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Jun 13 / Simon

Wartime kiwi carves out a place in history

The Times, 13-6-2017
By Simon Tait

The Bulford Kiwi, carved into Salisbury Plain by New Zealand soldiers as a First World War memorial to their fallen fellows, has been scheduled a monument to mark the centenary of the New Zealanders’ key success, the Battle of Messines, tomorrow (June 14).

But the creation of the 130m tall bird with its 45m beak, which joins such topographic icons as The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington near Eastbourne, was no spontaneous outpouring of comradely grief.

In the weeks after the end of the war, fed up with unrelenting discipline and delayed transportation home, some troops of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade cut loose and looted the canteen and officers’ mess. The ring leaders were jailed, but to keep the rest occupied they were set to work creating the kiwi. It took them two months.

The Bulford Kiwi became a site of homage for New Zealanders paying their respects to 17,000 of their countrymen killed in the war, 5,000 of them at Messines. But while volunteers have tended it, visitor numbers diminished, though the New Zealand High Commissioner still makes an annual pilgrimage. The government, on the advice of Historic England (HE) which has also restored it, has now protected it adding it to the National Heritage List for England as a monument.

It is one of two memorials to New Zealand’s Great War dead joining the list of monuments today. At Cannock Chase in Staffordshire the government has added a restored model of the Messines battleground, made by German prisoners of war in 1918 to the instructions of survivors of the battle.

“The taking of the Messines Ridge was one of the war’s most stirring attacks, and this model lay-out remains as testimony to the planning which made possible the victory,” said Roger Bowdler, HE’s Director of Listing. “Like so much of our historic environment, these lasting reminders enable us to connect with lives and events from the past that made us who we are as a nation. The kiwi is a pretty unusual bit of New Zealand in this country, there’s so little of it representing New Zealand’s role in the war, and it’s an old Wessex tradition of hill figures given a modern twist. One hundred years on it’s right to remember New Zealand’s valour.”

The Battle of Messines in which the New Zealand Rifle Brigade distinguished itself and won a VC was a crucial victory for the Allies, breaking a stalemate on the Flanders front and opening the salient for the ensuing Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele. The action included one of the heaviest allied artillery bombardments of the war, including the detonation of 19 giant mines beneath German lines.

“It’s fantastic to see Historic England (through the Culture Secretary) protecting two very significant sites of huge importance for New Zealand,” said Sir Jerry Mateparae, New Zealand’s High Commissioner. “The special connections that were forged 100 years ago, with communities in the UK where New Zealanders trained, are still strong today and it’s moving to see these sites protected for generations to come.”

Sling Camp, an annexe of Bulford, was the principal training depot for the New Zealand troops in the First World War. Designed to accommodate up to 4,000 men, by the end of 1918 there were 4,500, and in Canterbury Battalion mutiny threatened. Sling was dismantled later in 1919.

Working to a sketch by Sergeant Major Percy Blenkarne who had been sent to the Natural History Museum to draw a stuffed specimen, it took the battalion most of February and March 1919 to complete, with chalk having to be transported and laid on soil.

The terrain model of the battleground around Messines was made in 1918 when the New Zealand Rifle Brigade were back at Brocton Camp on Cannock Chase. Made by German prisoners under the instructions of Messines surveyors as a three-dimensional teaching aid, to a scale of 1:50. Made of concrete, re-used brick, pebbles and soil, it has all the principal features of the battle-hewn town. The only First World War terrain model known to have survived was a tourist attraction for a while, but was later overgrown and buried under quarry waste. It was excavated in 2013.

May 3 / Simon

Rebecca Swift

By Simon Tait, The Times, 29-4-2017

Part of a literary family who became a bridge between writers and publishers, and was known as ‘The Author’s Goidmother’
Doris Lessing was an early hero of Rebecca Swift’s. When she was 15 she was told by her mother to hide a copy of Susan Howatch’s Penmarric before a visit by Lessing. She forgot and feared a serious telling off, but when the Nobel laureate arrived they bonded immediately when Lessing spotted the book and with a wink confessed to being a Howatch fan too.
Embedded in a family studded with literary, theatrical, academic and legal luminaries, Swift, who has died after a short illness aged 53, decided not to pursue any of those careers herself but to be a mentor to writers, so successfully that she earned the soubriquet “The Author’s Godmother”.
The director and co-founder of the Literary Consultancy, devised to make connections between authors, literary agents and publishers, was the daughter of the novelist Margaret Drabble, her father is the actor Clive Swift, her stepfather the biographer Michael Holroyd, her aunts the writer A S Byatt and the historian Helen Langdon, and her cousin the actor Julia Swift. Her siblings also eschewed authorial careers: Joe Swift is the television horticulture presenter, and Adam Swift is professor of political theory at the University of Warwick. Her long-term partner is the social work academic Helen Cosis-Brown. They all survive her.
“I thought she had the potential to do anything — an Olympian, a poet laureate…,” Holroyd said of her. “She also won a scholarship to study English Literature at Oxford, but quite early on she made the decision not to become a writer herself, because she didn’t want to live in the shadow of her mother”. But her mother was an admirer and for her 2001 novel The Peppered Moth, a semi-autobiographical story about three generations of women in a family, Drabble chose for an epigram her daughter’s 1993 gritty but touching poem On Remembering Getting Into Bed With Grandparents which recalls her own prosaic relationship with her grandmother.
Despite avoiding the limelight her family attracted she was a regularly published poet, and in 2001 wrote the libretto for Jenni Roditi’s Arts Council funded opera Spirit Child. In 2011 her biography of Emily Dickinson (Poetic Lives: Dickinson) was published by Hesperus.
She was “shell-shocked”, she said, by her psychoanalytic studies MA research which showed that only 0.01% of writers could expect to be published. Now, with self-publishing and assistance from the likes of the Literary Consultancy (TLC) the figure is more like 5%. The 20,000 word dissertation, entitled Is there Anybody Reading Me?, explored the relationship between writers and publishers’ readers and was published belatedly last year as part of TLC’s birthday celebrations.
After university she joined the publisher Virago as an editorial assistant and one of her jobs was to manage the “slush pile”, the mass of unsolicited manuscripts that flowed in to publishers every day. “I was a bit shocked and a bit moved and a bit fascinated by the numbers of people that were submitting manuscripts that were, to put it bluntly, inappropriate on different grounds – completely wrong for the publishing house or the writing was really not good enough,” she told the magazine Arts Industry last year. “I was appalled at the gulf between how publishing works and writers”. By the mid-90s, however, publishers were giving little regard to their slush piles, relying more on intermediary literary agents to find promising writers.
Swift was aware that thousands of talented hopefuls were slipping into the shadows with their potential never realised, and in 1996 with her friend Hannah Griffiths she set up TLC as the world’s first editorial consultancy offering professional, in-depth advice to anyone writing in English. Virago co-founder Carmen Callil prophesied that TLC “will build a bridge between publisher, agent and writer – and be of use to all three”.
Since its foundation TLC has had to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry which left publishers feeling vulnerable and less likely to take chances on new authors. Online self-publishing gave writers a channel by-passing both agents and publishers, and traditional publishing struggled to come to terms with Amazon’s stranglehold in price setting and distribution. “So for some writers getting through the eye of the needle into the traditional publishing world is much harder than it was,” Swift said. “Every year several clients of ours get book deals, though whether they can stay in print and have careers is another matter”.
TLC now handles 600 manuscripts a year, putting them out to 90 experienced readers dotted around the country who give detailed feedback. Only one supplicant has ever been turned down, a writer who believed that there was a Jewish plot to destroy the world.

Self-publishing is often the advice. Tina Seskis’ first book, One Step Too Far, was considered by agents not to meet the “chick lit standards” of having a conventional happy ending. On Swift’s advice she created her own online mini-publishing house and in six months she had sold 100,000 books. She has now written two novels and is published by Penguin. Other authors TLC has supported to publication are Jenny Downham, Penny Pepper and Kerry Young (who is also now a reader for TLC). Another was the restaurateur and cookery writer Pru Leith whose novel, Leaving Patrick, was read by Swift and eventually published in 2013 by Hachete UK. It was the first of six novels so far. “I wouldn’t dream of sending a completed novel to my publisher without having TLC look at it first,” Leith said.

Swift will be succeeded as director of TLC by Aki Schliz who said: “Becky was a visionary, an innovator and a staunch and tireless defender of writers and of literary values. She was also a talented poet and librettist, a mentor, a friend, colleague, beloved daughter, partner, sister, aunt and godmother, and a true literary hero”.

Rebecca Swift, poet and literary consultant, was born on January 10, 1964. She died of cancer on April 18, 2017, aged 53.

Mar 21 / Simon

Tony Haygarth

[The Times, 17-3-2017, Simon Tait]
Versatile Liverpudlian television actor and theatre performer who was also a poet and scholar of Elizabethan drama

The actor Tony Haygarth caused tabloid joy in 1988 when the Queen visited Peter Hall’s famous The Tempest or The Enchanted Island at the National Theatre in which Haygarth appeared as Caliban. He was presented in costume which, in fact, was minimal, being little more than a giant prosthetic penis, vampire teeth and swathes of blood and mud. She told him the outfit was disturbingly hideous, and asked if he had modelled it on anyone: “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied without pause, “my agent”. He was nominated for an Olivier for the role.

Better known for innumerable television appearances, Haygarth, who has died from Altzheimer’s disease aged 72, had the very serviceable ability to switch effortlessly from high drama to comedy without losing credibility, so that at one point he was simultaneously starring in two sitcoms on different channels, was the only actor to appear in the Sharpe historical drama series twice as two different characters, and was in three episodes of Midsomer Murders as both victim and murderer.

But he was also a deeply respected stage actor, and a serious scholar of Elizabethan drama who taught himself Latin to do his research.

George Anthony Haygarth was born in Anfield, Liverpool, the only child of Mary (nee Davies) and Stanley, a bus inspector, and they sent him to a fee-paying day school in West Derby. He was not a good pupil, inclined to scruffiness, and when he asked why the staff called him “Fogpatch” he was told: “Because you are dense and dirty”.

He left at 15 and in a quest for a life path worked as a beach lifeguard, a psychiatric nurse and a circus fire-eater. He was already a poet, however, and having met in a pub the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henry and Brian Patten – toured with them. One of his most poignant memories was reading at Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales in 1966, shortly before it was engulfed by a shale tip killing 116 children.

After being persuaded by friends to audition for an amateur pantomime his first role was Buttons in Aladdin, and in his mid-20s he and his friend the late Geoffrey Hughes – later familiar in Coronation Street and The Royle Family – went to London with £20 each given them by Haygarth’s father, part of which Haygarth invested in elocution lessons. He got work in theatre-in-education projects but went on to act with companies including the RSC, the Royal Court and particularly the National Theatre.

In 1971 he won a minor role in the farcical film Percy but his major break came with the Roy Clarke sit-com Rosie in 1977 in which he played the shambolic PC Wilmot. In 1981 he was given the title role in the ITV sci-fi comedy Kinvig which for a season was scheduled to coincide with Rosie on the BBC.

He became part of Bill Bryden’s Cottesloe Company at the National Theatre and in 1978 played Pontius Pilate opposite Brian Glover’s God in Tony Harrison’s The Mysteries, along with now famous names such as Brenda Blethyn and Kenneth Cranham who became close friends. Glover’s brash, broad Yorkshire deity inspired the opening piece in Haygarth’s only published book of poems, And God Wore Clogs.

Almost a deity to him had been the actor Paul Schofield and in 1982 he played Sancho Panza to Schofield’s Don Quixote in Keith Dewhurst’s play at the National, Haygarth’s favourite production, directed by Bil Bryden. Thereafter Schofield always affectionately addressed him as “Sanch”.

But he detected an element of snobbery in the theatre which he articulated in one of his poems, Actor, about how he thought he was seen by some in the profession:

He drinks, you know, apparently – a lot
And never learns his lines, he just invents
As for understanding Shakespeare – O what rot
I was there the night the massacred ‘Two Gents’

In fact, he understood Shakespeare’s world profoundly. His 2001 play The Lie examined the circumstances of Christopher Marlowe’s death, the result of deep research, and in 2003 Dark Meaning Mouse followed his discovery in the V&A of a portrait he decoded to be of the actual “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”.

He had a close professional friendship with Harold Pinter. When his wife, the theatre producer Carole Winter, was casting a revival of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in 1996 with Pinter directing, she was against Haygarth being cast but was over-ruled by Pinter. It won another Olivier nomination.

For his role as Doolittle in Peter Hall’s 2008 production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic critics credited him with drawing out the social realism of the part, but he still found time for pranks. As the housekeeper Mrs Pearce, Una Stubbs habitually plucked specks off Haygarth’s shoulders on stage, and one night he inserted a thread that poked through his jacket but ran all the way down to his feet, so that she had to yank six feet of cotton out before she could continue.

He lived for 30 years with his family near East Peckham, Kent, where Bob Morrell had been a barman in the local pub. When his father died unexpectedly, Haygarth became his mentor and coached Morrell to get him into drama school. Haygarth’s last role in 2013, coincidentally, was in the first play he was ever in, the pantomime Aladdin, this time for a professional Sevenoaks-based company run by Jamie Alexander Wilson, as he had done for several years. “He lifted the company,” Wilson recalls, “and when he became ill they rallied round like another family to support him”. He was diagnosed with Altzheimer’s in 2013 and when his book of poems was published in 2015 he donated the proceeds to dementia research via Red Nose Day. He died at Tunbridge Wells Hospital.

He married Carole Winter in 1985 and they were amicably divorced in 2011. Their two daughters are Becky, an events organiser, and Katie, an actor.

Tony Haygarth, actor, was born 4th February 1945. He died on March 10, 2017.

Jan 9 / Simon

‘Who can tell me about Britain’s bloody religious history?’

The Times, 7 January 2017
A former medieval monastery in London where Thomas More studied for four years is opening to the public for the first time. Simon Tait writes

Clerkenwell was the bustling heart of medieval London. Outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers, it was a place of entertainment known for its brothels, taverns and “houses of unlawful and disorderly resort”. It had three prisons as well as plague pits, and a well around which parish clerks performed mystery plays, near where farmers came to sell their livestock at Smithfield.

In its midst stood the convent of one of the strictest orders in an age of monasticism, the Carthusians of Charterhouse, whose reclusive occupants were respectfully left to their devotions in peace. “All around was bustle and trade and power positives,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, “while inside the Charterhouse you were standing challenge to that way of being human”.

This tranquil spot is the point at which the Middle Ages ended, over which two of the most powerful intellects of the age, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, battled for – as they saw it – the souls of the English, a battle that ended with the moral authority being wrested from the church of Rome by the state of Henry VIII.
The Charterhouse monastery was built in Edward III’s reign and was later a school and almshouse. On January 27 it will open to the public for the first time with tours and a museum created by the Museum of London telling how, after Cromwell’s victory over More graphically detailed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the expulsion of the Carthusians, it was a stately home and a court for two monarchs.

“The opening of the Charterhouse will be a great opportunity to reconsider particular themes, such as the Suppression story, and the huge sweeping change that occurred to London from 1536,” said Roy Stephenson, head of archaeological collections at the museum, which plans to move to Smithfield in 2021. “Approximately a third of the land in the City, and that immediately surrounding, changed hands and vital social support was terminated swiftly for the urban disposed. When the Museum of London becomes part of West Smithfield in the middle of a monastic landscape, with the Charterhouse to the East, St Johns and St Marys Clerkenwell to the North, and Barts to the South, we hope to be better placed to tell that story.”

The Charterhouse was first home to a handful of hermits known for their poverty, austerity and scholarship. In 1084 a German monk, St Bruno, established a closed silent order on a desolate rocky plateau called Chartreuse, above Grenoble. In Latin it became Cartusia, in English Charterhouse, and though the monks devoted themselves to a life of isolation, a chain of charterhouses grew across Europe until by 1200 there were 37.

The London Charterhouse was built on the Smithfield plague pit, consecrated in March 1371 with a prior and six monks. It was established against widespread objections, not least from London’s many other monastic houses that were competing for patronage, and from the meat sellers of Smithfield who were being deprived of 13 acres of valuable grazing land.

The monks’ guiding precept was isolated ascetism. They spent most of their time alone in “hermitages” consisting of a bedroom, an oratory and a study. There were 24 such cells by the start of the 16th century, partly paid for by wealthy patrons, set around a large cloister garden, a place for silent communion with nature. Eating was a necessary evil, a potential source of corruption; their one meal of the day, at about 10am, was bread and water, occasionally vegetables and perhaps cheese on Thursdays, and fish on Sundays. Lay brothers passed the monks’ food through a grill, one of which survives.

The brothers went to bed at 7pm and were woken for prayer at 11. At midnight they met in the chapel for up to three hours of matins, lauds and the offices of the dead, returning to bed until rising again at 5am for high mass and then retiring once more for study before vespers at 2.45pm. They wore undyed woollen habits with large cowls hiding their faces; on Sunday afternoons they processed together outside the precincts, when they were permitted to talk to each other.

“They kept their standards which was really difficult to do in a religious community,” says Professor McCulloch. “The tendency is always to make life a bit easier, to rub along more comfortably. The Carthusians, by a simple structural device of making their community a collection of hermits, avoided that. They lived most of their lives in solitary fashion, to grow their own food or have it delivered in a totally impersonal way through those grills, and otherwise they met or worshipped for formal business in the chapter house (which survives as part of the present chapel) or the vanished medieval chapel”.

The powerful were wistful for the hermits’ holiness, lavishing endowments on them and often seeking their advice. “There is a powerful Carthusian literature addressed to the powerful,” says Professor McCulloch, “a sort of medieval safety device giving them a sense of perspective”.

And so it was for Thomas More who lived among the Carthusians for four years as a student, and contemplated becoming a brother before an aversion to celibacy – he feared he would have been “an impure priest” says his biographer Peter Ackroyd – led him to the law instead. In the library More could read, as well as the classics, Thomas à Kempis on simplicity and purity.

“More was a man who was stoically torn between two worlds, whether to go forward and be the glittering statesman he was or disappear into this world of self-denial,” says Prof McCulloch. “He couldn’t hack it and yet it always drew him back, and in the end that denying of worldly power was what brought him to the scaffold”.

The Charterhouse prior, John Houghton, refused to sign Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, bringing down on his community the full wrath of More’s immediate successor as Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. In May, 1535, Houghton was taken out to Tyburn and hanged, drawn and quartered. Sixteen of the monks were either executed or starved to death in prison. From his own cell in the Tower More was able to see Houghton and two other Carthusian priors being dragged to Tyburn on hurdles. “Look, Meg,” he said to his daughter. “These blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage”. More was beheaded two months later.

At the 1538 Dissolution the building’s stones were used to create a Tudor mansion with a great chamber in which Queen Elizabeth held her first court in 1558, as did James I in 1603. In 1611 it was bought by a merchant, Thomas Sutton. As well as founding a school for impecunious scholars there, who in the cloister created the rudiments of the rules of football (the school moved to Surrey in 1872), he turned Charterhouse into an almshouse or, as John Aubrey described it in 1657, “an old neate, fresh solitarie Colledge for decaied Gent.”
And so it remains, with about 40 secular brothers – there is no religious requirement now – subsisting on Sutton’s generous endowment. It was not, however, designed to cope with the expensive 21st century upkeep of a group of Grade I listed buildings, and Charterhouse needs to establish a new fund.
There has always been a chaplain, known as the Preacher, who today is the Rev Robin Isherwood. The Act of Supremacy, he says, was cataclysmic for a world where the church was the final arbiter, where what happened after death was more important than what occurred in life. “In their eyes the church was the divinely ordained authority pushed aside in favour of someone who eventually believed in the divine right of kings,” he says.
Charterhouse and the Museum of London hope the extraordinary story will bring 35,000 visitors a year. Combined with the museum, admission to which will be free, the paid-for tours will fill in gaps left by the lost medieval fabric. “Combining notions of what More and the Carthusians did,” says Mr Isherwood, “will bring it alive for them”.

Jan 9 / Simon

Rattle Hall is not dead in the water

January 2017, Opinion
Simon Tait
It looked like it was curtains for Rattle Hall – the Centre for Music – when the Chancellor changed his mind plan, Or rather, the new Chancellor changed the old Chancellor’s mind, and cancelled the Treasury grant of £5.5m to create a business case for the £278m Centre for Music, to give it its proper name. Having believed in the promise of the project and welcomed the positive results of a feasibility study, the government has now decided that, bluntly, it does not offer value for money for the taxpayer, and is therefore not affordable.
That feasibility study, also sponsored by Osborne, reported more than a year ago and the grant was seen as a green light for the project, with an opening in 2023. Now the government wants its money back, and we can assume there won’t be any more government bunce – maybe as much as £100m – as might have been hoped.
There are plenty who will agree with the u-turn. Some, like Julian Lloyd Webber, said the money would be better spent on music education – will it be? Others said it would be built in the wrong place, a much better site would be on the Thames opposite Tate Modern at Blackfriars as part of a new cultural hub with the Globe and Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre. Then there was the argument that, as the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, the other four main London orchestras (if you count the BBC’s) would be disadvantaged. “London is already home to world class culture and music venues, from the iconic Royal Albert Hall to the Barbican Hall and the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre” a government spokesman said, laughable to anyone in the music-making business.
The whole issue arose a couple of years ago when Simon Rattle complained that there was nothing in London to match the modern halls of Europe, like Vienna and Amsterdam; then it was announced that he had agreed to be the LSO’s next music director, but that the new hall was not a condition of his taking the job. The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra had to play in other cities just to find out how good they were. Then the Barbican, LSO, Guildhall School and the Corporation of London came up with the new plan. Also involved is the Museum of London’s long yearned for move to West Smithfield, vacating the London Wall site for Kenyon’s hall for a £150m development in Clerkenwell.
What Kenyon and McDowell are proposing is not just a concert hall. It would be built for the digital age, said the Barbican’s MD Nicholas Kenyon, with education facilities that would offer “immersive” experiences for London youngsters and communities, plus digital recording facilities. “As the study demonstrates, the Centre for Music is not just viable but could be transformative, significantly raising the profile and visibility of music and offering world-class arts and learning opportunities for all” he said when the feasibility report was published. “The elements are all there now to create a unique opportunity: we want to work with all our partners to shape and realise the vision in a way that can be inspirational for all”.
There is no reason for it not to go forward. The loss of the government money and its imprimatur will hurt but will not need to be fatal, especially if Brexit can awaken the interest an American billionaire, with the planners at liberty to name it after them. The project was started long before Osborne got involved, the feasibility study has been done and rendered a positive report, and the richest local authority in the country, the Corporation of the City of London, is still four-square behind it.