Saturday, 30 March 2013


Sitting in the coffee shop by myself.  Snatched and stolen time.  The wonderful smell of what remains of my vanilla soymilk latte.  The constant sound of the coffee machines hissing, swishing, filters being banged to clean old grounds out.  Spoons on cups, spoons on plates.  A bucket on wheels with a mop being rolled across the wooden floor. 

Bits of conversation:
“ – thank you so much – “ with a lilt of New Zealand on it.
“ – too hot, its not ready yet –”
“ – she didn’t put sprinkles on my coffee other day –”

Laughter of women.  The men’s voices are harder to catch as they are lower.  Except one, that I can hear clear across the room.  He’s sitting by the window, a bristly crew cut, a thick pink neck not helped by his very pink and white striped shirt.  Talking to a middle aged woman who’s most noticeable feature is a huge sweep of bobbed bright dyed blond hair hanging over most of her face.  She holds ‘The Daily Mail’ up. 

“The country’s got the right leaders,” he then doesn’t surprise me by saying, pontificating loudly to her.  “But they’re having to make such hard decisions, and they’re so worried about this next election shit…”  He trails off momentarily when he catches me staring at him.  I didn’t mean to be caught staring.  He’s entitled to his view.  Though I appear to be giving him the judgemental stare of the Angry Leftie.  David Cameron!  George Osborne!  ‘Austerity’!  The ‘right’ leaders?!  Fuck off!  I am broadcasting with a roll of my eyes and a tight mouth.  I realize I’m being rude.  I try to mitigate this with a sudden big genuine smile.  He smiles uncertainly back at me, obviously confused by my sudden switch from hostile to friendly.  His smile transforms his face.  He doesn’t look like a wannabe banker anymore.  He looks like a nice man.

I look back down at my Kindle.  He carries on being wrong (his right!), but he is drowned out by what I have come here partially to escape.

A child crying.

Two women have come in, oddly similar looking though I feel they aren’t sisters.  They just have enough of a world view in common that they dress similarly.  Both have highlighted honey brown hair.  Both a little thickset, forties, in sweaters.  One brown with a ruffly red scarf to lift it, all frills.  The other an old, plain pink sweater.  She’s the mother.  I know this because her face looks so tired, and her eyes look a bit haunted.  There’s an edge of thousand yard stare about her.  She is talking, quiet, hard and earnest, to a large boy of about 5 or 6.  He is throwing himself away from the comfy armchairs where she and her friend have chosen to sit.  He wants to sit at a central arrangement of tables and hard chairs.  She repeatedly pulls him back to her by his wrist.  He twists, equally repeatedly yanking himself away, throwing his whole body toward the chair he wants.  She says: “I’ve taken this day off to be with you, we’re going to do allsorts of exciting things, lovely things.  Listen, please, Jonah, Listen!  Cathy’s here to see you, shush, listen!    When we come here next time you can sit there, but this time we are sitting here, alright? Stop it!  Stop it!” He is yanking himself away again, and the volume of his crying is drowning out most of the other sounds of the shop.  The tasteful music can’t be heard, the group of women talking about their nights off in the corner next to me can’t be heard, and they are getting louder…

The quality of that child’s crying hurts my head.  As I listen, with a tiny bit more distance than when I hear Fluffhead do something similar, I try to decide whether what I hear is temper or sorrow.  I can’t decide.  It may be, must be, both.  It’s not a steady crying.  It’s a clogged up, gaspy, mucus clogged wailing, with coughing because he’s giving it such awesome welly. He’ll be sick soon if he carries on this loud.  The mother continues, intense and red in the face now, to reason with him, to try to pacify him.  The received wisdom, that of ignoring a tantrumming child, cannot be done in this place.  Firstly, its too public, non-parents would be horrified at such a tactic and not understanding it, would intervene.  It takes a little while to work and the noise level would increase before it decreased.  Secondly, it’s not safe to ignore him here.  There are too many things for him to bang into and hurt himself.  It is true that often, they only do such volume when there is an audience; but its not always practical or the right thing to do, to take that audience away.

Vanquished, she and her friend move as quickly as possible to the other table, the one he wanted.  Almost immediately his little clenched fists relax.  He picks up his muffin and starts eating it.  He sits tall in that chair he wanted, swinging his legs, looking from one woman to the other, as if he made a valuable contribution to a discussion and now waits their bit.

I watch the reactions of the other people in the shop to all this.  On the faces of the men, I see mostly a sort of irritated neutrality (will someone deal with this?).  On the faces of some of the women, I see definite judgement.   They think she has given in (as she has), even as relative quiet reigns again (and mostly everyone benefits).  The red face of the mother gradually fades toward embarrassed pink, slightly less livid.  The strain around her eyes does not change.  Her friend looks on tolerantly.  She’s obviously used to this sort of thing; or she has had experience of small children very recently and often.

I start to read again, but there is another sound, right by my head.  I look to the side, and a baby, just about a year and a little, is standing on one of those comfy seats just vacated by the stressed mother.

This baby is smiling at me, with several even perfectly white teeth.  She grins, and her little eyes are so clear, so wide and so innocent.  She smiles at me with all she has, all in the present.  I smile at her back.  You couldn’t possibly not smile at this smile.

“Hello,” I say.  “How are you?” in that lilty voice you do with friendly babies.  Except I put an adult jokiness on it too.  I can’t help it.

The baby’s mother, who has been stirring a pot of overpriced porridge and blowing on it, turns to me.  She’s the mirror of her daughter’s open face.

“You’ve made a friend,” she smiles, nodding at her child.

The baby bats her hands at me, and waves a much toothed blue board book.  I see the shine on her fine honey brown hair.  She could easily be the younger sister of the other child, regardless of difference in mood.

I chatter with the child.  I quickly read her book to her, after an ok nod from the mother.  I feel caring and love toward this small happy baby I do not know.  So easy to love, so easy to please.

I look over at the other child, sitting now on his mother’s lap, and also looking at a book.  They are talking about it, heads close. At this moment, his face free of that miserable intense child emotion that was ruling him, he looks intelligent and absorbed.  The mother still looks stiff and worried.

The baby objects to my sudden lack of attention with a poke, and her mother laughs and picks her up, putting her in a highchair. “Time for porridge!” she says, as though it’s a great adventure.  The child chortles (only children can chortle properly, have you noticed?), claps her hands and opens her mouth wide like a fish.

The mother smiles.  Her skin is clear, there are no worry lines on her forehead, and she looks, just simply: happy.  She mimes the big open mouth at the baby, who laughs that beautiful free uninhibited sound.  In goes the first porridge mouthful.

They have forgotten me.  The baby’s mother is totally focussed on the feeding.  The baby’s eyes move all over the room, examining everyone for a little, and returning always to her mother.  They smile at each other.

The people in the cafĂ© smile approvingly and sentimentally at them.  This is what motherhood is supposed to look like.  Not that other display.

In the background, the stressed mother is preparing to leave.  She puts on an unlikely orange fitted raincoat – both too thin for this incredibly wintry day, and such a contrast with her unhappy face.  I can imagine her selecting it, or being given it, the thinking being: this is trendy, this is happy looking, young looking.  This will cheer me/ you up.  This is who I want to be/ want you to be.

It looks old and creased, and now the belt has dirty ends; it needs a wash.  Jonah gets into his anorak without a fuss.  Nobody pays them any attention as she smoothes his hair with one blunt finger nailed hand.  She kisses his head softly.  No one seems to see, but me, as they leave quietly.  He holds her hand tightly; she has her head down.  The friend is nowhere to be seen.  She must already have gone.

Those people who aren’t talking amongst themselves or on their phones, are watching the happy should be on TV baby.  She waves her small arms and coos at her mother (another sound only children can do).  The mother quickly puts her own hair up in a ponytail, rubbing the back of her neck, the first visible sign of any tiredness.  She catches my eye again and we exchange puffed out tired looks.

“How old is yours?” she asks.  Of course, she knows I am one of them, a mother, though I have left my beautiful, loveable, soul eating child at home.

“Just three.”  I reply.  We chat for a little.  She licks the spoon between mouthfuls fed to the baby.

After the porridge is finished they too, go.  The baby is helped back into her all in one snowsuit: white with soft green polka dots, very clean and bright.  She too has a kiss plopped on her head before being put back in her pushchair and covered with a blue fleecy blanket, little hands poking out holding that gummy book.

After they leave, the loudest sounds are those women in the corner next to me.  They are planning a different night out now, and talking as well, of the medications one of their fathers is on, and its side effects.  The conversation flows and cuts, much expostulation and exclamation, sudden laughter as grammar, sudden support or validation for something one of them has said.  The conversation jumps all over the place.

The lone woman in the far opposite corner, who minded my things while I went to the loo, and who has been determinedly typing on her laptop through all this noise, frowns (she is doing her dissertation, on what I haven’t yet asked[1]).  Her face scrunches, she backspaces.  Rethink that last sentence.  She tucks hair behind her ear.  Her haircut is getting old and growing out.  Her clothes are worn.  I Sherlock Holmes that austerity touches this mature student, that she can’t afford new clothes (or new second hand clothes) or a haircut.  That food and some peace (ha!) in the coffeehouse to do her work, are more important.

She hasn’t looked up more than a couple of times.  She hasn’t got up to pee at all.  She’s been here 3 hours, like me.  She got here 10 minutes after I did.

No children here now.  The light has changed, from that of very early morning, that hard and clear light, to the softer light approaching midday.

The smell here now is less of only coffee and more of sweet pastry, cake and sandwiches.  I can’t afford one.  (Neither can Dissertation Writer, according to my inept deductions.  She surreptitiously gets a bottle of water out of her bag, flicking her eyes at the counter baristas.  They don’t see.  When she opens the bottle it doesn’t pop its seal as the top was already open though it is full.  She refilled it at home from the sink and brought it here with her.  Like me, she can only afford the pleasure of sitting here for the price of one small coffee.  She sips the water delicately, eyes on the laptop screen again.  She sets the bottle down on the seat next to her, not on the table.)

The baristas are having an energetic conversation in Rumanian.  They are always cheerful, these two, always skinny and always on the move.  When there are no customers, they clean stuff.

I look back at my table.  My time is nearly up.  I have to go back to the other world.  The world where Dr Who, In The Night Garden or Thomas the Tank Engine are on perpetual loop (or we have Jonah).  The world where I give Fluffhead toast with mushroom Tartex and am greeted with a smile as genuine and melting as that anonymous baby gave her mother.

A world where we exist largely in our own closed system, measuring out the time by walks around the block, snow poking and crunching in the garden.  By meal times and by that precious hour of silence in the early afternoon where his hands fall open and still, his red cheek to one side, eyes closed in quietness.  Then all again after: the wants, the noise, the joyfulness, and the damnable screeching fussing about small things that have led to the invention of the parental expression: ‘do you want me to GIVE you something to cry about?’ in total frustration.

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.
That world.

Even when I am not there, I see him in every child I meet.  I see him in Jonah upsetting his mother on her day off with him.  I see him in that lovely happy she-baby.

Every noise they make is an echo of Fluffhead.

Mothers are never free.

I pack up my Kindle; put away my notebook, trying to feel nothing.  (I am not good with ends of things, with change.)  I remind myself I will be back soon.  Here again, at my assigned table.  Watching the people, the rest of the world, go about their business.

I pile back on my layers: sweater, fleece, thick jacket, scarf, gloves, mock deerstalker hat with the bobble on top.  I don’t look swish.  I don’t look as pretty as I wish I had time to.  I haven’t co-ordinated my clothes for colour as I used to love to do, so that I pleased my eye every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a reflecting thing.  No time.  Does and doesn’t matter anymore.

Bag on my shoulder, easing round all those women who have squeezed into the corner table.  You can see they are happy to enlarge their space outward to absorb where I have been.  As I leave the area, my old chair is quickly covered with their coats and bags.  They pull the table over into the group and spread a bit more.

As I pass out into the freezing whiteness, I squeeze past 3 more women (high heels, glittery jeans, expensive perfume, fitted black winter jackets, diamond quilted, gold chained bags).  The women in the corner call out to them and gesture.  They will be crowded again now despite the extra space my leaving gave them.

I look back through the window as they get up and do the hello kissing thing (I never get the amount of cheek bobs right – is it 2, 3 or 4? – I always end up bumping faces awkwardly).  They start to strip off their layers as I am trying to tuck my gloves into my sleeves so that there is no wind chill gap.  I turn away from the coffeehouse (that’s over, I say sternly and sadly in my head).  I walk down toward the turning for the way home.  As I pass the railway bridge over Waitrose a train rattles suddenly and noisily past.

“Train!” I say loudly, out of habit, as if Fluffhead were with me.  As I always do when he is, as he loves trains.

Of course, he isn’t.

Some people look at me strangely, and a granny curves her footsteps to widely avoid the woman talking to no one so confidently.

Embarrassed, I half smile at empty street, put my head down against the wind, and walk home.

[1] Dissertation Writer was writing about psychotherapy and Buddhism and ethics – it sounded bloody fascinating; I was quite annoyed I’ll never get to read it.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Agrimony: Snippets of Interesting Things, Part 2

The snow is coming down hard outside.  Just when spring really should be thinking of being sprung…nope, it’s back to the Snow Queen behaviour.  My breath frosts on the air here, my hands are very cold and I can’t find my gloves.  My toes hurt.  Humpf.  There’s the background to me typing today.  Cold cold cold!

I’ve started the Ovate Grade, at a kindly reduced cost, with the OBOD people.  I decided that to tally along with my lessons there, every time they tell me about a herb (as a large part of the Ovate path is about herblore and such), that I will do a little mini entry on whichever one it is, here, for you.  Now, all the OBOD course material is strictly copyright, so I can’t begin my mini-entry with any of their comments on the herbs, but I have plenty herb books of my own to delight you with. 

So here is Agrimony, the first herb of interest in my Ovate journey.  Just a snippet of some interesting things about it.  And a small meander through the idea of herbs as healers, a bit of a discussion.

Its name is from the Greek Argemone – meaning ‘healing to the eyes’, and an infusion is described as ‘adding sparkle’ to tired eyes, and continues as a herbal prescription for this usage today[1].

As with so many herbs, its traditional usage as an herbal medicine has many functions.  It’s made into a weak tea to feed small children to combat diarrhoea.[2] This is because it has a very low toxicity, so is deemed safe for children. (I’ve been taking it as an experiment, both in this capacity and as a ‘spring tonic’ – very good luck trying to get any small child to drink it!  Bitter is not the word!)  It’s also useful in cases of both adult and childhood bedwetting, since it eases irritation in the wall of the bladder that causes extra urge to urinate – its advised to be drunk a couple of hours before bedtime, just one small cup.  In modern herbal practice it is most often used for skin conditions, as an astringent and tonic for the skin, relieving mild irritations (gentle eczema) rather than more long term serious ones (chronic rosacea for example); or as a gargle to help with laryngitis – as you see, its an anti inflammatory, anti irritant, by traditional usage[3].

I’m always fascinated by the stronger usages of the past, though.  Back before industrial Western medicine.  Before all these plants were no longer used as ‘compound’ remedies.  That is – all their properties, all their chemical reactions as a plant, working together, to produce several different results depending on usage and blending with other herbs, as required; for example – one herb with a property of reducing blood pressure might also have a minor constituent within it that also reduced headaches.  Once industrial Western medicine took over, with the laudable aim of making all these herbs properties available much more widely, and with standards control, safe testing etc, the method that won through was of taking what was considered the ‘active ingredient’ of each herb (say, that blood pressure reducing element) and synthesizing it artificially to make it more potent, stronger.  This is why modern medicines can knock you flat and be very effective.  Sadly, the synthesizing of this ‘active ingredient’ meant that each herb was only used for its one major kick – it no longer functioned as a compound cure.  (That blood pressure reducing drug, newly synthesized, now had the side effect of giving headaches: as it worked by only a single main ingredient; no longer as a compound action, its sister chemical that alleviated that action was no longer there.  A doctor would have to prescribe another synthesized single action pill to combat the side effect of the headaches.  Originally, the herb could have been given as a tincture, alone, working in its compound fashion, and the headaches would have been avoided.)   

Frank J. Lipp puts this much more clearly:

The prevailing scientific view is that all disease is caused on a molecular level.  Cholesterol molecules, for example, cause heart disease by forming obstructions in the lining of blood vessels.  Similarly, a chemical drug produces its effect by entering a cell through a receptor (a chemical structure on the surface of the cell) that conforms to the shape of the drug molecule, like a lock and key.  In contrast, medicinal plants are described by their adherents as working on a higher physiological level (astringents make muscle solids firm; diaphoretics promote perspiration by the skin), which make them more versatile.  A plant that increases the secretion of urine can also be used to treat kidney and bladder ailments or to eliminate body poisons.  For example, tannins are compounds that bind with proteins in the skin and mucous membranes and convert them into insoluble, resistant tissues.  So plants that are high in tannins, such as bilberry [or agrimony, here, my insertion], may be used for a number of ailments, including diarrhoea, wounds, inflamed gums, haemorrhoids and frostbite.

Medicinal plants commonly have several constituents working together catalytically to produce a combined effect which surpasses their individual activity.  Taking Vitamin C pills is not the same as eating an orange, and there are marked differences between taking a drug, such as caffeine, and using the plant from which the drug is derived.  Modes of preparation and ingestion are also important.  An anti cancer alkaloid from the Chinese Camptotheca acuminate was discarded during clinical trials because it was toxic to the liver.  This was later found to be the result of intravenously administering a substance normally taken orally.[4]

In the past, it seems that Agrimony was one of the main herbs used in medieval times to staunch bleeding on the battlefield.  It was one of the main ingredients both at home and in France, of a renowned battleground ointment called eau de arquebusade (from a fifteenth century word meaning muskets: arquebus)[5].  As well as this, jaundice and liver complaints were treated with it by practitioners in the Highlands of Scotland.  They also used it, in a secondary way, as a tea brewed to help headaches thought to be brought on by ‘pressure of blood’ (the idea of inflammation, again)[6].  Nicholas Culpepper, one of the most famous herbalists of our history (born in 17th century Sussex), found Agrimony of particular help for gout.  He said: “I have seen very bad sore legs cured by bathing and fomenting them with a decoction of this plant.”[7] 

Its one of those herbs that seems to still be of interest to the medical profession today.  Newall reports that a “limited re-evaluation of it has been carried out and has indicated its healing properties in certain skin diseases and gastrointestinal disorders.”  She notes, however, that “excessive use should be avoided, especially if you are using other drugs.”[8]


Of course, in the Ovate Grade, I won’t just be looking at herbs traditional and still investigated physically healing uses.  I’ll be looking at its traditional uses in ritual, what it has come to signify (through agreement through time), spiritually.  So you have an idea what I mean there, I’ll quote a passage on the idea of using herbs as a focus for healing the mind.  It’s all about what they mean to the user and the recipient (the way rosemary used to signify do not forget in the Victorian language of flowers for example).

This section of my article is of course, at complete variance with the history of the herb in its traditional uses, and with accredited Herbalists working today to heal the body.  It shouldn’t be taken as the same thing at all. 

I am now referring to a ‘religious’ (Stanley walked by and said ‘woo woo’, fair enough, annoying partner!) dimension.  This is also historical, but the scientists among you can turn your brains off now, and consider that I am now referring to folklore history, and intuitive practice. 

Healing with herbs can also be a magical, spiritual process.  […]  This is the aspect of Druidic healing on which I am concentrating – channelling higher energies and infusing herbs with magical healing properties that can improve health and wellbeing from the spirit and thereby through the whole person.

[…]  you can heal in the name of any deity whom you revere – in the name of God, the Goddess or a more abstract power of goodness and light.  A number of Druidesses and Druids find the Celtic Goddess Airmid, the Irish healing goddess of medicinal plants a powerful focus for their healing work.  Stories about Airmid say she was the daughter of the God of Medicine, Diancecht.  After the death of her brother Miach, Airmid cared for his grave, on which all the herbs of the world grew.  As she cut them each described its healing properties.  Cerridwen is another popular focus for modern Druidesses.  So is the Irish Brighid, a very popular icon […], after whom many healing wells dedicated to St, Bridget may have originally been named.[9]

In this sort of usage, Agrimony is mainly used for psychic protection in Druidry – as a cleansing herb, sprinkled through the sacred spaces, or over ritual tools, and used in a lustral bath before ritual to purify and clear the mind[10]. 

My experimental taking of it this month has been in its capacity as a tonic to aid those with depressed spirits.  I’ve been taking it in an infusion made by pouring a pint of boiling water over 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried leaves, and left to steep for 10 minutes.  I’m then drinking one cup a day, and using the rest for cleansing surfaces.  It leaves a pleasant, slightly apricot odour.  At some point I’ll report back the results if any (do I feel brighter, what other variables are there, etc – but my month of experimentation is only half way through, so…Stanley walked by and said ‘woo woo rubbish’ again at this sentence…You’d think he had nothing better to do?!  At any rate I will have 'cleansed my blood', as I’m also taking the exact correct dose an accredited Herbalist would give me to cleanse through my physical system!) 

In other parts of the world: Northern Tradition sources have it driving out unwanted spirits[11].  In Hoodoo it returns hexes to their sender – it has quite a kick[12].  For this function flowers, stems leaves and root are used.  (For the Herbalist working to cure the physical body, only the flowers are generally used.)

So, this is the start of my Ovate journey with herbs.  I hope you found the meander round the idea of herbalism, the history of some of the medical uses of Agrimony and the magical associations it has, entertaining. 

I’m not a doctor, people, so don’t go dosing yourself or anyone else based on what I have said!!  Just enjoy the information! 

[1] Frank J Lipp, Herbalism: The Healing Power of Plants, London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 1996, p.155.
[3] David Hoffman, The New Holistic Herbal, East Lothian: Element Press, 1990, p.175.
[4] Frank J Lipp, Herbalism, pp.14-15.
[5] Dr. Agnes Walker, A Garden of Herbs: Traditional Uses of Herbs in Scotland, Argyll: Argyall Publishing, 2003, p22.
[6] School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, Oral history, various sources cited in Walker (ibid), plus, M. Beith, Healing Threads, Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 1995: most of chapters 2 and 3 relate to meadow plants used for these reasons, agrimony among them.  This is a particularly fascinating book, and I recommend it!
[7] Nicholas Culpepper, Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, London: Arcturus Publishing, 2009, p.14.
[8] C. Newall, L. Anderson and Philipson, Herbal Medicines – A Guide for Health-care Professionals, London: The Pharmaceutical Press, 1996, see discussion in chapters 4 and Appendix 2.
[9] Cassandra Eason, The Modern Day Druidess, London: Piatkus, 2003, pp.122-123.
[10] OBOD, Ovate Lesson 4.
[11] Raven Kaldera’s herb site, see almost the first entry!
[12] Catherine Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure, California: Lucky Mojo Curio Company (4th edn), 2002 – see her entry from her website too, where she runs possibly the largest Hoodoo herb shop on the web!

Monday, 18 March 2013

More 'Dr Who' novels read, this year now, Part 3

Yet more Dr Who books I have been reading.  So far it looks like this year will be the year of me reading nothing but Dr Who novels and Tudor history.  What a strange combination it is, too…I decided after the hysterical blather of my last post on 'The Tudors', you might be needing my more measured tones on something much more fantastical, just to be contrary.  And to show you I've calmed down a little.

There are less books in this post than the last Dr Who one, but I did waffle about length at some of them, so I stopped now and posted, before carrying on.

As before, the BBC 8th Doctor Novels are read in order.  The original Targets are read in order by the Doctor I am doing.  I am doing several at once.  So each Patrick Troughton, say, will follow in the correct order; you might just get other Doctors also in order, in between.  I don’t stick to one Doctor at a time.  I move about. 

I haven’t read any Virgin New Adventures for Sylvester this year yet; or any Virgin Missing Adventures (or should I say, I’m reading one, but I’ve not finished it yet).  In fact, I have read more Targets than anything else so far this year – and not because they are small and quick; just because I am quite enjoying them at the mo.


  1. Doctor Who and the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis (Target original)
    (Well, hmm, hello again Patrick Troughton.  This had a good plot.  But it was all over the place in terms of pacing.  This must be one of the most nearly there but not quite books I’ve read in ages.  I just kept losing interest, despite the interesting possibilities of a Gravitron, despite Polly actually being instrumental in manufacturing a clever weapon to defeat lots of the cybermen; and despite the Doctor being clever and scientific.  I liked the virus element a lot, at the beginning; but like most uber-villians, the cybermen themselves bore me.  So I got bored, and the episodic structure did not translate well in terms of believable cliff-hangers in the book; either they weren’t emphasized or just weren’t there.  So the book dragged along, despite its good premise.  Hmmmmmm.)
  2. Dr Who: Black Orchid, by Terence Dudley (Target original)
    (Again, much more readable than it was watchable – and this was one of the Peter Davison’s I enjoyed more than the others.  The extra book length because of the 2 episodes meant the story could be fleshed out a bit more than Target space usually allows for.  However, all that extra space was used a little bit poorly: a lot of cricket terminology – I did feel interested, but would have preferred more character and story development.  There was also a lot of focus on the Indian character but in a very repetitive way: I didn’t feel, despite the continual emphasis on him, that I was learning anything about him beyond his words, at all.  And his words were always the same.  It was all very surface.  A tale I think, based on atmosphere and ambience rather than substance.  But still I enjoyed it.)
  3. Dr Who: The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson (Target original)
    (I hated the one episode I saw of this, hence I left it out in my reading of Troughton’s era.  Then I felt anal and OCD at having missed any [it was itching at my sense of orderliness] and went back for it.  Surprised to find I really enjoyed it.  I enjoyed its Atlantean setting – stupid though it undoubtedly was.  I enjoyed the ridiculous characters: Lolem, the superstitious priest of Amdo  the Fish Goddess; Zaroff, the archetypal Flash Gordon in black and white style mad scientist [though in my head I was actually seeing him as Zarkov, from the extremely brill colour Flash Gordon, because Topol would have owned this role with such flair, I reckoned].  I enjoyed the stupid running about and hiding and getting lost.  I enjoyed a society being brought down by a strike!!  Yay, socialism!  It was fun.  Considering everything about it was unbelievable and stupid, and it’s not like I was in a great mood reading it, I can only assume this great fun-ness is all down to Nigel Robinson, the writer.  I will look out as I go through, for more of his, and see if they are all so enjoyable.)
  4. Doctor Who and an Unearthly Child, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
    (Beginning of the William Hartnell era.  A bit confused, and always have been, by the title of this one.  I mean, I know Susan is the unearthly child, the hook to get Barbara and Ian involved in the story, but its as if the whole story should be about her, and it isn’t…Its about Kal, and Za and Hur, and other people speaking in strange pidgin English about ‘Fire!  Fire!’  I did quite enjoy this, though I don’t remember from watching it Barbara being quite so hysterical, running about the place and calling things ‘evil’…always a word prone to overuse and misuse.  William Hartnell’s doctor, in this one, is rather a ruthless nasty supercilious git.  Quite enjoyed reading his strangeness.  His almost being about to kill Za at one stage – why?  Just to get the situation out of the way so he could carry on getting going back to the Tardis?  Or…?  Because he regarded Za as no more or better than an animal, and therefore lower, less important than himself?  The Doctor of this story in particular is nothing if not a really arrogant arse.  Most interesting.)
  5. Doctor Who and the Daleks, by David Whittaker (Target original)
    (More William Hartnell.  This was a most interesting one.  Stanley didn’t tell me this was the first Dr Who book ever published, and was not projected to be part of a series, but a standalone.  I was therefore very surprised indeed, when it re-wrote the beginning of the story entirely, having Barbara and Ian not know each other and meet due to a car crash on Barnes Common.  Ian came across as a very angry young man, and Barbara as significantly more hysterical female than the actual series – indeed, she spent most of the book in an emotional funk caused by trying not to show that she was falling in love with Ian and thinking her feelings were unrequited, it appeared at the end.  Also at the end, he seemed to be falling in love with her.  Absolutely NONE of all that is in the TV version – neither the meeting, as of course that was dealt with in An Unearthly Child, nor the love interest angle, that just never cropped up at all.  So I was rather frustrated to feel I was reading both a rewrite and rehash of the first story all stuffed up in the second one here.  However, the story had a number of good things going for it.  Ian’s characterization is the focal point of the story, which is told in first person.  It gives it a detached sort of immediacy [that’s the confusing 1960s characterization for you].  The presentation of the thoroughly peaceful mutated Thals and their eventual conversion to the idea of Life as Struggle, and therefore the need to fight to progress, fight to protect, and fight to simply EXIST rather than be ‘exterminated’ was quite fascinating.  There was a very good speech at one point, about the need to fight for things, for principles.  I read it very late at night and suspect it may have been full of logical flaws, but it made sense to my tired brain as I read it.  It even contained some new thoughts I hadn’t quite had in that format myself before.  I will copy it here when I get a minute.  I enjoyed this very much and was sorry to see it end.  The Daleks weren’t too irritating. And Davis Whittaker is a higher standard of writer than the age group the book was aimed at.  It read simple, but very adult. )
  6. Doctor Who: Alien Bodies, by Lawrence Miles (BBC 8th Doctor Series)
    Stupidly, I have left it a little while after reading before reviewing this one.  This was for a good reason.  It was so bristling with characters – so many and so well painted – that I felt I had to mention them all in the review and knew even as the book ended that I was going to forget the ones that engaged me least.  So let me do it simply, another way: The idea of the Faction Paradox was brilliant – a sort of voodoo-hoodoo time-travel, with Tardis’s that ran on blood sacrifices. The idea of Tardis’s so advanced that they were the shape of and as organic as people, hence a Tardis called  Marie, that was badly damaged but mending by the end of the book.  The idea of auctioning off the Doctor’s body; and that he invalidated his treaty with the Celestis by not handing himself over to them, even though when he did that little act of treachery he hadn’t actually made the deal yet in terms of time line…all this was brilliant, and written very well.  On the downside, if I never hear the word ‘biomass’ again it will be too soon.  There was something immensely precocious about this book.  I enjoyed it a lot, but also felt that the author was determined to show me how clever and far reaching his imagination was, all the way through.  This is something that afflicts a lot of the non-TV Dr Who books.  I get the idea they are written by people who are incredibly clever, but who have no subtlety: they want to be very much admired for their playful futuristic brilliance, thankyou very much.  This can cause the style and delivery of their books to be a bit off-putting and/or overwhelming at times.  But saying that, I still enjoyed this book very much!)
  7. Dr Who and the Claws of Axos, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
    The Doctor’s ambivalent attitude was an odd thing in this story.  It grated at times, in that you need to trust the Doctor’s moral sense for these books to work.  On the other hand, it created a sense of jeopardy that these stories rarely have.  I found the concept of Axos an interesting one, and reading about it enabled me to forget that on TV I think of this one as ‘the Parsnip Monster’ story; all those tentacles look like bits growing on a parsnip when it’s getting old…I enjoyed the Brigadier, Yates and Benton, as ever, in this story.)
  8. Dr Who: Robot, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
    (I almost didn’t read this one, as its one of the one’s Fluffhead watches a lot, so unless there were massive changes in tone from TV to book, I felt as though I would be repeating myself.  I want to get on to the other Tom Baker’s I don’t remember so well because Fluffhead doesn’t watch them all the time.  But then my sense of order kicked in, and said – woman: read from the first one.  So.  The first Tom Baker.  I think the whole robot story is a very odd one to pick for Tom Baker’s first go at being not Jon Pertwee.  Maybe I just think that as I’m not fascinated with robots? The Brigadier [yay!], Benton etc are all about, so the earthbound nature of the story still feels very Jon Pertwee-ish.  But from the beginning, whilst Tom Baker comes out with some lines that you could equally well imagine Jon Pertwee saying [mostly lots of turns of phrase that sound very posh and quite patronising: ‘Do get on with it Brigadier, there’s a good chap’ for example], he sounds different, moves differently, and has a sense of feyness about him that marks him as different straightaway.  Quite a feat, considering how magnetic and solid a presence Jon Pertwee was.  This change comes across in the book just as well as the TV story.  This book also gives a lot more interior thought to Sarah, so you get to feel her frustration and irritation with the ThinkTank people; her bewilderment and fear first for and then of, the Robot.  Kettlewell’s embryonic Professor Kronotis routine [I couldn’t help but see the similarities] is described well too.  Terence Dicks has done a solid here.)

And that’s as far as I’ve got so far, with finished ones, anyway.  More to come later this year, I’m sure.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Incoherent Thoughts on the TV series 'The Tudors'

So, I discovered, many years after everyone else, that sparkly Showtime epic of The Tudors, American money and Irish filmed, and a stellar cast list (2007-2010).  I suddenly fell, and I’m not back yet.  Here are my rambly and incoherent thoughts on the series, and its relation to the actual historical events as I remember being taught them in school, and as I read about them now, in many many properly researched checkably footnoted academic history books!!

By the way, unless you have an interest and some vague knowledge about Tudor History, or have seen the series or David Starkey’s recent documentary on the same, or somesuch – you will probably find this post completely boring and incomprehensible!  Also, I kept having thoughts within thoughts, so I freely admit my usage of brackets has been totally overdone.  Sorry.  Be warned!


The Tudors, Season 1
(As often is the case with first series’ of things: a work of total perfection. Henry’s lusty king with his whispered moments of back stabbing malevolence and instability; Sam Neill forever changing my opinion of Wolsey and causing me to sink into the history books, probably never to be seen again as I try and make sense of it all; Anne Boleyn being such a cats paw, yet trying to be her own woman at the same time.  All those seething courtiers determined to rise at the expense of others.  The incredible colours and velvetness of everything.  Such a joy to watch the clothes and jewels and countryside.  Immensely well done, and utterly addicting.  I will forever be terrified of that disease known as The Sweating SicknessWolsey’s death scene and its music and editing have gone into my Top 5 TV/Movie Death Scenes Ever, there’s a blog I will do one day!  Of course, his death wasn’t anything like that.  A moment of vast poetic license – but it made a very good point.)

The Tudors, Season 2
(Showing no sign of recovering from what is suddenly my latest obsession.  This series was all about the downfall of Anne Boleyn.  Watching her sink into unstable paranoia, running about threatening people as if she still had power after she had spent soooooo lonnnnnnnnnnnnng consolidating her position was painful and gruelling.  But of course, I couldn’t stop.  Watching Thomas Cromwell betray her [as he betrayed Wolsey last series] stirred my interest in him too.  Amazing how clear headed he was about his goal of the Reformation. What would he not have sacrificed to it, to keep it on track?  More books for me to pore over, there.  You can see Thomas More’s fall coming too.  

The last shots of Anne, thinking about her childhood were very clever.  She is a difficult character to sympathise with in that she caught the king the way of women in those days, the expected way – with sex and seduction and wiles.  This automatically makes me, a modern, pissed off with her.  While I recognise at the same time, that in those days, women were universally regarded as sinful and tempting [that was established Catholic doctrine of the time – the religion of the land, before the Refomation, and almost after it, with all the vacillations and backing and forthing…it took hundreds of years to settle, really]…and that that was all she had to draw attention to herself.  The fact that she was manipulated constantly, by her father [what a piece of shit he was - this is confirmed from my historical factual reading!], her brother, Cromwell and anyone else who thought they could get something from her while she tried to preserve her sense of self and do some Reforming on the quiet… [and she was more moderate and probably more perceptive about how to do that than Cromwell…would we have had the Pilgrimage of Grace if he had followed Anne Boleyn’s advice?  Maybe not!!!] She’s a toughy – she’s complex and there’s not enough documentary sources out there about her that aren’t biased.  Even her own letters she knew were likely to be opened, so who knows how honest she was within them?  So.  A fascinating woman, who fell in the end.  And so many fell with her.  Poor old Mark Smeaton, in particular. 

To return, therefore, that shot of her thinking about her childhood, where she played hide and seek with her brother and father [‘he’ll get you, Anne!’ – and so he bloody does, doesn’t he?] – that was very clever.  She was a simple child once, caught up in the loving arms of her father, whom she trusts.  Who she could not have forseen or ever imagined, why would she, that he would betray her too, to save his own miserable life…And then she watches the birds break away overhead, before the Frenchman calls ‘get my sword, boy’, the perfect angle of her neck is made, and there she goes.  Into history…That isn’t going to make it to my Top 5 death scenes, but it was very thought-provoking nonetheless.  Its interesting just how much fact they are managing to squash into a show that is also playing very fast and loose with people and facts in other ways.)

The Tudors, Season 3
(Do you know, there’s almost too much death now?!!  Fisher – chop chop!  More – chop chop!!  [Good riddance, you canting hypocritical fanatic; can you tell I didn’t like him – that’s more from my proper history reading than the sympathetic portrayal he was mostly given here; he’s another waaaaaaaaay complex one; but I’m not liking him at all, the more I read.]  Brandon, played by the incredibly pretty Henry Cavill gets serious and never gets over it here: the Pilgrimage of Grace has made him miserable, all those hangings and slayings and putting down of the people of the North at Henry’s wish has made him old, and he stays old [the hot poker up the arse scene brought tears to my eyes – of course that was Jane Seymour’s brother, here, not Brandon, but goodness – it does remind you how inventive and disgustingly cruel they could be at this time]. 

Cromwell here is shown as being completely taken by surprise at the Pilgrimage, an interesting idea.  Being so convinced that what he is doing is a good idea he thinks everyone else will too – despite the need for earlier boilings etc for heresy…The finale to this season is watching him fall.  Slowly but surely.  He spent all of Season 2 successfully consolidating his position and being very good at his administration. 

He was blamed for the Pilgrimage of Grace; and then, after Jane Seymour died after childbirth, blamed for the Anne of Cleves marriage debacle.  It was a stunningly good move on his part, the presentation of Anne of Cleves – to protect his agenda of Reformation…shame Henry didn’t like her.  Also a shame Cromwell’s closest working companions betrayed him.  I started to get quite an immense sympathy for him, I felt like I was understanding him better and better.  Why, I ask myself, was I not thinking of him as a fanatic, like More?  He was, in many ways, similar there.  Yet, so far, and in my reading – I’m liking him better.  Is this because I was brought up Protestant and have a liking for us all being our own priests?  So I have sympathy for his ideals?  Even though I have trickled into my own personal paganism and am surrounded by as much accoutrements and accessories to my ‘religion’ as any Catholic might have, and indeed, almost converted to Catholicism as a child and have always had sympathy for it?!!  I think my own hodgepodge religious history may have something to do with liking him, so far [my opinion may change, depending on further investigation].  I’m all for personally reading whatever holy book there is and not being told it by someone else.  Personal revelation has always been me.  Hmmmm.  I do think its right that a country shouldn’t be controlled or influenced by an unelected person far away, claiming to speak for a nebulous god (i.e. the Pope).  So it’s right our State be separated from the Catholics. (Even if, at that time, it was all for personal caprice that Henry went along with it...for a shag, really.  Laughable.  And for personal power, not having anyone set above him before God.)

I had a very odd scary thought while watching this series: you know that saying that 2 wrongs don’t make a right?  All that blood and torment and sacrifice of the Refomation – and all for, quite often, personal gain, not even the ‘right’ reasons…and yet, hundreds of years later, here we are, a nominally Protestant country.  And I think that’s right, as I just said.  It’s good we aren’t a Catholic country.  So…in the end, were the means justified?  Isn’t that a thought…I’m still mulling it and have no conclusions as yet.  I’ve never before hit a situation where that adage was possibly proved wrong.  Worrying[1]. 

Anyway.  Cromwell’s death.  That business with the axeman…what a horrible unnecessary, again, awful thing to do to him.  They didn’t need to do that.  He was already defeated, they already had him.  That was just spite and it was ugly…then again, all the Catholics who conspired against him, were no doubt scared for themselves and thinking what happened to the Northerners on the Pilgrimage of Grace – fear makes terrible violence possible.  We humans…<shakes head>)

The Tudors, Season 4
(Hmmm.  This was the season where you see the culmination of all that moodiness and changeability of Henry go quite ballistic.  Catherine Parr barely keeps her head.  Of course, we know CatherineHoward fails.  I will definitely have to do some solid reading on her.  What in heaven’s name was she thinking???? What was Culpepper thinking???  [They cleverly managed to make me hate him in one tiny scene – after that, I was gunning for him everytime his pretty face appeared on screen; I have no idea if that episode was true and hope it wasn’t…I will investigate!]  What I mean is – Henry has already been shown to be changeable and oh my god, stubborn as feck; and he is quite capable of killing anyone who gets in his way or pisses him off sufficiently [or even insufficiently – with the burning of Lutherans one day and then Catholics the next – he was getting very confused about his own Refomation in the absence of Cromwell…].  Did they not realise they were playing with absolute fire??  And Lady Rochford.  There’s practically no documentary evidence to back up her portrayal here – but this is forgiven, as they make sense of her behaviour in absence of virtually any existing documentary evidence AT ALL about her.  She’s one of the great mysteries of that whole period.  Why in hell did she help them – she was old enough to know better.  Watching Henry age and become, surely, mentally ill, is the thing to decipher in this series.  As well as the now forgotten taking of Boulogne, where they Great Escaped under and into the besieged city to take it.  It was one of those attempts at glory that fail as they had to give it back shortly after as part of a different treaty; that’s the way politics went then. 

This series was also one of watching characters die off.  Brandon dies still miserable (after they played very loose with his private life indeed – it wasn’t anything much like they showed it, but very good TV nonetheless).  Eustace Chapuys goes – what a well played character.  And Mary seems to begin her trip to fanatical doolally land in his absence; but who can blame her what with the unstable childhood and bonkers father – and mother to some extent – that she has, the issues it must have made in her head??  Again, it makes it understandable.  Elizabeth remains a strange performance.  Cool, very cucumbery. 

They start skimming things at the end – they completely miss out how Henry possibly had Catherine Parr’s replacement all lined up [Catherine Willoughby – it will be a relief at some point in the future to not read about people called Thomas and Katherine and Anne constantly!], so she really was lucky to escape with her life.  They skim how the politics went even more insanely cutthroat right near the end – though of course they touch on it with Surrey trying to kidnap the young Prince [very interesting thuggy choice to play him too – he was another one I was gunning for to go], and the interplay with Bishop Gardiner [oh why did he keep his head – this series was also the one where *I* started wanting to kill people] and Jane Seymour’s brother, that cold fish again.  They cleverly glossed Bishop Gardiner’s sudden drop from power, that no doubt saved many lives.  It was interesting and very cleverly done, the way the series makers and writer, constantly engaged my sympathy AS A MODERN – I got cross with the lack of women’s rights, I got cross with the domination of religion in life, I got cross with the power concentrated in so few hands i.e. the lack of democracy – and then echoed it all back to me making me think how little things have changed in some ways and how much in others.  A very quiet little ordinary message, really!  As they had Brandon say: 'Worship the God of all, drink the wine, and let the world be the world.'

The thing that really made me think was those issues about the Refomation, and about the ‘low born men’ Henry was wont to surround himself with, that pissed off the nobles.  The low born weren’t THAT low born by the way – they weren’t simply ‘commons’ – they were what we would nowadays call the upper middle class, those with new money and considerable advantage.  It would be like saying Kate Middleton was ‘one of us’, a proper commoner.  Someone whose parents can afford to buy you a flat in Chelsea [the second most expensive place to live in the whole of the UK, after Mayfair] after you finish university and get you a management job in Jigsaw…is NOT a commoner.  You’re a reacher, an aspirant – and you are nine tenths of the way there already.  Marrying into ‘old blood’ just cements you.  So this ‘low born men’ idea…just to put it in modern perspective for you.  Of course, it was dead shocking at the time, all these Esquires getting promoted to Dukes etc – Brandon being one. 

But the Reformation thing was what stays with me.  All these hundreds of years later, you realise that this is truly a case of the history being written by the victors.  I have grown up, and remember being taught in school about the inherent rightness and logical progression of the Reformation and its ideas…I never questioned it as I found the subject dry as breadcrumbs the way it was taught.  [The whole Tudor period never did much for me before this series got me interested.  I blame the teachers!]

This series got me to really live in the period in terms of understanding how terrifying and scary and high handed it must have been for the regular people, the ‘commons’ to have the religion they had lived with for years – hundreds of years! – stripped away from them so quickly, roughly and dogmatically.  Sure, there were the many questioners of old relics purporting to be saints bones and obviously not; many dens of iniquity in the houses of monks and nuns; also many cases of bribery and pocket lining; questionings as to why people couldn’t read the gospels for themselves if they wanted to…this was all part of the Humanist scholarship sweeping the Renaissance period and trickling about and slowly downward…

But the way Cromwell set about it, after the persuasive mocking plays, the violence with which he dissolved the monasteries  - the good and bad ones alikethat was his error where the people were concerned, that and taking away their days off, the Holy Days: and the one Anne Boleyn strongly warned him against, among other points…This was all so shocking for the people at the time.  I am not surprised that eventually there was the Pilgrimage of Grace, though it was bloody brave and trusting of the Northern people to think they would live after a rebellion like that.  Saying you are incredibly loyal to your prince and then rebelling to make him see he was wrong about something to do with God when he takes his own authority as God-given…you’re on a bit of a slippery slope there logic wise, and won’t end up anywhere but drowning in very cold water.

Anyway, it really made me see what a terrible schism and upheaval the whole thing was.  How incredibly bloodless and dead wet fish was my teaching of it in school!  I had not really understood or felt it before.  It is far more interesting and complexly layered for me now.  I will read more.

Lastly, on the subject of Wolsey. 
Another bloody thing they didn’t teach me in school, and that I am irritated though happier to only discover now…In school he was portrayed [as he was in ‘A Man For AllSeasons’ and ‘Anne of A Thousand Days’ for a large part – so my school history books took their line from film history rather than documents, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm] as a fat, greedy, power hungry, manipulative priest, a Pope Puppet Poppet, as Stanley described him the other day.  This is, by the way, what we in England do largely STILL expect our politicians to be like, bar the Pope influence.  These sort of people just DO end up lining their pockets at our expense in politics. 

But there was no mention of what a good statesman he was.  Also – I realise that I partly swallowed that previous view whole because I have always thought those dedicating themselves to religion as priests, nuns, Cardinals – whatever, Should Do Better.  Live Better.  Be Better.  And I judged him more harshly because he seemed so ‘worldly’.  [Heaven knows where I get that idealistic nonsense from, as its patently not true in real life a lot of the time…Also, its hypocritical of me, as dedicating your life to whatever religion does not necessarily preclude joyousness in things worldly.  However, it did at this time, for Catholic monks and nuns, so…] 

If I am ever in doubt of Wolsey again, I remind myself to re-read pp.6-9 of Jasper Ridley’s The Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More (London: 1982, Constable), where he describes the difference between proper religious people, referred at the time as the monks and nuns to whom ‘matters religious’ were concerned, and the ‘secular clergy’ – people like Wolsey, who were the natural politicians of the time – not expected to be better than they were.  But maybe I shall attempt a summary of the history books I am reading about Wolsey that are quite the eye openers in terms of culture at the time, in another post one day…?  I shall save him from his verdict in common culture and redeem him via academic knowledge!  Or did Sam Neill do that already, simply by portraying him so well?!)

Anyhow, that's that for now. Confusing it was, eh?  Maybe I should have spent several more days making it make more sense?  But I lack the time...

Some more Dr Who books coming next...

[1] Obviously, if I were a Catholic I’d say of course it was wrong.  But I’m not.  Neither am I, anymore, a Protestant.  I hope no one Catholic reading this gets offended.  As usual I am simply thinking aloud – and I speak only for myself, NEVER for anyone else.  And as I say, I’m undecided.  I’ll probably remain so – the stakes are too high, and it’s so long ago; its hard enough to know where you stand amidst all the spin of events today – let alone events from so far back with insufficient documentary evidence for us to know everything that happened.  Also – say we did know everything?  I don’t think 2 of us together would probably agree on a judgement of this period, these events.  They are too big, too violent.  All we can hope for is that We Humans learn to be Less Violent in time. (Does that sound like I don't always condemn violence?  State violence at that?  It does, doesn't it?  More for me to think on.  I find I often contradict my own inclinations when I have thought about them at length.  I suspect I'll be thinking about all of this for a very long time.  The issues are still pertinent now...)