Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Hardwick Hall

(The first in an occasional series on the stately homes of England.)

Bess of Hardwick (nee Bess Talbot) was the second most powerful woman in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Of relatively humble origins, she married her way (four times) up to this position, via (#2) the Duke of Devonshire (who built Chatsworth for her - after he died it went to his brother, so she had to do a career swerve). Whilst being obviously recognised and favoured by the Queen, she was also good mates with Mary Queen of Scots - which says something about her swerving skills.

Anyway, once she finally fetched up as the Countess of Shrewsbury, she had Hardwick Hall mark one built for her. It's now a ruin in the grounds of Hardwick Hall number two - it took her only a few years to realise she hadn't set her sights high enough. The 'new' Hall has, on its roofline, the letters 'E S', Elizabeth of Shrewsbury, on each side, high against the sky. The house, on three floors, has as its main feature huge plain glass diamond-glazed windows, which in her day flooded the place with light and illuminated her amazing collection of tapestry wall hangings, which are still there. The higher the floor, the bigger the windows and tapestries - apparently, the grander you were, the more stairs you had to walk up to achieve recognition of your grandeur, at least by Bess's lights. (The servants ate at a long table in the ground floor entrance hall.) The ceilings are, interestingly, completely plain; she didn't want people looking up away from her tapestries, or herself.

There are three original portraits of Bess in the new Hall. In all of them, she has the eyes of Lady Thatcher. A charming National Trust lady agreed with me that it wouldn't have been wise to mess with Bess.

I don't know whether it's sad or not that she only lived there for nine years, much of which time she spent in a rather poky little bedroom on the first floor, quite a long way from the main action, if there was any by then. Norma Desmonde. Howard Hughes.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Swine flu

First, an abject withdrawal of my prediction a few months ago that this was a scare which would vanish into the same black hole as SARS, bird flu etc. I was wrong. Hope nobody acted on my advice. (Although the bit about not snogging hogs stands. And while I think of it, how many pigs have died? They don't tell us that, do they, eh?)

But the advice we're getting, via the media, from a growing number of organisations which are crawling out from under their stones to pronounce their particular brand of wisdom (who knew of the National Childbirth Trust or the Royal College of Midwives before today? or the other one which acronyms as RCOG but is much too hard to spell in full), is becoming genuinely confusing, especially when the government, via the media, attempt to clarify it. Three examples, from today's BBC1 6 o'clock, will do:

  1. Pregnant women, or those toying with the idea, should avoid 'crowds and unneccessary travel', but should nevertheless carry on with life as normal. (Presumably the rest of us can, well, just carry on with life as normal, right?)
  2. The over-65s are amongst those at greatest risk. Last week, we were amongst those at least risk. Turns out that, though we're still at least risk of catching it, we're at greatest risk of complications should we be gaga enough to do so. I'm not sure how exactly to modify my behaviour to take this into account.
  3. Amongst the measures to avoid contracting the disease, if you sneeze, do so into a tissue and dispose of it immediately. Leaving aside how exactly to achieve the latter, for example on the Tube - stuff it into someone else's pocket? - how does this prevent me catching it? Spreading it, maybe, but ... oh never mind.

I've checked my diary, and nothing planned over the next three weeks seems to infringe these or any other advice I've heard. Will someone please let me know when it's all over, so I can get back to risking the idea of not carrying on with life as normal but doing something different...

Monday, 13 July 2009

Exit Strategy

In the growingly converging worlds of media and politics, this expression is the new eye-watering elephant in the room. Today, I've heard it on the radio in the diverse contexts of Afghanistan and cricket, and a quick search will add in the financial crisis, a TV show called 'Lost', and (I kid you not) the Mohawk Indians' intention to withdraw from the US national electricity grid.

Before I use it myself in polite conversation ('gosh, is that the time? Better implement my E S!'), let's try for a definition, or at least a description. Exit strategies are what you invent when it's too late. You suddenly realise you're in this room, and hey, how did I get here, and, okay, there's the way out over there, but I can't see quite how to get from here to that door because there's an eyewatering number of elephants in the way. A youngster will be told 'well, you should have thought of that before you started down the hill on the skateboard/jumped off the bridge/dated those three girls at the same date time and place' ...

Did anybody, anywhere, ever, before starting something, define their exit strategy along with their entry one? I haven't come across an example.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Finn the Greyhound

Lazy dog.


One of the many interesting characters I met on my recent visit to the Peak District. Rocky is a tame sheep who lives in Rosie and John's paddock with his platonic partner Maud (Maud is black, woolly and camera-shy). If he spots you leaning on the fence eating crisps, Rocky will climb up onto it and nudge the back of your legs with his nose.
Why can't I make this text align to the left?
Posted by Picasa