Dabbler Diary – A Kingdom of Rains

Il pleut. I must resort to French; ‘it is raining’ is too drably familiar to describe February’s pluvial onslaught. I need words of one syllable; words that can be spat; words at one remove, sufficiently alien for the deluge that has amphibianised our villages, turned our lowlands into swamplands and Ratty’s dab-dab-dabbling rivers into mad torrents. Eel pleuuurgh! And it kept on pleughing, sans mercy. Frogs and eels and webbed feet dripping slime. Il pleut, il sodding pleut, absolutement chats et chiens (I must further resort to Franglais, as my French is GCSE at best).

Through stupefying roadspray I motored to Tunbridge Wells, where it was pissing. Gutters and pipes roared all around and everywhere: you don’t notice how many there are in normal weather. Georgians used to come to Tunbridge for the water. Rain from above, and underground a chalybeate spring bubbling into the Pantiles. I wanted only to be dry. In BHS I bought a cheap hat and wore it on the walk to my meeting with a sad, heavy bear of a man in an office painted 70s brown. His cheeks and eyes drooped and every utterance he made was dragged through a sigh and a sorry shake of the head. I liked this world-weary bear and we had a pleasant chat; turns out he used to play rugby to a highish level and is incidentally the owner of one of the UK’s finest collections of cased fish. A fishing bear in a brown study. He bought everything I had to sell, bless him, and I scurried hunchbacked back to the multi-storey car park. A beggar was sitting in the stairwell. I proffered some small alms even though, incongruously, he was talking on a mobile phone. On to Canterbury, through more spray and roads pocked with watery craters.


Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky…’ the song came on the radio in the wake of Pete Seeger’s death. What is it, precisely, that makes me hate this song so very much? Not just the obvious: those snobbish, misanthropic, sanctimonious lyrics (And there’s doctors and lawyers, /And business executives,/And they’re all made out of ticky tacky/ And they all look just the same), could occur to anyone when they were in a foul mood, so I don’t blame their composer Malvina Reynolds as such. No, what makes me want to toddle off to some dank basement and stab sharp objects into squishy bodyparts is the picture I have in my mind of Pete Seeger with his ickle ukulele, getting to the end of the song then closing his eyes for a pensive moment before turning to Joan Sainte-Buffy Baez or whoever is sitting round the campfire to exchange a sorrowful yet wise and ultimately hopeful look, and then launching into We Shall Overcome.

Surely such a vision must also have occurred to Bob Dylan shortly before he went electric…


In the picnic area of Bristol science museum I divided a chocolate tiffin into four equal pieces. Mrs Brit, our younger daughter E and I ate our quarters. Then C, our elder daughter, came running over from where she had been drinking elaborately from the water fountain. I handed over her piece of tiffin, which, unprompted and without hesitation, she broke in half and shared with her little sister. Mrs B and I gasped so loudly that the poor girl jumped as if she’d been caught doing something wicked. You will only understand the sensations of shock, awe and pride we experienced in that moment if you have been a parent of closely-aged siblings and suddenly realised just how much of your life you spend breaking up squabbles over every teeny little thing.


A member of the small editorial team under my stewardship has quit. It was never going to work out: she wanted to be a writer. That is, she took the job gleefully because she likes reading novels and thought it would be good to be able to say that she was ‘a writer’. Then the reality of copywriting for a salary struck. Repetitive, boring, always getting edited… an unsexy craft that must be worked at, not an art at all. At its worst, writing for money is positively tawdry (imagine being a copywriter for a grubby linkbait site like Upworthy, or The Telegraph). Commerce, on the other hand, has a certain nobility. Making a thing, then getting a person to pay for that thing because it is useful to them, now that can be satisfying. It’s a pity they don’t include this information in English undergraduate courses, it would spare students a rude shock.


The railway station at Bitton is now a nostalgic attraction, with steam trains running in the holidays. There’s a café in an old carriage, good place to take the kids. Pinned to a wall is a menu for ‘Memory Lane Mondays’, aimed at the OAP market. This is what it offers:

Spam Fritters, chips and mushy peas – £5.50
Bubble and squeak, bacon and egg – £5.50
Corned beef hash & baked beans – £5.50
Chocolate sponge and peppermint sauce – £2.50

If we want to know why we’re so much fatter than previous generations, we surely need look no further. Our grandparents simply didn’t know temptation.


‘A vertical river with holes in’ was how somebody once described a heavy downpour. Possibly it was Terry Pratchett, but anyway, through one of these I doggypaddled from the Canterbury Premier Inn to the Cathedral. There was a loud, lairy crowd in for Evensong, loaded and well up for it. No, not really, there were a couple of dozen of us, and we were meek. Most were men in late middle age, falling into two types: African missionaries over to rescue English Christianity; and thin white aesthetes with beards. A young couple sat across the quire from me, but I was the only representative of my generation. Scandalous really, considering the calibre of the music served up free of charge in one of the finest buildings in the country.

Wednesday evenings are male voices, they sloshed the psalms back and forth across the aisle. A sweet droning river breaking its banks, flooding up the columns. With my eyes closed I saw wet unfolding motorways and thunderous lorries spraying. On the M2 a homicidal fool hurtled past me and nearly took out a car emerging nervously from the slip road; long and salty were my unheard complaints, but in the Cathedral’s calm I felt the residual anger flowing away. In Somerset a train ran along a track raised inches above flooded fields, just like in Spirited Away. There are floods in a few of Kazuo Ishiguro’s films; if this was one there would be giant fish swimming languorously around the transepts, gaping at the saints. When I first moved to Bristol it rained every day for months. In those days virtually every corner and cashpoint in the city had a beggar beside it. New Labour sorted that out somehow. Beggar’s Alley to Benefits Street, an improvement there, at least…. ‘Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour,’ said Uncle Monty. ‘And here we are… we three…perhaps the last island of beauty left in the world.’ Can imagine Joan Baez saying that to Pete and Buffy round the campfire. In fact the cased fish bear man had a touch of the Uncle Monties in his weighty demeanour. We live in a kingdom of rains, where royalty comes in gangs….

…My plainsong-induced reverie was at that moment interrupted by a bedraggled man in steamed specs who crossed the quire brandishing a noisy carrier bag and sat, quite unnecessarily, in the seat right next to me. A spam fritter man if ever there was one, I thought, unChristian-like. He snuffled and made a big show of examining the Book of Common Prayer from all angles. Then abruptly he stood up and left. That was a relief, but the spell was broken. We prayed for the flood victims but my heart wasn’t in it. Lot of wannabe Catholics, these High Anglicans, when it boils down. I shook a dean’s hand at the doorway and went out into the now gentle rain to look for a pub.

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38 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – A Kingdom of Rains

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 10:09

    The North and I use this geographical definition in the media way, Hemel Hempstead is today in sombre mood, has, as we blog, a wry smile on it’s face. Not a Schadenfreudery sort of wry smile but a one that says, knowingly, wistfully, nose tappingly, ‘join the club, southern cousins, welcome to the world of regenwasser and, by the way, what’s all the fuss about.’ Think ‘ont, there are pluses, no irritating hosepipe ban, the ability to take the Vaporetto to work, wellies a bit tedious? just imagine that you are walking across those planks in St Marks Sq in May.

    May the monsoon bless you and keep you, may the insurance companies bestow upon you great beneficences, you citizens of the land of sandbag and Dutch pump.

  2. bensix@live.co.uk'
    February 17, 2014 at 11:48

    I did not expect to move to Poland and find myself being envied by English friends. It has been a freakishly warm and sunny winter here – as if the universe must bless one nation while cursing another. Still, thoughts of cycling through Bitton make me miss Blighty. If I’m down there in the summer I’ll have to eat mushy peas out on the lawn beside the cafe rather than ice cream.

  3. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 12:08

    Aah Pete Seeger – De mortuis and all that, but if ever there was a face made for slapping… I love the Dylan At Newport documentary, where a desperate Seeger tries to remain top dog as the situation slips entirely out of his hands and the crowd go wild for Dylan. Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Seeger? And you a folk singer!

    • bensix@live.co.uk'
      February 17, 2014 at 12:18

      His voice could be irritating – as if he was singing to a crowd of six year-olds. It’s an American thing, perhaps. Give me Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch over Joan Baez and Peter Seeger.

  4. Worm
    February 17, 2014 at 13:33

    Monday, floody Monday

    Great start to the week as ever, Brit

    Never been much of a fan of Canterbury Cathedral myself, too many buttresses and dark alcoves whatwhat

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      February 17, 2014 at 18:14

      Cathedrals mainly suck, apart from what’s in them or on them, The Richter window and Brunelleschi’s dome, The tomb of the Franconian princess and Vasari’s fresco and talk about damp! so bad that Stefan Lochner’s sublime Madonna of the Rose Bower now resides in the Walraf. Abbeys now, there’s a pile of stone of a different colour, Melrose for instance, stood there glowering at the Eildons, no roof and the buried ticker of Robbie Bruce, built by Cistercians and modified by Tudors, Makes a dramatic appearance in Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel.

      Nought of the bridal will I tell,
      Which after in short space befel;
      Nor how brave sons and daughters fair
      Blessed Teviot’s Flower, and Cranstoun’s heir:
      After such dreadful scene, ’twere vain
      To wake the note of mirth again;
      More meet it were to mark the day
      Of penitence and prayer divine,
      When pilgrim-chiefs, in sad array,
      Sought Melrose’ holy shrine.

      The poem concludes with a Hymn for the dead, sung in the ruins if the Abbey…

      That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
      When heaven and earth shall pass away,
      What power shall be the sinner’s stay?
      How shall he meet that dreadful day?
      When, shrivelling like a parched scroll,
      The flaming heavens together roll;
      When louder yet, and yet more dread,
      Swells the high trump that wakes the dead;
      O! on that day, that wrathful day,
      When man to judgment wakes from clay,
      Be Thou the trembling sinner’s stay,
      Though heaven and earth shall pass away!

      and another thing about cathedrals, look how long it took the buggers to build them, that awkward sod Brunelleschi kept walking off the job because they wouldn’t allow him to play with his own bat and as for the Dom, built as weatherproofing for the remains of the Magi, allegedly bought off the Ities by that old Kraut Archbishop Rainald von Dassel , yeah, right, I hope he got 3 invoices. Started in 1248, they didn’t finish it until 1880, out of time and over budget no doubt, still, made a nice target though but.

  5. henrygjeffreys@gmail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 14:00

    Best cathedral is Lincoln by a mile.

    • Worm
      February 17, 2014 at 14:19

      we could put this to some kind of vote

  6. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 14:48

    1/ Durham 2/ Milan, Duomo 3/ Santiago de Compostela

  7. Worm
    February 17, 2014 at 16:09

    Back on topic, wanted to second your comments RE copywriting – can be such a tortuous process – and people that do PR day in day out have my admiration – it must be horrible having to service an account for, let’s say, door hinges, and spend all day every day under pressure to write amazing heartfelt things about door hinges

  8. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 17:02

    I agree with Henry – it’s surely Lincoln.

  9. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    February 17, 2014 at 17:32

    Hey Ed/Brit – haven’t we got somebody on the payroll (Ha, who am I kidding?) who could give us a ruling on the finest British Cathedral – PW!

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 17, 2014 at 20:06

      I’ll toss Gloucester’s hat into the ring.

      • bugbrit2@live.com'
        February 19, 2014 at 16:52

        As a Gloucester resident for 10 years before I upped sticks to Virginia I must agree Brit. A true haven of peace in an otherwise now sorry city. With the added bonus of excellent music and some very fine Elizabethan memorials.

  10. Gaw
    February 17, 2014 at 19:10

    “We live in a kingdom of rains, where royalty comes in gangs”. Striking and memorable like much of Withnail. But obscure, at least to me. Anyone know what it means and where it might come from?

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 17, 2014 at 20:05

      I suspect Bruce Robinson used Monty as an excuse to get in some corking pensees of his own – a lot of Montyisms are actually pretty great. Way better than Alain de Botton, anyway.

    • Worm
      February 18, 2014 at 11:01

      according to the interweb it’s one of Bruce Robinson’s, not bad for a made up quote – I can imagine King Lear or Macbeth saying it

  11. henrygjeffreys@gmail.com'
    February 18, 2014 at 10:56

    If we’re going outside England, and I’m not sure we should, I’d go for Monreale just outside Palermo.

    Not sure it’s better than Lincoln though. Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the Leopard, was also a big fan of Lincoln.

  12. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    February 18, 2014 at 13:34

    Monreale is very beautiful, good call Henry. As is Notre Dame, if you can get past all the Chinese newly weds having their pics taken. In England, I’m a fan of Durham and St Paul’s. I’ve never visited Lincoln. Also, controversially, I absolutely love the interior of Guildford.

  13. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 18, 2014 at 15:18

    Yes the interior of Guildford is rather wonderful.
    Surprised no one’s mentioned Chartres yet. Or Amiens come to that…

    • tobyash@hotmail.com'
      February 18, 2014 at 19:22

      I used to imagine heaven looking a bit like the inside of Guildford cathedral. Large, white, minimalist, airy. Just a few candles. Altar from Ikea.

  14. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 18, 2014 at 17:02

    Considering the present marital status of the disparate elements within the Kingdom a mention of St Giles will be apposite. In design it is pure Presbyterian dreach, in outlook it towers, buttress and spire, above hordes of grockles and barrister burdz scurrying in wig, gown and Jimmy Choo from chamber to session, once the pulpit of J Knox, he of sackcloth, no popery here and ban the French tart. In a certain light and from a certain angle it is, in detail, slightly artsy crafty, it’s stonework resplendent in a cloak of what appears to be industrial grime, however, as the only grimy trade in Edinburgh is banking we can assume that it is the stone’s oil content leaching out.
    In short, a typical cathedral, big, blowsy and a hotchpotch of political intrigue.

    I would suggest a quick phone call to Meadsy, setting up a back to back contest between Melrose Abbey and, say, Sarlat Cathedral, that alleged gem of Aquitaine. Abbey versus Cathedral, small and beautifully marked v big production number.

  15. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    February 19, 2014 at 11:44

    If you called Meadsey he’d probably spend his time dissing religious architecture. I was once present at some do at which he pronounced his favourite bits of architecture to be the Royal Saltworks at Arc et Senans and the roof of the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles (where, incidentally, he now lives).

    For myself, a truncated top ten cathedrals:
    Best carving: Autun
    Best glass: Chartres
    Best west front: Laon
    Most darkly atmospheric: Worms
    Best bling (bling? BLING?): Prague
    Best vaulting: Gloucester
    Best musical heritage: San Marco, Venice
    Best architecture and setting: Durham
    Personal favourite: Lincoln
    And if only it were a cathedral, there would have to be a special mention for Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which is one of the most overwhelming interior spaces anywhere.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 19, 2014 at 12:06

      Well that’s pretty conclusive, thank you PW.

      Yes it’s a shame about Meadsey’s anti-religionism, but I do really like his Abroad in Britain programme about all the weird post-war Catholic churches – many of them quite brutalist.

      • philipwilk@googlemail.com'
        February 19, 2014 at 15:16

        Mr Meades was holding forth in his inimitable style about Brutalism on BBC4 the other night – a second installment is scheduled next week.

  16. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    February 19, 2014 at 12:08

    PS. May I just say how gratifying it is that, while other sites generate long comment debates on subjects like global warming or immigration, with The Dabbler it’s cathedral architecture.

    • Worm
      February 19, 2014 at 13:22

      ha! You don’t get this kind of discussion much elsewhere!

      I’m going to be a total contrarian and say that my own favourite cathedral (not for baroque beauty, I just like it) is Spence’s COVENTRY CATHEDRAL

      something about that monolithic school-gynasium exterior and then this nice airy clean open interior and wonderful floor to ceiling stained glass windows, it’s groovy.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        February 19, 2014 at 16:43

        A persons opinion of stuff can of course be dictated by it’s visual impact, the time of life it is encountered, the particular state of mind at the time. Or it’s association…. “that Facel Vega is a stunning looking motor, why did it tail-end my mini”

        It was a hot day, the sun streaming through the Cathederal windows, pixillating the congregated parents and highlighting the alternating pennies and pfennigs set in the floor, judging by the absence of second glance the Graham Sutherland tapestry wasn’t popping corks. The ceremony was well under way, the built environment stuff and echoing around my head was Vishnevskaya’s voice, soaring above the chorus König schrecklicher Gewalten when in barged this voice, “before we come to the automotive designers degrees I have a special announcement, we are awarding an honorary doctorate to one Gordon Sked.” then a list of his achievements was read out “The Austin Allegro.” The Rover SD1.” I would continue but the memory is over-seared.

        A voice behind me said “fookin arseholes!” spell..well and truly broken.

        • Worm
          February 20, 2014 at 08:45

          brilliant malty!

  17. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    February 19, 2014 at 15:14

    Worm: Pleased you like Coventry. I do too. I admire the way that you DON’T see all the stained glass to begin with because the nave windows are angled. You walk towards the altar, then turn round and all these colourful windows are suddenly dazzlingly visible. An image of revelation, see? Albeit one that can only be perceived by turning one’s back on the altar…

  18. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    February 19, 2014 at 16:14

    When my girls were quite young in the early 1980s, we loved visiting the Cotswolds. I remember on one occasion saying something like “Yes, the model village, the bird sanctuary, and the pottery in Bourton are very nice, and so is the wildlife park in Burford, and I have to admit I do love Broadway, especially that little gift shop you spent an age in yesterday while I shifted the weight from one leg to the other for about an hour, but for a change let’s go to Worcester where there’s a marvelous cathedral; then to Gloucester where there’s another marvelous cathedral, and if we have time we can nip over to Tewksbury where there’s another marvelous cathe……abbey. What do you think?” By the look on their faces, not much! We went anyway, and in Worcester Cathedral we stood by the tomb of King John, which gave me the opportunity to explain a bit about this King and elder brother Richard and Runnymede and Magna Carta and…….I was on the point of throwing myself into the Severn, such was the response to my dire history lesson, when I remembered I had a copy of ‘1066 and All That’ in the car. I retrieved it and, with wife and daughters standing around the last resting place of Big Bad John, started afresh:

    ‘ WHEN John came to the throne he lost his temper and flung himself on the floor, foaming at the mouth and biting the rushes. He was thus a Bad King. Indeed, he had begun badly as a Bad Prince, having attempted to answer the Irish Question* by pulling the beards of the aged Irish chiefs, which was a Bad Thing and the wrong answer.

    THERE also happened in this reign the memorable Charta, known as Magna Charter on account of the Latin Magna (great) and Charter (a Charter); this was the first of the famous Chartas and Gartas of the Reahn and was invented by the Barons on a desert island in the Thames called Ganymede. By congregating there, armed to the teeth, the Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
    1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason – (except the Common People).
    2. That everyone should be free – (except the Common People).
    3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm – (except the Common People).
    4. That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King’s Person all over the country.
    5. That ‘no person should be fined to his utter ruin’ – (except the King’s Person).
    6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
    Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
    After this King John hadn’t a leg to stand on and was therefore known as ‘John Lackshanks’.’

    The sound of uncontrolled tittering ascended to the very top of the tower. After that, we moved on to Gloucester, but the less said about that the better.

    I’m ashamed to say I have never visited Lincoln, an omission to be rectified in the coming weeks, but Gloucester Cathedral is very special to me, not least because of its association with Ralph Vaughan Williams.

  19. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    February 19, 2014 at 19:15

    For some reason I’ve always been particularly moved by the smaller English/Welsh cathedrals — Chichester, Oxford, St David’s, and loveliest of all, perhaps, Wells (especially the chapter house and the “sea of steps” flowing up to it).

    Also there’s that wonderful class of “not quite a cathedral” churches that this country seems to do so well: Wimborne Minster, Sherborne Abbey, and Milton Abbey to name just three (and all from Dorset).

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 19, 2014 at 22:40

      Bristol has a fine not-quite-cathedral in St Mary Redcliffe.

      Nobody’s mentioned York Minster. Is it just too big?

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        February 19, 2014 at 23:11

        Strangely, the place is a magnet for gay women and the pubs flood a lot. Parking is a bit of a bummer, went see the Striggio mass performed there last year, Hollingworth invited the audience to mingle with the musicians, got a bollocking off the viola da gamba player, she said that I was reading her music over her shoulder, how else did she expect me to read it.

        Nice white building though, the interior a bit minimalist.

        Basilicas anyone?

        • kathywllms1@gmail.com'
          February 20, 2014 at 00:23

          Well, as you’ve made the call, what about the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua? I didn’t quite know what to make of it really but his relics – his jaw bone, his ‘incorrupt’ tongue and other unidentifiable bits of mouldering corpus and petrified flesh – certainly caught our attention.

        • philipwilk@googlemail.com'
          February 20, 2014 at 10:06

          Basilicas? S Apollinare in Classe, outside Ravenna. Indeed Ravenna has several terrific churches.

  20. Gaw
    February 20, 2014 at 16:28

    Salzburg – baroque and roll.

    St Davids is a very sympathetic ruin.

  21. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 20, 2014 at 18:13

    Basilicas – Torcello anyone? Location, location, location, plus a heck of a lot more. When I was there with Mrs N back in the 70s there were a lot of bats flying around outside – in broad daylight. No need to duck, I assured her with the voice of authority, they won’t hit you, they have this amazing radar – Just as one zoomed straight into her hair… She’s never believed a word I’ve said since.

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