I didn’t intend to post this evening, but the sunset, even though I couldn’t actually see the sun, seemed cheerful and optimistic despite the whisps of forbidding grey which kept on drifting across the pastel pinks . This is England after all. This is our weather. And our current state of mind.
I whipped out my phone to record the clouds. It seemed a good opportunity to wish you all a happy new year, wherever you are.
Goodbye 2018. We’re driving off and forward to 2019.
‘Just walk round the room. Any direction – no, not in a circle.. Just … don’t bump into anyone’
That’s how we began every rehearsal for our improvised drama ‘The Lie of the Land’, which played to a pretty full house in the Frazer Theatre Knaresborough last Monday. Those first minutes of every session provided time to focus and to learn how to use available space.
We brought in stories about Brexit that mattered to us. An ex-Science teacher deplored the ‘brain drain’ and the fact that foreign nationals no longer want to come here to pursue their careers. A mixed race woman observed the casual and less-than-casual racism that the Referendum seems to have legitimised. A deaf member of the group worried about the possibility of arts funding dedicated to people with disabilities being withdrawn. Someone gave vent to his anger on behalf of his children that the British Government has turned its back on the Erasmus programme. A management consultant spoke about his worries that England, perhaps less accessible because of visa restrictions, and no longer part of Team Europe, will become increasingly isolated. I, having spoken about no-longer-welcome long time residents known to me, talked about a much loved Ripon restaurant that has recently closed because it can no longer easily access the European staff on whom it has come to depend. British workers aren’t interested…. And so on.
We worked with these stories in turn, Chucking ideas into the pot, junking some, adapting others, polishing them into short tableaux and vignettes. Mine for instance, had two of us being shown into a restaurant, with staff busy serving relaxed diners. As I told my tale, the staff gradually disappeared, until, as I finished speaking, all the diners found themselves alone in unstaffed premises….
As the Management Consultant finished speaking, a group of us, friendly, cheerful, wrapped in our EU flag, welcomed trading partners sporting the flags of nations from around the globe. The lonely bearer of the Union Flag found herself increasingly ignored, until finally, Mr. America tossed her a raddled and threadbare looking soft-toy chicken.
When the Science teacher spoke, his discourse was regularly interrupted between paragraphs by speaking members of various tableaux. ‘Three years to finish your research? Ah… that could present a problem’. ’I’m vairy sorry, I don’t want to accept ze job. I don’t want to come to ze UK any more’. And finally ‘ Yup. I’ve decided to take that job in Sweden’.
And so we continued till each of our stories had been told.
We’d begun the play though as proud members of the British Empire, sovereignty intact. We came on stage, upright and military, singing a rousing sea shanty ‘A Drop of Nelson’s Blood’, completely overlooking the fact that as we advanced, we were trampling over the body of a slave.
We threw ourselves to the floor to allow the showing of a short stop-motion animation in which Playmobil figures told the early history of the EU, Britain’s membership and the Referendum, after which there was a full-ensemble mime sequence suggesting our individual feelings of loss.
So it went on, with our individual stories interspersed with comic mini-moments when Mr. or Ms. Sensible would try and prevent an ardent Brexiter leaping from a cliff in quest of the Unicorn.
Our finale had our splendid and multi-talented musician Tim declaiming from a megaphone those fake news stories about the EU of which the likes of the Daily Mail is so fond (‘EU bans barmaids from showing cleavage’, ‘EU will force .uk website addresses to become .eu’ etc) , all of which we greeted lustily with ‘No! Really? Bastards!’ before a final vocal surge in which a susurrating murmuring wind was gradually replaced by whisperings which culminated in a vociferous shout for a People’s Vote.
After the interval, some of the troupe took on roles as Shadow Minister for Trade, the very recently appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, a German industrialist, a wealthy Brexit backer and so on, for a Question Time in which members of the audience were encouraged to ask genuine questions. It went surprisingly well and authentically.
For those of us who’d not done any drama since we left school, this has been a moving, stimulating and thought-provoking experience. Cathartic too. Perhaps we should have invited Theresa May.
I hope there will be photos later, when we’ve scavenged them from those who were charged with taking some. We were too busy to take any…..
I’ve got two daughters who have the acting gene: who’ve often performed and entertained on stage over the years. Where did they get this gene from? Not me. I was a servant once in a school play, and spoke two whole lines. That’s my Drama CV.
Yet apparently, Malcolm and I will be part of a troupe appearing on stage for one night only at the Frazer Theatre Knaresborough, to perform an improvised drama about … well, what else?… Brexit.
It was Phil’s idea. He’s a professional theatre director, and he’s one of our People’s Vote team. He thought we needed something to entertain the campaigning troops all over North Yorkshire and bring us and a wider public together for something a little different. Adrian, also part of the team, offered practical and technical expertise.
And suddenly … there we were, rehearsing, about a dozen of us. Most of us had never met each other before. No script. No lines. No clear idea where this might go…. yet. This was to be Improvised Theatre. We played games. ‘Think of one thing you like about being part of Europe.’ (Just one?) ‘Now make a statue of it.’ We’ve made more statues, taught our poses to others, worked with them to make vignettes. We’ve played ball games, word games. We’ve told stories about our own experiences of Europe and of the-Brexit-to-be, and with Phil, woven these into scenes and tableaux . We’ve sung a sea shanty, improvised ‘Question Time’. Phil and Adrian persuaded someone to confect a video. All this weekend, we’ll be working solidly to pull everything together. Well, Phil will. He’s got an eye for when there’s a nugget worth mining for, a gem worth polishing.From the latest North Yorkshire for Europe newsletter.
My grandfather Charles Barton is a shadowy figure: someone I can’t really flesh out into a real person. Partly it’s because he died sixteen years before I was born. Partly it’s because my mother beatified him and painted an unrealistic picture of a man who was beyond criticism.
Charles was a second generation Londoner. His own father Joshua had been born in Suffolk in a village called Layham. So had all his relatives before him on his father’s side: I’ve plotted them back to the 1600s. Every single man had been an agricultural labourer. Some of them had wonderful names like Shadrack or Meshack: but not, apparently Abednego.
Joshua was born at a time when a series of bad harvests had made a tough country life even tougher. As a young man he took his chance, went to London and became – who knows how – a wine cooper. He married a local girl, Maria, and they had ten children.
The family was probably what Theresa May patronisingly calls Just About Managing. The children grew up to become gardeners, coachmen, clerks, seamstresses. All except Charles and Harry, sons numbers two and three. I’ll never know the story of how they got places at Saint Olave’s Grammar School and then won scholarships to Cambridge University. I still have books that Charles won as prizes at school, and while studying at Magdalene College. I wonder how two working class boys from a relatively poor background enjoyed their experiences in these privileged environments?
Harry became a schoolmaster but Charles felt called to be a priest. He worked in a succession of grubby industrial or manufacturing Yorkshire parishes: Hanging Heaton, where he met and married my grandmother Annie; then mining village Sharlston where my mother was born.
Charles and Annie’s wedding in 1910: from a family album.
The marriage of Charles and Annie announced in the local paper.
Charles taught my mother Betty at home in his new parish in Roberttown until she was eight, and then when she started school pushed and pushed her to achieve academically. Younger brother Arthur, who was less bright wasn’t given this hothouse treatment.
Charles acquired a reputation for injecting vigour into failing parishes. It was a full time calling. No days off for him. Ever. Yet parish magazines and local papers at the time give a picture of a lively parish life: plays, bazaars, meetings, fundraising schemes, discussion groups, clubs all flourished in St Peters Morley when he was rector there, and he was clearly liked and respected.
Then, in 1931, he fell ill, aged only 56. My mother was in the throes of applying for a place at Oxford University: still quite an unusual goal for a young woman in those days. He lived to know that she had been accepted. When he died my grandmother refused to let my mother take her place up. She was needed at home. My mother raged and stormed and so did her school. Annie stood firm. Or almost. Eventually, she agreed that if Leeds University would have her, Betty could be a day student there. And that is what happened.
My mother never forgave Annie. I didn’t ever meet my grandmother, who lived until I was about 14. In my mother’s eyes she was the sinner, Charles the saint.
The early 1950s were in many ways the fag-end of the war. I lived in Sandhutton, a little village outside Thirsk, where my mother was head of a two-teacher school. I was with the under eights, while she taught the nine to fifteen year olds. Few pupils aimed to pass for Grammar when life as a farm labourer awaited. The school photo confirms my memory. Everything was beige and grey.
Sweets were almost unknown, and we were happy to supplement our adequate-but-dull diets by marauding the hedgerows for blackberries and rosehips, or by getting up at four in the morning to go mushrooming on the now-abandoned airfield.
Perhaps that dinginess is why my memory of that meadow is so vivid. Not far from our house, it was where we’d go sometimes when, during the long school summer break, my mother put together a picnic . I enjoyed running wild in the fields, while she managed a rare daytime doze in the sunshine. What I remember is flinging myself down in the grasses which then rasped and tickled my bare legs. I was searching, among the vetch, the buttercups and the poppies for daisies or other small flowers that I could make into a daisy chain. I wasn’t very good at it. The stems would split and mash, and my chain would tumble apart before it had even reached bracelet proportions.
I remember the fuzzing and the droning of the bees and flying things that murmured and hummed about my head; the brief sting of one of the single-minded ants out to seize any of our stray crumbs. I think back to the vivid colours of the meadow flowers – yellow buttercups and vetch, blue cornflowers, white meadowsweet blushing faintly pink or yellow, and the delicate papery petals of scarlet poppies. It smelt – well, green – and wafting from the next field was the sappy smell of recently cut hay. In the early afternoon there were no birds singing. Instead, the whirring of insect wings, the rumble of a distant tractor.
Directly above, as I lay in the grass, were no threatening clouds at all – of course there weren’t – just puffs of white cumulus, or ethereal streaks of cirrus in the perfectly blue sky.
Distance lends enchantment to the view. But it really was like that.
This miscellany of photos doesn’t come from Sandhutton at all, but from bits of North Yorkshire, from Shopshire, from Franconia …. anywhere that has a meadow. Click on any image to see it full size.
Haworth: a charming village on the top of a high and steep hill, in an area of high, bleak and steep hills; home to the Brontë sisters and the surrounding moorland countryside of Wuthering Heights.
Everyone knows that you can expect ‘weather’ when you come here, whatever time of year you arrive. As you stumble along the church path to leave the village, slashing rain tumbling from sullen hostile skies needles your skin, slicks your hair to your face and saturates your clothes. As you set your face against the wild wind, your boots sink into the sodden peaty turf as you trudge onto the moor. If you dare to glance up, you see unending moorland before you: bleak, barren and bare, with sheep huddled against the dry stone walls which march across the landscape. This is Nature-in-the-Raw, and we expect no different.
I went there earlier this week. None of the above applied.
We are in Week Five of a heatwave. I doubt if either the Brontës or even Heathcliff himself had ever seen the like. Brittle coir matting now carpets the brooding moorland fells: and several weeks early, the heather is almost in flower, rich and purple. Yellowing grasses replace the dense green turf the sheep prefer, whispering and rustling in the light breeze.
There’s a little brook in the valley here. Angry peaty water jostling officiously along its path has been replaced by still, clear shallow pools.
The Brontë sisters would cheerfully have paused here to rest, reflect and write a little. Then, like me, they would have slogged on, up the peat-and-stone pathway that leads upwards, ever upwards, towards Top Withens.
Top Withens may have been the isolated upland farmhouse that Emily Brontë pictured Cathy Earnshaw and family living in when she wrote Wuthering Heights. It’s a ruin now, the roof torn off in a violent thunderstorm in the 1890s. Just as you’d expect.
It was the perfect picnic spot for me. The moorland stretched before me, its hillsides rhythmically rising and falling. The world was silent: not that silence in which there is no sound, but that of the living countryside: the low susuration of the swaying grasses; the humming of the wind in my ears; the occasional complaint of a bird sweeping overhead. Beyond the moorland, greener fields lay, chopped centuries ago into rough rectangles by drystone walls. Some held sheep, some cattle, others recently cut hay. The sun warmed my rocky seat, and I was perfectly content.
Except for the sky. The day was sultry, sweaty, but freshened by a soft breeze. I knew the sun might be chased away by gusty rain. Ash-grey clouds swelled and receded, revealing granite tones behind: and beyond that, cornflower blue once more. It was a signal. Haworth takes weather seriously. Never be tempted to climb these uplands without a very capable waterproof in your kit.
The moorland I saw this week was not the Brontë’s moorland. It’s been a little sanitised. There are helpful finger posts pointing the way at every junction, in English and … Japanese.
The pathways the sisters trod are no longer springy peat tracks, or sticky muddy gullies. Instead, heavy slabs line the way, to prevent footfall damage to this fragile area from the hundreds of people who tramp these paths looking for the Real Brontë Experience.
My day was far too comfortable for that. I was not returning to a draughty parsonage with self-destructive brother Branwell to worry about. If you want to see the Brontë’s life through his eyes, read Robert Edric’s ‘Sanctuary’. You’ll be glad to get back to bustling tourist-destination Haworth for a nice cup of tea.
This post fits nicely into one of the Ragtag Daily Challenges this week: Travel. There’s no need to cross the ocean or even take your passport to discover sights worth experiencing.
What it wouldn’t normally involve is Cross Green, an unlovely sprawling industrial estate to the south east of the city centre. Acres of modern rectangular industrial buildings surround large wholesale markets, and any housing squeezes up into the north of the patch.
But Cross Green is home to one of Leeds’ most exciting new buildings. Here, on its southern face is a striking living wall, one of the largest in Europe, providing biodiversity in an otherwise wholly man-made environment.
The building itself relies heavily on glass and elegant timber framing. It’s something of an anachronism in a zone of modern concrete boxes.
These days we’re all encouraged to recycle – glass, paper, tins, plastic, garden waste – even, in some local authorities, food waste. By rights, little should need to find its way into those black bags steadily filling every landfill site in the country. But it does.
The advanced technology in this building aims to prevent that: and thanks to our friends Graham and Trish, we spent an afternoon finding out how.
We started out in one of the meeting rooms, looking through glass to watch a monstrous grab working with up to 6 tonnes per grab of shredded miscellaneous waste. This was waste at the end of its journey, but still useful.
Come with us. Put on the work boots they give you, the hi-viz jacket, the safety helmet and the goggles. Come with us and we walk from point to point in this immense building.
Here are the monitors which – er- monitor every part of the plant. Look carefully and you’ll see flames on one of the screens.
This is an incinerator which burns the unrecoverable waste we had been looking at earlier, to produce heat. The heat turns water into steam. The steam powers a turbine. The turbine generates about 13 MW of electricity – enough to supply the needs of 22,000 homes. Emissions are carefully controlled, cleaned and captured, and the ash generated by this unimaginably hot bonfire is used as aggregate in road building.
Before that though, materials which could have been recycled earlier are extracted. Paper and card are blown from the refuse. Metals are fished out by magnets. We couldn’t take pictures as we walked round the plant, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
There’s not really a market for the degraded paper which finds its way here. But next time you take an egg from an egg box, or find yourself staring at a sick-bowl in hospital, or need to buy some paper-based animal bedding, you might be using something that started out in the RERF in Leeds.
I could blind you with facts and figures, but I think it’s enough to know that Leeds is helping to meet its ambitious zero-waste plans with projects such as this. We, wherever we live, have an obligation to develop our own personal zero-waste strategies. Maybe you have a group you could join, like our own Plastic Free Ripon? More of that in another post.