Last night I watched the International Space Station fly over. Its orbit had taken it over South America, crossing the Equator, and the Atlantic to overfly the West of England, seemingly directly over where I stood, watching, the Sun’s bright reflection outshining all the stars visible on so clear a night.
Aboard ISS are both American and Russian space people able to look down as they tracked over Europe until to the West Country eye the reflection of the Sun’s light faded as the ISS overflew Poland. On they passed over the lethal skies of the sovereign state of Ukraine, the land laid waste over the past four weeks by the vile hand of the Russian dictator Putin, outdoing the C20th excesses of Stalin. As they look down from their height above the world’s skies, do the space people debate or only stare and weep?
ISS’s track flew on to cross India where political self-interest has failed to condemn the awful excess of Russian war-mongering. In Ukraine this last week a ninety-five-year-old survivor of the Buchenwald WW2 concentration camp was shot dead. Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel was born in Kyiv, the city that was long established when Moscow was little more than a village.
The year 2022 will forever be in the books of history as a notorious and unforgivable year.
Until this year my knowledge of the Republic of Ukraine has been minimal. I knew little of the country’s geography and even less of its history. Over recent years there have been increasing press and broadcast reports and now in 2022 it is the world’s headline, it is awful and evil.
After the Twentieth Century with two World Wars and many subsequent regional conflicts, it is shaming that the all-out Stalinist devastation that the Kremlin is now unleashing on Ukraine can happen with only the bravery of the Ukrainians standing in defence.
Today I have been looking at the history of Ukraine, it is a long and awful tale of repression, serfdom and yet triumphs against the odds. Kyiv was an important town before Moscow was significant, yet Ukrainian history is full of tragedy. The Scythians were in those lands seven centuries before Christ, the Greeks came and the Slavs settled long before the Vikings came, Oleg capturing Kyiv in the Ninth Century A.D. Later the Mongols – Ghengis Khan’s grandson – invaded.
Later it was the Polish/Lithuanian empire that wielded power over the ever-changing boundaries of Ukrainian lands. The Turks came until the Cossacks – (Freemen) – rebelled before Tzarist Russia and Austria claimed their lands.
In 1917 there was all too brief independence before it was subsumed into the USSR. Stalin collectivized peasant agriculture, in 1932/33 there was famine when millions, mostly in Ukraine, died. Stalin’s purges then predated the Nazi onslaught with millions, mostly Jewish, murdered. Stalin,’s return led to reprisals assuming the people were disloyal.
In more recent history with the ending of the USSR, Ukraine moved closer to Europe as have other states, but there was hesitation and the opportunity was not taken. How wrong that looks today with the Stalinist Kremlin dictatorship. The utter cruelty of current events is the measure of man’s cruelty to man. It exceeds the worst of the animal kingdom.
They arrived on the charabanc for their seaside break at the Great Grand Hotel in Weston-super-Mare, down from the Midlands. Two nights bed and breakfast, take the sea air, have a good break then home again.
But something must have upset them. Was it their son turning up, Franklin? He’s a disruptive sort. Whatever it was they were in a right state when it came to be time to leave and go back home.
My, you would have thought witchcraft was at work, why the seas rose up, the winds howled, there were few trees left standing. Dudley was at it first and he was furious, but when it came to be Eunice’s turn never have I seen such fury, buildings trembled, rivers broke their banks and the sea roared.
Let’s hope Dudley and Eunice stay away and as for Franklin, we don’t want to see him again.
Rather shocked to see it is again ten months since I wrote in Chip’s Chatter. I must return to my original intention of monthly pieces now, surely, that the pandemic is waning.
Progress with my work in progress has also slipped but has picked up speed again for 2022. First, I am adapting my short story – PUFFBALL published in 2019 in the Exeter Authors Association anthology ‘Tales of Deepest Darkest Devon’ – into a novel. At first blink, this might be a straightforward task, but the skills of short stories and novels are very different. It is coming together, but the novel will not be ready until the year-end. The working title is EXMOOR PUFFBALL, but the mystery evolves around similar giant puffballs growing on Exmoor and in the mountains close by Kyoto in Japan.
Second, my other novel now in working draft is THE REGISTER OF JOE’S TREES. This spans the decades from wartime 1940s into the 2000s. It tells the story of Alice Hallet’s teenage affair with a US airman, Joe, whose B17 is lost on a 1943 bombing raid to her linking with his US family in her old age. Joe’s grandson comes looking for the Suffolk airbase where his grandfather was stationed.
The first signs of spring are here. The days are getting longer and the snowdrops are blooming.
You would have thought that the last few lockdown months would have been ideal for posting on the website and making progress on my several writing projects. Not a bit of it. I see it is ten months since I last posted on Chip’s Chatter and I have to admit progress on my work-in-progress novel writing has been slow.
What I have been doing is working on short stories and submitting to competitions and magazines. As ever there will be a wait of weeks or months before there is any development on that front. Now to progress my main novel in progress – The Register of Joe’s tTrees.
I have been reading short stories on Facebook, the Exeter Authors Association Coffee Time Short Stories on many Thursday mornings through the winter. My current reading is from my Fable – THE BATTLE OF SLOTTERHAM HALL, AD 1929 – when the Birds confront the Guns.
Good news today here – at one thousand feet above sea level in the Exmoor National Park – the first Swallow has returned from its Africa and back migration. The first Chiff Chaff was here three weeks ago, but has moved on. Now waiting for our House Martins who should be here by the end of the month, only hope the freezing nights will be over by then. They have work to do. The nests they built last summer have not survived the winter, smashing to the ground when winter birds try to press into them for nighttime roosting places. Wrens in particular creep in, but when too many try to get in the nest is soon broken. The artificial nests are waiting the Martins’ return.
I am reading Mark Norman’s thought-provoking book on Folklore; ‘Telling the Bees – and other customs – The Folklore of Rural Crafts – The History Press’. There is much to think about stemming from this book not only during our current locked down state, but in normal times and throughout history.
I am privileged to live in a house that was for many generations a working hill farm on Brendon Hill, the eastern edge of Exmoor. From the local 1841 National Census the Coles family were farming here and by the 1891 census a branch of the Vellacott family worked this land. Later, in the nineteen-sixties, the farm was sold by Dickie, known as ‘Two Shovels’ Vellacott, its land amalgamated with neighbouring holdings, the house left in other ownership retaining a few acres.
We find much evidence here of yesterday’s crafts, often lying where they fell, pieces showing a blacksmith’s skill at the forge – gate fittings, door latches and other pieces – all beaten out from a single piece of iron, not to mention many horseshoes and items that had once been part of ancient agricultural machines. These items bear current witness to the skill of craftsmen long departed.
An interesting fact seen in local Victorian census returns is the growth and decline of the population brought on by the opening and later closing of the adjacent Iron Mines and the rail connection to export iron ore off the hill through Watchet harbour to South Wales. In 1861 there were 164 residents living hereabouts in 29 dwellings, in 1881 there were 262 residents in 52 dwellings, but in 1891 only 111 residents in 22 dwellings. Of interest in the1881 return there were many Cornish names recorded as miners on the Withiel Florey census returns.
In the 1990s I was at an agricultural sale and, on impulse, bought a farm cart, a single axle Somerset Tipping Putt. It was made by the Thurloxton village wheelwright Jim Porter, evidenced by his name still visible on the backboard. In the 1950s our family lived in the then late wheelwright’s cottage, hence my impulse to buy the cart. All the timber work, including the tall iron-bound wooden wheels, were made by Jim Porter while the metal fittings, there were many, were made by Walter Winslade the nearby Shearston village blacksmith. After the sale I spoke with Percy Adams in his nineties who as a teenager had taken his working horse from his farm near Bridgwater to collect the cart on the day of the Armistice in 1918. After its working farm life of more than seventy years the cart was still in sound condition in its original, but faded, paintwork, maybe the odd floor board replaced, a testament to the skill of those two rural craftsmen. After a further twenty-five years idle parked up in a barn here, the cart went back to Thurloxton to be owned by the village marking the centenary of the Great War Armistice and of the cart on 11th November 2018.
As well as rural crafts Mark Norman’s book speaks of the folklore of bees. A few years back we had a swarm visit us unannounced until I noticed the steady traffic in and out of an enclosed compost frame. Lifting the lid, a superb wax ‘home’ was revealed, the size of half a rugger ball fixed to the bin lid, a wonderful piece of architecture its hexagonal cell wax lacework ball evidence of the bees’ craft over millennia. Later a local beekeeper collected the swarm in a hive-sized basket.
A joy we have had this spring into summer has been the return of ‘our’ house martins. These small birds are, in the main, the ones that have bred here in the last couple of seasons. Since then they have travelled down into Africa and returned to the precise place of their hatching. As soon as they were back, they set about repairing, or in two cases building anew, their superb rounded nests under the house eaves, craftsmanship of the highest order. In the spring drought it was hard to see where they were getting the mud to fashion their nests, but after one or two false starts the rains came and they succeeded. Since then they have laid eggs, now hatched and are forever feeding their next generation. These birds represent just one of the animal kingdom’s superb craft working skills, one that humans ignore at our peril as we exploit the riches of our planet and the universe beyond.
Thank you, Mark Norman for a fascinating book and inspiring these few thoughts.
Throughout the world people are attempting to isolate themselves and their families from the pandemic winding its deadly fingers through Twenty-first Century civilization. At the same time, in all countries, dedicated health professionals strive to repel the wretched consequences of Covid 19, often at great risk to themselves.
At 20hrs 45min and 30secs BST tonight, 29th March 2020, I reckon the International Space Station will be passing some 420 km overhead my house here on Exmoor in a just south of easterly direction. I’ve watched the ISS a few times this week, a shining bead of light traversing the sky in the last week’s clear nights. ( http://www.heavens-above.com ).
I don’t know how many or who are aboard at this time, but as our nation and the world population adjust to our isolation circumstance, the ISS crew are living their exalted isolation, a life they have trained for over years. They have one great asset, they can look out from their temporary home and see the world passing by beneath their flight, the same fascinating world as the Space Station has been looking down on for years.
Maybe there will be a subtle difference for the astronauts / cosmonauts at this time, less pollution in Earth’s atmosphere, less jet planes circling the globe, even if they can make it out, less movement in the cities, maybe less illumination in the nights they watch below their course.
Perhaps their isolation is a better set of circumstance than are those of their fellows they left behind for the duration of their voyage.
A delight of summertime is to see Dragonflies. They come in many sizes and colours. They are predators, hunting flies as they zip around in their summer mating dance. Most of their life cycle is under water, in some species for months, others it could be as long as five years. Climbing out of the water up a reed or anyother convenient growth, they moult into their impressive, often colourful, adult form, they pursue their adult purpose at speed, out helicoptering any man made flying machines with their incredible flying techniques beaten out with their twin sets of wings for their months-long adult life.
After the past days of heavy rain and with the day time temperatures falling I had not expected to see any dragonflies this past week, but this chap landed on a garden table as I was passing this morning, hoping to gain something from a brief burst of sunlight when the storm had passed.
Size varies, but is usually measured in inches. Yet there is some evidence in fossils that long ago, maybe 300 to 350 million years ago, there were huge dragonflies on earth with wingspans of thirty inches.
I like to think such giants might still lurk somewhere in the world today, in a jungle, far, far away. Or maybe closer to home!
I wrote a flash fiction piece recently, letting my imagination wander. Here it is.
Old Marcus has fished the river since he was a boy; experts and beginners alike seek out his wisdom on his home stretch of water. Day after day on afternoons he sits in his ancient canvas chair, on the river bank close by the last of the rotting timbers that had, in his father’s time, been the supports of a landing stage.
In late summer months he delights to watch dragonfly nymphs emerge from the water, climbing from their watery existence to moult into glorious aviators, sun-warmed, helicoptering over the riverbank into their brief flying lives.
Marcus blinks as something huge emerges from the water, heaving its bulk out of the river, climbing up the wreck of the old landing stage. A living thing larger than he’d ever seen emerge from the river.
As he watches the unbelievable nymph moults into the greatest dragonfly any man could witness. Sunshine warms its metallic blue body extending to the length of a walking stick, its twin pair of wings unfurling to the span of a grown man’s arms.
Hours pass before, with a wing beating purr of a tiger, the immense dragonfly lifts off from the timbers, pauses, circles round, then sweeps away from Marcus’s sight down river toward the village.
Marcus mutters in awe, ‘who will ever believe me that such a wonder exists, and on this stretch of our home water?’
In one of my infrequent episodes of tidying-up, a small round tin emerged, resisting any immediate attempt to reveal the contents within. A pipe tobacco tin from the 1950s, a remaining link to my father who for a few years after his return from War service smoked a pipe. Despite the censure in later years there was something welcoming to be greeted on returning home to the scent of pipe smoke.
In later years my father gave up smoking, as he also gave up his pre-war twice weekly fox hunting having been captured by the German army, made his escape, found his way to the Dunkirk beaches, only for his rescuing paddle steamer to be bombed mid channel and to be rescued again by the French navy as he swam, naked and determined, toward the English shore. He understood the terror of the hunted pursued by the many.
Despite regular endeavours over the next twenty-four hours, the tobacco tin was reluctant to reveal its contents. It was certain something was inside. Shaking the tin gave a sound intriguing enough to resist throwing the unopened tin away. I was sure this pipe tobacco tin was not the one my father had sent back from Italy when Mt.Vesuvius erupted in 1944, a massive and its most recent eruption. That other tin contained lava dust from the volcano; we still have it on a shelf somewhere.
It was obvious the Gold Block – 2 oz, net of Fine Virginia Cut Plug – tin opened by twisting the lid from its base. Hand pressure was resisted, hot water on the lid made no difference, tapping all round the tin was to no avail, rubber and leather gloves brought no success. The final resort on D+1 was WD40 in the knowledge the oil might contaminate the contents.
Five minutes later the tin was open and the contents unharmed. Inside was a supply of decades old small stationery labels, each with its string attached ready to identify keys and other like objects.
It struck me then how apt the legend on the tin was. I have been distracted of late from my work-in-progress, flitting, and hesitating, between one part-written novel and another, between – The Register of Joe’s Trees – set in the 1940s and ensuing decades, to another, with the working title – Exmoor Puffball – set in the twenty-tens here on Exmoor; yes, Puffball has been on the stocks for months, if not years.
In front of me was this wake-up call: GOLD BLOCK, to bring me back to measured and directed work. Further it was a tin full of labels as if each one was crying out to be a prompt to measure and inspire the pace of my writing.
Amongst the many joys of living in a house that was once the heart of an Exmoor hill farm, isolated and self-sufficient, are the unexpected things from a bygone age that turn up on occasion.
Over a long period, for many months the ground was too wet to get the big digger onto the site, we have re-worked our ‘top pond’. Over the years it had silted up with the run-off from the road blocking incoming field drains. Once the digger had done its work, I have been preparing the surrounding ground using the Quad to pull my small harrow, clocking up five miles round and round the pond, to work the bare, and dusty, earth for wildflower seeding. As a consequence a huge number of stones have been brought to the surface. I have collected a trailer load – where are those stone-picking Victorian school children when you need them?
One of the ‘stones’ I collected was triangular in shape. On closer examination after chipping away the dense earth attached, it turned out to be a long-lost, surely Victorian, iron plough shear. On another occasion, we found the closing hook from an old broken-down gate lying half buried, a prime example of the local blacksmith’s work, beaten out from a single length of metal. Also, still fitted on a larder door, there was a metal latch hand made on an anvil, as were the many horseshoes we’ve unearthed. The ‘pruning hook’, perhaps more a sickle, was my father’s and dates from the 1930s bearing his initials, PGT, burned onto the handle as he did with many of his working tools.
All these things tell a story, each is their own notebook, the equivalent of the notebooks all writers must have with them as they go about their day, noting down maybe only a word, a single sentence or more, that one day can be worked into a piece of writing. Over the years the notebooks accumulate, their jottings within being a seedbed of ideas for writing, maybe only a paragraph of fiction, or memorabilia, perhaps a verse of poetry. And some of those notebook seedlings will later prosper as the trigger of a short story, a novel or a script.