Thursday, 23 February 2017

Little cities

In the last two days, I have heard three people quite separately advising that a good way to live is to stay humble, work with your hands, and be kind (or not steal things). Working with your hands implies some kind of mercantile society - because no-one can make enough things personally to fully live. If you were good at making fishing nets, you would quite likely not have had time to learn how to make usable pots, or strong shoes. A small tribe of people might have all the necessary skills among its members for them to have access to all the things they'd need, but after a time, that tribe would itself need things beyond its immediate scope of making - maybe iron, or timber, or new animals.  So, since we gave up being nomads after the last Ice Age, we've had to live in or near to groups big enough to make all the basic necessities, or to trade in them. Agriculture means markets. It is very interesting to me to see how farmsteads and villages are scattered in particular kinds of landscape. Richer lands allow more people to live closer together, but poorer lands (such as mountainsides) mean each group needs more space to create tradable wealth, so dwellings are less numerous overall.
Market towns have various things in common - accessibility, some sort of security, water, civic provision such as law courts and justice, a tax system, a weights-and-measures authority, religious buildings, and so on. There also have open space or sometimes a covered building in which to conduct the trade, and if the trade is in beasts then there will have been an abbatoire or shambles. Fish and poultry often have separate and maybe smaller markets.
Our own town of Faversham had or had these, in different districts, over the centuries, and so does Thame and Settle and Bishops Castle and so on. Kilkenny has the same thing.
All these town share another feature which is that they work completely perfectly for people on foot. You can easily walk from place to place - the river, the castle, the old law court, the market, the several ancient churches, and so on.  Modern traffic has to thread its way through, but the traffic is out of place, too big, too close, too smelly. We have been slowly familiarising ourselves with Kilkenny over the last few years as this is where our son lives with his wife and baby son. The similarities and differences between this town and others we know in England keep presenting themselves.  We feel at home here, but keep seeing how it's not the same.
It clearly has medieval origins, and may have been almost indistinguishable in the 14th century from its counterparts in England, but as time passed, the impacts of history have led to divergence. Ireland is understandably very very Irish, so there are masses of green things on sale - wigs, Viking helmets, clothing of all kinds, beards, garden gnomes, scarves..... This is in the run-up to St Patricks's Day in a few days time.
It also remained mostly Catholic, and we see far far more visible signs of religion as we walk around - bible study shops, shops and posters inviting you to buy your children's confirmation clothes. They have the Angelus on television twice a day.   There are far far more small businesses in old retail shops, run since forever by families... So the names adorn all the shops - Egan, O'Reilly, Kelly, Lewis, Byrne, and so on.   It's a noticeably friendly place, so the Vietnamese nail bar which opened just before Christmas came here because the owners, on a day trip from Dublin were so struck by the pleasant attitude of the residents asked all their staff it they'd like to relocate, so they did, the whole lot of them.  There are masses and masses and masses of pubs, though some are empty, but a new brewery has opened up to visitors.
And there is a thriving pride in local produce, so we find a highly confident and vigorous restaurant and arts culture, with delicatessens, cafes, health food shops, craft shops, galleries, award-winning cuisines, and probably hundreds of local producers supplying the basic fare - eggs, meat, fish, bakery, soaps, oils, biscuits, art, specialist items of all kinds, honey, cosmetics, weaving, music, interior items, it's all absolutely alive and well. As the old employment-based, industrial and banking economies have faded away, the place has reverted to its ancient origins.... trading in local goods.
It may be that the churches do not have such a hold on the people now, as we see yoga, reiki, shiatsu, hippy stuff, Buddhism, etc all advertised, and there are lots of Indian and other foreign population groups who may not be Catholic. One of a pair of stone gates bears a carved tablet explaining how the English managed their scorching rage of the locals under Cromwell by dragging local lords and commoners into some sort of parliamentary government - as it says 'wars which were waged to maintain the religious and political liberties of the Irish people......'   Oh no. Atrocties.
But todays' Irish people are mostly completely polite about what the English did to them, for so long. Given the current political upheaval, its' not beyond the realm of possibility that the English might apply to become a province of Ireland, allowing St Patrick to hold hands with St George....  Ireland has its citiies, of course, but as in England, its' the old market towns which preserve a more authentic sense of the culture and nations, in my opinion. Kilkenny, like Faversham, holds a lot of experience and wisdom in its higgledey-piggledy streets and merchant houses. People on foot have to see each other's faces, can sample each others' cooking, watch each other's children.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


We often drive to the airport but just taking small handluggage this time we went by train, a smooth experience apart from seeing my on-ward ticket disappear completely into the ticket barrier's maws at Victoria. The man on duty didn't immediately grasp that I needed it for the next leg of the journey but did eventually take the side of the automatic machine off, and working like a croupier at a poker game, started to dislodge a mass of used tickets from a stash. Eventually he found mine and handed it back, but made me walk through a different channel as if I or the rascally ticket might cause further disruption if I tried using it again.
It was a pleasure to get onto the Gatwick Express which not only has electric sockets for charging phones etc, but free wifi as well. The blessings of the 21st century. 
The airport chicanes are - frankly - exhausting and questionable. The security lines which are intrusive and oversensitive - bleeping at my reading glasses, requiring me to take my comfortable but awkward boots off.  Why? Why?  I am a fat middle-aged housewife. I am not a terrorist. They have tracked me through their barriers for twenty years now.... It's just annoying.  Then you have to go through that vile Shoppong World thing, a winding corridor with sparkling paving, the air drenched with disgusting artificial scents, people standing around hoping I'll stop and buy their liquor, chocolate or face creams. No!!!!!! Can we not have an alternative route without all this? I think my toxin levels go up 1000% each time I go through, just from the polluted air.
We get lunch in Wagamamas  -  with lovely service from the staff - none of whom is English, by the way, so if they're all sent 'home' under Brexit, who will come forward to work there?  The food is ok-ish. The mango smoothie with chilli is disappointing - really barely a hint of either mango or chilli - but really it just tasty test of pear juice.  I The waiter replaces it for me, but it's the same. I tweet about it, and get a swift response from Gatwick Airport.  Hmmn. A bit of overkill, methinks. Maybe the airport authority needs to check the quality and customer satisfaction of all their retail outlets.
As we take off, a huge fire is burning on the ground beside an old airplane not far from the runway. It's some sort of training exercise, but the bright orange flames and black smoke are alarming. Sobering.
We hit Dublin in the rush hour and it takes two hours longer than expected to get to Kilkenny. As we crawl along the M50, it feels like we're being easily overtaken by litter, tumbleweed, donkey-carts. Jovial relationships are formed between drivers... cups of tea passed through windows, card games set up......
We get to the flat. Alex has come to meet us in the car park... So much more confident, walking, smiling, murmuring, speaking! Our first grandson. Beautiful. He's grown so much since Christmas. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Kilkenny dreaming

We're off again, tomorrow morning, to Kilkenny to see the O'Kiddoes, especially baby Alex who is heading towards one-and-a-half and we don't see enough of him.

This time, having had half an hour to spare this afternoon before we pack and so on, I did some research into 'things to do in Kilkenny'. There are abbeys, monasteries, caves, the castle, glass-makers, wool-weavers, waterfalls, parks, art galleries, ancient dwellings and jails, riding centres, and a farm with a small town inside it.  It may be possible for us to get to see some of the ones we haven't visited so far. It would be great to take Alex out to somewhere with animals to look at and pet. Mares and foals are a possibility.

I have my usual pre-departure panic: what to pack (hand luggage only), getting all my admin tasks done in advance, trying to reduce my stuff to the bare minimum. I usually end up taking too many clothes - and then find I never wear them. The thinking is, we MIGHT go out to dinner. It may be EXTRA hot, cold, wet, windy, etc etc which would mean I need a change of clothes.... But, really how many shoes do I need? This time we're also taking some things for Alex: a spinning top, some clothes which cannot be bought in the Republic (giving the mother a bit of cachet, I hope, at the mother-and-baby meetings).  

My thinking is also distorted by today's remarkable event, namely the memorial service in Canterbury Cathedral for Sir John Swire, whose charitable foundation has been extraordinarily generous to the Faversham Creek Trust. The cathedral was pretty well packed. We had the full theatrical show, with a long procession of various clergy including the Dean, the choristers, the organist and deputy organist looking after the music, and a marvellous eulogy from Sir John's cousin Michael Todhunter. He explained, as part of a very moving and inspiring address, how Sir John met Moira, now Lady Swire.   She was a passenger on one the Swire family cargo ships in the orient, but had a really unfortunate experience which propelled her - later - to complain at the highest possible level about what happened to her. That was, that a water-buffalo entered her cabin and the only way to get rid of it was to cut its head off ('decapitate').  It scarcely bears thinking about. No wonder she wanted to talk to the man at the top.

Anyway, blessed sunlight streamed into the nave. The congregation was thoughtful and responsive. The music was wonderful. The prayers were simple and eloquent. The eulogy was fascinating. The whole thing was - pretty well perfect. As Mr Todhunter said, 'He was a good man'.

So these thoughts are in my mind while I consider emptying out the fridge and getting keys to the right people.  I shall go and have a glass of white wine and make some supper.  The packing will be more stripped down than I have managed in the past. We're only away for a few days.  I am really looking forward to stony dark historic Kilkenny, with its river and castle, and our little grandson with his watchful eyes and determinations. I wonder how he'll get on with the spinning top.