Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Snakes and Laughter

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blogge, and naturally writes of Serpentes on a Shippe (beware spoylerez)

Mad Scientist Laugh competition:

Bridging some of the gap betwixt these is this set of talks between Clive James and Peter Porter on humour in literature. I've just finished reading Dan Simmons' massively shambolic brace of volumes (Ilium & Olympos ) retrofitting Homer in a space opera milieu with sprinklings of Shakespeare and Proust. I wasn't too happy with the second volume, which went on far too long. You might like the first if you can deal with one character referring to (the greek god) Apollo in his chariot as a deus ex machina....

Now watching a free online doco about Ridley Scott's making of Blade Runner.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Notting could be finer

Today was the second day of the Notting Hill Festival, an annual event growing out of a Trinidadian protest march in 1964 (an auspicious year!). While it seems like a reasonable opportunity for a few hundred thousand to let off steam, I just couldn't believe a fraction of the press stating that it's "Europe's biggest arts festival", "second only to Rio","up there with the Pyramids and the Prado". A bit too much ganja in the word-processor I think.

Arriving early afternoon for the street-parade, all we could really see was the streets were very congested, piled with rubbish and most of the parade dancers seemed like they would rather be somewhere else.

We three decided we'd had enough by about 3 and spent the next hour and a half trying to get out of there, the nearest working Underground station being Holland Park. Chris got separated from us en route, so we arranged via SMS to meet at the station. I got there first and knelt down to give Bondi some water. At this time some rather loud girls came over, and one started rubbing Bondi's head vigorously while he was trying to drink. I asked her three times to stop until he'd finished drinking - after being fawned over and pawed by a few hundred people in a matter of hours, he'd had enough - but she insisted loudly that she knew better. I told her to fuck off, and then she punched me in the forehead (while I was still kneeling, holding Bondi's water), really catching me off guard and nearly knocking me into the wall behind us. Of course there must have been a few dozen witnesses, including 3 police officers a few feet away. She started to run off, but two caught her and dragged her back. One of the policemen asked if I wanted to do anything about that matter. I said that "if they could stop her having children it might do the world some good ... but as she may have been a bit drunk, just give her a good talking to."

Still a bit woozy from the blow (there's a small lump), I realised later that her shoplifter-fast reflexes and attempted escape probably indicated that she hadn't been drinking at all. Ah, the perfect end to a perfect day.

Chris had arrived towards the end of this, but hadn't realised that I'd been involved in the scuffle. We trained back to Ealing Broadway and grabbed some dubious coffee at one of Costa's outdoor tables. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Then it started raining. The perfect end...

While I was gadding about in the north of England, Chris made up some fun intro cards to give out to those keen on Bondi's adventures. I gave out a couple on the train into Notting Hill this morning. (When we were mounting the steps from platform to street, an announcement came over the station loudspeakers "can you see the big dog?" etc etc.)

Chris also thought it would be nice to hand them to people who took photos of Bondi in the street, and so get the photos mailed back to us courtesy of this blog at
mikenbondi AT gmail DOT com

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pam Ann

Chris organised a night out for a group of a dozen or so to see the final show of Pam Ann's run at the Soho Theatre.

The show was a pretty enjoyable hour, but I think it would be greatly enhanced if someone wrote additional material to flesh out the characters (Pam, Lily, ...). This review from last year's Edinburgh festival is pretty much on the mark.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Griffith & Beatrice

I had some interesting mail from the librarian in Waverley Municipality (which encompasses Bondi Beach in Sydney), showing pictures of my great-grandfather Griffith E Williams (born in Dolgellau Wales) when he was an alderman on Waverley Council between 1925 and 1931. It's the first time I've seen a picture of him, and the last picture (below) shows the greatest likeness to my grandfather.

It was his mother who was born in Coniston, Cumbria where I was staying earlier this week. The other picture is not her, but his wife.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Cow Scaring for Dummies

Thursday 24th

When I visited Ravenglass yesterday I found a postcard that showed me how I could have repelled cattle while walking the Hadrian's Wall Path last week. Every walker should have a pretty bonnet, red parasol and matching outfit in their walking kit! Of course there are undoubtedly some aggressive Edwardian voguing postures that must be learnt to be properly effective in warding off curious cows.

Postcript: Reuters via Sydney Morning Herald says:

Keep your distance. Avoid eye contact. And even if it looks cute, never hug a Swiss cow.

Responding to numerous "reports of unpleasant meetings between hikers and cattle" along Switzerland's picture-perfect alpine trails this summer, the Swiss Hiking Federation has laid down a few ground rules.

"Leave the animals in peace and do not touch them. Never caress a calf," the group's guidance, posted on the website, reads.

"Do not scare the animals or look them directly in the eye. Do not wave sticks. Give a precise blow to the muzzle of the cow in the event of absolute need," it continues.

Evelyne Zaugg of the Swiss Hiking Federation said that while there were no precise statistics on incidents involving cows, walkers are reporting more run-ins than a few years ago.

Drove back to London today, stopping in briefly at Sedbergh in the Yorkshore Dales, England's first booktown. I found two bookstores and two "half" bookstores, but not enough to tempt me to stay longer than an hour. After that it was a fairly quick and uneventful ride down the M6 and M40 to London, until I hit a very sluggish North Circular Road at Wembley.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Malamute on a Train

Wednesday 23rd August

Unlike yesterday morning I had a good idea of what I wanted to get done during the first part of the day: ride the steam-train from Eskdale to Ravenglass on the coast. To reach that most directly, we'd have to traverse both of Lakeland's steepest passes in quick succession.

First there was Wrynose Pass, with long 1 in 3 ascents, then a more relaxing high valley section and then...Hardknott Pass - as my map puts it "even steeper" with both 1:3 ascents and descents AND they're incredibly winding to boot. I was almost relieved that the weather was hiding any distracting views (or plunges) off to the side of the road.

I made it to our departure station with literally seconds to spare, since the train was about to start moving when Bondi and I bounded onto the platform. Being only a wee little train - this is England's oldest narrow-gauge railway - with a dozen or so wee little carriages, there wasn't much at stake. We leaped into what was basically a covered cart. A little disappointingly we were only being hauled by a wee diesel engine, but Bondi had settled into position nicely, with his head hanging just outside the carriage. This was actually necessary since the carriage was the same width as a Parisian lift.

After a 40 minute journey, we got out at Ravenglass, discovered there wasn't much to see there and got onto the next available return train, which happened to be a steam engine. This time our cart was open, so I could watch blasts of steam erupting through the foliage overhanging the track.

After that I thought I'd head south towards Ulverston and lunch at Conishead Priory, which had begun with the Augustines, enjoyed a period as a hydrotherapy centre, and was now a Buddhist retreat. When I got there I found that meals were only available on weekends, unless I wanted to grab a snack from the idol/incense/coke and chocolates selection in the gift shop. So we continued on to Barrow-on-Furness, which was hugely missable and then looped back to Ulverston for lunch.

I forgot that almost every chef in England downs utensils between 2.30 and 6, so none of the pubs or cafes was serving food at 3pm. The only alternates were prepackaged supermarket sandwiches or one of those dreadful tea-rooms where bacon baps are the typical fare. I found some fruit in the car and we headed back to Coniston.

There I went to the Ruskin Museum to look for some information on local industry that might pertain to my family history. It dawned on me that any mills that my ancestor Samuel Jones had worked on may have been ore-processing mills or water-pumps associated with the copper mines or slate quarries. That would tie more strongly with his developing career as a canal/mining engineer. It also suggests that I should look to mining links further back in his family history. A fellow at the museum suggested I look in the county archives in Kendal for any more detailed information about who worked at the copper mines.

When we got back to Bankground, I took Bondi down to the lake again for a belated swim, after which he took off for a demented run around in the long grass, something that I don't see as much of now in his maturer years. I miss seeing him and his brother Dougal tearing around in the grass in Marymoor Park's 40-acre offleash area (Redmond, Washington).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Messing about in boats

Tuesday 22nd August

Today I was almost oppressed by the range of places to visit in the area, but a little depressed that the weather might fold in upon us with cold and rain. I decided to go back to Ambleside first, where I spent a good hour, and then kept going around to the east of Lake Windermere to 'the other Bowness'.

Before reaching it, I pulled into the Windermere Steamboat Museum, and booked a noon ride for us on one of the working steam-powered launches. It was amazingly how quiet the boat was, and with only five other passengers (at the other end of the boat from us) I was able to chat to the skipper and crew/tea-lady while we chugged past Bowness-on-Windermere, passing various watercraft, ducks, cormorants, and rounding an island. The steam-engine (fueled from some buckets of coal next to the skipper) seemed to have a kettle built into it for making our tea. We were fortunate that the sun decided to come out after we'd only been on the water for 5 minutes.

Bowness itself was overrun with day-trippers,and after nearly giving up due to the car-parks all being full, I lucked onto a free-spot in a side-spot and I then took my time to look around.

Mid-afternoon we hopped in the queue for the car-ferry leaving from just south of Bowness, crossing Lake Windermere at one of its narrowest points in the direction of Hawkshead and Coniston. The ferry only takes 18 cars and we were lucky that we only had a short wait, as the queue on the other side was substantial, making any time-saving with a ferry crossing unlikely. Of course the roads are so narrow, that it would be difficult for many to even turn around and take the road route. Just over the other side, one passes Beatrix Potter's farmhouse Hilltop. The first fiction book I owned was her Tale of Samuel Whiskers, (download) whose drawings are based on this property.

In Hawkshead we caught the end of their Agricultural Show, the centre-ring events long over and only the stalls, exhausted officials and boozy farmers remaining. To Bondi it was a feast of smells with every inch of grass seeming to be rich with the tracks of horses, dogs, cattle, alpacas and boozy farmers.

The ivy on the main house at Bankground reminded me of one of the monsters from Where the Wild Things Are...

Monday, August 21, 2006

The long and winding road

Monday 21st August

It was a great day for driving, having fortuitously picked out the A686 after Hexham through the Pennines to Penrith for the central part of the journey. This, I learnt subsequently is rated by the AA as one of the great road journeys in our solar system.

Our first stop was Alston, the 'highest market town in England' also claimed by much larger Buxton, in the Peak District. Continuing on, we climbed further to the Hartside viewpoint, from where we could view a panorama encompassing the Lake District to the southwest, and Carlisle & the Solway Firth to the northwest.

From there we descended through Langwathby by the Eden river, where I lunched at the Brief Encounter cafe* in the railway station, and then passed through Penrith. Unlike its Australian namesake, this Penrith is pronounced with an accent on both syllables: "Pen rith". All I know about this Penrith is that somewhere near here was the farmhouse visited by Withnail & companion.

*not the one used in the David Lean film, which is at Carnforth, Lancs.

Just after crossing the M6, you enter the large Lake District National Park, encompassing the famous lakes: Ullswater, Coniston, Windermere and the Cumbrian Mountains, including England's highest peak Scafell Pike (978m) and The Old Man of Coniston. The lakes exist more or less because glaciers have ground out their beds between the beautiful peaks. The human history of this area has been more associated with mining than industry, no matter how many jam-jars or fudge-trays you may see in the area.

I popped off a few photos at the top of Ullswater, near Pooley Bridge, and then followed the A592 down its western side, stopping in one or two of the few available places. The roads in the Lake District NP are all winding single-lane affairs with many torturous bends yielding a high fatality rate. As I was to discover over the next few days, while people may come to the Lakes to relax in the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, they're not there to give other motorists or pedestrians an even chance.

After Ullswater, we rose up through Kirkstone Pass, before coming down through Ambleside at the top of Lake Windermere and turning southwest to Coniston. The first thing I noticed about Coniston itself, other than its beautiful setting is that the buildings are slate. My great-great-grandmother moved from one slate-built town in a beautiful setting to another (Coniston to Dolgellau, Snowdonia).

I happened to park outside the Ruskin Museum, named for the writer-artist-activist James Ruskin, but dedicated to the history of Coniston. I spoke briefly to the lady on staff there about my family connection to the area. When I said that my millwright/engineer ancestor Samuel Jones came from Devon, she said that many people came from the tin mines of Devon to work the local copper mines.

After walking around a little, we drove around the top of the lake towards our B&B, but kept going through to Hawkshead, a pretty little village between Coniston Water and Windermere. Like many towns in the area, it's saturated with tea-rooms and outdoor equipment stores.

Returning to Coniston, I turned down the east road towards our B&B, the Bankground farmhouse complex. At the top of the driveay, I gasped at the extraordinary view over the lake, the town and taking in the surrounding mountains. There was a great lawn out the front of the main building where I had a romp with Bondi, before letting him flop out on the cool green grass with a pile of chicken pieces. Before my own dinner, we wandered down to the boat-sheds to take in the lake from closer quarters.

Our room is lovely, with views over the lawn to one side, and over the lake on another. The guest lounges had bits of photographic memorabilia related to the farm's connection with Arthur Ransome. I learnt that prior to his career writing novels for children, he was a correspondent in Russia during the time of the Revolution, knew most of the major players - actually playing chess with Lenin - and married Trotsky's secretary!!

Swallows and Amazons

Tomorrow I depart for the area of Lake Coniston in the Lakes District of Cumbria. I doubt that I'll have internet access over the 3 days that I'm there, so there will inevitably be another block update to the blog when I get back to London on Thursday.

Coniston was the setting for Arthur Ransome's famous children's book Swallows and Amazons from 1930. I must have read it when I was 8 or 9, and so either living in the Australian outback (Bourke) or in a fishing village in northern NSW (Urunga) - both environments quite foreign to Ransome's story.

Lake Coniston was also the setting for Donald Campbell's attempt on the world water-speed record in 1967. The jet-powered Bluebird distintegrated at around 300 mph. Campbell's remains were not identified until 2001.

Finally, Coniston was also the birthplace of my great-great grandmother Hannah Maria Jones. It's likely that her father Samuel (born in Devon) was working as a millwright or a canal engineer in the late 1830s when his first children were born, so it would be interesting to identify the project that kept him busy in this period.

Another Peasant Valley Sunday - Jousting at the Priory

Yesterday morning the weather had been so-so before the heavens opened up. I was expecting the same today, and thus more rusting than jousting.

Hopped on the Metro at West Jesmond and got to Tynemouth by 10.30am, our destination station hosting a busy bric-a-brac market. It was only a short walk to the Priory and we arrived with the early crowds. I was recognised (via Bondi) at the gate as having visited Housesteads Fort during our Wall walk last week. Later that day we had "saw you at Segedunum museum two weeks ago", "saw you at Dunstanburgh yesterday", "saw you on the train this morning"...

The morning's activities were mainly musical or hobby-horse jousting and jesting for the kiddies, followed by by the offical welcome, archery events and a falconry display.

While Bondi was sitting with me in the shade of some crumbling Priory wall, we were accosted by a pair of 4 year olds in Crusader outfits: "we're the nice knights ... well I'm nice and he's nasty". Young Daniel was particularly entertaining: "I'm going to be four again next year and after that I'm going to have lots and lots of birthdays".
[Pointing to Bondi] "I'm going to grow much bigger you know"
Me: "But how big will you get, you're already enormous!"
Daniel: "Well yes, but I will get much bigger than him"
Me: "And will you be as hairy?"
Daniel:" Oh yes I expect so".
The rain stayed away for the individual horseman events and one-on-one foot combats, plus further falconry displays showing off the eagle owl and peregrine.

There were a good few very big dogs around today - a St Bernard, an Irish wolfhound, and a pair of young deerhounds - but Bondi still got the lion's share of attention, finally switching off to all the outstretched hands.

As the time for jousting neared, the rain started again, thinning out the ranks of the audience. It's a fairly quick event with each knight from the four teams riding against the others, and one of my photos catches a lance shattering against a shield or breast-plate.

Bondi looked a bit worried that thunder might ensue, but we held out through the first few rounds and then bolted for the station before either the clouds or the crowds followed us.