On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.
This is a fascinating talk about Melville’s novel in which Philip Hoare touches on his own interest in the book, on perceptions and representations of the whale, and how he came to be so connected with whales.
I have many reasons to be thankful and among them last weekend was that the storms and flooding that hit Cumbria on Saturday December 5th did no more than inconvenience my family and me. It’s true, we lost our car, which was already stranded and beyond saving in the early hours of Saturday morning, before “Desmond” actually arrived. The River Rothay finally swept it away up the road just after dark on Saturday evening. But the insurance has already covered that and, well, it was just a car, and not a particularly special one.
Compared with the people of Carlisle, Cockermouth, and many other places, we got off very lightly indeed. Rather unexpectedly we had heat, light and broadband throughout the weekend. Besides a slight worry that the floodwaters would eventually reach our elevated front door, and the frustration of being marooned, all we had to think about was just how extraordinary the rain was, and how awesome, in the proper sense of the word, nature can be. My memory of that Saturday is of darkness, and relentless rain. The air became mostly water. It is also full of the noise the river made as it barrelled down the valley, carrying with it large branches and the root balls of gigantic felled trees. There were few opportunities to take photographs–being outside was just too unpleasant and it was far too dark anyway–so these pictures were taken before the worst of the flood hit.
That roaring sound was everywhere, all the time. It is no great revelation, but true nonetheless, that the world we make for ourselves–the comfortable, carpeted, indoor world–is a lot more precarious than it seems.
Tourism is a major part of the economy in this beautiful part of the world, but there are businesses of all kinds, from art galleries, gift shops, and shops selling outdoor gear, to cafes, breweries, and of course farming. They are suffering: please use them. Visit if you can: don’t cancel that hotel booking if the hotel is still open. If you can’t visit, why not buy some of your Christmas presents from Cumbrian businesses online?
If you can spare some cash, please also give to the flood appeal.
It is almost a month now since I attended the European Beer Bloggers’ and Writers’ Conference (EBBC) in Brussels and a blog post about it is long overdue. EBBC15 is the fourth conference of its type that I’ve attended (there have been five altogether) and the first to take place in continental Europe. The opportunity to learn about Belgian beer was irresistible.
Probably the best thing about these conferences is the opportunity to try a lot of different beers from a single geographic location, and of course to discuss them with knowledgeable, enthusiastic people. That’s probably why most of my photographs from the weekend are of people talking in bars, and people pouring beer. The few seconds it takes to pour beer into a glass are are always filled with joyful anticipation, so watching people doing it with skill and evident pride in what they are pouring is a great pleasure.
For the Belgian Family Brewers this was an opportunity to tell the world about their new cooperative venture, bringing together 22 longstanding brewing families to promote their beer and to show us “the rich diversity in our beer scenery.” As recent convert to Belgian beer, being able to taste many different beers close together, and to hear about them from the people who make them, was a great learning experience.
Of course the beer itself is what we were there for and throughout the weekend we were treated to the full range of what Belgium has to offer, from the fruitiest Kriek to the sourest Lambic. De Brabandere Browerij, producers of Petrus even showed us how they are reinventing the Belgian tradition of blending by suggesting drinkers do it themselves. All conference organisers should consider doing something similar to this. I’m looking forward to these blending packs appearing in the UK.
For me though, the highlight of the trip was the excursion to the Lambic breweries. Even though we had to cut it short to catch the train to the airport, the visits to Drie Fontainen and Boon breweries were an education and a privilege. Thanks to everyone who made the conference so enjoyable; it was great meeting old beer friends again, and making new ones. Reuben Grey at Tale of Ale has a great roundup. Here’s to next year.
Back in 2012 I began digitising the five detective novels of Simon Nash, all of which were published in the 1960s. I still have three more to finish off (the third one won’t be long I hope), but recently there has been a flurry of interest in this forgotten writer. In March 2014 CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) magazine published a great piece by John Cooper on Simon Nash in issue 67. CADS doesn’t seem to have a website, but it’s published by Geoff Bradley, who can be contacted at Geoffcads [AT] aol.com. The magazine has an old-style fanzine look about it, but the content seems very good indeed.
Elsewhere, I published a short guest post about Simon Nash on the blog of crime fiction writer Martin Edwards, who I met at, of all places, a James Ellroy conference organised by Dr. Steven Powell of Venetian Vase fame.
When my mother in law died last November one of the things she left behind was the Morris Minor 1000 she bought new in 1960. Apart from a new reconditioned engine at some point in its life, “Beetil”, as the car was known, had survived for 54 years in more or less original condition. Among other things, what that means is no seatbelts, ineffective drum brakes, a four-speed gearbox with no synchromesh on first gear, and “trafficators” (little illuminated metal arms that spring out of the side of the car to show which way you want to turn). But of course “original condition” does not equate to “as new” condition. A 55 year-old car that has been used as intended for most of those years, and has never been restored, is probably going to be in need of a little work.
And so it was with Beetil. Despite strong sentimental attachments, nobody in the family had the inclination to handle a restoration, or to use the car afterwards. So Beetil was sold to a young woman whose enthusiasm for Minors proved to be stronger than her worries about passing MOT roadworthiness tests or the fact that the car wouldn’t start. Her companion, a classic car magazine journalist whose magnificent Triumph Stag was parked round the corner, went over the car with magnets and declared her “sound enough for now”. He probably didn’t expect to have to push a car through the the wet January streets of South West London, but luckily we had some help from a well-dressed couple who appeared out of the drizzle. They seemed unfazed by the prospect of pushing a dead car along a London bus route and melted away, once the car was secured, before they could be thanked.
The next morning I made my way home in my comfortable modern car, anxious about that MOT and whether the Morris would make it back up the M1 to Yorkshire. As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The MOT was no problem and a new battery was all that was needed to make the engine go. After several years of hardly ever leaving the garage, Beetil seemed keen to be running again.
At the end of June, under happier circumstances, we were reacquainted with the car, which is now known as Bee. The new owner, Steph, had little trouble using her as a daily driver through the second half of a Yorkshire winter and has begun the work of restoration. She invited us to meet her at the Morris Minor Owners’ Club national rally at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. My wife, who wisely shied away from the emotionally difficult process of selling the car she grew up with, was delighted to be handed the keys. She started the engine and disappeared across the showfield, our wildly grinning daughter in the passenger seat. There were shinier cars on the show ground, but I don’t suppose any of them made anyone that happy.
And the name “Beetil”? It comes from E.H. Shepherd’s illustration to A.A. Milne’s poem “Forgiven”, which begins “I found a little beetle, so that beetle was his name …” In the illustration the word “beetil” is written on top of the matchbox in which the beetle is kept.
Some pictures from the rally:
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 2015 is (understandably) getting a lot of coverage in the British press at the moment. For most British adults at the time, living in a state of war was all they knew, so the end of hostilities must have come as a great relief. It is difficult to imagine now not hearing such momentous news within minutes or hours of events taking place. But a whaling journal entry from August 1st 1815 brings home the reality of a world where the latest news events might have happened last week, or a month ago.
On that day, the whale ship Esk, commanded by William Scoresby Jr., was returning from the Arctic. After almost five months at sea, most of which had been spent north of the Arctic Circle, Scoresby and his crew encountered a fishing boat from Orkney. So it was, somewhere off the Firth of Forth, and over six weeks since the defeat of the French at Waterloo, that these whalers finally heard the news. This is what Scoresby wrote in his journal:
Tuesday 1st August, 1815*
… At noon spoke to a smack from Orkney bound to London with a cargo of fish, which gave us the gratifying intelligence that peace was once more returned to Europe, through the gallantry of our British troops with most splendid honours & that the pest of the world, the violator of treaties and oaths was again taken captive or has delivered himself up. This intelligence was so grateful to the feelings of all our crew was received with three cheers & returned by [the] smack with loyal heartiness. These pleasurable feelings were … enhanced by the distinguished [share?] which the idol of our country, the brave & judicious Wellington bore in the unequal contest.
*Scoresby’s journals have been transcribed and edited by C. Ian Jackson and published in three volumes by the Hakluyt Society. This extract comes from The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Volume II, 1814-1816. London: Ashgate, 2008.
Last week I had some exciting news. I have been selected to exhibit my photography in the Northern Exposure exhibition at the Portico Library and Gallery in Manchester. Northern Exposure is an annual exhibition of the work of seven or eight artists from the North of England. This year the exhibition is taking place from 3-30 July, during the Manchester International Festival, so it is a great opportunity for me as a photographer, and one I know I am lucky to have been offered.
For as long as I can remember I have been interested in where the boundaries lie between rural and urban, natural and human-made. Even in my relatively short lifetime British culture has become significantly more urban-centred (and London-centric), but of course the process goes back much further than that. I have begun choosing the eight or so pictures for hanging in the exhibition and all of them will explore the ways in which human activity and nature interact, the human influence on apparently natural landscapes, and how we have come to see the natural, or perhaps unnatural, world.
More of my work is over at my photography website Mottershead and Hayes.