Saturday, 6 February 2010


Jim Bentley was the splitting image of the silent film comic Ben Turpin and he had the squeaky voice of an anguished squirrel. God made him in the image of a comedian but gave him a scholar's brain.

Almost single handed he cleared miles of industrial tramways, excavated pottery, preserved historic bricks, wrote poetry and made 400 paintings of life in his town. He paddled his canoe from Bala, where the Dee rises, to Chester where it empties into the sea. He cycled all over Britain and in Ireland saved a dying sheep by giving it the kiss of life.

He was a pharmacist in the Welsh border town of Buckley. The town was famous in medieval times for sentencing to death by drowning a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary which had fallen in a storm killing a passer-by. After a trial they threw it into the river Dee and it came ashore in Chester where it was thought to be a miraculous sign. It was erected on land which is still known as the Roodeye.

According to the News of the World, Buckley was also the European capital of incest. Had the entire population thronged the main street copulating merrily Bentley would not have noticed. His eyes were firmly fixed on the past. It was his spiritual home.

Through various accidents, Welsh towns like Caernarfon and Buckley have their own language. In Caernarfon, Welsh is sprinkled with words unknown elsewhere. They are cockney slang which the townsfolk picked up from the 19th century occupation by an English Militia at a time of industrial unrest.

Buckley mountain was a wild place in the 19th century. People came from Ireland, Staffordshire and Lancashire to work in its coal mines and potteries. They built shanty towns in clearances in Buckley Forest. The local language was Welsh but from the mixed population a new language evolved which was a conglomeration of Welsh and all the dialects. Bentley saved it from oblivion by writing reams of poetry in Bucklese.

He created his poems with the same intensity he applied to excavating tramways that had been used to transport pots, bricks, clay and coal to barges on the River Dee estuary. When he arrived in the town, the tramways had disappeared under tangled undergrowth, buried in ten feet of debris. Bentley dug out tons. As an archaeologist, he donated four lorry loads of artefacts he found to the museum service.

Thanks to him, Buckley became a place of pilgrimage for railway buffs. And to show them what it was like in its busy past, Bentley painted 50 illustrated boards.


The Head Ferret has been driving the family mad seeking the author of an aphorism “Live as though you were going to die tomorrow Study as though you are going to live for ever.”

It has a Johnsonian ring but Google attributes it to Gandhi. I cannot believe that silly poseur who caused so many deaths would have thought of anything so wise. Alas, none of my many books of quotations have supplied the answer.

As always, it has been fun searching. I have enjoyed paddling down many irrelevant tributaries. The urbane and defiantly upper class Geoffrey Madan's notebook is a dry Martini among anthologies. The flyleaf describes him as 'a connoisseur of the excellent, the original and the pungent in thought, word and deed.' He is also wildly funny in a Noel Coward kind of way:
“Our military advisers, if they had their way, would garrison the moon to protect us from Mars.” (Lord Salisbury)
“Americans go deeply into the surface of things.” (Henry Ward)
“I clearly very see a day when this vainglorious and immoral people (the French) will have to be put down.” (The Prince Consort)
“ A Moustache that looks as though it has been hammered through from the inside.” (When I read this I thought of our hapless Defence Secretary.)

It is almost certainly envy but I am not a fan of education. Educated people, I find, are frequently eager to reach out and grab the wrong end of the stick. Frank Muir was self educated but one of the best read men of his day. Among the many blessings he bequeathed us was a social history “The Frank Muir Book”, in which I was delighted to find another hero John Aubrey quoting Sir Henry Blount:

“He was much against sending young men to the universities...because they learnt there to be debaucht. And that the learning that they learned there they were to unlearne again, as a man that is buttoned or laced too hard must unbutton to be at his ease.”

It is fashionable to decry the blog as a nasty modern piece of navel gazing. It is nothing of the kind. It was invented in the 17the century by my favourite human being, Michel de Montaigne, who created the essay as a literary form.

We are old friends. We met when I was about twelve in Withington Public Library, where I came across a magical book by an American scholar Marvin Lowenthal. Its title “An Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne” seemed a contradiction in terms. How could it be auto? Lowenthal had written it and, anyway, Montaigne was the ultimate autobiographer. It was not a contradiction. Lowenthal explains: “I have long been tempted to give an account of his life...I realised it would be folly and impertinent to write the life of a man who had spent his genius writing it himself...I decided to invite him to collaborate with me.”

Aided by scissors and paste, he arranged and edited Montaigne's entire output to make what is the most precious book I have read. He inspired me to look for the essays which Montaigne wrote in a tower in his house near Bordeaux. It was a revelation. One opens the book and he immediately leaps from the page and becomes corporeal. It is as though he is sitting in your lap, chatting amiably about everything under the sun. Over the years I have collected his essays, his complete works - published in one blessed Everyman Library volume - and a two-volume Cockerel Press translation by de Florio from which Shakespeare profited.

Three times economic shipwreck has forced me to sell my books and three times, though it wasn't on offer, my Lowenthal disappeared. It is not an easy book to replace. The last time it took two years of diligent searching before I found a copy in New York.

So it is a relief to find that Sarah Bakewell, though she does not mention it in her bibliography, has revived Lowenthal's idea with “How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts”. It is published by Chatto and Windus and I heartily commend it to anyone looking for a friend who is both wise and literally delightful.


My classicist brother-in-law Francis Lucas offered this comment on the Iraq War. Pity Blair didn't read it.

"Take time, then, over your decision, which is an important one. Do not allow considerations of other people's opinions and other people's complaints to involve you in difficulties which you will feel yourselves. Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them; we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think."
Thucydides Book 1 ch 75

My old friend, the former Daily Mail columnist JOHN EDWARDS, now snow-bound in Pembroke, sent this:


This sign was prominently displayed in the window of a business in
Glamorgan, South Wales .
You are probably outraged at the thought of such an inflammatory statement. However, we are a society which holds Freedom of Speech as perhaps our greatest Liberty. After all, it is ONLY A SIGN, you may say. 'What kind of business would dare to post such a sign?'