On blubbing

In a long life, I don’t thing I have ever cried so much as I have in the past few weeks – since I knew I have incurable cancer. It’s really quite strange: I can be going along quite normally, even talking lightly about my condition, and then a chance remark, a kind gesture or a stray thought in my head sets me off. The throat tightens, the lip quivers, the voice shrivels and the eyes overflow.

If I am alone, of course, I can let rip, have a good howl, and feel the better for it. But in company (because men don’t cry, do they?) one has to fight to regain control; stiffen the lip, clear the throat, try to regain the manly voice. But it’s not easy to switch it off.

And why am I crying? Who am I weeping for? Myself? Perhaps; but it is not self-pity. It is as though I am grieving – grieving in advance for all the things I am shortly to lose: love, friendship, the beauty of the world; seeing one’s grandchildren growing up; all the things that constitute ‘life’ and which we mostly take so much for granted.

Ah well – I start my first cycle of chemotherapy next week, and if I respond well people tell me I should feel much more positive. I hope to report soon that the ‘weepies’ are behind me.

Late Summer

The swallows gather on the wires

Chattering, impatient to depart,

To leave their summer lanes for foreign skies.

For me too a leave-taking draws near.

With the spring, the swallows will return.

But I may not  be there.

The enemy within

It struck me the other day that being told you have cancer is a bit like a woman being told she is pregnant. Suddenly, you are aware that something, unseen and unfelt (initially, at least), is growing inside your body – something that is not you. Beyond that, of course, the comparison fails. Pregnancy means the beginning of a life; cancer, all too often, means the end of one. Still, the initial sensations must be rather similar.

The Final Curtain?

I have been thinking a lot about death lately. OK, so we all know it’s inevitable, but most of the time we push it firmly to the back of our minds. Until, that is, something brings us up short and we suddenly find mortality at the forefront of our thoughts.

In my case, it all began in mid-July, when I went to my doc with a stitch-like pain under my right ribs. Antibiotics were prescribed – and did remove the pain; but the doc was worried by the amount of fluid he could still detect in my chest. He referred me to the local hospital, where, last week, they drained over two pints from my thorax and took tissue samples for biopsy.

Yesterday, I received the verdict: the biopsy showed ‘abnormal cells’.  In a word, I have cancer.

The verdict – but not the sentence. They need to do further tests, and I have to have a CT scan, before they can tell me what the treatment options are – and how long I have got.

Nevertheless, even the possibility of a terminal condition ‘concentrates the mind’ wonderfully. In fact, it’s quite extraordinary how it colours all one’s thinking. It’s like a pounding ground bass that throbs away under the melody of everyday life. The most trivial of tasks suddenly take on a new significance. You catch yourself visualising future events – and then having to remind yourself that you may not be there when they happen. Sometimes, at more intimate moments, the thoughts well up over everything – and with them the tears. Tears of regret, mainly; regret for things not done, opportunities not seized, loves not expressed . . .

Still: I must not get maudlin. I have lived 78 years, most of them blessedly free from ‘the ills that flesh is heir to’. I have achieved many of the things I hoped to do. I have children and grandchildren who will carry my genes into the future. For the time left, I must live as fully as I can and make the most of every day. I am an actor, after all, and now I know the lights have gone up on the last act of the play. Until the curtain falls, I hope you won’t mind if I share my thoughts and feelings with you.

As You, like, Like it

I was listening to my nine-year-old grandson this morning as he described to his grandmother a practice session at football:

“Another thing I like to do is, like, when another boy is, like, just about to, like, kick the ball I, like, rush in and tackle him. That,” he added, “is really cool! I really, like, like doing that.”

How on earth, I thought to myself, did I manage, when I was his age, without this peculiar piece of verbal padding? And where did it, like, come from? I suppose its equivalent in my day was the  simple “um“.  Or possibly an “er“, or the slightly more high-faluting “ah” beloved of Ann Widecombe.

Come to think of it, though, modern English speech is full of such meaningless litter. There is the rather tentative “I mean” and the ubiquitous “you know” made particularly fashionable by our last prime minister. (In Mr Blair’s case it was,  I presume,  intended to sound ‘matey’.  Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, used it in an entirely different way, intended to convey her conviction that you very obviously didn’t know. With her it would always begin a sentence, as an alternative to “Look . . .”, whereas with Blair it was always, you know, in the middle.)

And then there is that curious sound which started life as the six-word phrase “do you know what I mean?” but which, with the aid of a glottal stop, has now become compressed into a single verbal blur; something like “joonowo’imeen”.

I knew a distinguished economist once who found it almost impossibe to start a sentence, or even a subordinate clause, without the words “in fact . . .”. The more speculative his pronouncement, the more he was likely to use it. In fact I once heard him preface a reply to a question with “In fact, in fact, . . .”. But that’s an economist for you.

I suppose such phrases have a function, in that they give one a moment in which to think of what to say next. But I feel sure our ancestors managed to converse without their aid. Try to imagine Hamlet saying:

“To be or, like, not to be. I mean, that is, you know, the question. Whether ’tis, like, nobler ….”

Well, well, well!

Those who read this blog – if there are any – will know that I am prone to grumble about the way our English language is changing. In part, this is the routine reaction of an old pedant who sees ‘rules’ that he learnt as a boy being flouted and disregarded by the young. And I am, of course, well aware that such changes will continue long after I am gone, and that any living language is bound to change over time. I just find it regrettable that so many of the current changes are, in my view, changes for the worse  in terms of clarity of meaning.

Even when I am not grumbling, though, I remain fascinated by questions of how, when, where and why such changes arise.  The use of the word ‘cool’, for example, to indicate approval (as opposed to low temperature) still sounds alien to my aged ear. I believe it originated in the jazz culture of the American South – but how did it acquire this new meaning? And why has it been adopted by almost every English-speaker under forty?

Again, I am puzzled when I ask someone how they are and they reply “I’m good!” – as though I had enquired about their moral welfare. What’s wrong with the “I’m well, thanks!” that I grew up with?

And talking of the word ‘well’, I find it equally odd to hear it used as a qualifying adjective in place of ‘very’ – as in “He was well angry!” To me, that sounds wrong; but then I sheepishly remember that there are precedents, even in such an authority as the King James bible: “… in whom I am well pleased.” And, come to think of it, I have written ‘well aware’ in the first paragraph of this post. So I must declare myself  a ‘logophage’ (a word I have just invented, from Greek roots, to signify ‘one who eats his own words’.)

I suppose, then, I must accept that I am fighting a losing battle on the language front. I will continue, however, to man the ramparts, and decline to adopt what I consider inappropriate usages. Ah well . . .

Striking the happy media

Time for another of my moans about linguistic infelicities.

Many years ago, man had really only one way of communicating – the spoken word. Then came writing, and printing; a few centuries on came the telephone, and then radio, and then television. Soon there arose the need to have a single word that would embrace all these different methods. Each was – is – a medium of communication; so it made sense, when referring to all of them, to use the plural of medium, which – because of its Latin root – is media (though it could be argued that mediums would be equally acceptable, and even perhaps preferable).

Anyway, the media soon became part of common parlance. But far too many people nowadays (including some journalists who should know better) seem to forget that it is in fact a plural word, and come out with remarks like “The media is to blame” – which seems to defeat the whole purpose of having a word that refers to  many entities.

I know there are words – such as the public – which can take a singular or a plural verb depending  on the context; but I don’t think this applies to the media. Anyone want to argue?

Thomas Hardy’s places

In bright autumn sunlight, M and I drove today through Dorset, to photograph some of the actual places that Hardy describes in Far From the Madding Crowd. I was fulfilling a promise to Charlie Maddaus of Maine, who is currently teaching the novel to his students (see comments on an earlier post). In what follows I have put Hardy’s place-names in italics.

We drove through Sherborne (Sherston Abbas) and south to Middlemarsh (Marshwood). Then up onto a high ridge that runs above Cerne Abbas (Abbot’s Cernel) and so down into Dorchester (Casterbridge). Here we turned east out of the town, and soon reached a stone bridge – Grey’s Bridge – over the River Frome (Froom). This is where an exhausted Fanny Robin fell, and was guided by a large dog to the Union, or workhouse, and where Troy later waited for her in vain.

Grey's Bridge over the Frome, near Dorchester

Grey's bridge over the Frome, near Dorchester

Some two miles further on we left the modern highway and turned up the old road that climbs Yellowham Hill (Yalbury Hill). It was in the woods here that Liddy’s sister lived; that Joseph Poorgrass got lost; where Troy and Bathsheba, driving home at dusk, met Fanny; and where Gabriel slept in a hay-wagon. The road climbs quite steeply, and is over-arched by trees. It has a lonely feel. A little further on is Troy Town (Roy-Town), where there is a farm and one or two houses – but no sign of the “Buck’s Head” inn, where Joseph got drunk on his journey with Fanny Robin’s coffin. There was nothing definitive to photograph on this stretch, however.

Returning to the main road, and then missing the exit to Puddletown (Weatherbury), we drove on to Bere Regis (Kingsbere). Above the village rises Woodbury Hill (Greenhill). Taking a narrow side-road, and then a stony track, we reached the top of the hill where a flat green field, surrounded by ancient earthworks, marks the site where the annual Sheep Fair was held, and where Troy, disguised as Turpin, appeared in the circus tent. From the edge of the field there are wide views over Dorset farmland – large fields and wide-spread hills. Apparently a fair was still held there within living memory.

Bere Regis - village store and inn

Bere Regis - village store and inn

The view from the Sheep Fair field, Woodbury Hill

The view from the Sheep Fair field, Woodbury Hill

Now we turned west again and returned to Puddletown (Weatherbury), the village at the centre of Bathsheba’s story.  Its heart, in the old days, was the Square, where market stalls were set up between the cottages and the churchyard.

The market square, Puddletown

The market square, Puddletown

A few yards up on the right stands St Mary’s Church, in whose porch Troy spent a night, where Fanny was buried, and where Bathsheba and Gabriel were finally – and secretly – married.

The porch, St Mary's church, Puddletown

The porch, St Mary's church, Puddletown

The nave, St Mary's church. Note the box pews, the choir gallery, and the fine timber roof.

The nave, St Mary's church; note the choir gallery and box pews.

Many of the book-rests in the pews, and especially in the choir-stalls, bear carvings of names and initials, some neat, some ragged; and on one, under the balcony, is the name “Henery” – spelt with an extra ‘e’ just as Henery Fray does in the novel.

The carved pew.

The carved pew.

High on the church tower are the gargoyles, one of which flooded Fanny’s grave.

The "gurgoyles".

The "gurgoyles".

The old malt-house which once stood behind the doctor’s house and was probably the model for “Warren’s”, is no more. Likewise, the circular, brick-lined sheep-washing pool beside the river Piddle was bulldozed away some years ago. Waterston Manor, thought to have been the inspiration for (but not the location of) Bathsheba’s farmhouse, is hidden by high hedges.

We made a quick trip, a mile or so east of the village, to take a peek at Athelhampton House – Hardy’s Athelhall. A fine old house, privately owned but open to the public – on payment of a substantial admission fee.

Athelhampton House

Athelhampton House

We returned towards Dorchester, then turned north up the long valley of the river Piddle – which, it must be said, is a modest stream; quite piddling, in fact. Strung along it, and almost running into one another, are the villages of Piddlehinton (Lower Longpuddle) and Piddletrenthide (Upper Longpuddle). We pause to photograph the church at the latter, then headed back to Sherborne and home.

All Saints church, Piddletrenthide

All Saints church, Piddletrenthide

It will take another trip to find Norcombe Hill, where Gabriel first met Bathsheba. It is over on the other side of the county, near Beaminster (Emminster). Later, perhaps, we shall re-visit Lulworth Cove (Lulwind). where Troy left his clothes on the beach and swam out to sea.


I am departing from my usual themes of literature and language, because I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”. The very fact that I even opened this book will, no doubt, condemn me in the eyes of many – particularly, I suspect, those who have never read the book themselves. It is a knee-jerk reaction of the fervently religious to attack, blindly, anything which questions – or, still worse, threatens to undermine – their particular faith and beliefs.

Dawkins, of course, does not have it in for any one religion; he has it in for all religions. As a convinced Darwinian, he sees them as an aberrant phenomenon in the evolution of the human species – one that, hopefully, we will eventually discard; particularly if we can learn to stop indoctrinating our children before they are old enough to think for themselves.

I grew up in the Christian England of the 1930s – before mass immigration had changed ours into a ‘multi-cultural’ society. My parents were not particularly devout, but I was christened and went to Sunday school and, later, joined the Youth Fellowship. In due course I was confirmed and grew into a convinced Christian, taking my faith very seriously. For me, in that place and at that time, the word ‘religion’ meant Christianity. One knew, vaguely, that there were people in other parts of the world who had different beliefs; but one lumped them together under the general term ‘heathens’, and comforted oneself with the thought that there were missionaries who would eventually bring them to their senses.

Then, in my twenties, I started to travel. I went out to the Far East to work, and found myself confronted – and out-numbered – by people who had belief-systems totally alien to my own, and who, in each case, were clearly convinced that theirs was the only true religion. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees, Taoists – these were not benighted heathens, but often highly cultured and intelligent people. A thought began to grow in my mind: “We can’t all be right; so maybe none of us is right!” I tried to persuade myself that perhaps the Ultimate Truth was only revealed partially, in different ways and at different times, and that there might be validity in all religions. But in the end this didn’t wash, and I became more and more certain – after many years of thought – that, far from God creating Man in his own image, it was actually the other way about.

One problem remained, though: how, I asked myself, does one explain the moral sense – the belief that certain behaviours are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ – if there is no God? I am rather proud to say that, long before I read Dawkins, I came to the same conclusion as he does: that the source of the moral sense is, ultimately, genetic; that it can exist without the need for religious belief. It follows, it seems to me, that where a religion ‘lays down the law’ on what is good and evil, it is generally merely codifying something that is ‘built in’ to our collective psyche anyway.

This, then, explains briefly why I am a humanist and an atheist. I cannot do it with the elegance and thoroughness of a Richard Dawkins; but I am persuaded by him that I should have the courage of my convictions and declare my beliefs.

“But,” you may say, “you are an atheist. You have no beliefs.” On the contrary, I believe in many things: in the wondrous complexity of the world we have inherited; in the imponderable vastness of the universe; in the limitless potential of the human mind and imagination; and in the possibility that humankind will one day outgrow the need to do terrible things in the name of religion.

More can be read about Dawkins’ views on richarddawkins.net.

Unusual trades: ever met a congreve maker?

Having recently caught the genealogy bug, I have been diving into my family history. It’s astonishing what you can turn up these days, without ever leaving your computer desk. I’ve now got a pretty complete picture of my family back through five generations – and have traced one particular line back to 1580.

What is particularly fascinating about the censuses, from 1851 onwards, is that they usually show the occupation of the person named. And of course, in the nineteenth century, the great majority of working folk had some sort of craft or trade.

Among my forebears I found a book-binder, a cabinet-maker, a boat-builder, a brick-maker, a miller, a sawyer, a backsman (foreman in a coal-mine), a straw-plaiter (for hat-making), a bombazine-weaver, a dress-maker – and quite a number of plain ‘labourers’.

One job particularly intrigued me. My great-grandfather had, as his neighbour in Norwich, a man who was listed as a ‘Congreve maker’, while his son was a ‘Slive maker’. What on earth was a congreve? A kind of coat? A bottle? I decided to do some research.

It turns out that during the Napoleonic Wars there was a certain artillery officer named Sir William Congreve who invented a kind of military rocket for firing at the enemy. When the wars ended, in 1815, it seems likely that he turned the pyrotechnic skills he had acquired to the invention of an early kind of friction match – which was known as a congreve. And that’s what my ancestor’s neighbour was making, using sulphur, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide. A pretty explosive mixture, I would have thought.

And a ‘slive maker’? I can only think that this is a variant, or a mis-spelling, of ‘sliver’ – a thin strip of some kind (there is an old verb ‘to slive’ meaning to split). So my guess is that the son was making the match-sticks – for Dad to put the heads on.

Incidentally – have you noticed how many people say ‘slither’ when thay actually mean ‘sliver’?

Postscript: I have now discovered that, although Sir William did indeed invent a great many things, it was actually a John Walker, a chemist in Stockton-on-Tees, who invented the friction match – but he named it after Congreve, presumably because of his fame as a rocket pioneer.

My book cover

Recent Readers

View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile