The Seasons…

….they are a’changing. Mornings have a distinct autumn chill about them and the mists referred to by Keats in his poem on the subject have begun to lurk across the valley in front of us and off to the right, where the River Shannon meanders its way to Portumna, Loch Derg, Limerick and the Atlantic. Fruitfulness has also been a feature, as we have eaten quite well from the vegetables we managed to grow (with a little help from Mother Nature), which have been an enjoyable addition to our menu. Having said that, although we still have corn and potatoes to harvest, the veggie garden will soon have to be revitalized and prepared for winter crops and for the later sewing of spring crops. The two grapevines have also done well, as has the fig tree, which has suddenly produced fruit at this late stage in the year. We’ll see what happens and it’s all a learning curve as time marches on…

Swallow hatchlings in the eaves of the barn.

Our family of swallows returned this year and produced a brood in the barn. They have now flown off, back on their way down south to warmer climes. We have also been lucky with squadrons of Painted Lady butterflies [Áilleán in Irish] on our lavender bushes. They also migrate back to sub-Saharan climes – quite an achievement for something weighing less than one gram and, so I’ve read, with a brain the size of a pin head. Put like that, they could be said to do a lot better than some of their human counterparts…

It’s been a good year for butterfly visitors. The lavender hedges have been a big drawcard.

One of the bonuses to retirement is that you can go off and do something on the spur of the moment and at any time of the day. So, last Friday being a fine, warm day, we went off to visit the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare on western Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way (www.cliffsofmoher.ie). They’ve been there for the last 320,000,000 years (how do they work that out?), now form a UNESCO Global Geopark and have featured in many movies over the years, including Ryan’s Daughter. The sight is spectacular to breath-taking, as are the views, which include the Aran Islands, on the way to Galway Bay of song fame. There are very well constructed cliff-top paths and frequent warnings not to cross the wall to walk nearer the cliff itself. So why do people do just that? We saw a young tourist sitting with her legs over the edge of the cliff, whilst her companion took photos – fair enough the backdrop of part of the cliffs was spectacular, but still…

Surrounded by the enduring grandeur of Nature causes you to stop and think. People have been standing on those clifftops for millennia, staring out to sea or watching the sun as it floated majestically down to whatever they believed lay beyond the horizon. Thousands of years later we still marvel at the solemnity of the place and the power of Nature. We are like flowers on a bush – we grow, bloom and then fade, having played some part in the cycle of time and yet, save for cliff erosion, the stones are much the same as they were back in the day. Where do any of us fit into that eternal cycle of the flowers on the bush – and why?

One view of the Cliffs of Moher. They are on a vast scale and pictures don’t really do them justice…

This week sees the start of Portumna’s Shorelines Festival. We have tickets to see a new Irish film called “The Silver Branch”, as well as two concerts, one by a string quartet and the other by a folk trio. We will also be attending the launch of a new book in the Portumna Workhouse Museum about a very shady and cruel (even by 19th century standards) master of the Workhouse called Ogle. It’s been written by one of the driving forces behind our local Lorrha Historical Society, David Broderick, so it has a local flavour and should be an interesting read. When we visited the workhouse recently, every time we asked a question about Ogle and his equally unpleasant wife (who was in charge of the female inmates of the Workhouse), the extremely knowledgeable guide laughed and replied to the effect that we’d have to wait until David’s new book came out to find the answer!

 

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I can hardly believe…

 

…how long it’s been since I last had the time to put finger to keyboard – and what a lot has gone on during that time! I hasten to add all very much for the better.

As I write, I’m looking out at the raindrops trickling down the French doors that lead to the back garden, which is the size of an Olympic swimming pool and a dramatic upscaling from the postage stamp which served the same purpose in our previous existence. Our new garden takes hours to water, so the rain is a welcome visitor and more than welcome to the job. Quite unconnected from this observation, I suddenly recalled the cleansing nature of water, the so-called dipole nature of the stuff – something I had learnt eons ago in an Australian primary school. I have no idea why this thought should have suddenly surfaced! Perhaps it’s because, after far too many years on the treadmill masquerading as “life”, the peace and quiet of rural living allows the brain the space to recall such things.

Being a dedicated educator, despite the farce that has been allowed to develop in the UK education system, I had decided to work on beyond the official retirement age, before retirement and moving permanently to southern Ireland. Despite this, the day of my official retirement earlier this year was a welcome huge milestone in a life already marked by significant markers along the way. Those of you in a similar position will know how it feels to finally be rid of the micro-management, pointless policies, backstabbing and general incompetence which all too often is part of a hierarchical structure. This has all been replaced with the serenity of very pure, unpolluted air, bird calls and a silence that you can hear in the Irish countryside.

Panoramic view of the back quarter acre.

Panoramic view of the rear quarter acre. The barn needs a new roof, but the flowerbeds and raised vegetable beds (off to the left) have taken off – despite all the rocks in the soil! Most afternoons we have a herd of cows staring down at us from the top of the rise, safely behind the [electrified] fence.

Moving out of the city has given us the opportunity to become far more ecologically aware than before. We aim to become self-sufficient with vegetables and fruit and are also seriously thinking about beehives in our two orchards. A daunting target for a pair of rank amateurs, but so far we have been successful with our plantings in raised beds – lucky really, as we have never tried to grow vegetables before. Home grown really does taste very different from something that has been driven halfway across Europe to be delivered “fresh” to your supermarket! Mind you, we were incredibly inspired by an RTÉ TV1 programme called “Grow, Cook, Eat”, whose mantra is along the lines that anyone can grow anything with a little effort! We have the room – once we’d managed to clear the forest of brambles (the house and ground had been neglected for years) – and just got on with it. Meanwhile, almost 100 square miles of Mediterranean Spain is a gigantic hothouse of plastic sheeting churning out “cheap” vegetables for the European market produced largely with cheap migrant labour. The problem is that 100 square miles of plastic sheeting is going to be renewed and the old plastic abandoned to the waters of the Med. Will the European Parliament do anything to prevent this pollution? On the evidence of what has happened over past years, probably not. We now avoid as much plastic packaging as possible and think “too little, too late?” Probably, but we must all do something before we do ourselves out of our own planet.

History lesson: Walter de Burgo, the Earl of Ulster and a Norman landowner, invited the Dominicans to his estate in Lorrha, County Tipperary in 1269. Our nearest village also boasts the remains of two other churches, two high crosses and a moat.

I am finding out more and more about Irish history, which is very convoluted and almost exclusively violent, to put it mildly. Much of it, I have to say, makes me quite ashamed to be English! Hey-ho. We live a couple of kilometres from the historic monastic village of Lorrha (1500 years of documented history!), we have a mass grave from the Great Famine over the hill behind us (we are near the highest point in north County Tipperary) and the foundation ruins of the habitations of those who suffered at the time. We belong to the local historic society and plan an expedition to investigate. All very sobering, but also interesting. Our nearby town of Portumna has the local workhouse from the time of the Great Famine, now preserved as a museum. One of the early callers for political reform in the Kingdom of Ireland was Henry Grattan (1746-1820). I had an uncle called Grattan, who was Canadian and often said he thought he was related. Possible, I suppose, as thousands emigrated to Canada during and after the Great Famine of 1846-54. Now there’s a nice winter project on one of those ancestry sites!

That’s all for now…

 

Felice anno nuovo…

…might well have been the greeting to you all at this time of the year, but that would have been from the time when retirement plans were angled very much towards La bella Italia. Having bought a des res on about 0.6 of an Irish acre (about a quarter bigger than one of our English ones!) – complete with a barn and the solitude of the most beautiful Tipperary countryside (even in lousy weather) – the greeting should now be bliain nua sásta. Anyway, in Italian or Irish, I hope 2018 is a good one for us all.

Our Tipperary view from the front of the des res. The River Shannon is only some 3km away.

The thing that attracts us most to Ireland is the simple fact that people seem to move a lot slower that the frantic “rat-race” our modern British society has become. Who in modern, angst-ridden Britain has the time to give you the time of day or – and this is the scary one – even just to smile at you or even acknowledge that you exist? Who amongst you has not held a door open or – following the Road Code – pull in to allow another vehicle to pass and been “thanked” with nothing – not even the slightest nod of the often over-imperious head. The three-point turn has been dropped from the driving licence requirement; given the generally inconsiderate use of our badly-pitted and potholed roads, perhaps they have scrapped the Road Code, too. We would probably be the last to know…

The Irish do not seem to be scared of being involved in a conversation – none of that “I’m sorry, we haven’t been formally introduced” sort of attitude. On a recent trip and in a well-known supermarket, a tramp was buying his nightly bottle of the hard stuff and the people in the checkout queue were actually talking to him, not trying to shy away. Going into the local store, petrol station, post office or even hardware store – where you can still buy just about anything from just 3 screws or a single light bulb (EU approved, of course) to a complete bathroom suite – often provokes a lengthy discussion into the relevant parties’ health, the weather or the state of the flocks or crops (it’s a very rural locality). The latter could possibly prove a little daunting, given that the veterinary knowledge possessed between the two new ones from England extends to knowing that one end can have horns and the other doesn’t! Still, my point is that they – the Irish – still maintain a sense of the value of the individual within time, which makes for a refreshing return to a less frantic way of co-existing. We were also encouraged by the revelation made by our sole immediate neighbour, Michael by name, that we “weren’t to be having anything to do with the worry” while we wait to move to Tipperary permanently. Apparently our neighbour on the other side of the valleyette – “sure, ‘tis a true gentleman he is,” – has been known to accost unexpected strangers with a rifle sticking out of his driver’s door. By now, we are certain the Michael has spread the news of the new residents-to-be throughout the far-flung homesteads, so security, as graphically outlined to us, shouldn’t be an issue!

No, not the lake on the top quarter acre! These are the gardens at Johnstown Castle, near Wexford. There is an agricultural museum there, together with an excellent Famine Museum. Fingers of blame are not suggested or pointed in any way, but the exhibit does make you feel very uncomfortable, because of the then government’s lack of concern over what was a national (and, for that matter, Europe-wide) catastrophy!

Then there is the small matter of national pride, something once tangible on this Fair Isle, but now mocked as being non-PC or – even more hysterically – as political extremism. The Irish seem to know exactly where they have come from (including what is turning out to be a spectacular recovery from economic disaster just a few years ago) and, more importantly, where they would like to go. Putting “Proudly Made in Ireland” and the tricolour on local produce seems to be the done thing. Something similar in feeling to what Prince Philip did decades ago, when he promoted the “Buy British” campaign. How unfortunate (or perhaps significant?) it is, then, that nowadays in “directionless” Britain, it seems that the retail outlets with the highest “British is Best” type profiles are both German!

The first concert of our German tour in the fabulous concert hall in Bad Ems. The Kaiser and Wagner, among others, were frequent visitors.

In addition to now being a house owner again after a great many years, the other significant milestone for me in 2017 was to “retire” as music director of the East Grinstead Concert Band. After 8 years at the helm, during which time the Band’s playing developed to often equal that of a service band and the membership list from which we could draw our players soared to the high forties, I felt it was the right time to hand over the baton, particularly with retirement to Ireland on the agenda. We had completed an extremely successful tour of Germany in October, so, after the November Poppy Appeal concert, it seemed a good point at which to bow out on a high. I plan to return to the Band and try and get my clarinet playing up to strength again, which is something I have really missed. You can’t wave the stick out front and play the clarinet at the same time – not enough hands!

My final appearance as MD of the East Grinstead Concert Band during our Poppy Appeal Concert in November.

Writing continues apace, with the fourth “An Eccentric In Lucca” well on the way, the third “Rupert Winfield” nearing completion of the proofreading process and a new children’s book, “Daydreaming Dillon” almost half way through. It’s all go at the keyboard!

 

All singing and dancing…

…down 42nd Street up in London’s West End. Fantastic show and well worth the effort of going up to town to see it. In fact, by the end of the overture and opening number, I was feeling quite exhausted just watching all the tap dancing. Great stuff!!

The singing and dancing doesn’t stop there – well possibly just a tiny bit less energetic on the tap side, but the excitement was just the same. I received my pre-launch copy of FAMILY CONCERNS and the Book Guild have done a great job with the production side of things. Copies should be on the bookshelves or in the ether on April 28th.

It’s been a week for new releases. Many moons ago, when I had given up secondary school teaching to write, I switched to supply teaching at primary level. During one of my daily placements I met a fellow teacher, who also harboured an ambition to write. We got chatting in the staff room – as you do – and I left him my contact details. I was thrilled to receive an email from him telling me that he has finished his first book – great to be remembered and even greater to be sent a signed copy, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading! I’ve always admired the likes of Amy Johnson, but finding out a lot more about Amy the woman has extended this admiration considerably: a driven feminine go-getter in a man’s world.

unto the skies

Being Book Guild published authors is also a pleasant coincidence. Speaking of which, I have now been given an author profile on the Book Guild web site: https://www.bookguild.co.uk/stuart-fifield/

Just to emphasize the idea of our ever-shrinking world, I’ve also been contactd by a book readers’ group from sunny, down-south-Australia. They have been reading the Rupert Winfield series and – from reports – have thoroughly enjoyed them. Number 3 – THE CLOTH OF DESTINY – is already finished and should be out around this time next year.

In the meantime, you might be interested to have a look at a “meet the author” video we’ve posted on YouTube:

 

Other good news this week is that my cousin in South Africa has just re-married, after a long spell of widowhood. She looks very happy, so we wish her all the happiness possible.

Down side of the week (the yin and yang of the pendulum) is that we had to say good bye Boris, our blue Burmese. Still, you can’t win them all – onward and upward.

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The year marches on…

…and so does the indomitable Contessa and her often less-than-happy band of singers in the Chamber Opera Group of Lucca. “Family Concerns” will hit the bookshelves in the next couple of weeks…

COVER DESIGN with Hannah LBF webpic

This year’s London Book Fair seemed to be even more busy that in previous years, with strong representations for the far east and central Europe. Thanks to Hannah V. for her support and for holding the first copy of the new novel!

We have taken up Tai Chi and attend a class once a week. It has certainly helped with posture and balance and it also has an almost soporific effect in that it seems to slow things down to a more comfortable pace of existence. How many times do we hear people complaining that the modern rat-race of our society is far too frenetic and just plain wearying? Although conceived as a martial art, Tai Chi is a series of gentle body movements that has developed the defensive aspect of the art into an almost balletic series of movements. One of the flautists in our East Grinstead Concert Band spent some time on the Far East and recalled going to his office every morning past parks filled with people doing their Tai Chi “form”. I am inclined very strongly to agree that there is definitely something in it, otherwise the parks wouldn’t be full of people doing it!

We recently attended a performance of “AMADEUS” from the National Theatre in London, but via the streamed link to our local theatre in Tunbridge Wells. Well, despite misgivings about seeing it “second-hand”, the whole experience was terrific. Excellent performances all round, including an orchestra on the stage (who played from memory and kept popping up as and when required) and closeups of the cast that would have been impossible “live” in the auditorium. We’ll definitely do that again next time there is something on that appeals. Anything to save the over-priced and overcrowded schlep up to London!!

As I write I am listening to J.S. Bach.s “Christmas Oratorio” – yes, I know it’s long-past Christmas, but Johann Sebastian is “any time and always” music, which brings me to my final question for this post: what is it that makes someone a genius, the lack of which makes someone else simply mediocre? J.S. takes off with such energy and enthusiasm right from the first beat, whereas poor old Salieri (Mozart’s nemesis in Amadeus) – despite being the court composer to Joseph II or Austria – never actually gets going in my opinion. Both were talented, well-trained and musical and yet J.S. has that mysterious something that makes you want to listed again and again. I once had a CD of Saleri’s music and never really got past track 3! Poor chap….

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Time marches on…

…and so does the indomitable Contessa and her often less-than-happy band of singers in the Chamber Opera Group of Lucca. “Family Concerns” will hit the bookshelves in the next couple of weeks…

COVER DESIGN with Hannah LBF webpic

This year’s London Book Fair seemed to be even more busy that in previous years, with strong representations for the far east and central Europe. Thanks to Hannah V. for her support and for holding the first copy of the new novel!

We have taken up Tai Chi and attend a class once a week. It has certainly helped with posture and balance and it also has an almost soporific effect in that it seems to slow things down to a more comfortable pace of existence. How many times do we hear people complaining that the modern rat-race of our society is far too frenetic and just plain wearying? Although conceived as a martial art, Tai Chi is a series of gentle body movements that has developed the defensive aspect of the art into an almost balletic series of movements. One of the flautists in our East Grinstead Concert Band spent some time on the Far East and recalled going to his office every morning past parks filled with people doing their Tai Chi “form”. I am inclined very strongly to agree that there is definitely something in it, otherwise the parks wouldn’t be full of people doing it!

We recently attended a performance of “AMADEUS” from the National Theatre in London, but via the streamed link to our local theatre in Tunbridge Wells. Well, despite misgivings about seeing it “second-hand”, the whole experience was terrific. Excellent performances all round, including an orchestra on the stage (who played from memory and kept popping up as and when required) and closeups of the cast that would have been impossible “live” in the auditorium. We’ll definitely do that again next time there is something on that appeals. Anything to save the over-priced and overcrowded schlep up to London!!

As I write I am listening to J.S. Bach.s “Christmas Oratorio” – yes, I know it’s long-past Christmas, but Johann Sebastian is “any time and always” music, which brings me to my final question for this post: what is it that makes someone a genius, the lack of which makes someone else simply mediocre? J.S. takes off with such energy and enthusiasm right from the first beat, whereas poor old Salieri (Mozart’s nemesis in Amadeus) – despite being the court composer to Joseph II or Austria – never actually gets going in my opinion. Both were talented, well-trained and musical and yet J.S. has that mysterious something that makes you want to listed again and again. I once had a CD of Saleri’s music and never really got past track 3! Poor chap….

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Time Marches On…

…and we all have to do our best to keep up with it. Or do we? Surely, the truth of the matter must be that time is our master and, no matter what we do or don’t do, it will always march on regardless. The problem of our modern world must rather be one of our misconceptions that we perceive as having to keep up with something as intangible as time. As it is, on New Year’s Eve, the boffins controlling the world’s time will add one second to the global system to keep up with the earth’s rotation. Such a minuscule thing as a second becomes globally important!

In my opinion, all of this becomes even more to the point when you hear of someone retiring after very many years of loyal service and the milestone being regarded as “just the end of another day”. Perhaps those who used to be called “couch potatoes” were on to something. Is it so bad to sit down and do nothing for a stretch of time? Is it so wrong not to fill every passing second with activity of some sort (sorry Kipling)? Life would surely be richer for us all if we just side-stepped the escalator of time once in a [regular] while and took the time to just listen to the beat of nature or to the non-materialistic world about us. Thank goodness Christmas advertising is now behind us (endless pushing of what you really don’t need to be buying for that perfect, over-commercialized Christmas experience). But wait: January 1st could well herald the start of Easter advertising. Perish the thought. All of it rolled into an anthem for lost innocence and the disappearance of just about everything that actually meant anything. Do we really need electronic reminders to go home, eat lunch or even breathe?

We spent the week between Christmas and New Year in Belgium. Plucky little Belgium, where we always seem to be happy. The whole concept of time is thrust into sharp focus over there, by virtue of the simple fact that for so many hundreds of thousands, time suddenly and irreversibly stopped as they were blown off the escalator.

The Royal British Legion have launched a scheme whereby you buy a poppy lapel pin made from brass fuses and shell cases recovered from the Somme battlefields; the central dot of red enamel also contains grains of soil from the Somme. With your pin, you are invited to remember a soldier killed during the Somme. We went and found ours on the Thiepval Memorial; both of them have no known grave. I found the experience very emotional and penned these thoughts as a result.

Do You Hear?

Do you hear the rolls of the drum –

Two sets, mechanically even, with an unblocking break between?

Do you hear the shouted orders to form up and become

As smart a line as any parade ground has ever seen?

And then, rising up the hill from the lower land below, the pounding of the big bass drum

that shakes the ground before stilling the chattering tongue.

Listen, as the sound increases with the familiarity and expectation of martial sound.

Do you hear? The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

And the wind, freezing, unending, blows up that same hill,

for every mother’s husband, brother and son.

  

Do you hear the constant, unending rolls – too mechanical to be human?

The ominous thump of the bass drum, grown even more deafening in its authority.

And we wait atop the hill, in silent expectation of the regiment’s appearance with

band playing and bayonets fixed, parading for the thrill of the uniform

and the menacing grandeur of the march!

Or is it just the wind, laughing – or sighing – among the trees; but what trees?

There were none then.

The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

In the cacophony of the parade, a three-striped voice seems to whisper against the rhythm:

“23029: Bramhall, Edgar!”

For the shortest moment the biting wind is still, but there is no reply.

 

Do you hear the suggestion of a discordant melody, one at odds with that well-known tune?

Could this be something unwritten, or something already too sadly known?

Atop the hill the parade seems thinned and the pulse of the big drum dimmed: the wind knows,

but is not telling, sighing woefully as it blows over mud and wire,

the mire of the regiment, the remains of the smartly-assembled ranks.

The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

Over all, the staccato beating of the drum never falters – pausing only for a second

to load another belt or to cool the barrel.

Such is the cold message the wind blows up the valley from the lowlands below.

Do you hear that voice again?

“4931: Crabtree, Ede!”

For another grudging second the haunted wind is still, but again there is no reply.

 

Do you hear the mournful wind about the erected stones: but what stones?

There were none then.

The biting, unrelenting wind that plucks at the names when the roll is called

and sighs at the silent answer, known even before the question is uttered.

The beating of the drum, too, is broken, as if the drummers’ arms can bear it no longer;

The unending beat now a vacuum-like silence,

as the rhythmic pulse that once was life now only sporadically fills the air.

Only occasionally does the bass drum speak, weary to the point of stillness.

The march, triumphant, thunders less: The Voice of the Guns!

Do you hear that? The heavy voice does not reflect the glory of the music.

“13571: Waude, J.C.!”

This time, amongst the whining wind, is that a voice that begins to answer, wearily?

But no – still, there is no reply.

 

Do you hear that? Voices confused in the wind, muttering that they got things wrong?

How the biting, numbing wind plucks at the names on the stones and sings an immortal song!

It moans that these are the best of men, who turned out for that promised parade,

When the bass drum first boomed and the staccato drum first played.

Don’t blame them – they gave their all and now stand proud as their regiments pass from –

But where is it they pass from?

They parade through the very air itself and that is why we stand atop the hill,

Chilled to the bone in the biting wind, remembering their song

as the beat of drum echoes through their incised names that will live for evermore.

The march, triumphant, still thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

Do you hear that? The voice sounds proudly defiant, reflecting the glory of disorganized futility.

“30506: Waugh, A!”

Against the wind comes a faint reply. This name is not among the missing on the

Stones of Thiepval.

 

Getting back on the escalator, the news on the book front is that book no.5 is due out around March, 2017. This is what the cover will look like:

 

The cover of An Eccentric in Lucca 3.

The cover of An Eccentric in Lucca 3.

Book no.6 – the third Rupert Winfield Journey – is almost finished proof reading and will go into the publication process once book no.5 has been released.

Other news is that we have bought a house in the middle of the countryside of County Tipperary, Eire, and yes, it has been a long, long way getting there! Trees, fields, bird song, detachment and tranquillity. Bring it on!

Still waiting for the Irish Land Registry to confirm to property boundary. such thngs take a lonftime over there, but the slower pace of life is the big attraction!

Still waiting for the Irish Land Registry to confirm to property boundary. Such things take a long time over there, but the slower pace of life is the big attraction!

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