I don’t often write Remembrance posts because, rightly or wrongly, I tend to think that it somehow seems wrong to commemorate those who died in WW1 and WW2 while there is still conflict going on all over the world, and mankind doesn’t seem to have learned anything from past. But while I was in Plymouth last month I walked up on the Hoe and came across Wave, the poppy installation at the Naval Memorial, and found it very moving indeed, and it doesn’t glorify or justify war in any way.
The ceramic flowers were originally part of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red display at the Tower of London back in 2014. Created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper it involved a staggering 888,246 blooms, each representing a life lost during the First World War. I saw the original exhibition, which was truly stunning, and the Plymouth display, although considerably smaller, is every bit as breath-taking, and every bit as thought provoking.
The poppies have been placed to form a giant wave, rearing up against the memorial, which was established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Close by is a hut where visitors can leave their memories and thoughts, and there are excellent information boards about the Great War and the work of the CWGC, as well as volunteers who provide guided tours.
The Plymouth display took 8 days to set up, and is one of is one of two sculptures taken from the original installation. It’s already been shown at Southend, Cardiff, Hull and Derby, and other venues are planned, including Stoke. But Plymouth is the only location where the poppies have been placed on a war memorial, which makes it all the more poignant. I gather it is lit by spotlights at night, which makes it look even more spectacular. Wave can be seen until November 19, and if you’re in the Plymouth area it really is worth a visit, and will make you think about the pity and futility of war.
I always say I’m a bit of a bookish magpie, stealing ideas from other people when they catch my fancy, and I came across this ages ago, thanks to Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, and filed it away in my brain for future use, where it rattled around for several months until the other day, when I found myself singing along to David Bowie but substituting the words ‘Star Map’ for ‘Star Man’, and was prompted to dig this out.
It is a Literary Constellation, created by artist Nick Rougeux who uses the opening lines of famous books to make beautiful images. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the first sentence of Alice in Wonderland is:”Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?”
Rougeux, who describes himself as a ‘designer, data geek and fractal nut’ makes his maps from the opening lines of novels, and the first lines of chapters in short stories. I gather that the maps are basically sentence diagrams, based on grammatical structure, and words are linked according to the part of speech they are (verbs, nouns, adjectives etc) and their length.
He has a brilliant website where he explains the technique:
“Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a paths based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”
He also produces artwork from punctuation:
Talking about this on his website he says:
“Between the Words is an exploration of visual rhythm of punctuation in well-known literary works. All letters, numbers, spaces, and line breaks were removed from entire texts of classic stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice—leaving only the punctuation in one continuous line of symbols in the order they appear in texts. The remaining punctuation was arranged in a spiral starting at the top center with markings for each chapter and classic illustrations at the centre.”
Among other things he also uses musical staves, colour palettes of illustrations in the New Yorker magazine, and sonnet signatures, which are visualisations of Shakespeare’s sonnets as signatures based their letters.
His says he is fascinated by data visualisation and fractal artwork, which I assume means it is done on a computer, and I dare say purists will claim it is not ‘real art’, but I like his work – it’s a very different way of looking at things, and makes you think.
This week’s Saturday Snapshot photos were taken during a recent visit to Worcester Cathedral, and show the tomb of King John – think Robin Hood (only that turns out to be just a story), Magna Carta, and Crown Jewels lost in the Wash.
These days there’s a tendency for historians to take a revisionist view of the past, so figures once considered bad turn out out to be good (and vice versa). King John, however, remains an unreconstructed villain. He had few supporters in his own time, and the general view of him as a thoroughly bad lot and very unpleasant person has stayed largely unaltered in the 800 years since his death.
I’ve always been interested in him because when I was a child we lived at Egham, and that’s where Runnymede is – the meadow by the River Thames where Magna Carta was sealed on June 15, 1215.
I have to say that the tomb is not as grand as I expected, but I guess that’s because it’s got a little worn over the centuries. Originally, I think it would have been painted with bright colours and would have shone with gold. However, some of the gilding is still there, and there are red and gold shield-like plaques showing the royal lions of England, so you get a sense of what it must have been like, and you know the body of a king is buried here.
The tomb is in front of the High Altar, and there some excellent information plaques in the cathedral, but I am a little confused as to which bits were installed when. There must have been an earlier tomb, because the effigy and a new sarcophagus were ordered by John’s son Henry III in 1232, but it was opened in 1529 when, according to the cathedral website, the box part was added (there is a stone coffin inside it). And it was opened again in 1797 for an ‘antiquarian study’ of the body, which sounds grisly. On that occasion someone took a thumb bone and two teeth from the body. I saw the teeth at Worcester Museum, and was surprised at how large they were, and how yellow, but I couldn’t get a picture. Like I just said, grisly!
Anyway, I digress. On his tomb King John is shown carrying a drawn sword which apparently, is very unusual, since swords on tombs are normally sheathed. And the tip of the sword is in the mouth of an animal at the the king’s feet. Now I thought this was a dog, but when I got home I watched a repeat of the BBC programme The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King (first broadcast last year), and the experts on that said it’s a lion, which is not common on tombs, and they got terribly excited, and said it’s all very symbolic, and I just wish I had taken a few notes so I could understand what they were talking about!
And there’s more symbolism at the other end of the tomb, because there’s a small carved head on each side of John’s crowned head. And I must be some kind of Philistine, because as I looked at them all I could think of was Zaphod Beeblebrox! If you’ve never come across him, he’s the former President of the Universe in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy, and he has two heads…
Anyway, I digress (again). One of the little heads at John’s side is St Wulfstan, and the other is St Oswald, but I have no idea which is which. They look as if they are perched on John’s shoulders, so their heads are taller than him, although they are smaller. I’m not sure if saints take precedence over kings, which puts them on a higher level than John, or whether they are simply offering protection as they gaze down from heaven. Personally I find them a bit spooky, but there we are. Everyone has different tastes. Apparently Wulfstan and Oswald were John’s favourite saints, with major shrines in Worcester, which may explain why he chose to be buried there.
John died unexpectedly, and was buried in a hurry. Events during the final few days of his life seem confusing. By October 1516 civil war had broken out and the rebel barons, who held huge swathes of the country, had invited Louis of France to take the throne of England. John marched east towards rebel strongholds in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but was taken ill, probably with dysentery. As his condition worsened he turned towards Nottinghamshire, taking a longer, safer route, while his baggage train – reputedly carrying royal treasure which included the crown jewels – followed a shorter route across the treacherous sands of the Wash… And I’m sure you all know what happened next…
Precise details are unclear, but men, animals, wagons and treasure all disappeared, sucked beneath the quicksand, or swept away by the incoming tide. The exact location of the disaster remains a mystery, and no-one has ever found any trace of the lost treasure.
John travelled as far as Newark, where he died on October 18 or 19 (accounts vary). Shortly before his death he dictated a brief will, which is kept in the library at Worcester Cathedral. It’s the oldest royal will will to survive in its original form, and is kept in the cathedral library. In it John outlined the way his kingdom should be ruled during his son’s minority (Henry was just nine years old when John died), and stated: “I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester”.
According to the cathedral information boards John died in agony, and his servants ran away, taking everything they could carry. Next day the monk John de Savigny found John’s naked, unguarded body covered with a cloth. He prayed for the dead king, and dressed him in what came to hand. A troop of mercenaries took the body to Worcester, but the king’s heart was buried at Croxton. Soon after his death rumours circulated claiming that he had either been poisoned, or had died of a ‘surfeit of peaches’ (I have no idea what constitutes a surfeit when it comes to peaches, but I dare say eating too many of them could make you very ill indeed). However, modern historians believe he died of dysentery.
Edited, 5.20pm: Realised The Last Journey of the Magna Carta King is on BBC iPlayer, so I watched it again. Apparently the lion on the tomb represents the World, and the damaged sword is the king’s power (it hasn’t been broken by time, but was made like that), and the two things together represent the king dealing with a world in rebellion.Sometimes I wonder if people read too much into things…
*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mommy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.
I’ve had a busy week and forgot about sorting out a Saturday Snapshot, and now I’m off to see my younger daughter. So, to keep things going (after all, I’ve only just got started again), here’s a quick post with a picture I took of Tamworth Castle back in March, when the trees were still bare. Everything is very lush and green now. I love our castle, which is very small, but very beautiful, and I take lots of photographs of it, from different viewpoints, and different angles, because it looks different depending on the light, the weather. and the time of day, and it seems to change colours in a really magical way.
*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mommy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.
It’s a long time since I did any Saturday Snapshots, but I thought I’d start again, so here are my photos of snake’s-head fritillaries, taken at the beginning of May. They are the strangest flowers I have ever seen – that chequerboard pattern on the purple petals is amazing. There were a few white ones, which had similar markings, faintly visible, in a different shade of white, but it doesn’t show in photos. A friend says the delicate, drooping heads and the thin stems make them look like fairy plants. I think she’s right, because they have an other-worldly appearance.
They are, apparently, available as garden plants, but are incredibly rare in the wild because their habitats – traditionally managed hay pastures which flood during the winter – are dying out. Many sites were ploughed and drained during World War Two, so food could be grown. Since then water meadows have been lost and damaged through development, use of pesticides and fertilisers, and changes in farming and land management. Here in Tamworth we are lucky because they grow in two places, but this is the first time I have seen them, and I was really thrilled.
Surprisingly, they were growing quite close to the town centre, the Snow Dome and busy roads, on a patch of land known as Egg Meadow, near the River Anker. Another lady who was admiring them said that as a child she lived nearby. The grassland, called The Meadow, was much larger then, and every spring it was covered in snake’s-head fritillaries. I wish I’d asked more questions and found out when.
With that striking pattern on its six petals the plant is very distinctive. It flowers in April and May (providing pollen for early bees), and is about 12 inches high, with long, narrow leaves that could almost be mistaken for grass, and is a type of lily.
It has all kinds of other names, including chess flower, frog-cup, guinea flower, leper lily, chequered lily, and drooping tulip, but its botanical name is Fritillaria Meleagris. I gather that meleagris means spotted like a guinea fowl! Meleager was a Greek hero who was killed by his mother because he killed his brothers and uncle. Women who loved him wouldn’t stop crying, so the Goddess Artemis turned them into guinea fowl (meleagrides). The spots on the feathers are the women’s tears, and the petals look like the feathers. That’s the story anyway.
According to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the other bit of the name, fritillaria, comes from the Latin for dice-box, and dice-boxes were originally chequered (are such items still available?). But when I looked at John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plants (first published way back in 1597, and great fun to read), I discovered a slightly different meaning. “It hath been called fritillaria of the table or board upon which men plaie at chesse which square checkers the plant doth very much resemble, some thinking it was named fritillus,” he says.
Then I had a browse in Familiar Wild Flowers, written and illustrated by Frederick Edward Hulme at the end of the 19th century and, to my delight, I found this: “… in one of the scientific periodicals we find a writer stating, ‘Found by me abundantly on an island in the Tame, near Tamworth, Staffordshire..'”
I’d love to know his source, but he doesn’t attribute any of his quotes. However, the island (Broad Meadow) is still there (now in Tamworth, not near – the town has grown), is still noted for its snake’s-head fritillaries, and is a nature reserve and Site of Special Biological Importance. The plants in the meadow where I took my photos seem to get overlooked, which is a shame.
Anyway, back to names. I wondered if the snake’s-head fritillary was so called because it had once been used as an antidote for snake bites, but it has no medicinal, culinary or cosmetic value, and was never used for dyeing or anything else. It simply acquired its name because the drooping buds look like snake’s heads! It has, says Hulme, no ‘vertues’ and is therefore a ‘great singularity’. He goes onto tell us: “One of our old authors, in speaking of it, says. ‘Of the facultie of these pleasant floures there is nothing set doune in the ancient or later Writers, but are greatly esteemed for the beautifying of our gardens and the bosoms of the beautifull.”
I’m not too sure about the wisdom of beautifying bosoms with fresh flowers. I think it sounds rather uncomfortable. Would they attract bees and other insects? And would you have to keep them damp so they didn’t wilt? But perhaps we need reminding that some things should be esteemed and enjoyed just because they are beautiful.
*Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mummy. Click on the link to see pictures from other participants.
People may have noticed that after a prolonged absence I created a new blog here on WordPress, wrote a couple of posts, and promptly relapsed back into silence. The reason? My mother has been ill, and I have been with her for weeks and weeks, without access to the internet. Hopefully, she is on the mend, but it made us realise she is ‘no spring chicken’, as she herself reluctantly admits – she is 89 this year, but on good days she insists she feels 19 inside! I wish she lived nearer, then I could pop in each day, but she doesn’t, and I can’t, and my brother is even further away, so we now have carers popping in twice a day to lend a hand and check that Mum is OK.
Friends and family have been fantastically supportive, and I was fortunate to get a couple of breaks: on separate occasions my brother and my elder daughter each held the fort so I could return home for a few days. Luckily, my stint as a full-time carer has been short, and I’m picking up the threads of everyday life again, but the experience has left me full of admiration for anyone who cares for a loved one on a long-term basis – they deserve far more help and support than they get, at a far earlier stage.
It was a very worrying time, and dealing with various health and social service authorities became enormously frustrating, but in the end it was the small things that got to me, and the fact that I felt terribly isolated. It sounds very petty to complain, but Mum has no computer, and when it comes to linking in to any kind of modern communications technology the part of Herefordshire where she lives seems to be in something of a black hole. It’s always been a problem when I visit Mum, but it’s more noticeable over a longer period, because there appears to be no reliable ‘hotspot’ that you can link a laptop to, and the mobile phone reception is terrible – there were days when I couldn’t get a signal at all. Even the landline connection is dodgy (though that may be due to Mum’s phone).
I kept thinking how people living in far-flung corners of the world, miles and miles from centres of civilisation, all have access to computer and mobile phones. And what about astronaut Tim Peake, up above in the Earth in the Space Station? He comes across loud and clear when he sends his messages! If he can do it, why not Herefordshire? On the plus side, it gives me an excuse (not that I really need one) to use a picture of the wonderful Tim Peake, who is one of my heroes.
While I was with Mum, various people I spoke to all moaned about how awful communications are (there is no decent broad apparently), and on my return home I caught a news item which confirmed that the county is one of the worst areas in the country, and is unlikely to improve any time in the near future.
However, it did make me reflect on how much life has changed since my childhood, and how everyone (even technophobes like me) has become reliant on ‘instant’ communication, and the immediacy of accessing information. When I was a child people kept in touch by letter (my mother still does), with the odd phone call when necessary. We were one of the few houses in the street with a phone, and in emergencies other people used to knock on our door and ask if they could ring the doctor or whoever, rather than running to the public phone box round the corner. We had a ‘party line’, which meant we somehow shared it with another house – I’m not sure exactly how this worked, because I think we each had our own number, but it meant we couldn’t use the phone if they were on it, and vice versa. And if they were using their phone you could hear their conversation if you picked up our phone. We used to replace the receiver very quickly, because it would have been very rude to listen in, but we did occasionally hear some very odd snippets of conversation!
Remembering that made me think of Gladys Taber’s comments on using a telephone in the Stillmeadow Daybook. I was introduced to this lovely volume by Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm when she followed Gladys over the course of a year, using excerpts from the book to highlight the author’s thoughts on life. And she had very definite thoughts about telephones:
Well, much has been written about the country telephone. Ours rings apparently without reason, and with nobody on the other end. If we try to call anyone, we get five people in odd places who are justly annoyed at being summoned when we do not want to talk to them anyway. If I get called to the phone, I always hear another conversation going on, and I get so bemused listening to that that I never hear my own.
After being on a nine-party line for years, we graduated to a two-party line. We felt elated, but it was a short-time elation. For now we only have a sort of dual conversation with the other party on at the same time. And if I get on, as I rarely do, I always hear this clear clipped voice saying, ‘is this the New York Medical Center?’
Gladys may have been writing about her life in rural America, but it certainly echoes my experiences in a small English town.
Anyway, I came back from Mum’s feeling grateful for all the things I have – family, friends, house and so on. And it seemed to me that somehow, when communications were less frequent, we had more time for each other, and still managed to keep in touch with people when it really mattered, and to show how much we cared. And I thought it would be nice to try and start writing letters on a more regular basis, to my mother, my brother, my daughters, and my friends, just to show I’m thinking of them.