The Saga of the Vyner Brooke

 

Take this away, Harry. Borrow it for a while. It’s written by my uncle. Tell me what you think of it.’
We face each other across the little lounge of his retirement bungalow in Skelton-in-Cleveland, ten miles from Middlesbrough. I can hear the lifetime of hard work in my old friend’s rich, slow voice. A strong voice, and a forthright one. No beating about the bush with John Pickard, former Merchant Navy second mate, Teesport cargo supervisor, and shop stewards’ convenor. He hands me a tired brown paper folder, its edges curled and brittle. His large knuckles are in keeping with the rest of his tall and rangy form.
An intelligent hand has penned confident words across the cover, in the previous generation’s flourishes:
2nd August 1979. From Mrs N Pickard, 1 Mill Rd, Burnham-on Crouch, Essex. ‘One Jump Ahead’. Yet another escape from Singapore. Set down 10 years after by Lieutenant A J Mann RNVR.
I look up at John; his blue eyes twinkle. ‘Mam sent me that about twenty years back; she’s getting on, though you’d hardly know it. Nearly a hundred, but still fights her corner — and mine. She’s been harassing the housing people up here, wanting to know why they can’t provide her son with better accommodation.
Once back home in Sleights, fascinated, I feel reverence as I dip into A J Mann’s manuscript. The fragile ninety pages of yellowed foolscap and faded typing executed in 1952, probably on an upright Underwood typewriter, amount to about 30,000 words. My immediate thought is that the story should be better known. This memoir of astonishing tenacity for life, of an overcrowded ship, it’s passengers in terror of a cruel foe, and of endurance before the Japanese advance through the islands of the Dutch East Indies, must not be lost. My wife, Beryl Nicholson, types the manuscript into digital form so that copies can be lodged with The Imperial War Museum in Britain and with the Australian Memorial archives.
Then began research into Lt Mann’s career at sea, and into his ordeal following the loss of Vyner Brooke, his survival and subsequent adventures. His story is now published as “One Jump Ahead” under the name A J Mann with myself as editor and second author. The original foolscap manuscript will be lodged with the Australian War Memorial.

 

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Autumnal

Swans out of the north,

pushed by wind, sweep in like caped cavalry;

lanced uhlans in flight from a broken field.

A litter of sudden grey stones creep

across the pasture – another drop

of fieldfares late last night.

Smoke columns lean along the moor,

crackles and flying embers at their feet,

attended by bent figures – swaddled keepers.

It is the autumn burning – new shoots

for next year’s grouse – while emperors

and northern eggars roast in silken shrouds.

The glow of berried rowans on the heathered edge,

start memories  like snipe from a bog –

the lips of kissed and long-forgotten girls.

Harry Nicholson 

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A Painted Lady Year

It’s a painted lady year in Eskdale. She’s arrived from the fringe of the Sahara in large numbers. She’ll breed here, then her children will return to North Africa without map or satnav. Had a stroll around our small garden and counted ten, fuelling up on valerian flowers. Also two Red Admirals stayed a while.

Not to be outdone by the lepidoptera, a French Partridge spent a half hour on the lawn. They’re bred for shooting, but three have found sanctuary with us since last autumn. They pick around beneath the bird feeders when the goldfinches are feasting and throwing sunflower seed around as if it came free.


                                           Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui).
                                            Red Admiral
                                            French Partridge

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Actions have Consequences

The Garden of Karma

Rain tomorrow they say, but sun today.
Set the courgette plants out, four in a row.
Cherish the exercise, bend and stoop,
Ease them in, add a copper loop
To baffle the molluscs. Then splat . . .
A slap on the neck like a wet dish cloth
Some malevolent bird, out of spite
Has voided its bowels from a great height,
Down my shirt runs a river of (insert suitable rhyme).
I’ve fed them through hard times for years,
Subscribed to the RSPB, donated to clear
Bird islands of the shipwrecked rat.
Be this a karmic consequence of that?
It must be some older sin that stalks
Down the years, from a former life:
When I slew the last dodo with my knife,
Or when, from the deck of the Dutchman,
I shot the wanderer down.
This voided white dross
Is neither robin nor thrush,
But the final salute of the albatross.

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Black Hole

I’m concerned about the black hole recently photographed – I’ve just planted my first early potatoes. I’m always anxious about singularities and such. Some years ago I was moved to compose this:
FIFTEEN POINTS FOR THE END OF THE UNIVERSE

How would it be if all this collapsed into a singularity?
Will W.B. Yeats’ tombstone be ripped from the Sligo earth to whirl through time into unspeakably compressed blackness, calling out as it goes:
“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman pass by.”

The lines of migrating geese, where would they go in Autumn?

And Carlos Williams’ white chickens finally bereft of the red wheelbarrow……

Will there be puffs of smoke from the Vatican? And what colour will they be?

When God rings up, who will answer the phone?

Will it ring in the Vatican or on the Rabbi’s desk in Jerusalem?
Or will some mullah break off in mid rant to grab his mobile?

Will that funny black thing in Mecca begin to speak and will it say:
“I’ve been out to lunch, is something happening?”

What would happen to the Queen’s underclothes, hung out to dry, on lines, in secret places?

Should we put the jam in the fridge and give a final check to the humane mouse traps?

Should we have a bell five minutes beforehand, and after we have eaten all the chocolate?

Would Tony Blair speak unto us one last sound-bite, telling us “it will all turn out for the best“?

Would the Americans switch off the lights?

Will we be interested when the missing weapons of mass destruction start going off, deep in caves in the Hindu Kush?

What will be the last poem? Will it be any good?

And how will the ewe, down by the loch, find her lamb?
Harry Nicholson June 2004 Loch Voil

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While the sun shines

Lots of sun of late, which means our solar panels fuel the electric enamelling kiln. Here’s a few things the sun has made:

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What I did at the weekend.

I was called from retirement to be one of four judges at the Beveren rabbit club Centenary Show at Thirsk, North Yorkshire.

Here we are again. Last time was at Leamington Spa about 28 years ago. A table of White Beverens . Note the blue eyes.

And the original Blue Beveren. It came to the UK about 1918 from the town of Beveren in Belgian Flanders

Handing out the awards. Derek Medlock receives the rosettes.

Cutting the cake with a grand old judge of the Fancy, Alfred Aldridge. I could listen to his Lancashire dialect for hours, and not tire. I’d wondered what I was doing here at my age . .  then Albert donned a judging coat, and brought a lifetime’s experience.

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The Best of Days

The Blurb:

Here is a memoir of journeys into deep waters on merchant ships. There are tranquil tropical harbours and violent storms far from shore. We are in the wireless room when ships are calling for help. The story begins with humble origins on the coast of County Durham surrounded by family still coming to terms with the Great War. The author’s father went to war on horseback, yet in this story we are on the brink of the modern world. The writer was fortunate to join the Merchant Navy in the 1950s, and know its most glorious days. Harry Nicholson now lives near Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. His other books are Tom Fleck, a Tudor novel of Cleveland and Flodden, and its sequel The Black Caravel. His collected poetry is suitably titled, Wandering About.
There it is. Taking a respite from historical novels, I’ve had a go at memoir. I’m cheered to find my first attempt has raised its first review – and from a lady in the USA.
on May 17, 2018
A captivating account of the life of a young man raised in Hartlepool England, who goes to sea in the Merchant Navy as a radio operator and returns home a master of Morse code. He’s witnessed strange and intriguing places that I will probably never see, but thanks to this author’s poetic descriptions and vivid imagery, I feel as though I’ve been there. For us history buffs, Mr. Nicholson offers insight into the history and legends of the places he visited. This memoir is a must-read.

 

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A certain barn in North Yorkshire

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Secrets of a Casual Poultry Breeder

This morning, the Egton Bridge (though we meet at Lealholm) Writer’s Group enjoyed my bit about hens:

Secrets of a Casual Poultry Breeder.
Part1. Not all hens are daft.

My first birds were a quartet of pedigree Marans; forty years ago they were expensive at £5 each. They laid deep brown eggs, as dark as Kipling’s Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din.
The cock was a bit of a bruiser though. He would fly at me with barbed talons. He had delusions above his station and considered himself licensed to attack all who came near, so much so that the kids refused to feed the hens. I cured him by chasing him around the field with a multi-stemmed branch of birch, thrashing him all the while. After that he kept my species at a respectful distance.
Maran hens might be much admired, but they grow boring. They just wander about, looking myopic, and crooning notes in middle C in a pathetic low voice.
To add interest to the tiny flock of four, I bought a trio of bantams, diminutive Black Houdans with feathered feet and tufted heads. I had to clip the long feet feathers – they might look handsome on the bench at Pateley Show, but they could hardly stagger back to the hen hut after they’d wandered around in our Nidderdale clarts.
Then, I could not resist a trio of powder blue Araucanas; they had Dickensian side whiskers and would lay blue-green eggs. They originate on the Pacific coast of South America, and take their name from the untamed Araucana Indians (traditional enemies of the Incas). The other blue egg layer is the Andalusian. Question: Is the Andalusian descended from the Araucana, or vice versa? Did the blue hen travel with the Conquistadores? And, if so, in which direction?
Next came three brown and exhausted battery hens (saved from execution at 50 pence each). The poor creatures, pale-faced and cowering, had to be taught how to perch. They took days to learn to face down the other hens, and dodge the attentions of the Maran cockerel; days to discover that the sunny, grassy world outside was safe to investigate and that they need not be afraid of worms.
After a while I gave up trying to keep the breeds pure; I simply allowed them to get on with whatever promiscuous arrangements they had in mind. The flock grew in size and became highly coloured and gloriously variable; some of the cockerels were most handsome creatures, akin to Old English Game or the wild Asiatic Jungle Fowl.
My favourite was a huge white male, a White Rock, just like Chanticleer who does the opening crow on Pathe News. At dusk one evening I was worried that some new chicks I’d introduced to the flock were not bedded down for the night. They were not to be seen. But there was Chanticleer, on his perch, proud chest puffed out, with the heads of tiny chicks peeping from beneath each wing.

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