Category Archives: Literature


Did you read yesterday’s blog.  Each of my sisters responded saying that among their favourites that we all learned at school, was Cargoes by John Masefield.  So may I share it with you here:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield was an English poet and writer (1878-1967).  He was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until his death he wrote stirring poetry meant to make the reader/listener proud of being British and of their heritage.

Probably Masefield’s most popular poem was Sea Fever.  You will no doubt know the opening stanza –

“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.”

When we were at school we were lucky to have such a talented English teacher who instilled the love of poetry and literature in groups of young girls.  This, coupled with encouragement from our father, taught my sisters and me the beauty to be found in words.

So another rambling post to share with you my love of words, poetry whether stirring like those of Masefield, Brooke,Kipling, Frost et al or of the more modern poets like Jenny Joseph, Ted Hughes and of course another favourite Jayne Relaford Brown whose poem Finding her here  has been quoted several times in earlier blogs.


An Apology and Another Favourite

If you read my post from yesterday, you will see that I am ‘chasing my tail’ these days, so much so that reading and writing blogs is suffering.  I do need a few hours sleep each day.

So apologies if I haven’t read your recent posts or made any comments.  Once this week is over, and I am on top of things, I shall diligently read them all.

And now, for no other reason than it has long been a favourite of mine and my children, here is Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada (They Pass on the Torch of Life):

There’s a breathless hush in the Close**tonight
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
Play up! play up! and play the game!

The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling‘s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

*Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938)
** The Close in the above poem refers to the college cricket ground of Clifton College in Clifton Bristol.  The Close, played an important role in the history of cricket and witnessed 13 of W G Grace‘s first-class hundreds for Gloucestershire in the County Championship. Grace’s children attended the college.
*** Recite it out loud and hear the rhythm and the imperialism that was rampant when it was written.  Click here to hear the poet reading his own work, recorded in about 1928.
****And this is one of the many poems I learned so very many years ago and still recite often.

If it is new to you, I hope you like it and if you know it, I hope you will enjoy reading, reciting and hearing it again.

Gatling Gun

1876 Gatling gun kept at Fort Laramie National Historic Site via Wikipedia

Madman, Murderer and Words.

By now you will have recognised realised that I am besotted by words in the English language.  I like the way they look, the way they sound and their meanings.  I can spend whole days following the etymology of words.

Imagine my delight then some years ago to be presented with a copy of “The Professor and the Madman” the story of the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary and the two men who were so intimately involved in it.

Book cover - Professor and madman

The Professor and the Madman masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the “Oxford English Dictionary”–and literary history.” From the book description on Amazon.

Have you discovered this book yet?  It was written and researched by Simon Winchester and  published in 1999.

We are told that compiling the OED  was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken.   As definitions and quotations were collected, Professor James Murray leading the overseeing committee discovered that Dr W C Minor had submitted more than 10,000 words and their quotations.  The committee insisted honoring him at which time the truth came to light.

That truth – Dr Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was  an inmate at Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane.

Dr Minor had served in the Union army as an  assistant surgeon and held the rank of lieutenant. He spent about six months attending to civil war casualties at hospitals in New England before being sent to the front line in May 1864. It appears that following time in the battlefield his mental illness resurfaced.  Because of this he had to leave the army and was sent by his family to convalesce in London.  He settled in a particularly poor part of London (Lambeth) where he supported himself by painting watercolours and playing the flute.  But his mental illness was never under control and while living there he shot and killed a brewery worker who was on his way to work, thinking that the worker was out to seek revenge for an earlier incident while Minor was in the US Army.

Minor gave himself up to the police and was sentenced to be confined in the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum ‘Until Her Majesty’s Pleasure Be Known’

While detained in Broadmoor where he had two cells, a manservant, a large collection of books, and, incredibly, regular visits from Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man he had murdered, Minor heard of the   ‘Appeal for volunteer readers’ sent out by James Murray, in which Murray asked interested members of the reading public to scour published literature for quotations to illustrate the use of English words. Minor, described by the Broadmoor administrators as particularly learned set to work assembling lists of quotations and by the mid-1880s was sending hundreds, and later thousands, of quotations on slips of paper  to Murray and his team at the “famous scriptorium at 79 Banbury Road, Oxford.”

The letters were  signed ‘W. C. Minor, Crowthorne, Berkshire’, and until he called upon Minor,  Murray had no idea that his most assiduous correspondent was an American murderer and an inmate at one of Britain’s most secure and infamous lunatic asylums.

The two men became firm friends united by the complexity of the English language.  Despite this friendship and the benefits of his involvement in the dictionary Minor’s illness became more acute and in 1902, he amputated his own penis in the belief it might curb his troublesome sexual appetite. Following this and prompted by Murray, the  Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, allowed Minor’s release and deportation in 1910.

Minor was farewelled by Murray and his wife and sailed back to New York where on arrival there, he was immediately committed to  St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He deteriorated steadily, was moved to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane in Hartford, Connecticut and in 1920 died of a respiratory infection

We know very little of his life after returning to the United States but his legacy as a volunteer reader can be found among the pages of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Professor James Murray said of him at the time that “so enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions … that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone” (The Professor and the madman p160).

Associated posts

Happiness is…

” …he was discovering happiness in the present.
When he sat reading in the library or playing Mozart in the music-room, he often felt the invasion of a deep spiritual emotion, as if Shangri-La were indeed a living essence, distilled from the magic of the ages and miraculously preserved against time…”
From “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton,
English Novelist 1900-1954

Book cover

Dust Jacket from the first edition. Via Wikipedia

Have you read this classic? It was a must when I was growing up.  The Second World War was just over and we wanted to believe there was a Shangri-La aka Utopia.  Perhaps we thought one would even be the outcome of the peace between the nations.

The book tells the story of a disenchanted member of the British diplomatic service stationed in Afghanistan.  To escape a revolution the white residents of Baskul are being evacuated to Peshawar, Pakistan but the plane is hijacked and Conway, the diplomat and his 3 companions disappear.  The plane crash lands, the pilot is killed and the four passengers seek shelter at a monastery named Shangri-La high up in the mountains of Tibet.

The book was published in 1933 so some of the prose is archaic outdated but it is well worth reading.  It caught the imagination of the populace and in fact, Camp David, the presidential hideaway, was originally called Shangri-La by US President Franklin D Roosevelt.

So what does Shangri-La mean to you?

  • Do you seek a peaceful and unhurried place to live out your life?
  • Do you want a serene environment with a place for everything and everything in it’s place?
  • Do you want to be surrounded by good friends who support you and who you can support in turn?
  • Do you want a world without war and aggression?

Some of these things are within our ability to achieve, if not 100% then pretty close to it.  Remember Lord Marks of Marks and Spencer fame said “The cost of perfection is too great.  Close enough is good enough.”  Imagine how you would feel if you could invent your own Shangri-La even if it was only 90/95% perfect.

  • We can slow down the pace of our lives.  We can determine how much we want to do (notwithstanding the fact that most of us have to work to live).  Do we have to be so involved in the myriad of things we have chosen.  Remember to slow down and smell the roses!
  • We can achieve a serene environment by de-cluttering (is there such a word) our home and office and getting rid of all the extraneous baggage that we have accumulated over the years.  If you haven’t used it or worn it in the past six months, chances are you never will.
  • We can reach out to friends offering our support and accepting their support in return.  If we surround ourselves with like minded people there is no room for the toxic folk who try to invade our lives and minds.
  • A world without war and aggression is not so easy to accomplish but let’s start in a small way.  Let’s try really hard not to react aggressively when confronted with something or somebody we don’t like.

I would love to hear your take on Lost Horizon and of course your thoughts on Shangri-La and how to achieve your own Utopia.

PS – I once stayed at a hotel called  Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort in Penang, Malaysia.  And it lived up to it’s name in all respects.

Playing with words again

I have said before that I like playing with words.  I awoke early this morning, too early to get up and start the day, so I started to read a thriller I picked up at the library yesterday.  It is called  “Trigger City” by Sean Chercover and I came across this wonderful example of alliteration :

“Flower-boxes displayed dying dwarf dahlias in differing degrees of decay”

Isn’t that wonderful.  This was dropped into the middle of a paragraph describing the outward appearance of a property.  I am sure it wasn’t put there without a lot of thought but nowhere else in the book could I find any alliteration.

Alliteration is defined as “the repetition of the leading consonant sound in each word throughout a sentence or a phrase. Alliteration is commonly used in poetry and tongue twisters. It is also sometimes used in advertising taglines and business names to make them more memorable.” according to wiki-answers and “the use of the same consonant or vowel at the beginning of each word” according to my Collins Dictionary which goes on to give the example of “round the rocks the ragged rascal ran”  Alliteration in literature, prose or poetry is used mainly to introduce style and make the piece of writing more memorable.

So consider these examples :

  • I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
    When far away an interrupted cry
    Came over houses from another street

    Robert Frost – Acquainted with the Night
  • Once upon a midnight dreary, while
    I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

    Edgar Alan Poe – The Raven
  • “So we beat on, boats against the current,
    borne back ceaselessly into the past.

    F Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
  • For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
    Lay like a load on my weary eye,
    And the dead were at my feet.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • Perhaps to-morrow you will see her sail.
    She sails at sunrise:
    John Masefield – The Wanderer
  • Silence surged softly backwards and
    forests ferny floor
    The Listeners – Walter De La Mare

And of course there are many instances of alliteration used in advertising:

  • Jaguar – Don’t dream it; drive it
  • Greyhound Going Great
  • Landrover – The best four by four by far

And Brand Names:

  • Dunkin Donuts
  • Pay Pal
  • Best Buy
  • Borders Books
  • Corporate Caterers
  • Perfect Party Planners
  • Absolute Accountants
  • Coca Cola

And people’s names

  • Ronald Regan
  • Jesse James
  • Jesse Jackson
  • Michael Moore
  • William Wordsworth
  • Mickey Mouse &
  • Donald Duck

The other form of alliteration is sound, where the words have the same sounding beginnings but are not spelled in the same way

  • Funny phone
  • Quality kebabs – sorry can’t think of any others.  Can you?

And from the Wizard of Oz:

“Step forward, Tin Man. You dare to come to me for a heart, do you? You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk…And you, Scarecrow, have the effrontery to ask for a brain! You billowing bale of bovine fodder!”

On the way to Oz

This game could go on and on ad infinitum.  Until I fall fast asleep on my feet.

Cider House Rules

Dr Larch and Homer Wells

Dr Larch and Homer Wells

Filling in a couple of hours on a cold, spring day, I turned the television on and watched Cider House Rules.  This was shown on a channel that regularly screens older movies.

It’s a 1999 movie starring (Sir) Michael Caine and  Tobey Maguire.  Maguire plays Homer Wells an orphan who was adopted and returned twice to the orphanage that is directed by Dr Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine).

Dr Larch is a secret abortionist and is also addicted to ether which he applies to himself on a regular nightly basis. Homer Wells has no formal education but Dr Larch trains him in obstetrics and abortions and he becomes Larch’s assistant.

The story follows Homer Wells growing up in the orphanage and becoming unsettled, wanting to see the world.  The opportunity arises when an airman arrives with his lady friend who will have an abortion.  The airman agrees to take Homer with him and arranges a job on his family’s apple orchard.  The apples are picked by a team of itinerant pickers and then they are turned into cider.  Homer bunks with these pickers and as they can’t read, reads them the Cider House Rules.

I don’t want to give away any more of this movie.  But would say that if you haven’t seen it, it is well worth a trip to the movies or to get on video.

Having seen this movie I remembered seeing photos of a Cider House in a book that my father gave me years ago.

Book cover

The book is entitled Rural London and was published way back in 1951.  It contains fantastic photos of parts of London way back then.  There is a chapter on East and South-east London and I remember some of scenes as they were when I was growing up in the east end of London.

But the cider house.

At the time the book was published there were three “hostelries” in London that differed from all other pubs in that they sold only cider.

Cider house

The Goat Tavern in Stafford Street

The Goat Tavern still stands in Stafford Street, off Old Bond Street.  The building probably dates back to the end of the seventeenth century.

goat tavern

The Goat Tavern today

We are told that the Goat Tavern is ‘female friendly’ and ‘gay friendly’.  Well, that’s a relief!

Men in cider house

Men drinking in cider house

The “hostelry” pictured above was in the Harrow Road and was formerly a carpenter’s shop that held a  licence that allowed only the workmen to drink on the premises.

This book is one of three that I am delving into at present.  Reading is not the correct word because I read something in one and then remember seeing something of a similar nature in one of the others.

3 books

And I am grateful that I have these books only one of which is relatively new. The other two Rural London and Mayhew’s London are both now tattered and well worn but are great to reread and learn about my home town in years gone by.

“I feel sorry for people who don’t drink.  When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”
Frank Sinatra

Another Favorite

Her life was so sad that it was almost too beautiful to be true” Sacha Guitry (Alexandre-Pierre Georges (Sacha) Guitry)   French stage actor, film actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright.  1885 –  1957

Edith Piaf is my favorite singer of all time.  I don’t remember how or when I heard her first but for as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with her and her life.

She had this amazing voice that spoke to directly to you even if you didn’t know enough French to understand what she was singing about.  Of course, we all know “Non, je ne regrette rien”   and many of us have seen the film made of her life “La Vie En Rose”

Piaf movie poster

Image via Wikipedia

I have several books written about her life.  One I particularly like is by her half-sister Simone Berteaut.*  In it she tells of their meeting when Edith was fifteen and she was a couple of years younger.  It was at Alverne’s an acrobat friend of their father’s.  Simone describes the meeting:

“I was pleased to be going to Alverne’s.  His apartment was scruffy but we ate well there.  That was all I cared about, I didn’t think about meeting Edith.

“It was a poorly furnished, filthy little room.  There were some rings hanging in an empty door-frame.  A shapeless creature in a boy’s shirt was suspended from them.  It would never have occurred to me that this was my sister had I not seen two little white hands poking through the shirt sleeves.

“Are you Edith?” “Yes.” “Well, you’re my sister then”.

Edith invited Simone to join her in her life singing in the streets and that’s what they did.  As Simone says in the book “I put my hand in hers and we went off to sing in the streets”.  It is amazing to us that these two young girls were on their own and nobody cared what happened to them.  Remember Simone was not even 13 years old.  So they sang on the streets, mostly Edith sang and Simone collected the money and they hustled what they could.

The life they lived was not healthy or even sane but they survived.  And they continued to live this life until Edith  was “discovered”  by  Louis Leplé and started to sing in his nightclub and it was he who gave her the nickname ‘Little Sparrow’.  The fame and notoriety came as did the money, the booze, drugs, the men but through it all they appeared to have fun.

Two serious car accidents in 1951 led to a morphine and alcohol addiction that left her whole life running out of control.

Piaf claimed that she couldn’t live without a man in her life and she was rarely without one.  She married twice.  First in 1952 to Jacques Pils, a French singer and actor.  But despite it seeming to be a happy marriage it ended in divorce in 1956.

She later married  Theo Sarapo, twenty years younger, a handsome Greek.  This relationship ’caused more gossip than any of her other men.” But one year later , in 1963 Piaf was dead.

Her last appearance was at the Paris Olympia, racked and hunched over with pain and barely able to stand. Her last recorded song was “L’homme de Berlin” in 1963, the year of her death. She died in poverty and under Gallic law her husband inherited her “forty-five million francs worth of debts.”

Piaf’s funeral was massive yet, because of her lifestyle, she was forbidden a Mass but  Parisian traffic was completely stopped on the day because  the funeral.

*Note – In the almost 30 years since I first bought and read this book much has been written and said about Berteaut and her relationship with Piaf.  It has been claimed that they were not sisters and that Berteaut simply latched onto Piaf as a kind of parasite.  Whatever the true relationship was I still love the book.

“No! No regrets
No! I will have no regrets
All the things
That went wrong
For at last I have learned to be strong

No! No regrets
No! I will have no regrets
For the grief doesn’t last
It is gone
I’ve forgotten the past”

The South Wind Doth Blow

The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow and what will poor robin do then?  He’ll sit in a barn to keep himself warm and hide his head under his wing”  Children’s nursery rhyme

Southern Alps NZ

via Wikipedia

Except here in the southern hemisphere it is the south wind that blows and today it’s blowing straight off the Southern Alps.  The temperature hasn’t risen above 10 degrees Centigrade and tonight it is forecast to fall to 4.  Very cold.

Added to that it has rained solidly all day and non stop.  So eventually we had to go out.  Lotte and I both needed to get some fresh air.  She doesn’t like to get her feet wet so she was a pretty miserable little thing once she got outside and saw the rain.  But she needs her walk as do I.

Storm clouds

The only people we met during this walk were other dog owners out with their charges.  Our walk was of necessity, very short and Lotte decided that the place for her was in front of the fire.  She really looked like a drowned rat when we got home again.

Do you know and/or use the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs”?  This was a phrase commonly heard when I was growing up.  It always seemed strange to me and nobody appeared to know where the phrase originated.  Now with the internet and our trusty friend Wikipedia I have been looking for the origin.

Well it appears there are many.  One source World Wide Words tell us  – “The most common one says that in olden times, homes had thatched roofs in which domestic animals such as cats and dogs would like to hide. In heavy rain, the animals would either be washed out of the thatch, or rapidly abandon it for better shelter, so it would seem to be raining cats and dogs.”  and then – “The most favoured one in the references I have found is mythological. It seems that cats were at one time thought to have influence over storms, especially by sailors, and that dogs were symbols of storms, often accompanying images and descriptions of the Norse storm god Odin. So when some particularly violent tempest appeared, people suggested it was caused by cats (bringing the rain) and dogs (the wind).”

And from – “The much more probable source of ‘raining cats and dogs’ is the prosaic fact that, in the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals and other debris. The animals didn’t fall from the sky, but the sight of dead cats and dogs floating by in storms could well have caused the coining of this colourful phrase.” and ” Jonathan Swift described such an event in his satirical poem ‘A Description of a City Shower‘, first published in the 1710 collection of the Tatler magazine.”

So which one do you prefer.  I lean towards the Jonathon Swift filthy streets.  I can imagine how filthy were the streets of London in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cover Mayhew's London

Very tattered cover of book

And then I went off on another tangent.  I have another old book entitled “Mayhew’s London” first published in 1861.  I don’t know when my copy was published but it is hardback and cost 25 shillings.  As there were 20 shillings to a pound I guess in the early or even mid 20th century when this book would have been purchased, it was quite expensive.

There are illustrations of the time and descriptions of how many made their living or at least enough to survive.  It is a fascinating book and I propose to share parts of it in some other blogs.

But for now:

The Hurdy gurdy player

Old Sarah, the Hurdy Gurdy Player from "Mayhew's London"


London Costermonger from "Mayhew's London"

Costermonger, or simply Coster, is a street seller of fruit (apples, etc.) and vegetables, in London and other British towns. They were ubiquitous in mid-Victorian England, and some are still found in markets. As usual with street-sellers, they would use a loud sing-song cry or chant to attract attention. Their cart might be stationary at a market stall, or mobile (horse-drawn or wheelbarrow) – from Wikipedia

These costermongers are still to be found in the street markets of London.

And now I will stop these ramblings.  Lotte and I are off for a few days and I wont have access to the computer.  So I will have loads to report when I return in the middle of the week.


My rainbow

Fair Warning

stop sign

image from

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter. 

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells and run my stick along the public railings and make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens and learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat and eat three pounds of sausages at a go or only bread and pickles for a week and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes. 

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry and pay our rent and not swear in the street  and set a good example for the children. We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.  But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Do you know this poem by Jenny Joseph, English author and poet?  This is from another favorite book bought for me by my late husband.

Book cover

It sits in pride of place with the other two similar books.  I have written about Becoming the Woman I’ve Wanted  and have quoted from If I Had My life to Live Over.

Book coverBook cover

So please don’t ever say I didn’t warn you.  My children have always thought that I would grow old disgracefully and this particular poem has haunted them since I first heard it.

I hope you enjoy it.

Finding Her Here

Book cover

“I am becoming the woman I’ve wanted, grey at the temples, soft body, delighted, cracked up by life, with a laugh that’s known bitter but, past it, got better, knows she’s a survivor – that whatever comes, she can outlast it.  I am becoming a deep weathered basket.

” I am becoming the woman I’ve longed for,  the motherly lover with arms strong and tender, the growing up daughter who blushes surprises.  I am becoming full moons and  sunrises.

“I find her becoming, this woman I’ve wanted, who knows she’ll encompass, who knows she’s sufficient, knows where she is going and travels with passion.  Who remembers she’s precious, but knows she’s not scarce – who knows she is plenty, plenty to share.”

I have quoted from this poem by Jayne Relaford Brown before .  And it really speaks to me and says it all for me.  It is published in “I am Becoming the Woman I’ve Wanted” a book that was bought for me by my late husband.  He certainly knew how to choose the right books (or push the right buttons perhaps, or even knew me better than I knew myself).

Anyway, I know very little about this woman who has written about me as if she knows me.

I have found out that she received an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing from San Diego State  University and teaches writing at Penn State University Berks-Lehigh Valley College where she is also a Senior lecturer in English.   In addition, she teaches composition, creative writing and advanced non fiction courses.

Her poem, “Finding Her Here,” is  distributed as a poster by Syracuse Cultural Workers.  It has been translated into Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.

I really would like to know more about her.  Can anybody help please.