W4W: What insane kings, painters and fictional detectives can teach us

Black and white photograph of an old man

Image: Pixabay


Our son is away in Spain at the moment – no doubt desperately trying to forget he has parents – so on Sunday, husband and I decided to stop obsessively checking our phones to see if he’d texted* and find a way of entertaining ourselves. Through this experiment in distraction, I stumbled upon the ideal way of contemplating my own


This is how.

In the morning, we mauled our way up Park Street (not – as a passing drunk wearing a beanie hat and carrying a stuffed monkey once told me –the  UK’s steepest shopping street, though it does a pretty good impression) to see the National Gallery touring exhibit Self-Portrait at the age of 63 by Rembrandt (below).



It’s a painting I’d seen in reproduction may times, but never as it where in the oily flesh. It’s stunning. From the reddened, bloated nose to the Bassett hound wrinkles around the eyes and the tufts of springy hair like fluffy headphones, Rembrandt looks like the kind of older man who’s seen a lot, done a lot, loved a lot, regrets some, but definitely not all. He looks like he has some great stories to tell and will relate every single one over many pints of beer – as long as you’re paying.

After breathing in the seventeenth-century,  we rolled back down the hill to the 250-year-old Theatre Royal to see one of the country’s finest stage actors ‒ Timothy West ‒  tackle King Lear. (See here for a pretty fair review).

The role of Lear’s one of those that makes actors wish decades of their lives away, as they get to play adoring, irrational, raging, grieving, playful, barking mad – and finally dead – in the space of an afternoon. I rarely find Shakespeare moving – perhaps the language takes it too far away from our own time to make a strong connection – but the late scenes between blind Gloucester (played by David Hargreaves) and his believed-to-be-lost- but-actually-just-naked-and-pretending-to-be-the-crazy-beggar-Poor-Tom son Edgar, genuinely brought a lump to the throat.

Three hours and a stage full of death later, we staggered home to eat chilli, stoke up Amazon Prime and watch another English knight – Sir Ian McKellen – as the  great detective, Mr Holmes. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, this Sherlock is reduced to living in the countryside, away from the intrigue and peasoupers of London. He’s reduced in his faculties too, as the once sharpest mind in Britain has its deductive powers near destroyed by dementia. He has to write people’s names on his sleeve to remember them. Details of old cases float through his consciousness, dashing away before he can catch them. He’s still brusque, still superior, but McKellen gives him a fragile dignity as his mind crumbles that makes his portrayal the most sympathetic Holmes yet.

So, after a day stuffed with old men, what commonalities did I dwell on as I hugged my cocoa to me and sleep’s sticky fingers tugged my eyelids?

Well, that these depictions reminded me how mortal we all are, of course. That even the greatest of us – genius artists, kings, great minds – all face death the same. Also that there are many different ways to age: you could make the worst decision, with terrifying consequences for yourself and your loved ones as Lear does; or feel you have one more thing to prove, one more puzzle to solve, as Holmes does; or be alone, resigned, a little sad, as Rembrandt seems in one of the last portraits he painted before he died.

But one thing these old chaps (Rembrandt, West, Hargreaves, McKellen and Holmes) all have in common is showing that something wonderful, something great and beautiful – something near perfection – can be achieved no matter how many more years you have behind you than before.

Not a bad lesson to learn.

Written for dear Kat’s W4W.

*If you’re wondering, the answer was yes during his journey through France, but no from the moment the glorious Mediterranean sun hit his face. Rotten little swine.



Books in the Blood #16: Why crime pays – medieval style

A funky, chunky monk. Image: Pixabay

A funky, chunky monk.
Image: Pixabay

Policemen are everywhere, aren’t they?

I mean, not in real life, obviously. Bobbies on the beat went the way of Marathon bars and the not-so-smiley smilodon fatalis (what they called a Sabre Toothed Tiger when I was small).

What I mean is, the one place you’ll always find a copper or many coppers (what is the collective noun for policemen? A morose? A renegade? A doughnut?) is on the nearest screen. Film and TV have built season after season, year after year on Peelers and their careers. From Dragnet and Fabian of the Yard through to countless CSIs and the wonderful True Detective, the police drama is the pillar on which viewing is built.

As far as film and programme makers are concerned, crime really does pay.

Of course, crime in the creative arts did not originate on the screen, but in the leathery embrace of books. Edgar Allan Poe – yes, that cheerful rogue  – is credited with creating the first fictional detective, Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Later came Sherlock Holmes (though of course not actually a policeman) and from there, the genre went from strength to strength.

Now, I confess, I don’t read many crime novels. My most recent, back in the summer, were The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin, and The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson though I bought both largely on the grounds of their historical settings (1930s New Orleans and an 18th century debtors’ prison) rather than the fact they featured mangled corpses. And the Axeman features a young Louis Armstrong playing amateur detective, so how could I resist?

For me, the problem with a lot of crime fiction is the gore. I don’t mind the odd death littering my fiction, the odd imagined corpse to step over. But I don’t really like exuberant death scenarios constructed by hyper intelligent, over educated multiple killers, who spend their time finding excuses to cut people up rather than turning their intelligence to something useful such as finding out why socks disappear inside washing machines and why politicians lose all ethics the moment they’re elected.

Because of this, ‘cosy crime’ has always been an attractive sub-genre for me, focussing on the detectives and their characters rather than a dozen interesting ways to flay the human torso.

Enter today’s Books in the Blood offering,

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters.

I read a lot of these when I was a teen and loved them.

The books are set in a monastery in medieval Shrewsbury – a town on the English / Welsh border – and one of the big draws is Cadfael himself. A kindly Welshman, he came late to the religious life, having been a soldier, sailor, lover and amateur student of herbalism. His skills with medicines are superlative, he has a romantic streak in him a mile wide, a profound sense of justice and a seaman’s rolling gait.

He has his own garden, where he grows plants for his many remedies and a herbarium, chockablock with sticky bottles and leaky animal skin flasks and bunches of aromatic herbs drying from the beams – a place I was often happy to imagine myself.

The stories are set during the Anarchy – a 12th century English civil war when the crown was disputed by King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda. Peters throws a good dose of real history into the mix, so the books are filled with sieges and battles. Violence is never far away.

In truth, the Cadfael character is a bit too modern to be of his time.

He studied with Arab scholars – no racist then. He loves and respects women. His sense of justice is twentieth century, not medieval – no ducking stools and trial by ordeal for Cadfael, but fair judgements by honest men. He’s practical and devoid of superstition, save the religious beliefs you’d expect from a Benedictine monk – pretty rare I’d imagine, in an age when sin was thought to cause illness and dog-headed men supposedly inhabited the far flung reaches of the world.

I confess, I found Peters’ habit of shoehorning a pair of star-crossed young lovers into every story a little wearing after a few books, but it’s a small complaint really.

I loved the tales for their setting, their atmosphere and for the salty old seadog Cadfael. Finer company you will not find this side of the 12th century.

The red satin corset of shame: what the contents of your bookshelf reveals about you


Ever worried someone might open the top of your skull and take a look at your brain?

Not in an physical, ‘err, it’s all pink and membraney and looks a bit like a blushing cauliflower’ sort of way, but in a ‘hell, what kind of twisted weirdness is this? And what’s that horrible, many tentacled thing hiding in the corner that looks like it wants to eat me’ kind of way’?

What I mean is, would you be worried if someone could see your inner workings (again, not the pink squidgy ones)?

We all have our secrets. I’ve written here before about how good people are at acting normal and how great kids are at showing their inner weirdo – well, outer weirdo … Just total, 100% weirdo.

If all adults feel they have to hide parts of themselves in order to fit in with all the other adults hiding parts of themselves and trying to fit in, are there unexpected ways in which these hidden depths ooze out, exposing the red-satin-corset-of-shame below the buttoned-down collar of respectability?

Before you begin to imagine I have a garage filled with life-sized, fully automated Lego models of serial killers or a catalogued assortment of ear wax, body hair and nail clippings, may I reassure you that I’m talking about books here.

Now, some people’s bookshelves may be filled with sumptuous leather bound volumes of Dickens, Hemingway, Austen and Hardy. Those volumes may be well-thumbed and oft read.  The owners may love the Classics, enjoy bathing in the warm joy of words, the love of literary genius.

Or they may just be snobs who want to show off an intelligence they don’t possess, mirrors only ever reflecting, never absorbing these wonders of erudition.

I’m guessing, though, that your bookshelf is very much like mine – a jumble of papery friends you’ve accumulated over the years. As with human friends, they’ll be some you love, that you return to time and again, that give back more each time you return to them.

But, you may also have the book equivalent of a friend-who-shouldn’t-really-be-a-friend, some piece of rubbish you picked up years ago. Maybe you’re not quite sure where or how they came into your life, you keep meaning to shake them off but can’t quite muster the energy to finally throw them out. 

So maybe, your bookshelf is a little like opening up your head and rummaging through its contents. Maybe it’s a window into your psyche, a little hint at still water running deep, or that you’re just a bit of an odd ball with a fixation with manhole covers, beer mat collecting and edible invertebrates.

From my own bookshelf, you’d learn I have a fascination for the Tudor period, especially the life of its seamen (note the spelling please).

You’ll also find a smattering of local history and dialect books, and Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England by Emily Cockayne – a fascinating book about dirty Georgians.

There’s plenty of fiction, of course. Books I read as a kid through to modern YA, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and, yes, some Classics – Dickens, Austen, Mary Shelley, George Elliott, Conana Doyle.

And beside the guides to fiction writing, the books to teach yourself crochet, knitting and gardening (because there’s surely nothing you can’t learn from books) there are some about fossils – and a lovely big picture book filled with skeletons.

So, imagine Sherlock Holmes was trying to work out my personality from the contents of my bookshelf, because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing he’d do.

I’d be a maiden in some distress, probably with a large fortune and a good line in lace hankies and suspect male relations. From the contents of my shelves, Mr Holmes might learn a thing or two …

‘Our quarry has an erratic mind, Watson – do you see the jumble of tomes, one atop the other, seemingly without rhyme or reason. And the subject matter – from antiquity through to our own day? Surely a sign of derangement, a person who is at once juvenile and geriatric, with a dangerous preoccupation with the grimy underbelly of society, with darkness and with death.

‘Call a hansom cab at once. The game is afoot!’

What does the contents of your bookshelf reveal about you? Would your books on real crime surprise your Nan? Would your collection of French romantic poetry have your work colleagues passing out with shock?