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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‘Tis the Spirit of Christmas…

…but in an increasingly secular offshore island, what exactly is the Spirit of Christmas? Is it one of increasingly intrusive materialism, where the “essential must have” items cost a fortune and reflect the latest and, in my opinion, often pointless “advances” in modern technology, or is it to be found in a litre bottle of spirit, offered at heavily-slashed prices by all the supermarket chains, eager to either outdo their opposition or simply survive in an increasingly competitive world? We count ourselves lucky to know young children who still write their letters to Father Christmas and send them up the chimney. Quite apart from the belief in any religious dogma, isn’t that what the innocence of childhood is all about? Working with 9- and 10-year olds, and allowing for some of the challenging backgrounds from which some of them come, it occurs to me that most of them seem to have progressed from the womb to pre-pubescent, without allowing for any of the stops we of the older generation remember about our own childhoods. The affection we feel for our memories is one thing; I wonder what the next generation will value about tradition when it comes to their turn to sit and think as I am doing?

What I see as social decline is also reflected in the radio and television broadcasts in the UK. We have access to over 150 television channels and – more often than not – for us, the best and most appealing entertainment to us is found in watching shop-bought DVDs. Only occasionally does BBC 4 have a series of programmes that actually teach and inform which, after all, is part of the BBC mission. The same can be said of the radio, where the myriad stations – including those of the once-hallowed BBC – are often worse than the television programmes on offer. It says something when, with some holiday time on hand, listening to a CD of Paul Temple (recorded 50 years earlier) is more appealing than the rest of the fare on offer over the airwaves!

At least the Queen’s Christmas Message is still what it was: Her Majesty, at the age of 89, still manages to bring a touch of reality to the time of the year through an informal “chat” which, nonetheless, contains a very real message to everyone who chooses to watch it.

HM The Queen during her Christmas Broadcast.

HM The Queen during her Christmas Broadcast.

That’s Christmas sorted!

In October we endured the chaos at the UK Border (hardly confidence-inspiring!) and went back to Belgium for a week to visit Waterloo in the bicentenary year of the battle. We are very fond of “plucky little” Belgium, even if General de Gaulle reportedly thought of it as “a country invented by the British to annoy the French”. Historically and totally inaccurate nonsense, of course…

The "Fallen Eagle" monument, honouring the last soldiers of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, who fought at Waterloo.

The “Fallen Eagle” monument, honouring the last soldiers of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, who fought at Waterloo.

There is a brand new museum at the battlefield, built underground and so totally hidden from view. The vital Hougoumont farmhouse has also been restored and contains a brilliant audio visual presentation that is well worth the visit. The whole “Waterloo 1815” concept is possibly the best museum(s) we have ever visited and is well worth a (lengthy) visit the next time you’re in the vicinity (!)

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The Butte du Lion mound on the British/Allied front line. I always thought it was the British Lion with his paw on the globe: Pax Britannica. Apparently not. It is the Dutch Royal lion with paw on a cannon ball. The crown prince of the Netherlands was wounded on this spot during the battle. Still very impressive and yes, we did climb all 220+ steps to the top!

We also took in Brussels and were once again forcibly reminded of just how comfortable, inexpensive and reliable Belgian Railways are in comparison to some. Hmmm…. Belgium being a small country, we also drove across to Brugge. Beautiful city, not to mention the chocolate shops…

Brussels on the left, the romantic canals of Brugge on the right, not to mention delicious orange slices dipped in Belgian chocolate....

Brussels on the left, the romantic canals of Brugge on the right, not to mention delicious orange slices dipped in Belgian chocolate….

Earlier in the year we lost Ben, who had been with us for 12 years. Sadly, an intestinal tumour developed and was untreatable without causing the chap a lot of discomfort for probably no positive outcome. So now we have treasured memories of his company.

New kid on the block, Boris. He’s already taken control of Baxter and also, interestingly, shows an interest in literature (!)

Baxter was pining, so now we also have Boris, whose energy levels make us wonder if we are just a bit beyond the child-rearing stage! Anyway, he comes from the same breeder as Ben and is settling in – taking over! – quite nicely, thank you.

Books 5 and 6 are now in the final stages of proofing and a new line of writing is well-advanced, too. I also have a new publisher for Fatal Tears, which is in process of a second edition. All very exciting…

And on that happy note, it’s time to put the kettle on and wish you all a prosperous, peaceful and successful New Year 2016.

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Another Christmas…

…has come and gone, hotly followed by the New Year festivities. So here we go again, Christmas cards put away and the [minimal] decorations carefully stored until the next time. Hopefully, the endless attempts of seemingly increasingly desperate retailers, continually telling us (or is that actually pleading with us?) to celebrate the event by buying this or that over-priced piece of the unessential will also join the crumpled and discarded outer wrappings of presents in the rubbish bins. Don’t get me wrong: the recently past period is supposed to be one of giving, but has our over-commercialized modern Society managed to get something very seriously wrong with the way they approach things?

I recently watched two TV programs that made me sit and think. The first one was about the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was inspirational, due to the efforts of their musical director (a retired pilot) and the citizens of Kinshasa, many of whom live in the most abject poverty, and who regularly survive their day on the promise of rehearsing music in the evening, often on home-made instruments. Repertoire ranges from original compositions to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, both with choir (taught using sol-fa).

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The healing power of music…

 

Even more inspiring was the second program, which showed the re-establishment of a National Music School in Kabul. Again, this was due to the efforts of a single Afghan, who had been trained at the Moscow Conservatory before the Taliban vacuum descended on the blighted country. Some of the pupils learn their music during the day and then sell plastic bags in the markets to make ends meet. And we in the West are told that we simply have to have this or that unnecessary extravagance for Christmas…

Our extravagance for Christmas was to go back to Brugge for three days. Great time – got some writing done, but ever so cold – not that that put the locals off their street festivities and markets for a single second! They had erected a huge ice rink in the Groote Markt, where the Band had played in October. Lights everywhere, but being Belgium I suppose that they were all environmentally friendly and emitted but the smallest of carbon footprints…otherwise the electricity bill must have been horrendous!

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Groote Markt and intrepid skaters in Brugge at Christmas.

This May the Wadhurst Brass Band are off on a tour to Aubers in France. Wadhurst is twinned with Aubers and there were 25 men from the village, members of the Royal Sussex Regiment, lost in the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916. Following on from our short break in Brugge, we crossed into France and visited the town to get a handle on the place before the tour. On a very cold and frosty mid-morning we visited the Aubers Ridge British Cemetery; the wind chill factor would have frozen a windjammer going around Cape Horn and the grass was so frosty it was like walking on a crème brûlée. It was sobering to see so many graves marked simply “A Soldier of the Great War”; I subsequently found out that of the 25 Wadhurst casualties, only 2 were ever positively identified.

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Aubers Ridge British Cemetery near Aubers, France. So many of the graves contain unidentified casualties of the bloody Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916.

We then went on to Thiepval in France to visit the Thiepval Memorial and pay respects to some of the dead and missing of the Battle of the Somme. It was bad enough walking around in temperatures that were even colder than they had been at Aubers, but it was even worse when we stopped to consider those in the trenches in this area a century ago. They had no option but to sit and wait – at least we could get back into the car and turn the heater on! By the time we encountered the chaos at the British border control at the Channel Tunnel nearly 2 hours later, my feet were still freezing, and that was with two thick pairs of socks on. That in itself focused the mind on the women’s groups who sat and knitted socks for the Boys in the trenches all through the First War. Having experienced a brief taste of how cold it can get there, those socks must have been a welcome sight to those lucky enough to receive them!

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Thiepval Memorial in France. 300 British and 300 French war dead and another 72,000 names of the missing from the Battle of the Somme engraved on the memorial. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and was built between 1928 and 1932. It is the largest British battle memorial in the world and was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in August ,1932.

And to finish off this Seasonal Dispatch, we are now informed that something like £17 million of UK “Foreign aid” funds have been siphoned off with his usual flair by President Zuma of South Africa to build himself a modest little pondok suitable to his station! Thinking back to where we had just been – and the freezing cold – it raised the question as to whether or not the cemeteries and memorials had actually been worth the losses that caused them to be established in the first place? The residents of those places went off with a belief in the cause of right, as they saw it. These days, politicians are [generally] simply obsessed with preserving their [in my opinion] worthless continued existence. The bully is still in the corner to where he was driven at least twice during the twentieth century. Further afield, corruption has been raised to the level of a university degree! With an election due here in May, and their cushy jobs and all the rest of it at stake, nobody in Parliament is going to bother to question why so much hard-earned UK taxpayers’ aid money can be so easily miss-spent on one man’s folly at the other end of the world; they’ll be far too busy with domestic issues, telling those who can’t avoid listening to their feeble bleating that the other side is far worse than they are!

Meanwhile, for South Africa it was a bleak day indeed when the moderating hand of a great humanist and visionary was finally stilled in December of 2013. One shudders what is in store for the country without the positive influence and shadow of Madiba.

Time, which is a true constant, will tell.

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Time flies…

…when you’re having fun – or so the saying goes.

I was more than just a little surprised this week to find that my first novel (the third is due for release in the next few days) was released upon an unexpecting and largely indifferent literary world a little more than a year ago. Truth be told, it feels one hell of a lot longer. Over this short period, FATAL TEARS and ERRANT ANGELS (shortly to be joined by FEELINGS OF GUILT and by THE GERHSOM SCROLL in February, 2015) have continued to make their way through the minefield of publishing. Hardly surprising that I should use such a metaphor, as there are so many new titles around these days – not to mention the plethora of older, established works cunningly disguised behind newly-designed covers – that a new author has a daunting task to climb the mountain towards the point of recognition in some form or other.

Thanks to Kieran of The Book Guild art and design department - another great cover that captures the essence of the novel !

Thanks to Kieran of The Book Guild art and design department – another great cover that captures the essence of the novel !

When I first read of the idea of filling the moat of the Tower of London with a sea of ceramic poppies, I have to confess to thinking it all sounded more than just a little tacky and symptomatic of what, to me, seems the directionless morass of 21st century British Society. Having recently enjoyed a very successful band tour to Belgium (more on that in a moment), and mindful of the significance of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I, like nearly one million other people, made the journey to go and have a look. It seemed to me that most of these other million people decided to go and see the poppies all on the same day that I had chosen: the tube to Tower Hill Station just about coped; how anyone wasn’t run over at the pedestrian crossing outside the Tower itself and how so many people squeezed into the area adjacent to the moat without some fatal crushing incident resulting, I do not know!

The field of ceramic poppies that fills the moat of the Tower of London. An appropriate memorial to the dead of World War 1.

The field of ceramic poppies that fills the moat of the Tower of London. An appropriate memorial to the dead of World War 1.

Even before I managed to get a reasonable view of the poppies, I had drastically changed my mind about the whole thing. It seemed to radiate a sea of red and black calm amidst the heaving mass of humanity that had assembled to view it, largely in a respectful silence. That was surprising, considering the numbers of visitors. The moat was filled with 888,246 poppies, each one representing one British military fatality from the war. There was a moving sombreness to it all.

The ceramic poppies "pour" out of the Tower and fill the entire moat.

The ceramic poppies “pour” out of the Tower and fill the entire moat.

All will be dismantled after Remembrance Day (11th November) and each poppy will then be sent to whoever has purchased it, at a cost of £25 each (I’ll leave you to do the maths!). The good news is that they have all been sold and the funds raised will be shared amongst Service charities.

The whole experience raised two thoughts: firstly, one hundred years on and we are still inhabiting a world torn apart in one form or another – possibly not quite to the same extent as in 1914, although these days dissent can often be far more subtle and often does necessarily involve the use of guns; secondly, each one of those poppies is an anonymous reminder of service and duty. Who knows who poppy 102,345 represents, any more than we do number 94,368? Surely the most important thing is that we do remember and – despite the enormous scale and extent of the poppy field – that we do so in a typically British understated way: no glitz, no razzmatazz, no fanfare. Just Remembrance.

And that bring me back to where I started – almost. Whilst climbing my author’s mountain I have had to persevere to pass through and to eventually emerge from the clouds of anonymity that surround just about all of us. I used to think that this was a daunting task in extremis, but then I stood and gazed at the 888,246. How many of them, when they marched off enthusiastically to what was believed to be a short-term chance at glory – at least at the beginning of the war – ever thought that, instead of a triumphant return, they would become an unnamed ceramic creation in the centre of London and, by so becoming, would for ever be remembered in the soul of a nation still scarred by the cataclysmic events, of which they were a miniscule part, all those years ago?

East Grinstead Concert Band performing in the Market Square of Brugges, Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band performing in the Market Square of Bruges (Brugge), Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band getting read to play under the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper), Belgium.

East Grinstead Concert Band getting read to play under the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper), Belgium. Every evening at 8pm sharp, local firemen sound the Last Post, a short ceremony follows and then reveille is sounded. On October 11th we played music for the wreath lying, which was the 29,727th time the ceremony was performed since its inception in 1928.

Remembrance took on a whole new dimension when we played under the Menin Gate in Ypres during our recent Belgian tour. Words cannot really express the feelings generated by directing 37 talented musicians in Elgar’s Nimrod, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth and David of the White Rock. The music echoed amidst the 55,000 names of the missing that are engraved on the panels of the gate: men from all over the then British Empire, who simply disappeared in the mud and chaos of the battles that flattened the ancient city (now restored to its former glory).

So what is a year, when time for the poppies in the moat and for the names on the imposing edifice of the Gate simply stopped a century ago?

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