Pavane, by Keith Roberts

This is one of the “SF Masterworks” series which has re-issued, over the decades, some absolutely classic titles. Some of them are well-known to me; others, like this one, I had never heard of. You can see the list yourself here. I’ve read 21 of the 73 titles in the softcover list. It is necessarily some editor’s subjective choice, and there is a tendency for Philip K. Dick to appear rather too often in my view.

But this is about Pavane. A pavane, we read, is a kind of Latin dance. This is important. Roberts has written a work with six “measures”; six long chapters, each of them meaningful, each of them drawing us onto an inevitable conclusion. We start in the late 1960’s, and we finish sometime near the end of the 20th century, describing the growth of, the antecedents of, a very English revolution. A humble engine-driver at the beginning, further on has become a rich business man. His niece becomes the mother of a firebrand aristocrat, the Lady of Corfe, whose actions bring the established order down in flames and ruin. Throughout, there is an older hidden England, a faerie England, at work. It is at work for good. It is a concealed spiritual England such as C.S Lewis hints at “That Hideous Strength” – although he speaks rather, of “Logres”, a spiritual Britain.

Pavane is an alternative history. And it is remarkable as such, for it is a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end. In this alternative history, Good Queen Bess is assassinated in 1588; the Spanish Armada is successful in its conquest of England, and the entire Reformation is brought to a bloody halt, unlikely as it may seem (more on that in a minute.) The Catholic church militant then reigns from Rome, supreme and unchallenged, for centuries down to modern times.

The story starts in the late 1960’s in Dorset. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was the writer’s clear love of and knowledge of Dorset, an area I know and love myself. Most of the action is set between Dorchester and the Isle of Purbeck.

We see how control of innovation can prevent progress: in this alternate 1960’s, steam traction engines haul goods along rough unmade roads, often threatened by bandits in the woods, and subject to the constraints of impending darkness and winter weather. The use of concrete is tightly controlled and even banned – because concrete can be used to create fortifications, and hence foster rebellion against Rome, which is ruthlessly put down by the Church Militant.

There is no electricity; there is no radio or TV. Petrol and diesel engines have been invented, but the church has circumscribed the use of these new-fangled devices by Papal Decree. But in this world, unthinkable rebellion is brewing slowly, in the woods, in the fields, in the quiet villages. It is a world where the strength of England is found in the countryside.

Writing as a believing Christian here, I sense that Keith Roberts perhaps has little time for church or religion – but he never becomes openly anti-Christian, as in the worldview seen in such work as the “His dark materials” trilogy of Philip Pullman. He writes with a light pen of the faeries, the “old people”, of the old religions and the older Gods – Wotan, Thor, Freyr. In this he prefigures – or at least reminds me of – the much later work of Neil Gaiman in his excellent “American Gods”.

Pavane was very readable, very engaging, and full of delightful and evocative language. If I had a criticism of it, it would be of the opening premise – that the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, and even victory for the Spanish Armada, would have been enough to destroy the Reformation and the protestant energy and faith of north-western Europe.

I’d argue not. I’d argue for a historical inertia; doubtless there are “cusp” points in human history when much can change subsequently because of a single event. But I’d argue that there are far fewer of them than science-fiction authors might like. I’d suggest the assassination of JFK might have been one; I’d certainly argue that the death from disease of Prince Arthur, allowing his younger brother Henry to become Henry VIII, was another.

But I think, rather, that there is a kind of historical inertia. I don’t think it’s quite so easy to change history through the turn of a card or the flap of a butterfly’s wing. I’d suggest that there is considerable cultural and historical momentum, which is preserved and not lightly shifted. Consider: throughout history there have been many times when reactionary forces might have won on the battlefield, but didn’t – would it have made much long-term difference even if they had?

Realistically would England be that different now if Charles I had won in the English Civil War? Would America today be really that different if the thirteen colonies had failed to prevail in their Revolution? And even if the South had won on the battlefield in the American Civil War, as a slave economy competing in a free market it could never have prevailed against the North in the long term. When the conservative, the reactionary and the traditional meets the progressive, the proactive, and the forward-looking, in the long run, there can be no doubt about what the outcome will be. The status quo is never acceptable.

On foot across the Lakes: from Kirkstone Pass Inn to Great Langdale

About eighteen months ago I went to the Lakes for a bit of wild camping. In the final paragraph of my trip report here, I wrote this: “had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.

I journeyed to Windermere by train. Leaving my home in East Surrey just before 0700, I was in Windermere just after noon. It is the Pendolino tilting train that makes this worthwhile and possible, from Euston to Kendal in three hours. The cost was not excessive at £133 return in standard class. After a scotch egg and a bottle of pale ale sat in a sun-soaked corner in Windermere, I took bus 508 up Kirkstone Pass, for £5.10, with a very cheerful and friendly driver who said, “It’s a while since I’ve driven this route. Let’s hope I can remember it”. There were two other passengers.

At the Kirkstone Pass Inn I hopped off in bright sunshine. As I was rigging my bag for hiking, seven or eight motorcycle warriors of one tribe or another roared through on their throaty Harley-Davidsons. It was 2pm. Grinning and confident in physical fitness, I set off up the hill, and was on the first top, Red Screes (776m). From there, along to Scandale Pass and little Scandale Tarn. Here there was a squall and in five minutes I went from using a sun hat to wearing gloves. That’s the Lake District for you – never underestimate the mountains. Further on, to Dove Crag, Hart Crag and finally Fairfield (873m) whence I arrived at 5.10pm. I’d been this way before, some time in the 1990’s. Here you can see the difference between winter and summer conditions:

The first time I was on Fairfield was in shouting rough conditions in about 1979 or 1980, with a school party on a YHA trip. It would hardly be allowed now. From there, down to the somehow ever-gloomy Grizedale Tarn. It is a long way down. Another location with deep memory for me, from that same YHA trip, only the second or third time I’d ever visited the Lakes.

It was with some difficulty that I found a place to pitch my tent. The aspect was geographically similar to that tarn in the Cairngorms (Loch nan Stuirteag) where I’d experienced difficulties last November. A high tarn flowing east down into a wild valley, no obvious camp ground at the outfall and a rising wind. But, a place to camp I found, by the babbling brook, and soon enough it was supper time: fresh tortellini and a tin of 8% stout. I was drowsy; I hardly thought at all. I was in bed asleep well before 9pm. I found that lying in my sleeping bag in the tent, listening to the babbling of the brook, I could be in a place where I was not thinking about anything: awake, but barely even conscious.

I was wide awake by 6a.m and set off at 8a.m, tent dry, ready for adventure. I was on Dollywaggon Pike before 9.30a.m, and from there to Nethermost Pike (891m) and onto Helvellyn (969m) before 10a.m. The first and strongest of the day-trippers were already there, some Scotsmen with good camera equipment. Absolutely stupendous visibility!! Just look at these below. I spent some time talking to the Scotsmen, reflecting that the last time I was here was in winter conditions in 1997.

Ullswater
Striding Edge from an unusual angle
Swirral Edge, Red Tarn, and almost the entire length of Ullswater in the distance

And then, down, through the long morning. Although earlier on there had been few enough people on the mountain, I passed many dozens of folk toiling up the long and arduous ascent of Helvellyn from the Thirlmere side. Why would anyone climb Helvellyn from that side? A dreadful slog, it is. I suppose the ascent from the Patterdale side, involving as it must, either Swirral Edge or Striding Edge, is not for everyone. And not for me, is that steep downhill to Thirlmere: by the time I got to the valley floor, about 11a.m, I was tired and I had stubbed toes. It was very warm and sunny – again, absolutely delightful conditions for photography.

I was starting to think, where will I fill up on water? Odd to be in a reservoir valley, yet for there to be no instantly available drinking water. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink…there was a long and somewhat tiring slog through admittedly delightful woods up along the eastern shore of the reservoir, as far as the dam, where I stopped for lunch. Boots off, charge my devices, and sit in a sun-soaked corner. Lunch was bread and butter, cheese, tomatoes, and a little Chorizo sausage. An orange, some chocolate and some trail mix. I drank the remainder of my water. Now I really needed to fill up.

As I set off again, a trio of hikers passed me, two young women and a young man, all festooned with clanking cups and pans and camping equipment hung on their rucsacs. I confess I don’t like it for there to be any stuff attached to the outside of my rucsac. I prefer the clean lines of climbers’ rucsacs and generally don’t even do side-pockets if I can avoid it. One of the girls stopped to chat. It seems that they perhaps, did not realise when they arrived last night, that camping is strictly prohibited on the Thirlmere valley floor. I was just pleased to hear someone speak in a Lancashire accent, whatever this youngster was telling me.

At Armboth, I managed to fill up my water bottles, though I deemed it necessary to add purifying tablets. Onwards and upwards literally; the second ascent of the day, from Thirlmere up over the moor to Watendlath. I shouldn’t have cared to come through here in claggy conditions; the moor, as well as being boggy, was pathless and featureless; one should find oneself very soon resorting to the compass in poor visibility. Initially it was a very pleasant walk through steep meadows with unusual flowers, leading up onto a rather boggy moor. I found this hard going as it was now mid-afternoon and I was carrying 3kg of additional water. And so it was that for the first time in my life I found myself visiting the little hamlet of Watendlath, nestled in a hanging valley between Borrowdale and the Thirlmere valley. There was a tea rooms, and I stopped for a pot of some of the best tea I’ve had for ages, along with some rather nice tea bread. It was 4pm.

From Watendlath, one skirts the eponymous tarn and sets off up a good bridleway to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. This was an ancient, traditional and much-trod road. It made me think of those many passes of Lakeland through which there is no tarmac road. Sticks Pass across these very moors. The Walna Scar Road between Coniston and Dunnerdale. The Black Sail Pass from Wasdale to Ennerdale. The Scarth Gap between Ennerdale and Buttermere, and the biggest and most important of them all perhaps, the central pass of the Lake District, Sty Head between Borrowdale and Wasdale. There will be others. I came down towards Rosthwaite late afternoon, again, in glorious sunshine, with the aforementioned Sty Head pass visible in the distance, as well as the bright specks of distant cars in the Honister Pass reflecting the sunshine. And all the time, the sound of lambs, and occasional cuckoos.

Sty Head is the notch in the middle of this picture, with the dark mountain behind it.

At Rosthwaite I stopped at about 5.20pm for a pint of ice-cold lager, primarily so I could sit in range of WiFi and update my wife on my location. Though the pint was very welcome, it was secondary to my purpose. Clearly EE don’t have a mast in Borrowdale.

Onwards: first, another tiresome road tramp along around 2km of tarmac, before turning left into the fields again on a path to my final destination today, Tarn at leaves, where I planned to camp. Though at best 2km from the road, it was strongly upstairs, really quite steep. The sun was at my back and though I was flagging towards the end of the long day, I knew I needed to get there. “You’ve got this” I told myself, and I had. I was a little concerned though, that there were no paths onwards from Tarn at leaves. This concern had some justification; the map, as far as it goes in terms of detail (which is not far even on the OS 1:25000 sheet) showed none. But this isn’t the Cairngorms in November. I finally got to the tarn and found it very boggy, going in up to my knees and getting my boots wet right in the last two minutes of an immense twelve-hour day on the hill. But it all dried out quick enough.

I was sat down to my supper quite late – about 8.30pm. For supper I had spicy red lentils, and a chick pea flour pancake – a “faranata” the recipe for which I learned from my son Nat. I can’t be doing with not eating and drinking well when camping wild. To wash my dinner down I had some remarkable and very tasty 8% proof “Sling it out Stout” (though to be fair after that walk of nearly 25km, even Carling Black Label would have tasted like nectar. Well, that’s pushing it a bit, maybe…

The place was well deserted. Though I was happy enough, it reminded me of a sad part of Tolkien. Hurin, released by the devil Morgoth after 28 years in captivity, wanders over the land trying to find the hidden city of Gondolin, whose king Turgon, was once his friend. He knew roughly where it lay, but not exactly. And on some deserted moor, where the wind whistled endlessly through the grass while no-one was listening, he cried out in grief and rage, “where are you, O Turgon, in your hidden halls?” But someone was listening…Morgoth’s hidden servants reported those words back, and the betrayal of Gondolin began.

This tarn is one of those past its former glory, slowly drying out. Slow by no human perspective – it’s climate change alright, but not as we know it. It’s nothing to do with man-made climate change. Tarns like these have been drying out in the Lake District since the ice receded these 10,000 years. There are dozens of them. The word “moss” is often a giveaway, for example, at the Great Moss under Scafell Pike: even a cursory glance at the map tells you there was once a lake there. For all the boggy areas in which went up to my knees when I arrived in the evening, it was a dry camp and a dry strike. After a breakfast of mushrooms, spinach and fresh coffee, I was away again by 8a.m the next morning. What I could not do, is find fresh water to drink. I set off onto the hill with less than a litre of water left, but with a few little oranges and tomatoes.

It was not clear to me where to go from the tarn; I did not want to end up scrambling up and down bands of cliffs: unwise at any time if you’re on your own, a recipe for a coffin or worse if you’re carrying a 20kg rucsac. Once you stumble, down you will go. Don’t stumble!! I pressed on, keeping the dark and seemingly endless (and appropriately named) valley of Langstrath on my left. I remember being in it once on a rainy day, thinking it went on for ever. And I found a fence. Where a man can build a fence, I can safely walk. I followed that fence for quite some way before leaving it, saying farewell as to an old friend, and striking uphill towards Glaramara (783m). I was an hour and ten minutes walking this morning before I encountered a path. That is unusual for the Lakes.

Glaramara unfortunately has a short scramble which I did not recall from last time I was here (which to be fair was 36 years ago when I was a callow youth.) But keeping one’s weight forward works for climbing with a big bag; slightly less unnerving than climbing downward face-out, when the weight and centre of gravity must be kept back to avoid to avoid toppling over and down. I did not expect to see anyone here this early (9.30a.m) on a Sunday morning – way too early for day trippers to get to this location. The summit was deserted and cold. For a short while it was cold enough for me to wear my woolly hat. On the next summit I did in fact meet and have a pleasant chat with a young backpacker, who had camped on the shoulder of Scafell Pike at over 950m above sea level. We spoke of obtaining water; he noted that water flowing in streams off the central massif could be polluted and a problem: he was planning a two-night Mountain Leader Training exam expedition soon, and obtaining water in summer conditions, was a challenge. I was drinking water I’d carried all the way from Thirlmere.

Again onwards to Esk Pike and Esk Hause, the central col and cross-roads of all the Lake District. Also about as far as you can get from a road-head anywhere in the Lakes, although paradoxically enough, probably not the remotest location. Here there were day trippers, mostly up from Seathwaite, Borrowdale. Round here one reflects on the centrality, not of Esk Hause, but of Great Gable. It’s not the highest mountain of course, but it is the central boss, the ice-worn stub of whatever original mountain stood here millions of years ago. Near here I saw some classic “roche moutonnee” (literally “mutton rock”, rock like sheep) whereon there were clear scratches from the ice, quite at odds with the rock’s natural bedding plane, the scratches pointing towards Great Gable in one direction, and down-valley in the other. I do like the landforms left by the glaciers. The hanging valleys, the corries and cols. Truncated spurs. Misfit streams. Terminal moraines. Eskers and drumlins.

Drumlins in Langstrath

Round to Bow Fell, where I started to feel hungry and took lunch. On Bow Fell I encountered an older fellow with his young son, and he was teaching him the names of the summits on the skyline, testing him so he would learn them. I know them, and no-one taught me their names. But I am an older man and I’ve been coming to the Lake District for over forty years. My first trip was in 1977, to the Newlands valley with the Scouts, and we climbed Dale Head in claggy conditions. I remember it fondly. But it is something that would not be permitted today, for two Scouters with no Mountain Leader certification or formal training to take 16 young Scouts on a hike like that.

From Bow Fell, descending carefully, I went down to Three Tarns, where I saw that fellow again with his young son. I was most careful going downhill, though it seemed straightforward enough. I became aware that having climbed Bow Fell half a dozen times at least, I’d never come down this route, only up it. From Bow Fell, at a little after 2pm, I went down The Band, increasingly footsore, until I found myself very slow and very tired at Stool End Farm, about 3.30pm. A child was playing in the farmyard as I passed through, and my hike was over.

The geeky stuff

On day 1 I walked 9.57km; on day 2, 24.46km, and on day 3, I walked 14.28km, to a total of 48km in just a bit less than 21 hours total. On the second day, the 24km was taken over 9 hours and 49 minutes and involved four separate ascents, three from the road.

I used an Osprey Aether Pro 70 which weighed 14kg laden with no food or water. Add to that around 3.7kg of water, 900g of beer and all my food, means that at the start I was packing somewhere between 20kg and 21kg. This is a lot less than I was carrying with my previous rucsac which was about 10 litres larger but a good deal heavier. I’ve written about this before.

I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent, and used an Alpkit Skye High 700 4-season down bag, a silk liner, and a Thermarest self-inflating mattress. I used a small Trangia 27 and a small (750ml) metal bottle of bioethanol. I carried gloves and mittens (and used the gloves), a woolly hat and a sun hat (and used both), Goretex waterproof trousers (didn’t use) and Goretex gaiters (did use). I carried about 800g of Lithium battery power packs as well as a cellphone and a smart watch. Spare clothes, waterproof coat, fleece jacket, first aid kit, small pair of field glasses, and a few other bits and bobs, made up the kit list.

I found the Aether Pro too small for my purposes and the tent had to be strapped to the outside. But the extremely light weight of the Aether Pro carries all before it – I love that aspect of it. After a day or so I became adapt at re-packing and found things fitted better, and eventually the tent fitted inside. I have not yet had the Aether Pro out in heavy weather, so I don’t know how waterproof it is without a rain cover.

“No adjective for terror” – I am Legend

I found and read a copy of Richard Mattheson’s “I am Legend”. This is the 1950’s pulp fiction novel that was made into the 2007 Will Smith film of the same name. Towards the end of the book the hero notes that “he has no adjective for terror”. This struck me deeply, and I looked into it. What the man meant was that terror was so much part of his everyday life that it excited no comment, no adjective, and certainly no superlative. His life was so terrible, so full of terror, that the terribleness of it was quite literally unremarkable.

There is a lesson for us all here in the West, where to a degree, thus far in recent times at least, the reverse has been true. Our lives in general are not terrible. Today, in the West, terror is not everyday and unremarkable; it is exceptionally rare and very remarkable indeed.

But I got to thinking in particular about water, and also about life in general in a country like the UK where there is respect for the rule of law. We do not generally use adjectives to describe drinking water – or at least, not too often. Water is water. It is mere; it is taken for granted. There is, in the West, no “good” water nor “bad” water; there is merely water. In general, water is just water. It has no adjective. We have an implicit understanding in the West that water is always good, it is something that we have always completely took for granted.

I’m reminded of one of Freya Stark’s stories; on a yacht off Arabia sometime in the 1930’s, she welcomes an Arab on board, and the Arab drinks some water in her cabin. “What sweet water” he says – of the tanked water on a yacht! So accustomed, is this Arab, to water of widely different and perhaps much poorer quality, that he considers the water served to him by Ms Stark, to be “sweet”.

As with water, so with the rule of law. We  take it for granted that we can (at least in broad daylight in the leafy suburbs, not of the hours of darkness in some of our big cities) leave our houses and walk abroad without being armed. This quality of life, brought to us by the rule of law, is quite literally unremarkable. It has no adjective. We ought be thankful that this is so, and long may it continue.

Magnum at Islington Assembly Halls

I’ve been listening to Magnum since the 1980’s. I first heard their single “Invasion” played off a cassette tape at a Venture Scout camp sometime around 1982, and I never looked back. Then, some years later, I heard and then bought their album “Chase the Dragon” with its opening song “Soldier of the line”. To this day, “Soldier of the line” still blows me away. Overblown, portentous and pompous dungeons-and-dragons style heavy metal music at its very best! Strictly speaking I think “melodic hard rock” is the more correct term – that probably just means heavy metal with keyboards.

In recent years I’ve been getting back into 1980’s rock music, whilst not neglecting other more modern musical genres. I can listen to classic old heavy metal, for example Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye”, as easily as I can to Linkin Park, Eminem, Faithless, Madonna or the Indigo Girls. And so it was that I bought myself a ticket to a rock concert, and on a blustery grey late winter evening, took myself off by train to Highbury and Islington, to see Magnum.

I came out the tube station and oriented myself, and set off. I do like the inner city; it is almost a “guilty pleasure”. Almost it were, I should feel bad, because I like the atmosphere – the seedy kebab shops, the little minicab offices, the harshly lit open-all-hours grocers, the rejuvenated Greek restaurants with little tables outside. People bustling up and down – couriers, workers going home, people out for the evening. I passed the venue on the opposite side, and walked on for a mile or so before turning back in the gathering darkness. There’s something about a city at dusk that attracts me, especially London.

Entering the venue, I find myself in a queue of older men and a smaller handful of women. There’s a fair amount of facial hair on show. Everyone is polite. Once inside, I found the bar and had a pint of some Italian lager in a plastic glass. Leaning against the bar, wearing a leather hat, I felt like Paul Hogan in the old Fosters advert: “Do you know any Rolf Harris, mate?” NO. “Looks like it’s gonna be a good night…”

The opening act were a two-piece called Theia, from Burton-on-Trent. I gave them the time of day because they were from my neck of the woods. Harmless; a drummer and a guitarist singer who was in good voice. It’s great to see new people being supported and championed. Not so much them supporting Magnum, as Magnum supporting them.

The main support act were a six-piece called VEGA, very much in the melodic hard rock tradition. Quite listenable though there is a limit to how much of this kind of thing I can take in one evening. There was a tendency for this vocalist (and the first vocalist too for that matter) to sound to me a bit like Jon Bon Jovi. Their final song was great; I was listening to it thinking, this has a great Def Leppard groove…at which point I became aware that they were covering Def Leppard’s “Animal”…

Bob Catley and Magnum came on and opened with a crowd-pleaser, their single “Days of no trust”. They followed this with “Lost on the road to Eternity”, and then the opening song to their new album, “The Monster roars”. Guitarist Tony Clarkin is Magnum’s lyricist, and I’ve been an admirer of his work most of my adult life. In “The Monster roars” you hear the words “stark reality“…these words also appear in their classic song “How Far Jerusalem” – “In stark reality/thy will be done/for you, for them, for me.” It’s interesting to me to see writers re-using ideas and concepts over and over again.

A bit over half-way through, the keyboard introduction to their classic “Les Morts Dansant” rang out and the crowd went wild. This opened the part of the set consisting of very much older material. And unfortunately, “very much older” is also a description of all of us and not excepting Bob Catley’s voice. I had been in conversation earlier with a fellow fan, who reckoned that voices could fail as one grows older, and singing in a different key might be an answer. “Les Morts Dansant” though a great song, was too much for Bob Catley’s vocal chords to really give of their best tonight. They followed this with – by no means tongue-in-cheek – “Rockin’ Chair” – i ain’t ready for no rockin’ chair. Like Jethro Tull, we may be too old to rock-n-roll but too young to die…we’ll see about that. One may hope…

Then there was “Vigilante”, and during this song unfortunately I had to leave in order to get home in time. That ain’t rock-n-roll but it is working for a living. A shame to have missed the last three songs in the set. (I found out that these were “Kingdom of Madness” from right back in the 1970’s, “On a storyteller’s night”, and “Sacred hour” from the Chase the Dragon LP.) All told, a great night: great value, great fun, great rock-n-roll.

David

Samuel said “The Lord sees not as a man sees: the Lord looks on the heart” 1 Sam.16:7

When he was anointed as a youth, David was a shepherd boy of good family, the youngest of eight sons. He “had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (16:12). As a shepherd he fought lions and bears to defend his father’s sheep (17:36) and he must have had plenty of time for prayer and for lute practice. Samuel the prophet risked his life anointing David. The Spirit of God was upon David from the moment he was anointed (16:13). As a youth David then worked for Saul as a court musician. Then there was the matter of the encounter with Goliath (ch. 17). After that, of course, David’s stock at court rose considerably. He was able to marry the king’s daughter Michal. He became close friends with the kings son Jonathan. And everywhere David went, in everything he did, he met with success. This was because God was with him (18:14). Saul became jealous, even as David became more and more esteemed by the people (18:16). They fell out and Saul tried to kill David several times (18:11, 19:1).

David fled, aided by his close friend Jonathan. He became the leader of a band of rebels and adventurers (22:1). He sent his parents into exile in Moab to protect them (22:3). David prayed to, and enquired of, the Lord (23:4 etc). Saul’s attempts to kill him continued, interrupted by war with the Philistines.  But in all of this conflict, David was careful never to let Saul be harmed or raise a hand against Saul.

Eventually he could take it no longer and fled to work for one of the kings of the Philistines (chapter 27.) But war broke out again between Israel and the Philistines. The Philistine generals didn’t trust David at all and sent him away (29:9).  David and his band trudged back to their base at Ziklag, but when they got there, they found it burnt and raided by desert raiders, and their families kidnapped (30:1). David was at rock bottom here. He was “greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him…but he strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” (30:6). His prayers were answered in full. They recovered their families and property, and even got loads of plunder from the raiders. (30:18-19).

Meanwhile, in the war with the Philistines, King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle. You might think David would rejoice at this, as his enemy was finally dead. But no – they mourned deeply (2 Sam. 1:11). David sang: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!” 2 Sam. 1:19

After Saul’s death, David became king over the Tribe of Judah, based at Hebron, for seven years. During this time there was civil war between his party and that of Saul. Abner, the leading politician of Saul’s party, defects to David, and delivers the other tribes into his hands. Three of David’s nephews – the sons of his sister Zeruiah – are introduced to us. David’s complex and stormy relationship with them persists to his deathbed – and theirs. Abner kills one of them, and in return, the two remaining brothers kill Abner. But David is astute: he positions himself well, carefully avoiding getting the blame for this killing, and he remains popular with the people. David is diplomatic and sure-footed, and sometimes acts in a counter-cultural way to do what he sees as right. He was crowned king over all Israel aged 37, and reigned for 33 years.

His first act as king of Israel was to attack and win the fortress of the Jebusites, the city called Jerusalem. He lived in it subsequently and it became known as the “City of David” (5:9). God was with David (5:10). He had military success, and became more and more powerful.

His second act was to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. Initially, he acted impetuously, and he did not do it God’s way. A man died as a result (6:7). But, David learned the lesson: doing it God’s way is costly. (6:13). He worshipped with all his heart, mind, soul and body. If you were to read just ONE chapter about God, about David, and about what we can learn from his life, it should be 2 Samuel 6.

He decided to build a temple, and it was made clear to him that he should not do so – it would be for his son after him, to do that. But God made a covenant with David, that his kingdom, his house, would endure for ever. This is why Jesus is sometimes referred to as the “Son of David”, as he fulfils this promise.

David went from strength to strength (8) – everything he turned his hand to went well. Then came the matter of Bathsheba. Nathan the prophet was told by God what had happened, and brought God’s terrible punishment down on David’s family.  But the Lord took away his sin. (11:13). Later David showed his remarkable ability to change his heart and mind – to repent, in effect – that is in my view a key to his being a “man after God’s own heart”. (11:15-23).

David for all his greatness as a warrior-king, statesman etc, was no father. His sons were a mess; spoilt and arrogant sons of privilege. His beautiful son Absalom killed one of his own brothers, and later conspired against his own father. David had to flee for his life. Even then David could see no wrong in him and mourned when his enemy, his son, was killed – stabbed when he was caught in a tree by his long hair. His prime minister, his very able nephew Joab, told the mournful king to put his house in order, wash his face, and face the people – and again, David repented and moved forward.

Things started to fall apart: there was rebellion after rebellion. There was famine, and endless war with the Philistines – God’s promise to David that blood would follow him after the matter of Bathsheba, was coming true. But in the midst of all this, a startling song of praise in chapter 22 (which is also Psalm 18). David was a man of contradictions.

One of the last things David did was to buy a threshing floor, with his own money (24:24) in order to build an altar. It was a significant threshing floor, because on that very site, David’s son Solomon built the Temple.

David’s life and greatness dribbled away into old age. His final act was to install his son Solomon (rather than another of his sons) on the throne, as a shrewd means to avoid more civil war. On his deathbed, he encouraged Solomon to exact revenge over Joab, his nephew. (1 Kings 1:5-6). But in spite of all that…

God testified concerning David: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ Acts 13:22

Red sky at noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I saw this and I picked it up on the instant: Years ago I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “biography” of Jerusalem, and more recently, his non-fiction work on Stalin, “The Court of the Red Tsar”. A most readable and engaging writer, and Russia is a subject of abiding interest to me.

This book is the second of a trilogy, but it stands up well as a novel on its own. I found it a deeply human story, celebrating the worth of individuals, very much in the style of Alan Furst’s novels about pre-World War II Europe. And yet, the story encompasses one of the titanic struggles of all history, that between Stalin and Hitler on the great steppes of western Russia.

Great opening lines matter. William Gibson opens his novel Neuromancer with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Simon Sebag Montefiore opens here: “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire”…how could you not be hooked by that opening line?

He does does not shrink from the full horror of war on the Eastern Front. Yet, he manages to draw into his characters, qualities of humanity and gentleness that, while perhaps testing one’s suspension of disbelief, provide an important emotional and individual counterpoint to that titanic collective struggle.

Here we read of a political officer or “politruk”, an unpleasant fellow like all his kind, giving his life (though perhaps inadvertently) to save the life of a Jewish comrade. We read of the dictator Stalin, murderer of tens of millions of innocents, working himself to exhaustion to save Mother Russia from destruction at the hands of the Germans. Here we read of a man’s live saved several times over, because of his relationship with his horse.

This is the only book I’ve ever read other than the pretty much non-serious war novels of Sven Hassel, that mentions the dreadful German war criminal Oskar Dirlewanger. He has a small and unimportant part to play in this work. But of him we will write no more: over some of the deepest evils committed on the Eastern Front, a veil ought be drawn.

This then, is the story of a brief love affair between an Italian woman and a Russian man. It is the tale of a huge and complex intelligence operation almost ruined by a well-meaning man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the story of a man who somehow survived the GULAG. It is a story about prison and about war, and love and about combat, and primarily, about Russia, about the Cossacks and the Don steppes.

A trip to Bergen – January 2020

The Bar Amundsen at the Grand Terminus Hotel, Bergen

I’m sat by the fire, and slightly too warm in consequence, in this quintessentially civilised bar, all dark wood and deep seats, high ceilings and a crackling fire. It is slightly too busy and this is the only table free. This room could be in England or Scotland. It is a renowned whisky bar although God only knows what the merest shot of whisky would cost here in Bergen. I’ve had a rather excellent burger served with new potatoes, which, oddly, worked well, and pleasant conversation with a work colleague: I’m still here on business for the moment.

After supper I went for a walk in light rain. The rain rose to a crescendo towards the end of my walk, wetting my woollen coat, my umbrella, the legs of my trousers and my shoes. All was dry by morning, although for some reason I slept ill.

Next day, an excellent breakfast in a well-appointed but hard to find dining room. I could wish it were snowing – it was raining too hard for me to carry my bag round to my next hotel, the Hanseatisk Hotel. I’m staying here on business, drawing a clear line under the business part of my trip, and staying henceforth at the Hanseatisk Hotel with my wife.

The Festnings (Fortress) Museum

We never thought about it, it was completely natural. We had to set our country free” – Johannes Hellend (in Bergens Tidende, a newspaper.) Interesting to note the use of the word “tidende” in Norwegian, rendered in English as “newspaper”. Think of the archaic English word “tidings” and reflect on where it came from…)

A remarkable and moving visit to this Fortress Museum, which I found, if that were possible, more moving even, than the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A chance to reflect on war and crisis, and our response to them both – both our personal response and our collective response. What would WE do? What would I do? What would any of us do? Not so easy to consider when you read a graphical description of what a person looks like after five weeks in the hands of the Gestapo.

“I will live”

The Norwegians are a remarkable bunch of people and generally supportive of the English. They are very forward-looking on democracy and human rights. My wife and I spent a considerable and wonderful time allowing the museum concierge, a friendly fellow in his sixties, to talk to us. I need now, after this museum, to read some form of summary of WWII in Norway. The concierge recommended a book, but I cannot now recall what it was! We experienced a moment’s peace in a modern, anodyne canteen, with a picture of Kongenes Norge on the wall, before moving on to the Mariakirche – St. Mary’s church.

Floybanen

A trip to Bergen should include a trip on the Floiban funicular railway. We went up the railway and had a good walk round on the mountaintop before riding down again in the dusk to take supper at a fine restaurant in the wooden Brygge section. I had reindeer; she had seafood. The English have to brace for impact when the bill – rekningen – arrives in Norway, but that’s just Norwegian prices. Embrace it – you can’t do nothing about it. Though it does take some getting used to…

On a catamaran on a “Fjord tour”

As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.

As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.

Munch

A visit to the museum of Munch. Munch proves to be a very innovative artist, a full century ahead of his time, creating selfies and video shorts in the 1930’s!! How will WE innovate, in art and craft, in life and in love? How do we break out of the box and abandon the rule book? Another area of innovation in this land, is that of bridge-building. Literally of course – these people build very advanced, very experimental bridges. But how will we build bridges to other people?

The Hanseatisk Hotel

I’ve written about this delightful wooden hotel before. Read my story Rekningen – it is not about the Hanseatic, but I wrote that story after staying here some years back. Staying here is productive to my creative life. Our daughter Josie discovered the place for us when researching a holiday for us back in 2015: We came and stayed, and it was great. Then, I came again and stayed here when I came to Bergen on business. To think of the times I have stayed at the very ordinary Scandic on the other side of the harbour, when I could have stayed here! https://www.dethanseatiskehotel.no

The Mariakirche

We visited the Mariakirche again. It was interesting to see white-haired old ladies in predominance. Where is REAL power? We are as a culture – as has been prophesied – kept afloat perhaps, by the prayers of white-haired old ladies. We owe our lives, perhaps, to our praying women. We went this morning to an Anglican Parish Communion which was literally (and refreshingly) “by the book”. It was a lovely service. The preacher spoke on John 1:35ff wherein the disciples, seeing Jesus passing, ask him “where are you staying?”. And Jesus tells them his address….NO!! He doesn’t tell them his address. He says, “COME AND SEE” – come and see for yourself where I live. Oddly, both the epistle and the gospel reading (though given in English) were both Scriptures I’d happened to read in Norwegian the previous evening.

After church a pleasant hour over coffee in a room nearby, talking with various people from the church. There were two distinct groups of people. Firstly, young foreigners mostly of oriental background, and secondly, white-haired English emigrants (my notes say “ex-pats” but the culturally more correct term is “emigrant”). Not all female, but mostly so. We spoke with a most delightful lady of 87, hailing from Sunderland, who had lived here with her Norwegian husband since the 1960’s. She was well-preserved and elegant; she was very open and most friendly. She told us her remarkable story of how she met her future husband whilst she was working as a cook on a yacht in Alicante. This elderly lady swam in the sea every day and accounted her continuing good health thereto. She told us that she was about to go into a time of three months when there would be no lifts in her apartment building. She had a dodgy knee, a dodgy heart and she was 87. What an example to us all!!

Afterwards, we took a walk in the upper, wooden streets, above the main town, taking a stop in a little park for cocoa and “vaffels”. Then, later, a sausage dog apiece from “the sausage shop”. This jam-garnished fast food marked the end of our holiday, and soon after, in the thickening dark of late afternoon, we took bus to the airport.

Fifty-two shades of…something better than grey

Well I’ve done it! I’ve read fifty-two books this year! I think I can be proud of that. Some of them I have even reviewed properly. We’ll not go through them all in excruciating detail here, but we will discuss broadly, my year’s reading. I never set out to read a book a week, but I did set out for sure, to read many dozens of books in the year.

Of the 52, 15 of them were in my Kindle – I can do both paper books and e-reading. Eight of the books were re-reads. A few of those only, will I highlight. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” which I re-read after seeing the film one Sunday afternoon. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” remains one of my favourite reads, being an account of a man who dreamt of going on a day trip to Heaven – from a certain another place. Another re-read was R.A Heinlein’s “The moon is a harsh mistress”, at one level, a story about a rebellion in a prison colony in 2075: at another, the greatest manifesto for libertarian political views, you will ever read. Eighteen of the 52 books were fiction – an oddly low number, although it just means that my interests have been well satisfied by non-fiction.

I started the year reading Dr J.H. B Bell’s “A progress in mountaineering”. Bell, as a 16-year old in 1910, cycled 47 miles from Newtonmore to the foot of Ben Nevis, and climbed Nevis alone. And then he cycled back 47 miles again: the account does not make it clear if he cycled 90+ miles in hobnail boots, or if he climbed Nevis in plimsolls. What seems clear, is that when compared with our elders, we have become a nation of wuss.

I enjoyed Jonathan Nicholls’ “Kittyhawk down”, a well-researched story about RAF pilots in the Western desert during WWII. In February I also read Murray Rothbard’s short pamphlet “The Anatomy of the State” (Murray Rothbard also wrote “The fatal conceit” about the errors of socialism), and a book called “The road to Mecca” by Muhammed Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who later became a senior diplomat for the government of Pakistan. In March I read Robert Winder’s “The hidden springs of Englishness”, and started Neil Sheehan’s “A bright shining lie” reviewed here – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one.

My sister sent me an old copy of Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” about an overweight man who turned his life around and became one of the fittest ultra-marathon runners in the world. As much for the appendices on plant-based diet, did I find that book interesting. William Wordsworth’s original travel guide to the Lake District proved oddly relevant centuries after it was written. Having tried and failed to source a copy of Varlam Shalamov’s rare Kolyma Tales, instead I read Hugo Jacek-Bader’s excellent “Kolyma diaries” and “White fever”, about travels in Eastern Russia – startling stuff about a very different world.

I read some science-fiction: Amongst others, Paul McAuley (“The war of maps”), Iain M Banks (“The Algrebraist” – again), an old Keith Laumer novel and two works of the modern writer Adrian Tchaikovsky. Also Heinlein – “Glory Road” (is that even sci-fi??) and “Harsh mistress” as already mentioned. Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I review here.

I read three books about India: Shashi Tharoor’s (perhaps understandably) bitter and twisted “Inglorious Empire”, William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company entitled “The Anarchy”, and finally Katie Hickman’s “She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India”. All very informative and enabling one to gain a more accurate perspective of world history. The lesson from Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire” is that bitterness and negativity, however arguably justifiable, is deeply unattractive.

I have read much about America: I am a fan of America. I believe in what America stands for, though it seem to be in trouble in these times and full of vice and failings. Robert Kaplan’s “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World”, reviewed here, proved very interesting at the start but perhaps a little disingenous towards the end. A great interest of mine is American history, particularly the westward expansion. I read Bernard Devoto’s; “1846: the year of decision” and John Anthony Caruso’s “The Appalachian Frontier” , was well as several of Dee Brown’s books – one on the Fetterman Massacre, the other on women in the wild west. Dee Brown’s greatest and most famous book, all should read: that is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, an account of the destruction of the native American tribes.

Later in the year I read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried” – the Vietnam war as seen through the lens of what soldiers carried with them. One soldier carried a pair of his girlfriend’s tights as a neckscarf, and wore them even after she dumped him. Also, I read Stephen Hough’s “The Great War at sea” – most informative – and Alice Roberts’ “Tamed – ten species that changed our world”. Self-explanatory title there, and rather a lot of detailed biology which I had to skip.

I read Ed Husain’s troubling account of journeys in certain cities in the UK – “Among the mosques”. In order to get published, Ed Husain has to be upbeat and positive about what is happening with Islam in the United Kingdom today, but I find that he can’t possibly be as naive as he comes across in his writing. A deeply worrying travelogue.

Tim Butcher wrote “Blood River”. The age of great explorers, opines one of the reviewers, is not dead. Butcher attempts with only partial success to navigate overland by motorcycle and boat, from the eastern Congo through to the Atlantic coast. The Congo is a messed-up place, and it is deeply messed up for a number of very complicated reasons. It will get worse – much worse. Certain important minerals essential for modern Lithium-ion batteries, required for what some people call “the energy transition”, are most easily sourced in the Congo. In the coming decades the extraction of those minerals, to salve the western conscience and enable electric cars, will do as much damage to Africans in the Congo as King Leopold ever did in his extraction of rubber in the early 20th century.

I read a useful and informative biography of Sir William Stanier by the ever-readable and prolific railway author O.S Nock. This one I found in an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. I read Ryzard Kapuchinsky’s “Imperium” about Soviet Russia – including an unforgettable two-page interlude on how to make peach brandy. What drives my reading, is this – not what is in plain view, but what is not. Sometimes something tangential – a fact or anecdote of paramount importance or of deep interest, is almost literally found “in between the lines”.

I ended the year with David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”. This is a brilliant account of the Korean War. Another great Pulitzer prize winning author covering vast sweeps of American culture and history. Though some of the descriptions of battles are a little too detailed for me, what made the book is the wide arc of history, the bigger picture. In a book about Korea, I learned much about the “New Deal” and the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt. I learned about changes to domestic politics in the USA that are still very much of importance today. I learned about McCarthyism, and also about Douglas MacArthur – a horribly fascinating, perhaps deservedly reviled, but nonetheless important 20th century figure. What’s it like to have no self-doubt at all? Lack of self-doubt is not one of my qualities.

Earlier in the year, I chanced across Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt’s “Just for the record”, being an autobiography of Status Quo. This rock autobiography was a disappointment for me; it was potentially great story written in the most perfunctory manner. You would think that lyricists could write! No, obviously not. One thing I recall though is Rick Parfitt writing of himself as a teenager (when his guitar teacher patronised him) “No-one calls me laddie“. See my point above about lack of self-doubt.

Over Christmas I was given “Rainbow in the dark”, the autobiography of Ronnie James Dio. We learn that as a boy he swore to himself that one day he would headline at Madison Square Garden, in his own name – and he did! A readable enough tale of ambition fulfilled, of the virtues of hard work and persistence, and of some of the other less agreeable habits of rock ‘n roll stars. Reading it, I’d like also to read a biography of the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, if and when such a book becomes available.

This is for balance, for unfortunately, Dio’s account of those years is somewhat self-serving. It is a shame, for I regard him as a great lyricist, and the distinctive sound of his voice, be it in the heavy metal music of Rainbow, or Black Sabbath, formed a background to my youth.

The full list here:

Chris Anderson The official TED guide to public speaking
Paul McAuley The war of maps
J. H B Bell A Progress in mountaineering
Iain M Banks The Algebraist
Jonathan Nicholls Kittyhawk Down
Murray Rothbard Anatomy of the state
Muhammed Asad The road to Mecca
Robert Winder The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Adrian Tchaikovsky Cage of souls
Nicholas Monsarrat The Cruel Sea
C.S Lewis The Great Divorce
Neil Sheehan A bright shining lie
Jacek Hugo-Bader Kolyma Diaries
Rich Roll Finding Ultra
William Wordsworth The Lakes
Keith Laumer Doorstep
Jacek Hugo-Bader White Fever
Shashi Tharoor Inglorious Empire
Robert D. Kaplan Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World
Ryzard Kapuchinsky Imperium
Dee Brown The Fetterman Massacre
Bernard Werber Empire of the ants
William Smethurst Writing for television
William Dalrymple The Anarchy
Sven Hassel Court Martial
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Bernard DeVoto 1846:The year of decision
Len Deighton Blitzkrieg
Dee Brown The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West
John Anthony Caruso The Appalachian Frontier
Larry McMurtry Lonesome dove
Larry McMurtry Dead man’s walk
Larry McMurtry Comanche Moon
Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt Just for the record – autobiography of Status Quo
Michael Bonavia The birth of British Rail
R.A Heinlein Glory Road
R.A Heinlein The moon is a harsh mistress
O.S Nock William Stanier
Katie Hickman She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India
Stephen Longstreet War cries on horseback
George Orwell Animal Farm
Ed Husain Among the mosques
Richard Hough The Great War at sea
Tim O’ Brien The things they carried
Tim Butcher Blood River
C.S Lewis That Hideous Strength
O.S Nock The Settle and Carlisle railway
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of time
Alice Roberts Tamed – ten species that changed our world
Jeff Long Deeper
David Halberstam The coldest winter: America and the Korean war
Ronnie James Dio Rainbow in the dark

Working at home – top tips

We’ve been working from home for twenty months now and it will be two years or more before it ends, if not more. For fifteen years before the lockdown, I was a Home Counties commuter up to offices in central London. Over those years, the biggest change I have seen would be that we take for granted today the availability of robust IT technology that enables us to efficiently deliver office-based services remotely from almost anywhere in the world.  

Some years ago I happened to fly to Aberdeen on business. I arrived at LHR and got to the security check: “please put your laptop in a separate tray“…laptop…laptop? LAPTOP? Arghh! My laptop was not present. But we had at that point, cloud-based IT systems that enabled me, without a laptop, to flawlessly deliver what my employer was flying me to Aberdeen to deliver. I was able to do this with no more hassle than logging into some other internet-connected computer. It was literally trivial. Today, changes have been forced over the last two years by the Coronavirus pandemic, that render the physical office itself barely relevant at all.

But we still have to work for a living. Working from home is not straightforward; it’s not obvious how to do it properly, and there are very good reasons why it is not always appropriate. This is something I believe: anything that blurs the distinction between work and rest, plays into the hands of the employer, not the employee. When Dilbert’s “pointy-haired boss” talks about “work-life integration” rather than “work-life balance”, that really is too true to be funny. Two things that blur the distinction between work and rest, both highly thought of by employees, both a potential minefield or poison chalice. Working from home is one of them. The other is the practice of “dress down Friday”, which we won’t go into here.

My top tips for working at home:

  1. GET UP
  • Maintain disciplined hours: get up more or less at the same time as you would have done if you were commuting to the office.
  • Dress properly – whilst slippers or bare feet is fine, for me, my clothes should be smart weekend casual at least – make an effort. I think a good rule of thumb is, if you needed to change to leave the house to go out for lunch, you’re probably not appropriately dressed.

2. START WORK, DO WORK, FINISH WORK

  • As far as possible have set hours for work, and follow them. Put the hours in. Keeping a record of hours to make sure you do, might be worthwhile, but don’t be a slave to the timesheet.
  • Try to avoid blurring work and rest.  Start work at a certain time, take breaks, take a lunch break away from your desk. 
  • As far as possible – and realistically it’s perfectly possible – finish work at a set time.
  • Don’t return to your desk “after hours” in the evening or at weekends – office hours is office hours.  At the end of the day you are the one granting permission to work evenings or weekends. Not your boss, your spouse, not your kids….YOURSELF. 
  • Do work
    • Have a written list of tasks for each day, do those tasks. Put a line through a task when it is done: make your work day about achieving small, discrete objectives, each one of them contributing to the greater objective of doing your job properly.
    • Don’t be afraid to close your door if you’re lucky enough have a door or a separate room to work in, and to make it clear that you’re busy and not to be disturbed.
    • Have breaks: make coffee, hang out the washing, talk to other people in your house, walk the dog, be flexible.
    • Acknowledge that you’ll have good and bad days: Not all days are good storming days; some days are bad days. It happens; roll with it. A storming productive day can often be followed by a slower, less productive day: it all averages out.
  • Finish work
    • Close down your work computer
    • Put your work equipment (laptop, papers etc.) away at the end of the working day – if you have the space, conceal it. Put it in a cupboard or somewhere it can’t be seen.
    • Mark the end of the working week with some small ritual or ceremony. For me this is a walk into town to buy a bottle of beer and a bag of crisps. It could be a take-away, or a movie night, or a longer walk, or whatever.
    • Try to avoid drinking alcohol on week nights – keeping off the alcohol in the week means the weekend becomes something a little more special.

3. LOOK AFTER YOURSELF

  • Create!! Do something different Engage your left brain. Do something that is not analytical, something that is not your work. It might be drawing, gardening, painting, sewing, cooking, learning a language, studying a subject, playing a musical instrument, doing a jigsaw. It might even be ironing! Anything is allowed so long as it’s different.
  • Be outdoors for some of every day. Ideally in daylight though this may be difficult in winter. Ideally alone though this may be tricky for parents! Get yourself some headspace.
  • Get plenty of exercise as clearly distinct from just a walk around the block. This is vigorous aerobic exercise 2-3 times a week.
  • Keep on eye on the calories: Don’t eat and drink more than you body can deal with.  A modern western diet is so high in calories that in a home-based “office” lifestyle if you’re not careful your weight will slowly and inexorably increase.

In all of these rules, don’t be a slave to rules, and do whatever works for you.

Under the apple tree – a concert at Cadogan Hall

Yesterday to London, to see a concert at Cadogan Hall. We took train in the grey afternoon at 1623, accompanied mostly by homebound schoolchildren. We dawdled a little near Victoria. We popped into the “Turkmen Gallery“, a wonderful, rich, deeply colourful shop on Ecclestone Street that is quite literally an Aladdin’s cave of carpets and artifacts from central Asia. Then we went for an early supper at the Thomas Cubitt on Elizabeth Street. My wife had the fish pie, and I chose the fish and chips in order to try the “triple cooked chips”, which did indeed live up to high expectations. We shared a dessert as the light faded outside and the nearby shops lit up.

Thence through the gloaming towards Sloane Square and Cadogan Hall. The hall is a rather beautiful former church, built in the early 20th century, tastefully converted into a venue with 900 seats. It is the home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and hence a venue with a rich and deep musical tradition.

This concert was hosted by “Whispering” Bob Harris, the DJ, under his https://www.undertheappletree.co.uk/ brand “bringing attention to amazing artists who deserve to be heard by everyone”. I confess that whilst of course I’ve heard of Bob Harris, I’ve never listened to his programmes. In person an affable older gent, he introduced four very different artists: Judie Tzuke, Jamie Lawson, Emily Barker, and Catherine McGrath. The four of them came and sat in a semi-circle on the stage. Judie Tzuke and Catherine McGrath were accompanied by professional guitarists, although the latter did play guitar herself.

They each sang in turn, and the rest of the time, sitting politely and listening. They spoke of it being the first time they had played live since COVID-19 changed everything. Their singing was delightful; there was no bad nor weak song in the entire set. I think each artist sang four times.

Judie Tzuke sang clear and bright. Jamie Lawson spoke rough and ready and a little vulnerable, perhaps, but his singing voice blew the room away and to be honest, for me, he stole the show – even in such august company. A very powerful and distinctive voice. Emily Barker is also a powerful and distinctive singer whose voice soared out into the hall. We saw her play at a benefit gig at a church in rural Surrey some years back, and well I remember her voice from that night. Catherine McGrath proved to be a listenable and engaging Country music singer, clear and sweet in tone, a daughter of the Emerald Isle.

All the songs were accompanied by some outstanding and exceptional guitar. Notwithstanding Jamie Lawson noting in a self-deprecatory tone that he “only knew three chords” his playing, and perhaps that of Emily Barker, stood out for me – but that’s not to do down the other players. As a guitarist myself I found all the guitaring excellent, inspirational and encouraging. Bob Harris did note at the end that Country music has advertised itself as “three chords and the truth”. It was ever true that most modern guitar-based pop and rock music is just three chords – but that misses the nuance and technical brilliance of some of the arrangements we heard tonight.

In conclusion, this was a great show, with four very different artists singing a range of very special songs. I was touched by the relaxed, accessible, normalness of the artists – not megastars, but people who sing and play for a living to bring pleasure and joy to others. If I took anything away as stand-out special, it would firstly be Jamie Lawson’s powerful singing voice – particularly when he got passionate and really let go – and Emily Barker’s songs: her guitar arrangements and sweet singing. A great night out for a first after the time we have been through.