1 March 2015


Muddy Waters - McKinley Morganfield (April 4, 1913 – April 30, 1983)
The English language is forever changing. That's part of its electric beauty. New words and phrases are absorbed as others are filed away on dusty shelves marked "archaic".

There's no logic to anybody's feelings about language and I am just the same. There are some new words and phrases or not-so-subtle grammatical changes that really get my back up while other changes or additions cause me no grief at all.

I hate "standout" - as in "Who do you think the standout player was?" and I hate the youthful modern tendency to use words which are pretty much the direct opposite of what you're really trying to say as in "The film was wicked!" or "That's sick!". "Vanilla" is a word that has recently been used to describe things or ideas that are bland, or middle of the road but I will never use the word in that way just as I will not misuse the word "narrative" which has become popular with certain politicians and commentators.

But I like "cool" and I like "chugger", "bookaholic", "cyberbully", "gastropub", "widget" and "trolling". Such added words seem to fill gaps and aid enable clearer communication. Another term I like is "mojo". We all know what it feels like when our mojo isn't working and we all know how it feels when we have got our mojo back. It's to do with being on top form or simply not being ourselves. I was curious about the term and decided to do a little investigation.

It probably originated in the deep South of America. In 1926, a certain Newbell Niles Puckett published this definition in his "Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro": "The term mojo is often used by the Mississippi Negroes to mean 'charms, amulets, or tricks', as 'to work mojo' on a person or 'to carry a mojo'." Some academics have connected the term with sexual libido so that getting your mojo back may have once meant rediscovering sexual prowess.

That meaning is certainly heavily hinted at in the song "Got My Mojo Working" which bluesman Muddy Waters gave to the world in 1957:-

Got my mojo working, but it just won't work on you
Got my mojo working, but it just won't work on you
I wanna love you so bad till I don't know what to do
I'm going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
I'm going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
I'm gonna have all you women right here at my command

That song spread the term "mojo" around the world but its everyday usage was very subdued in Great Britain through the sixties, seventies and eighties. It is only within the last twenty years that the term has been truly established on this side of the Atlantic so that now most people would not bat an eyelid if you slipped the term into ordinary conversation... "I just don't know what's up with me these days I've lost my mojo" or "I feel I've got my mojo back at long last!"

27 February 2015


Conisbrough was a grim little town in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield. And yet it had history. Long before coal was mined on an industrial scale, Conisbrough's location was judged to be of strategic significance. In the eleventh century, as the Normans sought to strengthen their political control of northern England, a castle was built at Conisbrough by William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey who had fought with William the Conqueror at The Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Over the next four hundred years, Conisbrough Castle remained an important stronghold and as the year's passed it was modified, extended, repaired and strengthened but by the sixteenth century it had fallen into a state of semi-dereliction and played no part in the English Civil War that tore through the country in the seventeenth century. However, in the nineteenth century a new spotlight was shone on the castle ruins by the famed Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott - in his novel "Ivanhoe" (1819).

Scott wrote of Conisbrough - There are few more beautiful or striking scenes in England, than are presented by the vicinity of this ancient Saxon fortress. The soft and gentle river Don sweeps through an ampitheatre, in which cultivation is richly blended with woodland, and on a mount, ascending from the river, well defended by walls and ditches, rises this ancient edifice, which, as its Saxon name implies, was, previous to the Conquest, a royal residence of the kings of England. The outer walls have probably been added by the Normans, but the inner keep bears token of very great antiquity. It is situated on a mount at one angle of the inner court, and forms a complete circle of perhaps twenty-five feet in diameter. The wall is of immense thickness, and is propped or defended by six huge external buttresses which project from the circle, and rise up against the sides of the castle as if to strengthen or support it. These massive buttresses are hollowed out towards the top, and terminate in a sort of turrets communicating with the interior of the keep itself. The distant appearance of this huge building, with these singular accompaniments, is as interesting to the lovers of the picturesque, as the interior of the castle is to the eager antiquary...

As it happens, Scott may have been wrong to assume that the castle was of Saxon origin. No archaeological evidence supports that stance though I find it difficult to believe that the mound on which Conisbrough Castle still stands was a blank canvas before William de Warenne arrived. And it is worth noting that the name "Conisbrough" is of Saxon origin and means "king's stronghold".

Yesterday, I didn't go inside the castle. I walked past it and down to The River Don. There I noticed yet another pub that has bitten the dust. Now converted to residential units, it was once, somewhat ironically, called "The Castle".  No boozy laughter any more or shiny brass bar rails or pub quizzes. When was Conisbrough Castle built? Rest in Peace.
"The Catle" has gone

25 February 2015


Every Wednesday afternoon I work as a volunteer at our local Oxfam shop. Charitable Sheffielders bring in their unwanted possessions in plastic bags or cardboard boxes. You never know what you are going to get - from a Barbie doll to a dead man's pin-striped suit. or a battered cricket bat or a lampshade with frilly bobbles. And there are plenty of books. I spend a lot of my time processing book donations - upstairs in the books and bric-a-brac room.

Today as five thirty and the end of my shift approached, I noticed an old photo album on one of the cluttered shelves. I dipped into it for personal interest. It was filled with old postcards from the nineteen twenties. Back then, many family portraits were printed in postcard form so the album contained a mixture of family photos and souvenir postcards from exotic holiday locations like Blackpool, Ilfracombe and The Cheddar Gorge. 

In the middle of the album, I spotted a sepia photo that took my breath away because it contained the image of a woman who is almost identical to a certain female blogger who often drops in to "Yorkshire Pudding" and leaves comments. I just had to buy the postcard The long deceased babe from The Roaring Twenties is so beautiful and so dainty, dressed in her best dancing outfit. She could so easily have been Miss World 1922. Of course, I do not wish to embarrass the lady blogger who is this woman's doppelganger but I think we can all guess who she is:-

24 February 2015


In north west Lincolnshire there's a district known as "The Isle of Axholme". Long ago, when effective land drainage techniques were in their infancy, the area was literally an island - surrounded by rivers and watery marshes. To get on to the Isle of Axholme or off it you needed a boat or a particularly dry summer. Shirley was born on the Isle of Axholme - in the southern part - where her father was a farmer - so I knew that part of the island well.

However, I was very unfamiliar with the northern part so last week I went there - the same day I snapped those sad village pubs. Above you can see one of the drains developed by Dutch engineers in medieval times. It's called Boating Dike.

Below, an old chapel near Crook o' Moor Farm. Not so long ago it was derelict but thankfully somebody has had it converted into a house. In past times, the rich farmland would have been worked by a veritable army of agricultural labourers so the chapel would have been thronging on Sundays.
The church below is St Oswald's in Crowle. The land at Crowle rose a few feet higher than the surrounding fields so it was a sensible location for the most significant settlement in the northern part of the Isle of Axholme. Some parts of the church predate the Norman invasion of 1066 and as there are no stone quarries for miles around, it would have taken an enormous effort to import the stones - on rafts or sailing barges.
The signpost below is in the village of Eastoft. Once The River Don flowed through the village but its course was drastically diverted in 1626. The signpost stands on what was once the Yorkshire side of the village.
I crossed the River Trent at Keadby Bridge and later parked in Burton upon Stather. From there I walked to Normanby Hall which is the family home of  PM David Cameron's wife Samantha Sheffield. There were snowdrops:-
 And here's the eighteenth century hall itself - set in extensive parkland:-

23 February 2015


Why do cats climb trees? After all, with the structure of their claws, they are far better at climbing up things than climbing back down. This is why fire brigades are frequently called out to rescue cats from rooftops or high branches.

Up our suburban garden there are four mature apple trees which soar in a gnarled kind of way twenty five feet from the ground. Yesterday morning I noticed something very high in the middle tree - a young black cat. He was on one of the loftiest branches and fearing for his safety I watched some more.

Near to him on an even higher branch was a magpie. Even from our kitchen I could hear the bird cackling at the cat. As the magpie hopped over to a higher branch, the cat seemed infuriated and eager to follow.

Then I noticed a couple of other magpies in two neighbouring trees and two crows flew in as well and there was a jay. They all kept dancing about and it struck me that they were in fact  bating the cat, deliberately daring it to climb higher. They were making the young animal risk its life - I am sure of it.

If the young cat fell to the ground he could easily be fatally injured and then the feathered omnivores would enjoy a feline feast of fresh young cat meat. This is a phenomenon I have never observed before though I am well aware that members of the crow family are highly intelligent, cunning and inventive.

We think of cats as predators but on this occasion, though Tiddles didn't know it, the gang of birds were the true predators. The tops of trees are avian territory and that young cat had climbed out of his comfort zone. The birds were willing and able to make a meal of him. Either that or they had just invented a daring new sport called "Tease a Cat".

21 February 2015


David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in "Selma"
I got to see "Selma" on Thursday afternoon. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, it focuses on the city of Selma in Alabama during the summer of 1965. A civil rights march is planned from Selma to the state capital - Montgomery. It's all about pressurising the  authorities to  roll back layers of institutionalised southern  racism and allow disenfranchised black people the right to vote.

The role of President Lyndon B. Johnson is played magnificently by Yorkshire-born actor Tom Wilkinson and of course the lead actor Oyelowo is also English. This slightly puzzling English  factor was reminiscent of "Twelve Years a Slave".

I thought that "Selma" was a brilliant film and half a dozen times as I gazed at the screen in the cinema darkness, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was weeping about the wrongness of racism and the cruelty that so often accompanies it and because I was ashamed that my species - the human race can at times be so inhuman. If a film grabs you like that it's saying something.

David Oyewolo was very convincing as Dr King - not only when he delivered his rousing political sermons but also as he wrestled with the demons of his private life and the likelihood that one day the American establishment would take its ultimate revenge. Death never seemed far away. It is outrageous that Oyewolo is not nominated for best actor at tomorrow's Oscars when Bradley Cooper has got the nod for his part in the truly awful  and gratuitous "American Sniper".

There's a scene early in "Selma" when four black girls in a Montgomery baptist church are chattering about hairstyles as they descend the stairs by a beautiful stained glass window.  There's an almighty blast which fills the cinema and darkens the screen. When the dust clears you see the mangled bodies of these girls in  the debris. This outrage happened on September 15th 1963 but the legal ramifications were still very apparent as planning began for the 1965 Montgomery march 

(As an aside and as I said before some time ago in this blog, our daughter Frances helped to clean up the broken glass from that self-same stained glass window when she worked at The Civil Rights Centre in  Birmingham, Alabama back in 2011. She also visited Selma soon after arriving in Alabama as part of her induction programme)

"Selma " is an important film that should from now on be required viewing in all American high schools for the shadow of racism still lingers and Martin Luther King Jr's dream has not  yet been realised. It was fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery but it's much further to the promised land.

19 February 2015


Wandering around the north west corner of Lincolnshire by foot and car, I came across the depressing sight of three country pubs that have closed their doors forever. Once - not so long ago - they would have bustled as the till drawer went in and out. They would have been at the very heart of their communities but now they have gone for good. Farewell to "The Lincolnshire Arms" in Luddington. Adieu to "The Barge Inn" in Keadby. Goodbye to "The Flixborough Inn" in Flixborough. We shall not see their like again.

No more the clacking bones of dominoes or thudding of darts upon the board. No more accidental spillage of beer on bar top towels or the sucking sound of the pumps or little pewter measures for spirits. Or roaring fires on winter nights reflected in horse brasses hanging on old black leather belts. No more business meetings or family celebrations or whist drives, beetle drives or Park Drives. No more antique teapots on the plate shelf or the lingering odour of tobacco smoke in curtains. Or old farmhands arriving on older bicycles with their trouser bottoms tied with twine. Or strangers from faraway on motorbikes unpeeling their leathers in the car park. Or brewery men unloading metal kegs from Sheffield. No regulars propping up the bar early doors. Or holiday postcards or sporting trophies or pictures of huntsmen leaping hedges. No more black cast iron pub tables or community notices on display or bleached smells from the lavatories or condom machines. Nor bags of crisps or jars of pickled eggs or middle-aged landlords with heavy guts curving under tight striped shirts or landladies with lipstick and earrings or "What can I get for you?" or charity boxes or "Haven't you got homes to go to?" or frosted window glass with the pub's name etched or slightly stained beer mats or Christmas carols. No more laughter or banter or rows or kisses or staggering homewards or juke box sounds or upright pianos for singalongs. And no more opening times. No never no more.