Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Forgive me for crowing, but after well over 300 years, the three dogs on this wall - together with the wall they sit on - have finally got Grade 2 Listed status with English Heritage and the Secretary of State - all because of little me! I was informed that my application was successful today.

I might have bored you with this before, but I have been looking after these 17th century dogs in Winsley, Wiltshire for over 25 years now, and have saved them from vandals, thieves, antique dealers and plain apathy during that time.  I asked English Heritage to list them, and - bless them - they have!

Having been peacefully ignored for about 290 years and received unwanted attention for the next 25, they are now safer than they have ever been in all their long lives.

Tony Blair talked a lot about 'legacy', but this will do me, thanks.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Death without tears

I love stories like these - stories in which death impinges on our daily lives in a harmless, almost benign sort of way.

A big Paris department store has discovered over 200 bodies in their basement which have been there for centuries.

Of course, everyone knows that thousands  - possibly millions - of bodies lie just beneath the streets there, in the catacombs which were closed over a century ago because they ran out of space. Most other civilisations buried their dead without the city walls, but not the unhygienic French!

There was an even better story a few years ago, and that was when a fancy restaurant in Paris was entertaining a houseful of gastronomes when a side-wall collapsed, covering the diner's tables with dozens of crumbling skeletons and earthy detritus. How I wish I had been there to see that.

Here in Bath, there is only one section of medieval city wall left intact, and directly behind it there is a plaque saying that the dead of that parish were interred there, 'for the sake of the health of the living'.

About a quarter of a mile outside the Northgate (our house is built on the foundations of the wall which flanked it), there is a large, modern block which is the sheltered accommodation for quite a few elderly residents, some of whom are friends of ours. This home is built on top of the massive medieval plague-pit where thousands of dead Bathonians were interred in the late middle-ages.

Nearby that place is a Victorian mortuary chapel which is now used for art exhibitions, etc, and when the development of the adjacent site was underway, specialist contractors were brought in for the licensed disinterment of many graves there. I think the fee for the contractor for this was about £500 per grave.

They set up discreet hoardings - I thought to show a bit of respect for the dead which they would take out carefully one by one, but in fact it was to hide the sight of a massive digger which pulled them all out by the bucket-load for indiscriminate and jumbled burial elsewhere. You could hear the big diesel engine roaring away behind it for days.

Every night for weeks, the workers would come into the local pubs, offering human skulls for sale, along with the painted, photographic, zinc-plate portraits of the deceased which used to be fixed on the inside of the coffin lids. I was offered one of these and it had a great ridge in it, from when the worker had folded it in two to hide in his coat pocket, then unfolded it again in the pub, tearing off the over-painting at the same time.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

A short children's bedtime story

LORD SCRUMPTIOUS:  "This is the best thing I have seen since the last thing you made for me! Please accept this cheque for £1000!"

ME:  "Thank you, Lord Scrumptious."

LORD SCRUMPTIOUS:  "Tell me, young fella-me-lad, what are you going to spend all that money on?"

ME:  "Maintaining my Volvo Estate, Lord Scrumptious."

Good night.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A little light escapism

John's going to love this post - it will take his mind off the wedding (ha ha!).

I bought these candlesticks at a friend's antique shop the other day, thinking they had something about them, as well as being quite elegant.

He asked me what sort of age I thought they were, and I underestimated by about 100 years, saying I thought them to be late 18th century. I eventually (yesterday) looked them up in my Christie's bible of English candlesticks, and discovered that they were specifically made for the coffee-house/tavern market and date from about 1700.

All these sticks have the same characteristics - they are all solid to make them uncrushable, all tall so that the light is high even when the candle burns down, all have simple sconces and round bases and all have slightly tapering stems - for some reason.

When you think of how many of these must have been made for all the coffee-houses and taverns, it is a wonder that so few survive - especially as they were built to last.

The answer - I guess - is that they fell out of fashion in a world where fashion ruled, so having been designed on the same pattern as they were in the mid 17th century, they suddenly looked old-hat around 1710 when fashionability started to reach ludicrous heights, so were melted-down in large numbers to produce fancier, baublier sticks for the establishments which wanted to be the premier places to visit for urban/urbane gentlemen.

Metal was as precious in those days as it is now, and subject to the same fluctuations in price. Same with glass - any expensive, fancy, lead drinking glasses which were dropped - and many were - immediately became 'cullet'.

'Cullet' was glass scrap, and thrown back into the furnace to make new glasses from. These days, it id difficult to get any recycling company to take it away. Silica is the most common mineral in the world.

Friday, 27 February 2015

A little light music...

...by my mates, DLM.

Hanging or beheading - you choose

It was a bit sad to see the last episode of 'Wolf Hall' last night, but since it finished on a high with Henry embracing Thomas and showing no sign of wanting to smite his head off, we are probably in for  a second series. Having not read the book, I don't know though.

The execution of Anne Boleyn seemed to be truthfully recorded in every detail, right down to her final speech, in which she says that Henry had treated her very well (so far), was a kind and considerate husband and she will not have a bad thing said against him, or words to that effect.

I find it amazing that all those Highwaymen etc. found it in themselves to be so magnanimous and eloquent on the scaffold, just before being killed. Many of them received ovations and took bows before the rope was put round their necks.

One little consideration that Henry showed to Anne at the last was the shipping-over of a French swordsman to do the deed. The Frenchman was renowned for his skill and efficiency, whereas the English headsman at the time seemed to be incapable of removing a head (using block and axe) in one blow, often botching it so badly that it took three or four strokes with the victim moving around and complaining of their discomfort. Nobles - especially Queens - were executed by beheading, which was thought to be a more dignified and less painful death than being hanged. I'm not sure I could choose between the two.

Anne's Frenchman had a few tricks up his sleeve, and the first was to dress as a nobleman witness so as not to scare her unduly with a bare chest and black mask.

Only when her blindfold was put on (by her band of loyal maidservants) did he reach down and extract the sharp sword from under the straw of the scaffold where it had been hidden with her sensitivities in mind.

He then took up position behind her and waited for her to put her arm down as she fiddled with her hairstyle. Then - and this really was clever - he shouted in a loud voice for someone to 'fetch his sword!'.

At this, she looked up a little and he took off her head before she knew it was about to happen.

The most inept executioner in England around that time was a man called Jack Ketch. Pirates of the Caribbean borrowed that name for their films.

At one execution, Ketch finally managed to remove a head from the victim, and then he bent down to pick it up to show to the crowd by dangling it by the hair. He fumbled and dropped it.

Some wag in the crowd of onlookers shouted out, "Butterfingers!"

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Together, we will map the world

A new member on the team - William, a professional director and editor who is going to help me cook the raw footage to give to the mapping expert so he can do his graphic magic.

"What digital editing suite do you use?" I asked him tonight, and he said he did it all from a laptop, using the very same system as I spent an hour and a half downloading the other day.

"Thats great," he said, "That's 5 or 6 gigabytes, and now you can do absolutely anything yourself that a professional can do."

"It's 12 gigabytes, and I don't know how to use one of them," was my glum response. "I have a friend who is going to coach me in editing stills, but he has no experience in the video area."

No problem. My professional cameraman friend is waiting to be booked to take the footage, and William will either do the stuff on his laptop, or come round here and use my identical suite.

"Are you going to incorporate a sound-track?"

"Yes, but it will have nothing to do with the visuals until the piece is put together. I am planning on hiring a good recorder from a company, and make up a list of clips for use. For instance, I want a good-quality recording of Bath Abbey bells."

My co-producer looked up from his bright green pint of beer (yes, it really is bright green) and said, "My son is a professional sound recordist. He's got all the kit - you know, boom and directional mikes - the lot. He can do it."

I almost choked on my traditionally-coloured beer. Why, I wondered, had he not told me this before? I didn't even know he had a son, let alone a 26 year-old one in the sound-recording industry.

Slowly, it is beginning to look as though I am going to have to do some real work for a change.

The great thing about any work is that it is nice when you are finished - especially if you and everyone else likes the finished product.