Sunday, 28 February 2010

Herbert's Heaven

I've been racking my brains all week wondering what to write for this week's Poetry Bus. I can't, for the life of me, think of anything, so I've dug out an old poem. I wrote this some seventeen years ago. The Herbert of the title is the metaphysical poet, George Herbert. As I remember it, a verse from his poem The Elixir had  intrigued me:
A man that looks on glasse,
        On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
        And then the heav’n espie.
 Anyway, to the poem: It's a short one:

Herbert's Heaven

Frenzied, the moths
with their brownpaper wings
and brownfurry bodies
beat on the glass
(the brownpaper wings
are fluttering softly).

Consider the moths
with their brownpaper gods
and brownfurry angels.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Thoughts from an Unreal City

The other week we went out with some friends and  found ourselves in the pub at the top of the Kirkstone Pass. In the bar there was a shelf of old SF books and a collecting tin: they were selling the books to raise money for the mountain rescue. I restrained myself and only bought one - a hardback collection of short stories from the seventies. I'm still reading it. So far, the highlight has been a text by Frederik Pohl - not a story, but an "afterword" to another book, a book about cities. In it, he considers the importance of cities to civilisation (a word itself derived from the Latin civitatem, meaning "the city"). What he says is prophetic, and worth quoting:

I do not think that civilisation...can survive without cities. In some form.

I am in some doubt about the form. I know the arguements of those who think that the form is not important. I like the idea of the world as an exploded city -"Don't commute, communicate!"- in which everyone does his own thing in his own place, linked to each other by electronic media rather than physical proximity. Maybe this is the wave of the future for city building...
For most of us, commuting is superfluous.We...endure an hour or so on the train and arrive in a cubicle in a building from which most of our activity has to do with reading pieces of paper that cross our desk (why not read them on a cathode ray tube from Biloxi or Saskatchewan?)... Insofar as "the city" represents to most of us the place where we work,...clearly it can be replaced by wires and microwave relays.
Yet that is not all that a city does. You can dial an associate on the phone and talk to him. But you can't run into him on the phone... You don't need to go to a concert hall to hear a concert. But there is a joy and a purpose to being physically present in a place with other people who are like-minded...

For these reasons, I think that city life is a failed experiment that we will never give up on.
Frederik Pohl: Afterword to Future City (1973), ed. Roger Elwood
 Food for thought.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


One for the TFE Poetry Bus

Where I once was
is now
the dark interior
of that skull
that seems to watch
the passers by
that stop to read
the label: homo
sapiens circa

Look into my eyes
as I would, yours:
you are the effect
and I, the cause.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The French Connection

This is a copy of a document held at The Tuileries in Paris. The Nicholas Rivron it refers to is believed to be the father of Jean Rivron, the subject of last week's post. It reads:

Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre, according to the report which has been sent to us, of the devotion and loyalty of which Monsieur Nicholas Rivron, Game Keeper of the community of Louroux, Loire Inferieure, has given us evidence by fighting bravely with our Royal Armies of the West; wishing to testify to Monsieur Rivron the satisfaction with which we approve his services, and to give him a token by which his services may be remembered by his family, we have decided to present him with this document, signed by our hand, as a token of our royal esteem.

Given at the Chateau of Tuileries on the 11th day of July 1817 and in the 23rd year of our reign.


The Louis in question is Louis XVIII. It is interesting that his estimate of the length of his reign ignores the reigns of the Emporors Napoleon I and II, and neither my maths nor my knowledge of French history are up to making the figures add up. Louis only became de facto king in 1814.

This is a Sepia Saturday post.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Sea Voyage and a Bit of a Quiz...

Thanks to everyone who has left comments on my last two or three posts: I have enjoyed reading them all and will get around to visiting the writers' blogs in the next few days. I haven't replied personally as I've not been around. We've just returned from a sea-voyage to the magical land of Ellan Vannin. Unfortunately we didn't spot any of the wild wallabies that are said to roam the land, although I did purchase a shoe-brush from its Chief Minister (honest! See photograph). We also got to say hello to the little people and wander among the standing stones of ancient burial grounds...

Who can be blamed for neglecting their blog when life takes such a turn?

Here's a bit of a quiz: Can you identify the magic land? It's a great place, by the way.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Moebius Love Poem

One for the TFE Poetry Bus

Take a strip of paper:
twist it once and then
glue the ends together
so that when
you run your finger
along one side, it turns
into the other side.

This is extraordinary,
you think. A one-sided
piece of paper,
proclaiming the reality
of strangeness
in a world full of
two-sided pieces of paper.

Somehow we got twisted up
like this, so that
when I run my finger
along your side,
I'm no longer sure
where you end
and I begin.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Sepia Saturday: A Blast from the Past

Researching the details of my father's bible (see last Saturday's post), I came across this, quite by chance. I already knew that an ancestor of his, Jean Rivron, had also been a prisoner of war - albeit a luckier one. I even knew what he looked like as I possess a copy of what is almost certainly his photograph (right). He'd been taken prisoner by the English last time England was at war with France. That's how we ended up over here. However, I didn't know he had a walk on part in Prisoners of war in Britain, 1756 to 1815; a record of their lives, their romance and their sufferings (by Francis Abell, LOUP (1914)).The book tantallisingly fleshes out what little I know:


THE following descriptions of life in parole towns by French
writers may not be entirely satisfactory to the reader who
naturally wishes to get as correct an impression of it as possible,
inasmuch as they are from the pens of men smarting under
restrictions and perhaps a sense of injustice, irritated by ennui,
by the irksomeness of confinement in places which as a rule do
not seem to have been selected because of their fitness to ad-
minister to the joys of life, and by the occasional evidences of
being among unfriendly people. But I hope to balance this
in later chapters by the story of the paroled officers as seen
by the captors.

The original French I have translated literally, except when
it has seemed to me that translation would involve a sacrifice
of terseness or force.

Listen to Lieutenant Gicquel des Touches, at Tiverton, after
Trafalgar :

' A pleasant little town, but which struck me as particularly
monotonous after the exciting life to which I was accustomed.
My pay, reduced by one-half, amounted to fifty francs a month,
which had to satisfy all my needs at a time when the continental
blockade had caused a very sensible rise in the price of all
commodities. ... I took advantage of my leisure hours to
overhaul and complete my education. Some of my comrades
of more literary bringing-up gave me lessons in literature and
history, in return for which I taught them fencing, for which
I always had much aptitude, and which I had always practised
a good deal. The population was generally kindly disposed
towards us ; some of the inhabitants urging their interest in us
so far as to propose to help me to escape, and among them
a young and pretty Miss who only made one condition that
I should take her with me in my flight, and should marry her
when we reached the Continent. It was not much trouble for
me to resist these temptations, but it was harder to tear myself
away from the importunities of some of my companions, who,
not having the same ideas as I had about the sacredness of one's
word, would have forced me to escape with them.

' Several succeeded : I say nothing about them, but I have
often been astonished later at the ill-will they have borne me
for not having done as they did.'

Gicquel was at Tiverton six years and was then exchanged.

A Freemasons' Lodge, Enfants de Mars, was opened and
worked at Tiverton about 1810, of which the first and only
master was Alexander de la Motte, afterwards Languages
Master at Blundell's School. The Masons met in a room in
Frog Street, now Castle Street, until, two of the officers on
parole in the town escaping, the authorities prohibited the
meetings. The Tyler of the Lodge, Rivron by name, remained
in Tiverton after peace was made, and for many years worked
as a slipper-maker. He had been an officer's servant.

Piggot and Co's Directory of 1844 includes the name of John (he anglicised his christian name) Rivron of Gold St in its list of boot and shoe-makers. A man of the same name accused a Mary Ann Garvey of stealing a shilling in 1850. The case was discharged. Along with the photograph of Jean/John, I've also got a photo of his a son, Dominic, who grew up to be a soldier too, only this time in the British Army:

 And to think I used to think family history was a load of old cobblers.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Sepia Saturday Update

A little more internet searching discovered a few more facts about my father's time as a prisoner and the men who signed the page in his bible.

Several of them -probably all- were members of the Pudu Fellowship, a Christian group formed in prison. Rev. Noel Duckworth was the president, Rev. Burr Baughman, an American, was the vice president and Alan Kirk, the secretary. I knew the group existed: my father was a member and I've still got his membership card. (Interestingly, after the war he became an out-and-out atheist).

In his book The Naked Island, an Australian account of life as a prisoner, Russell Braddon describes a group of religious fanatics (not to be confused with the Pudu Fellowship):

In Pudu a small group (very small) became fanatically religious and convinced themselves that all ills could be cured solely by faith. Part of their way of life consisted of calling everyone even the most improbable types "brother": part in praying vociferously and fervently at all sorts of unexpected times (during the course of which praying they banged their foreheads on the gaol's concrete floors with thuds that were quite distressing) : and part in refusing even such little medical treatment as was available.

Since they all had ulcers and dysentery, it was a fine point of gaol ethics whether they should be  forcibly treated or allowed to pursue their own path of prayer, which on specified dates was to be followed by miraculous cures. When the cult showed no signs of spreading it was generally accepted that they were entitled to their own point of view. And when a month, later the last of the small group died (the requisite miracle on the appointed day having failed to materialize), religious fanaticism vanished forever from prisoner-of-war life as I saw it.

It has been suggested that this was a description of the Pudu Fellowship. This is certainly not the case. Quite a few members of the fellowship survived the war. Not only this, but accounts of the doings of group members hardly tally with Braddon's description - in particular, the stalwart behaviour of Rev. Duckworth, the leader of the group, and a man who Braddon considered to be one of the two most inspiring men in the prison. There was very little paper to be had. When fellow prisoners asked if it would alright to roll their tobacco in pages torn from the bible, Duckworth told them that it was alright, so long as they read the page first! He invented a fictional intelligence contact who -everyone thought- relayed him positive news about the war. He was evidently a strong character who helped keep many of his fellow prisoners going. Before the war, he had been cox in the winning Cambridge boat in the 1934 boat race.

When my father returned home after the war, the Sleaford Gazette covered his experiences with that unintended irony so typical of British local papers:

The article which follows is an improvement on the crassness of the headline, and is perhaps the best account I have of my father's wartime experiences (click to enlarge):

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sepia Saturday


This is a page from a a bible carried by my father throughout the Second World War. He was a prisoner of the Japanese. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll quote from my mother's blog (I'm sure she won't mind):
My late husband, Dominic Rivron's father, was what used to be known as a Boy Soldier - he was recruited into the East Surrey Regiment in 1938 as a flautist in the band. For reasons I shall not go into here, he was almost immediately sent to Shanghai with his regiment, so that at this very young age he witnessed indescribable cruelty when the Japanese invaded China. For instance he saw the Nanking rebellion with all its awful happenings. Then in 1941 he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and for the rest of the war he lived in terrible conditions in the jungles of Thailand - and worked on the Kwai bridge and also the Death Railway.

When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and then shortly afterwards on Nagasaki, the war came to an end. At the time he was near to death with cerebral malaria. His discharge certificate cites malaria, pelagra, beri-beri, cholera, typhoid and a host of other reasons for his discharge. Immediately aid was flown in to his remote jungle camp he was airlifted to Bangalore in India to a specialist hospital, where he remained seriously ill for months. But he recovered.
He always said that the dropping of the bombs probably saved his life, because although we were winning the war anyway, the episode probably shortened the war by a few weeks - enough to save his life.

However, we were both members of CND at the time of the Aldermaston marches - and he was totally against nuclear weapons.

I've tried searching the internet for the legible names. So far I've found information on LV Headley, HC Babb, and Noel Duckworth. There is an interesting page about Rev. Headley here, which includes a number of photographs he took with a Leica. He buried the camera and retrieved it later.

HC Babb was captured at the fall of Singapore. After the war, he was a key member of a team who retraced the route of the Burma-Siam railway, identifying the 10,500 burial places of the POWs who died building it. He co-authored the book, First Reconnaissance of the Burma-Siam Railway. A photocopy of his diary is kept in the Imperial War Museum Archive.

There is an interesting reminiscence about Noel Duckworth here. He seems to have been quite a charismatic figure.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Challenge...

Simon Fisher Turner writes music for films - most famously, for Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. I didn't know this when I found his site. All I did know -and this is the only way I can explain it- was that I found what I listened to to be intensely visual. I'd heard of the old "writers workshop" chestnut of writing while listening to a piece of music but had never felt moved to try it before.

It is often said that music is a form of communication, yet what it actually communicates is unspecific. I suppose it communicates like a knock on a door. It's difficult to tell who is knocking, though intuition based on past experience might give us a good idea. It is impossible to tell from the knock why they're calling on us. The knock, however, does communicate feeling. It could be anything from the gentle tap of someone seeing if we're awake, to the irate rat-tat-tat of a neighbour come to tell us that our dog has messed on his drive. But it's impossible to transmit the feeling exactly. Was it the neighbour, or was it our mate, come to pick us up on the way to a gig, who is anxious because he's late and his car's blocking the road? Difficult to tell.

Having written a short piece based on Ghost Road Berlin, I found myself wondering what other people would produce, given the same task? Would there be common threads? There was only one way to find out...

I quickly found out that I'd make a bad scientist. Tony got in first, with an oblique, post-modern reponse to the meme. I'd not reflected on the title of the piece at all and it is, as Tony says, freighted with holocaust associations. (Like a fool, I'd not spotted them. When I saw "Berlin" I immediately thought of the fact that my daughter spent a few weeks there not long ago). If I were scientific, I'd have given out an untitled piece to listen to! As it seems to be turning out, I perhaps set something else in motion - something unexpected (by me) and at least as -if not more- interesting than what I intended to start. But we'll see...

Contributions (thank you all!) so far:

And so to my effort, which got me thinking of the idea in the first place:

The Ice Forest

We crash-landed in the ice forest at night. We came to rest at a crazy angle. We have had to adapt to the fact that none of the surfaces are level. Moving around is an effort. After a few hours we ache all over. Often we sit in the dark, as we can not afford to squander our resources. But at least it's not as cold as it is outside.

We have been out to explore, wearing the environmental suits. We have to wear them: it is so cold that your flesh begins to blacken the moment you expose it to the atmosphere. All around us, huge crystalline structures, arranged in avenues, rise from the ground and spread out over our heads like the branches of trees.

The night seems never-ending: this side of the planet seems never to turn towards its sun. Fortunately, there is always light enough outside to see by. The planet boasts so many moons that two or three of them are almost always in the sky. One gets to know which ones by the colour of the light.

Most of the time, however, we are confined to the inner compartments of the craft.

Mending the machine is beyond us. As we are the first humans to travel in time it is unlikely we will ever be rescued: the few who have any idea where we might be have neither the knowledge nor the means to follow us. Had anyone somehow managed to do so they would probably be here already.

The solar panels generate very little in the moonlight. The batteries won't last forever. When they run dry we will freeze. Gradually, I assume, we will become encrusted with the same crystalline structures we see all around us. No-one will ever know we were here.