Going round in circles – with a stick

Thank you to the two people who responded to my few paragraphs last time and said they would like me to continue with the story. As this is a surprisingly high number of people even reading my posts, let alone responding positively, I am going to give it a shot. But that will take some time. For now, I am going to tell you about talking circles.

Most talking goes round in circles, of course. But occasionally someone gets excited about traditional ways of discussing things, and even more occasionally that person will set up a talking circle. More occasionally still, she will persuade other people to take part.

I took part in one of these the other day. I don’t know why, except that the person who asked was very persistent. (While we’re on that subject, can I remind all young people, particularly my grandchildren, that being persistent is the key to success: being talented is helpful, being lucky even more so, but being persistent is absolutely vital. You won’t believe this until you’re my age and regretting everything you didn’t do, or try, or finish.)

Anyway, we were sitting round in this circle, like Native Americans. That was the easy bit. If we wanted to speak, we had to pick up a stick, which someone had found on a beach. I don’t think the beach is essential, but apparently the stick is. You can’t talk if you don’t have the stick.

You can’t pick up the stick unless you have something to say – unless you are keen on meditation, in which case you can pick up the stick and think for a while, presumably because you have a burning desire to say something, though you don’t know what.

I don’t think that was in the rules; that’s just what happened. Incidentally, isn’t it strange how many people who love silent meditation can’t stop talking, or wanting to talk?

Anyway, this went on for some time, and some of what people said was quite interesting, though I suspect not in the way the person who organised it wanted it to be. Still, it was a circle, and the people on the circumference just went round and round, like bicycle wheels but without the helmets.

There is a flaw in all this, of course, and it’s not punctures (though I suppose that could happen). The main flaw is that the people who like talking talk, and the people who don’t much like talking, or can’t reach the stick, remain silent. The stick had a definite attraction to certain people, like a magnet.

That was all right for us, though, because we were told that what was really important was listening. Presumably in that case picking up the stick was self-sacrificial, because then you had to talk and couldn’t listen.

I hope I’m not making this sound complicated. The other important thing is to set a time when you have to finish. We did that. That worked well.

Something absolutely wrong

Over the years, I’ve started writing many works of fiction and finished a few. The other day I came across this one. These are the first four paragraphs. Do you think it’s worth continuing?

Sally-Anne McTell was born clinging to wreckage. The wreckage in this case was her mother, Wendy, who had been abandoned on a beach by her boyfriend, Roger, seven months through her pregnancy. Many of her friends saw this as a despicable, cowardly move on his part, because Wendy had a hard time struggling back through the soft sand and on to the promenade. Roger’s friends saw it as justified desperation, because Wendy was a pessimist – not just looking on the black side of things, but on the even blacker side of the blackness. She did not see how anything could possibly turn out well. In her experience, it never did.

“It’s all right for you,” she told an incredulous Roger. “You can go out to work. I’ll have to look after it every day. I’ve got a degree, you know. It will probably be ill, or brain-damaged.”

Roger said he did not believe brain damage was hereditary, and in any case the child might with any luck take after its father. This may have been a mistake. In response, Wendy detailed at length the ways in which she hoped the child would not turn out to be like its father, and Roger decided he wanted nothing more to do with either of them. His flat was empty by the weekend, and his sickly white saloon car was never seen in Norfolk again.

All of which was rather ironic, because the father of Wendy’s child was in fact a geography teacher who had met her one night in a pub on the seafront when Roger was in Peterborough. As they were both drunk at the time, neither of them remembered having sex behind the Marina Centre, though Wendy was puzzled to find sand in her stilettos the next day. As Wendy was in the habit of sleeping with Roger, she naturally assumed he was the father. In fact, he was sterile, but he did not find this out until much later, when he was living in Camden, Maine, with an optimistic waitress called Camille…


Norfolk chess star publishes games collection

An unexpected phone call recently led to an enjoyable visit  from Mike Read, one of Norfolk’s top chess players – but one who achieved his peak performances in a specialised form of the game.

Mike is a Senior International Master in correspondence chess. His results have always been exceptional, and eventually he played on top board for England in the Olympiad team. For health reasons he stopped playing at around the turn of the century and switched his attention to annotating games for the Norfolk chess magazine, En Passant.

Now he has produced a book of 120 of his correspondence games, all annotated entertainingly  by himself: he must be unique in not using one of the top chess computer engines to assist him, but his comments are almost always spot on and often profound.

I have known Mike since he was at school and started playing over-the-board chess, at which he also excelled. So I was delighted when he presented his book to me, and even more delighted when I started playing through the games, which demonstrate his clear, satisfying style.

One of his heroes is former world champion Bobby Fischer, whose opening preference he shares (“1 P-K4, best by test”); another is Norfolk’s over-the-board chess star Owen Hindle of Cromer, an England international who won the Norfolk chess championship in a record five decades. When I was at school, and just after, I used to play with Owen in the Norwich chess team Kings; one of my proudest achievements was to achieve a draw against him in a tournament match.

Mike, like Owen, does not brag about his considerable achievements in the world of chess and is always willing to share his skills with others. It was good to see him after a gap of several years.

Chess, by the way, is a beautiful game, easy to learn and worth exploring for purely artistic reasons. Mike’s book is called My 120 Selected Correspondence Games and is available from Amazon at a very reasonable £10.14.

Brief visit to snowy Barry Island

Having a certain fondness for Gavin and Stacey, I was not unhappy to journey down to Barry Island in South Wales on a snowy Sunday recently. The primary reason for going was to transport my wife to a Philosophy4Children training session at one of Barry’s schools (such sessions are highly recommended, if you happen to be a head teacher). Normally she would drive herself, but the weather was uncertain – not to say threatening. One of us might have to push the other out of a snowdrift, we thought.

As it happened, a thaw set in, and the roads were easily passable – even more easily than usual, because most people hadn’t got used to the idea of getting their cars out after several days of being snowed in. We drove merrily from Herefordshire into Wales, with picturesque views on all sides and nothing to impede our progress.

Barry itself was something else. There had been heavy snowfalls here, with a lot of thick whitish stuff sticking on to the roads, many of which were effectively single-track. This was also picturesque, but required some determination to handle. Nevertheless, we made it to Gail’s Guest House in good time.

After a meal, and while my wife and her colleague (arriving from Devon) prepared for the following day, I took a stroll round the dark streets, which were pretty much deserted. We were at the high point of Barry, and I was able to get some nice views out across the Channel, all the way to Somerset, with lights reflecting off snow.

The next day I walked round the cliff and on to the shore path back into Jackson’s Bay, helped a driver get out of a snow patch and discovered the small ruins of St Baruc’s Chapel, which were not spectacular. Apparently Barry is named after the saint, who drowned in the bay.

No, it wasn’t very lively, but it was a cold March day. Yes, some parts of the town were run down, but I liked it. I don’t know why.

We drove back to Norwich the next evening, which was probably a mistake. Someone had put some traffic lights on a roundabout on the way up to the M4, and as usual with such an arrangement, it had brought much of the traffic to a standstill. Then it started to rain, and it poured for most of the way home. We should have stayed at Gail’s.

After enduring the madness of a perversely named “smart motorway” (more of which, I understand, is going to affect part of the M6 near Coventry and make life even more difficult for drivers – but hey, who cares about them?), we pulled into Corley Services and received a Kentucky Fried Chicken  and chips from a young lad who didn’t really seem to have come to terms with the concept of service, or chicken, or chips.

From there it should have been a smooth run with the rain easing off, but no – someone had decided to resurface part of the A11, which of course meant shutting the road. We were diverted through Shropham, I think it was, following two funereal heavy lorries. Oh joy.

Still, Barry Island was almost worth it. I may go again. Oh, Gavin and Stacey? It’s a television programme. Very funny, too. Sorry you missed it.

Billy Graham and the reality of faith

American evangelists don’t get as good a press nowadays as they did when I was young. Any kind of assurance, blessed or not, is now greeted with suspicion – which makes it remarkable that so many people still have such good things to say about Dr Billy Graham, who died this month at the age of 99.

He preached conversion to vast numbers of people over the years. I was one of them, and I remember wanting to respond to his appeal to “get up out of your seats” when I attended his rally at Harringay in 1954, when I was about nine. But I was too shy to move.

Nevertheless I did become a Christian not long afterwards – just before my father died when I was ten and our family’s life was turned on its head.

A little more than 12 years after that, through a series of strange events involving a holiday in Somerset and an apparently chance meeting with a Scotsman, I actually moved to London from Norwich – surprising myself as much as anyone – and began work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

No, I wasn’t an apprentice preacher. I worked for a newspaper called The Christian – a very old British national weekly that the BGEA had just acquired. I was an editorial assistant, and I met some interesting people, including a Birmingham typist called Stephanie Drew who I encouraged to leave and become a nurse. Not one of my more far-sighted moves, though it proved good for her.

I even met Dr Graham on a couple of occasions, and I have to say that despite being my employer, he impressed me. I also made some friends who are still close, if you can call Ontario and Leyton close. Roger Murray, our wedding photographer, emigrated to Canada and through hard work became wildly successful as a publisher, photographer, artist and graphic designer. David Coomes because a producer at the BBC: The Moral Maze was one of his best-known programmes.

I left The Christian briefly to complete a degree at Birkbeck College, and while I was away the BGEA sold the paper and made its staff redundant. I don’t blame Billy Graham: I doubt that he knew much about it. But it was a sad loss. Eventually I found a job at the Acton Gazette in West London and from there a few years later moved back to Norwich and a job on the Eastern Daily Press. The rest is history. In fact, it’s all history.

But Dr Graham’s death brought it back. Am I as sure now as I was then? I think you get less sure of the details of life, the universe and everything as you get older, but I am just as sure of the essentials that Billy Graham preached and which I grasped firmly but often failed to live out. But that’s what Christianity is about: not being good, but being forgiven.

I owe as much now to another prominent Christian: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who I admire greatly for his intelligence, kindness and his deeply held faith. I think he, like Billy Graham, would echo the words of another bishop, Stephen Verney, as to what faith is all about:

“Faith is being grasped by a truth which confronts you and which is self-evident and overwhelming, and then trusting yourself to the reality which you now see.”

That’s not something that goes away.

Strange carvings at sunny Winterton

Winterton can be a bleak place, as the name might suggest. Placed strategically on Norfolk’s east coast at a point where the coastline finally decides to take the plunge and turn north-west, it is exposed to fierce winds, tides and storms, beating in from the North Sea.

The beach is open, and the village protected by an ever-shrinking line of dunes, sometimes transforming into a soft cliff, behind which hides a precarious but excellent cafe and open ground which serves as a car park. Oh, and some stern black fishermen’s huts – substantial and strong against the wind.

It is good walking country, those soft grass and sandy paths, and I have walked it for many years, going back to childhood holidays at the neighbouring village, Hemsby, more than half a century ago.

Bleak, yes, but often benign too. Last week, in the middle of many days of unpleasant weather (often very cold, often very wet), we woke to sunny skies and decided to drive from Norwich to Winterton – mainly to check on the damage caused by a recent storm.

We arrived to find that the expected wind was almost non-existent; what there was came from the ideal quarter – south-west. The January sun verged on the warm as we paid in the cafe for car parking and walked down on to the beach, avoiding the half-hearted tapes across the main paths.

We had seen pictures; so we knew what to expect. A recent storm had somehow created a wall of sand halfway up the beach, turning it into small cliff. Below the cafe, huge blocks of stone had been exposed, and holes carved out of the sand around and behind them. It was a startling picture because it was hard to see how it could have happened, but the power of wind and water can do strange things.

A mile or so further south the dunes have been gradually eroding, and holiday bungalows have fallen from their perches on to the beach. Like many beautiful places, it is fragile, on the edge.

We walked north for a while along the beach, and eventually the damage disappeared. Everything was back to normal: the sea dark but calm, with large gulls bobbing near the shore. Turning inland, we quickly reached the coast path and returned to the cafe for one of those excellent rolls and a surprisingly good cup of tea.

And we wondered how long it could all last.

The Pastons are coming. Oh yes they are!

This is Paston Year. You may have missed the announcement as the bells rang to usher it in, or maybe it was drowned by the sound of fireworks.

Perhaps you don’t live in Norfolk. Well, that is your bad luck. Norfolk has everything except mountains. Mountains, glaciers, penguins, deserts and … OK, the world is full of things that Norfolk doesn’t have. But we do have a beautiful coastline, lovely countryside, the Broads, a fine city, Keith Skipper and a very relaxed way of life. Oh, and the Pastons.

Exactly 600 years ago the first Paston Letter was written. The country at a literary level  was still steeped in French and Latin at the time, and the Paston Letters were among the first written in English, mostly in the 15th century. They were preserved in what might be described as a miraculous way – lost and then found, dispersed and then gathered together.

The Pastons themselves rose from being yeomen farmers in remote North-East Norfolk to court favourites during the time of the Wars of the Roses and beyond. They were often lawyers, and they married very astutely, gathering land and money, power and influence – often in the face of stiff opposition. Eventually they became Earls of Yarmouth and then – out of the blue – they lost everything. It’s a compelling story and one that will be told in many ways this year.

I have to confess an interest. I am a trustee of the Paston Heritage Society, which, together with the University of East Anglia, has been awarded a substantial sum by the Heritage Lottery Fund to run a three-year project involving nearly a dozen centres in the county.

This year the emphasis is on an extensive exhibition at St Peter Hungate Church in Norwich, which was the Pastons’ parish church when they lived in Elm Hill, perhaps the most picturesque street in the city. There will also be a prestigious exhibition at the Castle Museum – an exhibition shared with Yale University in America. It centres on the mysterious painting called The Paston Treasure.

If you are interested, you can read all about this elsewhere, primarily on the Paston website and Facebook page. You can get involved. In fact, please do. I mention it here because it is one of those important and fascinating things that sometimes don’t get the publicity they deserve.

You know – like Norwich City.

All not well with dire Bancroft

Television can be a dreadful waste of time, but good television is worth its weight in gold. This is what is known as a bad metaphor, because you can’t weigh broadcasting in the physical sense, but I think a bad metaphor sometimes says exactly what you mean. So there it is.

What television does really well, in a golden way, is drama. A good story told and acted well is a joy, and pretty much the only thing that makes me cry. There, I’ve said it.

I don’t cry out of sadness, but usually for one of three reasons: because someone has behaved in a way that is profoundly good; because love has triumphed against the odds; or because something unbelievably beautiful has occurred. As Lady Julian of Norwich almost said, we suddenly see that all is well, all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.

You may think that is a pretty high mark to aim at, but all good drama does this to a greater or lesser extent. Which is why I was so disappointed by the much-hyped Bancroft, recently aired on ITV.

“Disappointed” does not really get across the emotions I felt when the last episode reached its dire conclusion. Maybe “intensely annoyed”, “furious” and “very, very angry” come closer.

As human beings we have some basic needs. We need to see good triumph over evil, love and forgiveness conquer fear, and innocence prevail over corruption. Because this does not always happen in everyday life, we need to see it happen in our stories. That is what stories are for. It is what the Christmas story – the kernel of all stories – is about.

Bancroft turned that on its head (I would say spoiler alert, but if I stop you watching it, I’m doing you a favour) by allowing corruption to triumph, a double (possibly triple) murderer  to succeed and those doing good to get trampled into the dirt.

In case you think this is a neat twist and rather clever, let me disabuse you. It is OK for evil to succeed for a while if there is something redemptive in it. Peaky Blinders is an example, and there are many others. It is OK to portray a realistic, corrupt world as a setting for the story. It is OK for wicked individuals to have some success if underneath it all the universal virtues are clearly visible.

Bancroft herself (played by Sarah Parish) has almost no redeeming features and does not suffer for her machinations, other than to have her son reject her, which seems to have little effect. I’m not sure what the author was trying to achieve. Someone suggested that he was setting up a second series, but as far as I and many others are concerned, all he’s made sure of is that we won’t watch it.

Things I could do without for Christmas

Call me Scrooge, but there are certain things I could do without at Christmas time.

One is companies who try to persuade me to buy things I quite obviously don’t want, just so that they can be delivered in time for Christmas.

They and others of similar ilk might like to know that I do not consider 12 December to be “last-minute shopping”. Last-minute shopping is the afternoon of Christmas Eve which, incidentally, is quite a good time to shop because there’s no-one about.

One company (one?) warns me that time is ticking, and I should therefore check out last-minute deals. Time may be ticking, but time always ticks, unless you mute it. That’s what it does. I do not want a last-minute deal, last-minute flowers, last-minute accommodation or half-price gifts.

And just because it’s Christmas, it doesn’t mean I want to book up next year’s holiday. In fact it’s probably the last thing I want to do.

Almost the last thing. The very, very last thing I want to do is go to Santa’s Grotto for Dogs. I am sad to say there is one in Norwich, my home town, and a lot of people seem to think it’s a good idea.

What is this all about? There are no dogs in the Christmas story, and there were no dogs at the birth of Jesus. Come to that there there was no Santa either, no grotto and almost certainly no cows. I just throw that in in the interests of accuracy. There were definitely sheep. I have a lot of time for sheep.

What else do I find irritating? David Attenborough. But that’s another story.

If I were Scottish, I might be a little annoyed by the courier service. Apparently the people living in Moray, north-east Scotland, have been reclassified as islanders by a certain delivery firm.

This is not a marginal point. There is no causeway involved. It’s a bit like saying South Wales is an island or, if you happen to live in Norfolk, North Norfolk District Council.

Customers ordering online from the north and north-east of Scotland apparently pay up to four times for delivery compared to the rest of the UK. And you can see how that could be useful to certain people.

“North of Edinburgh? Must be an island, mate. Special needs. I mean rates.”

Unsurprisingly, Moray’s MP has suggested that geography lessons may be required. Last-minute ones, I suggest. Time is ticking.

Into and out of Nowhere

We approached Little Gidding across the Fens, through Ramsey and into the middle of nowhere.

This particular Nowhere, in case you should stumble into it, is a stunning piece of countryside away from the bustle of suburbs and motorways, – a distance measured not so much in miles as in degrees of reality.

It is not far south-west of where my great-grandfather – and probably his father – lived and died. That was Norman’s Cross, and it has been pretty much brushed out of the landscape by the A1(M). But it nudges up against Folksworth, which is where those two ancestors are buried, the wording on their tombstones fading visibly in the short time since I had seen them last.

We ate Sunday lunch there, in the Fox – which I can recommend highly.

I had been rather embarrassed about originating from an area I had regarded as “near Peterborough”, which seemed about as boring a bit of Middle England as you could get. Having spent a couple of days at Little Gidding, which my ancestors must have known, I feel rather differently.

Some of this comes from reading the poem of the same name – the last of T S Eliot’s magical Four Quartets, which contains the same quiet beauty as the place itself. We read it right through on the Sunday morning in Ferrar House, a matter of yards from the beautiful little church dedicated to St John, with whom Eliot had much in common. Use of words, most obviously.

From the same house the previous day we had watched a rather haphazard attempt at a hunt, with horses and dogs milling about and another fox racing across the middle distance. Not my choice of Saturday afternoon leisure, but it reinforced the “nowhere” feeling. Or maybe it was “somewhere else”. Maybe it didn’t happen. Who knows?

The following day we took the short, slightly muddy walk up to Steeple Gidding, with its empty, pewless church and wonderful views. And after lunch in the Folksworth Fox we slipped on to that destructive A1(M) and headed south towards Cambridge.

A quicker route, but cruel: sadly, and without warning, Nowhere vanished.