An Agincourt for our age

STUART MILLSON enjoys seeing Shakespeare’s Henry V brutally updated

The year is 1415… Trumpets sound at the Globe Theatre; Olivier draws his sword and heroically sets forth to ‘the vasty fields of France’ where English arms and chivalry triumph, and a youthful English king wins the hand of France’s fair princess, Katherine… That is the version of Henry V which we have come to know, but for Donmar theatre’s director, Max Webster, an altogether more brutal side to Shakespeare’s story is revealed, as the mediaeval action and intrigue is re-imagined in a twenty-first century war between England and its neighbour across the Channel. 

The King of France (played by Jude Akuwudike) taunts the young King Henry (Kit Harington), whose sudden accession to the throne of England has shaken his retinue of hedonistic followers, including the loud, drunken nightclub reveller, John Falstaff (Steven Meo). Just before receiving the news of his father’s death, the wild Prince Hal is roaring out another chorus of the football anthem, ‘Sweet Caroline’, the whole dancefloor, a scene of the modern drunken excess, witnessed in most town centres across Britain on a Saturday night. But the change of mood could not be more startling, as Techno sounds disappear, to be replaced by Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

Henry, determined to assert his belief in his right to the kingship of France and to avenge the Gallic court’s insult (their ambassador delivers a box of tennis-balls, thus emphasising French contempt for the immature monarch), the warrior begins to organise his invasion force – a disquieting parallel to current events in Ukraine. As the King makes his speeches, press photographers unleash a barrage of flash photography across the stage, and soldiers – in the battle fatigues of the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq – make their stamping, choreographed appearance. And for this production, military discipline and dance are combined: with former Royal Marine Commando, Tom Leigh, having carefully trained the actors in army ways and psychology, alongside the Ballet Rambert’s Benoit Swan Pouffer slotting each soldier on stage into a battle routine of sinister precision.

The famous line of farewell, uttered at the army’s Southampton embarkation point, ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ (a famous movement for soft strings in Walton’s music to the Olivier film) becomes an almost loveless, cynical farewell: ‘Touch her soft lips, and march…’ Not a shred of glory can be found either, as the mangled English regiments nurse their wounds after the siege of Harfleur, ‘Sweet Caroline’ drifting across the stage, a whispered lament in all the pain and misery. Agincourt, the crowning victory of Henry’s ruthless advance, once again brought out the very best of the production’s costume design and direction: camouflaged men and women advancing with automatic weapons to the stuttering music of Purcell’s Arthurian ‘Cold Genius’, and slicing through the numerically superior French, who were convinced that their chevaliers would beat the uncivilised English on the home soil of fair France. 

English victory, though, is soured by the execution of prisoners; by Henry’s ‘winner-takes-all’ blood-lust (as Zoe Svendsen portrays the King’s character in Donmar’s programme notes) and by the ‘othering’ of the Welsh soldier, Llewellyn. Those who remember Olivier’s Henry V may recall the 1940s actor Esmond Knight’s portrayal of the Welshman, almost as a member of the rustic chorus. But for Max Webster’s production, the Cambrian is embittered and angry at the denigration of his national symbol, the leek, and an ugly, violent barrack-room-brawl ensues. The Kingdom’s unity, here, is far from being even skin-deep.

At the end, Kit Harington’s Henry resembles a prince of the House of Windsor: peaked cap, white gloves and immaculate uniform, the English monarchy at Commonwealth Day, at Westminster Abbey, at the Cenotaph. Yet the play’s narrator (Millicent Wong) warns us that the pomp and circumstance has come at a price; that death and subjugation has followed in the King’s wake – as the Cross of St. George turns into red flames…

Donmar’s Henry V – multicultural, anti-war and Left-leaning in its interpretation – nonetheless has something to say to those who believe in crowns and coronets, or would crowd Southampton’s sea-wall to cheer the Royal Navy’s modern fleet majestical. Perhaps England is not pure, with our leaders holding aloft the crown imperial, but darker ambition and desire spurring them always on, but if this is England’s failure, we share the fault with many other countries. Persuasive (if not entirely fair to England), frank, brutal and always brilliantly acted through its three-hour course, Donmar’s realisation of a great history-play will stay in the minds of its capacity audiences for a long time.

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse (Earlham Street, London WC2), directed by Max Webster; Production Manager, Anthony Newton; music supervision, Andrew T. Mackay

Carrie On comedy

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First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson

Michael Ashcroft, Biteback, 2022, 304pp, £20

KEN BELL is unconvinced by an attempted character assassination

Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Caroline ‘Carrie’ Johnson takes the art of reputational destruction to a completely new level, gleefully combining the hatchet and stiletto.

By all accounts, Carrie was a bright young thing, and Ashcroft presents her as being of the type who go up to universities such as Bristol or Durham, as they ‘are among the most popular choices for pupils of her ability.’ Not Oxbridge in other words – but the universities that take those who have been rejected by Oxbridge. Thus the stiletto goes in, to be quickly followed by the hatchet, as one of her friends is quoted as saying: ‘Carrie’s very socially intelligent. She’s very good academically in terms of exam achievements. But she herself knew that by doing Theatre Studies at Warwick she wasn’t reading astrophysics at Cambridge.’

The idea of Carrie as being ‘socially intelligent’ helps to account for the rise of the ‘young lady’ after she graduated. Through her social set she met a relative of Zac Goldsmith, then used an introduction to him to start working her way up the ranks of the Tory nomenklatura. Through Goldsmith, she got a job with the party and from there inveigled a position as a special advisor, first to John Whittingdale when he was Culture Secretary, then Sajid Javid, when he ran Housing. By the age of 29 she had become the party’s Communications Director – not bad going for a woman who had never actually worked as a journalist.

The problem with all of this is that Carrie does not seem to have been much interested in either the policies of the party that she was representing, nor the minutiae of actual policy formation. She was often missing from the office a lot even when she was in London, and took several overseas holidays a year which left her completely out of touch for long periods.

Carrie’s broad social group seems to have protected her from much criticism, and her reported ruthlessness at dealing with people, especially other women, she did not like, tells us a lot. My favourite story out of many concerns the use of taxis, with each aide being given a code to use when they called a cab from a particular firm. According to Ashcroft, Carrie used the code that had been given to a girl she seems to have disliked, and used it on her days off to book cabs to ferry her around at the party’s expense.

As presented by Michael Ashcroft, Carrie is a flighty party girl who made a bee-line for important men and then attached herself to gain preferment. Although she briefly became the mistress of one Tory MP Ashcroft declines to name, she was not the lover of any of the individuals named in the book, which may be why they still speak highly of her. It may just have been that she knew how to tickle the middle-aged male fancy with a ‘girly’ persona. Boris Johnson was tickled enough with her to take her on as his latest mistress, with former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre speaking for many when he noted that she was ‘the 31-year-old minx who is the current Boris Johnson bedwarmer.’ However, Dacre was a poor prophet, going on to write: ‘As for the minx, mark my words: there will be tears before bedtime.’ Lord Ashcroft can afford an army of researchers for his biographies, but none have turned up even a whisper that the minx ever cried herself to sleep.

The biography starts to falter somewhat from the time that Carrie became first Boris’ mistress and then his wife. We are told via another anonymous source: ‘For Boris, Carrie was a fling. He never expected to be with her long-term. He was shocked when Marina said she was divorcing him. He never expected it. So he settled for Carrie.’ The problem with this line, which Ashcroft seems to accept without question, is that Boris had no good reason to take Carrie on as a long-term proposition if he didn’t want to. By this time, a sizeable number of senior Tory administrators had realised how useless she was at serious administration. He could have presented her as a problem that had been dealt with and within days she would have been forgotten. He didn’t, which suggests that he may actually have been in love with her, hard though that may be to believe for his legion of detractors.

Sadly, the rest of the biography is a chronicle of tittle-tattle, with no attempt being made to explain why the events mentioned actually happened, assuming they ever did. The wallpaper that supposedly cost £850 a roll for the Downing Street flat is probably the easiest to explain, since few men are even aware of the colour of their wallpaper and leave home décor to their womenfolk. Likewise, Boris’ dismissal of people by saying that Carrie didn’t like them may even be true, but a plausible reason for such events is that Boris was performing the old trick of blaming ‘‘er indoors’ for an action that he intended to carry out anyway. Finally, to what extent can we blame Carrie for interfering in decisions to the extent, supposedly, of whispering advice into his ear when he was speaking to senior figures on the telephone? If it happened, then surely the fault lies with her husband for not hushing her?

Much of this should be treated with a great deal of scepticism, especially at a time of international crisis. One would think that this would be a perfect opportunity for a girl who thinks a lot of herself to stick her oar in, but Boris really seems to be running the show, with Carrie, presumably, supporting him in the background by running the home and caring for the children. Put another way, if she was the Lady Macbeth figure of Ashcroft’s imagination, people would be complaining about her and they are not.

So what we are left with is a biography that was excellent when it described a flirty girl’s rise in the Tory ranks, but which cannot present a coherent, plausible explanation for what has happened since she was promoted from mistress to wife. That said, there is enough gossip in the volume to keep the most demanding political anorak happy for many long evenings down the pub as the tales that Ashcroft tells are told and retold, at least as long as Boris remains in Downing Street. After that, I fear the work will date very quickly.

Diary of an organ-playing nobody

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R. J. STOVE reflects on life as an antipodean performer on the King of Instruments

‘“What?”, said [piano manufacturer] Herr Stein. “A man like you …  wants to play on an instrument which has no sweetness, no expression, no piano, no forte, but is always the same?” “That does not matter,” I replied. “In my eyes and ears, the organ is the King of Instruments”.’ (Mozart)

Disheartening to report, Bismarck never uttered the epigram so often attributed to him: ‘Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.’ But each time I undertake a commercial recording – and I have undertaken three such now, all devoted to organ music – I am painfully reminded of this misattributed quotation.

Because if you contemplate classical music in recorded form (as the vast majority of journalists discussing it do contemplate it) through a haze of aestheticism, assuming that nothing ever happens in front of the microphone without the loftiest and most disinterested of motives, then the best cure for such kumbaya soft-headedness is actually to make recordings yourself. The procedure is death to entitlement culture, death to the near-enough-is-good-enough mindset, and death to all romanticist whimsies about artistic ‘inspiration.’

Among didactic processes, only an obligatory course in obstetrics would strip away more illusions from the novice, and strip them away faster, than recording production does. I cannot help musing over how much polysyllabic Marxist verbiage Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno would have spared us – how much Teutonic vamping about ‘the aura of mechanical reproduction’ and ‘bourgeois commodification of ritual’ they would have eschewed – if they had experienced for themselves, which they did not, the perils of needing to perform as flawlessly as possible within seconds of a producer turning a red light on. Not to mention the still greater perils of needing to keep one’s temper each time a producer is obliged to halt a take because of extraneous noise issuing from (i) seagulls overhead, (ii) a helicopter overhead, (iii) a passing ambulance siren, (iv) revving-up from a motorcyclist, or most frequently (v) all of the above.

A producer of classical recordings, if he (and, whether we like it or not, it remains a male-dominated profession) wishes to survive, has to be part surgeon, part electronic engineer, part Cecil B. De Mille, part Grand Inquisitor, part concierge, part therapist, and all musician. His role entails some of the attributes perceptible in the great symphonic conductors: notably an X-ray ear which can descry faults in even the most imposing wash of sound. When an orchestra gives its all in the mightiest of Respighian climaxes, the producer must be able to detect the third oboist who, amid the hubbub, mistakenly played an F sharp instead of the score’s indicated F natural: and to call out that oboist – politely, one trusts; rudely, if trust be impossible – over the error.

Yet that is almost the least of what the producer needs to do. He requires a retentive memory not for various takes’ musical contents alone, but for various takes’ volume levels. Should consecutive takes differ from each other in this regard, or in regard to the venue’s atmosphere (known among the cognoscenti as ‘atmos’ for short), he has to minimise those differences. No surprise that, even before the compulsory post-production chores, his copies of the sheet-music will have become so scribbled-over in red Texta as to resemble Jackson Pollock’s action-paintings. 

Physical strength is a prerequisite as well. Especially if confronted with an unfamiliar site, he will be expected to lug prodigious quantities of cords, plugs, microphones, power sockets, monitor speakers, and computer hardware from his vehicle, before he assembles them: only to carry out the whole boring process in reverse when the session concludes. In this assembling and disassembling, he cannot and must not be rushed. It is hard for even the most arrogant performer to demand, with a clear conscience, additional haste from someone who can accidentally electrocute the entire dramatis personae if an exposed cable proves insufficiently earthed or a wire has worn through its sheath.

Therefore it is understandable that for every thousand good classical musicians out there, scarcely a single good classical recording producer can be traced. The best ones – they have included Walter Legge, Brian Culverhouse, and John Culshaw among the dead, and my own brilliant producer Thomas Grubb among the living – can charge whatever fees they like. Although COVID might have decluttered their timetables, it has not reduced (nor should it reduce) their invoices. Sir George Martin, at a period when the Beatles’ fame had yet to transcend Liverpudlian city limits, produced many a classical recording for EMI. He entertainingly recounted this function’s more bizarre aspects in his 1977 memoir All You Need Is Ears.           

Nevertheless, whilst the good classical recording producer is as rare a bird as a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian, the good classical recording producer who can skilfully capture organ music is analogous to a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian who can do five hundred consecutive push-ups. With an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, after all, a producer has the luxury of operating in a more or less conventional studio. The designers of that studio will have taken some pains to soundproof it. In that studio he will be visible, albeit behind his desk, for at least some of the time to at least some of the musicians involved. He can rely on none of these advantages when recording organ music.

For as all organists – but all too few non-organists – know, pipe organs are not just musical instruments. They are, by definition, musical instruments ensconced in particular buildings, and habitually irremovable therefrom through any methods less radical than Semtex.

Many church instruments are installed in such a way as to force the organist to play with his back turned not only to the altar, but to the producer. Rear-view mirrors at the organ console possess limited efficacy. (During my own most recent sessions – cooped up as I unavoidably was in the loft – the worst thing which I could have done was the thing which all halfway decent musicians, by default, do: constantly listening to fellow performers. Instead, I needed as a deliberate procedure to play well ahead of the beat, purely so the final product’s hearers would have the aural impression of my keeping time with the five singers. All five, for balance-mandated rather than COVID-mandated reasons, remained invisible to me in the nave below. It took a crucial half-second for the organ sound to reach them from the loft’s phalanx of pipes.)

Whether a pipe organ be sacred or secular, its tuning will be always expensive. Rapid tuning is downright impossible. In a climate as manic as Melbourne’s, where two consecutive days will often enough be respectively 32 degrees or 14 degrees (not to mention vice versa), even the best-built instrument can unexpectedly acquire several out-of-tune pipes: without fail, the pipes most suitable to the music’s content. Ten times more worrying is the organist’s greatest dread: a cipher, whereby a particular keyboard note or pedal-board note sounds and cannot be switched off. Imagine the most persistent ambulance or police-car ululation which you have ever heard; then imagine such an ululation in an ecclesiastical context, when the nearest organ-tuner is unavailable through being hospitalized, or on holidays, or repairing an instrument in a different church, or simply drunk.

But you have not yet supped full on organ-related horrors. The 1970s Anglo-Saxon mania for carpeting what had been perfectly acceptable wooden or stone floors ruins many a church’s acoustics. Beautifully manufactured though a pipe organ might be, ubiquitous carpet will frequently make it sound like a Casio burp-box vended below cost price on eBay. Even churches free from carpets are apt to be located on main roads, their architecture dating from an epoch where internal combustion engines were largely unimaginable. However impressive their stonework, they offer almost no insulation from modern traffic noise. Factor in the tendency of churches to support church schools, and the aural complications are aggravated threefold. If you have never attempted to record a beautifully soft, French impressionist organ prelude while shrieking infants gallivant in the playground during their lunch break, your personal acquaintance with existential anguish is automatically limited.

Given these and other nuisances, you could be pardoned for asking why anyone would wish to record organ music in the first place: let alone to record three CDs’ worth of it, as I have done, with a fourth CD currently awaiting issue. Speaking as a middle-rank Melbourne organist with twenty-one years of remunerated public playing behind me – neither enjoying the rarely-conferred benefits of sustained cathedral employment, nor suffering the griefs of the overworked tyro frantically having to pad out an exiguous résumé – I find myself caught in not one but three perfect storms.

First of these storms is, naturally, COVID. Useless, and redundant, for me to expatiate here upon the damage which Wuhan’s most renowned export has done to live classical music performance in general; live classical music performance in Australia especially; and live classical music performance in Melbourne above all. 

The second among these storms is one which foreigners will be able to predict with a little thought: Australian churches’ continuing sex abuse crisis, primarily (though not exclusively) afflicting Catholicism. Every dollar which dioceses are ordered to spend upon paying off an abuse victim’s lawyer, is a dollar which dioceses cannot spend upon professional musicians. Australia’s Catholic parishes were in demographic free-fall long before front-page headlines screamed about the pandemic.

As far back as 2011 – in other words, not solely pre-COVID but pre-abuse scandals too – 87% of Australia’s Catholics could not bestir themselves to attend Sunday Mass. We all know the only branches of Australian Christianity where the churches are full: the Pentecostal brigades, of which Hillsong is the most celebrated. Anyone gullible enough to believe that Pentecostal jamborees are likely to include organ-playing, or any musical contributions whatever except those supplied by sub-Hendrix guitarists and gyrating Taylor Swift wannabes needs (to borrow a felicitous, long-ago phrase from Esquire) not merely his head but his entire anatomy examined. 

One much-loved hymn tells us: ‘There is a happy land, far, far away.’ There are in fact several such happy lands where university posts can, and do, recompense organists for the uncertainties of ecclesiastical occupations. Unfortunately, these happy lands do not include my own. In any analysis of today’s antipodean academe, the third perfect storm afflicting organists can be at once recognised. Australia’s ever more shambolic federal government has added, to its widely-shared record of COVID-related ineptitude, a malice all its own when it comes to higher education.

The most vituperative surviving Khmer Rouge commissar, and the most frenziedly anti-intellectual Mississippi Klansman, might well blanch at the overt hatred towards humanities departments that routinely emanates from Scott Morrison and his Canberra colleagues. These legislators expend their hatred not specifically on left-wing and/or spendthrift humanities departments, but on humanities departments per se. For all their mismanagement when it comes to public health, they have demonstrated impressive populist cynicism on pedagogical issues. They discern the absolute monetary dependence upon the welfare state which has characterised Australian academe from its beginning; which is certain to characterise it until Judgement Day; and which has resisted four decades’ worth of libertarian think-tanks’ harangues about the private sector’s alleged enthusiasm for acting as Maecenas. More and more, the very concept of private universities for Australia is proving as mythical (indeed, in its bogus promises, almost as pernicious) as those other nostrums propounded by fantasising savants: The Classless Society; Sex With No Strings Attached; Exporting Democracy To The Third World; No-Fault Divorce; and – who can doubt the essential illegitimacy of this doctrine likewise? – COVID Zero.

Last year I had the privilege of an academic post, necessarily casual in nature, under Sydney University’s auspices. Having written earlier about the pleasure which I took in this post (and about how gratified I would be if the post continued into 2022, which perhaps it will), I obviously must not repeat myself here. But I would be crazy to nourish sanguine hopes that Australia will permit for me an academic – dare I even employ so ‘elitist’ a noun as the following? – ‘career.’ My sixtieth birthday fell shortly before last Christmas; and quite apart from my innate lack of youthful cred, it is hard to envisage any status less welcome to modish Human Resources departments than my own Google-aided identifiability as a white straight male Catholic.

No individual, therefore, will be more delighted than I to gain further academic emolument. Equally, no individual is less prone than I to take any such emolument for granted. My research background has been the opposite of fashionable: last year I completed my doctoral thesis on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ output. In any contest between a candidate who has specialised in Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, versus a candidate who has specialised in transgendered rappers from Bali, no prizes are offered for guessing the probable victor.

This all explains, ultimately, why I find myself investing greater and greater sunk costs in the project – which is, I concede, a First World problem – of capturing my organ-playing on record. By so doing, I might (I repeat: might) convince university employment’s arbiters to overlook my chronological, ethnic, and religious disadvantages.

Going to the effort and expense of issuing no fewer than four CDs indicates, at least, exceptional dedication and single-mindedness. So, of course, does becoming a kamikaze pilot. Time will pronounce whether the former occupational choice supplies any better long-term prospects than did the latter.

Meanwhile, in defending my own gramophonic incontinence, I am tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier’s brusque retort to a question about how much happiness he experienced in old age. What (the straw-hatted Gallic divo inquired) is the alternative?

Courtoom farces

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A Matter of Obscenity

Christopher Hilliard, Princeton University Press, 320pp, 2021, £30

KEN BELL follows the story of English law and ‘dirty books’

With its seventy-two pages of footnotes, Christopher Hilliard’s A Matter of Obscenity manages to combine the original archival research of the heavyweight historian with a lightness of touch that should appeal to the general reader.

His aim is to show that from the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, Britain had a system of ‘variable obscenity,’ which can be summarised in the words of a judge who held that if a work was to be condemned all that mattered was that it tended ‘to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.’ In simple English, if a magistrate thought that the gullible could be harmed by a work, he could order its destruction. That was the law in Britain until the 1960 Chatterley case.

Needless to say, gullibility was defined by education and wealth. It was assumed that a wealthy man was also a well-educated one, so such an individual could be trusted to view a sensuous painting in a gallery. On the other hand, a postcard-sized print of the same work could be bought for coppers by a poor man who, almost by definition, would be uneducated – and thus unable to understand the subtlety of the work, so would likely treat it as porn.

Hilliard presents many examples of this policy in action, with my favourite probably being Boy, a homosexual-themed novella written by James Hanley and first published in 1931 by a small publishing house called Boriswood, after The Bodley Head had rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it was ‘nothing but buggery, brothels and filth.’

Boriswood then took up the work and published it on handmade paper in a limited edition without any problems. The company then slightly bowdlerised the text and took a chance on a trade edition, again without any problems. However, even trade editions were so expensive in those days that the average man could not afford to buy one, which is why many readers were members of circulating libraries which charged a membership fee to allow people to borrow books. Thus Boriswood produced an even cheaper edition to sell to those libraries, which is why Boy became the talk of Bury in 1934, when the owner of a small circulating library picked up a few copies of Boy as part of a job lot of new books.

I think the reader can tell where this is going, and sure enough, all were prosecuted and fined heavily. The owner of the circulating library had wanted to fight his corner on the grounds that the book had been in distribution for several years by that time, but he was prevailed upon by various legal firms to plead guilty, with one stating, ‘The subject matter of the said work is one which is strictly forbidden, relating as it mainly does to intimacy between members of the male sex…no bench in this country would hesitate to designate the said work as obscene.’

Although the cinema and theatre also operated under variable censorship rules, Hilliard focuses on the world of publishing. The work is full of short comments that could be elaborated into chapters all of their own, such as the fact that William Dugdale, who along with his two brothers pretty much dominated the London pornography trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, had been involved on the periphery of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. In 1818 a spy’s report held that he was ‘a very active incendiary of profligate and deistical principles,’ so it is quite possible that following the crackdown on British radical politics which followed the Napoleonic Wars he used his old distribution network to sell the porn that he then produced on presses that had been used for political pamphlets.

The legitimate publishing houses dominate Hilliard’s work, of course. It is fitting that the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover receives a chapter all to itself, as that marked the final high-water mark of the state’s attempts to censor written texts. Thanks to Hilliard’s research, we discover that Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor at the Chatterley trial had advised against prosecuting Lolita in 1959. So he was less the cartoon buffoon that popular legend has it, and more a man who would leave a work alone if, like Lolita, it appeared in an expensive, hardback edition.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was produced by Penguin as a cheap paperback, so it could be seen as a breach of the implicit agreement between the state and the publishing houses that pornography could only be produced in expensive editions. Griffith-Jones took the view that if it wasn’t prosecuted then it would be very difficult to ever prosecute written works ever again.

The fact that he then went on to do more than anyone to ensure that Penguin was acquitted with his fatuous rhetorical question to the jury which asked if they wanted their wives or servants to read the work, is actually not the main error he made. When the jury burst out laughing at his pomposity it must have become clear to Griffith-Jones that this was a trial that pitted the future against the past, and as is usually the case in such matters, the future wins. He should have objected to the prosecution in the first place, but he does not seem to have realised just how far outside the Zeitgeist he and others were.

Literary censorship did not end with the Chatterley trial, as attempts were made to prosecute other works, but either they were overturned on appeal, such as happened with Last Exit to Brooklyn, or the jury refused to convict, which was the case with Inside Linda Lovelace in 1970. It was after that last fiasco that the Director of Public Prosecutions ‘that in future their default position would be not to institute obscenity proceedings over prose.’ With one or two upsets, invariably overturned on appeal, that has been the case up to the present day.

A Matter of Obscenity travels a long road from William Dugdale to Penguin paperbacks, but between the two there is clearly a line of people who pushed against the notion that what was acceptable for the wealthy should be forbidden to the ordinary man in the street. We owe our thanks to Professor Christopher Hilliard for helping us follow their path.

John Pritchard – master of sonorities

STUART MILLSON recalls an unjustly overlooked conductor

The early 1980s was a vintage time for British orchestral music. Gennady Rozhdestvensky was halfway into his term (1978-1982) as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a position which brought great kudos to the ensemble – Rozhdestvensky recording and performing Tchaikovsky ballet music, and venturing into the pastoral realm of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony. Other home-grown artists, such as Sir Charles Groves, James Loughran and Norman Del Mar also exerted a great influence, especially at the annual Henry Wood Proms season – Groves being one of the first post-war conductors to record a large amount of recondite British music, from Delius to Grace Williams. But if a seasoned concertgoer of a certain age were to wander along the Arena or Gallery queue at a Promenade concert of the last few years, and ask any of the younger Prommers: ‘Does the name, John Pritchard, mean anything to you?’ – it is likely that your question would be met by a blank expression. Switch on your radio, turn the dial to Radio 3 (if it is not already permanently in that position!) and listen to the current complement of thirty-something presenters. Again, the name of Pritchard is absent from the CD choices and schedules.

Sir John Pritchard, who died in 1989 at the age of 68, was an orchestral and operatic conductor who secured some of the most prestigious positions available in his profession: opera houses in Brussels and Cologne, not to mention a golden age at Glyndebourne, and senior roles with the Royal Liverpool, London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras. Indeed, Sir John was, at different times, Chief Conductor of all three ensembles. He was also one of the most regular guest conductors at the Proms, appearing throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and then as the BBC’s principal maestro during the early and mid-1980s. His last concert in this country was the Last Night of the 1989 season – a triumphant farewell, made even more emotional by his serious illness, and the fact that he defied medical advice to appear at all.

Although much associated with the operas of Mozart and Strauss, and the broad classical repertoire (he often mentioned his ‘own interests in the great classics’), Pritchard conducted a vast number of concerts of British and English music – the well-known, the rare, and the contemporary. Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was a speciality, the work – with its dazzling choral writing and antiphonal brass bands – concluding his First Night of the 1984 season. And just for good measure, the evening began with A London Symphony by Vaughan Williams, and a somewhat becalmed Elgar Sea Pictures (Dame Janet Baker, soloist) in the centre. The previous year, a magnificent tribute was paid to Elgar and Walton, with the conductor and BBC Symphony Orchestra striding out in Walton’s Crown Imperial and Violin Concerto, and an epic Elgar Symphony No. 1 that greatly divided critics. For Meirion Bowen in The Guardian, it was the ‘best performance of a standard repertoire work I have heard from this conductor and orchestra.’ For Nicholas Kenyon in The Times, the evening was more hit-and-miss, the reading marred by ‘blaring, unrestrained brass’ – even though the end of the slow movement ‘worked its potent magic.’ And the 1983 season was opened by Pritchard in auspicious circumstances with a remarkable performance of the Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale by Berlioz, a piece requiring a multiplication of the usual sections of the orchestra – a panoply of brass, wind and percussion, the latter seeing the inclusion of the curious, whirling Pavillon Chinoise (or ‘jingling Johnny’). Pritchard’s operatic training enabled him to see the importance of spectacle, and honouring a score to the full.

Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt. Walton’s setting of the story was one of Pritchard’s specialities

Pritchard was often known as a master of sonorities, a reputation which can be understood by listening to an account of Elgar’s In The South, again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the BBC Radio Classics label, and given at the 1974 Proms. And it has to be said that the analogue sound of the period seems to capture the resonance and reverberation of the Royal Albert Hall much more than today’s supposedly superior digital relays – a surprisingly dry and boxy effect (at least, to my ears) from a place known for its grandeur and echo. The BBC S.O. of the 1970s also sounds somewhat different – a more striking, sharper brass sound than today, a weightier impact (dare I say!) from all departments of the orchestra.

The 1981 Proms saw Pritchard on the rostrum, not with an orchestral warhorse or piece of brash modernism, but with an overlooked romantic masterpiece – the 1907 Piano Concerto by Frederick Delius, with the soloist Sir Clifford Curzon. I was present at the concert, standing in about the third or fourth row of the Arena, overwhelmed by the directness of the work – for we tend to see Delius not as the writer of strong movements, but as an altogether more fluid, perhaps even meandering impressionist. How refreshing to enjoy a change from Grieg and Schumann (wonderful though they are) and to find, what Sir Henry Wood might have termed, a true novelty.

Yet atonal and contemporary music was given its place by Pritchard. During his tenure in Liverpool during the 1950s and 1960s, he launched a Musica Viva series, dedicated to the sort of experiments we have now come to expect from the Proms new-music commissioners. Some twenty years later, he continued to take up the baton for composers such as Birtwistle. I recall being much absorbed by the strangeness of The Triumph of Time given in a Radio 3 broadcast in about 1982. Although not a follower of the aforementioned composer, one must – surely – praise a conductor who (like Pritchard) is prepared to play any genre of music for a multitude of listeners and tastes, whether of the mainstream or the minority.

‘New music’ need not necessarily scare us: Britten’s Gloriana and Walton’s Second Symphony were both given their premieres by Sir John (or Mr. Pritchard as he was in those years). Reports, though, of Britten’s frustration with his conductor did not make for an easy first night or general working relationship. ‘JP’ was known as something of a bon viveur, and it was said that he became bored easily. He arrived late at Covent Garden for rehearsals, something alien to Britten – a stickler for single-minded artistic discipline. There is even a report of a Glyndebourne official being despatched to the Eastbourne seafront, with a loudhailer… ‘Is there a John Pritchard on the beach?’ Work beckoned!

Trips to the beach and restaurants aside, the conductor covered an astonishing range of native music: Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus, The Planets, Elgar’s Violin Concerto (an admirable recording exists of a 1986 rendition with Ida Haendel), a symphony by Ruth Gipps, Music for Strings by Bliss, and Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens (programmed alongside the Enigma Variations and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde). He also recorded works by Alan Rawsthorne with the London Philharmonic, available on the Lyrita label, and – like Sir Adrian Boult – had no difficulties with enjoying the sheer pleasures of an Eric Coates march.

Much loved by Proms audiences who admired his Bruckner and Berlioz, and his sensitive reading of Vaughan Williams’s Job, and by radio listeners who would hear Bliss’s A Colour Symphony, or Janacek’s Sinfonietta, followed by Elgar’s Second Symphony, Pritchard gave remarkable and long service to the cause of artistic variety, and to that of English music. His last major recording (a commercial disc on the BBC Artium label) was of Scriabin’s Third Symphony, a voluptuous score from the very end of late-romanticism – shimmering, over-ripe orchestration and colour from a Russian master obsessed by mysticism and themes of ecstasy. Pritchard also conducted Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (a work thickly layered with history and revolutionary meaning) at a Royal Festival Hall concert in 1985 – raising eyebrows, because he was hitherto unconnected to this most political of twentieth-century composers. The audience and critics alike were surprised and overwhelmed by the performance.

Pritchard’s biographer, Helen Conway, hinted at a restlessness, an unhappiness in the conductor’s life – although the book shows many pictures of the man at social gatherings, parties, exhibiting a love of (perhaps, excessive) good living. Like Benjamin Britten, Pritchard was outwardly socially conservative, always immaculately attired, elegant and formal, and although not a flamboyant maestro, nevertheless an authoritative figure on the concert podium. We must hope that the BBC still has the many tapes of his concerts and studio performances. Their loss would mean a significant gap in our appreciation of post-war British music.

Deptford dreaming

Credit: Shutterstock
DEREK TURNER pays tribute to grittily resilient S.E.8

Aircraft always overhead, trains pulling in and out, traffic backed up along the New Cross Road, pulsating rap from open windows, plastic bottles in the gutter, pigeons with fungus-eaten toes, gang tags on gritty walls, smells of exhaust, fast food, sweat and the shower-gel of the highly made-up, high-heeled woman who just clicked by oblivious, while texting someone worth noticing somewhere worth noticing…

Drake, Blake, and Nelson look not down on us but rather out, over somewhere in the storied past before this unremarkable moment. A gilded galleon glints on the weathervane above them, a naval battle is taking place in the tympanum beneath their feet, and tritons uphold the front door.

Deptford’s Town Hall is a rare outpost of exuberance to find in an inner-suburban sea, a neo-baroque flourish built between 1903 and 1905 for the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford, with iconography reflecting the area’s long maritime history. It was never the most practical of buildings, but it has been increasingly inconvenient since the 1960s, when the Borough was eaten by the new Borough of Lewisham, which eventually sold it to Goldsmiths College. Today, its architecture is even more inconvenient – and the swaggering statues are worse than that, facing calls by ‘activists’ for their removal and erasure. They are too confident role-models for an era in English history that doesn’t much care for confidence – or even Englishness.

Drake could never have imagined such Angst-ridden arguments, as he waited aboard the Golden Hind alongside at Deptford on 4 April 1581, looking out for a very special visitor – Elizabeth I, come to honour his epic circumnavigation. Before evening, he would be Sir Francis, knighted aboard by the French Ambassador rather than the Queen, who however privately proud, could not be seen to endorse Drake’s more dubious activities. He was hitherto ensconced in an island nation’s mythology, an unmissable inclusion for the Town Hall architects seeking English ‘immortals’ to keep permanent watch above the New Cross Road. Blake could not have foreseen all this either, as he kept an anxious eye along the Thames corridor for the Dutch – and Nelson would certainly not have seen that signal.

The Golden Hind lay at Deptford (and stayed there until she fell to pieces) because Elizabeth’s father had established the King’s Yard – later, the Royal Naval Dockyard – there in 1513, on a convenient bend in the Thames, downstream from the crammed Pool of London, in the flatlands of the north Kent/Surrey borders. On 19 June 1549, the young Edward VI toured his father’s Yard, and was shown an after-supper spectacle, a mock-naval battle:

…a fort made upon a great lighter on the Thames … of which Mr. Winter was captain, with forty or fifty other soldiers … To the fort also appertained a galley …  Wherefore there came 4 pinnaces … which … with clods, squibs, canes of fire, darts … and bombards, assaulted the castle; and at length … burst the outer walls of the castle, beating them of the castle into the second ward, who after issued out and drove away the pinnaces, sinking one of them, out of which all the men in it … leaped out, and swam in the Thames. Then came th’ admiral of the navy and three pinnaces, and won the castle by assault, and burst the top of it down, and took the captain…

Deptford seen from Greenwich, early seventeenth century

Between 1513 and the Yard’s closure in 1869, hundreds of ships were built, fitted out or repaired at Deptford, making it an epicentre of English seapower on the edge of otherwise quiet countryside – a teeming townlet of hovels, smithies, stores, taverns and workshops, the headquarters of the navigational guild Trinity House, and grand houses of those who needed to be near to the Navy for reasons of duty or state. There were always secrets, troubles and valuables to be found at Deptford, locked up in statesmen’s offices or shipwrights’ desks, bonded in warehouses, guarded by marines, yarned about or perhaps passed over furtively in pubs, like the one in which Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Francis Frezer in 1593, allegedly in a quarrel over the ‘recknynge’, although some think this was only a pretext, and the gay playwright was there on a secret mission for Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster,’ Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1993, we saw a tablet unveiled to him at St Nicholas Church, after a starry, strange dedication service during which Anthony Sher read from Tamburlaine the Great, Janet Suzman from Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Sam Wanamaker read Edward Blount’s 1598 reflections on his dead friend, while men dressed as nuns distributed leaflets about AIDS.

Christopher Marlowe

The Yard would remain a major strategic asset through the following century, when Blake knew the Yard, and after Restoration, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Pepys came down here often on Admiralty business, busily commuting between here and his house in the City, his head full of practical reforms and quidnunc preoccupations. On 16 April 1661, for example, he diarized ‘Then we put off for Deptford, where we went aboard the Kings pleasure-boat that Commissioner Pett is making; and endeed it will be a most pretty thing.’

John Evelyn

John Evelyn lived in Deptford for forty years, fertilely for local legend. In 1658, a 58 feet long whale was killed off Deptford Strand, and another almost as big in 1699. In 1671, Evelyn came upon a highly skilled woodcarver in ‘an obscure place’ in Deptford, and was so impressed he introduced him to Christopher Wren and Charles II. Grinling Gibbons would go on to adorn some of the greatest houses of England.

Evelyn’s house was Sayes Court – a rambling brick house with a famous 100-acre garden, an experimental station and pleasure-ground for the romantic but also scientifically-minded author of Sylva (1664), one of the first and most influential books about forestry. Evelyn was devoted to his garden, and wrote copious maintenance and management notes under the title of Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court, But which may be of Use for Other Gardens. A 1652 plan shows an elegant arrangement of ‘faire gravel walkes,’ fountains, grassy ‘plotts’, ‘long pourmenades’, box-hedged ‘par=terres’, an orchard and an evergreen thicket ‘for Birds private walkes, shades and Cabinetts’ – a haven of ‘choice flowers, and Simples,’ French walnuts and much else.

In 1696, Evelyn leased the house to Admiral Benbow, but found him a careless tenant. Worse came in 1698, when Evelyn, ‘asked’ by William III, allowed Czar Peter the Great and his entourage to rent Sayes Court while Peter was staying in England to study the latest shipbuilding techniques, as part of the modernizing monarch’s opening of a ‘window to the West.’ The towering, twenty-something Czar (he was 6 feet 7 inches tall) was none too careful with other people’s possessions. Evelyn’s servant reported to his master while the Czar was in residence, ‘There is a house full of people, and right nasty.’ Peter and his retinue trashed the house and garden, amongst other damage burning the bedding, using paintings for target practice, and crashing through an ilex hedge in a go-kart, causing the diarist to grumble on 9 June 1698:

To Deptford, to see how miserably the Czar had left my house, after three months making it his Court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the King’s surveyor, and Mr London his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Treasury.

Sayes Court, John Evelyn’s house, in the early twentieth century

Evelyn’s painfully repaired paradise has gone, although there is a park on part of the site, with a twisted old mulberry tree on metal crutches (sadly, not one of his). Part of the house survived somehow, latterly as a workhouse, until the 20th century, by which time Deptford had long lost the Dockyard and most of its greenery, and become synonymous with urban deprivation. But other things have survived.

St. Nicholas’ Church – ‘I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint’. Credit: Derek Turner

The first time I saw St Nicholas’ Church, it was snowing, it was dark, and I seemed to be the only soul in all S.E.8. The cast-iron gates in the tall, thin eighteenth century brick walls were closed and locked, and there were no lights on inside the round-windowed church or charnel-house. Looming over, blacker than black, were the chunky medieval tower, the oldest building in Deptford, and overhanging yews – and straight in front, two great stone death’s heads surmounting the gateposts, with snow piled up on their laurel-wreathed craniums, the silence and whiteness accentuating the unfathomableness of their eye-sockets.

I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint, the churchly assemblage a cautionary note in the silent townscape, like a backdrop from The Rake’s Progress, or one of Rowlandson’s illustrations for The English Dance of Death – the ‘Horrid’ caperers that burst in upon the frightened Statesman, silence the Virago, wheel the Sot to his long louche home. Like the skeleton grinning madly in the Porter’s Chair, making that unfortunate operative recoil, the skulls of St Nicholas seemed to represent ‘What watchful Care the Portal keeps / A Porter He, who never sleeps.’

A sombre graveyard lies through those gates, most grass killed off by the yews, mud and mean needles giving acidic emphasis to the monuments to chandlers, merchants, shipwrights and John Evelyn’s beloved son, Richard, who died in January 1657 and is remembered searingly in the Diary:

[A]fter six fits of a quartan ague, with which it pleased God to visit him, dies my dear son, Richard, to our inexpressible grief and affliction, five years and three days only, but at that tender age a prodigy for wit and understanding; for beauty of body, a very angel; for endowment of mind, of incredible and rare hopes.

Evelyn probably hoped to see Richard again, because he was a believer in ghostly miracles, as suggested by a scrap of local lore he gave to the Royal Society, which ended up in John Aubrey’s Miscellanies:

…a Note under Mr. Smyth’s Hand [the Curate of Deptford] that in November 1679, as he was sick in bed of an Ague, came to him the Vision of a Master of Arts, with a white Wand in his Hand: And told him, that, if he did lie on his back three Hours, viz. from ten to one, that he should be rid of his Ague. He lay a good while on his back: but at last being weary he turned, and immediately the Ague attacqued him; afterwards, he strictly followed the Direction, and was perfectly cured. He was awake, and it was in the day-time.

Off-duty sailors too sleep under the yews, like Captain George Shelvocke, whose 1726 memoir A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea included an incident that inspired one of English literature’s finest poems:

We all observed that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind since we were come to the southward of the Straits of Le Maire, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black albatross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, my second captain … imagining from his colour that it might be some ill-omen, after some fruitless attempts, at length shot the albatross, not doubting, perhaps, that we should have a fair wind after it.

Instead, they experienced six weeks of constant bad weather – but the senseless killing of the bird did at least have one positive consequence decades later. In 1797, William Wordsworth, who had recently been reading Shelvocke’s book, mentioned the incident to Coleridge, who made it the central motif in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Sunset over the Pepys Estate. Credit: Derek Turner

An even ancienter rime connected to Deptford comes from Chaucer – ‘Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme; / Lo, Depeford! And it is half-way pryme.’ The New Cross Road was the main medieval road to Canterbury, sometimes as thronged with pilgrims as it is thronged now with the profane. The ‘depe ford’ was not over the Thames, but the Ravensbourne – supposedly named in reference to the raven flags flown by Sweyn Forkbeard’s fleet, which rampaged up here in 1013 – which flows ten miles up from Bromley to debouch into the more famous river.

Deptford Creek, 1988. Credit: Peter Marshall

Deptford Creek is still a tiny port, where Kentish coasters go in under the lifting bridge (disgusting drivers, delighting me) and come alongside to unload aggregates. The river almost empties at ebb tide, revealing shining mud and shopping trollies perched on by herons. Cranbrook Road, that runs along the Ravensbourne higher up, carries the folk-memory of even less likely avifauna – the cranes that once must have danced and nested among reeds beyond fields. Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was a local, and wrote an eco-story about the poor polluted bourne (today’s Ravensbourne is greatly improved), linking a human down-and-out living on its slithery banks, with the last lesioned fish gasping in its filthy flood. Old quay walls host unusual species of crabs and plants, and a little upstream a fig tree, legacies of exotica trafficked through here over years. Earlier incarnations of the bridge were long strategically significant for forces advancing on London, like those of Wat Tyler in 1381, Jack Cade in 1450, and Thomas Wyatt in 1554 – and the scene of a battle on 22 June 1497, when Lord Audley and his Cornish rebels were easily defeated by the Earl of Oxford.

Late nineteenth century postcard of Deptford Broadway

Today’s Deptford has been gentrified – it has a Waitrose, even a Dance Studio – but in the early 1990s it was often cruelly distinctive, surrounded by areas with their own pathologies – Bermondsey, Elephant and Castle, Eltham, Kidbrooke, Millwall, Peckham. It was a little bit of East End that had somehow come south of the Thames. My flat had been built on a road that in the 1930s had been occupied by businesses like Brisbane Laboratories, producers of liquid paraffin and hospital disinfectants, and the Floetta Liquid Soap Co. Ltd., suggesting not only the noxious air quality of those times, but maybe the nature of today’s underlying earth. In summer, drunks lay prostrate in the High Street – I once saw a pitiable woman urinating onto the aghast A2 at midday – and there were high levels of crime. A man pulled a knife on me in a park, luckily just swearing and running away when I – instinctively, stupidly – declined to hand over my wallet. More serious criminals featured frequently in the pages of the South London Press, perpetrators of carried-through muggings, ‘steaming’ attacks on the old slam-door commuter trains (gangs would pass through carriages and demand valuables at blade-point, leaping exultantly out and through the ticket barriers at the next station), and even fatal drive-by shootings. This was an area with some terrible memories – desperate poverty and squalor which long after infused the lurid novels of local boy Edgar Wallace, and which in the 1990s was still in evidence – the 1944 V2 bombing of Woolworth’s opposite Deptford Town Hall, in which 168 were killed – the never-explained 1981 New Cross Fire, in which thirteen teenagers died.

Deptford Power Station, being demolished. Credit: Derek Turner

But there were also striking survivals, like the trilby and tie-wearing rag-and-bone man who surreally drove his pony and trap along the frantic A2, stabling his animal down a cobbled lane just behind Deptford High Street. Another cobbled street called The Stowage led to ‘The Light’ – Deptford Power Station, then recently closed, but whose chimney still stood gaunt landmark above SE8 – between scrap yards patrolled by Alsatian dogs that would throw themselves savagely at the corrugated iron fences when they heard you passing. Staff said the basement of No. 2 Turbine-Generator was haunted by those who had died on the gibbets alongside the dry dock. 

Watergate Street. ‘There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge.’ Credit: Derek Turner

Not far off were the surviving Georgian gates to the Victualling Yard, with their classical frieze decorated with bucrania (cows’ skulls linked by floral swags), an allusion to Greek and Roman ritual sacrifices. Suitably close was the site of grosser sacrifices, the hugely, horribly busy Foreign Cattle Market of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. In 1907 alone, 184,971 cattle and 49,350 sheep passed through the Market, many to die in the attached slaughterhouses with their notoriously heavy drinking ‘gut girls’ (who could have blamed these women for drinking to forget their days?) There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge, with cattle (or maybe whale!) bones visible at low tide, amongst dark and viscous sludge. Elements of these animals must have passed across the well-scrubbed surfaces of Wellbeloved’s, a family butcher which had carried on the same business in the same premises since 1828, and only closed in 2021.

St. Paul’s Church, ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford.’ Credit: Shutterstock

Albury Street had grand Georgian doorcases, plaster cherubim with dimpled knees holding up lead canopies over old sea captains’ houses. Nearby was St Paul’s church, John Betjeman’s ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford,’ an eighteenth century beauty built by Thomas Archer, famous for St John’s, Smith Square. Charles Burney, who was vicar and organist here between 1811 and 1817, was a son of the eponymous and celebrated music historian. He was also brother to James, who travelled with Captain Cook, and Fanny, author of Evelina. He also ran an academy for the sons of local naval officers, so severe that he provoked a rebellion by pupils, who barricaded themselves into the school and beat him with sticks when he burst down the door. In less choleric moments, Burney was a renowned classicist, collector of books and ephemera (who sold his collection to the British Museum for an impressive £13,500), and royal chaplain.

There were some of the oldest surviving shops in London, including a tailor where smirking men made vinegarish comments about the people passing outside as they measured lapels and inside legs, in a 1650s cubbyhole made even darker by racks of tweeds, and 1970s photos of hirsute men wearing flared trousers made of alarming cloths. There was even the last smithy in SE8, where I had burglar bars made by a hatchet-faced and taciturn man in a tiny forge smelling of hand-rolled cigarettes and hot steel. This tiny iron underworld felt at one with all the other outdated crucibles of identity, from shipbuilding and milling to imperial imports and industrial oils – all of them contrasting with, yet also oddly complementing, the elegant churches and stories of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian derring-do.

Outside grand Victorian villas on Lewisham Way stands Deptford’s 1930s war memorial, a stele with a stone flame on top, and a staring-down soldier, his rifle pointing to the ground – an irrelevantly outdated symbol, yet at whose feet every year the red poppies are renewed. All things combine, come together as symbols of a suburb past and present – a place that has changed, is always changing, but where even now old memory has not been entirely erased.

Dreaming of utopias past

Henry Wrong, first administrator of the Barbican Centre, overlooking the build. Credit: Barbican Archive

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre

Nicholas Kenyon et al, Batsford, 2022, 288pp, fully illus., £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS acknowledges a modernist monument’s coming of age

My first exposure to the Barbican Centre came obliquely. In the children’s science-fiction drama The Tripods, when the producers for the (somewhat cash-strapped) BBC programme had to come up with a futuristic city-cum-biosphere in 1985, they selected the Barbican as one filming location. The palm-filled Barbican conservatory was suitably modern and exotic – at least for a child in the provinces. Years later, I worked in an office adjacent to the Barbican and walked its disorientating aerial walkways daily by rote, knowing that any clever shortcut would lead me inevitably and inconveniently astray. Barbican library became my local library.

Isometric drawing of the Barbican Arts Centre as built, by John Ronayne, August 1982. Credit: Barbican Archive

When it was built, between 1972 and 1982, the Barbican Centre was the UK’s most ambitious urban-planning project to reach construction stage. It houses cinemas, concert halls, exhibition galleries, conference rooms, a theatre, restaurants, shops, cafés, a library and car park in an estate that consists of 2,000 residences, mostly in high-rise towers, all built in a Brutalist style. The new hardback Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre marks the 40th anniversary of the Barbican Centre’s completion, the 50th anniversary of its commencement and (approximately) the 65th anniversary of its conception. Multiple specialist writers cover the origins of the project, the politics and development of the building process and outline the highlights and remit of the cultural activities of the centre. A plethora of photographs capture the centre throughout its operation, from construction up to today, with some shots of classic performances and memorable events. 

The site of the Barbican Centre is Aldersgate, next to Silk Street, Beech Street and Whitecross Street, close to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. The site had been bombed almost completely flat during the Blitz and thus the location presented itself for wholesale redevelopment – on a grand scale, integrating accommodation and facilities. It was already served by Moorgate Station (Northern line underground and mainline) and was within walking distance of the offices and banks of the City. There was little residential consultation – following wartime devastation, Cripplegate district had a residential population of 58. The photographs of the flattened district, with St Paul’s in the background, is a stark reminder of the state of British cities in the post-war aftermath. 

It seems the impetus behind having so many residences was partly political. Sir Nicholas Kenyon, former Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, writes:

The vanishing residential population of the Square Mile posed an existential threat to the survival of the Corporation [of the City of London], with its independent governance and long traditions, for there was a serious possibility in the post-war years that, without residents and voters, there might be a move to incorporate the City into London County Council.

Hostility from LCC and the Arts Council caused friction with the Barbican Centre and led to tussles over funding and control. LCC wanted greater commercial development; the Corporation wanted residences and arts. The Corporation won out and architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were appointed to design the centre and estate buildings. An initial costing of £10m was eventually to balloon to £150m by the time of completion.  

The Lakeside Terrace of the newly completed Barbican building in 1982, with Frobisher Crescent behind. Credit: Peter Bloomfield

The scale of the project is still – in our age of mega-structures – impressive (‘the largest single building for the arts in the Western world.’) The over thirty lifts include one that can transport a twenty-tonne lorry. The distinctive unpainted pitted concrete surfaces of walls were originally smooth before they were pick-hammered by men with pneumatic drills. This was time-consuming and thus expensive. Some aspects were flawed in design. The sculpture courtyard was rarely used because the weight of pieces was considered a potential structural danger to the building below. The gallery space has always been disappointing – a reflection of its late inclusion in the design – and has never lived up to the other facilities of the venue.   

The opening of the Barbican Centre on 3 March 1982: the Queen unveiling the plaque in the foyer, accompanied by The Rt Hon the Lord Mayor Sir Christopher Leaver. Credit: Barbican Archive

When the centre was opened by the Queen on 3 March 1982, the building seemed anachronistic – both behind the times and ahead of them. The building seemed ponderous and unsympathetic, alien in its stylistic unity; cultural tourism was not as developed and streamlined as it would become so there were many doubts about the viability of a costly arts hub. The architecture seemed heavy and uncompromising in a time when Post-Modernism was jettisoning concepts of “truth to materials”, Brutalism and stylistic conformity. Its broad walkways and windswept courtyards seemed too ambitious and forbidding; its thick brass railings seemed passé. More than anything, Brutalism’s intimidating size and lack decorative concession seemed anti-human and indicative of failed visions of Communistic Eastern Europe and corner-cutting city councils. Today, attitudes to Brutalism are changing. Brutalism is an Instagram favourite topic and subject of photo essays and coffee-table books. The high aspirations and unapologetic futurity of Brutalist concrete structures exhilarates the young urban crowd.

The London Symphony Orchestra has been resident at the Barbican since it opened.  The Royal Shakespeare Company acted as consultants as the theatre was designed. However, organisational politics and wrangles over income and subsidies caused Barbican to lose the RSC in an acrimonious parting in 2002 (‘The RSC were reluctant tenants. We were grumpy landlords.’) A transcription of a discussion between senior insiders notes that ‘the Corporation saw the conferences as money generators, and orchestras as money spenders.’ Balancing artistic considerations against commercial one is a constant negotiation, as is that of high culture versus experimental programming. (Although apparently the BBC-funded 1985 Stockhausen festival turned into a sell-out success.) Views on the acoustics of the concert hall were mixed; the acoustics noticeably improved once the Perspex hemispheres were removed from the ceiling. The opinions of performers, conductors and critics are summarised.   

Barbican Cinema brochures from the early 1980s. Credit: Barbican Archive

Most of the fittings are bespoke, which added to the cost but were congruent and effective within the overall design. (There is a great shot of Robin Day’s strongly coloured concert-hall seats.) The signage was considered inadequate from the beginning, leading to notorious navigation difficulties. A Barbican poster announced, ‘If Helen Mirren can find the new Barbican Centre before it opens in March, she will be appearing in Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The book has many photographs of these details, as well as plans, maps, images of construction, aerial views and vintage shots. A selection of posters shows the breadth of programming over the last 40 years, reminding readers of memorable experiences. The authors are either specialists in their fields or they are individuals who have worked at a high level in Barbican Centre management. Short testimonies by knowledgeable figures (including performers, managers and users) intersperse longer narratives, which show palpable affection but address faults. Subjects include the Barbican’s architecture, theatre, music, art, cinema, typefaces and branding and plentiful insights into the management.

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre presents a comprehensive and sympathetic presentation of one of modern Britain’s most iconic buildings. Not universally loved as a building – indeed, still disliked by many – the Barbican Centre continues to act as an important centre for high culture. Most importantly, the Barbican is largely an independent enterprise, with relatively low and indirect tax-payer subsidies. Today, the Barbican’s distance from the interfering hand of government is more vital than ever.

Chapter Six. The Wedding

This is chapter Six of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Chapter One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters TwoThreeFour and Five in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, see

The story so far. Mid Fifth Century; Hengist and his brother Horsa have sailed to Britain where they have been taken on as mercenaries by Vortigern, the newly appointed leader of the Province. Having defeated an army of Picts, Hengist has tricked Vortigern’s son into giving him land where he has built a stronghold.

Holding a feast to celebrate its completion, he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his daughter, Rowena, to Vortigern.

At which point I part company with the Medieval Story Tellers. I don’t believe a hard-headed war lord would throw away everything he’d worked for in his rush to get his hands on his servant’s daughter. While the story of the King who throws away his kingdom for ‘the wrong woman’ repeats throughout medieval versions of the Legendary History, it’s hard to find an historical ruler of Britain before the thirteenth century who did it.

The Wasshail ceremony, central to the story of Vortigern, is possibly a memory of a very old English custom. 

Set up

Hengist’s hall, the feast raucous.

New arrivals at the long benches;

long haired, eager, boastful,

beside their wary British guests.

Behind a door, a room in candle light[i].

Shadows, female laughter. The maids

circle, bob and fuss, like dull moons

orbiting a blazing star. Rowena the still

pensive centre as clothing is adjusted.

They have sprinkled gold dust in her hair.

A jewelled necklace drags attention to her breasts.

A golden belt shows off her slender waist

and amplifies the outward flare of hips.

Hengist, watching from the door, sees her

for once, as any man sees any woman.

Knows lust will strangle Vortigern

and side step all his calculations.

Swats the unwanted images

that flicker bodies rutting on the furs.

What father wouldn’t trade his daughter for a kingdom?

What daughter wouldn’t for a crown?

But when she leaves this room,

she is no longer Hengist’s daughter

but the Wife of Vortigern the King.

Time to take the jewelled cup.

Surprised by her own fear,

thrown from this busy room

alone on the anticipated shore.

The boat has gone and left her here

in darkness. In the distance

Aestrild’s ghost grows restless[ii].

Her hands betray her, spilling wine.

The maids cower, apologizing.

While they clean the cup she will not look at him.

The second time her hands don’t shake.

No words. She moves towards the door.

If you would call her back, now is the time.

Hall-noise heralds the death of Hengist Father.

Who knew this could be so painful?

That she was beautiful,

no one who saw her will deny.

That it was beauty in excess

of human expectations,

all who saw her will attest.

That she was clever,

brave and loyal,

is yet to be revealed. 

As she entered the riot of the hall,

she infected it with silence.

A ripple of turning heads,

abandoned conversations.

Every man who saw her wanted her

but as she moved towards the King,

through the swamp of their desire,

their lust was spittle on a white-hot blade.

And though she moved with the grace of a swan on still water

he was a scarecrow staring at a golden avalanche

and she was the tidal wave bearing down on a mud brick wall.

She kneels before him and lifts the cup:

‘Lauerd king wæs hæil; For þine kime ich æm uæin.’

He looks up and she is sunlight exploding in his face,

shattering thought, making everything background 

only except her face in focus, the world its dull penumbra.

Turning to Keredic, who mistranslates shock

as linguistic incompetence

and launches into cultural explanations:

‘It is a custom, in the Saxon’s land

where ever a company gathers to drink,

friend greets friend and says:

Dear friend, be well. The other says, Drinc hail.

The one that has the cup, he drinks it up.

The cup’s refilled. He gives it his companion

and when the cup is brought,

they embrace each other thrice.

This is the practice in the Saxon’s land.

and thought a noble custom throughout Germany.’[iii]

Take the cup, kiss her, drink.

Her breath brushes his cheek.

Her soft lips taste of wine and metal.

Four story tellers all agree[iv]

this is where the Devil puts in an appearance

to mess with Vortigern,

overwhelming his common sense

with lust for a pagan girl.

It’s the adjective that horrifies.

A different Vortigern, emerging from his private earthquake,

green eyes, watching him, soft lips, another drink.

Stumbling out of incoherence,

he understands the myth of the medusa;

how looking at a woman can turn a man to stone.


He has to ask for something he could take:

his servant’s daughter. The power inversion

obvious to both of them, so to preserve the niceties

they pretend this was an accident,

that both of them are taken by surprise.

(No laughing please, this should be serious.)

My daughter? You want to marry her?

Vortigern pretends it is desire that speaks:

how beautiful etc, how desirable etc…

(As if it mattered what she looked like.)

Who would have thought, at his age,

he would be honoured.

Hengist pretending he must ask his brethren.

Then the haggling when they both know Kent

and Thanet are her bride price.

But Vortigern rejects the script.

Her Morning Gift, lands in the west,

in the hill country to its north.

Fine cloths, jewels from the east,

horses, saddles, oils. ‘Kent

is not mine to give.

Thanet’s already yours.

But if your sons will follow me

I will give them all the land

between the turf wall and the stone.’

And that shocks Hengist.

Wedding celebrations

Master Wace wrote: ‘He desired her in the morning when they met,

and had her that same night.’ Our Priest, horrified;

‘There were no Christian rites, no priest nor bishop,

he had her in the heathen fashion

took her maidenhead, defiled himself.’

But you don’t expect twelfth century clerics

to sympathise with physical desire.

Or recognise a business proposition.

They will always blame the woman. 

There will be a celebrant and a venue

appropriate for the ritual.

After the prayers and public promises;

feasting, dancing, speeching, drinking,

obligatory fornication with or without an audience.

‘After the feast they slept together’

is how Welsh story tellers described a wedding.

Was she frightened?

Embarrassed by your greed,

or did her own lust

shade the colour of her eyes?

Did you come to trade?

Or did you come to conquer?

There was a door, there must

have been a door. A room

with fittings, shapes, colours.

There was her body, a blur of

detail, memories, green eyes.

Reduced to naked ape with thumping heart.

The gravity of need, the greed of flesh for flesh.

Then clothed, walking in the daylight world

to find the keys to the castle have been pawned.

Bank, ditch and palisade redundant

and in the inner room, behind the locked door,

watched by the sleepless guard who lets no body enter, 

there’s a stranger in the dimmest corner

and a version of yourself you do not own.

Maelgywn of Gwynedd murders every woman

who shares his bed, refusing to accept

the obligations the act implies.

(And still finds willing takers

convinced the risk is worth the prize).

Cunnedagus of the Demetae 

gives such women to his retinue.

He was petrified.

Then she stepped out of her clothes,

stepped towards him,

breaking one spell

casting another.


Familiar words in unfamiliar accents,

soft, golden, fragrant, warm.

We are not children playing in a sandpit

ruling our private universe

with plastic armies that can be replaced,

where cities made of sand can be destroyed

and then rebuilt, forgetting that the adults

will call us in and put an end to all our games.

The world won’t wait for us.

While bodies are engaged,

the mind in search of answers

slips into the darkness

where the Latin titles drift

like burnt pages on the breeze,

past broken statues of dead men

whose names have been forgotten;

through ruined halls and shattered walls:

discarded answers that no longer satisfy.

No matter how delirious the frenzied shoving match

(soft, fragrant, warm) the mind drifts on alone,

in the high passes above the snowline,

looking down into the valleys

to the interminable journey

and fading fast the certainty

that there is an end to travelling

where the answers can be found

soft fragrant adequate and warm.

Stay with me?

He leaves the golden marvel on the furs

and searches for his clothes.

She stretches, mutters, ‘Stay with me.

Sleep here.’ He hesitates.

Locrin tightening his belt,

steps outside the earth house

into the frost of a winter’s morning,

as the whalebone doors slide shut

on his desire.

The great gates of Tintagel grinding shut

behind a man who runs

before his lover can discover who he is.[v]

Both wanting to say, take me back,

before the fog has lifted from the river

or the ice has melted on the castle gate.

Their minds are filled from dawn to dusk

with fantasies of welcome;

blinking, baffled, overjoyed,

as the great gate swings open

the whalebone door is moved aside,

as if the hind will greet the hound

that runs it down to rip its throat out.

He is not suffering from their disease.

Flesh calling to the memory of flesh,

promising oblivion and pleasure.

But there are things he has to do.

[i] This scene, where Hengist watches his daughter being decked out in her finery, although expanded here,  is Laȝamon’s addition to his sources.

[ii] Aestrild’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2020). Rowena hears it in Chapter one and  it haunts her.

[iii] From ‘It is a custom’ to ‘Germany’ is a loose translation of Laȝamon. Even in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier Latin version the words of the ceremony are given in a form of English. It’s possible the custom is very old and also possible it is the origin of ‘wassailing’.

[iv] Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Laȝamon. The implication in all four is that had Rowena been baptised first, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Vortigern makes this point in the previous chapter.

[v] Locrin’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry, Uther’s in the next part of this project. Both men endanger their kingdoms through their infatuation.

Before/After and Leavetaking – prose-poems by Ian C. Smith

IAN C. SMITH’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds, The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review , Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


Before we broke up we thought we knew about long-haul travel.  Days dimmed in mid-afternoon, our attic walls furry, so we walked.  Signs pointed across barnyard mud to fields where we lost crooked trails only to find them again pointing the way towards blue smoke above a serrated cottage roofline.  Ducks streamed under bridges of stone past black-faced sheep between charcoal-sketched glimpses of a distant spire.  Across disused railway embankments we roamed, and through farms, climbing stiles, squeezing between gaps in broad gates.  We waited while a herd of cows ambled by, a line of pale hills blurring to violet in the dwindling light.  Then a dark shape crested a rise tinkling like a band of wandering minstrels.  Muscular horses pulled three wooden caravans against the backdrop of lowering sky.  A whippet tethered to the last caravan placed its paws with deliberate care as those travellers nursing the secrets of centuries faced the roads ahead, their shadows falling across us.  We didn’t stir until we no longer heard the sound of tiny brass bells.  Our breath steamed as we stood there, her hair misted with diamonds, for minutes I wish I could experience again, these details imprinted on memory.

After we broke up, after I finished off our cheap bottle of Pig’s Nose whisky, I tramped November’s fields blackened in slow drenching rain, a train’s horn keening like a cello’s sombre drawn-out final note in the gloaming near the derelict WW2 air force base haunted by distant airwave voices, haven for crepuscular creatures, brave truth we might have sorted out stuck in autumn’s red, raw throat.  Our poplars were being stripped of their sensuous splendour, one toppled, matted roots curling, exposed like wild sexual hair, her ripped open note with my cold hand inside the pocket of the seaman’s pea-jacket she gave me to ward off icy wind the previous winter that now lies encrypted in the same pocket hanging in exile in my wardrobe eclipsed by the silent dark.  I read of letters turning up lonely years after long-dead soldiers posted them, the bereft gently kissing foxed handwriting, those letters better than grave markers, certain, astonishing, mementoes.  I dislike evenings, their blanketing of days, thought I knew about the transnational blueprint, but travellers move on.  I didn’t.  I don’t need reminders.  Rain needs no reminder to softly fall.


Trees threshed by fierce wind driving cloud, red-tinged, my nemesis, dark smoke plumes ten miles distant, branches cracking, light a hellish burnt umber, the state blazes, temperature soaring over forty degrees again, a regular horror now despite naysayers’ published scorn of climate change.  The jack donkey’s coat fluffs in this wind, strands of his hay scudding before it.  My neighbours silhouetted on their hill by shifting smoke are leaving.  Driving past, they slow, peer at me, frowning, wave.

Possums scoured juiced orange peels on my compost heaps, inverting them to resemble white bra cups, like an art installation, contrasting with the dark teeming below, and now, above.  The empty clothesline sways, days of pegged socks’n’jocks, colour, all gone, gone, children grown.  Where six pink and grey galahs perch, silent, feathers ruffled, I sit under their melaleuca watching the car disappear, a Beckett character waiting.  For what?  So much I love is under threat.

I can’t imagine starting again, beauty razed but for echoed voices, these trodden paths to the heart.  Walking about in circles, brittle leaves, small branches, crunching underfoot, grevillea, bottlebrushes, bravely flying their colours in this demonic blast, I feel as helpless as a crushed bird.  An eerie soundtrack as in a film by Werner Herzog or Terence Malick would be apt.

My neighbours return, relay that we have been advised by phone to leave.  Reluctant, I assure them I shall, voice, meant to sound upbeat, hoarse, aware of their kindness, my deserved caste as odd recluse, phone a seldom-used landline.  A low-pressure change heads our way.  Yay!  The cavalry.

The trough arrives, favouring my position , cooling me and galahs, but imperilling others.  I play back the evacuation message, make calls.  My son in a city far away tells me to get going to my sister’s in town.  Now.  Ravelled with decision-making: cats, donkey, documents, photographs, cherished journals; my heart brimming, I secure windows, doors, take short-term essentials, leave this place, so beloved, especially its fragrance when soft rain begins to fall.

Five poems by Robin Helweg-Larsen

ROBIN HELWEG-LARSEN has had some 350 poems, largely formal, published in the Alabama Literary Review, Allegro, Ambit, Amsterdam Quarterly, and other international magazines. He is Series Editor for Sampson Low’s Potcake Chapbooks – Form in Formless Times, and blogs at from his hometown of Governor’s Harbour in the Bahamas.

His Mad Skull’s Like

a motorcycle cage of death,

the engines roaring over and beneath:

conflicting paths, crashless machinery –

the crowd roars, hoping for catastrophe.

an alchemist’s laboratory,

he strives through Universal symmetry

alone to conquer nature, friendlessly,

transmuting hopeless to hope endlessly.

a planet with its atmosphere,

blossoming gaudy from beginnings drear;

from grand extinctions and tectonic faults

life reaches out to loot galactic vaults.

a plant with taproot down the spine

side-nerve extractors reaching out to mine

the Universe’s minerals of sense,

make sense, and raise to Mind the mind’s pretense.


(Note: this poem is so named  because if you look at it closely you may not find as much meaning as if you step back, let it flow past you, and see an outline of a story.)





















































Leadership Transition

Julius Caesar, Antony, King Lear,

Hamlet, Macbeth – corrupted, vain, impure,

Irrational, bombastic, insecure –

He’s no more clarity or veritas

Than the deceptions of a covert war,

All morals blurred.

That tyrant rant, Tyrannosaurus roar,

Forecasts he’ll suffer a dictator’s fate:

His proud obsessed confusion first seems great,

Then grates, unravels at the seams, slips gear,

Loses its moral metaphors, grows crass;

He dies absurd.

Octavius, Malcolm, Edgar, Fortinbras,

Comes from the wings and strides to centre stage –

Competent, measured, reasonable, sane –

To rule the wreckage of the tragic reign;

Restores some structure, closes out the age,

Speaks the last word.

This archetypal character’s strong thump

Will get his nation out of the morass;

The raucous self-styled hero being dead,

A truer leader takes the throne instead.

(How Shakespeare’d end the Tragedy of Trump

Can be inferred.)

Poems Like Motes of Dust

Like tiny midges, poems in the air

were unseen all my life, presence unclear,

occasionally one would land, bite, sting…

I’d be aware

a poem had come, was singing by my ear.

Now everything, literally every thing,

is a poem: a car, a dog, a glass,

a chair, a seagull, every blade of grass,

all people and each thing they pass.

Now I see swarms, millions of flies,

or like light’s dots of darkness thickening as day dies,

the poems are visible in the air around,

a pointillist canvas, every dot

a poem in itself, an image, word, rhyme, thought,

or like neutrinos streaming from the sun,

billions a second passing with no sound

unseen, unfelt, through everyone,

the poetry of existence, raw, untaught.

The Universe: a cloud of dust that hangs and floats,

dust like a drive of cattle on the range,

or when you fill a barn with dusty motes

by sudden action, and a sunbeam’s slice;

or as Sumerian gods convene, converse,

swarming like flies around burnt sacrifice,

summoned by smell of sacrificial meal…

was it my sacrifices made this change,

made poems visible like motes of dust?

Is this the Universe’s thrust?

Hide them, and then reveal?

For all the poems make one UniVerse.


I said:

‘Look at the little kids playing Tag round the pumpkins – you can be that age again, if you close your eyes and remember pumpkins almost as big as you, too big to move – the massive newness, strangeness of them, never seen before, so big, but obviously to sight and touch a vegetable – you can reexperience the never before experienced, a world in which everything new absorbs your mind, and every minute you experience something new – playing Tag is a sensory delight, of running-and-not-falling (wobbly) in the half-dark (strange light) around pumpkins (absorbing color and texture) with an older sibling (touch and clutch) across strewn hay (a new but not difficult surface) and sometimes wooden pallets (a new and bizarre and impossible-to-run-on surface) but mostly the joy of running in the dark as a physical delight and not falling over – and then you stop and sit and throw straw in the air, and it doesn’t hurt (unlike gravel) and it doesn’t make a mess (unlike mud) and it doesn’t really get in your hair and eyes (unlike sand) and it also doesn’t really go anywhere no matter how hard you throw it (unlike any of them) and you laugh; you can remember all that if you can remember/imagine all the pumpkins three times as big, nearly as tall as you, too big to move – and adults become a different species, they go “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” and make no sense, so you only really talk with other kids until finally an adult breaks into your world and tags your mind, and makes you hear with threats of violent pain, makes you give up your soul in self-defence,

Leaves you a narrow life of yes’m, no’m.’

She said: ‘You don’t make any sense.

Go write a poem.’