#sailingtoantarctica in 2016

It’s been a while but for a good reason. On 1 March I am off to the other side of the world. I will be joining the three-masted tall ship Europa and sailing to Antarctica and then Cape Town.

For this adventure, I’ve set up a separate and specific blog at www.sailingtoantarctica.com.  Come on over and have a look.

 

Bark Europa-panoramio.com

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#yesuntiltheend @dignityindying

Dear Mr Doughty,

I am writing to ask you to support the Assisted Dying Bill when it is published next week and comes before Parliament.  I understand from your reply to a friend that you will not be considering this till it is published on 11 September; given it has been widely trailed please take this as a plea for your support when you do come to consider the matter.

Last year my mother died. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003, although she was showing symptoms in 2002. She lived with it a long time before she died at 84. Over those years she lost her balance, her voice, her dignity and her courage, though not her wits. From a brave and physically active woman she became increasingly paralysed and bedevilled with anxiety and depression, but she always knew what was happening to her and the prognosis for her illness. For the last 18 months she was confined to a chair, unable to stand, walk, eat or drink without help. She had dedicated friends and carers and so, in a wheelchair and with difficulty, she was able to get out regularly. 

More than anything she loved horses and her greatest pleasure to the end of her life was driving a pony trap; for the last five years she relied on a local charity to make it possible, and she would celebrate her expeditions every Monday in the summer months.  One Friday in July she told me she wouldn’t be going the next week as she didn’t think it was safe any more.  That Sunday she stopped allowing herself to be helped to get up and she stopped eating. She took liquids for another 20 days till my brother, who lives abroad, could come and see her, by which time she was unable to speak but clearly knew what was happening to her.  As soon as he left she stopped drinking. She died 7 days later, having taken 28 days to go.

In the last year or so she had repeatedly asked me to take her to Switzerland, or to help her die at home.  I had refused, not because I didn’t believe in her right to die but because she was much too ill to travel. I was not prepared to risk a prison sentence by helping her in any other way. So she really only had that one choice. She could not collect drugs, or jump off a bridge, or drown herself. She was absolutely powerless. 

I know she would have preferred to die suddenly, in full health, doing something involving a horse and having reach 100. She didn’t have that opportunity. Given how ill she became, her options were very limited.  Maybe she wouldn’t have taken the poison. Maybe she would have preferred to go the way she did anyway. But it would have been her choice.

Everyone should have that choice. This is not about disability or religion or euthanasia. It is not even in itself about illness or age. For each individual, it is about their own choice to end their suffering, and only each person can decide when enough is enough. 

Please remember this story, and the many others like it you will hear during this debate, and vote to give people their choice to die with dignity.

This is the email I sent earlier this week to my MP in advance of today’s first reading of the private members bill that will get its first reading today.  (You can read more, including commentary from those opposed, here.) I;m not even sure it would have covered my mother; you can linger a long time, hallucinating and paralysed, with Parkinson’s Disease and maybe they would not have accepted her illness as terminal within six months. I profoundly believe she should have had the choice.

I did write about Celia’s death at the time and many people were supportive. Now is the time to think of the many stories in your lives and take a few moments to send the details to your MP. This bill is not about a bogey man of euthanasia or mercenary pressure. It is about the real monster of dying by inches, among strangers, with no remaining dignity or self-determination.

The picture below is my mother at the reins about two years ago. Thank you to Driving for the Disabled who gave her so much pleasure.

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The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper

P1210413Machynlleth is home to the rather wonderful Museum of Modern Art (more a gallery really as you can buy the work) and their annual show took this quotation (from Eden Philpott) as its starting point. This very beautiful piece by Martin Wenham is in the newly restored Tannery sculpture gallery. It stands on a piece of old slate too soft for roofing and is made of two timbers from a traditional prawner called Helena II which is being restored in Conwy. The sculpture includes the nails, each one individually made, which held it together. The quotation is carved in English on one side and Welsh on the other, using a font Denham has devised to enable both languages to be used in sympathetic and complementary ways in his work. He hand-draws the script and then carves the letters with great precision. The timbers still retain paint from Helena II, and he has used long-lasting red ochre to highlight the words. The work is called Pethau Lledrithol, or ‘magical things’ and it is beautiful.

Conwy, in addition to the castle and Plas Mawr is home to the Royal Cambrian Academy, the oldest artist led organisation in Wales. I was lucky enough to catch their 133rd Annual Summer Exhibition which had some fantastic work. The town is littered with galleries, including Oriel y Crochenwyr, the Potters’ Gallery. I had to be very disciplined or I would have left the town with a car full of new pieces. My flat is already overfull!

Ruthin sets a new, high standard for weaving art and making into the town, both encouraging artists to sell and attracting visitors. They have a comprehensive art trail which encompasses the very wonderful  Craft Centre. When I visited they were showing an P1210258exhibition of contemporary jewellery. From there you can follow the trail of Spy Holes by Lucy Strachan and Fred Baier. These are each set into walls around the town and when you peep through you find amazing visions. I could not capture them with my camera and they are not on the website: you will need to go to Ruthin to see them. In one, Landlocked, they give you an astonishing 3D fish-eye view of the hills around the town, lush and roomy, making you stand with your eye pressed to the wall yearning to enter fairyland.

P1210257Even the tree guards and benches are artist-designed. They are sturdy, attractive and
enjoyable. If wee Ruthin can do it, why not all of us? My many friends concerned with place-making, culture, regeneration and design, I offer you Ruthin as an outstanding example.

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Calanques, copper and stonechats

P1210353Amlwch on the north coast of Anglesey is now a small, depressed town with an obviously struggling economy. I talked to a young woman of 16 and her 12 year old brother, who were both itching to leave rather than hang about the dock on a sunny but deserted evening, and I couldn’t blame them.

Olwyn must have been here, for it is right on the coastal path. I walked a short stretch, P1210335seeing no other humans.  I heard lots of stonechats and finally saw one. She started up from the carpet of heather and gorse, her clacking cry warning me away, and she winged along the path below the height of the vegetation for several strides before she flew high and beyond my sight.

P1210349Yet Amlwch (pronunciation here) used to be the biggest copper exporting port in the world. The magic metal was mined in nearby Parys Mountain in the Bronze Age and by the Romans, and then in 1768 the ‘great discovery’ started the copper rush. It lasted about 100 years until mining was suspended. By then ship building had become more important and that kept the port thriving until about 1913. Since then, Amlwch has depended on small scale fishing and limited tourism, but not much else.

P1210345The harbour is thin, squeezed between cliffs and running back to a small beach. I can only find it described as a ‘natural creek’ but it is reminiscent of the calanques on the French coast east of Marseilles. (I’ve sailed there: you can find more about that here.) Those are deep fissures in limestone rock caused by differential erosion and very deep. Of course, they’re not affected by tides, but Amlwch is, and has had a hefty breakwater in place for a long time.

Of course, to today’s eyes this is a town on the edge of things, peripheral in so many ways. Look at it another way. It is 277 nautical miles to Dunvegan on Skye, the seat of the McLeods, 102 to Belfast, just 65 to Dublin and 56 to Liverpool. It is only 44 to Douglas (and you can even see the Isle of Man on a clear day). Contrast that to nearly 300 miles to London and almost 200 to Cardiff and 82 to Ellesmere Port. Of course, timewise those are closer now but not when your transport was a horse or your own two feet.

IMG_1804Barry Cunliffe’s majestic examination of the maritime history of the western edges of Europe Facing the Ocean puts it into context. He focuses on the Atlantic Arc from Greenland to the Canaries, and points to Irish Sea (despite tides and atrocious weather, as the ‘inner sea’ of the British archipelago, and a key highway from the rich fishing and hunting grounds of the north to the luxuries of the south. The presence of passage graves all along the Welsh coast support this.  And closer in, the connections are even more obvious. Yet Amlwch didn’t punch its weight for long. At its simplest that natural creek simply wasn’t big enough. North Anglesey needed a river that could stretch inland in the way of the Dee and the Taff. It’s wee harbour, great for protection, for beaching boats and loading barges, could not compete without one.

We are rethinking industrial transportation and manufacturing as 3D printing, exotic materials and customisation become the norm. Can long-marginalised spots rethink their centre of gravity? We should find ways to reimagine what can be offered from a little harbour in the middle of the inner sea on one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen.

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An up-to-the-minute castle

P1210295When Edward I built Conwy he was into shock and awe. It was the mid 1280’s, he’d just won great battles and he was, by all he held dear, going to hold North Wales. In four years – four years! – he built this enormous castle and the huge city walls on the banks of the eponymous river. He put a lot of modern stuff into it, though he retained the basics of thick walls and a well.

The castle had its own moorings, two keeps, one inside the other and security in depth, splendid royal apartments, big windows and big fires, and a massive field of firepower if anyone did manage to creep up close. He abandoned the older fortified site on the other P1210297side of the river, which straddled two camel-humped hills but with a poorer view of the estuary. He kicked out the monks, sending them to Aberconwy, though their clock tower still stands proud in the town. He didn’t stay there much though, and indeed only he, the next Edward and Richard II ever did sleep in the place.

The only time the castle was taken it was not brute force but guile. The castle garrison were all at off at mass one day in 1401 when two Welsh men, pretending to be carpenters (and presumably godless with it), rocked up at the gates with ready tongues and disguised weapons. The only two guards let them in and were killed for their troubles. The rebels, well fed up with their Anglo-Norman overlords by then and under the inspired leadership of Owain Glyndwr,, held Conwy Castle for 15 weeks before being overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower.

P1210309The whole place, even in ruins, has the unmistakable stamp of authority, the white-hot urgency of new technology and brute force of the mailed fist. You can even tell its power in the pouring rain, as I know to my cost. Its plastered white walls must have shone for miles to tell the locals who ran the place now. It is a very fine example of the military architecture of its time and is a deserved World Heritage site.

Nonetheless, it cost the king the equivalent of £45m in today’s money and left him too strapped to finish Beaumaris or Harlech. Think on this, as we push for infrastructure investment.

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Sunshine, towers and Tudors in Plas Mawr

P1210322I was not suddenly transplanted to Cadiz, taking pictures of one of their torres, where they watched out for returning ships. This lookalike was built by Robert Wynne, who had travelled widely in the train of one of Henry VIII’s ambassadors, and brought a lot of his ideas home. Late in life he married again and sired seven children. And he built his dream home, the delightful Plas Mawr (or ‘great hall’) in Conwy.

The Wynnes had no need of social climbing: Robert was a third son but he had grown up in Castle Gwydir and both he P1210326and Dorothy were descendants of the old Princes of Gwynedd. They were fervent supporters of the Tudor regime and took conspicuous consumption to its outermost limits. Elaborate plastering, much of it done with Continental pattern books and painted in garish colours: huge windows in all the family rooms: a big hall decorated with the most modern wall hangings; rush carpets and wicker fans in front of a faux marble fireplace: dinner served on real silver. Nothing was too much trouble if it went to consolidate their status.

By the standards of the late sixteenth century their staff had a large kitchen and pantry,P1210317 and also this lovely room in which to brew beer and bake bread. Water of course was unsafe and Robert had a penchant for wine, but beer was the everyday staple for family and servants alike. There was a distinct social stratification. Robert’s ‘man’ had his own room. The rest bunked on straw palettes in the attic. .And the family got posh beer and white bread instead of ale and rye.

They also made a delightful garden, set across three courtyards and including a formal parterre of herbs and vegetables, many potted plants and trained trees and space enough to walk and talk.  All this was enclosed within the walls of the mansion, making the whole house a ‘fine and private place’ obviously full of life and energy when it was built. I didn’t know the Plas existed before I went to Conwy and it was a wonderful surprise.

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The Translators’ Cathedral

The little town of St Asaph, Llanelwy in Welsh, sits on the pilgrim trail from Holywell on P1210260the north east coast to Holyhead on Anglesey, the leaving point for the holy island of Bardsey. It was an useful stopping place so when the Scot Kentigern founded a See there, on the banks of the River Elwyn, he knew what he was about. His successor was the eponymous Asaph who built up the church. The building has suffered since, being burnt by Edward I for being too Welsh and by Owain Glyndwr for being too English, followed by the standard pillaging of the reformation and finally the Victorian romanticisation of the ubiquitous Gilbert Scott. Nonetheless it is charming.

P1210268The cathedral is famous for two things, one being its size. It is one of the smallest in Britain at just 182 feet long and 68 feet wide. Perhaps more importantly, it is the home of the earliest translation of the complete bible into Welsh. William Morgan, then vicar of Llanrhaeadr ym Monchnant but later bishop at St Asaph, took 11 years over the task; he is credited with producing a bible of great beauty and power which reflected many of the different usages of Welsh, and being pivotal in preventing Welsh dying out. The cathedral holds on the original 800 copies produced. It also has a Chapel dedicated to translators and in the grounds this rather stern monument.

Despite this history, the cathedral itself is oriented eastwards, rather than to Wales. Almost he only Welsh on display, apart from the chapel sign (above), is that required by current law, translating leaflets and the like. Flags of the British Legion display the Union flag but there is nary a dragon, not even a wyvern, to be seen.It is rather the opposite of the usual act of translation, where prominence is given to the text and the agent is unseen.P1210272

The town also illustrates that monarchs make cities, not god. There has been a site of worship here since 560AD and cathedral for some 1000 years. Queen Elizabeth II made it a city in 2012.

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Castle/home: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn to George Herbert, the Princes of Powis

P1210230Powis castle sits proud on its hill, looking east to England, and in every other direction surveying Wales. Its red-brick, elegant fenestration and statued courtyards belie its early history as a defensive castle for the Welsh borders. The gatehouse is still there. It overlooks what was the main barbican before the carriage road was laid and you can see the remains of the soldiers stairway between floors, cunningly hidden inside the elegancies of later times.

Inside, it is very much a stately home of Britain, now kept as in its Edwardian heyday. A hodgepodge of stuff, from 8th century BCE Grecian urns, doubtless collected on some Grand Tour to fine chonoiseries , the multiple prizes of Clive of India, and the very latest decorative plasterwork. I only had a short time but you could spend a day in these low-lit halls, admiring the spoils of four hundred years of peace at home and conquest IMG_0205abroad. There is even a spectacular Royal Bedroom, prepared by the grateful survivors for Charles II. It’s not known whether he ever slept here, but I was assured that Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and George VI and Queen Mary had indeed used the balustraded, magnificently hung four poster bed.

Outside, the castle is surrounded by magnificent IMG_0204baroque gardens. They step down the escarpment in broad terraces lined with borders in the grandest of styles. Ancient, topiaried yews dot the landscape and hedge around the croquet lawn, with careful gaps to show off the house or especial statues. Like the house, they are a mixture of the homely – variegated geraniums and species fuschia – and the storied, exotic, unknown plants brought back from wilder spots, thriving in the warm damp of north Wales.

Beyond the formality lies a deer park, a swathe of managed countryside now full of pathsIMG_0202 and nooks. The rain was a haze blurring the windless surface of the lake so reflections moved even as the water and the trees were still. Amidst all the opulence and confusions of history here was a touch of the eerie, the hills that had been there long before the pond was made.

 

 

 

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Giants lived in Mwnt: how the coastal path was made

Giants lived in Mwnt. They were long-lived and clean limbed and very tall, though they built small with doors more fat and wide. It made them safe, they felt, from the sea-monsters and storms of the Irish Sea.

There were the saints of course. Mwnt beach was a lawn of yellow sand stretched under gnawed-out cliffs beneath the glacial cone of Y Foel. The priests made it a staging post of the bodies of the saints travelling east to their last home at Ynys Enlli, so far away that even on the clearest day a giant stood on top of the mount could not see it. Maybe they were not meant to: after all, they were giants, not worshippers.

Their numbers were dwindling. It was slow but perceptible. The people of Mwnt remained long-lived, often seeing half again of their three-score years and ten, but they were becoming like the rest. Smaller, devout and quarrelsome. At length, Olwen realised there were no others, that she was the only giant left in Mwnt. She asked the travellers who came through, bearing the holy remnants, and heard of no other in the wide kingdom of Dyfed.

Giants stay at home. They gather what they need, or it is brought to them by the wind and the sea and the people. Olwen stood on the top of Y Foel, her red checkered trousers caught by the wind which blew the turquoise cape back from her shoulders and knotted her hair into lumps. She looked down at the little white church and turned to gaze north across the sea towards Eire and Alba. Behind her stretched the fields and walls, the husbandry of the people and to each side of her lay cliffs and cwms.

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Striding down the mount, she set off east, towards the dawn. She walked across the field by the graveyard, scattering the sheep until she stood at the edge of the cliff. It was sheer in places, the slate exposed, teeth reaching into the water. At the top, slate melted into tussock grass, gorse, nettles and brambles, vetch, plantain and carpets of bluebells. She laid her great left foot down and created a space, a flat place where the earth took her imprint and made a path for her. She put her right foot down and the same happened, the cliffs of Ceredigion welcoming her tread, opening the way.

She was careful. Those cliffs were steep, and it would be a long fall, even for a giant. She walked and walked. Down into tiny valleys the breeze leapt over but where the sun shone  the may was already in full bloom and streams rattled over the rocks. Up to the heights where the tiny leaves of bracken were still squeezed shut like a child’s eyes when the school bell rings, unwilling to waken to the spring. Sea pinks waved gay as the flags of the people and thorns caught in her trousers making her yet more tatterdemalion.

Once she looked back, just once, at the pile of her home and the island beyond it. The path stayed open, marking her passage along the coast, the ups and downs and steeps of it. More often, she looked to her left, out to sea where the gulls rested on the swell. She caught the flicker of dolphins, and people too, in their little boats, hunting the same flashing, silver prey.

Despite her size and the length of her stride this was unaccustomed work and she was slow. Some hours later, as the sun rode high, she reached a flat open headland, the grass cropped fine by the sheep. Overhead the clouds were ragged tails, rough as her hair, showing the wind still blew fast off the sea in the upper air.. Rain would come, but not yet awhile. She walked down and down and down, not just to a stream this time but right to the beach and the small town where people had gathered. Here was a home of the herring fleet where men made boats and women made nets, a humming centre of trade. The air stank of the fish. She saw they had a white church too, home of Cynwyl who they had made a saint. She snorted, shaking the houses lining the clifftops with her surprise. The man had been a cousin of her mother, no more a saint than she was.

Aberporth, they called the little town. Its two beaches became one at the low tide, exposing the small slate cliffs. She sat down on the flat, warm sand and rested for a while. Tomorrow, she would leave again, and continue making her path along the cliffs and beaches of her land.

(Yesterday, four of us did this walk from Mwnt to Aberporth. It’s only six miles but it was a lot of ups and downs. I am burnt down one side from the strong spring sun. This is less than 1% of the magnificent Welsh coastal path.)

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Busking for death money: @MRBrown_author

My pal Melissa Brown is doing a great job fundraising for her first novel, Becoming Death. I’ve read the first chapter and I want to see it all please. She’s using Kickstarter and I offered to host a blog for her. Here it is. Please give her a wee helping hand.

photo-1024x768Becoming Death is a tale of family secrets, falling in love and questioning your destiny, told from the perspective of a supernatural protagonist. When Madison Clark turns eighteen, she is ushered into the secretive family business. Little does she know, her family are Grim Reapers, custodians of souls on their journey to the beyond. Will she be able to carry out her new duties when she finds out that her next victim is her best friend?

I am a creative writing teacher seeking public support to crowd fund my YA novel, Becoming Death. Using Kickstarter (www.Kickstarter.com), I have until December 17th to convince friends, family and members of the public to raise £1,250 to fund production of my debut novel. The primary costs of the campaign are cover design, professional editing and printing. Earlier this year, I was longlisted for the Nottingham Writers’ Club’s 2014 national short story competition, shortlisted for the Ideatap Inspires competition and a featured poet at the Norwich City of Stories launch event, so funding my Kickstarter would be a great end to the year.

Originating from Bay City, Michigan, I made my home in Norwich, UK twelve years ago. In that time, I have contributed to education and the arts, working in the city’s nationally-renowned Millennium Library and teaching English and Creative Writing to both children and adults in the city. I have completed volunteer assignments for Writers’ Centre Norwich, and was a featured poet at this year’s Norwich: City of Stories launch event.

I have always been interested in the supernatural but I wanted a new take on it. I started researching different types of creatures and one that stood out to me was the Grim Reaper. After researching the Grim Reaper, I found this creature was very rarely portrayed as female, thus my main character was born. Madison is a typical teenage fangirl: she writes fanfiction about her OTP (one true pairing), is addicted to her favourite comic book series and doesn’t really know how to be an adult yet.

The book sets up a new back story of how Grim Reapers might function in the modern world, past traditions like wearing robes and carrying scythes are reserved for ceremonies. Instead they attend evening classes to learn how to use their powers, use an app to track their victims and scroll through social media to learn more about them

It was the challenge of completing a project within a tight timescale that helped me decide that crowdfunding was the right option for me, and I believe crowdfunding offers an exciting opportunity for up-and-coming novelists to break into the market. I welcome donations of any amount. Rewards for donating include advance copies of my book, bespoke jewellery, writing courses, writing advice sessions, and opportunities to have a character created in your appearance or with your name. For more information, I can be contacted at Twitter at @MRBrown_author.

You can find more information about my book here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/melissabrownauthor/becoming-death-a-ya-novel

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