Monthly Archives: May 2017

Feeling Reflective

Over the years I’ve decided that May is probably my favourite month of the year. The weather’s just about right for me, everything comes properly alive again after winter and there’s a whole summer of promise ahead.

It’s surprising, then, that I’m in quite a reflective mood this week. I feel more autumnal than spring-like.

This week’s been a quiet one: self-contained and introspective. It’s been relaxing to get out in the warm evenings for long slow rambles with the dog. Poor Sally’s not up to bounding about the fields any more, but she’s quite content to limp along behind me as we walk along the river bank, or through the fields above where we used to live a few years ago.  One of my favourite walks is alongside the river Derwent, down by the priory church in Old Malton. On Monday night the fields and woods rang out with birdsong. It seems louder, more varied and more vibrant than it has for years.

Yesterday felt like the hottest day of the year so far, so to cool down I went for a night walk round Malton. I love walking late at night when the rest of the world seems to be going to sleep. When I left home at eleven there were still a few house lights on in my my road, but most people were already asleep. Most of North Yorkshire goes to sleep early, which is pleasing for a night-owl like me. I love the feeling of having the place to myself, quietly observing the jumbled Georgian and Victorian streets.

There are still a few people about: late night shop keepers, putting down the shutters; the railway signalman packing up for the night once the last train has departed for York; and the odd straggler leaving the pub and the takeaway. I was only out walking for an hour, but it seemed much longer. Back at home ours were the last house lights on in the street. I’ve got it all to myself as I write this post.

I’ve read voraciously this week too: devouring books in a way I haven’t done for years. I started off by finishing Charles Dickens’ Picture from Italy, which I read to get myself in the mood for visiting Florence and Bologna in June. Then I moved on to some of the books I bought from the Ryedale Dog Rescue charity shop in March. First it was John Wyndham’s classic 1950’s science fiction tale The Midwich Cuckoos, followed up by C.S Forrester’s whimsical love/adventure story, The African Queen. Next I read a book lent to me by a friend, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. If you’ve never read this book, you must. I did something I haven’t done in a long time and read it through virtually in one session, punctuated by a few hours sleep when I couldn’t focus my eyes any more. Jane, if you’re reading this, thanks very much for lending me the book. You were absolutely right, it’s amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

I’m now finishing off my reading fest with an author I’d heard of, but never read before: C.P. Snow. He’s largely a forgotten author now, but wrote what looks like it’s going to be an interesting series of eleven books Strangers and Brothers. I’m reading the first one, Time of Hope. It’s another charity shop purchase, so it looks like I got a good deal with three great books. Who says a pound can’t buy anything nowadays!

All that reading adds up to a plentiful supply of reviews for this blog. Look out for them from the end of June.

I’m going to round off my quiet week with a day’s fishing on Friday. Going fishing is  absolutely the best head emptier I know: it forces me to be still and quiet and focus on a small patch of water in front of me. This makes it a perfect antidote to the full on digital assault that most days seem to be.

There won’t be a Friday post this week. Given the atrocity committed in Manchester on Monday,  what I’d planned to publish doesn’t seem quite appropriate, so I’ll hold it over for a while.  With the time you’ll save not reading my post, you could pop over to the Just Giving page set up by the Manchester Evening News to help the families of Monday’s attack. They’re aiming to raise £2 million to help support the victims of this horrible crime. The link is

Hopefully after all this introspection I’ll bounce back next week. Until then take care of yourselves.




Cygnet Special

Every year a pair of swans nest on our local pond and lay a clutch of eggs. This year our resident pair laid four of them. As soon as they’re laid I begin my almost daily ritual of watching over them. I must admit I was a bit worried this year. I’m not sure how experienced this pair are.

Their large, shallow circular nest was perfectly made, but I thought it was a little too close to the bank and any potential predators. Once the eggs were laid, normally one of the swans will always sit on the nest, but in the early days they seemed to leave the eggs uncovered whilst they both went off to feed.

However I’m probably either just very inexperienced about swans or an over-anxious surrogate parent: they seem to have got it right.

I’m not exactly sure when the eggs hatched. They were still eggs on Saturday afternoon, but by Monday afternoon they were cygnets. My first sight of them on Monday was only a fleeting one: they were lying on the nest covered by their mother’s wings. All I could see were brief glimpses of grey feathers and the odd beak. I hung around for a while, but no one seemed to be going anywhere, so I left them to it.

Peek a Boo

Here they are sheltering under a wing. They’s definitely not leaving the warm to be photographed by me.

I went back on Tuesday and all four cygnets were on the bank with their parents. I got as close as I could to take some pictures, but their father was doing an excellent job of guarding them. He was chasing everything off,: dog walkers, ducklings and photographers!

I’m not about to start getting on the wrong side of an irate fully-grown swan, so I played a  patient game. I’ve noticed that if I stand very still and edge forward a few inches at a time, the swans tend to relax a little, and I can get close enough to take some decent pictures. I suppose a smart photographer would invest in a high quality ultra-long lens, but patience and a bit of stealth is about two grand cheaper than hi-tech optics.

Just resting

The cygnets seem a bit braver now and are happily settled on the grass.

The swans sat around for a while, but eventually they took to the water, which is what I really wanted to see. The whole family did a stately circuit of the pond

Swim Time

Here’s the whole family deciding whether they want to swim or not.

Swimming lesson

Keep up at the back there and don’t go too far.


Both adult swans carefully guarding their young

After their swim their mother took then back to the nest. What fascinated me was that the adult swan then started to groom herself and a few seconds later the cygnets followed suit. It’s amazing how quickly they learn.

Back Home

Settling down on the nest and ready for a quick brush up.

In a few days, once the cygnets have grown a little and become stronger swimmers, the whole family will move from the pond onto the river. I suppose food supplies are better there, and the cygnets will do most of their growing up away from the prying eyes of humans. In a month or two a pair of adult swans will return to the pond, and next spring the whole cycle will start again.

I hope the cygnets survive to maturity. It’s a harsh environment for them for the first few weeks, but they are well guarded by their parents. I always feel very lucky to have the swans living so close to me, and very privileged that I’m able to get close enough to photograph them. I’ll be back next year, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Low Down and Dirty

For the past week or so I seem to have spent a lot of my time lying face down in damp grass clutching my camera. And no, its not because I’ve been overcome with exhaustion after a trip to the pub, although my old mate John and I did a fair bit of that over the weekend.

No, I’ve been experimenting. I take loads of pictures of animals, including our pets and wildlife, and I’m often disappointed with the results. A lot of the time I’ve concluded the problem is with the point of view I take them from. More often than not I’m standing above the subject, photographing them from my viewpoint. What, I asked myself, if I photographed them from their level?

So, last week while I was out with Sally, our dog, I decided to get low down and dirty. We’ve got a lovely walk along the bank of the River Derwent in Old Malton and Sally and I  go there at least once a week. Sally’s legs aren’t a strong as they used to be, but she loves ambling along the path at a stately pace, stopping to sniff at interesting tufts of grass as she goes. It was a lovely sunlit evening and the footpath is edged with trees and bushes: a perfect setting for a picture.

I walked in front of Sally and took a couple of shots of her from a standing position. As usual they were OK, but I was disappointed. So I took some pictures from a kneeling position: better, but not quite what I wanted. So, checking for anything objectionable on the floor, I lay down and took some pictures from there. I was much happier with these: I was down at Sally’s level, seeing the world from her point of view. Here’s one of the pictures I took.


Sally making her stately way towards me, as I lie grovelling on the floor trying to get a dog’s eye view of our daily walk.

It’s not often you see a fifty eight year old man lying on the floor taking pictures, and I’m not surprised. I love to be able to report that I just threw myself on the ground in a carefree way,  and then sprang up after the pictures were taken. I’m afraid nowadays it’s a much more deliberate act and involves lots of creaky movements and strangled groaning noises. But I’m please with the results.

Which is rather good, because I put my new ‘eye-level’ technique to good use earlier this week. Sometime over the weekend,  at our local pond, the swans finally hatched their brood of four cygnets. I spent a couple of sessions down there taking photographs of the cygnets while trying to keep a respectful distance from  their protective parents. I’ve now got some many photographs that this week’s article just has to be a Cygnet Special.

See you on Friday, regards.




I’m sorry for starting this post with an appalling pun, but there’s no place like Rome.  At least that’s the impression I got from reading Mary Beard’s lively and engaging book, SPQR.

SPQR covers the first thousand years of Rome’s history: from the legend of its founding, through the hundreds of years of the Republic, to the first two hundred and fifty years of the Empire. It is a clever mix of political and social history. Although the rich, powerful and famous left more evidence behind, Mary Beard  paints a picture of what Roman life was like for everyone, from slave to emperor and from all corners of the empire.

Although the book deals with Rome’s history broadly in chronological order, Beard has deliberately not written a blow by blow narrative account. She focuses on some key themes to show how, although the Roman state changed, there was also a fair amount of continuity. For example, Beard argues that the role of Emperor changed very little between the start of the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE to the end of Septimius Severus’s reign in 211 CE. Given the wide variety and ability of people who became emperor, this continuity is amazing, and a testimony to how resilient the Roman state was.  Another key theme of the book is its focus on the city of Rome and the surrounding area. It would be impossible, in the space of 600 or so pages, to write a history of the whole Roman Empire, so Beard has wisely chosen to show how the city and its institutions formed and controlled  the wider republic and empire.

Alongside Mary Beard’s perceptive analysis of how Rome developed and changed, there are some marvellous pictures of individuals.  My favourite is  Cicero, the politician and prolific writer. He was a senator of  Rome during the fascinating last years of the republic, witness to the death of Julius Caesar, and of the early years of the Empire. Mary Beard portrays him as a formidable but fallible figure, and does so with a great deal of humour.  Also fascinating are the stories of the large cast of soldiers, merchants and freed slaves who’s lives we can glimpse through the scanty traces they left behind.

This leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of SPQR: how patchy much of the evidence is for our understanding of Rome. My assumption was that the history of ancient Rome was  well documented, so I was surprised by how little hard evidence exists for most of the thousand years covered by the book, and how much has to be deduced from partial sources. Whist Mary Beard is able to rely on a some written records, much of Roman history can only be glimpsed through monuments, gravestones and inscriptions, many of which are defaced. This is part of what makes SPQR such a good example of the historian at work. Mary Beard points out that it is the result of a lifetime’s study of the evidence. It is not just an interpretation of established facts, it is also a fascinating piece of detective work, painstakingly put together over many years.

This might make SPQR sound like a very dry book, but it isn’t. Mary Beard has a rare talent for making painstaking academic research entertaining. She doesn’t dumb anything down, or sensationalise it: instead she  makes it interesting, exciting and relevant.  In fact, Beard goes out of her way not to sensationalise Roman history, and plays down many popular views. SPQR isn’t filled with mad emperors such as Caligula, Nero and Commodus (of Gladiator fame), or widespread bloodshed in the Coliseum. She points out that many accounts of ‘mad’ emperors were written  by people wishing to justify those who overthrew them. Similarly, gladiatorial combat, as an entertainment, had only a limited lifespan, and with 500,000 inhabitants of Rome the Coliseum was never the popular entertainment venue it has been made out to be.

If any of you are fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian,  you’ll be familiar with the line ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’.  This is an interesting question, that Mary Beard kind of discusses at the end of SPQR.  Her conclusion is that our society faces many of the same problems as the ancient Romans and, whilst we can’t directly apply their solutions to them, their approach still underlies some of our assumptions. So, maybe the Romans didn’t bring us roads and peace, but they certainly contributed to the way we think of society.

I’d really recommend SPQR if you want to immerse yourself in the other world that was Ancient Rome. It’s definitely one of the best history books I’ve read in years. It’s entertaining, informative and makes you think about our world too. It’s a shame there aren’t more historians around like Mary Beard.

SPQR is published by Profile Books and is available from the usual outlets.

Murder Most Foul

First let me apologise for the lack of a post last Friday. I was meant to bring you a review of SPQR, by Mary Beard, but technical problems meant the post wasn’t published and I was away from home and couldn’t fix it. I promise I’ll publish the review this Friday instead.

This blog is mostly about stories and last weekend I was involved in a story of a different kind. To entertain a few friends on a weekend away Liz, my wife, created a fiendish murder mystery. It took weeks to prepare, including making lots of documents for clues and a lifesize corpse, Lord William Marchmain. Plied with alcohol we played out the mystery over two eveinings. I won’t tell you whodunnit, because I’ll be posting a photoessay about it in a few weeks, but here’s a photograph of the happy corpse, about to enjoy a post-mortem meal.

Lord William Marchmain

Lord William Marchmain waiting for his post-mortem dinner. Note the letter opener in the neck, and no, the butler didn’t do it.

Now the excitement of the murder mystery is over, I’m going to spend a few days drawing up the first stab at a family tree. So far I’ve gone back five generations, but it’s all in ‘back of a fag packet’ style, so I need to get it documented properly. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and there are plenty of stories to tell about the thirty two ancestors on the tree.

Speaking of stories, I went back to an old favourite of mine over the weekend. When I was a kid I loved to read the short stories of the American humourist,  James Thurber. Some of my favourite stories of his, which are vaguely autobiographical, are contained in the collection, My Life and Hard Times. I found an old an battered copy of this book at the house we where we stayed for the weekend, and managed to read all 150 pages in and between trying to solve the murder mystery. The stories are classics of American humorous writing, and I’ll be reviewing them later this month.

I hope you enjoy the belated review of SPQR on Friday. Until then, have a good week.




May Day

Unite and unite and let us all unite
For summer is a-coming today
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.

(Padstow  Obby Oss Song)

To celebrate May day I’m starting today’s editorial with a few lines from the Padstow Obby Oss song. May’s probably my favourite month and the start of May is celebrated in many areas of the world as the start of summer.

In Britain alone there are dozens of different traditional ways of celebrating the start of May. Steve Roud, in his excellent book, The English Year: The Nation’s Customs and Festivals from May Day to Mischief Night, counts dozens of different ones. These include maypole dancing, processions, floral garlands and the Padstow Oss.

Every year, in the Cornish village the streets are dressed in flowers, and on the day itself a strange circular ‘hobby oss’ is paraded round the town. The horse is actually a large circular frame draped in black cloth and with a stylised horse’s head in the centre. The festival is usually well attended and is the excuse for a good party! I can’t think of a better reason for celebrating, even if the original purpose seems a little lost nowadays.

I love reading about the old traditional celebrations dotted throughout the year. Many are dying out, but they are a close link to our past. For our rural ancestors, particularly those living before  the industrial revolution, they had a deeper significance than they do for us. It’s good though, I think, to look back this far. Very few of us will ever be lucky enough to trace our family further back than a couple of hundred years or so, but we all had farmers amongst our ancestors. If we can get a little closer to understanding them by learning about the old traditions, that’s surely not a bad thing.

Sadly, we don’t have any May Day celebrations in my little corner of Yorkshire, so I had to make do with a couple of pints in the Blue Ball! Maybe I could start a new tradition. Steve Roud’s book is on my reading list and I’ll review it later this year.

This week’s book review takes us even further back in time, to ancient Rome. On Friday I’ll post a review of Mary Beard’s book, SPQR. I hope it inspires you to read it.