And what will early January 2022 bring, I wonder?

Week two begins on Sunday 9 January

The spell-binding sight of a tree in winter? a book that enthrals? a place that grounds? a person that intrigues? a bird that captivates? music that moves? … or a poem that entrances:-

Beowulf – and the problem of ‘knowing reality’

I’d like to claim Beowulf for my poem this week, but I doubt I will finish it anytime soon… This ‘epic’ Old English or Anglo-Saxon poem is unique: a heroic narrative more than 3000 lines long – the ‘foundation work of poetry in English’ as Seamus Heaney wrote in the last year of the last millennium. ’Its narrative elements may belong to a previous age, but as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time’ 

Sounds very grand to the casual reader of an introduction, looking for clues on how to begin!

But having assembled three translations, published in 2021, 1999 and 1973, with a view to using all of them to get the gist, I didn’t get further than the first page before understanding exactly what Heaney meant. Here are a few lines (my emboldening) from the account of the origins of our hero, Beowulf, from each of the three translations: 

Michael Alexander 1973 Penguin Classics 

For in youth an atheling should….. / give with a free hand while in his father’s house,/ that in his old age, when enemies gather,/ established friends shall stand by him/ and serve him gladly. It is by glorious action/ that a man comes by honour in any people.

Seamus Heaney 1999 Faber 

And a young prince must be prudent like that, /giving freely while his father lives/ so that afterwards in old age when fighting starts / steadfast companions will stand by him/ and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired/ is the path to power among people everywhere 

Maria Dahvana Headley 2021 Scribe 

………… A smart son gives / gifts to his father’s friends in peacetime./ When war woos him, as war will, / he’ll need those troops to follow the leader. /Privilege is the way men prime power, /the world over.

Yes – I get it – this poem is clearly ‘equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time’

What constitutes a hero, or a leader, or stardom ? and why ? are very contemporary questions, especially in a week when an iconic tennis player and an obfuscating Prime Minister are fighting for their reputations, and the actions of four young people incensed by shameful history are first validated by their peers but then furiously rejected by some elders with political power… 

Avid readers of literary reviews will know already that Maria Dahvana Headley’s version is deliberately combative and by the standards of English scholarship to date – subversive. (I can feel another statue toppling…) 

Years ago I worked with a group of clergymen tasked with writing educational material about key figures in the Bible. They embarked on a long conversation about the significance of heroes… Eventually one noticed that I had said nothing. ‘Who are your heroes?’ he asked. I thought long and hard. ‘I don’t think I have any. I don’t work like that. I think it’s a boy-thing’

I’m really enjoying reading both the poem (in its three very different manifestations) – and Maria Dahvana Headley’s very twenty first century perspective in her book…

Places, people and ever changing landscapes

On a recent sunny day I set out on foot to explore what remains of Balksbury hillfort on the southern boundary of the town. Not a lot!  Its site is high enough to view Chute Causeway to the north and Harewood forest to the east, and the recent housing development bears some witness : Celtic Drive; the Ramparts. But less than a mile further south on the other side of the A303 is Bury Hill – another iron age hillfort, once camp of King Canute, when he fought Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Andover in 1016.

Between these two ‘highspots’ lies Anna Valley, which follows Pillhill brook (formerly the Ann) on its way to merge with first the Anton, and soon after, the Test. Today it is a picture of semi-suburban tranquility alongside the meandering stream and watercress beds. 

In 1813 Robert Tasker (born 1785) a young blacksmith based nearby in Abbot’s Ann, adopted the very unpromising waterlogged site in Anna Valley, using chalk from the quarry on the north side of Bury Hill to stabilise the ground sufficiently to support buildings and a forge.

He also made good use of a nearby wharf of the Andover Canal, to bring iron and coal north from the Solent. The canal was replaced eventually by the Sprat and Winkle railway line, as industrialisation increased (and its route is now followed by the Poetry Way and Test Valley cycle path)

Few clues remain of Taskers Ironworks, which over a period of 170 years produced metal implements (starting with a special plough designed for use on chalk) farm machinery, steam engines (the Little Giant shown was built in 1902) and iron bridges (of which two remain in and around Andover – that by Fishing Cottage in Clatford; the other (shown below) carrying Ladies’ Walk over the old Micheldever Road, which until 1851, was the route to the nearest railway station, 12 miles away at Micheldever. And in 1938, Taskers took only ten days to produce a prototype of a trailer big enough to carry military aircraft – and won the government contract with their ‘Queen Mary’

William was a devout congregationalist, his piety and non-conformity not popular with local worthies. However he brought work, prosperity and a little fame to the area. He and his family are commemorated at the tiny (now United Reformed) Chapel on East Street in Andover. 

In 1815 Taskers took the name Waterloo Ironworks to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the famous battle in Belgium, and slowly the business evolved. It remained in family ownership well into the twentieth century, but by the late 1970s the business was sold, and slowly subsided. 

All that remains now a Gate House, built in the 1830s, at an entrance to the old site.

It is hard to imagine that the industrial plant shown below ever existed, photographed from the top of the quarry at Bury Hill.

While exploring Anna Valley I came on a cul-de-sac called White Oak Way, and with some excitement walked towards a row of three imposing well-established trees in this little newish estate on the slopes of Bury Hill. White Oak is a native of North America, and a valuable wood.

Had it once been planted here? Unlikely; its preferred soil is acidic, not chalk.. The trees are not oak, I was sure… but I struggled (again) with their identification. I wanted them to be Norwegian Maples, at least – for their slimness. But I fear they are straggly examples of tree number two: Sycamores – the green buds gave it away, the leaf shape, the seed flights, and the bark. Hey ho.

(The photography’s not getting any better either..)

Done books, poems, trees, places, people… music I’ll save til next week when I’ll be better informed. What about birds I hear you say? Well – this week’s little comedian certainly cheered some of us up – pretending to be a mallard? A solitary Mandarin duck, looking for friendship….

Week one begins on Sunday 2 January

On the last day of the old year, I had walked past a most beautiful specimen in the very centre of old Andover. I had never noticed this tree before. Its glossy dark green leaves, some with spikey edges, others not; its striking bark and its generous spread and stature gladdened the heart.

But what is it? The iphone’s camera is its greatest asset, but discovery number one is that to make an accurate identification, greater care is needed than I had taken with these shots.

After half an hour with at least three books on tree identification, I had whittled it down to one of two evergreen trees, and then amateur that I am, sought help from a local friend and tree expert.

Tree one is the Holm Oak

Blogs – I gather – should be brief…. and this week’s will be as I roll tree, person, poem, bird(s), book, and place(s) into one great offering, with seasonal music (this week) in the background.

Simon Armitage is well known as Poet Laureate, and widely admired for his eclecticism. The two books below were both Christmas presents if several years apart – and between them neatly deliver material for at least five of my seven weekly themes.

The poem is a very old and mysterious one – a Middle English verbal contest between two eloquent and querulous birds. Rendered readable, accessible and genuinely entertaining, Armitage’s translation retains its original rhythms and his own engaging sound.

The birds – an Owl and a Nightingale – completely steal the show; in fact they are the show, in these gorgeous illustrations. As the book’s cover declares, ’the disputed issues still resonate… identity, cultural attitudes, class distinctions and and the right to be heard’. It also reminds us of the place these two remarkable and lovely birds have long occupied in our culture. It is a joy to read.

And so is his autobiographical book Walking Home: travels with a troubadour on the Pennine Way. The route is epic in its demands though Armitage’s self-deprecating style makes little of the cost of the physical challenges, treating us more to insights into his emotional and social being.

The winding path on its cover reminds me that Armitage’s epic journey took place nearly 50 years after my own father decided to tackle it during the ’60s. Then there was barely a sheep track, let alone a path, to follow anywhere along those 256 miles. The Pennines are definitely a place: often shrouded, unrelenting, dour and hard. Dad walked North (much easier to map-read though unaided by GPS or OS apps) whereas Armitage chose to walk South – towards his home in Yorkshire’s Edale.

This was my New Year’s read, and I finished it just before a surprise NY greeting caught me out:

A photo of the North Bay – another fine and familiar place – taken a few hundred yards from my childhood home, by a member of the family on a weekend break. Coincidentally, Armitage had just ’come home’ as I read to the end of his book, and this photo took me straight back to our home to which my father hobbled in the pouring rain, nearly fifty years ago. (Hobbled from the bus stop, you understand, footsore and very wet; not all the way from the Scottish border)

And finally – the music? Well – Dad was a huge fan of Benjamin Britten’s work, and I have come to love many of his pieces. On Christmas Eve , Radio 3 played his Ceremony of Carols, with its beautiful arrangements of traditional songs and lullabies originally written for children’s voices and a harp; a refreshing alternative to the interminable and rather stuck-in-the-mud Nine Lessons and Carols.

Do listen – if you’ve never heard them – and then tell me I’m wrong – but not before!

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