Archive for the ‘ireland’ Tag

A Steamboat Laddie

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inside Sweny’s

I went to Sweny’s where Leopold Bloom bought his lemon soap in ‘Ulysses’ after leaving the National Gallery and ‘The Liffey Swim’. The Volunteer at the old chemist shop confirmed it is pronounced Swen not Sween (as in the Donegal family name Sweeney). A motley crew of Dubs of a certain age shuffled in, grabbed a copy and a cup of tea and biscuit. At 11am, after a brief intro as to what was happening on page 524, we started reading a page each going round the room, surrounded by pharmacy glassware in wooden cases. It was the Cab Shelter section where Bloom has rescued young Stephen late at night and bought him a terrible coffee in the shelter where taximen, sailors and other creatures of the night gas away. I’m the only Englishman there. There’s a fair amount of anti-English sentiment in the pages we read which gives the visit all the more spice. Joyce didn’t have much truck with Blame the English.

At the stroke of midday I ducked out with a wave and crossed the street to the back entrance of Trinity College. I was due to attend a lunch celebrating the 150th anniversary of one of the better English institutions – Girton College, Cambridge, my alma mater. Girton and Trinity (TCD) are connected through the pioneering women dubbed The Steamboat Ladies. Their story I summarised here.

In short, Cambridge University refused to award the degrees the early Girtonians achieved through study and the standard Cambridge examination so they ended up using the fine print of an old tripartite arrangement between Oxford, Cambridge and TCD to have the award made in Dublin. They took the steamboat from Holyhead for a swift one-day visit including a formal lunch and a group photo on the steps I found myself standing on with my brother-in-law Des (my guest) and Professor Susan Parkes of Trinity, surveilling the large, part-lawned quad.

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Prof. Susan Parkes on the Steamboat Ladies

I am writing this a few miles from Holyhead with a view of Anglesey, in Caernarfon, Wales, where I am doing a keynote speech for TAC, the Welsh indies producers/TV training organisation. I remember one of my sons saying of Holyhead when he was very young: “It’s a bit like Dublin …only shit.”

The Steamboat Ladies, Prof Parkes would explain over lunch, started coming over in 1904. This is the year in which ‘Ulysses’ is set.

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About two dozen old Girtonians were at the lunch, mostly Irish, plus the Mistress of the College, Susan J Smith, and a current Girton historian, Dr Hazel Mills. Hazel reviewed the various connections between Girton and Ireland including two of the Mistresses (Susan is about No. 19). The key point was that Girton proved something of a training ground for the pioneers of women’s university education in Ireland. Education meant jobs, jobs meant money, influence and independence.

After lunch and the two talks we reconstructed the Steamboat Ladies photo on the steps outside, us just a handful compared to the serried ranks of mobile scholars in the 1906 photo.

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The Steamboat Ladies at Trinity Dublin

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As the photo posing concluded and I took my leave of my fellow Mediaeval & Modern Languages colleague Julia (we were the best represented year at 2 shows) Des and I headed to the pub for the second half of Leinster (blue jerseys) v Munster (red). An American woman at the bar beside me asked me how this game (rugby) works. I did my best, pleased with the concision of my stab at it. As I looked at the red v blue the thought crossed my mind that this was a classic colour opposition. I leaned over to her and said: “…of course the blues are democrats and the reds republicans.” “Oh, like we have in the States?” “Yes, sort of.”

The next day I rounded off the trip with a family Sunday expedition led by Des to the cliffs of Howth Head. I pulled by the place at the end of the huge harbour wall where the Asgard and its skipper Erskine Childers are commemorated in a brass plaque for the running of guns into the country via this harbour for the Easter Rising.

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On the way to the Dart to come out of the city north into Co. Dublin I passed a sadly isolated plaque on a crappy government building marking the HQ of De Valera in 1916 at Bolland Mills.

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Standing on Howth Head I could see the sweep of Dublin Bay down to Sandycove – where ‘Ulysses’ opens – and beyond. Up here is where the novel concludes with Molly recalling a romantic excursion with Bloom in the early days of their love. So this geography, the curve of this bay, is essential to this greatest of books. And the perfect place to conclude this trip.

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A Day in Dublin

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Following a meeting with RTÉ in the Docklands in East Dublin I had the afternoon free to wander the city. On the way in to the centre from the airport the bus passed the end of Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom lives and is having breakfast in the second chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An hour later I walked across Holles Street where the maternity hospital is where another chapter of the Greatest Book Ever takes place. After that I looked into the window of Sweny’s the pharmacist where Bloom buys his lemon soap (and they still sell it in waxed brown paper). In a couple of hours I am heading back there for a ‘Ulysses’ reading group as it is now a volunteer-run centre dedicated to the book. It is just opposite the back entrance to Trinity College, Dublin where I am due at a lunch at noon.

Yesterday I also passed the Ormond Hotel (which, if I had my bearings right, is largely a space on the North bank of the Liffey at Ormond Quay, having been pretty much demolished since my last trip to Dublin) where the music-centred chapter of the novel occurs, the chapter which is the focus of the long-running Charles Peake seminar at Senate House, University of London which I attend every month. It takes the group several years to get through a chapter as it is a close-reading approach – we cover just a dozen or so lines per two hour Friday evening session.

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Back to Friday afternoon, I passed the old Ormond Hotel on the way to Kilmainham Gaol where the leaders of the Easter Rising were imprisoned in 1916. There I met my younger son who was also over, meeting his cousins. I had the great honour in the course of the visit to read to him (he has severe dyslexia so I am in the habit of reading to him) one of the surviving twenty copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a poster size text printed in two sections, and then parts of the original letters written by the condemned men as their last words. These are displayed in dim light for preservation but the lighting also adds to the vibe. A particularly resonant one is by Joseph Plunkett to his girlfriend who he recognises he should have married – signed “Your lover, Joe”. My son is an Irish citizen hence the honour of introducing these things to him. Later in the afternoon we passed the GPO in O’Connell Street where I concluded my history to him of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. (Which reminded me that I wanted to ask my RTÉ colleague how the preparations are going for the tricky centenary of the Civil War. When I was over speaking to the RTÉ Board in December 2017 they were just starting to address the project with the President that same day.)

We went back into town via the Irish Museum of Modern Art, taking the Luas (tram) back to the river. My son is really interested at the moment in wild/open water swimming and imagined swimming the Liffey. I told him about Yeats’ energetic painting of a swimming race in the National Gallery of Ireland.

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1st edition (1939)

I rounded off the day seeing both a 1939 1st edition of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (€2,000), which I sent to Finn Fordham who leads the monthly Wake seminar at Senate House I also go to fairly regularly, and a 1922 1st edition of ‘Ulysses’ from Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1 of 750 copies, with the famous (among a small but dedicated circle) Greek blue cover (€30,000) at Ulysses Rare Books shop off Grafton Street. I’ve seen and even handled the ‘Ulysses’ 1st edition in that fabulous shop before – this one has only been in a month. If I was rich I would buy one alongside a powder blue Mark 2 Jag. My son wanted to know how Joyce had managed to fill 700 pages with two people’s wanderings around Dublin for just one day.

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I concluded the day in another book shop, The Winding Stair, named after the other Yeats’ volume of poetry. For the last 15 years the book part has shrunk to just the ground floor and the 1st and 2nd floors up the eponymous stairs have become a really good Irish restaurant with a view of the river, quays and Ha’penny Bridge. In the past the dining room, where I enjoyed Irish duck and Irish trout this evening, used to be covered in bookshelves full of second-hand volumes. Now just a couple of shelves of books tip a hat to that literary past. The tome I acquired from here that comes first to mind is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man’, a vintage Penguin paperback. Every book becomes a friend.

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View from The Winding Stair

Coincidence No. 402

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I’m sitting listening to Let the Record Show (the Dexys LP of 2016, their versions of Irish standards) whilst doing my 2015-16 accounts (close to the wire as usual). I get to the last track, Carrickfergus, and the lyrics

…as black as ink

just as I’m signing the cover letter to my accountant, switching from the red Pilot fountain pen I’ve been using to tick off the enclosures to a black biro because it’s just plain odd to sign stuff in blood red.

***

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I saw Dexy’s play Carrickfergus in 2016 at the Festival Hall at Imagining Ireland, the London celebration of the Easter Rising centenary.

Now in Kilkenny it is reported
On marble stone there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her
But I’ll sing no more now til I get a drink
Cause I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Ah but I’m sick now my days are numbered
Come all me young men and lay me down
Come all me young men and lay me down

I got to know this song through Van Morrison’s version. During 2016 Robert Elms took Kevin Rowland, lead singer of Dexys, to see Van play at Nell’s in West Kensington. I happen to know this because Robert mentioned it in his excellent, traditional annual music round-up. Which neatly rounds up today’s circle of connection and coincidence.

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The Story So Far

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In the last part of 2013 I take a sabbatical to mark my 10th anniversary at Channel 4 and write five eighths of a factual book entitled ‘When Sparks Fly: the creative rewards of openness and generosity’. I write 9 to 5 every working day during the sabbatical and get five chapters more or less completed.

I document the process from Day 1 to Day 94.

The plan is to try to write the last three when I’m back at work in evenings and weekends. The thing is I value my marriage and I’m keen on my kids. And also I commission 26 series of short form video and 9 pilots in the following 12 months. The best part of 250 episodes. that’s a fuckofalot of work.

A couple of weeks ago I have 7 days holiday left for the year which I have to use or lose so I go over to my favourite place, Donegal. I find empty beaches, the sun splits the sky from the moment I walk off the plane in Belfast till the day I return. I chill and I’m in the mood to write. At the prompting of my venerable & wise mentor, a veteran and very committed documentary maker, I set aside Book 1 for now and move to Book 2. Book 2 is not massively research and interview heavy like Book 1. It is about my day job. I’d had it in mind as a way of clearing the writing pipes.

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So I write the opening on an isolated and very difficult to access beach on Fanad Head, my favourite place in my favourite place. What a beautiful moment suspended in time.

I write the outline by the lake in the garden of artist Derek Hill’s house in Churchill. Intense, fast, no mucking about – in the zone.

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I start the main text on a secret beach up the coast from Port Salon. I have to leg it to escape from charging cows to get to the beach – but it’s worth it. Got it completely to myself.

What’s a rush is that I can just write (unlike Book 1). No notes. No looking up anything. Just tap away at the speed of thought.

And so, as I embark fully on Book 2, the story continues…

[writing location: a train just outside Durham 7.1v.16]

 

 

 

Today in 1916, Dublin – Easter Tuesday – Support real and imagined

Easter Tuesday (25th April 1916)

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British troops (and machine guns) on the streets of Dublin

Holed up in the GPO Padraig Pearse writes an optimistic report for a Republican newssheet: “The Republican forces everywhere are fighting with splendid gallantry. The populace of Dublin are plainly with the Republic, and the officers and men are everywhere cheered as they march through the streets.” Not totally true. At the Jacob’s factory, for example, a mob jeers at the Volunteers inside: “Come out to France and fight, you lot of so-and-so slackers!” (I suspect they didn’t really say “so-and-so”, the feckers.) Pearse also writes a Manifesto to the Citizens of Dublin: “The country is rising to Dublin’s call and the final achievement of Ireland’s freedom is now, with God’s help, only a matter of days…” Not totally true. Risings outside the capital are to a large extent sporadic and confused.

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British troops marching prisoners

Rumours abound. The Germans have landed in support of the uprising. Rebel reinforcements are converging on the capital. Cork has fallen to the Volunteers. The British barracks are beseiged and on the point of surrender. The whole country is up in arms. Not true at all.

In fact British troops are arriving in numbers by train overnight from Belfast and Kildare and en route by sea from Britain. They machine gun the men and women of the Citizen Army on St Stephen’s Green, firing down from the height of the Shelbourne Hotel, forcing them to retreat to the College of Surgeons. They take back the City Hall, confusing the female rebel fighters for kidnap victims. “Did they do anything to you? Were they kind to you?”

They retake the Daily Express offices beside City Hall. Meanwhile in the Irish Times (paper not building) reports of the uprising are suppressed and replaced by a short piece of under 50 words, opening…

Yesterday morning an insurrectionary rising took place in the City of Dublin.

and a counter-proclamation from Lord Wimborne, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, announcing the imposition of martial law. The authorities are getting a grip on the situation after a slow start. The proclamation speaks of “a reckless, though small, body of men” and of “certain evilly disposed persons”.

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Next: I’ll pick up Easter Wednesday (26th April 1916) on 26th April 2016

Today in 1916, Dublin – Easter Monday – One small step, one giant leap

Easter Monday (24th April 1916)

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Padraig Pearse

Around noon James Connolly and Padraig Pearse lead 150 rebels up Dublin’s O’Connell Street. They march as far as (appropriately enough) the Imperial Hotel when Connolly suddenly gives the order to wheel left and charge the GPO. Once inside the first task was to persuade baffled customers that they were for real and that said customers needed to take off, get outta here.

Pearse had been appointed President of the Republic and it fell to him to proclaim said republic. He came out of the Post Office looking “very pale” and read the now famous proclamation.

ad-hist-procLiguist and writer Stephen McKenna was among the small crowd who witnessed the momentous event:

“For once, his magnetism had left him; the response was chilling; a few thin, perfunctory cheers, no direct hostility just then, but no enthusiasm whatever.”

Half an hour later a company of mounted British lancers charge down O’Connell Street, sabres drawn. Shots ring out from the GPO and the Imperial Hotel, killing four of the imperialists and scattering the rest. Battle has commenced.

Rewind to the start of this resonant day. Rebels turn out in Dublin but in reduced numbers after the chaos of Easter Sunday. They gather in the guise of Irish Volunteers on manoeuvres but at noon transform into determined and bold revolutionaries. They seize key buildings across the city with the GPO as HQ – Boland’s Mill, Jacob’s Factory, the South Dublin Union and other strategic buildings. The Citizen Army takes a position on St Stephen’s Green. (During the night British troops sneak into the overlooking Shelbourne Hotel effectively neutralising the position.)

They move on Dublin Castle, the centre of British administration, but misjudge and hesitate resulting in the gates being shut in their faces. They take adjacent City Hall instead. During the aborted assault Abbey actor Sean Connolly shoots an unarmed police constable, making 45 year old James O’Brien one of the first fatalities of the Rising. A couple of hours later, at 2pm, Connolly, up on the roof of City Hall, takes a bullet in the stomach and bleeds out in front of his 15 year old brother, Matt.

Looting starts around O’Connell Street as local people sense the opportunity of disruption.

More lofty deeds are being carried out on the roof of the overlooking GPO. Eamon Bulfin, a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers, is sent up to raise a green flag with the words Irish Republic and a golden harp.

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made by Mary Shannon, a shirtmaker in the cooperative at Liberty Hall

A green, white and gold tricolour is also raised on that roof, for the very first time over the Republic of Ireland.

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The largest military parade in the history of the Irish state passes the GPO as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations in Dublin – 27 March 2016

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The essence of Padraig Pearse

Today in 1916, Dublin – Easter Saturday – Nearly strangled at birth

Easter Saturday (22nd April 1916)

As I start this post the centenary commemoration and celebrations of the Easter Rising are kicking off in Dublin. I was hoping to get over there but couldn’t quite make it happen. I got a bit of a feel for the mood and thoughts when I was over in Donegal last week. The last time I was in Dublin for the anniversary was on 8th April 2007, the 91st. That day I went down to the GPO to watch the official commemoration at which a female officer of the Irish army read out the Proclamation of Independence in front of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the President Mary McAleese. It was on the stairs of the General Post Office that Padraig Pearse first read those words a century ago.

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To transport myself there for the 100th I’m going to post a hundred-years-ago-today account of the Rising over the next week.

The Easter Saturday should have been the eve of the Rising but the big day had to be postponed by 24 hours to Easter Monday.

On the Saturday the under-secretary for Ireland Sir Matthew Nathan writes to the chief secretary Augustine Birrell saying: “I see no indications of a rising”. So a bit like Michael Fish missing the Great Storm of October 1987 or Dick Rowe turning down The Beatles at Decca. Nathan was a career colonial administrator, born in Paddington of Jewish descent.

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Before: Liberty Hall

Meanwhile James Connolly and men of his Irish Citizen Army are installed in Liberty Hall on Beresford Place/Eden Quay,headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and of the ICA. It’s where Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne ran  a soup kitchen for workers’ families during the Dublin Lock-out  in 1913. In 1916 it served as a factory for the manufacture of bombs, bayonets and arms for the impending rebellion. Eventually the leaders of the Rising marched from there to the GPO to proclaim the Republic and start the Rising (but more of that on Monday). The building was left vacant throughout Easter Week, but the British didn’t know that and selected the Hall as the first target to be shelled. It was largely destroyed by British artillery during the Rising.

So back to the previous failure of British intelligence – “I see no indications of a rising”. The next day Nathan and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne, find out that five 50lb  cases of dynamite have been stolen from a quarry in County Wicklow, just south of Dublin, and the police suspect they have been taken to Liberty Hall. At the Vice Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park Wimborne and Nathan discuss the situation with the military and police. Wimborne wants an immediate raid on Liberty Hall with arrests, using 100 troops and 100 police. The Royal Irish Constabulary are more cautious, reckoning the leaders will not be there (some were), there will be significant loss of life and the press will be highly critical. Wimborne eventually agrees to postpone till Monday to allow time for the military to prepare properly and on the basis the rebel leaders would probably be there. In Wimborne’s words: “It was no good to stir up the hornets’ nest unless they could capture the hornets.”

Had they acted on Wimborne’s initial instincts the Rising would have been strangled at birth on Saturday and, in the words of Euston’s finest, no terrible beauty born.

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After: Liberty Hall

Simple Pleasures from Donegal 4

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My secret beach

Empty beaches. Lough Swilly. Hazy horizons. Traces of everyday history. Meeting strangers. The kindness of strangers. Working on beaches. Snoozing on the sand. Miles Davis’s music. A Kind of Blue nap. Photo exhibitions. Irish words for modern phenomena. European films. BB King & Tracy Chapman singing The Thrill is Gone. The Bridge Bar. Ramelton. Rivers. 

Son of a Beach

Donegal: Day 3

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Headed for Church Hill, the other side of Letterkenny, to artist Derek Hill’s house, which I thought would be an inspiring place to write. Turned out it’s too early in the season for the house or gallery which open toward the end of the month – but I got the expansive gardens all to myself. Lay on the lawn down by the lake to read and then perched on a repurposed mill stone at the water’s edge to write. Managed to put the whole outline together, ready to start writing proper. The lake was beautiful in the Spring sunshine, a slight mistiness at first from the bridge over the River Leannan and then a bright tranquility from Glebe House garden. Not a soul was in evidence all morning. Plus I had the pleasure of some magical synchronicity. I left on a high.

And headed across the peat bogs past Glenveagh westwards. Resonant highway views across expanses of peaty goodness and charismatic mountains. Reached the west coast at Dungloe where I had a pitstop for lunch and indulged in some gift shop browsing, picking up some 1916 centenary souvenirs.

Drove down the coast to Portnoo/Naran, a huge beach overlooking an island which I heard joins the shore at low tide. Watched the strait get narrower and narrower between two sets of breaking waves.

Back to Ramelton with the setting sun behind me tinging the mountains red. Dinner in Letterkenny followed by a nightcap at the Bridge Bar, Ramelton (where unfortunately I’d missed the owner, Brid, who I haven’t seen in a good while now). Epic day.

Donegal: Day 4 – St Patrick’s Day

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St Patrick’s Day in the gaeltacht

Morning at the secluded far end of Rathmullan beach writing the first chapter to the lapping of wavelets. More sunshine across Lough Swilly.

Headed up to the Old Store in Port Salon for lunch with a fine view across the waters of what was once voted 4th best beach in the world.

Then in search of a secret beach (Drumnacraig) whose entire expansive length was empty. I did have to put up with being chased by cows to get there but no pain no gain. Spent the afternoon there until the shadows of the dunes reached me.

Into Letterkenny for an exhibition and movie with Anita & Don at the arts centre. A retrospective of the photography of New York ad man Richard Noble who I had a chat with. Then ‘Tangerines’, a pretty good Estonian film about war/conflict over land. One woman had come in the expectation of seeing ‘Tangerine’ (singular), a film about strippers.

Back with A&D for a nightcap at the Bridge Bar – emerging pattern?

Quel Coincidence!

 

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I’ve been noticing coincidences a lot recently, and noting some of them down. Mainly of the type where you hear a word for the first time in decades and it comes up again the same day.

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But today I had a cracker. I went to Church Hill near Letterkenny to visit Glebe House and Gallery. As luck (or the tourist season) would have it was closed so I contented myself with hanging out in the gardens by the lake, which I had entirely to myself in strong spring sunshine. I laid on the damp lawn and took out my two books. The first one I opened was ‘Human Chain’ by Seamus Heaney, a book of poetry my Other Half gave me for Christmas 2010. I’ve only ever read a couple of the poems so I brought in with me for this Derry-Donegal trip. I read a bit of it last night so it was parked up randomly in the middle wherever I happened to get to.

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As I opened it and started reading today stretched out on the grass like a dying naturalist I wrote a note at the top of the page in pencil as a souvenir of where I was:

16.3.16 Church Hill – Derek Hill’s

Derek Hill was the artist who used to live in Glebe House and bequeathed it.

The poem I had got to last night was entitled ‘The Baler’, about a mechanical hay baler. When I got to line 19 who, of all the people in the world, is mentioned?

Derek Hill. I’m not sure if it’s the same one but it probably is.

But what I also remembered

Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch
The sun going down

What are the chances?

I finish the night before at that particular poem
I decide to go to Glebe House this particular day
I write Derek’s name
The name is printed on the very page

Doesn’t that mean there must be a God? 😉

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