Friday, 21 October 2016


I'm not quite old enough to remember the awful tragedy of Aberfan that occurred exactly 50 years ago today. But I vividly remember it being discussed, probably a few years later on similar anniversaries to the one being marked today. 

The name Aberfan has become synomymous with the worst mining disaster in British history: a day that was the last dawn for 116 children of the local primary school and a day that destroyed the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands more affected by the tragedy. 

I've been dwelling on it recently, and considering it from a parent's perspective. And what struck me most vividly was the fact that so many of the parents - father's, mainly - would have been miners. Because that was what Aberfan was - a mining village where generations of families would have been employed at the pit, in a hazardous occupation that claimed many lives but which they could never have imagined claiming the lives of their own children. 

Some of the black-and-white photos of years ago show men in miners helmets helping with the rescue. What must it have been like for the men who mined the material a by-product of which was smothering and crushing their own children? How could such men return to work, knowing that what they were doing, that some of the material falling at their feet, had been the immediate cause of such catastrophe. 

The men weren't to blame, of course. The National Coal Board paid expensive lawyers to try and prove that they weren't responsible, either. Very much in the tradition of the old private mine owners, that. 

But grief is anything but rational, and the raw emotion and the close connection between livelihoods - life - and the senseless deaths of 116 children along with 28 adults cannot have been far from these men's thoughts. Imagine being them. Digging the graves of their own children...

Each pick, each shovel full of wet, black shards of coal,
Each newly-excavated space a hole
A child might fill, until the mine is full,
Until the coal you dig has covered every one. 

Heavy wet slag sliding like hot tar downhill.
While far, far underground you dig and drill
And dig some more. The pitiless fossil
Falls to the floor, covers your boots 

Like ash, blackens your face 
And closes you in darkness
Like your daughter, her small body 
Now entombed in a new grave 

Dug for her by her own father,
By his father and his father's father.
Back in time forever, to when this coal
Was first discovered.

Soon the sirens will be heard.
The shift will end for him, 
For her, forever. The cage hurries 
Miners back to light, to air.

Worried faces gather at the pit head.
And you walk, then run and then
You're sprinting down the hill
To where she lies with all

The others, trapped in airless darkness.
No cage will ever rise, no siren sound
The end of this eternal shift of blackness:
They lie frozen, like a fossil, underground.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Get knotted!

I was never much of a Boy Scout. In fact, I never graduated from Cubs. Consequently I don't know the difference between a sheep shank and half-hitch and as for a fisherman's bend...

So, knots have been a knotty problem. But no longer. Thanks to getting one of these new whizzy gizmos, 'the world's ultimate rope connector' I now no longer need to worry about a bowline hitch or a double reef. As the blurb says, 'a simple twist of the wrist' is virtually all that's needed to tie and untie any rope in seconds.

And it does. I used it on a recent trip to Cambridge... to secure a bike to the roof rack. And I can confirm that in spite of a drive on some rather bumpy, twisty roads to get to the A1, then a short drive on the A1 followed by the hell that is the A14, it remained secure throughout. And untying it once we'd arrived was, as the man said, a matter of a quick twist of the wrist.

It's one of those things that's so useful, and so simple, you really do wonder why no-one ever thought of it before. But it doesn't stop there. Because from the same stable you can buy a cargo netting too, to completely secure your load or even - as I have been doing - to gather up all that autumn pruning quickly and easily.

But the chief advantage of the What Knot is safety. As the founder, Steven Daniels, says:

On average 45 deaths a year are due to people falling from unsecured ladders. 48,000 a year end up in A&E, with a cost to the government of some £60million every year. In Australia alone, over 500 people damage or lose their eyesight each year due to accidents with bungee cords and elasticised luggage straps. That equates to tens of thousands of avoidable accidents around the world.

The What Knot is an outstanding innovation of design and I am totally committed to it. The materials used are second-to-none for its purpose. There are absolutely no other competitor products that cover such a variety of rope sizes or which match it for strength, versatility, speed, ease of use or quality.

The What Knot is available to buy for £7.95 from where you can also buy ropes, nets, steel hooks and 'What Knot' bundles.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Poetry puh-lease!

It's National Poetry Day and I thought I'd better contribute in some way. But rather than subject you to some of my occasional verse (and worse) I've spent the morning uploading this...

... an edition of Rural Rhymes, chosen and read by Robin Holmes, one of the lovely little BBC Radio 3 'fillers' that used to be broadcast in the odd five-or-so minutes that it took for a piano to be shifted, or for the next programme to be cued (especially if a concert finished early) or any other of the many reasons radio stations have for requiring something on stand-by.

Nowadays, of course, it's all 'trails'. Back then, it was poetry - wonderfully read and seasonally-themed... and no longer, it seems, stored in the BBC Archives. A brief exchange with Petroc Trelawny this morning seems to confirm the worst...

All of which means this, and the other little except I've previously posted, might be the only remaining examples of these charming little poetry programmes. Unless there are other listeners out there who, like me, once taped concerts and occasionally failed to stop the recording before committing these readings to magnetic tape. (That was how you did it in those dim and distant days!)

BBC Radio 3 is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary, and they've been mining their archive of poetry readings under the direction of the Bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan. And today - National Poetry Day - has already seen countless examples of poets reading their work.

But there are very few who do it well. I was surprised this morning by the way the wonderful Caribbean poet James Berry introduced and read his wonderful 'White Child meets Black Man' at approx. 7.10am this morning on Radio 3 - with all the 'dum-de-dum-de-dum-de' stresses of a nursery rhyme.

And he's not alone. Betjeman was on later, reading in his arch-ironic, comic tones as if his tongue is firmly in his cheek and all this 'poh-trah' lark is just a jape.

Actors are no better, as anyone who regularly listens to BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please will know. There are exceptions, of course, among them Derek Jacobi who reads Robert Fagle's first-rate translation of The Iliad so well. And some poets do a decent job, too - none more so than Seamus Heaney... which begs the question why The Today Programme chose to broadcast the Prince of Wales reading Heaney's wonderful poem 'Shipping Forecast' earlier this morning.

But why is it so difficult to get the reading just right, even for the poet?

I suspect that $64000 dollar question may never be answered. But it begs another. Why - when someone does get is so obviously, so consistently and so memorably right - does the BBC wipe the tapes?

Monday, 3 October 2016

It happened to a vet

James Herriot, doyen of (pre-Strictly) Saturday-night viewing and light, nostalgic reading, a man who could (according to one TV reviewer) strike terror into cows everywhere at the mere unbuttoning of a shirt sleeve, was born 100 years ago today.

Although the books (which I've read many, many times) are considered trifles, they're actually superbly-crafted tales, each spun (seemingly) from a real-life anecdote and populated by larger-than-life (but delicately written) characters. What's not to like?

Growing up in Yorkshire as I did, they were also great at confirming what was best about the county - not least, the wonderful scenery. As a bit of a groupie I took the trail long before Herriot-country existed and used the books as an excuse to visit some of the most beautiful landscapes - although it has to be said that the real Herriot's patch was generally east of Thirsk rather than reaching into every nook and cranny of the dales. But TV clearly decided the latter was the better backdrop. And why not?

The real 'James Herriot' was a hard-working country vet by the name of Alf Wight, who had been born and brought up in Glasgow. Siegfried and Tristan Farnon were in real-life Donald and Brian Sinclair, the former of whom casts a long shadow over the story, having committed suicide not long after James' - Alf's - death some years ago.

But then, the stories always had their light and shade. There was sadness, illness, death, both human and animal and the books certainly don't shy away from the hardships of hill-farming, especially in the 1930s.

You can visit the original veterinary practice in Thirsk, sit in the car that used to splash through the stream in the TV series, even answer the famous 'Darrowby 385' telephone. But the real-life veterinary surgery - in new, purpose-built premises - thrives, and includes among its partners James' - Alf's - own son.

So the legacy lives on.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

My book needs you!

So, who fancies being part of something, rather than just buying something? Who would like to be a patron of the arts (*ahem*), help get something published, have a say in how the book develops, even get asked what you think of the cover design? With Unbound, you can. And I'm with Unbound.

Join me? You can, right here:

And my book needs your support. Not just because I want to see it published (I do). And not just because I think it's going to be good (it is) or even because the characters are fascinating (they are) and the story is compelling. Not even, if I'm honest, because the story of Britain's forgotten army - the men who stayed in France and Flanders after the Armistice, finding and burying the bodies of their fallen comrades - really needs telling.

No, ultimately the reason I'm putting this book out there with Unbound is because it makes the process of writing and producing a book much more collaborative. For instance, once the book funds and Unbound begins designing a cover, they involve the readers - those who've pledged get a say in what the book will look like! Because Unbound is about involving readers at every stage in the process. Instead of a publisher and bookseller basically deciding what people should read, Unbound is saying, 'it's your call: if you want this book you need to step forward and support it.' And, in return, you get to be part of something - something which develops its own momentum and starts to feel a bit like a campaign.

I've written (and had published) six books so far (take a look at the header!) - all reasonably successful. But this is the one I'm most excited about because for the first time I can have a conversation with the reader from the earliest stages. Subscribers to the book get to read my 'shed' posts - basically, blog posts about how it's going, what I'm doing and so on. And they can tell me what they're thinking.

So although the bottom line is that if you pledge you get your name in the lovely, hardback special edition of the book (as well as the book itself, of course!) as a supporter you get much, much more.

You get to be part of something. And among those already 'part of' this 'something' are some familiar names - from ex-Crimewatch presenter-turned-author Sue Cook, to Time Team's Francis Pryor (founder of Flag Fen), the 'Bard of Barnsley' and presenter of BBC Radio 3's 'The Verb' Ian McMillan and former curate of Boston Stump, Saturday Live presenter and ex-pop star Richard Coles. And that's in addition to the other 250-odd people - some known personally, many more strangers who have come across the book on the Unbound website - all of whom I feel I can now count as partners in the exciting enterprise of bringing a new book into being.

Will you be joining them?

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