Poetry Day

Poems for poetry day

4th October 2018

Today is National Poetry Day, 2018. To mark this, I publish three of my poems based on history and legend.

17/12/1965

Antiochus, 1965

A thousand slaves on Nemrud’s height did toil
and raised a tumulus of such might
that snow lay on its body, huge and bare.
Six Titans sat, carved from titanic stone,
and guarded Antiochus, lord of Commagene,
whose mortal ashes, in his tomb,
no longer can be seen.

1966

Some lines depicting a Greek legend, 1966

Wild chaos, like a milky void, was there
and from it, through the very beats of time,
arose a Goddess with a graceful form.
She found no solid thing to rest upon
and so divided water from the wind.
She made the boundless sea with flowing tide
and danced upon its ripples and its waves.
She danced upon the universe alone
and grasped the tameless wind between her hands:
she rubbed it and behold! A serpent grew.
The star-crowned, black-winged goddess of the night,
before whom even Zeus must stand in awe,
was courted by the wind and made an egg
of silver which she laid in Darkness’ womb.

24/01/1966

Artemis, 1966

Artemis gazes from above
with hornéd creatures by her head.
She fills the world with stormy love
and constellations of red dread
lie throbbing on her many breasts
above the aching chasm’s floor
that once contained her great incests –
rise now with human gore.

All composed during my teenage years when ancient history was a new-found interest of mine.

Aakash Odedra

“Echoes & I Imagine” World Premiere at Curve – Review

10th Oct 2015

Echoes and I Imagine – World Premiere – Curve

By Trevor Locke
Rating: *****

The solo dance performance of Aakash Odedra tonight was sensational. I have not seen male dance of this calibre since I last saw Rudolf Nureyev in the 1970s. Odedra’s first piece was a stunning performance based on the Indian classical dance genre Kathak. Dancing to the choreography of Aditi Mangaldas, Odedra demonstrated the sublime artistry of his abilities, with movements that had razor-sharp timing, perfectly synchronised with the music. The work opened with with gloriously evocative sounds creating a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere, heightened by the lighting and the floor of the stage being spread with long filaments of golden threads studies with tiny bells, laid out to look like the ripples of a lake.

The piece drew on the image and symbol of bells, which hung from the top of the stage in clusters of long strings. As the programme notes explained ‘The resonance of the bells awaken us to the now. A breath and senses awakens. LIFE awakens me.’ The Kathak dance form is story-telling in motion. The elaborate footwork, enhanced by bells, attached to the ankles, was characteristic of the dance form; Odedra pulled down two of the long strands of bells and wound them around his ankles before proceeding to display amazing footwork, in his bare feet. In something that Western audiences would recognise as tap dancing, he also used his feet as percussion instruments, drumming on the stage, producing sequences of intricate rhythms. Echoes is a work that plays with the idea of bells, their tradition in classical dance, their ritualistic significance and their potential as a metaphor for freedom and awakening.

The piece also included many of the spinning movements – the chakkars – so characteristic of classical Kathak. What Mangaldas has done is to bring the ancient art form into the 21st century without losing any of its resonance and vibrancy. Some of Odedra’s spins were like those of an ice skater; he has a fluidity of movement that is remarkable but he combined this with dynamics that are amazing. All the time we watch those extraordinarily impressive hand movements, the fingers that wave and flutter like the wings of a bird. It was like seeing dance from another planet; something that moves forward what we understand about solo dance. Utterly enthralling and spellbinding throughout.

Echoes celebrated the form of classical Kathak, but the second piece – I Imagine – brought a totally new approach and direction to the stage. In it, Odedra demonstrated his sense of humour, his consummate capacity for entertaining his audience. It was another demonstration of his story-telling powers, using mime, antics and even spoken word to engage us in a meditation on the theme of travel and migration (very topical.) Odedra came on to a stage stacked with suitcases – like the bells, another evocative metaphor. This piece used a variety of masks to signify characters, not unlike those used by actors in classical Greek drama, I thought. At the beginning of the piece, one of the larger suitcases begins to move and Odedra emerges from it, foot by foot, leg by leg, rather like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. It reminded me of Ernest being found in a handbag. The story goes on to depict arriving in a new country, migration to a new and alien culture, the feelings evoking loss of homeland, leaving behind the ones that are loved, the challenges of accommodating a new style of life. And then Odedra does something totally innovative for a dancer – he engaged in a spoken monologue in which he used surprising skills of characterisation, speaking in accents to bring his characters to life, much to the amusement of the audience. It was a sequence that bore similarities to stand-up comedy, recollecting the Kumars, I thought. Towards the end of the piece, Odedra walked across the top of a line of suitcases, having used them beforehand to make an armchair and a house. It was a gleeful deployment of the props and one that took us a long way from the previous classical dance routines.
I Imagine included spoken word by the celebrated Sabrina Mahfouz, the British Egyptian poet, playwright and performer who was born in South London. Odedra’s collaboration with the award-winning Mahfouz created a work that was supremely one of theatre, one that gave us dance, drama, comedy and gymnastics. It reminded me of my previous experience at Curve when I saw Bromance, the production by the Barley Methodical Troupe that created a new genre of dance and gymnastics. Odedra commissioned the masks used in this production from circus practitioner David Poznanter (it must have been the association of circus that conjured the idea of the work by the Barley Methodical Troupe in my mind.)

Tonight’s World Premier of Echoes and I Imagine crowns the previous appearance made by Odedra at Curve, including Inked and Murmer in 2014.
Speaking after the performance, Odedra paid tribute to his teacher, the internationally renown Kathak dancer Nilema Devi MBE.

Aakash was commissioned by Curve Theatre in Leicester to choreograph a piece for the opening of the theatre in November 2008. This piece, called “Flight” was the only one invited to perform for HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on their visit in December 2008

Aakash Odedra was raised in Leicester and his company is based here.

Curve has over the years given us so much that is new and exciting in the arts and tonight was no exception.

This entry was originally published in Arts In Leicestershire online magazine,  on March 12, 2016

A country walk 1966

A country walk, 1966

I walked all wreathed in bliss and happy thoughts,

bathed in the pleasant sunshine of the noon,

with grass, a happy carpet for my feet,

the trees were clothed in leaves so rich and thick,

the sky was blue and shining like the sun,

and all lived in the country’s earthly peace.

The sadness and the grief of concrete wrong

had left itself away, a journey long.

I wandered in the heart of nature’s breast,

and had no future, in my little life,

I was a cow, a ship and roaming beast.

I knew no place of living; here was rest –

it lay about me on the verdant grass,

There was no ardent torture for a climb

to higher ways and better means of life,

such things were lost in dim, historic time,

entombed beneath the joyous here and now

it was as though to heaven I had gone.

See all poems on poetry home page

St. Crispin’s Day Observed

25th October 2017
St. Crispin’s day observed

Saint Crispin’s Day falls on 25 October and is the feast day of the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian (also known as Crispinus and Crispianus, though this spelling has fallen out of favour), twins who were martyred c. 286.’ Beheaded during the reign of Diocletian; the date of their execution is given as 25 October 285 or 286.

Most people who know of such a day are familiar with it through Shakespeare. ‘It is a day most famous for the battles that occurred on it, most notably the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, calling the soldiers who would fight on the day a “band of brothers”, other battles fought on Crispin’s day have been associated with Shakespeare’s words.’

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V. Act IV Scene iii 18-67
Here is Kenneth Brannagh’s version of the speech.
and here is Laurence Olivier’s version (in which the speech is almost drowned out by the background music.)

Painting of Archers at The Battle of Agincourt

These lines appear to be the source for the phrase ‘band of brothers’. So should we associate St. Crispin’s day with brotherhood? Do we want to celebrate brotherhood, or is today’s world too ‘unisex’ to permit that? It is a concept that focuses on the relationships of male siblings. Beyond that, brotherhood is an icon of masculinity and the relationship between men, even if they are not related. In contemporary times, the concept of brotherhood has been transmogrified into Bromance – love between men that verges on romance and simulates brotherhood. It is a genre that is fascinating for today’s audience – of both sexes. The male name Crispin has long been a signifier of effeteness – used to characterise unmanliness and ineffectualness. It is a name associated, traditionally, with curly hair – a feature that, for some, might suggest effeminateness. One website went so far as to claim that the name Crispin denotes ‘People with this name have a deep inner desire to serve humanity and to give to others by sharing money, knowledge and experience, or creative and artistic ability. ‘ What the origins of that might be defines imagination. Might we redesignate St. Crispin as the patron of anti-sexism? A step too far for many people, I would surmise.

So, does St. Crispin’s Feast have any meaning or relevance for today’s world? Is it an emblem of leadership? Does the band of brothers idea suggest manliness and masculinity? Do we want to celebrate glory and brotherhood? How would today’s orators inspire people who are downtrodden and despairing?

Henry V’s St. Crispin’s day speech has been described as ‘…one of the best inspirational speeches in literature.’ But is the speech about misguided loyalty? Do the brothers of Agincourt give their lives and their blood for the sake of the King, for Henry, and his glory? Is this speech a moment of calculation and cruelty? They are about to give their lives to make Henry a great man – not themselves. The speech is an icon of great men and their ambitions to glory. So, Agincourt is about winning; winning for its own sake. Henry V is urging his soldiers to win the war – for him. History now views the battle as inconsequential. As writer Guy Patrick Cunningham put it: ‘Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. ‘

We remember Agincourt on 25th October. ‘The Battle of Agincourt was a battle of the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in an English victory. The battle took place on 25 October 1415 in the County of Saint-Pol, Artois, some 40 km south of Calais.’ It can be recalled as the victory of the English over the French – a nation, that now, we count amongst our friends and allies. History has seen countless thousands of Frenchmen slaughtered by English soldiers; and many thousands of Englishmen killed by the French. History has also seen the English dying to free the French from tyranny. The culture of France is deeply embedded in the heritage of England. The 25th October could be a day on which we commemorate the mutability of history; the way in which international relations change dramatically over time. The day we think about how yesterday’s enemies becomes today’s friends. And vice-versa.

Painting of a Shore-maker

So what should be observe about or on St. Crispin’s day, if anything? In the third act of Die Meistersinger, Wagner has the shoemakers’ guild enter singing a song of praise to St. Crispin. For me, I choose to celebrate shoe-making. ‘Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the Christian patron saints of cobblers, curriers, tanners, and leather workers.’ My paternal ancestors were shoe-makers. For my part, I prefer to associate St. Crispin with footwear. Oh happy band of cobblers.

Poetry 2017

Working on poems

Sunday 24th September 2017

Back in March this year I had my first poetry week – seven days during which I did no other work than editing and transcribing my poetry. It was a successful project and so I marked up another week –  from 18th September to 24th September. As with my last project, much of the work was about transcribing hand-written poems into word processing documents and printing them out for the Poetry folder. During the week I worked on 80 of my poems, transcribing them into the current anthology.

The project allowed me to become reacquainted with my early poems, just as it did last time. As before, I was impressed by the quality of some of pieces I composed in the 1960s through to the 70s; others I just left in place as a record and archive – having looked at them and judged them to be too poor to justify even the work of typing them. In those early days, my approach to writing was spontaneous; there was no planning, no premeditation. I just sat down with some paper and wrote. Whatever came into my brain I committed to paper. That is not something I can do these days. During the 60s I was very given to writing in decametres – lines with ten syllables. I loved the way the thing flows and its rhythms and I still do. It is, however, an outmoded style of poetry – a bit like a contemporary composer writing a piece of music that sounds like Mozart.

Reading through my teenage poems put me in touch with myself, the self I had some fifty years ago. Having edited a large number of pieces, I began to think like my teenage alter ego. A couple of pieces were turned into metrical versions just so they would fit more into the flow of the work of that period. In doing this I had to be careful not to alter what the piece was about or to add new material that was not in some way or other present in the original. An example of this is The ever dying men, 1968, where I gave each line ten syllables but took great care not to doctor the content. It is still the same poem; it is just presented differently.

Some pieces I looked at and thought it was not worth the effort of typing them; they were just so bad. A few poems were transferred to my Journals – these were written like pieces of prose and lacked either poetic form or content. Now much of the Poetry folder has been committed to type and only a small number of pieces remain in their hand written format. When I was working on some of the poems, I thought they were worthy of a complete re-edit and that I might one day compose them again, afresh. Several of my early works went though a number of versions before being placed in one of the anthologies.

Reserving time for a project – setting aside days for working on something specific – has been, I think, useful and beneficial. These two weeks of poetry time have seen a lot done that would otherwise not have been done. It is an approach I might use for other aspects of my work.

It might be some time before I work on poetry again. In a life spent doing many other things, there are few opportunities for making poems; there is little now that inspires me and rouses my passions. Too little in today’s life to be passionate about. I rarely write poetry these days because I cannot seem to find subjects, as once I could. I would not sit down and write poetry for the sake of writing poetry – I must have something to be poetic about. My youth was full of poetry; not something that one finds in old age, quite so much. I have one work in progress – The age of starlight – a poem that contemplates the history of the cosmos from its birth through to its final end and all that means for humanity and the world we cherish so much. It is the the last of my ‘cosmological poems.’

 

Character profiling

Writing a character profile for a film

18th May 2017

My character profile for Riffkid in The Trench†

Physical appearance of the protagonist

Riffkid is 18. He is somewhat short in stature. He has a mop of black hair and very bright blue eyes. His face is pretty. He dresses how he thinks rock musicians should dress. His choice of clothes portrays his identity. He is an unemployed teenager living with his parents on a deprived housing estate. He is a dreamer; he has passions and associates with the outcasts who don’t want to be like the other working class kids who have their lives mapped out for them by their parents and community. He sees punk music as his ideal and in it he sees his values. Riffkid’s strengths are his good looks and his passion for music; his weaknesses are his lack of knowledge and skills in guitar playing and his dreams that are out of kilter with reality.

Background note: Riffkid joins the music scene at a time when punk is the predominant style of rock; but rock changes rapidly and soon fans start to prefer the edgier sounds of post-punk. All this is thrown in the air by the generation of the new romantics who come in with their new sounds – the indie bands. Musical tastes are fickle and change rapidly. All the bands play at the venue called The Trench, a dismal, damp basement that traps young musicians and exploits them mercilessly. The bands are trapped in the Trench and only the best manage to escape from it.

The story

Actions taken by Riffkid (include wants and needs) [How he thinks] {affect – consequences}

Act 1.

Riffkid goes to The Trench music venue to ask if he can join The Howlers – a big and successful punk band. His mates have told him that this is the best punk band in Portsmouth. The lead singer likes him and invites him to come for an audition. (Riffkid wants to be in the band he idolises) [He thinks he has to skills to hack it.] {Riffkid goes to the audition but he fails to prepare himself for it. He fails to study the songs of the band.}

Riffkid attends the audition with The Howlers but he is torn to shreds by the musicians. He realises that the invitation was a fake. He’s been strung along. [He thought he had enough skills to do the job but they prove to him how little he knows.] {Riffkid is rejected by the band. He is devastated. His dreams have failed.}

His best mate tells Riffkid not to give up but to go back to The Trench and try to find another band to join. Riffkid is driven by his dreams; his best mate is more practical and realistic. Riffkid goes back to the venue and, by chance, meets Sean, the bassist from the post-punk band Distorted. Sean just happens to be looking for a new guitarist. [Sean thinks that Riffkid would fit in; realises he is not that good as a musician but his personality would fit and make up for his weaknesses as a guitarist.] {Sean does not bother with an audition; he takes Riffkid on and hopes for the best.}

Riffkid joins Distorted. He decides he needs to get a better guitar and people help him to do this. (He is desperate to be in a band.) [He thinks that trying to get into the much bigger band was a bad mistake) {He gladly accepts the offer to be in Distorted as the rhythm guitarist. He buys the new guitar he needs.}

Act 2

Riffkid’s new band is a great success. Everybody loves them. They enjoy considerable popularity in their home town of Portsmouth. (They want to be popular and in demand for their music.) [They think their music will attract people in large numbers.] {They get booked at all the major venues and play to big audiences.}

Two years pass. Riffkid and Distorted become a successful post-punk band. But the scene is changing and fans are beginning to like the new wave of music coming from the new romantics.

Riffkid has an argument about musical style in the band and quits. (He wants to be a success.) [He sees the band failing because it clings to outmoded post-punk songs when the fans are moving over to indie. He thinks that the world of rock is changing and the band must change with it.] {He sticks to his beliefs and leaves the band.]

Riffkid and Jennifer enrol on the music course. (They need to learn about music.) [They think that having skills and knowledge will get them where they want to be] {They are exposed to a lot of new ideas and experiences they never had before.}

Riffkid makes new friends on the music course. He also goes back to his old friends – the ones who supported him when he needed them. (He wants people around him that can help him; people he can depend on.) [He begins to realise the importance of comradeship.] {He visits his old mates from the band he was in.}

Act 3

Riffkid and Jennifer complete the music course. He now has the skills and the knowledge to become a professional musician. (He wants to make a success of himself) [He realises that music is more than just image and passion.] {They both realise that they will get nowhere if they stay in Portsmouth.}

Riffkid leaves Portsmouth with Jennifer; they go to London to start a new career in music and a new life together. They are free of The Trench at last. (Wants a new life) [Thinks about the future] {Chooses to be with Jennifer.}

† The Trench was my second novel.

Explanation

This character profile was written because I was doing a course about screen-writing for films. The course was led by Michael Lengsfield of the University of East Anglia, whose article ‘Thoughts on character’ set out how to compose the profile. I chose to write about my novel The Trench. The protagonist, main character is Riffkid. This provides my choice of story for the exercises to do with script-writing.

Rewording housing

Rewording housing

In this article I suggest that we should stop talking about ‘housing and starting using ‘homeing’ to describe how people live.

Housing. A word everyone uses. A familiar word. An everyday word. So familiar that we rarely stop to think about what it means. We all know what ‘housing’ is. But do we? Is it the right word for the modern world? The world of twenty-first century Britain.

My definition of housing is: accommodation in which people live. That does it for me. People live in accommodation, of various kinds. For a lot of people that means living in houses; but for an increasing number of people it does not. We all live in homes; some of those homes we make in houses. From that point of view, the whole idea is very simple. The problem I have with the word ‘housing’ is that it implies houses; living in properties that we think of as being houses. In fact, people live in all kinds of residential structures and units. Blocks of flats, caravans, boats, converted windmills, mobile homes, prefabs… there is a wide variety of things in which people have made their homes.

The word housing, to me, also implies status, ownership and tenure. Let’s stop, and  think what is known:

The property market is splitting Britain into two classes: Those rich enough to own their own homes, often outright; and those under 35, who pay twice the percentage of their incomes to rent in the private market. The split is new. Ten years ago, a majority of people under 35 owned homes, according to government data. Now, a majority under 35 rent. In fact, half of all renters in the UK are under 35.

Those are the words of journalist Jim Edwards, writing in The Guardian on 7th May this year. He talks about the ‘property market’ which is understandable and I have used to same term myself; it’s the collective known for man-made structures. Interesting to see his choice of words – that people who own their own homes are ‘rich.’ Not my choice of word. Wealthy or better-off perhaps, but rich? Behind the figures he refers to is the belief that rent forms a very high percentage of disposable incomes – for a lot of people.

More people than ever before are renting apartments from private landlords. In England we often call these ‘flats.’ Tenants tend to pay for a flat to live in on a monthly basis. A key datum is the ratio between rent and income; for some people, their rent takes up a high percentage of their monthly income.

‘…the average rental cost across the UK taking up 41 per cent of take-home pay, according to online letting agent Rentify.’

Reports the website This is money, in September 2015. Regional variations across the UK shows that the proportion of income swallowed up by rent varies between a third and a half. The proportion varies according to age group and to type of property; single people living in one-bedroom flats can pay a higher percentage and have to foot the rent bill alone.

There are an estimated 4.3 million tenants in the private rental market. Added to that there are people who live in what is called the ‘social’ market where their accommodation is owned by either the local authority or by a housing association.

For a high proportion of people the private rented sector is the default choice. These are people who cannot afford to buy their own houses. Statistics such as these obscure the diversity of the populating renting homes. Some of them are students. Some of them are transient migrants. Some of them are contractors who know they will need to move on after a few months. Some of them are young people who need to leave home and set up in a place of their own. A growing number of retired people are leaving their family houses and down-sizing to smaller units of accommodation but cannot obtained a mortgage because of their age.

The groups that concern me the most are those aged 25 to 35 who cannot afford a mortgage and older people, over retirement age, who cannot afford to keep a family home going just for themselves.

Figures like these get to the crux of the issue. People don’t live in houses any more. What people live in is a mixed economy of residential properties. This economy includes what has blandly become known as ‘social housing.’ I rejected this phrase when I said “All housing is social housing.” What I meant by that is that providing people with homes to live in is always a social function; not merely a commercial one. The distinction between private and social sectors is as artificial as it is obfuscation. Having a home to live in a social right and a social need. We don’t need to differentiate between the status of the property – by distinguishing between types of owners. A home is a home – who ever owns it and however they provide it to its occupants. If people live in it, then it is their home.

Almost half the adult in Britain these days live in rented apartments. And yet the government and politicians keep on talking about housing. Journalists keeping writing about the ‘housing crisis.’ We like to use words with which we are familiar; we like to think that familiar words will be understood by everyone.

The problem with the familiar word ‘housing’ is that it fixes our ideas; it formats our thinking in a certain way. It inhibits policymakers from thinking outside the box of everyday speech. We need to think differently about residential accommodation. The problem is: what word do we use that is short enough for everyday speech which means what we current mean by ‘housing’ but which does not just mean houses? Even in 2017, the kind of professionals who should know better, still see the private rented sector and its supply of apartments, as catering for temporary need. Just like the legislators of the 1980s did. But it’s not about short-term tenancies and temporary arrangements; it’s about permanent homes.

According to the website of lpcliving, in 2017,  just over half (51%) of private renters are under 35 years of age and 54% have no dependents, and so are unlikely to get social housing. Newspapers continue to wax lyrical about the increase in house prices – as though it was actually a good thing! In fact rising house prices is a two-edged sword – good for some but a disaster for others.

If we are to change the way that policies are made – about living accommodation – then the words used in those policies will have to change. The people who most need to start changing their choice of words, are politicians. They need to stop talking about housing as though it means only houses.

People in government, who control our lives, either limit or expand the choices we have available to us, permit or deny access to the resources we need to live ordered lives; they need to talk differently, change their dialogue, revise their mantras, re-gear their codes – about living. What people want these days are choices. They want to be able to choose where they live, what kind of property they live in, how they get access to that property, what they have to pay for it and how long it remains theirs to live in. They want to choose; to decide for themselves. They do not want to have choices forced on them by market circumstances.

People in government, policymakers, builders, landlords, local authorities – everyone needs to change the way they think about residential accommodation. The world is changing and our minds have to change to keep up with reality. In 1988 people talked about renting as being temporary. How times have changed! In the twenty-first century a large proportion of the British population has abandoned any hope of ever getting on the ladder of housing ownership. Renting a residential property is now the default for a substantial proportion of adults. This is why the law now needs to be updated. Politicians will be better able to deal with the current crisis in the provision of homes if they stop talking about ‘housing.’

More importantly, we must stop seeing the solution to the current crisis as lying with building. We cannot build our way out of this problem. Increasing the supply of newly built houses is not the way; too many people who need better homes simply cannot afford to buy them.

The sooner we stop talking about housing the sooner will be able to see solutions to the present problems. So what word should be using? It might be a neologism but my suggestion is to use the word ‘homeing’ – the supply of residential accommodation for people to live in. That changes the emphasis away from the type of property to the one things that all types have in common – being a home.

What people want is homes to live in; if they cannot afford to live in houses then they have to accept alternatives. If we start talking about homeing people then we can begin to think freely about the crisis that confronts us.

Trevor Locke, 12th May 2017.

Dating the past

Dating the past. When was 1066?

27th april 2017

The battle of Hastings took place on 14th October 1066. Just saying that seems to imbue the date with the quality of being an incontestable fact. I will go on to show that dating the past is not always as simple as it might seem.

But first. Let us recall some things that are known about the battle – which actually took place near to the bay of Pevensey, in what is today the county of East Sussex. The battle was fought between the king of England Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy. A few days earlier Harold had won a battle against invading Danes under the leadership of Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, known as Hardrada. This was the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald was killed, along with Earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of the English king in a conflict that saw Harold Godwinson victorious.

William of Normandy’s fleet of ships landed at the bay of Pevensey, which is between the modern day towns of Eastbourne and Hastings. During the battle, Harold’s younger brother Gyrth Godwinson and his other brother Leofwine were killed. The battle was fought close to the place now called Battle – about eight miles from modern day Hastings; an abbey was erected to mark the conflict near to the site where it had traditionally been said to have been fought. The town of Hastings was first mentioned in the late 8th century when it was known as Hastingas. Clearly there was a settlement there during Anglo-Saxon times. Battle Abbey was built in 1095.

The earliest account of the battle is found in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written in the 11th century. Only a copy of it, from the early 12th century, still survives.

Following the battle at Pevensey, where Harold Godwinson was killed, the English nobles surrendered to William at Berkhamstead in December, after which William rode into London and was crowned, at Westminster Abbey, on Christmas day.

My interest in this event was kindled by watching the series on BBC2 television: 1066 – a year to conquer England.

So how certain can we be that dates given in historical accounts are accurate? Clearly, medieval writers know dates and could record any date on which an event took place. Our problem is in counting backwards and saying that an event took place x or y hundred years ago.

This problem stems from changes to the calendar that has been used over time. The calendar we use today, at least in the West, is the Gregorian Calendar which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, in October 1582. That calendar was introduced because errors were discovered in the previous calendar – the Julian – which was based on an even earlier one – the Roman calendar. The Julian calendar introduced a very small correction to the length of the year. Not all European countries adopted the Gregorian calendar straight away – Greece did not adopt it until 1923. The Gregorian calendar was used to calculate the date of Easter, a very important festival for the Christian church. According to Wikipedia, ‘Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries.’ This article goes on to explain variations between the two calendars in some detail. A table shows that the differences in days can vary between 10 and 14 days.

Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The Wikipedia article (see below for references) provides an example of the problems that can occur when dating important events: ‘So, for example, the Parliamentary record lists the execution of Charles I on 30 January as occurring in 1648 (as the year did not end until 24 March), although later histories adjust the start of the year to 1 January and record the execution as occurring in 1649.

So, when the scribes – who wrote about the Battle that took place in Southern England – gave the date as 14th October 1066, they would have been using the Julian calender.

Even today, various other calendars exist. The Islamic faith has its own calendar, which differs from that of the Christian church. There is a calendar for the Chinese which is based astronomical observations of the sun’s longitude and the phases of the moon.

Going back to the Norman invasion, how long did it take them, to fully conquer the whole country? In particular, when did they take over Leicester? William died in 1087. That marked a milestone in Norman Britain. He was succeeded by his third son, William who was crowned William II in 1087. He has become known as ‘William Rufus.’ The years of William’s reign were marked by sporadic insurgencies and the odd rebellion and by threats of invasion from mainland Europe. There was an uprising by the Northumbrians who captured Durham and lay siege to York. The 21 years of William’s rule were peppered with revolts and uprisings. After conquering England, William ousted the old aristocracy replacing it with his system of Earls and nobles. Although the Normans introduced a powerful aristocracy to the country they preserved some of the established Anglo-Saxon posts and positions of the local administrations, much as the Roman had done several centuries earlier. Just as Roman rule did not extend fully into Scotland, so too the Normans failed to subdue the Scottish tribes.

When did the Normans take over Leicester?

Robert de Beaumont was created the 1st Earl of Leicester (born sometime between 1040 and 1050, died 5 June 1118). He was a close associate of William. He fought at Hastings. He had four descendants all of whom were called Robert and they all became Earl of Leicester. Leicester castle was built around 1070 under the governorship of Hugh de Grandmesnil. It was constructed on the site of a much earlier Roman fortification. The castle still exists today and the mound of the Motte can be visited. It had remained in continuous use since it began though for several years it fell into a state of poor repair. The great hall was given a brick frontage in the style of Queen Anne. Before the coming of the Normans, Leicester had been a thriving Anglo-Saxon town. The town was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086, when it was called Ledecestre. It was described as a small walled town surrounded by farms, fields and agricultural plots. There were four gates in the walls. William’s army had taken over nearly the whole of England prior to his being crowed, in London, on Christmas day 1066. Before the times of the Anglo-Saxons, the town was an important centre for the Romans, when it was called Ratae Corieltauvorum.

References

Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: the battle of Hastings and the fall of Anglo-Saxon England, 2012. Random House.

Difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar#Difference_between_Gregorian_and_Julian_calendar_dates

Dating the past, article in Science Learning Hub, https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1478-dating-the-past-introduction

Dating the past, chapter 4, in Archaeology an introduction, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2002, https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/kevin.greene/wintro/chap4.htm

Chronological dating in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_dating

Dating the Past: An Introduction to Geochronology. FREDERICK E. ZEUNER. (xx, 495 pp.,
103 figures, 24 plates, $8.00. Third revised edition. Methuen & Co., Ltd., London
and Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., New York, 1952.)

Innovation in housing

3rd March 2017

Innovation in housing supply

England is not good at dealing with its housing crisis. The government has lacked imagination when it comes to thinking about how to deal with the under-supply of houses and what stands out about the response that it has been making is an almost complete lack of imagination.

Let’s looks at some of the ideas that could help to bring a quicker solution to the problem of meeting housing needs. Firstly, using imaginative methods to create places to live in.

Manufacturing prefabricated units at considerably less cost than building with bricks on site. Companies are already making living units in factories. These are transported in a nearly-finished form, put in place and services connected and all this can be done at considerably less cost than building houses with bricks and in less than half the time. Using modern materials and up to date methods of fabrication, the production of such units has already started and is proving to be successful.

Several British companies are now offering modular homes for as little as £80,000. Units of this kind are constructed to a high standard of energy efficiency, thus reducing their running costs. Because modern techniques and materials are being used in their manufacture, they can be tailored the needs of the clients. The key factor is that they can transported to site and finished very quickly. Sales of these unites have been good and the house-buying public as shown a real appetite for these innovative units.

Many of the units currently available require land; that can be a problem for many local areas where inner urban building land is in short supply. However, some of these units, designed for urban life, are stackable, making better use of the smaller inner city areas that result from site clearances. In fact, in some cities (where space really is at a premium) units have been placed on top of existing buildings. They are lighter than conventionally built penthouses.

The units are ready to have electricity, drainage and water connected when they arrive on site. Inside one of these units the accommodation is very similar to modern apartments. If you were to walk into one of these units you would think you were in a flat in a newly built apartment block. That is enough to convince many prospective buyers that these are viable living spaces. The size of units ranges from one bedroom to four bedrooms. On the whole, stackable units tend to be low rise projects, if they are stacked on top of each other. Providing three or four tiers of units does not involve much infrastructure.

Pre-fabricated units are a real alternative to traditional buildings and offer a serious solution to the housing crisis. They are affordable in a way that conventional brick-built houses are not. Prices are considerably lower than for the equivalent amount of inside space provided by conventionally constructed houses. Being comparatively light, they can be built on piers allowing car parking space to be provided at ground level. They can thus be erected over existing ground-level car parks. Some units have been designed that employ solar panels to supply electricity. The materials used to make walls and roofs use eco-friendly materials and allow modern materials made from recycled plastics to be used.

Not just cheap

Many of the units currently available offer cheap solutions to meeting urgent housing need. They can also provide homes for other sectors of the housing market, in areas where land is more freely available. If we can provide housing stock for the higher ends of the market (I mean units from £100,000 to £300,00 or more) it would lead to purchasers freeing up existing accommodation. That would also relieve pressure on demand at the lower end of the market. Some of the prefabricated units are clearly intended for the wealthier end of the market; people who can afford the land required and can afford to put services and drainage in place. Providing more units at this end of the market will enable movement to take place that would, I would argue, reduce the pressure on the lower-priced sectors and free up opportunities. Thinking back to what I said before on the renewal of existing urban housing stock, these units could be very useful on sites where redundant properties need to be demolished. Instead of replacing properties with brick-built houses, these prefabricated units could be installed at much less cost and in a fraction of the time. In urban areas, the challenge is not to create new land but rather to use existing land more effectively.

The goal of housing policy should not be to do things on the cheap but to provide housing that is of good quality at prices that people can afford – people who are desperate to have homes but who cannot afford to climb the ladder of conventional housing. When we look at the units being offered by the prefabrication suppliers, we see a lot of architectural and engineering expertise has gone into the design. Much more intelligence has been used by designers in the prefabrication sector than we see in traditional housing building.

So why aren’t we doing it?

The housing crisis is not that difficult to solve. The bigger problem lies in our members of parliament – the people who make the decisions. They are like an old record that got stuck – endlessly repeating the same old formula about building housing with bricks. I have argued before that brick-built houses are not the most viable option for the situation we have in this country. Until our policy-makers move away from that antiquated mantra, we are unlikely to make progress.

We need people with imagination to head up future housing policy. Not just in the palace of Westminster. Local authorities could do a great deal more to provide housing in their areas but this will require both elected members and officers in housing departments to change their long-established, entrenched, attitudes about to how to do things.

The goal is simple: provide quality affordable housing cheaply and quickly. You cannot do that with bricks and mortar.

Learning from failure

The housing acts of the last twenty years are widely regarded as being failures. Successive governments have failed to respond effectively to the growing problem inadequate housing supply. Recent responses by the present government looked very much like knee-jerk reactions that had been poorly thought through.

The housing White Paper of February 2017 achieved one thing: it recognised that the housing market was broken and needs fixing. Little else of worth was contained in it. But then a white paper does what a white paper does; it opens the door to consultation. The white paper realised that there is a need to encourage diversity in the housing market. It said:

Action to help small independent builders enter the market given including through the £3 billion Home Building Fund. Currently around 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies.

Those ten companies are brick builders and they are part of the problem – not part of the solution. If we want diversification in housing supply we have to break that monopoly. In my view that means providing incentives for non-brick fabricators to do a lot more. If the Home Building Fund is in fact to provide much-needed scope to enabling new methods of construction, then we will be well on the way to dealing with the crisis in the supply of affordable homes.

Another thing that Sajid Javid said the White Paper:

The proportion of people living in the expensive private rented sector has doubled since 2000 and that more than 2.2 million working households with below-average incomes spend a third or more of their disposable income on housing.

If there are more people in the renting sector then we need to find ways of supporting them. I very much doubt that we will see a significant decrease in the rental sector over the next ten years – what ever else happens to housing supply. What would help the rental sector is to provide a much more diverse range of options and an robust increase in the number of apartments that are available to rent. Building high rise apartment blocks in urban areas is one way of increasing supply but it is not the only one. Policy-makers need to be much more imaginative; that means letting go of traditional methods of building construction and focusing more on innovative contemporary techniques.

The government consultation on planning policy and legislation in relation to planning for housing, closes on 2nd May 2017. From the Government website we see that:

Many of the changes involve amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework. The Government intends to publish a revised Framework later this year, which will consolidate the outcome from the previous and current consultations. It will also incorporate changes to reflect changes made to national policy through Written Ministerial Statements since March 2012. These are:

Support for small scale developers, custom and self-builders (28 November 2014), etc.

The statement about support for small scale developers is one of nine topics. It might prove to be one of the most important. Interesting to see the word ‘custom’ in there.

Turning things around

The history of housing legislation – in the past twenty years or so – has been littered with outmoded, poorly thought-through measures that have failed to make an impact on housing supply and that is why we now have the crisis that we see today.

It is not just the reluctance of policy-makers to embrace new methods of construction that leads of failure. It is also their inability to devise new methods of finance. We have known for a very long time that there has been a shortage of traditional mortgage finance. Tackling this issue probably does not lie in reforming banks and building societies; some of it might be but what is more likely is that we have to devise new methods of providing finance to prospective home buyers. We might well have to replace the mortgage with a new way of financing home ownership.

Sajid Javis is an old-school thinker; he is still chanting the mantra of building new houses and his record is clearly stuck in the groove of bricks and mortar.

Two groups of people are at a severe disadvantage in the housing market: the young and old. Young people have not been working long enough to have saved up enough money for a deposit. They are dependent on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ – if they are fortunate enough to be born to relatively well off or wealthy parents. Older people can often find themselves unable to access mortgages because of their age; mortgage providers frequently view retired people as being bad risks when it comes to paying off housing loans.

These two groups stand to gain from the introduction of new methods of construction. Because these units cost a great deal less, they are more affordable and much less capital is required to buy them. If smaller loans are required, existing mortgage providers might be more willing to lend, over a shorter period of repayment. This in itself will not solve the problem. What we need is a totally new approach to financing access to housing – one that is not based on lending large sums of money over twenty five years. We should rely on only the private sector to provide home loans.

Think of it this way – people are financing cars costing between £20,000 and £50,000 without facing the up-hill struggles they experience when trying to finance a home to live in. Cars do not hold their value as much as homes over a period of years. The chance of a car being written off due to an accident is considerably higher than loosing a home due to, say, fire or natural disaster.

Housing is an issue of fundamental importance; many other aspects of our lives are pivoted on having a suitable and satisfactory home. If our country is to become a better place in which to live over the next twenty years or so, we must be able to deal with the housing crisis that we face today.

References

February 2017. YMCA response to housing white paper.

February 2017. The housing white paper.