Catching up

Reunited Arthur Beadle, Hugh Bradley and Me, 2015

I have never been to a reunion before but this gathering was one I could not miss.  It was to celebrate the 40 years that St Thomas More Primary School has been open.

Having worked there for 16 happy years, I was keen to meet up with old colleagues and past pupils.  I left in 2001 so I was also interested to see how much the building had changed to accommodate all the educational innovations that have taken place.

And change it had!  The entrance hall which used to be a small library, is now like a hotel lobby with a rather swish curved desk where the secretary works in an open plan office.  The hall and kitchen have not changed at all, but the classrooms were very different.  There seemed to be fewer desks and chairs for pupils and no large desk for the teacher.  But the biggest change for me was NO BLACKBOARD!  On the walls were white screens/boards, which presumable are linked to the bank of keyboards below.  No huge computers now either, just small tablets (of the electronic kind) for every child.  What a transition!

I was flooded with nostalgia at the memories of chalkdust, board rubbers and metre long board rulers, protractors etc.

In the corridor, there used to be a small special needs area for individuals or group who were struggling to keep up, or needed to be stretched.  Now, that area is used by language specialists to help the many children for whom English is not their first language.

Of course most of the old team who worked at the school still get together now and again for coffee mornings, walks and meals out.  But we don’t often get to see past pupils.  It was a revelation and a joy to see so many of them there.   Most of those who attended are now in their 30’s with careers and children of their own.  Without exception they all had many happy memories.

The highlight of the evening for me was being back together with the A team ~ The first Headteacher, Arthur Beadle, his deputy, Hugh Bradley, and myself, who made a great trio even if I say so myself. I followed Arthur to become the second Headteacher in the school.  Other highlights included seeing old photos on display, and being hugged by a tall handsome 36 year old man carrying his child.  He, who shall be nameless, apologized for being such a naughty boy when he was a pupil.  He remembered spending a lot of time outside the Head’s office door!  He now has his own business and is very successful so he must have learned something!

 

Cotswold Gold

Oilseed Rape Story

Oilseed Rape Story

As soon as we arrived at Church Farm for Open Farm Sunday I was captivated.  At the entrance there were Shetland ponies and goats to pet, as well as a great display of crops and posters giving information about oats, barley and oilseed rape.  It was like the best nature table you could possibly arrange!  As a primary school teacher many years ago, I would have loved to put on a display like this for my pupils.  But even as an adult I found it fascinating.  What appealed to me most was the opportunity to learn about the oilseed rape.

I love to see the fields of gold that stretch across the Cotswold in late Spring each year.  I go out and take photographs and take the grandchildren to admire them.  I usually say something simple like, “It’s used for cooking oil”, but I honestly hadn’t a clue what really happened to those gorgeous yellow plants.

Well, having chatted to the farmer and a seed merchant, I now know a great deal more.  Rapeseed belongs to the Brassica family of plants like turnips, cabbages, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower among others.  In fact the word Rape comes from the Latin, Rapum which means turnip!  Who knew?  Natural rapeseed has been grown, and used to produce fuel, for centuries.  In fact Brassica are some of the oldest plants around.  There are records of Brassica oilseed varieties being grown in India 4000 years ago, and China and Japan 2000 years ago.   It is likely that the Romans introduced it to Britain.  It was found to be a useful ‘break crop’, which means that it keeps down weeds and helps enrich the soil in between growing other crops.  By the middle-ages rapeseed oil was being used as fuel for lamps.  But it was not until the Industrial Revolution, when steam power came to the fore, that machinists discovered its suitability as a lubricant.

During the Second World War huge quantities of oil were needed to keep the engines of naval and merchant vessels seaworthy, but because of blockades it was difficult to source from Europe and the East.  So Canada greatly increased its rapeseed cultivation.

The original, natural strains of rapeseed had been used for centuries to feed animals, but not people.  It had a bitter taste and was high in erucic acid, which is toxic to young children.  However, following research and development in Canada, a strain was developed that had low levels of erucic acid and a pleasant nutty taste, making it suitable for human consumption.  The Canadian climate was good for growing it, so in 1978 a company was set up to produce Canadian Oil, Low in Acid, hence the name Canola!  Although this was a brand name it is now accepted as a generic term for oilseed rape.

I have used Rapeseed Oil for years at home for frying and roasting food, as well as baking carrot cakes and biscuits.  It is also suitable for bread and pastries, and of course, it makes delicious dressings, marinades and mayonnaises.   A knowledgeable doctor told me years ago that Rapeseed oil is high in Vitamin E and contains less than half the saturated fat of olive oil, which helps to keeps cholesterol down.  Rapeseed oil is also rich in omega 3, 6 and 9 and contains no preservatives or additives, making it a healthy alternative to butter or other vegetable oils..   I buy the locally produced ‘Cotswold Gold’ rapeseed oil as it is made in small batches by methods which preserve the goodness of the oil and it is not genetically modified as some mass produced or foreign oils are.

In recent years, celebrity chefs have made rapeseed oil very popular, which is one reason why there is so much grown in this country now.  Another reason is its use in the biodiesel industry.  In fact over 60% of the rapeseed grown in Europe now is used for fuel.  This would be a worry if it was taking up land which could be used for food production.  But apparently it can be grown on ‘set-aside’ land, which would otherwise not be used.

I was very pleased to learn that not a single bit of the rapeseed plant is wasted.  Once the oil has been pressed out of the ripe black seeds, the left over pulp provides a rich feed for the animals on the farm and the rest of the plant goes into the forage which provides food for the animals in winter.

If you would like more information or facts and figures, the website ukagriculture.com  produces a wonderful poster called The Story of Oilseed Rape.  And, you can watch a short video on the oil extraction process in Ireland here on youtube.

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Not you, nor I, nor anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow.

First the farmer sows the seed,

Then he stands and takes his ease,

Stamps his feet and claps his hand,

And turns around to view the land.

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Not you, nor I, nor anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow.

First the farmer sows the seed,

Then he stands and takes his ease,

Stamps his feet and claps his hand,

And turns around to view the land.

Enveloped by a Rainbow

Doughnut building enveloped in rainbow lights copyright GCHQ, used with permission

Doughnut building enveloped in rainbow lights
copyright GCHQ2015, used with permission

For this week’s photo challenge the prompt is the word “enveloped”.  I understand it to mean totally surrounded or covered, and as such I could only choose one photo as illustration.  I did not take the photo, the copyright belongs to the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, but I was given permission to use it for this blog.  The photo shows the entire doughnut-shaped building, which is near my home, surrounded and lit up in the colours of the rainbow.  This occurred last weekend (17th May 2015) on Sunday evening from 9pm as the sun set.  It was to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.  It was amazing in many respects.  Firstly, that GCHQ would make such a public gesture of solidarity with these misunderstood minority communities; and secondly, that a large crowd of people, including myself, drove, walked, and waited there to see it late on a Sunday evening.  I know parents who kept young children up specially to see it and then took the opportunity to discuss the reason for the event.

Not so long ago it was illegal in this country for men and women to be practising homosexuals.  And it would have been unthinkable to get a job with the security and intelligence services while openly gay.  But of course many people did work in these fields while keeping their sexuality hidden.  One such man was the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing.  He worked at Bletchley Park, which was the forerunner to GCHQ.  There he and a brilliant young team helped crack Germany’s Enigma Code, which certainly shortened the second world war by a couple of years thereby saving millions of lives.  But when his sexual orientation was discovered, Turing lost his security clearance and was convicted for gross indecency.  His life was ruined by this conviction and his reputation was destroyed.  He was subjected to ‘corrective’ hormonal treatment until, two years later it is believed, he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning.  In 2013 he was granted a posthumous pardon by the Queen and honoured for his work.

In 2014 the film The Imitation Game was made about Turing and his work.  The film is so good that it won an Oscar as well as 51 other awards.  Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, the acting is outstanding.   The truth may be stretched a little for dramatic effect, but the film is gripping from beginning to end.

My opposition to any form of discrimination and prejudice stems from my years in teaching when I observed the misery it caused to children.  During my 30+ years working in the field of education, I taught over a thousand primary school pupils in state schools.  It is reasonable to assume that they were a fairly representative sample of children raised during the second half of the 20th century.  The majority were from stable, loving and supportive families with parents who worked hard and were able to provide good homes, experiences and opportunities for their children.  But over the years I also worked with many children who were not so lucky.  Lots of families suffered from the negative effects of poverty through no fault of their own.  But in some cases families were dysfunctional due to addictions-to gambling, alcohol or illegal drugs.  There was also a criminal element including a small minority of parents who were actually dangerously antisocial.  Whatever the cause, the children suffered most.

In all those years I only encountered one child with what I would call a ‘wicked’ nature.  He took pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on other children, animals and even his own family.  Every available agency tried to help him, his parents, and the school, manage and change his behaviour, to no avail.  In those years too I met many confused and unhappy children who had a poor self-image and little confidence.  There were as many reasons as children for this; inadequate parenting, poverty, social, emotional or physical issues, learning difficulties, and sometimes gender issues.

Someone once explained to me that the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us is crucial to our self-esteem.  School age children are social creatures.  They need to be accepted and respected by their peer group.  They are not born with low self-esteem.  It is an acquired condition.  If, for whatever reason, they do not ‘fit in’ to their group, their self-esteem suffers.  And they may become victims of bullying.  This is enormously important because research has shown that low self-esteem leads to unhappiness, ill health, and a less rewarding and successful life.  In extreme cases it can lead to suicide.

This brings me to the tragic case of a 15 year old boy who took his own life because he was being taunted at school for behaviour which ignorant bullies called ‘gay’.  The effect of this on his family and true friends was so traumatic that some months later his father took his own life and then one of his friends did the same.

This is why I am so proud of GCHQ for lighting up the ‘doughnut’ building in rainbow colours at the weekend.  In this country, and in many others I am sure, the past has been marred by intolerance bred of ignorance and fear.  People have been judged because of the colour of their skin; their accent, age, gender, beliefs, finances, job, clothes, or sexuality rather than their humanity.  There is no place in a civilised society for such prejudices.  Critics have denounced the gesture online as a political gimmick, but if it draws crowds of ordinary families who then discuss these issues with their children then it was a very worthwhile one in my opinion.

Read about a previous creative gesture by GCHQ in my blogpost Living Poppy in a Doughnut

The Boy

Fragile and different

Defeated by the bullies

He jumped to his death

 

The girl

Remnants of ribbons

And fading flowers weep, where she

Fell to her death

 

The Father

The death of his son

Drove him to despair.  Destroyed,

His life he ended.

 

The Cemetery

Lawned garden of grief

Compassion carved into stone

Too late to show love

 

Blenheim Palace

P1100963

It wasn’t an auspicious start when we met the coach to travel to Woodstock on 27th November 2014.  It was a misty morning, dismal and damp with drizzle.  However as always the mood on the coach was sunny and light hearted; WI ladies are such good company.  We were heading off to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to see the house decorated in “Glitter and Gold” for Christmas.  On the way we travelled through the lovely village of Bladon where most of the Spencer Churchill’s are buried at St Martin’s Church.

Blenheim palace is a Baroque masterpiece designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, which took 17 years to complete.  On our tour we were told that the house was so perfect that it has never been extended or redesigned.  It was begun in 1704 thanks to Queen Anne who had just come to the throne.  John Churchill had been given the title, Duke of Marlborough by the previous monarch, William of Orange.  It was a particularly turbulent time in Europe and the Duke was recognised by most as a man of courage, stamina and will-power, as well as a brilliant military man.  He was leading the allied forces in Europe when there was a bloody and decisive battle at Blindheim, in Bavaria.  On August 13 1704, Marlborough and his men held back King Louis XIV’s troops and saved Vienna from a French attack.  This changed the course of history in Europe, protecting British interests.  The Queen was so pleased that she granted Marlborough the Manor and Honour of Woodstock and acres of gorgeous countryside as well as the promise of money to build a house as a fitting monument to his great victory.  The name Blindheim was then anglicised and became Blenheim.

This is an extract from the famous poem called The Battle of Blenheim by Robert Southey;

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they killed each other for
I could not well make out.
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory!

By the time we reached Blenheim via the long sweeping drive, the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to take in the impressive views of the grounds, the lakes, the bridge, and the breathtaking beauty and symmetry of the house itself.

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We were doubly fortunate because, not only was the house decked out for Christmas, but there was a spectacular art exhibition by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weihei.  Being an outspoken social activist, Ai Weihei brings politics into his work and some of it was quite controversial.  However there were some really beautiful and thought provoking pieces.  I particularly liked the ‘Chandelier 2002’, which was made of glass crystals, lights, metal and scaffolding.  Being over 5 metres tall it hung glittering from the ceiling in the grand entrance.  I was not so keen on the piece called ‘He Xie, 2012’, in the red drawing room, which consisted of masses of porcelain crabs on the exquisite carpet.

IMG_5154   IMG_5160

We managed to see almost every room in the public parts of the house learning snippets as we dipped in and out of fascinating guided tours.  Every room was different and had objects of beauty to see, sculptures, furniture, china, silverware, paintings and spectacular tapestries.  We were amazed to see huge cases filled with small model soldiers complete with arms and vehicles displayed in battle formation from many wars.  It seems that Blenheim holds the National Collection of the British Model Soldier Society.

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On the first floor of the house we took a fascinating, if rather unnerving tour, called “Blenheim~the Untold Story”.  This was narrated by the ‘ghost’ of Grace Ridley who was the favoured servant of the first duchess, Sarah.  The voice of Grace led us from room to room mysteriously as she rattled through over 300 years of history and 11 Dukes of Marlborough.  It was certainly entertaining and informative.

On a very sad note, we learned that the 11th Duke had died just a few weeks ago on the 16th October this year at the age of 88.  He was a cousin of the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was also his godfather, and he was also distantly related to the late Princess Diana.  He inherited Blenheim in 1972 and devoted his life to preserving the Palace for the benefit of future generations.  His titles will now pass to his eldest son James, Marquess of Blandford, who was born in 1955.  It is an enormous responsibility which I certainly would not relish.  However there is a strong board of trustees to help him.

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

The late 11th Duke of Marlborough

After exhausting the beauty of the house and enjoying a lovely lunch in the Water Terrace Café, one of several eating places at Blenheim, we ventured out into the open air to enjoy just some of the many formal gardens.  We saw the water terraces, the Italian garden and the secret garden which were beautiful.  We didn’t manage to visit the park with its cascades and the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to Clemmie.  Nor did we walk to the huge Column of Victory or Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge.  However we saw them in the distance and were thrilled by all we did see.  We all agreed we would be going back in the Spring.  And, we were amazed to learn that we could convert our day tickets into an annual pass which gives free entry for the next 12 months!

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2015 marks many important anniversaries linked to Sir Winston Churchill, including the 50th Anniversary of his death, and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain ~ ‘his finest hour’.  There will be a special exhibition focussing on his life, from his birth at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874 to his days as our Prime Minister.  The room where he was born has been preserved just as it was and there is a case with his baby vest in it.  There are also 2 of his paintings and a lock of his hair.  Winston Churchill was the son of a younger brother of the 8thDuke.

There are many reasons I would like to revisit Blenheim Palace.  I would love to explore the gardens, lakes and the park.  I would also like to see the Column of Victory up close.  But I think we were very lucky to see the house decorated for Christmas with glitter and gold.  It was a very special day out.

Oh What a Year! 1963

Shottery Manor

I sing in a lovely choir every Friday morning and I love it.  The songs we sing are varied but there is always one that catches our mood, gets us laughing, crying or dancing, and lights up our voices.  This week it was the old Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons number, Oh What a Night!  It was released in December 1975, but the words recall “late December back in ‘63”.  I bet you didn’t know that the song was originally going to be about December 1933 and Prohibition?  However thank goodness Valli persuaded them to change it to a song about first love in ’63.  You can play the song as you read my blog by clicking on the icon on the sidebar.

Oh, what a night, late December back in ’63
What a very special time for me
As I remember what a night!

I made a passing comment that I was sweet 16 in 1963 to the amusement of some of the older choir members and horror of the younger ones.  But as so often happens with music it then brought up all sorts of memories.

1963/64 was a very special year for me.    I was in my final year at Stratford Grammar school for Girls learning in the most beautiful setting imaginable.  I was studying English literature at ‘A level’.  My main text was King Lear.  I’ve mentioned before that in those days it was possible to pay 4 shillings in pre-decimal money, which is 20 pence now, and stand at the back of the theatre to watch Shakespeare’s plays.  I took full advantage of this and I was there in 1962 when Paul Schofield played King Lear in what is recognised as the greatest performance of the role of all time.  It left an indelible impression on me which stays with me even now.   The main themes of the play have universal and timeless significance,

  • Appearance versus reality
  • Justice
  • Compassion and reconciliation
  • The natural order

Our English teacher, Miss Southall, was an inspiration too.  All black hair, flowing gown and long legs, which she bared to the sun during summer term.  This meant English classes were held on the lawn in the beautiful walled garden with its Dovecote, in front of the magnificent Shottery Manor which was the setting for the sixth form.  The school was, and still is, just a stone’s throw from Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Shottery.  It oozed history with its old oak floors, wood panelling and not so secret passages which could have been priest holes.  We were convinced that there was a tunnel leading from the Manor into town but no-one ever ventured in far enough to find out because it was pitch dark.

According to school history, the oldest part of the Manor was 14th century when it was owned by Evesham Abbey.  In 1402 the Bishop of Worcester granted a licence to John Harewell of Wootten Wawen for a priest to celebrate Mass in the Oratory of the Manor.  This room became our sixth form study.   The house stayed in the Harewell family for centuries but in 1919 the manor was bought by Mr A D Flower on behalf of the trustees of the late Edgar Flower.  The Flower family were very significant to Stratford on Avon.  Edward Flower started Flower’s Brewery there in 1831 and his sons, Charles and Edgar continued the business making rather a lot of money.  Fortunately the Flowers had that wonderful Victorian ethic of using their money to benefit the community, (I wonder what happened to that in Britain?), and they used it to develop the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.  Charles donated the land by the River Avon and in 1875 launched a campaign to build the theatre.  He also donated the money to build the theatre (about £1 million in today’s money), which opened in 1879 with a performance of Much Ado About Nothing.  Charles also gave the cottages opposite so that the rents could be used to maintain the theatre.

The last members of the Flower family to live in the Manor left in 1951 and it was empty for a few years.  But thank goodness Warwickshire County Council bought it and it was turned into the first Girl’s Grammar School in the area.  It opened in 1958 just in time for me to arrive.  I was very lucky to get in at all as I had moved from the north of England where my education record was patchy to say the least.

I started school in a converted Chemical Works by the shipyards on the River Tyne.  I remember there was a huge room which was partitioned off for different age groups.  My delight, and my downfall, was to peep round the partition to see what was going on in other areas.  The grass is always greener etc….

I was not in infants for very long as I was what they called in those days, ‘a sickly child’.  I was underweight (hard to imagine I know!), undernourished, with Rheumatic Fever and a heart condition.  I eventually got back to school in the juniors but was so far behind that the teachers didn’t even try to educate me.  They gave me all the little jobs to do, which was great by me!

On Monday mornings my job was to fill up all the inkwells.  I went to the office to mix up black ink powder and water in a jug with a long spout.  I then went from desk to desk.  Each wooden desk had a hole with a ceramic pot in it.  I poured the ink into the pot until it reached the rim.  We used ‘dip pens’ in the juniors in those days, just a wooden handle with a metal nib on the end which you dipped in the ink then scraped on the edge to take off the excess.  The youngest infants still used chalk and individual slates.   I had to be very careful with the ink as washable ink was unheard of.  This stuff would stain permanently!

As you can imagine this job could take all morning if necessary; however there was also free milk to give out and wafers to sell.  In those days children didn’t bring fancy cool bags or plastic lunch boxes filled with snacks to school.  If they were very lucky they would have a ha’penny (1/2d) to buy some wafers.  These wafers were the sort you get on an ice cream ‘sandwich’.  They came in big boxes and were sold 2 for 1/2d.

Many children were undernourished in those days as it was just after the war and there was still some rationing.  The recently formed NHS did a wonderful job of providing supplements for children.  We got little bottles of orange juice, cod liver oil by the spoonful not capsules, Virol malt extract and I got a tonic too.

I can honestly say I don’t remember learning a thing at primary school except to sing, ‘Flow Gently sweet Afton’ and to make an advent calendar out of matchboxes for Christmas.  It was my inspirational, well-read and self-taught father who taught me what I needed to know: how to read, write, do maths, to identify constellations, wonder, dream, question, listen, love.  He had an open mind and an open heart.  It was he who convinced Miss Williams, the original head teacher of Stratford grammar School for Girls, that I was a suitable candidate for her school.  I am so glad that he did.  Because, since 1963, thanks to that education, I have been able to plough my own furrow.

St John's School, Felling

St John’s School, Felling

Upper Sixth Shottery Manor

Upper Sixth Shottery Manor

My Stratford Blog  http://wp.me/p2gGsd-5c

So what else was on at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1963 that I watched for 4s (shillings)?

The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Comedy of Errors, Edward 1V, Henry V1, Richard 111, and the newly adapted history plays under the title of the Wars of the Roses.

In 1963 the director was Peter Hall with John Barton, designer John Bury, and music was by Guy Woolfenden

And the actors in these plays had names that have graced theatre, television and film for decades:

Paul Schofield, Vanessa Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Dench, Roy Dotrice, Ian Holm (a fabulous Richard 111), David Warner ( a dreamy Henry V1), Janet Suzman, Clifford Rose, Penelope Keith, etc….

And what else was happening at home and abroad in 1963?

Major William Hicks Beach (Conservative) was MP for Cheltenham and Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister in UK until Sir Alec Douglas Hume succeeded him in October.

The Beatles released their first album, Please Please Me and rapidly rose to fame.

Britain had the worst winter since 1946/47 when I was born.  The snow lasted until April.

The Great Train Robbery took place in Buckinghamshire with millions of pounds stolen.

In June 1963 the first woman to travel into Space was a Soviet Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova.  She orbited Earth 48 times, spending 71 hours in Space.  She parachuted to earth after ejecting at 20,000 feet.

Tens of thousands of protestors came from all over the world to join the CND march from Aldermarston to London to protest about the Hydrogen Bomb which threatened world peace.

Thousands of African Americans were arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting against segregation.

Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during a march on Washington for jobs and freedom

President John F Kennedy made a historic Civil Rights Address in which he promised a Civil Rights Bill

The first Sindy Doll was marketed by Pedigree.

In October the Rolling Stones played at the Odeon in Cheltenham. The Beatles played there on 1st November.

Pope Paul VI succeeds Pope John XXIII as the 262nd Pope.

The second James Bond Film ‘From Russia with Love’ opened in London.

22nd November 1963 was a terrible day.  Not only did authors CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley die, but President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  Lyndon B Johnson was sworn in as president.

The first episode of Dr Who was aired on television in November 1963.  During the 60s the series was in black and white.

That’s the way to do it!

Professor Collywobbles 1
Can you guess what links the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) between Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Roundheads’ and King Charles’s ‘Cavaliers’, Samuel Pepys’ Diary, Charles Dickens’ ‘Old Curiosity Shop’, the famous Geordie inventor Robert Stephenson, a pub in London’s Covent Garden, and the Italian clown Joe Grimaldi?
Well, last night at WI we were enlightened and entertained by Professor Collywobbles, who managed to squeeze them all in to his talk on the history of Punch and Judy!
To be honest I was not keen to go. Having never been that keen on this traditional seaside entertainment, I was going to give it a miss. But I am so glad I went.
Now Punch and Judy shows would seem to be as British as fish and chips, but in fact we learned that they hark back to Italy’s commedia dell’arte, a type of improvised comedy based on stock characters. Punch is probably based on the character of Pulcinella, a nasty, aggressive fellow with a long, beaky nose.
We were told that the first reported show was seen on May 9th 1662, and was immortalized by no less than Samuel Pepys in his diary when he wrote about seeing, “an Italian puppet play…the best that ever I saw” in Covent Garden. It was performed by an Italian puppet showman, Pietro Gimonde, known as “Signor Bologna.” But they may well have started even earlier because of Oliver Cromwell. He closed all the theatres during the Civil War apparently, so sketches with puppets or Marionettes were put on at street corners and public places. These anarchic early shows were aimed at adults but children did gather to watch them with their family.
Before long, Punch and Judy shows had sprung up all over London. Judy was at that point known as Joan.
We heard how, by the 19th century, thanks in part to Robert Stephenson, the railways were taking off, and people were travelling to the seaside for days out or holidays. ‘Professors’ saw the opportunity to make money from the crowds and so they began tailoring their shows for children while still retaining some adult jokes. Thus began the tradition of Punch and Judy shows at the seaside.
Professor Collywobbles told us that early Punch plays would have been performed with marionettes, but as the show developed glove puppets were used. They were cheaper to make and easier to carry. Soon mobile booths were designed to carry everything in, and, covered in red and white cloth, these became the stage with the addition of a decorative proscenium arch. The man who operated the puppets was called a ‘professor’ and he often had an assistant who was called a ‘bottler’. The bottler would usually play a musical instrument, warm up the crowds, and collect money in a bottle. Sometimes a live dog, called Toby was used alongside the puppets.
Punch’s screeching voice was, and still is, created with the aid of a swazzle, which sits at the back of the mouth and is pushed to the side when other characters are ‘speaking’. It is quite difficult to understand all the words Punch says so the bottler or other puppet characters often repeat his lines.
I discovered that other countries have long had their own shows with the Pulcinella character. It was very popular in France. In America, George Washington is recorded as buying tickets for a puppet play featuring Punch in Pennsylvania in 1742.
I read that across Europe shows might star Punch himself, or St George and the Dragon, the Spanish Don Cristobal, the German Kasper, the Turkish and Greek shadow puppet star Karagoz, the elaborately costumed French icon Polichinelle, or the pleasant-faced comic, Guignol. Nowadays, In the USA The contemporary fan can see the Sid & Nancy Punk Punch & Judy Show in Brooklyn, or on the West Coast, catch a performance of Punch & Jimmy, which is Punch “with a Gay twist”.
The professor told us that in the UK, the storyline of a Punch and Judy show can be different in every performance, with stock characters ranging from crocodiles to policemen. Changing public taste and social awareness of issues like child abuse however, means that the traditional nature of the show is being adapted. ‘Unsuitable’ characters like the Devil or Pretty Polly, Punch’s mistress, are now less common, while Punch’s unacceptable habit of beating his wife and baby is often left out.
There is an annual gathering of Punch showmen in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. In 2012 the TV reported that Punch and Judy professors from all over the world gathered at Covent Garden for “the Big Grin”, a celebration of Punch and Judy’s 350th anniversary. They performed in front of the Punch and Judy Pub. Built in 1787, this pub was thought to be named after the puppet show performances that took place in the nearby piazza for the children of flower-sellers – Covent Garden originally being a flower market.
A typical Punch and Judy show today will probably include traditional characters such as:
Mr Punch ~ a violent, rude and not at all politically correct, character who solves his problems by using a ‘slapstick’ which is where the phrase ‘slapstick comedy’ comes from, plus Judy ~ his long suffering wife and the Baby. There may also be a Policeman, a Crocodile, a Skeleton and a Doctor. Often there are props like sausages.
Joey ~ the clown, based on the real life Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) who was a tragic character and the world’s most famous clown, is a traditional character.
Other characters, which used to be regular but are now only seen occasionally, include Toby the dog, Hector the horse, Pretty Polly ~ Mr Punch’s mistress; the Devil, the Beadle, the Hangman ~ known as Jack Ketch, and Mr. Scaramouch.
Some characters are now only seen in historical re-enactment performances including the Servant or Minstrel, and the Blind Man.
My Collywobbles told us that he rarely uses other characters including Boxers, Chinese Plate Spinners, topical figures, a trick puppet with an extending neck (the “Courtier”) and a monkey.

Mr. Collywobbles certainly taught me to appreciate this art form and inspired me to go off and search the internet for more information. There is a basic plot or storyline in Punch and Judy which was actually printed in 1828. Prior to that the storylines were handed down and developed orally. But, like most good showmen, Mr. Collywobbles adapted his performance brilliantly to the audience, and kept the humour topical.
And as for Charles Dickens? Well he was a great fan of Joe Grimaldi and he loved Punch and Judy shows. In 1849 he wrote,

In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering.

—Charles Dickens, Letter to Mary Tyler, 6 November 1849, from The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol V, 1847–1849
Charles Dickens referred to Punch and Judy shows in several of his books to make a point or draw an analogy. Indeed in the Old Curiosity Shop he introduces a Punch puppeteer and his Bottler in the characters of Short and Codlin. They meet and travel with Little Nell and her grandfather throughout rural England revealing a lot about life on the road.

All in all it was a great evening. True to the WI ethos it was inspiring and educational while being a lot of fun.

Fireworks for Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday

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Tonight there will be the start of the celebrations in honour of William Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday. The celebrations will be spectacular in Stratford on Avon, his birthplace and the home of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Resurrecting an old tradition, there will be a massive firework display over the River Avon behind the theatre. The display starts at 10.40 so it will be a late night for me but I am hoping to get a good view from the bridge in the Bancroft Gardens. I used to walk this way to school every day when I was a teenager so it will bring back lots of memories.

In addition to traditional pyrotechnics, the special birthday display will feature an 8 metre high frame (note this is smaller than the 1830 one!) depicting Shakespeare’s face, which will light up in ‘stars’ made of fireworks. It will be based on the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio, and reminiscent of Juliet’s lines about Romeo~

Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

If you haven’t read my blog about the 400th Birthday celebrations you can find it at this link~ http://wp.me/p2gGsd-5c

There is also a wonderful Shakespeare blog here ~ http://theshakespeareblog.com/2014/04/fireworks-for-shakespeare/