages (“…try harder…” advised one fragment). Our analyst customer John Futter reported that, half the dried weight of a sample was useful organic “humus”, but that the levels of lead and zinc were some 300 and 200 parts per million – coming maybe from inks, maybe from the wear of the type used to print older volumes. Alas, the news came too late to stop us filling the “Jubilee” and “Saddam Hussein” bins. What are we to do with it all?
PULPING. Authorities differ. NO BOOKS!! say some – the glue forms balls and gums up the machinery. Just mix them in says another, but it will reduce the market price, compared to 100% newsprint. Do we first remove spines, cloth bindings, laminated jackets? Almost certainly, your local waste-paper collection will reject books unless they are very well hidden.
VOLCANO. Throwing rubbish down disused mineshafts is a Derbyshire tradition now frowned upon. Daily Telegraph satirist Peter Simple once had his impoverished book-reviewer Julian Birdbath living in a disused Peak leadmine; somewhere I have a letter of thanks for keeping Julian well supplied with the works of The Great Unread. It must have been he that occasionally set fire to a shaft-full, with spectacular results.
TARMACING. Sources tell me that thousands of romantic novels have been mixed into the tarmac of motorway carriageways North of Watford, to improve their flexibility. Is this an urban myth (apparently not DJM Dec.08), or could RESURFACING finally solve the problem of RECYCLING THE BOOK?
CORNISH HEDGE BUILDING Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence of St. Ive (without the final S) reports: Here in Cornwall field boundaries are largely constructed of ‘Cornish hedges’, which are dry stone walls packed at the top with earth, which, in this mild, damp climate rapidly, and by design, become overgrown and turn into thick banks of vegetation. There is a tale that, back in the eighteenth century, the widow of a local clergyman, faced with disposing of her husband’s library, which no-one locally wanted and which poor communications in those days prevented her from exporting to somewhere where it might be better appreciated, used the books to build one of these ‘hedges’.
THE WHOLE HOLISTIC PROCESS Bob Lewis, from the Canadian Outbook has pointed out the potential poetry of processing holy books. Simply click on Tree of Knowledge.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Blackening Black Rocks

Blackening Black Rocks

It is not widely known that the BLACK ROCKS, the famous landmark and climbing crag that looms over Cromford in Derbyshire’s Peak District, are not naturally black, but owe their unique coloration to the generations-old custom of the annual Blackening of Black Rocks in which villagers equipped with buckets, brushes, ladders and ropes anoint the crag with a black fluid prepared according to an ancient and secret recipe. The 2007 event, part of the Celebrating Cromford Festival, was made into a short film by Derbyshire and Derby Groundwork, a well-known charity active in recording threatened local customs.

Controversy surrounds the blackening ceremony, which many consider to be a pollution of this natural beauty spot. Though some ecologists are in favour of the custom, pressure is mounting on the County Council to ban it. Nevertheless, the event, which took place as always on May Day, was a great success.

Plans are fermenting to record, while there is still time, other vanishing customs of the Peak District; we will look favourably on any offers of generous funding from research institutions, grant-giving bodies, European agencies or Bolywood impressarios.