September 29, 2012

A Weekend Away

We’re sitting in the fabulous lounge of the Blue Boar in Maldon. A quirkier hotel I’ve never visited. It’s stuffed with old furniture, large gilt-framed portraits, Romanesque statues holding lamps and wooden beams. The floors all slope in one direction or another, whatever floor you’re on, and the whole building has a perfect imperfectness about it, right down to the frayed split in the carpet upstairs to the bubbling, torn wallpaper on the wall in our room. In the lounge where we’re sitting, there is a ‘lover’s chair’ (seats facing in opposing directions) and a triskele chair, arms radiating out from the centre in a spiral. Marble-topped tables sit in front of some of the chairs and our tea tray sits on one of them. Over the lounge fireplace hangs a portrait of a naked woman reclining on a bed. This theme seems to be carried on upstairs on one floor in particular, where a row of nubile nakedness flanks either side of a corridor. I can only imagine one of the owners had a partiality for womanly flesh.

The other intriguing pictures hang in our bedroom. The one to the left is separated from the one to the right by about 10 feet and by a world of speculation. The viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about the story behind the paintings and the motives of both artist and purchaser.

The other part worth mentioning is the amazing dining room (left). The candelabra theme is continued right through to the Turkish Prince (well, he looks like one) with the candelabra on his head. Over the top is definitely the name of the game of this hotel. The proprietor calls it 'comfortable', we called it quirky and eccentric. Whatever it is, it's definitely worth seeing and staying in.

The building itself is 14th Century and sits on Silver Street, the location of the town mint long ago. At the front are a pair of tall gates where the coaches would once have turned in off the road. The view in here is almost of a medieval street; Tudor walls running one side of the cobbled alleyway and the hotel the other side. Somewhere at the back is the Maldon Brewery, which brews Puck’s Folly - a pint or two of which will be imbibed tonight.

This afternoon we took a tour of the Moot Hall and I eventually got to go on the roof, something I’d never done before despite living in Maldon for about 25 years. Mind you, it’s taken Stephen moving here from Brighton to get me out seeing more of the local area than I would otherwise have done. But I guess that’s the way of a lot of people. We’re more likely to see the other side of the world these days than we are the other side of our home town.

Bed tonight will be a four-poster facing the window that looks out at the tower of St. Peter’s church, the only triangular tower in the country and possibly in Europe.

September 04, 2012

Questions Only The Birds Can Answer

The familiar sight of a line of geese flying in a 'V' formation led me to thinking about why they do this and whether the birds are aware of what they are doing.

The birds behind the leader are flying in the slipstream of the birds in front so making flying easier. On long migrations this saves vital energy. If you watch the formation, you will notice they rotate the leader, taking it in turns to fly at the front, sharing the workload between them. An ornithologist may argue that the birds know what they are doing, but I wondered if they understand why they do it. I would guess that if I were a goose, I would know that flying behind my fellow geese was easier than flying in front, but I'm not sure I would have an understanding of the physics of the slipstream.

I watched three pigeons from my bedroom window once. At first I thought they were lying in the field opposite because they were dead. They were lying on their sides with one wing seeming to flap in the breeze. They caught my eye because three dead pigeons together would have been highly unusual apart from the fact they were all lying on the same side of their bodies and all facing the same way. And then one after another they rolled onto the other side and lifted the other wing. At the time it was raining lightly and I could only assume they were taking the equivalent of a shower, washing their wingpits. Did the pigeons know what they were doing and why they were doing it? It seemed to me they were quite aware of what they were doing but I couldn't say they knew why they were doing it.

It's now known that some animals, such as giraffe and elephants, will surround, and apparently guard their dead. Giraffes are known to stay with dead young, sometimes for a few days, even splaying their legs to bend down to the bodies, something not usually done by them except to drink. Splaying their legs to bend puts them in a vulnerable position. Elephants will stop and investigate other dead elephants, often staying with the bodies for some time. What is it that makes them behave in this fashion? Do they know the animal is dead, and if so, why do they stay with the body if there is no emotional attachment? For the giraffe, is it because she is following a deep-seated instinct to nurture and care for her baby or to mourn its passing, or both? Do elephants investigate their dead and stay with them out of recognition of the passing of the dead animal?

I read recently that insects give off certain chemicals, or an odour, that may warn off other insects in order to preserve others from suffering the same fate. It may be disease, poisoning, or predators that have killed them and the odour or chemical serves as a warning or even to pass on some immunity in small doses. As insects don't seem to have been observed exhibiting similar behaviours to animals, it can be said this is a chemical process rather than an emotional one or an instinctive one - apart from the insect recognising the chemical and behaving accordingly. If animals give off something similar when they die, why do their fellows stay with them?

As humans we often humanise animals, dressing our dogs and even cats in human clothing, giving them names, feeding them human food, but they are a different species and we often fail to treat them as such, wanting them to do what we want them to do. We will see human traits where there are none and reward or punish behaviour that we do not understand and the animal will learn to modify its behaviour according to those rewards and punishments, particularly dogs. Certain species of animal have long ago been domesticated and live alongside humans very well; in the case of dogs, even seeing us as pack leaders. But this is not to say they behave like us, think like us, or see the world in the same way as us. We may be their guardians for a while, and even call them friend, but we are not the same.

There are things we do not understand about other species and probably never will, we can only go some way towards understanding and then guess at the rest, but without being that animal we will never know.

So, do geese understand why they fly in a 'V' formation, do giraffes and elephants understand that another of their species has come to the end of its life? Perhaps these are existential questions that only the birds and animals can answer.


"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." — Emily Dickinson

September 01, 2012

A Handbag?

Some years ago I remember a friend of mine emptying her rather large handbag to find something hidden in the depths. It was like Mary Poppins's carpet bag pouring onto the table. She had make up, hairbrush, books, a can of WD40, perfume, screws, screwdrivers, a monkey wrench and other personal and handy items. I couldn't believe so much came out of a comparatively small space. She said she carried them 'just in case - you never know when they might come in handy'.

So what do I carry with me? In my bag I have:

  • My MacBook Air Laptop
  • A4 drawing pad
  • Tin of pens and pencils
  • Waterproof jacket (mac in a sack)
  • A list of things I've already discussed with our CEO (still not thrown that one away)
  • Pen
  • Small notebook
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets (getting older and stiffer)
  • The complete works of Shakespeare (manageable size bought for 50p in a book sale in the local church)
  • Calendula cream
  • Tin of mackerel fillets (just in case)

It seems the larger the bag, the more I put in it. I used to try and limit myself to mobile phone, wallet, keys and tobacco, which were usually stuffed into pockets about my person. Then I bought a small bag not much bigger than my wallet that I could get everything in to keep it in one place and free up my bulging pockets. Now I have a rucksack so I don't have to carry anything in my hands - something I hate doing when I'm out and about. I don't smoke any more so the tobacco has gone (you would have thought this would free up some space).

Do I need all these things? Probably not. I carry them in case I want to read, make notes for my writings, sketch or draw ideas for calligraphy or just to keep up my drawing skills. The anti-inflammatory tablets I'm taking every day at the moment, the calendula cream helps soothe mozzy bites and eczema (something I only developed recently much to my annoyance). My laptop is handy so I can edit the websites I maintain, write stories and make notes for story ideas and write blog posts (I'm writing this at work).

If I had to carry my bag around with me like a handbag I wouldn't have so much in it, but because it slings over my shoulders and leaves my hands free it is more convenient. I might sound like I'm making excuses here but they are my excuses and I'm comfortable with them. Besides, I like the bag.

And the tin of mackerel fillets? Well you never know what predicament I might find myself in.

Peals and Pints

Here in Goldhanger we are blessed with some delightful bell ringing from St. Peter’s church. The church is right next door to The Chequers. This seems to be Very Important. The Chequers is about half the age of the church - the church being Norman in origin - and is also an important place in Goldhanger. A service, ceremony or bell ringing practise is often followed by a visit to the pub next door. This must have been happening here for almost 500 years. The church is about 30 metres from our front door so the bell ringing can be heard quite clearly and the pub can be accessed quite quickly.

Somebody from the group of local campanologists writes in our Parish Magazine each month and, although some of the technical terms are a bit beyond me, makes for a very interesting read. It’s like waiting for the next instalment of The Archers each month. They go all over England, mainly East Anglia, ringing at other churches and seem to be very proficient at what they do. Considering the way the author of the monthly articles in the Parish Magazine writes, I’ve thought of asking if they would set up their own blog. The writing each month is interesting, entertaining and informative.

Recently, Stephen and I were out on a bike ride (the pedal-powered kind) and stopped off at one of our sister Parish churches at Great Totham. There is no pub very close to this church, although The Bull is not far away but it wouldn’t be as easy for the bell ringers there to end up in the pub. The bell ropes are clearly visible at the back of the church, as opposed to Goldhanger where they are behind a curtain beyond where the organ sits. On the wall was a plaque describing the death knell, something you don’t see every day! I found this fascinating partly because I had never thought of the Death Knell as a descriptive thing in the sense that it tells sex, age and time of death of a person. This differs from parish to parish it seems but a series of strokes on the bells were/are rung at intervals. It would be interesting to see how similar todays death knell is to that of the late 18th century. 

Death knells were rung at the time of death up to the late 18th century. Communities would have been far smaller and closer than they are now and this would have been possible back then. By the end of the 19th century the death knell was rung as soon as notice reached the clerk of the church, unless the sun had set, in which case it was rung early the next morning. The death knell differed from one parish to another but ‘tellers’ were almost universal and denoted the sex of the person - the ‘tellers’ differing from parish to parish. At Great Totham three strokes for male or two for female are given on each bell.

So, a simple plaque in a nearby church sparked an interest that I will research further. I intend taking a photograph of this plaque to explain the death knell some more. And I still might ask the local bell ringers - perhaps over a beer or two - if they have considered starting a blog.