Watchet! You might spill something (probably cider)

I love the country I live in or rather I never get tired of it in terms of learning things about it.

We are away for our anniversary and the Lovely Wife and I take turns to arrange where we go in secret so it is always a surprise for one of us (incidentally, I understand that for some people this is the worst thing they could imagine, but it works for us, probably because we are lucky enough to enjoy lots of the same things and understand also what might be enjoyed by the other half).

Anyway this year we are in a place I had never heard of but in a County I have a lot of time for – Somerset – in the seaside village of Watchet. My first impressions is that it has reached the point of quirky in terms of its residents – a lot of elderly people but at least one proto-Mod and a gay couple who proudly carried the signs of a Northern Soul life in their earlier life. There is a very amusing and high quality local cider bar and the barmaid in the best food pub in town works on her own in the chip shop on Mondays.

Like a lot of West Country seaside towns, art seems to be a big thing, but Watchet has two fascinatingly different claims to fame. Both are represented by bronze statues on the short esplanade we can see from our (old coast guard) cottage. But they could not be more different, even if they are by the same sculptor (for the record, Alan Herriot).

One is a tall, emaciated and forlorn figure chained to a dead albatross. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge stayed for three years at nearby Nether Stowey (a lovely village and the house he lived in, run by the National Trust, is well worth a visit) and here, in the daily company of William Wordsworth and William’s sister Dorothy wrote most of the poetry he is famous for, including the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. This was inspired by all accounts by his experience of nearby Watchet and the town is rightfully proud to acknowledge the connection with the statue, and on a rough day… It is not difficult to be grim looking out to the grey, surf covered Bristol Channel.

The other statue could not be more different – a slightly rotund old fisherman, sitting a few yards away of the doomed Mariner cheerfully looking out to sea. This is John Short, known as ‘Yankee Jack’ who is the village’s most famous sailor. He was a great singer of Sea Shanties who became town crier after retirement from the sea so must have had a powerful voice. But the important part of the story is that in 1914 Cecil Sharpe interviewed him and recorded a wealth of the traditional songs that Jack was well known locally for and preserved this important part of English culture for prosperity. He is obviously well liked locally – since we have been here several people have been seen patting the statue on the shoulder, and during the St George’s Day celebrations he had acquired a number of balloons.

The weird thing for me is that every time we pass the statue of Yankee Jack is to think ‘why is that old guy sitting out in this cold wind?’

In all honesty I would not be surprised if (in my fantasy inspired head) if the statue (accompanied of course by a creaking noise of bronze impossibly in motion, c.f. the Bronze Colossus in Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ if you want a sound reference) twisted its head around, raised a bronze pint of cider and wished us a good evening.

I worry about myself sometimes.

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You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry

Sometimes I think I can be quite an angry person. The Lovely Wife will tell you that while the thought of raising a hand to another person is something I would never intentionally do, inanimate objects are pretty fair game. There is something both entirely normal and also rather odd about punching walls, doors on banging on keyboards as the damn device of evil once more locks up or inevitably the next upgrade of iTunes has destroyed all your carefully constructed playlists. Or in that same context, when my iTunes library, supposedly safe on an external hard drive somehow gets corrupted irreversibly (I have two backups now for the reconstructed version). In terms of weirdness we all know that at best our fist will be sore and at worst, as well as the sore fist, we’ll damage the thing that has been unfortunate enough to have our anger and frustration physically exacted upon it. The part of my brain that actually thinks knows that this is stupid but I still go ahead and do it.

On the normal side for me I recognize it as a displacement activity as the real, biological action is not open to me. It is commonly seen in animal behaviour where the normal routes of behaviour are thwarted. You need to do something, so you execute a behaviour that is open to you in place of one that is not. It is sobering, but in the end we often want to take our frustration out on someone. But with my corrupted hard drive there is not someone I can take my frustration out on (thankfully) so the keyboard gets it instead, or the desk. Even when there is someone to blame there is a part of my brain that, luckily for me, is hard wired to know that punching them in the nose is a Bad Thing. But the sobering thought for me is that in reflection that does not mean that my anger is any less real, which brings me back to where I started.

Even the calmest people I know – and I know some people who are really very chilled indeed – get angry sometimes. When they do, it can be much scarier than people like me, especially if you are on the receiving end of that anger. This is precisely because if it is something bad enough to cause them to blow their top then it must be something that really gets their goat and secondly it is out of their normal behaviour. For someone I know it only comes out when driving. For others it can be about any subject, but is an incremental build that is completely impossible to see until the point of no return is reached; at which point you had better take cover in the light of the resulting explosion.

For me, I reach the boil extremely quickly and have a real problem hiding my anger. That said I cool down very quickly as well, perhaps in part to self-awareness that when angry I am less the avenging angel and more the red faced buffoon. I just do not do ‘angry’ that well I guess.

More and more I find that when dealing with people, calm and polite – and even a smile, if you can manage of it – usually wins the day over any other approach. My dear late Mum was an expert at this. If anything needed complaining about she always got the job and executed it brilliantly, with the ‘I know it must be my fault… I realize this mind sound very silly, but… I really hope you can help me…’ were the kind of approaches she regularly used and nearly always got satisfaction – and often a good chat in addition (which would always make her happy). So with people, that’s what I aspire to. Mind you – if there is no one to talk to then the inanimate objects still had better look out. Even my Mum, on the day the top came off the pressure cooker and sprayed dinner all over the kitchen ceiling gave the cooker a mighty kick.

I did not stay around to see what the result was of this action and instead made myself scarce for the rest of the day. I think you can understand why.

Plan(ning) B

I’ve been accused of being spontaneous and a stickler for being organized in something like equal amounts over the years, but neither is entirely correct. With certain aspects of character it can be possible to determine which is the more default positioning simply by realising which aspect comes easier than the other. I tend to believe we all have things that come more naturally to us in many areas of our life which provide a wonderful opportunity to irritate the hell out of each other on one hand and really help compliment and help each other out on the other side.

The reality is that I’m not spontaneous in any way. The Lovely Wife understands this and therefore is reassured that I am unlikely to suddenly buy a piano, or reveal that I have actually sold the house and we are starting our new life pig farming in Patagonia. Where the skill comes in is in carefully planned spontaneity. Masterminding a weekend away where a series of lovely coincidences come together to make it truly memorable is the true mark of the planner’s art. Until I thought about it recently I never realized how much fun a carefully timetabled schedule could be (providing it is not an exam schedule, obviously).

There are lots of good reasons for being a forward planner. For a start, it helps us in the never ending fight to make sure we see friends and family enough (we fail, but it is a brave failure). Life is so busy (for everyone) these days that I would be completely lost without our schedule of where we are supposed to be, and increasingly that planning is months ahead – we are booking things for next January.

But why bother? Well one thing is that without looking that far ahead you can forget certain events that otherwise you might have wanted to see. People have asked how we can possibly afford to go to the theatre as much as we do. It is a fair question. The truth is I have an upper limit in what I will pay for a ticket (and it is a low threshold) but if you keep the ear to the ground, are flexible and book as soon as you are able there are plenty of bargains to be had. If you are lucky and do not mind an uncomfortable restricted view then you can get opera or ballet tickets at the Royal Opera House for as little as £6 for some performances and since neither of us were blessed much in the height department we do not fear the dreaded ‘restricted legroom’ threat. When booking for new shows the other risk of course is that show is rubbish or the set will break down during those cheap ticket previews but that is a risk worth taking. I think the only show I remember as being so awful that maybe the ticket was a waste was a musical version of ‘Gone with the Wind’ some years ago – it was interminably dull and far too long; we and most of the rest of the audience left well before the end. There was also a time when we went to see a preview performance of the last version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ put on in London at the Palladium, where part of the set was a circular, mechanical, Yellow Brick Road that rotated and therefore allowed the actors to keep moving while not getting dizzy walking around the stage.

Unfortunately, it broke on the night we were there. True to the adage, the show went on with the cast improvising but it did remind you what previews are for.

And every so often you get a nice surprise. I always book tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe as early as I can as I know we always like to go once or twice a year. I never look beyond what the play is, as the Globe is pretty reliable entertainment. So a few years ago when Twelfth Night was part of the schedule I had no idea I was booking some of the hottest tickets that summer, with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry (as Malvolio) starring; I’m pretty sure if I’d waited for the casting announcement I would never have gotten hold of them. So while we are close enough to London to enjoy it, we are planning to keep this up as long as possible, which means I’d probably have to go and the check the usual websites for anything interesting that might be coming up on the distant horizon…

It’s not (all) about Bunnies

I was quite amused by the news story (well, it is not really news but did seem to get a fair amount of coverage) that there had been a bit of a kerfuffle over a showing of the 1978 adaptation of Watership Down during the Easter period and the ‘trauma’ it apparently caused by upsetting young children. Obviously I am not amused by the thought of childhood trauma but more that this is something of a long running cause celebre in this household so it was interesting to see a private conversation spilling over into the media.

I’ll make my position clear – I adore this book. I think I must have read it at least three or four times a year from about age 8 to 14 when a friend started punting some quality heroic Fantasy at me instead. It was the only book that my English teacher in the first couple of years at the Newcastle Royal Grammar did not roll his eyes at during our reading sessions at school (I do not think he was that impressed with more usual fare of Doctor Who novelizations) Unfortunately, love of a book means that inevitably I am (at best) ambivalent to the film adaptation. They make a decent stab at it, and the voice work is great (John Hurt works for me as Hazel as his slightly weary voice epitomises exactly how I see this character, see below) but in the end the heart and soul of the book and the well-drawn characters of the individual rabbits are lost and I personally see it as a bit of a pale imitation. To the Lovely Wife it is the disturbing movie where ‘they all die’, a view stemming from a childhood trip to the cinema which apparently resulted in upset as recent reported (where I recall my reaction being eight year old indigence at the death of a certain character who does not die in the book). After a recent viewing we have come to a conclusion that actually the Lovely Wife never got to the end of the movie (Spoilers: They do not, I repeat, do not ‘all die’) and what she remembers is the very unsettling sequence featuring the destruction of the warren. Which is upsetting and deliberately so – it must be or the whole point of our heroes leaving in the first place is undercut.

Watership Down is not by any stretch a children’s book. It is far too complex for that, an epic tale of adventure populated by a range of diverse (and likeable) characters that you care about and with a background of a fascinating and well thought out rabbit culture and mythology. It is heavily allegorical (a bit too much so in places) but also knows when to have fun.

It also features one of the best examples of leadership to be found in fiction. In Hazel you have a lead character who appears to be totally average, an everyman that has a slightly nuts little brother. Over the course of the book he proves however to be the right rabbit at the right time to lead a ragtag bunch of rabbits through trials and tribulations to a new life – and be bright enough to save them all when things go badly wrong. Crucially it is his ability to see and use the talents of the other rabbits – Bigwig’s brawn, Dandelion’s speed, Blackberry’s intelligence and artifice – to the best advantage of all that is the reason they succeed. He inspires loyalty and is prepared to take chances and think in a flexible way. None of the other rabbits would think of making friends with a mouse, of all things. Hazel does and as a result sets up something absolutely vital for the survival of his people. Perhaps the most dramatic scene in the book is when, in a last attempt to avoid a bloody conflict, the partially lame Hazel goes alone to confront General Woundwort and politely asks him to leave in peace. The attempt fails, but Hazel escapes because the General cannot be bothered to kill this insignificant cripple and in this error seals his fate. In this meeting are exposed all the differences between these two leaders; a massive bully that cannot conceive anyway of leading except through force and the brave individual thrust into the position of leader and just doing his best.

I have seen some reports that the BBC is considering another adaptation. I would love to see an even darker and adult take on the book, and I really hope that they take the time to allow the richness of the book to spill over into what is effectively an epic quest fantasy (and latterly infiltration thriller). But I think they will need to warn people that this is not at all about fluffy bunnies.