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Samuel Holmyard

  Here’s an unremarkable picture, painted by an unremarkable amateur artist, of what seems to be an unremarkable moment in a provincial city. Undramatic it may be, but it documents a catastrophic occasion, at least for one unremarkable figure.   Samuel Holmyard taken for Execution   The time has come, Master Samuel for you to ride in an open cart from this old gate to Magdalen Road. A modest crowd awaits, faces framed in windows.  Others stand around in front of shops with thoughts of dinner, and your imminent end.   Soon you’ll have gone and they will turn, return to everyday life. Some may talk tonight of what they saw, or thought they saw, while shadow creeps across the city prison.  The children may be told of that which comes   to a forger, Master Samuel, who must leave for this last time the warm pink gate in an open cart pulled by one tired horse, past a modest crowd, a covered wagon, a curious shopper and two indifferent b
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The Signpost

Here’s a signpost – originally distinctive, being unique and handmade, and now even more so, with the evidence of ageing.   … numbers, distances, which way? While all signposts are interesting in their duty to inform, their presentation of choices and their simple declarative presence, I find this one special. It’s not just that it has much to say in terms of where you actually are, in which direction you might choose to go, how far your destination is (down to quarter mile accuracy) and even if your chosen method of transport is suitable. It’s also special in the simple elegance of its design, with the arms’ supports and the bevelled edges of the main post rising to that unexpected point. But the specialness goes further.  My friend James Ravilious took me there just at this time of year, over twenty years ago.  It was then upright and brilliant white, with crisp black letters. He certainly thought it was special, photographing it lovingly, in May 1988 ( Chawleigh Week Cross –

The Willoughbys

  I'm much more aware now of all the birds in our garden.  Two in particular loom large, partly because they make a lot of noise and partly because, well, they're large. They started to assemble a precarious pile of twigs just below our bedroom window but I think were put off by my regular opening and closing of it, so they moved into a nearby shrub.   When I referred to their noise, it wasn’t just that repetitive coo-ing, but the clattering as an unwieldy bird emerges.   It alights a few yards away on the path where it walks awkwardly, as if in the wrong element, managing to look both aimless and purposeful at the same time. Then there’s two of them.   After a moment, they’re up on a branch, making a fuss. I’ve written before about anthropomorphism.   I can’t help but see this pair in terms of ourselves, with their behaviour so reminiscent of our own. And similarly all those other birds who live and have their being in the same place as we do – their various actions and re


  As March gives way to April, I feel a sadness. This is when the snowdrops – so eagerly awaited, so welcomed – shrink, fade and disappear.  The flowers, I mean. But the plants remain, growing and nurturing.     White dresses are for early days – the young and aspiring call for petals, petticoats, honeyed scents and pretty attractions.                         Soon enough and unseen, the task is accomplished. Enticements abandoned, let business begin.  Now is the time for real growth                         to develop what was not noticed – a green globe swelling increasingly gravid – the discarded’s forgotten. Old flowers                         turn yellow twist, dry into straw and withering, vanish.  Meanwhile a heavy pod grows like a bomb ready to drop                         new snowdrops.     Perhaps it’s because they’re the first flowers to appear, and those little green spears which thrust through everything nature throws at them – leaf litter, mud, snow, even an unwitting boote

Deflected Eyes

    Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein I’ve always found this drawing haunting.  Holbein used only chalks, pen and ink, with minimal work on everything except the face, especially the eyes.  Probably drawn between 1535 and 1537, it has astonishing vitality: I feel an immediacy, as if he were – or is – contemporaneous, and that it is me rather than Holbein, who faces him.   And as I watched I saw his eyes look past, past me, into the past – or was it yet to come about?  That glance will now outlast the face so soon to go.  We have not met but still askance he looks. Unblinking gaze, eye-witness of grave acts beyond my view I cannot see, nor find the words or phrase to tell.  His face is blank.  I must look through to see the man whose features show no signs of feelings – sadness, joy, relief or fear –  just cautious observation.  Through the lines the artist drew, his face and I draw near. The mouth and nose and beard I scrutinise, but first and last, I see deflected e

A Post Mortem Adventure

  Even at the best of times, this is a dying season – I mean a season for dying. Throw in Covid, which puts daily death rates into the regular news headlines, not to mention the fear of death propagated by a government to produce behavioural change – stay at home and keep clear of others so you don't kill your Gran – and death is presently looming large. More positively though, admiration for the NHS, with all its committed professionals, has never been more apparent. Death all around, with dedicated doctors desperately working to save lives... We go back to the Battle of Trafalgar, back to William Beatty, Surgeon on HMS Victory. Here he is, portrayed by Devis, not long after the battle - a clear-eyed, confident but humane young man in his thirties. The surgeon triaged each wounded man in turn, regardless of rank, as they were brought below decks. There were three categories: not needing immediate care, so leave; sufficiently seriously wounded, with the possibility of survival,

The Three Hares

  The Three Hares We continue on our way running, running, running around held together tip to tip so I can hear what she can hear as well as her. And the other follows me in front of her – we are joined up by our ears so we follow, lead and follow running, running, running around we continue on our way. Running, running, running around – no cause for worry – what's to come has already been. The future's past – watch us here – we're going nowhere – the last is first and first is last. Our present moment sees us still although we seem to race – running, running, running around we continue. On our way running, running, running around hearing your persistent questions – why do you keep on asking? We cannot tell you any more. May you share your senses and find soft silence at your centre which is so close, while you go on running, running, running around. The turning of the year, with the various thoughts about the past and the future that c

Fair and Foul

  The Sea Captain Commissions his Ship Portrait Now tell me how you would like it – Full sailed, running, proceeding well all-set aloft, the boy at the wheel, prospect of fish from your line at the stern and the mate fast asleep in his bunk? Or only a jib and the driver with a couple of staysails drawn tight, almost hove-to – all straining through a storm that lasted the night? Maybe a soft sea lapping the stemhead, canvas bellied, as if all satisfied; galley door open, binnacle gleaming – just a wisp of a cloud in the sky? Or waters that gush through the scuppers, the steersman roped into place, restless ballast rumbling below decks, screams of a gale in the rigging? Fair or Foul – you’ve only to choose – I paint both of them equally well. As you stand with your foot on the fender, the little ones hearing your words it may be serene days of ease, breezes and translucent seas you’ll want to describe. Or when crashing through tens and elevens captain and crew together were chal

A Thoughtful Body

  I’m a thoughtful body, you can see dear skull – you were once joined up like me, recognised and speaking.  Now not a trace of all that made your well-known face – no flesh, no skin, no lips or tongue, no lungs or breath to sing a song – no eyes to see, no ears to hear – although you cannot shed a tear can you tell me what’s to come?   Dear alter ego, I am dumb as you remarked.  What can I know, a disconnected skull?  So, live in the present, which is where you find yourself, and do not care about the future.  What I heard said came from inside my empty head – but I think I can’t think that I heard since I can’t hear or say a single word.     Halloween – the time of year for skeletons. Strictly speaking, Hallowe’en – Hallows’ Even or Hallows’ Evening – is October 31 st , the eve of the All Hallows’ Day, and we’re now into November.  But the festival, if that’s the right word, of Allhallowtide runs for three days.  Here then, with no apology,

The Barn Owl, Samuel and his pot, and me

The Barn Owl   I thought of the barn as mine.  But as she lives there it belongs to her   I’ve been reading Samuel Menashe’s poetry. His most famous poem is even shorter.    A pot poured out Fulfills its spout.   The distinguished academic Christopher Ricks spends several pages poring (sorry) over this wonderful poem, pointing out all sorts of poetic techniques in play, and indeed the more carefully and the more often one reads it, the more there is to find – that pot just keeps on pouring. For example, it’s not the pot – it’s a pot, which is worth thinking about. Similarly, the American spelling of fulfills has something extra to say about a full vessel; not to mention the alliterations, sound play, rhyme, internal symmetry (each line of four syllables perfectly balanced, as you’d expect from a pouring pot) and the sharing of contents (that pot’s ‘ot’ moving into the ‘o-t’ of out and thence finding its way into, or should I say out of, ‘spout’ – having


Granny with dementia, reciting The Revenge At Flores, in the Azores – how she remembered it! At Flores, in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay… It was all in her memory, long ago learnt, locked up securely yet biding its time buried like treasure before we were born ready to gleam when the lid might be raised – At Flores, in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay,   And a pinnace, like a flutter’d bird, came flying from far away: So we were captured, spell-bound prisoners. Each word was polished as if it were gold. I hear them now, those old rolling phrases like waves from the deep, the far Spanish Main, beginning their life so far, far away to roll over the oceans, washing up on our foreshore salty fragments now altered, tied up in new ways with some of their old rhymes – Lord Howard declaring he was no coward, he could not – no, I cannot can’t meet them … for my ships are out of gear. But like the Revenge, she still sailed on, against