Posted: January 8, 2022 in Chat
Tags: ,

If flame were to take off its clothes
would there be just pain,
the isolated, cold-enclosed suns?

Flames flicker to tapers. What continues
smoke rushes in to cover
races off the scale of colours.

What we see and what we feel 
mismatch. There can only be
assumptions’ strict license, 
flame’s tease.

New Year’s Day

Posted: January 1, 2022 in Chat
Tags: ,

With heels more in the air than on the road
you reached up and I down, out walking
in frost, and clouds of breath, the cold,
to the stable, its smell, to watch them breathing.

And the stalls empty; but out on the hill –
you stacked on the fence – they whinnied and threw
heads and tails, the brown and the white, as they spilled
down to us out of the old year, into the new.

Later that night, returning from the mountain,
our cracked, swollen knuckles, in the snow,
a light we saw, a lantern among grain-chaff,
and crept as we could though pained by frostbite
to that door through loud snow, by star light.
It was over by time we got there, the birth smell
filled the hut, and the cloths laid aside.
There, by the rick, where a single light fell,
a woman suckled a child, lying sidewise,
and the man, hands wet and red, by her side.
And some of us left pelts then; bread, beer.
I could do nothing, a father myself, of three,
was taken bad with a kind of fever, cold fear
laid me low also. But it wasn’t illness,
it was something of those three there marked me.
I took to wandering then; can find no rest.

                                                                                                                      for Karl Wittfogel
The editor has laid me out wrong. 
These clothes don’t suit. Maybe it is I 
who started out wrong, this practical 
all-purpose style the result.

‘Dear Caesar,’ I wrote, ‘the locals 
bade me welcome.’ But exasperate. 
‘Dear Caesar, to bring down water
to the town needs engineers, surveyors.’ 
‘Local men,’ you said. ‘use them.’ 
But the local men exasperate. 

‘Dear Caesar,’ I wrote, ‘the engineer
said it cannot be done. I don’t 
believe him; if you send your best, 
then we’ll show him.’ Dear Caesar… 
this heat, these flies, it dries the wit
from my tongue, leaves only phlegm, 
so now my grand orations are more 
‘ahem’ than sound persuasion. 

I feel, dear Caesar, they mock my person
more than honour it. Locals; 
I loathe them.

When Vesuvius blew, my uncle 
sailed to its beleaguered towns. 
‘No matter for panic.’ he said. 
‘I’m here.’ But no, they would have it 
their way. What huge revenues 
they lost you, Caesar. 
Later you wrote, ‘Your concerns 
do you credit. Your work is good. 
Keep doing it.’ So, may I yet 
sup in your presence
                                  dear Caesar?

My Father’s Ghost

Posted: December 11, 2021 in Chat
Tags: ,

sometimes you have to have a little fun. And so…

My father’s ghost each night I saw
reflected on the tv screen, or 
passing behind actors with a meaningful look,
like a soap star.

‘It was Society, your uncle, killed me.’ 
he said. ‘It was not!’, I said.
‘Would you make presumptions on my age,
even when I’m dead?’ 
It’s true, I did.

‘If it was the family black sheep 
cousin Economics, I’d accept it, 
or grandfather Politics, expect it
without question. But Society…
why, he’s far too scatty, cannot tell
one day from the next.’ 
My ordered life subject to profligate  
predictive text!
I worked hard for my little state.’

We disinherited the medical staff
on your behalf!’ I said. ‘The doctors 
negligent, unskilled.’ 
                                          ‘You were wrong. 
Society killed me!’

What a family, I would not trust 
any with a teaspoon, 
silver hallmarked
– each is a burst balloon
of inheritance and ambition –
never mind 
the keys to the kingdom! 

And yet when Conventional Romance 
looked my way, well, it was
Wayward Romance, her sister 
that I was after.  
‘You must do your duty!’
my father said. 

And so I did.

                       a long way to him here. 
‘It is myself,’ he says, ‘my true nature
I have been trying so hard to avoid.’
It is a travelling shadow 
blown larger by the mind.

It has been travelling
a long way to him, for him to know it;
but time and distance confuse. It has been
pressing, yes, its shadow on him 
               Perhaps it is stationary, and he moving
dragging it behind him. Perhaps
it has always been here, 
is meant to be here.

To imagine it is to answer it; 
guarantees nothing. So outgrow this waiting, 
this something missed.
Is it the shadow of something passed by,
an image retained on the retina,
as you drive on? 
                            The road ahead so empty,
no surprises, so he plays with this,
a little mystery, wrapped round with newspapers,
sweet wrappers, unfinished resignation letters:

kept close, for company. 

I so enjoyed researching this piece, that I thought I’d repost it.

It was the summer of 1618, and the poet and, yes, dramatist, Ben Jonson, was at the height of his fame and powers.
I emphasise dramatist, because shortly before this date Ben Jonson had published his Works, in which he included his dramatic works. This was not done – at that time dramatic scripts were not considered ‘works’ but throw-away pieces. He received a lot of criticism for this; he was by then inured to the extremes that criticism could reach, his part in the ‘War of the Theatres’ had been bloody, hard, and he had had to concede defeat. For Ben Jonson’s character, defeat was not easily admitted, or lived with, and yet he had swallowed it the best he could.

So, in 1618, July 8th, Ben Jonson set out on an epic journey; it was well-advertised to interested parties.

He was to walk from London to Edinburgh. 450 miles.

He took the Great North Road out of London, up country, meeting the coast near Alnwick, Northumberland, whereon he followed the coast road twisting and turning, up and down braes, to follow the road right around to Edinburgh, coming in from Leith, on September 6th.

– A friend of my son’s walked to London from Cambridge one day: it took a punishing 12 hours. Ben Jonson’s walk took him 60 days.
The friend was fit and young; Ben Jonson had acquired his legendary girth of 20 stone in weight. He was also 46 years old, rather older than middle-age, for those times.
At the beginning of his career Ben Jonson was nick-named ‘the anatomy,’ due to his lean-ness: tall and thin.
How time was to change him.

What was the purpose of this walk? It can be considered a huge publicity stunt: he was, as all were, constantly on the look out for patronage, and Royal patronage was the best paid. He was, in effect, purposely celebrating the journey made by King James I/VI of Scotland – in reverse. The name Jonson, was also, through his father’s side, a Scottish Border name, from Johnstone, of Annandale. By acknowledging the Scottish name, he was therefore cementing his link, and also his credentials, to further a further suit with King James.

He stayed in Edinburgh six months, and then undertook the return journey, following the same route.

His journey has been tracked, and meticulously noted: see the map: http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/ben-jonsons-walk/map/

It was thought for a long time he undertook the journey alone. Rather recently, though, papers have been unearthed in the Cheshire Archives, which give detailed notes on the journey, in another’s hand.
The paper was not signed, and describes the walk as a Foot Voyage.

For much of the way, then, he had a travelling companion, a member of the Aldersley (sic) Family perhaps, among whose effects the notes were found. Was this a relative of the 1st Baronet, John Thomas Stanley, 1597–1672? The family are connected to the Earl of Derby, and the Baron Sheffield.
The Stanleys came in for some criticism in Alan Garners’ 1976 novella, The Stone Book.

The Alderleys, called, confusingly, the Stanley Family, are connected with what is now the affluent dormitory town of Alderley, properly known as Alderley Edge, and a place well known the readers of young adult fiction, and general fiction writer, Alan Garner. His earliest, and latest book are set there: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and the latest, Boneland, (2012).


Ben Jonson noted that his shoes gave out by the time he had reached Darlington, near Newcastle. That was not bad going, actually. He had another pair made, and suffered them for the next few days, until he wore them in.

What we know of Jacobean male footwear is scanty, and restricted to court fashions, and further, to what was depicted in portraits from the period.
During the late Elizabethan era, however,  pamphletting was taking off. One such practitioner was Philip Stubbes, a puritan. He inveighed against  ‘unchristian’ workplace practices. We have to thank him for the details he provides of such practices of the time. One of which was, shoe making.

He tells us the leather was soaked in liquor for hardening, then well greased. The fraudulence was in the use of, for example, the more thinner, fragile, calf instead of cow hide and, controversially, horse skin instead of ox-hides. They were always, he insisted, cat-skin lined.
The sewing was done with hot needles and twine. He says the shoes were then heated by the fire to harden them. We can only presume this was a fraudulent practice.

What of the soles? He does not mention soles. Heeled boots for men became fashionable in the late Elizabethan  period; the heels were of wood. Would workmen’s – brick-layers, as with Ben Jonson’s early life – also use wooden soles? Wooden pattens were still in use in the period.


Ben Jonson’s stay in Edinburgh reached its summit in his long sojourn with William Drummond, of Hawthornden Castle. This lasted from December, 1618, until early Spring, 1619, and his return journey. What eased the familiarity of their company was that William Drummond owned, and continually added to, one of the best libraries in Britain, at that time. Both men were avid bibliophiles.
We also have William Drummonds’ notes on the sojourn: a commentary on Ben Jonson’s conversation, but without his own input.

One incident particularly spoiled Ben Jonson’s epic of his walk and sojourn in Scotland. That was the arrival, a few week’s after himself, of ‘self-styled… poet’ (Ben Jonson, His Life and Work, by Rosalind Miles, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), John Taylor, the ‘sculler’, or water, poet. The name derives from his previous occupation as a Thames waterman. He was born in Gloucestershire, and became a boatman/ferryman in Kent – the Sheppey region.
I am always surprised at the mobility of people in those times: Shakespeare’s travels from Warwickshire to possibly Lancashire, but definitely to London, was seen as no big step.

King James applauded John Taylor’s writing, preferring him above Sir Philip Sidney (perhaps out of a sense of mischief?). Ben Jonson was indeed put out by his arrival, having walked all the way, the same route, as he himself had. He became convinced his London rivals had put John Taylor up to this, to mock his own feat. It was vigorously denied, and to a believable extent. Although John Taylor did indulge later in spectacular stunts, such as manning and sailing a real paper boat into London.
also see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Taylor_(poet).

Ah, but John Taylor had not the high connections of Ben Jonson, in Edinburgh; nor was he made Freeman of the City, as Jonson was.

On his return to London he found several things had changed. For one, the Queen had died. This was soon followed by the death of principle Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. A national loss, and a more localised one; but the public stage had lost two important players.
The Queen’s death put his own suit with King James on a back burner.

If any reader is looking for an introduction, way in, to Ben Jonson’s poetic works, I would heartily recommend the Thom Gunn selection, on Penguin:


(To John Gawsworth)

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.


Cellar Door

Posted: November 16, 2021 in John Stammers Page


I was watching the film, Donnie Darko, again the other night – lost count of viewings now – those young Gyllenhaal siblings, aw.
And what a soundtrack!

There’s that moment where the young teacher, as she packs her belongings having just been fired, tells Donnie D how the phrase Cellar Door was considered the most euphonious, ‘perfect’ English sound.

‘Cellar Door’ also propels the main characters to their crisis point, before the great ending.

And who was that teacher? Played by Drew Barrymore. She was really vey funny in Santa Clarita Diet.
And who was Donnie Darko’s psychologist Dr Lilian Thurman? Katherine Ross. Among her many credits is one of the important characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; in Stepford Wives, that really chilling film. And of course, The Colbys.

Donnie Darko was released in 2001.

On ‘Cellar Door’, Wiki gives us:

The English compound noun cellar door has been widely cited as an example of a word or phrase that is beautiful purely in terms of its sound (i.e., euphony) without inherent regard for its meaning.[12] The phenomenon of cellar door being regarded as euphonious appears to have begun in the very early twentieth century, first attested in the 1903 novel Gee-Boy by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper. It has been promoted as beautiful-sounding by various writers; linguist Geoffrey Nunberg specifically names the writers H. L. Mencken in 1920; David Allan Robertson in 1921; Dorothy ParkerHendrik Willem van Loon, and Albert Payson Terhune in the 1930s; George Jean Nathan in 1935; J. R. R. Tolkien as early as a 1955 speech titled “English and Welsh“; and C. S. Lewis in 1963.[12][13] Furthermore, the phenomenon itself is touched upon in many sources and media, including a 1905 issue of Harper’s Magazine by William Dean Howells,[a] the 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? by Norman Mailer, a 1991 essay by Jacques Barzun,[15] the 2001 psychological drama film Donnie Darko,[16][17] and a scene in the 2019 movie Tolkien.



Back in 1986 there was an English TV series, The Singing Detective, written by Dennis Potter. A nightclub singer who also solved crimes, basically, played by a much younger Michael Gambon, yep, Dumbledore.

Taken to hospital he underwent fevers and recovered, ably assisted by a nurse, played by Joanne Whalley, shortly before she married Val Kilmer.

Part of the detective/singer’s recovery was the revelation that the most perfect English sound is carried by the word 


Incidentally this ‘elbow’ gave name to the English band:
They changed their name a second time to ‘Elbow’ in 1997, inspired by a line in the BBC TV drama The Singing Detective in which the character Philip Marlow describes the word “elbow” as the loveliest word in the English language.[12] 


So, is it Cellar Door, or Elbow?
This would suggest it is all a matter of subjective judgement.

They do both carry the same sound sequence, however: the short e: ce… and el…, followed by the lingual ‘l’, then there is the discrepancy between plosive ‘b’ and dental ‘d’, to be followed by a rounded o : door, and bow.
Does this b-d discrepancy tell us how vocalics have changed over time between England and USA? How has usage changed the palate?


And ‘Aye but’, I thought, watching the film, ‘Cellar Door is so obviously a French sound’. 
Think of cela d’or : ‘that gold/golden’.

You can’t really go wrong with this French one
Both sound and meaning.

That muted sibilant ‘c’ of ‘cellar’ that is absent in the more direct English English ‘elbow’… is not that, perhaps, more… French?
In the meld of American English, is there an aesthetic echo remaining, of French?

It could, of course, be that the English English ‘elbow’ is the corrupt version. It retains more clearly the mouth movements of front front to inner – bite-off to mouthful, as the gestural origin of language would have it, but misses so much else.
The American English ‘cellar door’, with its echoes of French, of romance sounds, is certainly the version to prefer. N’est ce pas?

And… in America… is it cellar, or basement… door?

In the Egyptian section of my small local museum I came across two odd little objects.  
These are artefacts from the Marianne Brocklehurst Ancient Egyptian collection.

There are unglazed ceramics, quite crudely made at first glance. But when you look closely they are full of detail – there is an outside stair to the roof, on one; another has domestic details.

Both has a dark chamber behind pillars. This is what caught my imagination: imagine if… souls exist, if a soul still dwelt there!

2014-02-21 08.40.32

I looked up some background details on this objects.

From Egyptian prehistoric times to the Vth Dynasty (Old Kingdom 2750-2625 or 2494-2345BCE) for the wealthy merchants and inhabitants, there was a mat laid on the grave, and on the mat a sort of flat pan for food offerings.

Running concurrently with this was the use of a carved stone table for offerings (III Dynasty, 2980-2900 or 2686-2613).

The stone table was copied in the form of a pottery tray (X Dynasty, First Intermediate Period, 2445-2160 or 2181-2160)

A shelter was added, copied, it has been suggested, from the form of  a Bedawy tent.

A shelter on columns was added (?)

The shelter gained columnar foreground.

A ‘hut’ was put into the portico.

Chambers were added.

Wind openings were added

It gained roof courts.

Verandahs were added to the roof.

It became a complete two-storey house/building.

Furnishing and furniture were added: couch, chair, stool, fireplace, water jars. It even gained the figure of a woman making bread.

2014-02-21 08.45.41

There were two Death books in ancient Egypt: what we know as The Book of the Dead, which is a collection of coffin texts, spells and incantations. The other is an earlier piece known as the Book of the Two Ways. These two ways were two means by which the soul (ba) or spirit (ka) negotiated the after-death existence. In one the ba could take residence with the sun during the day, but must return to the tomb at night. The other was far more dangerous, here the ka travelled through the night land with the sun on its journey back to day. It had to negotiate dangers and challenges, monsters and evil spirits. The end of this was a paradise, a ‘field of offering’ from where the spirit could possibly be accepted to spend eternity with the great spirits.

In each case the families of the deceased had to leave offerings of food, as well as grave goods. The food offerings had to be regularly renewed. The ka and ba partook of the essence of the food to sustain it on its journey, and through its travails.

This also demonstrated that the family of the deceased were of sufficient quality, had respect for tradition, and the deceased, and sufficiently wealthy to keep up the food offerings through the lean parts of the year, and periods of scarcity.

Soul houses were then the constructs of wealthy merchants; they became the desirable resting place of what could be called more upwardly mobile people.

2014-02-21 08.45.02



I cannot check, as yet, what period(s) the ones on display are from, or from what vicinity.

I do wonder, though, whether they should be returned to Egypt. Copies can be made, though perhaps not that easily.
As for the inhabitants… do the souls of the dead, long dead, recognise territories? Would they not recognise, instead, the family, its devotions? Families can travel anywhere/everywhere; devotion to a memory/ancestor travels with them.

And after all this time, is not that soul’s traverse of the underworld now completed, no longing needing the sustenance of offerings?