Friday, 28 May 2010

Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you

The beauty of having your own blog is that one can be both egocentric as well as eccentric as this post will demonstrate. It might be awhile before I can make offerings at the temple of the gods of IT and offer up fervent prayers for the resurrection of my old laptop. I know I ought to have paid heed to the creed of the IT professional; thou shalt make regular back-up copies. Alas I strayed from the path of righteousness. But at least I listened to the wise counsel of one high priest and allowed him to make copies of my data the last time one of laptops quit this mortal coil. Going through the recovered files, I came across this strange little film I made a few years ago. I had clearly meant to edit it down and send it off to someone else. I cannot recall if I ever did.

Crime and Punishment

When I was in Primary school a group of schoolgirls, myself included, committed the heinous crime of venturing out on to the playing field during morning break. Apparently we had been told not to and so were severely punished for our transgressions. The punishment took the form of having to recite a poem from memory. Thanks to the internet I now know both the author and name of that poem, which still echoes in my mind today. It is called The Eagle and is by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, coincidentally the author of one of my favourite poems: The Lady of Shalott I feel a rare affinity with that eagle. Like him, I know what it is to be standing on the edge of the abyss. However, unlike my feathered friend, the thunderbolt descent of this modern day Icarus would merely cause the sea to momentarily wrinkle still more as as I vanished beneath its waves.

The Eagle
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Butterfly all a flutter

On Friday night the Eagle came around for supper. She told me after she had arrived that one of her colleagues was all for inviting herself around to join us. But as the Eagle had not been able to warn me in advance she decided it might not be wise to turn up on my doorstep with an unannounced guest. Mind you, the Eagle turned up with such a magnificent bouquet of flowers, (including roses, tiger lilies, trumpet lilies) I could scarcely have been less than gracious to any friend that might have accompanied her. As it was the food would readily have stretched to three without me employing the kind of subterfuge I was obliged to resort to when I once realised I had made insufficient wild rice for a supper party. I placed a tiny amount of rice in a bowl, covered it with my hand and pretended to eat from it hoping people would think there was more underneath. On Friday I served prawns in a mint vinaigrette on a bed of baby lettuce leaves (making use of herbs from the garden), Thai fish curry with mango and finally pineapple soaked in Malibu topped with whipped cream infused with vanilla from a vanilla pod. At the end of the evening the Eagle left behind a bottle of gin in my safe hands, knowing that when she comes a-calling again it will probably all still be there. That is unless the Partridge pops around as the latter is rather partial to a tipple of Mother’s Ruin herself.

The next day, after a short illness, my laptop gave up the ghost and died on me. I am hoping to get someone in to try and resuscitate it or, at the very least, retrieve my data. Playing around with it I finally for the blue screen of doom and a message that I had but to press a button and my hard disk would be recovered. That was not an enticing prospect as it also indicated that ALL user data would be lost should I proceed. I have faith in the ability of my data to be retrieved. In one role, I had to call in external IT security experts to my then workplace over night. They were able to access all the hard disks without leaving any trace of their presence to the extent of taking digital photographs of the workstations in advance so they could leave it exactly as they found it. The most incriminating images they found were of topless women on one man's pc but as as he was known to be devoutely gay, it was decided there was little point in taking the matter further. Likewise, security experts seem to be able to find evidence from hard drives for purposes of obtaining criminal evidence when they have to, so I doubt if I have wiped clean my data even if I wanted to.

I have been using the pc at my health club on an ad-hoc basis. To my consternation I cannot access my own blog from there as any website constitutes a banned site! Unless the IT guy can raise my laptop from the dead I will be forced to buy a new one. I can’t really afford to at the moment but then I need a laptop for so many things. Going cold turkey is not easy and getting a quick fix at an internet café cannot be compared to having my drug of choice on hand 24/7.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

You say goodbye and I say hello.

Yesterday, with well warranted trepidation I went along to sit my Finnish exam at the university. Only one other student turned up which immediately helped reduce the potential failure rate from 100% to 50%. I was hopeless on the aural but I made a good stab at the other parts of the paper. In retrospect, I am especially glad that I went because Eeva, our teacher, announced that she was retiring. The University’s modern languages faculty is undergoing radical change and Eeva decided to accept voluntary redundancy whilst she could. We shall all really miss her, both in terms of her superb pedagogical abilities and her delightful personality. She has boundless patience and always uses an eclectic and intriguing mix of material in her classes to stimulate the interest of her students.

I also bid a fond farewell to the Couple today. Once the removal men had collected their furniture we went along to the local pub for lunch and to await the all-important telephone call confirming that the sequence of sales had all been successfully completed. Cristo was invited along too but said he had to go into town. The Couple declared that Cristo’s real reason for not wishing to darken the doors of that particular hostelry again was due to a former dangerous liaison with one of the bar-maids. Despite being heavily pregnant and in the process of moving, Mrs Couple went off after lunch to give a dance class nearby.

As I was fetching water from the standpipe for the garden, the new owner arrived. I smiled but waited a while before going downstairs and introducing myself.  The new owner asked me if I would mind going into the cupboard under the external stairs and reading her meters for her as it is quite awkward to clamber in to. I was happy to oblige. Back in the house, as they did not even have so much as kettle with them as yet, I offered to bring down some freshly brewed coffee and peppermint tea. Like me the new owner is a keen gardener but an elbow injury means she cannot do heavy work. Again like me she was appalled at the sheer ugliness of the two bunkers installed by the OF and wants to replace them. She also commented on how pretty the mature flowering cherry tree looks. The OF is prone to grumble that its canopy sheds leaves on his patio below. If he thought he could get away with it, I am sure he would surreptitiously chop it down. I have never forgiven him for wantonly chopping down an ancient walnut tree in the garden a few years back. Had I been a freeholder at the time I would never have countenanced the felling of that tree. Sadly the OF appears to have no sense of aesthetics as the wilful destruction of the walnut tree and the building of the dreary bunkers in the garden starkly demonstrate. I once had to counsel him against removing the intact and extant glass from a pair of 1861 oak internal doors and replacing it with modern glass. Now I appear to have gained a staunch ally in the new arrival, who seems as enthusiastic as I am about wanting  to restore the garden to something of its original 19th century former glory.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Good-bye-ee, good-bye-ee, wipe the tears, baby dear, from your eye-ee.

The Couple have finally sold their flat and will be moving out on Wednesday. It has certainly been a tumultuous few months for them. Their initial sale fell through at the last moment and they were in danger of losing the house they had set their heart on altogether. It was even more important than ever for them to sell up now that Mrs Couple is (very) big with child. I said farewell to their cat on Friday as he will be staying with the in-laws for the duration of the move. He has proved to be worth his weight in catnip after he single-handedly resolved our rodent problem, which coincided with the commencement of the construction work next door. It seemed as if the mouse population sought more salubrious accommodation in our house as the builders moved in to their former abode.

Tonight we went to a local Italian restaurant to mark the Couple’s departure and celebrate their time at the house. I can’t recall such a turn-out for a previous resident but then no-one else has matched their popularity. A predecessor of theirs was a geologist. Like the Couple, she too had a cat. However her cat was allowed outside through a cat-flap she had installed on her upper ground floor window. Her work meant she often had to fly abroad at short notice, which would lead to a sudden knock on my door and an entreaty to look after her cat until she got back. On the whole I enjoyed taking care of her moggy except on that one occasion when the Geologist had had the decorators in and subsequently her flat was left in something of a mess. Thus, carrying the cat I repaired for my own more modest apartment upstairs rather than spend the evening amidst the stately chaos below. The cat began to explore its new temporary quarters before vanishing behind the closed curtains. It was then I remembered that I had left the windows wide open and we were four storeys up! Luckily the cat had not tried to test how many lives he had left by jumping out. I laid down some newspaper in the hall and placed a potted plant on it, hoping that the cat would use it should it want to answer a call of nature. The next morning I discovered it had decided to avail itself of one of my shoes instead.  Although I appear to have a stuffed cat in my flat, I did not call upon a taxidermist to wreak a terrible vengeance on the despoiler of my footwear. My stuffed cat, made of rabbit fur, has been crafted to resemble the real-life tabby cat, Mrs Chippy, who accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17. Like Tiger, the tabby cat of my childhood,Reigning cats and dogs the original Mrs Chippy’s life was brought to a premature end at the hands of her owners. When the expedition’s ship became trapped in ice, Shackleton decided he was not prepared to risk squandering precious rations on feeding the sled dogs and ship’s cat and had the animals summarily shot. So realistic is my Mrs Chippy that I once took her into an office and surreptitiously placed her under the table. I then pretended to be amazed to discover that a cat had somehow sneaked into the building through an open window and was asleep under my desk. It took a while for my colleagues to realise the cat in question was a fake.  I made a great show of gingerly picked up the feline to the consternation of my deputy who, unbeknownst to me, had a phobia about cats.

The Geologist always brought me back some trinket from her travels but I would have willing foregone the souvenirs in return for a neighbourly call that didn’t begin and end with a request for my on-call cat-sitting services. The first I knew of her imminent return to her native Canada was when I saw a For Sale board erected outside the house. I naively assumed that she would invite me around for a farewell drink. Instead she rang me on the very morning she was moving out and said I could help myself to any potted plants left behind. Along with all her worldly goods, she had managed to persuade her company to arrange for her English boyfriend to get a work permit so that he could accompany her home. To her credit she took her cat back with her too. On Friday Mr Couple said they were leaving all their furniture behind and that I could help myself to whatever I wanted.
“You’ve taken the only thing I would want, “I replied, pointing longingly at their cat but of course to no avail.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

I’m Late, I’m Late for a very important date.

If you are going to be late, there is something to be said for being extremely late rather than a tad late. Anticipate being received with pursed lips and sighs of minor irritation in the latter situation. Arrive extremely late and expect to be greeted with expressions of unmitigated relief that you have turned up in one piece, which proved to be the case when I arranged to meet Mandip at the Tate Modern on Bank Holiday Monday. I was sending her  a blow-by-blow account of my own royal progress to the vast complex, a former electricity power station. When she failed to answer her mobile I assumed she must still be on the underground and hence could not use her phone. After an hour had elapsed beyond the original time we had agreed to meet up and I had still not received any message, I rang her landline, wondering if some domestic disaster had befallen her and she had not actually left her house. I had had a similar experience with the Catwoman.

In the days before I became friends with the Eagle, l had invited our mutual friend, the Catwoman, over for supper. She rang me from work to say she would be leaving shortly but would return home first to change. I calculated how long this would take her, given the vagaries of public transport and the fact she did not have a mobile phone to let me know of any delays. I had anticipated that she would arrive shortly after 6 o’clock. 7 o’clock came and went and she still she failed to appear on my doorstep. I tried to ring her landline but there was no reply. She has a tendency to never answer her telephone unless she thinks it is her mother calling, whereupon she immediately launches into her native tongue. At 9 o’clock I ate the supper I had prepared and went to bed thinking there was little I could do, other than wait until the next day, a Friday, and see if I received a call from her from her workplace. Receiving none, I rang her office number with some trepidation. I had decided that when the person on the other end explained that Catwoman had not been in the office that day, I would describe how she had been en-route to see me the night before and had failed to arrive. I would suggest that Personnel sent someone around to her house to check up on her. To my astonishment Catwoman answered the telephone herself. It seemed when she had got home she had felt too tired to venture out again. As her landline was broken she could not ring to let me know. Moreover, she claimed she did not have my number at her house.
“Then why didn’t you ring me the moment you got into the office?” I fumed.
She had not rung me from the office because she thought I might be angry with her! Why she thought keeping me in suspense as to what had happened to her for potentially days on end would make me more amenable to her tardiness I don’t know. When I next saw her I gave her a handset to replace her own broken one.

Catwoman is a genuine eccentric and I tolerate behaviour in her I would not allow in others. It was through Catwoman that I became friends with the Eagle. We knew one another by sight, having once worked for the same organisation and we also had certain other friends in common. In addition, we were members of the same health club and saw each other there from time to time. Our initial impressions of one another were far from favourable. I thought she was deliberately cutting me by failing to acknowledge my presence in the gym with even a friendly nod of the head and she deemed me  a somewhat forbidding aloof presence. Finally the ice was broken and we did begin to chat to one another in the gym, our common ground being the Catwoman. One day I bumped into the Eagle at the local supermarket as she perused the magazines.
“I am having Catwoman over tomorrow for super, “  I explained. “I would have invited you too but I was not sure if you would be interested.”

I am very careful as to who I invite around to my flat. It is my sanctuary as well as a reflection of my personality. Consequently I would be crushed if a guest were to be rude about it. One former friend determined that it was far too small for her liking and declared  that she could never live in such a tiny flat. I bit my tongue and refrained from reminding her that my flat, albeit small but perfectly formed, was funded solely through my earnings. By contrast, her two-bedroom pre-War Council house and garden were wholly paid for by taxpayers as she had not chosen not to work for a number of years. What was even more grating was that she complained that her Council house was becoming  too small for her needs and that she was going to insist the Council found her a larger one.   

On a separate occasion I found myself obliged to check up on the whereabouts of another friend. Her brother answered the phone. He explained that his sister had already gone out for the night.It seemed she had forgotten her prior commitment to dine with me. I was about to dish up. I always used to carry a torch for her brother and realised I had a superb opportunity to invite him around in her stead. However, I thought better of it and gave him a message to pass on to his wayward sibling, saying that our meal could be postponed until the following  day.

Convinced something untoward had happened to Mandip I left a forlorn message on her landline saying I would wait a further half an hour, privately thinking something awful must have happened that she could not even get to a phone. At that point my mobile rang and an apologetic Mandip announced that she was making her way over to the Turbine Hall. As I said at the beginning of this post, I was so relieved to see her I could not be cross with her.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Red and yellow and blue and green

Nailing my own political colour spectrum to the mast, I am more than satisfied with this week’s election results. For the first time ever we have a member of the Green Party elected to Westminster, a sign of the increasing importance of environmental issues amongst voters. Even better, not only did the right-wing extremist party, the BNP, fail to win a single Parliamentary seat at Westminster, despite fielding a record number of candidates, they also lost the 12 Council seats they had held at Barking and Dagenham. This was after they had received unprecedented access to the media, including taking part on the BBC’s popular current affairs programme, Question Time. Until Thursday’s election, I was resigned to the possibility that the BNP would receive a significant surge in the numbers voting for them. History teaches us that when times are hard scapegoats must be found. It is so much easier to target scapegoats if their very skin colour sets them apart. Certain media forums seemed to be dominated by their supporters. Yet far from people flocking to their cause, the BNP’s heightened exposure in the British media proved the maxim: give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.

I was also pleased at the results for the three main political parties. I can’t say I was keen on any of them winning overall power. The Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s and their successors, the Labour Party, became more arrogant and out of kilter with public opinion the longer they held office. They have become used to dividing the main offices of state between them as if of divine right. No wonder their respective media supporters are in a tizzy now that we have a hung Parliament. They are predicting all manner of dire calamities for straying from the true path of the Two Party system.

The current Tory leadership is dominated by a small clique of men who appear to have gone to the same public school (Eton) or Oxbridge. It amused me when an acquaintance of mine came out of a meeting, extolling the virtues of the Eton schoolboys he had spoken to there. I was not as impressed as he was given that historically, with few exceptions, the criteria for gaining access to such a privileged education has been limited to those with considerable family wealth, beyond the means of the vast majority of the populace, and being classified as male on an original birth certificate. Ironically, Eton was established in 1441 as a charity school to provide a free education exclusively for boys from poor families. Over the centuries that worthy principle has been quietly forgotten. Yet despite their great personal wealth, it seems certain Conservative MPs were not above expecting the general public to pay for the cleaning out of their moats, the installation of floating duck islands, paying someone to change light bulbs on their chandeliers and repairing their tennis courts. All the latter were genuine expenses brazenly submitted by Tory MPs. It is hardly surprising therefore that David Cameron failed to win a resounding mandate from the British public, when he is surrounded by party members so indifferent to the genuine financial hardships facing ordinary tax payers, they have the gall to claim for such outright luxuries.

Financial sleaze was not limited to the Tory party of course. The equally unedifying spectacle of Labour MPs making at best unethical and at worse fraudulent expense claims has also been exposed to view. What was astounding was the self-serving clap-trap some MPs gave in mitigation when they were found out. Harry Cohen, a member of the left wing Socialist Campaign group, claimed that he, along with other MPs, had been prompted to maximise his expense claims by no less a person than that redoubtable Marxist firebrand Margaret Hilda Thatcher. It was suggested that Margaret was reluctant to publicly give her backbench MPs pay-rises at a time when she was insisting on financial constraint from public sector workers. As their expenses were not thought to be subject to public scrutiny, it was deemed a crafty means of giving MPs a de facto pay rise. Regardless, it almost beggars belief that a dyed-in-the-wool socialist would have accepted any advice from Margaret Thatcher at the height of her clashes with the Trade Unions and public sector workers.

Nor have the Lib Dems emerged unscathed from the scandal. Given the circumstances I not surprised that the electorate have failed to overwhelmingly endorse any one party. It was all so very different thirteen years ago. Then I found myself staying up until the early hours, mesmerised by the unbelievable sight of so many hitherto safe Conservative seats falling to Labour one after the other. After the Thatcher years, it seemed nigh on impossible that there could even be a Labour win, let alone by such a huge majority. After snatching a few hours sleep I went to join friends for a champagne breakfast in Smithfield’s. We had not arranged our get-together to coincide with the elections but to mark the departure of a colleague for a new job. At the time, pubs around Smithfield’s meat market were allowed to start serving alcohol from 6 o’clock in the morning. Traditionally their clientele would have been stallholders and delivery men, hence the special dispensation. It seemed rather decadent to indulge in a traditional full English breakfast of toast, fried eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon and pork sausages all rounded off with a glass or two of champagne before strolilng nonchalantly into work.

Thirteen years later my own view of Tony Blair is what a huge disappointment he has proved to be as the Iraq Inquiry has aptly demonstrated. Perhaps we have all become a touch more cynical and less likely to be  as readily duped by our politicians as we might have been in the past. In which case the 1997 political anthem “Things can only get better” might still have resonance. I sincerely hope so. Although from my experience, the light at the end of the tunnel is usually from an on-coming express train.

Elephants on parade.

After having spent last Monday with Mandip at Tate Modern, more of which anon, we parted company at the Millennium Bridge.  As it had turned into a fine albeit blustery afternoon, I decided to take a stroll along the Thames path. However due to   work being carried out on one of the bridges crossing the Thames, I had to take something of a detour along unfamiliar streets and stumbled came across some almshouses, whose existence I had hitherto been unaware of. 

In his will of 1731 Charles Hopton, a wealthy fish-merchant, left money so that almshouses could be erected to provide homes for poor single men in his parish. Unlike Sir Robert Geffrye’s grander almshouses across the river  (A farewel to almshouses)Charles Hopton’s more modest almshouses still provide social housing today. From what I could ascertain from my restricted view from outside the gated entrance, the almshouses follow a similar pattern to those at Shoreditch, in that they form a range around a central building block, presumably the site of the original chapel.

Echoing the Biblical story of the Widow’s Mite, when the Widow Simon died in 1798 she left, amongst other bequests, a cottage for “four poor women.”( A farewell to almshouses )As a poor spinster of this parish I might one day be eligible to walk across the road and take up residence in Elizabeth Simon’s Georgian almshouse. It used to be the custom that when the well-to-do died, a diamond shaped board, emblazoned with the deceased person's coat of arms and known as a hatchment, would be hung for a time from their place of residence. Some of these hatchments have found their way into the local parish church. Thus, there is one on display for Elizabeth Simon as well as for Sir William Hamilton and Horatio Nelson; the latter two gentlemen being the husband and lover of Emma Hamilton respectively. There is also a hatchment for King Charles I. As we share the same initials, I rather fancy the idea of recycling his regal hatchment for my own use should the occasion arise. The parish church of St Mary the Virgin also contains a fine memorial to the Tudor courtier Sir Gregory Lovell, depicting him with his two wives and nine children from these marriages. For quite some time I was under the delightful misapprehension that Sir Gregory had been a personal hairdresser to Queen Elizabeth I. It did seem rather odd that Queen Elizabeth should have shown such marked favour towards Sir Gregory. She is said to have visited his former house along my road on at least three occasions in the 16th century, whilst en-route to her palace at Nonsuch. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth was known to have been more than a little vain and even a Queen of England might think it prudent to keep on friendly terms with the man tending to her precious locks. Except that Sir Gregory was never her hairdresser. I had confused coiffeur, from the French for hairdresser, with cofferer, the latter referring to a principal officer at Court and in Sir Gregory’s case, a treasurer. 

One of King Charles II’s embroiders has a tomb in the graveyard outside the church of St Mary the Virgin. History does not reveal whether the Merry Monarch would pop by the neighbourhood whenever he needed an item of clothing darned. If he had done so and I had been in possession of a time-machine I would have exchanged a few choice words with him regarding his lamentable decision to hand over Henry VIII’s magnificent Nonsuch Palace to his erstwhile mistress, Barbara Palmer. The philistine had it pulled down and the material sold off for scrap to pay off her gambling debts. But then the Stuarts always were more than a little jealous of their Tudor counterparts, knowing they could never hope to live up to their glorious reputation.

Whilst I was photographing Charles Hopton’s almshouses, Mandip sent me a  text-message stating she had just seen "the elephants". I did not have a clue as to what she was talking about and wondered if she had been secretly imbibing gin from a concealed hipflask all day. It was only when I got to the Southbank and saw a small herd of exotically painted elephants that I realised she must have seen similar sights on her way home. There are 260 such elephants dotted around London to raise money for the Elephant Family charity. At the end of the summer they will be auctioned off in the hope of raising two million pounds for the elephant charity. If I had the space and equally importantly the money, I would be solely tempted to bid for one. That would be one elephant in the room that everyone would be talking about.     

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Lady of Shalott

On Bank Holiday Monday Mandip and I plan to catch the retrospective exhibition of the work of the American-Armenian artist, Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern. I first mentioned this exhibition way back in February and had expressed my intention of going along to see it.Welcome to my world Tomorrow represents my last chance to do as it is the final day of the exhibition. In honour of my proposed trip to Tate Modern, I think it opportune to mention one of my favourite pictures on display at their sister gallery: Tate Britain. It is an illustration by the pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse of Alfred Tennyson’s celebrated poem: The Lady of Shalott and shows the tragic heroine floating away to her doom.I have also included other illustrations he produced based on the poem but not displayed at the Tate.

I was taught the poem at school and can still recite long passages from it by heart. Like the eponymous heroine, I often sit alone in my tower viewing images of the world through the “web” set before me. Like the Lady, I have no “loyal knight and true” and sometimes “grow half-sick of shadows;” and how I sympathise with the Lady’s yearning to elicit more than  just “a little space” of interest from the object of her affection.

The Lady of Shalott
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers " 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower'd Camelot;
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed:
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.

Part III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance--
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Thro' the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.

An Alternative History of Finland: Act Four

I always regretted the fact that my mother never taught me Finnish when I was a child. Admittedly I did not live with her for the first part of my childhood but even when I did she showed no inclination to do so, despite my attempts to persuade her to the contrary. I did eventually find a Finnish study book, presumably purchased from Foyle’s bookshop on Tottenham Court Road, back in the days when they imposed a ridiculously arcane policy of insisting customers queued to get an invoice for their books, then made their way elsewhere to queue to pay for them before having to join yet another queue to get back the books they had already paid for. I know the British are renowned for their habit of queuing patiently but this system was patently absurd and was eventually abandoned.

I made some progress using the self-study book but Finnish, at least in terms of its grammar, is to my mind an exceedingly complex language, which I am only now really getting to grips with, thanks to patient and talented teachers. But however hard I try I know I will never be sufficiently fluent in Finnish or able to communicate in it at the level I would like. Fortunately, I don’t need to be fluent in Finnish to discover more about my ancestral homeland. I had long known about Elizabeth Tudor’s Finnish suitor, which formed the first act of my Alternative History. I originally heard mention of it in Elizabeth R, the legendary television series in which Glenda Jackson played the eponymous 16th century monarch. It was said in passing to demonstrate the immense competition amongst European royalty to secure a political alliance with England through a match with the Virgin Queen. This hitherto unknown fact piqued my interest because it deftly and unexpectedly combined my love of British domestic history with a growing interest in my own Scandinavian heritage.

I knew from girlhood that Finland had once been a Duchy of Russia. My own family were trapped in St Petersburg at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, where they had owned a restaurant. Romantic if somewhat embroidered stories had passed down to me about their subsequent flight and I still have a handful of the silver Tsarist coins they took with them. What I had not appreciated until recently was the that in 1713-14, only three years before the start of my playlet, Russia had already wrested a large part of Finland away from Sweden through military conquest. Thus I suddenly understood why Afrosinia is sometimes referred to as being a Finnish serf. The earliest references I can find of her date to around the time of the Russian annexation of part of Finland. Did she harbour a resentment at what had happened to her native country? Perhaps it was sheer pragmatism that led Afrosinia to save her own neck and betray her erstwhile lover upon their return to Russia. She yielded up compromising secrets about him when interrogated by Peter. Given the particularly brutal punishments and executions Tsar Peter was notorious for handing out to all those who thwarted him, she can scarcely be blamed. As part of his series on “The makers of history” Jacob Abbott wrote n 1902 a short essay on the life of the Tsar called “Peter the Great.” In his final analysis of the relationship between Alexis and Afrosinia he wrote:

“When Alexis was first arrested, it was supposed that she, having been the slave and companion of Alexis, was a party with him in his treasonable designs; but in the course of the examinations it appeared very fully that whatever of connection with the affair, or participation in it, she may have had, was involuntary and innocent, and the testimony which she gave was of great service in unravelling the mystery of the whole transaction. In the end, the Tsar expressed his satisfaction with her conduct in strong terms. He gave her a full pardon for the involuntary aid which she had rendered Alexis in carrying out his plans. He ordered every thing which had been taken away from her to be restored, made her presents of handsome jewellery, and said that if she would like to be married he would give her a handsome portion out of the royal treasury. But she promptly declined this proposal. "I have been compelled," she said, "to yield to one man's will by force; henceforth no other shall ever come near my side."
A trip to a local history museum in Finland as a girl acquainted me with the prosaic early role of Nokia as a manufacturer of toilet paper and subsequently the inspiration for the third act of my Alternative History. From such humble beginnings a global brand was launched.  

I came across the subject matter for my fourth and final Act more by chance than anything else. I was fascinated to discover that so many Finns had sought to forge a new live for themselves in the New World. Finns started to emigrate from Finland to America as early as the 17th century. In 1641, only two decades after the Mayflower landed in America, 100 Finns arrived in Delaware from Scandinavia. Later, in the 19th century, when Alaska was under Russian control, Finns represented the largest single contingent of Europeans present and at one point even had a Finnish Governor, Arvid Etholen. My Alternative History focuses on the true stories of some of the quarter of a million Finns, who set sail for new lives in America and Canada from the 1890s to 1916. My story is set at Southampton Docks in 1912 as a customs officer patiently listens to the passengers hoping to embark, as they explain in turn why they are making the journey.

The first man to step forward is the Reverend William Lahtinen, a Protestant vicar travelling back to America with his Minneapolis born wife, Anna, having just paid a visit to her friends and family in Finland. Coincidentally, William was once vicar of the parish church in Viitasaari, where the tombstones of my ancestors can be found in the graveyard there. My mother used to own a pewter charger with an etching of William’s former church engraved upon it.

One of the most renowned former sons of Viitasaari was the 18th century scholar Henrik Gabriel Porthan. He achieved fame in later life as “the father of Finnish history” thanks to his championing of Finnish history, poetry and mythology.

The next set of passengers is a mother, Maria Panula and her sons: Ernesti Arvid Panula, 16, Jaakko Arnold Panula, 14, Urho Abraham Panula 2 and baby Eino Viljami Panula. The family were travelling abroad to rejoin her husband Juha in Pittsburg, where he had found work.

Kristiina Sofia Laitinen a 37 year old housekeeper is next in line to be interviewed. It is her first trip to America where she hopes to better herself. When asked if she is married she proudly replies that she is single.

Mrs Helena Wilhelmina Rosblom is next in the queue along with her son Viktor and her 2 year old daughter Salli. Unfortunately her other son, Eino, has chosen to stay behind in Finland as he has had a premonition that the voyage will end in tragedy with the sinking of the ship. At this points the customs officer bursts into laughter at the absurdity of the idea. How can the ship possibly sink when it is the Titanic?

All the details regarding the personal histories of the individuals at Southampton, other than the Customs officer are based on fact. My playlet ends with the information that none of the afore-mentioned passengers  survived the doomed voyage across the Atlantic.

When I wrote my original playlet DNA had seemed to suggest that the remains of baby Eino Panula were those found in the tomb, erected by public subscription to mark the grave of a hitherto unknown child victim of the disaster. More recent analysis has indicated that the remains are those of a 19 month old English child called Sidney Leslie Goodwin.  I always had a fearful affinity with the Titanic as a child myself and used to imagine that somehow I had been one of those on board when it sank. When I used to relate the story of the tomb of the unknown child in the past, I would announce the DNA findings linking the remains to a Finnish native and then add with a flourish that we were related.
Statistically speaking we probably were, given the relatively small size of the Finnish population, both then and now. When someone from an Indian call centre rang me up a few years back, at the end of the conversation they asked if I was related to the Finnish Formula One racing driver: Kimi Räikkönen. Other than sharing a vaguely similar sounding surname the answer was probably no. However, it would not exactly be a lie to agree that he was my cousin. I refrained from adding that if he were a cousin he was a very distant cousin.
“Please tell Mr Räikkönen that we are all great fans of his and hope he wins the championship.”
I promised that the very next time I saw Kimi I would pass on their messages of support. Oddly enough Kimi and I never did meet up but it didn't stop him from winning the world championship that year.

Southamptonin Tullissa vuonna 1912  

Tullivirkamies Karl Riikonen: Passi, kiitos.Mikä sinun nimesi on?
William: Minä olen William Lahtinen.
Tullivirkamies: Kenen kanssa olet?
Wiliam: Minä olen vaimoni Annan kanssa.  
Tullivirkamies: Mitä teet työksesi?
William: Minä olen kirkkoherra.
Tullivirkamies: Mistä sinä olet kotoisin?
William: Minä olen Viitasaariasta kotoisin. Minun vaimo syntyi Minneapolissa.  Mutta, hänen perheensä on suomalainen. Me olimme Suomessa ainoastaan käymässä vierainassa hänen perheensä luona.

Tullivirkamies: Hyvää päivää.
Maria: Hei. Minä olen Maria Panula. Saanko esitellä minun pojat: Ernesti Arvid Panula, 16, Jaakko Arnold Panula, 14, Urho Abraham Panula 2, ja minun vauvani: Eino Viljami Panula. Meillä on yhteinen passi. Menemme Pennyslvaniaan asumaan koska minun aviomies, Juha Panula, on työssä terästehtäässä

Kristiina: Saisinko toisen tullilomakkeen?
Tullivirkamies: Olkaa hyvä.
Kristiina: Paljon kiitoksia. Minä olen Kristiina Sofia Laitinen. Tässä on passini.  Minä olen 37. Olen palvelijatar.
Tullivirkamies: Oletko koskaan käynyt Amerikassa?
Kristiina: Tämä on ensimmäinen vierailuni.
Tullivirkamies: Oletko naimisissa?
Kristiina: En. Minä olen naimaton. 

Rouva Rosblom: Minä olen Helena Wilhelmina Rosblom.  Tämä on Viktor. Minun toinen poika, Eino, vielä on Raumalla. Minä jätin pojan tuomatta mukana. Hän sanoi: te kuolette hukkumalla.
Tullivirkamies laulaa: Teidän laiva ei voi keikahtaa kumoon. Se on Titanic! Hyvää matkaa!
Nämä matkustajat hukkuivat.