Henry Wowler has a Hissy-fit

Once upon a time, a long, long time (well, 18 months) ago, The Cigarette was the siren-song that lured Hubcap back to the house from wherever he happened to be. Yes, whatever time I chose to come down from the office for a fag-break, the minute I began rolling it he was guaranteed to turn up: on early/late lunch, to get changed/clean his teeth before a doctor/ dentist appointment, to pick up/drop off gear and have an unscheduled cuppa or loo-break while he was at it, or because he’d finished the day’s jobs/was rained off/had randomly decided to knock off early or take a half-holiday – thus obliging me to either wait for the fag until he cleared off again, or have it outdoors, or sit uncomfortably at the end of the kitchen, blowing smoke out of the window. I kid you not – it was like some weird psychic whistle calling him home.

But now I’ve given up (by and large), the lure has changed to Henry Wowler’s tea-time. No matter at what point in the cat-son’s permitted feeding window (any time after 3.30 pm; or 3 pm, at a push; or even 2.30, if his demands become too unbearably annoying) he wakes and decides that he’s hungry, the minute I dish his food out Hubcap’s van is sure to roll up – whereupon the trauma starts.

Mr Wowler dines in the kitchen, you see, not far from the back door – and like any cat, he dislikes being disturbed while he’s eating. Unfortunately, Henry finds Daddy-cat extremely disturbing – sometimes by his mere existence and proximity, especially when he’s dressed in his boiler-suit and big clumpy work-boots, which are clearly very dangerous for cats. Then there’s the noise factor as heavy feet tramp up and down the garden path unloading gear from the van to the shed, passing a bare metre away from Henry’s bowl; and the ultimate horror of the back door opening and shutting, often repeatedly depending on what needs bringing into the house – firewood, coal, shopping, armloads of soggy clothing etc – before Hubcap is finally finished and can divest himself of the scary work-wear and sit down for his own meal.

If Henry’s really hungry, he might dare to snatch a few mouthfuls while this is going on, tensed to spring away at any moment should the door open; but sometimes it’s simply too much for a cat to cope with. Like yesterday, for instance, when I was making dinner and (surprise surprise) the arrival of a soft pressure against my calf and a long orange tail curling round my leg coincided almost to the second with the sound of an engine drawing near. I dished Henry’s food out as he dashed into the living room, then followed to give him a reassuring stroke and encourage him to eat before Hubcap came in. He duly jumped down from the armchair only to halt dithering in the doorway, caught between the sounds of trundling lawnmower wheels and clumping boots ahead, and Mummy-cat’s urging from behind.

I should’ve known better. Henry Wowler does not like being told what to do; and when he’s in a Mood he does not like people dogging his paw-steps and invading his personal space. And of course, now he was in a Mood, baulked of the pleasure of stuffing his face in peace by his horrible, inconsiderate cat-parents. ‘Ssssssssss!’ he said to me crossly, ‘Wrow-row-row-row-row,’ then turned tail and fled upstairs.

None of my previous cats have ever hissed the way Henry does. But being a cat of decided character and voluble expression, the Sound of Extreme Wrath and Displeasure is quite a common part of his vocabulary; and he usually gets away with it with me, although Daddy-cat objects and has been known to swat his little ginger bum for using bad language. And I let it go this time because I felt quite sorry for the little chap – not to mention impressed by the admirable clarity with which he made his feelings known.

(For any reader concerned by Mr Wowler’s hungry plight, the story does end well – within half an hour he’d managed to fill his belly and curl up on Mummy-cat’s lap, and we all lived happily ever after – or at least until I had to get up and go for a pee…)

Sandal Castle: Ruination of a Famous Ruin

dscn3857Sandal Castle near Wakefield is well-known to Wars of the Roses history buffs as a favourite residence of Richard, Duke of York, and close to the spot where he and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, met their deaths in battle in December 1460. This, along with its connections to Richard III and its use during the later English Civil War, make the castle a site of local and national heritage significance; and when I published my Wars of the Roses battlefield guidebook Walk Wakefield 1460 in 2011, the place was in fine fettle. Stout timber stairs across the moat and up the motte gave full access to the monument (a couple of years later, stairways down into the moat were added, giving spectacular views of the earthworks), and its Visitor Centre, containing displays on the castle’s history, plus space for educational activities, loos and a shop, was open every Wednesday to Sunday for four hours a day. The site looked tidy and well cared-for, and was a wonderful amenity for the dog-walkers, joggers, local families and visitors from farther afield who came to enjoy its beauty and unique atmosphere (not to mention the bracing winds that always seem to blow there).

Today it’s a very different, and depressing, story. Years of savage cuts to local authority budgets forced Wakefield Council to pare back staffing until the Visitor Centre finally had to close completely; then the stairways to the inner bailey and up the motte became structurally unsound and were blocked off in March this year, limiting permitted access to the perimeter of the monument only.

The consequences were sadly predictable. Lack of access for grounds maintenance means the inner monument is now so overgrown with bushes and weeds that it looks a right mess. Many visitors totally ignore the ‘No Entry’ and warning signs, (or view them as a challenge), and simply scramble or ride mountain bikes up and down the earthworks, damaging the grass and forming highly visible, unsightly tracks. With no staff to warn them off or call the police, they do this quite blatantly; the other day I witnessed several truanting schoolboys climb to the top of the motte, and a ‘carer’ (hah!) lead his special needs charge very deliberately up and down the sides of the moat (proving that some folk really don’t have the sense they were born with). The site has become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, a place for teenagers to congregate at night to booze (leaving their empties behind, of course), intimidate bona fide visitors, and spray their moronic graffiti – yes, recently the stonework was vandalised with purple paint, the work of local yobs well-known to police, who are now bragging about their exploits around the neighbourhood. Most dangerous of all, a group of young adults who should have known better drove a car around the site during the day, putting everyone else present with their children and dogs in danger, and leaving deep wheel ruts in the grass as a lasting trip hazard.

Am I angry? You bet. Who do I blame? Primarily the Government, for consistently starving local authorities of the money to provide essential services, let alone quality of life amenities like heritage (always a soft target at times of austerity). The site abusers: those who lack respect for themselves, for other people’s safety and enjoyment, and for our shared environment and history. (However, I can sympathise with locals whose Council Tax goes in part to pay for Sandal Castle’s upkeep and who are determined to continue accessing the whole site as they always have done, despite the blocked stairways). And for all that I understand Wakefield Council’s financial difficulties, I can’t help feeling frustrated by the flabby, short-sighted, ‘we can’t do that’ approach they seem to have taken, rather than energetically pursuing solutions to this problem. Where is the joined-up thinking? Where is the major public appeal to raise a relatively modest £175,000 to reinstate the walkways? Where is the regional tourism drive to capitalise on the unprecedented levels of national and international interest in the Wars of the Roses since the discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012? And why is it now falling on unpaid members of the community to kick up a fuss and take action when there are senior and principal council officers receiving good salaries to address issues like this?!

Brexit Blues #1: Referendum Depression

Dear readers: you may have been surprised by my lack of rants about Britain’s recent referendum and decision to quit the EU – because God knows, the whole sorry farce gave plenty to rant about, as it will for years to come.

The reason for this dearth, thanks to the double-whammy of the result and a nasty virus doing the rounds, was that I temporarily lost the will to live, let alone blog. Seriously – the farrago of Farage, the lies piled on lies, the jingoistic ravings of the far-right, the self-seeking hypocrisy and gross political ineptitude on all sides, plunged me deep into the sort of depression I thought I’d long recovered from. I don’t mean a bummed-out mood that can be jollied away by a glass of wine and a funny film. I mean a leaden lethargy that turns getting up and dressed to face another day into an effort akin to climbing Everest; a hopeless negativity that makes it impossible to see beyond the world’s cruelty and horror to the love and beauty that exist alongside; a lasting despair that makes the idea of escaping through death seem appealing.

Anyone who’s experienced full-blown clinical depression will be nodding sagely at this point, while anyone who hasn’t may be thinking, ‘Suicidal over politics? How very self-indulgent/melodramatic/stupid,’ or something along those lines. So before I finally vent my thoughts on the fiasco of ‘Brexit,’ (the very word, that obnoxious little contraction, makes me want to run amok with an axe), I’d like to say a few words about the black dog that’s pursued me since childhood and still, on occasion, drags me down.

Endogenous depression, the type that comes from within, isn’t pretty. It isn’t languishing on a couch while silent tears roll with fetching pathos down one’s pallid cheek – it’s more like open-mouthed bawling, uncontrollable and inconsolable, with red eyes, red face and copious snot. It’s deeply complex; symptoms vary greatly between individuals, but may include a sense of being overwhelmed; a nerve-peeled hyper-sensitivity, a tendency to over-personalise, over-analyse and brood on the motivations of others, make negative assumptions about them – often wildly inaccurate – and act accordingly; bouts of hysterical frenzy alternating with long, silent withdrawals; and contempt for folk who can’t grasp just how bloody awful everything is, mingled with jealousy and resentment of their bovine, contented oblivion. The damaged self can be horribly selfish, narcissistic, paranoid, self-obsessed, unreasonable and blind to the feelings of others; the memory of some of my behaviour while ‘acting out’ my internal miseries and dramas still makes me cringe decades later. (Any non-depressives who want to get a handle on how this mind-set feels, try reading Sylvia Plath’s poems and journals; or the memoirs by Dido Merwin and Lucas Myers in Anne Stevenson’s Plath biography, Bitter Fame, to see how its manifestations impact on helpless bystanders). Depression is- well, depressingly common, affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide, and I lose count of the number of past or present sufferers I’ve personally known. It goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and guilt for being so pathetically unable to cope with everyday stuff that everyone else apparently takes in their stride; it is at the very least life-blighting, and at the very worst, life-ending – I’ve lost one dear friend and several acquaintances to suicide when they couldn’t take the pain any longer, and on occasion come perilously close to checking out myself.

So depression isn’t being feeble, something a person can simply ‘snap out of’ at will; it’s a serious, potentially fatal illness often (as in my case) resulting from unbalanced brain chemistry combined with unresolved early trauma. Luckily, an effective course of treatment in the 1990’s saved my life; and apart from episodes brought on by external circumstances or the hormonal mood-swings of advancing middle-age, since then I’ve been a pretty happy bunny – that is, until the referendum catapulted me back onto familiar dark mental pathways and made me want to opt out, not out of Europe but out of existence itself.

How am I coping? Avoiding the news, for a start – current affairs are too threatening to my mental health and the precarious equilibrium I’ve begun to claw back. Practising mindfulness, staying in the here and now, trying not to mourn over what’s passed or panic about what’s to come, concentrating on our unchanged immediate surroundings and shutting my eyes to the wider world until I’m strong enough to look at it again. Trying not to get too angry, hungry or tired, because then I’m more vulnerable to falling into the abyss. Hanging onto life primarily for the sake of the two beings who want and need me most, my husband and cat; hoping and trusting that I’ll regain the desire to live for myself and everyone else who cares about me; resolving that if it doesn’t happen soon, if a stable, usually happy state doesn’t return, I’ll seek medical treatment. And now publishing this to say to any fellow sufferers from ‘Brexit Blues’ or other forms of depression: you’re not alone. You’re not weak or pathetic. You do deserve help; I hope that you’ll seek and find it, and from my heart, I wish you every sort of well.

Richard III and ‘King Power’!

Being totally uninterested in football, it’s not like me to wait on tenterhooks for a match result – but that’s what happened last night, and now I’m absolutely delighted that Leicester City have just become champions of the Premier League.

Five years ago, news that the football team of an obscure Midlands city had beaten the likes of Manchester United might have rated a few column inches outside the UK as a heart-warming ‘triumph of the underdog’ story. But today it’s splashed all over the international media, including the New York Times, and why? The answer is, rather bizarrely, ‘King Richard III.’ In the first place it’s because, thanks to the discovery and re-burial of his remains in the city centre, people all over the world know about Leicester and continue to be interested in what’s happening there; and in the second place because of the almost spooky about-face in the Foxes’ fortunes since they began playing under the ‘King Power’ banner (while, ironically, York City’s Minstermen languish at the bottom of the second league).

Divine proof that Richard III is a Leicester supporter? I wouldn’t go that far – Richard may well have shared his elder brother Edward’s conviction that football was a frivolous pastime which distracted young men from the far more important pursuit of practicing with the longbow. However, I can’t help thinking there is something in it – like morale. From being the footballing face of somewhere few people outside Britain or the international Ricardian community had ever heard of, the team was catapulted into the spotlight as representatives of a city made world-famous as the last resting place of England’s last warrior king – and by God, they’ve lived up to it. Positive psychology plays a big part in winning at sport, so perhaps naming their stadium ‘King Power’ and emblazoning the words, with a crown, on their shirts was inspired: a very visible way of dinning that sense of power and pride into the players, and supporters, every time they set foot on the field.

Of course, not everyone’s pleased; the usual suspects on social media are clucking and carping about exploitation and the horrible disrespect of hanging a Leicester City scarf round the neck of Richard’s statue beside the Cathedral. I find this sad, because it strikes me as quite the opposite: an affectionate, humorous gesture showing Richard being owned and embraced by the citizens, remembered, included and identified with their victory (and I think he looks cute in the scarf) – just as people everywhere are reminded of him every time they see an image of the King Power Stadium or the Foxes wearing those shirts. To me, it’s wonderfully positive publicity for British sport and British medieval history, a welcome antidote to all the sadness and horror of the regular news. What’s not to like? Yes, long may Leicester City’s King Power last – go, Foxes!

Towton 555: Remembering Palm Sunday

For the first time in ten years, I’m not stressed out as the date approaches Palm Sunday. Why? Because the Towton Battlefield Society annual event to remember the fallen of Britain’s bloodiest battle on Palm Sunday 1461 has been, if not cancelled, then radically scaled down.

Since my first participation back in 2005, the event steadily grew and developed, helped by a series of freakishly perfect Spring weekends which attracted ever more re-enactors and traders keen to start off the new season, and ever larger audiences keen to find something interesting to do on a fine sunny Sunday. From 2007 I was on the management team; and as secretary and chair of the Society’s in-house re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie, it naturally fell to me and hubcap to organise the living history camp, guest re-enactors and programme of field entertainment, including combat demonstrations and a battle finale. Planning and preparation involved a massive amount of work – not only for us but for the TBS chairman and committee, other Frei Compagnie members, and many Society members who spent successive weekends gathering and processing wood for the camp fires, cleaning the barn to receive traders and exhibitors, and mowing and marking out the field. Then the event itself spanned four days of preparation, delivery and cleaning up afterwards, with everything from setting cones out on the roads, marshalling the car-park and cleaning out the Portaloos being done by volunteers, many of whom were fitting all this in around full-time jobs.

By the battle’s 550th anniversary, a low-key day of guided walks and a small living history camp had turned into one of the biggest private events of its kind in Yorkshire and, arguably, one of the best. Many re-enactors and visitors would come along year after year to enjoy the very special atmosphere of an event held in the grounds of Towton Hall, where the famous mass graves were found, courtesy of landowner and Society President Mrs. Elizabeth Verity; and in terms of commemorating ‘our boys’, I like to think we did them proud.

Alas, in the process we all ran ourselves ragged and it became too much to cope with. By December it was obvious that TBS wouldn’t have enough volunteers to run a large public event safely and professionally in 2016, and it had to be cancelled. To be honest, my relief was as huge as the task-list we would otherwise have had to embark on straightaway in the New Year. Realisation soon followed that neither hubcap or I could face ever picking up that burden again – it had always been very tough for a self-employed pair at the financial year-end, and start of the busiest season in Mick’s gardening business – so whatever might happen on future Palm Sundays, any living history element won’t be organised by us!

But of course the Battlefield Society will always commemorate Towton, and this year I’m looking forward to taking part in a far more chilled-out way. Our main public event is next Saturday, 19th March: a series of guided walks of the Battlefield Trail between 9.30 am and 2 pm – we’re leading the 11.30 walk – plus a couple of Society stands in the barn on Old London Road, where I’ll also have a Herstory stall selling new and pre-owned books, and the trilogy of Richard III CDs by The Legendary Ten Seconds. Then on Palm Sunday itself we’ll go round the trail again on a special members-only walk, which will include a wreath-laying service at Dacre’s Cross, before repairing to The Crooked Billet for lunch and a spot of archery. Compared to the amount of effort we’ve put in over the past decade, two walks and a little stint on my book-stall seems like a mere bagatelle!

So if you’d like to join us next Saturday, dress warm, wear stout shoes and come prepared to pay £3 into the Society coffers for your guided walk. You can also enjoy various medieval experiences at venues in York, including beautiful Barley Hall in Coffee Yard – see http://barleyhall.co.uk/event/battle-of-towton-commemorative-event/ for further information. Or if you’d like to support TBS but are too far away to attend these events, log onto Just Giving and sponsor our intrepid friends Wes Perriman and James Hodgson of the Red Wyverns (Clifford Household) who are marching from Skipton on March 18th and meeting up with the Beaufort Companye to complete the trek to Towton on the 20th. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing next weekend, please join us in spirit and spare a thought or prayer for the thousands of poor souls who died in miserable conditions on that snowy Palm Sunday 555 years ago…


The Traumatiser: Julie Bindel and Sanctimonious Students

Feminist writer Juile Bindel recently released a short, punchy video for The Guardian – ‘Sorry, We can’t ban Everything That Offends You – and I’m deeply offended by some of the content. Not by Bindel’s defence of free speech, (essentially, that it’s better to hear repugnant opinions and refute them with rational argument than to prevent them from being voiced). No, I’m offended by the self-righteous brigade in the National Union of Students: the ones who deny Bindel a speaking platform because they can’t be bothered to read or understand what she really means; the ones who think cross-dressing fancy dress should be banned in case it offends transgender people; and most of all by the ones who claim that they would be ‘traumatised’ if they had to repeat her ‘horrifically transphobic’ views.

Traumatised? Traumatised? Feh! Anyone capable of such pathetic self-dramatizing wouldn’t recognise real trauma if it walked up and slapped them in the face. How dare a minority of a minority lucky enough to have the brains and resources to enter tertiary education misappropriate the word for so trivial a purpose when millions all over the world are genuinely, horribly traumatised on a daily basis? It’s a symptom of our smug, self-regarding society where too many people are babied into adulthood with a grossly over-inflated sense of their own importance, and I’ve got news for you, children: you’ll find the adult world a whole lot rougher and ruder than Academia, full of unsympathetic grown-ups who won’t give a flying fig if you’re ‘traumatised’ by the idea of repeating words you don’t like. Try telling the drought-stricken, starving Ethiopians or the war-torn Syrians and Ukrainians how upset you are by Julie Bindel exercising her right to free speech. Go on, I double-dare you – I’d just love to hear what they reply.

And as for the woolly-minded naïvety of last year’s NUS Women’s Conference ‘ban fancy-cross-dressing’ debate, with its political hyper-correctness and control-freak mentality masquerading as concern for transgender feelings, well… the ‘pro-banners’ remind me of the joyless architects of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Imagine a world where they got their way: our legal system, already overstretched with serious crime, crushed by the weight of invented offences; informants gate-crashing ‘Tarts & Vicars’ and stag-parties, ever on the look-out for miscreants dressing up in forbidden clothes; police stations full to bursting with tipsy blokes in fishnet tights, mini-skirts and the wife’s purloined lippy. Taken to its logical conclusion, we’d have no more principal boys or pantomime dames; mass burnings of Little Britain, Mrs Brown’s Boys and League of Gentlemen DVDs (to name but a few shows in which cross-dressing is used, gasp shock horror, for comic effect); no more re-runs of Monty Python, Blackadder, or Morecambe and Wise; and a whole list of movies, (Stardust, Tootsie, Mrs Doubtfire and The Birdcage immediately spring to mind), the showing or watching of which would result in immediate incarceration for crimes against trans-emotions.

Well, stuff that. All I can say is thank God we can’t ban everything that offends some people – and I’m not the least bit sorry about it.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Fatal Februaries

February was a very bad month in the life of one of Britain’s most charismatic and controversial monarchs: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, Dowager Queen of France and, in 16th-century Catholic eyes, the heir to ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor and rightful Queen of England.
Mary’s claim to the throne came via her descent from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and great-niece of Henry VIII. The latter had barred the Stuarts from the succession in a characteristic fit of rage, having been outmanoeuvred in the dynastic marriage stakes when her mother Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, had married the young queen to the French dauphin instead of to Henry’s son Prince Edward. Nonetheless, this lineal descent from the founder of the Tudor dynasty made Mary a powerful threat to Elizabeth I, (who was widely viewed as illegitimate), and to the Protestant Reformation – a threat made more ominous by her power-hungry Guise family, who proclaimed her Queen of England on Mary Tudor’s death. Unsurprisingly, such dangerous presumption perpetually soured relations with Elizabeth and her chief adviser William Cecil; and while the widowed Mary was prepared to relinquish her immediate claim when she returned from France in 1561 to rule her Scottish kingdom, her determination to be recognised as heir-apparent was a constant thorn in her sister-queen’s side.

Comparisons between these two prodigies, Queens-Regnant in a male-dominated world, sharing the same small land-mass separated only by a lawless and disputed border, are usually made to Mary’s detriment. Modern commentators represent Elizabeth as coolly rational, governing from the head not the heart – whereas contemporaries saw her as irresponsible and unnatural, refusing to be a proper woman by marrying and breeding legitimate heirs to settle the succession; and her much-vaunted statesmanship consisted largely of prevarication and wrong-footing Parliament and foreign ambassadors alike by repeatedly changing her mind; the only wonder is that so many people fell for the same game for so long. Mary, on the other hand, was more amenable to male guidance; she had also done her marital duty once and was willing to do it again, if only a suitable husband could be found.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s all too easy to criticise her subsequent choice of Henry, Lord Darnley, son of the Earl of Lennox, a tall, slim, handsome youth with whom she became infatuated in summer 1565, and who proved to be a disaster in every respect (except for his crucial ability to sire a son); however, from Mary’s viewpoint, he was a sound dynastic prospect whose royal Tudor blood, as a descendant of Margaret Tudor by her second marriage to the Earl of Angus, could only bolster her own claim to the English crown. Alas, the spoilt, syphilitic, drunken Darnley was hopelessly out of his depth in the murky sea of Scottish clan politics; and after alienating almost the entire nobility, was done to death in the early hours of Monday, 10th February 1567. As assassination plots go, this one could hardly have been more inept or less discreet; Darnley was supposed to die when his lodgings were razed to the ground by a massive explosion of gunpowder, but the assassins made so much noise that they woke him and he escaped through a first-floor window, only to be caught and strangled in a nearby garden.

The regicide became the scandal of Britain and Europe, a public relations disaster which, even if Mary was entirely innocent of complicity, severely undermined her authority and reputation. She then made matters worse by failing to observe the proper period of mourning, burying her late husband at night without the ceremony due a king-consort, and giving away his prize possessions to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell – one of her most stalwart supporters, but also a prime mover in the assassination plot! Three months later, she sealed her fate by marrying the Earl, precipitating a revolt which ended in their defeat, Bothwell’s flight, (he fetched up in Norway, where he spent 12 years as a state prisoner until his death in 1578), and Mary’s imprisonment and forced abdication in favour of her infant son, James. Her escape and attempt to re-take her throne the following year having failed, she fled to England to throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy – a decision which resulted in her spending the rest of her life under house arrest in castles and manors of varying degrees of comfort and security until, in 1586, she was found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the queen and seize the English throne.

Typically, Elizabeth dickered over signing the death-warrant and thereby setting the extremely frightening precedent of having an anointed lawful monarch put to death; but she finally succumbed to her ministers’ relentless pressure, and Mary, Queen of Scots was duly beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8th, 1587. It was a sad, gruesome end for a woman arguably more sinned against than sinning, a victim of the self-interested ambition of the men in her life – so spare her a thought on this day, the 429th anniversary of her execution.