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Saturday, August 31, 2013

For Seamus Heaney

The Fine Print of Purgatory

Like Seamus Heaney, I was a farmer’s boy
Or rather I became one
When I was four and signed my lease
In hearts’ loss -
Paying my ingoings
In mud and shit and love.

I too saw kittens drown -
And pigs slaughtered
Squealing at hell’s gate,
Blood caught in an old tin bath -
And dogs shot in the drive
Slinking as the 22 rose and leveled.

There can’t be many of us
Who felt white-washed walls
In the dark, as the cows respired -
Smelled the poetry there,
Looking up the stock at night
By torch and latch and moonlight.

Those cattle died of plague
And ended in a bulldozed pit
Near the stack-yard –
And my almost father
Broke his heart for loss
While I was bush-bashing outback tracks.

Few I’m sure will know now
The turnip shredder in the picture
Or have eaten a slice cold from the handle swing.
Now and again, we used to feed turnips
To my Connemara pony Jonty
Before he was knackered by a winter’s standing.

There is cruelty then in much remembering -
But life it was in deeds that dated
With death foreshadowed in a codicil.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

At the Ice Cream Factory Farm in Tattenhall, Cheshire July 2013 - with the Clarke family

At the Island Bay Marine Centre - with Class V6 from Island Bay School


Rum goings on recounted


On 7th August, I was delighted to attend the Reception held by the Alumni Relations & Philanthropy Unit of the Australian National University, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, to link up with Wellington-domiciled graduates and former staff members.

The attendees were a fun lot and Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) gave us an interesting review of where the Uni is heading nowadays.

I was able to tell the gathering about regularly being issued with a Land Rover from a workshop under the Coombs Building and driving off into the wild yonder for months at a time incommunicado, as I mosied around the cattle stations of the Northern Territory conducting a survey of the impact on productivity of the switch from droving cattle overland to transporting them using road trains.

Marnie seemed somewhat aghast when I recounted my tale of having arrived at Montejinni Station in 1969, only to be asked to kill a snake that was plaguing the laundry room where an aboriginal girl was working.

It seems that contemporary Occupational Safety and Health and University Research Protocols frown on letting PhD students disappear for months on end with a Bundaberg Rum ‘Gifts for Informants’ budget and a license to dispose of stray reptiles!

And the Aussie magpies that haunt the trees around the IAS were another topic of conversation - so I was able to link them to my poem on the subject:

See also:

Monday, August 5, 2013

Things was different when I was a lad


If the North of England is poor, it puts a very good face on it. In fact all the areas that we saw seemed to be in the grip of an Affluenza Epidemic [with the notable exception of Blackpool though even here there is a lot of money going through the gaming machines].

This rather undermines my ploy with my boys that:

‘We was so poor as underpants was a luxury and mi dad used to whitewash us bottoms along wi’ shippons in t’Back End’.

Anyhow, for them [assuming that I’m not going to be around forever], I’ll post the promo video of the Leisure Village near Silverdale / Carnforth where we stayed for a week, living the life of Riley.

And, as a corrective, some reflections from my Northern Contemporaries:

In the cause of serious balancing [shedding further light on Blackpool’s problems] see:


Karl give me Communism – but not yet!



My great great grandfather Walter Shorrocks lived for the latter part of his life at 3 The Crescent, Salford. This is a stone’s throw from the Crescent , the pub in Salford which, when it was known as the Red Dragon, hosted Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. They used to meet to chat in a corner spot past the bar. I like to think that Walter said ‘Eh Up’ now and again to the two conspiratorial foreign gentlemen.

So I had to go and have a drink in the self-same spot and toast Fred at least.

As Roy Hattersley explains in his review of the book The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt:

‘The word that best describes Engels's early manhood is "louche". But Hunt assures us that "the great Lothario, slave to Paris's finest grisettes and rough seducer... profoundly matured" by his early 60s. In the interim, he drank heavily. He also rode to hounds with the Cheshire Hunt.
'My hunting neighbours continually tell me that blood sports are a classless occupation. Yet I still find something ridiculous in the hero of Soviet intellectuals following a field led by the future Duke of Westminster - the unreadable chasing the uneatable’.

I have a big Seven O birthday coming up next year and Fred has given me something to emulate in terms of celebrating it. He reported that:

‘We kept it up till half past three in the morning and drank, besides claret, sixteen bottles of champagne — and that morning we had 12 dozen oysters.’

And it is reported that this was not an isolated act of indulgence. During the 1870s his Primrose Hill home had become a popular venue for socialist excess.
‘On Sundays, Engels would throw open his house,’ recalled the communist August Bebel. On those puritanical days when no merry men can bear life in London, Engels’s house was open to all, and no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning.’ Pilsner, claret, and vast bowls of Maitrank — a May wine flavoured with woodruff — were consumed while Engels sang German folk-songs or drunkenly recited ‘The Vicar of Bray’:

In good King Charles's golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
Zealous High-Church man I was,
And so I gain'd Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach'd,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's Anointed.
And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possest the crown,
And popery grew in fashion;
The Penal Law I shouted down,
And read the Declaration:
The Church of Rome I found would fit
Full well my Constitution,
And I had been a Jesuit,
But for the Revolution.
And this is Law .. etc.

When William our Deliverer came,
To heal the Nation's Grievance,
I turn'd the Cat in Pan again,
And swore to him Allegiance:
Old Principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive Obedience is a Joke,
A Jest is non-resistance.
And this is Law ... etc.

When Royal Anne became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory,
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory:
Occasional Conformists base
I Damn'd, and Moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was,
From such Prevarication.
And this is Law ... etc.

When George in Pudding time came o'er,
And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
My Principles I chang'd once more,
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus Preferment I procur'd,
From our Faith's great Defender
And almost every day abjur'd
The Pope, and the Pretender.
And this is Law ... etc.

The Illustrious House of Hanover,
And Protestant succession,
To these I lustily will swear,
Whilst they can keep possession:
For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
I never once will faulter,
But George, my lawful king shall be,
Except the Times shou'd alter.

 And this is Law ... etc.

Fred clearly had a very realistic idea of how most people prosper in the politics of expediency!

And I think that Fred and I would have been able to share a joke or two. Perhaps I could have tempted him out to the Beer Garden if he had been in session this July and we could have talked about Cheshire Toffs and the place of the Middling Sort in industrial Lancashire.

As it was, I found a couple of companions in an architect and his friend who were renovating a property for student accommodation. And that warm evening, I was able to tell them the story about Fred’s flight from Germany, his drudgery as a manager relieved by autumn weekends boozing at the Swan Hotel, Tarporley after following the hounds - and his walks on the wild side in old Manchester with accommodating Irish girls.


Lost Legacies


Oral family history is slippery stuff. When I was back in England recently, my cousin again mentioned a supposed legacy that had slipped out our hands when my great grandmother Sarah Kenyon [born 1862] fell victim to the machinations of an unscrupulous interloper with the name of Ormerod.

I can find nothing so far that might corroborate this story.

In the 1881 Census Sarah is recorded as a 19-year old living with her married sister Betty Nicholson in modest circumstances in Oldham. Betty was also a witness to Sarah’s marriage to my great grandfather David Clarke on 9th April 1882 – the bridegroom was 39 years old.

It seems that Sarah’s father Oliver Kenyon was a publican and small-scale ‘provisioner’ [i.e. wholesale merchant] and that both Oliver and his wife had died before Sarah reached adolescence. The Kenyons left two sons and three daughters – and little evidence of wealth – though Oliver did come from an interesting family which ran pack-horse trains across the Pennines from their farm near Middleton.

I suspect that Sarah, as an orphan and later wife of a much older and relatively successful man, had developed something of a fantasy about her origins that none could contradict as she had moved from her native Oldham in Lancashire to settle in then distant Nantwich, Cheshire. On the other hand as orphans the children may indeed have been prey to skulduggery.

In the case of my father’s family the ‘Johnsons’ almost nothing cam down to me by word of mouth, as my father had been killed before I was born and his immediate relatives had either died or dispersed to as far away as Canada by the time I became interested in our origins.

There was though one snippet, which had slipped through to my mother - surviving my grandfather’s change of name from Shorrocks to Johnson to gain anonymity and his reluctance to otherwise provide facts and links. This was that the family [or now I would add one successful member of the family] had operated a pub [and now I can clarify that it was in fact a hotel on a very grand scale].

It seems that James Henry Shorrocks, the eldest brother of my great grandfather Robert Edwin Shorrocks, became a very successful dance hall operator in Manchester - he had a ballroom for example in Chorlton-on-Medlock. Building on his success, he purchased a large country house at the end of the 19th Century in Bispham on what became Blackpool’s North Shore which he eventually converted from a private residence into the Norbreck Hydro Hotel.
In 1912, ‘Uncle Jim’ formed a public company and developed a fashionable venue and leisure complex with its interiors modelled in the manner of ocean liners like the Titanic. The building was expanded in several phases, and eventually encompassed 400 bedrooms, with a ballroom, swimming pool and solarium by the early 1930s, together with a bowling green and an adjoining 18-hole golf course.

Initially, the clientele must have consisted largely of the managerial class of the mills, mines, shops and enterprises of the towns of North West England. One can imagine that during the Wakes Weeks, in which whole towns in Lancashire shut down the cotton mills to give their workers a week’s holiday, opportunities were taken by the upper middle class to exchange business information, undertake transactions and arrange dynastic marriages. A sort of Northern version of the aristocratic plot hatching, mate-matching and gossip-dispatching that used to take place at Bath a hundred or so years earlier.

And it seems that the Hydro was later patronised by nobility and the British upper class, in addition to being a venue for the top stars of stage, screen and radio.

[And as Wikipedia reports:

‘In the late 1970s, the hotel's disco became the venue for a number of concerts by punk rock, new wave and Mod revival bands. Those who played there included the Angelic Upstarts, Penetration and the Purple Hearts. The venue also saw gigs by two bands before they became famous. Adam and the Ants performed there when they were still a punk rock band in March 1979, a performance which One Way System drummer Dave Brown, listed in his top five gigs. And on 15 March 1979, The Pretenders played one of their first ever gigs at the Norbreck.

In 1988, the hotel was the venue for a conference where the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party merged to form the Liberal Democrats. Writing in the New Statesman about the merger, the writer Jonathan Calder said of the hotel, "Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel does not lift the spirit at the best of times, and in January 1988 its Soviet ambience was enhanced by the trams and melting snow in the streets outside."]


So hearing my long-lost relatives mention ‘Uncle Jim’ at our recent reunion in Silverdale, during our July UK holiday] added to my commitment to make a sentimental journey to Blackpool and take some relief from the unerringly beautiful countryside of the Lakes, Dales and Forest of Bowland.

As a kid, I went to Blackpool year after year in the autumn when the harvest was over at the farm [my stepfather was a devotee of the Variety Shows that played at the three piers and the Winter Gardens]. And of all the places that I revisited on my trip, I think that Blackpool is the least changed in ambience, though the substitution of car parks for front gardens in the forecourts of the boarding houses and small hotels has even augmented the sense that man has paved limbo and settled for fish and chips and beer in despair of reaching heaven.

Nonetheless, we made our pilgrimage to the Norbreck Castle Hotel and sat for awhile drinking shandies and coca colas in what remains of the old sun lounge, soaking up the sense of times past and frayed grandeur. I won’t be unkind but have to remark that I would not like to be landed with the bill for totally remediation.

So I have since set about chasing Uncle Jim up again on the Net and found to my delight that, like me, he was prone to putting a bit of stick about with the local Council on the question of the Rate Burden! It seems that here the genes and memes are gyring back and overarching in a lazy double helix.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Returning to Wroxeter - Summer 2013


The wind has set aside its ire for love

And nuzzles nape of sun

The shadows drain the blush above

As ripples through the shallows run.


At Riverside the glasses bubble

Where the basking Severn weaves

And joys the Shropshire summer double

With steak and beer and cheese.


Then, it was two thousand years or so

That Marius chinked his glass

And watched the boatmen heave and row

Through willows to the quayside grass.


Here with the heat of day at peace

Specks of why meet sigh and cease -

The river of life ne’er ran so quiet and high

Then thought Mario, now again think I.


The sun, it turns and shares the kiss

So soft the courtship scarce begun -

To-day we celebrate such joy as this

With those who dream at Uricon.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fracking Eck and the Ogre from Lloegyr


We have just spent three delightful weeks back at my turangawaewae [Maori for ancestral hearths] in Cheshire and Lancashire. The trip also incoprorated North Wales - so it was a real pilgrimage to the almost forgotten cultural and political entity that bound together the original inhabitants of the North West, linking Cymru [Wales] with Yr Hen Ogledd [the Old North].

As a North Westerner by origin and a long-time sceptic of Heathrow Airport [which it seems is about to expand again to engulf the whole of western London], we flew into and departed from Manchester.

‘When I was a lad’ the smell of cow shit hit you as soon as the plane doors opened. Not any more – Manchester Airport is now glitzy, brassy and confusing enough to be anywhere. I could only smell aircraft fuel.

Like many of the Australians and New Zealanders with British backgrounds, I have a somewhat complex relationship with my Mother Country - all the more so in my case because I am a first generation emigrant.

But summoning consciousness through the fog of endless eons of sibilance, vibration, claustrophobia and immobility of long distance plane travel, I was still thrilled to watch the flight-path sat-nav track over the coast of NE Norfolk and then settle over Glossop and Macclesfield as we awaited our landing slot.

Catching the highly efficient light rail / tram into Piccadilly, I was stunned by the greenery. What once were blasted stretches of obsolescent industrial grime are now smiling bosky coppices. A few astute businessmen must have made an absolute fortune growing saplings for the planting programmes. And this seemed to be a region-wide phenomenon. Driving the M6 from Manchester to Carnforth we didn’t see a single mill chimney through the miles and miles of fringing trees.

The only place where this has not happened is Blackpool. Here clearly there is some kind of city by-law which prohibits anything green and growing. Lowry would be proud of the City Fathers for preserving a heritage of gravel, tarmac, brick and concrete at an inhuman scale – all that’s needed is to set some smoke billowing out of the top of the Tower.

Talking of Blackpool, I mentioned the word ‘fracking’ while getting some change for the kids in an amusement arcade and was treated to a tart lecture about earthquakes [and that to a Wellingtonian!]. It seems that the locals are not too keen on Cuadrilla’s shale gas exploration programme in the nearby countryside.

Mind you, the magnitude 2.3 earthquake on the Richter scale, that hit the Fylde Coast on 1 April 2011 followed by a second of magnitude 1.4 quake on 27 May would scarcely rate a mention in New Zealand.

But this is only a foretaste, as Cuadrilla Resources estimates that the shales beneath the Fylde may hold 5,660 billion cubic metres of gas – of which about 20 percent may be recoverable by “fracking" [involving hydraulic fracturing by pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale rock, to release the gas it holds].

As the Maori proverb maintains: ‘Whatungarongaro te tangata toi tu whenua [As man disappears from sight, the land remains].

Not so much nowadays. It used to comfort us that, amid life’s turbulence and transitions, ‘the land alone endures’. But as we increasingly rape and trash landscapes, nature struggles to provide us with emotional sustenance - substituting solastalgia for solace. 

And it particularly saddens me to learn that an unspectacular but perfectly ordinary piece of gentle farmland in Central Lancashire is being fractured for its gas. As my own ancestors toiled for generations on farms, fishing boats and workshops in Fylde and its nearby foothills, I feel an affinity.


[Pictures above of the view looking west from Lower Shorrocks Hey Farm towards Blackpool Tower and the nearby market town of Poulton-le-Fylde]
So I was both amused and quietly enraged to learn that Tory Toff Lord Howell believes that the North East – sorry North West – is an expendable wasteland. Unlike Balcombe in Sussex – ‘four square on the Brighton line’ – where the managers live who operate the factories on the Crawley Trading Estate that put the holes in the ends of toothbrushes.


As Jane Merrick commented in the UK Independent on the perceptions of ‘Southern’ Tories like Baron David Howell of Guildford:

‘This is only anecdotal, but the “northern problem” seems to be a psychological one, and, admittedly, on both sides. One seems to have an atavistic distrust of the other. Northerners think the Tories are only interested in policies which benefit the south. A lot of Conservatives think the north is bandit country, that we are uncouth savages who don’t care about our countryside or cities.

‘Both perceptions are wrong, obviously.

‘Anyone who has visited Northumberland, or County Durham, or North Yorkshire can see that Lord Howell is mistaken. If by “desolate”, Lord Howell means the outstretched beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors, or the dramatic coastline of Northumberland, then give me desolation over, say, the chocolate box villages and caramel-coloured manor houses of the Cotswolds, the favourite stamping ground of Mr Cameron and his friends.

‘Give me a place where I can walk to the next village without encountering another car, where I can buy a pint for less than £2, where the Hunter wellies are encrusted with mud, not gravel from huge drives, and where the peace is never spoilt by a helicopter ferrying Jeremy Clarkson to his new mansion.

‘The north-east – and, while we’re at it, the north-west, which firms like Cuadrilla believe to be an easy target for fracking – shows England in its unspoilt, geologically undressed state. I wonder where Lord Howell was thinking of when he referred to “beautiful rural areas”, if not the north? Because, with the greatest respect to the people of Guildford, whose town is associated with Lord Howell, and its surrounding countryside of Surrey, I want mountains and lakes, not a series of golf courses and gated homes.’


And I find that my own comments are just a speck in a swelling ocean of backlash.
Try David Banks in the Journal, for example:

‘.... I offer the following Thought for the Day. . .

‘Resting on the seventh day, after his wondrous act of creation, God explained proudly to the Archangel Michael how his greatest work had created planet Earth, a world in perfect balance.

“For example,” he explained to the puzzled Archangel, “there is North America, a place of great opportunity and wealth, while South America is going to be poor.

“The Middle East will be a hot, arid spot while Russia will be cold and covered in ice.”

‘Michael, impressed by God's work, then pointed to another area. ”What's that?”

“Ah,” said God. ”That's the North of England, the most glorious place on Earth: beautiful people, seven Premiership football teams, impressive cities and the home of the world's finest artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, explorers and politicians.

“People from the North of England are going to be modest, intelligent and humorous and they're going to be found travelling the world.

“They’ll be extremely sociable, hard-working and high-achieving, and they will be known throughout the world as speakers of truth.”

 ‘Michael gasped in wonder and admiration, but then proclaimed:  “What about  balance God, you said there would be balance?”

 ‘God replied very wisely: “Wait till you see the bunch of tossers I'm putting down South to govern the country!”

I added a comment to Jane’s piece which runs:

‘As an expatriate from the North West who has recently holidayed in rural Cheshire, North Wales, the Lake District and the Forest of Bowland, with my Kiwi wife, I have been struck by her wide-eyed enjoyment of the scenery and response to the warmth and hospitality of the locals [overweight though many of them may be].

‘This is in contrast to our previous visit, when I took her on a biscuit tin lid tour of the picturesque South. Adrift in thatch and cob villages, she was constantly apprehensive about being jostled into becoming the Maid of Midsomer at a Fair and being killed in a case of mistaken identity by a cross-bow wielding Morris Dancer.

‘Once Australians and New Zealanders get over the fact that Laura Ashley also designed villages [with every nook nick-nacked, as applies also to interiors], they much prefer the North where they can spot a rogue Morris Dancer far enough away to bring him down with a mere or a boomerang.’

All good fun – but tinged with a bitterness that bodes ill for the survival of the UK as a cohesive political entity.

Several of the other commentators on Jane Merrick’s article suggested that it might be time for Northerners to consider joining Scotland in a quest for Independence – in essence the isolation of ‘Lloegyr’ [England south and east] from the rest of the British Isles. 

A political regrouping, with a federation between Cymru, Yr Hen Ogledd and Albion would constitute an economy with a GVA of £412 billion per year [around a third of the GDP of the island of Great Britain].  It would rank around 20th in the international GDP stakes somewhere between Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Sweden.

And as for an impending Civil War to preserve the Union, a Northern prophet has already foretold the fall of the Old South as Guildford and Richmond-on-Thames succumb to barrages of black puddings and Lancashire bomb cheeses.

For more, read ‘Come Back With the Wind’ by Les Dawson, in which the threat of an embargo on whiskey sales to the South confirms secession. A timeless tale of ‘love, honour and alcohol’ in which ‘battle lines will be drawn, friendships and family ties tested and kegs tapped as the path to war approaches, albeit with a hiccough or two’.