Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Film Nights at the HIve

Meet Peter. He’s tall, dark haired and has a beard. He wears glasses.  He smiles a lot. He cycles. His favourite author is Philip Roth. He’s Assistant Head of Adam’s Grammar School, and he teaches Maths. From 2007-2011 he chaired the international board of Amnesty, which he described as a culmination of years of involvement in the human rights movement. He’s also a film buff. 

I first met Peter at the Shrewsbury Film Society [or film club, as I think of it], which meets at the Hive on Belmont Bank. It was the chance of seeing 'Badlands' on the big screen, as well as my favourite film, 'Babette’s Feast', that first caught my eye.  Peter’s been helping to run the film club since his wife Sally started it with their friend Corinne and him back in 2011. He was telling me about it the other day, sitting in my kitchen over a cup of coffee. Cineworld was providing a certain sort of film, he said, the Old Market Hall another and the gap between the two, he'd reckoned, was in need of filling, especially in mixing new and older films. 

The film society began with six films. It drew in tiny audiences, sometimes as low as seventeen, with a maximum of forty. For a season nothing much changed, but just over a year ago, when the autumn season started in September 2012, seventy-five members suddenly turned up.

‘The word must have got out,’ said Peter.  ‘People must have been talking.  It wasn’t down to us. It was all down to word of mouth.’

The Hive is Shrewsbury’s main arts centre, situated in a quiet but attractive corner of our town opposite the ruins of Old St Chad’s church. It meets a real need, providing exhibition space and a venue for all sorts of arts’ events - jazz network evenings, folk concerts, youth activities including children’s pottery, life drawing, theatre and now the Shrewsbury Film Society.

To begin with, Peter said, film evenings were all fairly amateurish. ‘We didn’t even have a proper screen. We started with a large white sheet and an ancient projector. One of our main preoccupations during that first season was with whether it would fall apart and hit someone on the head.’

Two grants from Shropshire Council covered the cost of a new screen and surround sound system. Then the Co-op Community Fund provided the film club with a projector and DVD player. More recently, the Society succeeded in buying a hundred chairs for the knock-down price of £400. ‘So now films can be watched in comfort too,’ Peter said.

Plainly Peter knows what’s needed to make a good film club tick. Shrewsbury’s isn’t the first film society he’s ever helped to run. The first was back in the eighties, down in Fareham in the day when films were made of celluloid and the cost of postage was prohibitive.  ‘It’s so much easier now,’ said Peter. ‘And there’s the additional bonus that if members miss a showing, there’s always the chance of lending them the DVD.’

How were films chosen, I wondered. Peter said that the committee would sift through a mass of films every year, trying to achieve the right mix.  ‘As a committee we’re all of us very different,’ he said, ‘and that comes out in our choice of films. And it’s important to remember that our audience is different again. That was a piece of advice Corinne picked up at a British Film Institute course on running film clubs.  People wouldn’t necessarily like the same films as their committees, and that needed to be born in mind.' 

People wanted a mix, Peter said.  They wanted humour as well as drama. They wanted specialist films alongside broad interest ones. They wanted popular cinema, and they wanted art house too.  You had to bear all of that in mind. 'What you’re after is a balanced programme, something for everyone,’  Peter said.

The first film this season – ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ – came as a result of a member suggesting it, as does ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, which is still to be shown, and Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’.  

My own favourite film so far as a Shrewsbury Film Society member has been Wim Wender’s ‘Pina’, about the life of the legendary, now deceased choreographer, Pina Bauer.  It was the sort of film I’d have enjoyed seeing on TV, but on the big screen it was really something else.  Peter agreed with me. I asked if he had any favourites yet to show.  ‘Tokyo Story’ was a film he mentioned immediately – a gentle film, he said, on the subject of parents’ disappointment with their children.  He’d also like to show some Hitchcock, or do a Jack Nicholson series.  Nicholson was a fantastic actor in his early days, as seen in Antonioni’s film, ‘The Passenger’, shown earlier this season. ‘Chinatown’ would be another great film to show.  Again Nicholson at his best, directed by Roman Polanski.

How did Peter first become interested in film? ‘I grew up in North London, close to Hampstead,’ he said. ‘There was a local cinema called the Everyman.  The films were different every day.  Sometimes there would be a double, or even triple bill and the films were on a loop. You could go in at whatever point you wanted and stay for as long as you liked.’

In addition, Peter remembers BBC2’s Saturday night World Cinema evenings, which I remember too.  Nowadays, Peter reckons, you’d be hard pressed to find a foreign language film on non-subscription television, let alone on a Saturday night. Back then, however, Saturday night TV had been his introduction to the films of Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and all those other great names, particularly those of the French New Wave.

I love film too. For a while we sat at the kitchen table bandying about names.  Wim Wenders and his ‘Wings of Desire’ -  I said I particularly loved the way it changed so suddenly to colour from black and white.  Werner Herzog and ‘Aguirre – Wrath of   God’. What a weird film that was. Hard to tell, Peter said, who was madder, the director or Klaus Kinski, his star.   

Peter said that his bias in choosing films was always towards the idea of the director as an authorial voice.  Was that voice unique? Did it have anything special to say - that special something that makes a film stand out?  The showing, a couple of weeks ago, of Roman Polanski’s ‘Tess’ was a case in point. Generally Peter doesn’t show films over two hours in length, but for ‘Tess’, he said, he’d made an exception.  ‘I watched ‘Tess’ back in the spring,’ he said, ‘and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a very striking film. And you could see Polanski’s skills as a maker of horror films creeping in.’

The club doesn’t show shorts either, largely because they’re hard to get hold of on an individual basis. It also avoids contemporary films with 18 certificates, though back in the sixties and seventies, 18 was different to what it is today. ‘Badlands’, for example, which the film club showed last season, would never have an 18 rating today.

I asked Peter what were his top all-time favourite films.  ‘Citizen Kane’ came up straight away.  Everybody who’s a film buff always brings up ‘Citizen Kane’. Then there was ‘The Travelling Players’, which told the story of Greece between the '30s and '60s and was  directed by Theo Angelopoulos, who was killed in a motorbike accident last year.  That film was made while the Colonels were still in power, Peter said.  The film’s chronology was muddled up, and the director experimented with some very long takes.

On the subject of long takes, I mentioned ‘Russian Ark’, the extraordinary film by Alexander Sokurov which was made in one two-hour long unblinking take.  Peter mentioned ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was another of his favourite films.  Geoff Dyer had written a book – Zona it was called – all about the film, taking it apart shot by shot.  ‘I heard Dyer speaking at Hay,’ Peter said.  ‘He said ‘hands up who’s seen the film,’ - after all, it’s not that well known – ‘but every hand went up.’

Peter and his colleagues go down to the British Federation of Film Societies annual meeting and come away with new directors and films that would be good for Shrewsbury.  ‘Like Father, Like Son’ by Hirokazu Kore-Eda is one, and 'No', which they showed in May, is another.  Peter would love to put on a day of films, laced together with discussion. The committee also like it when members' choices include them getting up before the showing to speak about what the film means to them and why they chose it. 

Over the couple of years that the film club has been running, Peter said, he and the rest of the committee had got to know the regulars. They were a fairly broad mix. A small number knew a lot about film. Others were just there for a night out - to sit down and enjoy themselves.

‘You get a good deal from membership,’ Peter said. ‘If you have a season ticket, that’s a night out for £2.25, exclusive of drinks. Where else in Shrewsbury can you get that? And, if you turn up on spec and buy on the door it’s still only £5.’

A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t know about film club nights at the Hive, but the number that do is growing - and members are being drawn into Shrewsbury from far and wide. This appears to be part of a trend. Film clubs and special showings are happening all over Shropshire.  Owestry has a film society, so does Bishop’s Castle. Peter gets down to the Bishop’s Castle one from time to time. Wem shows films too, and so does the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow.

Coming up this Saturday night, 8.00pm, at the Shrewsbury Film Society is 'The Gatekeepers', which Time Out [New York version] describe as 'Gripping, unnerving... worthy of a Bourne movie', the Guardian calls 'a compelling overview of a modern security agency,' and Film 4 calls 'a fascinating film offering a startling look inside one of the most tightlipped intelligence agencies on the planet.'  

I won't be there [an engagement elsewhere] but I will as often as I can. Since becoming a member, it’s not just the films I know that I’ve enjoyed, but ones I’d never heard of before, discovering new directors, new actors and stories that challenge, fascinate, entertain and sometimes touch me deeply. I commend the film club to you. What more can I say?

Shrewsbury Film Society at the Hive: http://www.hiveonline.org.uk/shrewsburyfilmsociety/

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Email Shrewsbury Film Society  shrewsburyfilmsociety@gmail.com

Wings of Desire


Pina Bauer

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Official Winter Starts Here [the Christmas lights have been switched on]

Dog walking this morning to dark sky over the castle, a weird reindeer wire-thing in front of the Darwin Shopping Centre and rain.  Dog walking this evening to an accompaniment of crowds on Pride Hill, balloons for sale, light sabres for sale, Father Christmas in the Square, crowds in the Square, Hilary from Jazz Club [meets monthly at the Hive on Belmont Bank] in the Square, along with her friend Jade, and programmes being handed out for an evening of entertainments to celebrate the switching on of the town's Christmas lights.

On the High Street I find Martin Wood, our Town Cryer.  I also find a Boy Scout drum band and a lantern procession backing up Fish Street. Darting about in a hat with flashing lights is Shrewsbury's chief lantern-workshop person, Maggie Love. The lanterns process along High Street to the Square, following the band. More and more people are packing in all the time. It's hard to imagine how the Square is going to fit them all in, let alone how it will manage this time next year, when the infamous Princess House stopping-up of vital pavement space is complete. 

I pick up my dog. He's had enough of being almost but not quite trampled underfoot. The Mayor is on the podium, presiding over the count down to switching on. '10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1,' we yell, but nothing happens.  Apparently we're not loud enough. We try again.  It works this time. Bingo. Where's the year gone? The Christmas lights are on again. 

Official winter starts here.   

Am I imagining it or does this look like Eric Smith?

Hilary and Jade

Our lovely new about-to-be Museum & Art Gallery

Crowd gathering in the Square

Town cryer with boy scout drummers

Maggie Love in tinsel and flashing hat

The Lantern Procession begins...

...Led by boy drummers

Hand-made lanterns following along behind

---to light up the Square

Crowd packed three-deep in the Princess House overhang

Lights off

Lights on

Butcher Row

Weird reindeer wire thing comes alive

Friday, 15 November 2013

Richard II & The Revenge Parliament in Shrewsbury

A few nights ago I had a ticket to watch David Tennant, in live link from Stratford, performing Shakespeare’s Richard II on the Cineworld screen out at Old Pott's Way. For days in advance I researched him [Richard, not David], interested to find out whether he had any Shrewsbury connections.  And did he, by gum.  This is what I found:

In 1387 King Richard II paid a visit to Shrewsbury that was to have a profound effect on the rest of his reign, leading in no small part to his being deposed and eventually to his tragic and thoroughly unpleasant death.  Owen and Blakemore's History of Shrewsbury describes what transpired during that Shrewsbury visit as ‘transactions of a remarkable nature’. Richard they describe as ‘that unhappy king’.    

At the time of his arrival in Shrewsbury the young Richard II had been on a general progress around the Marches in the company of his powerful and not-to-be-trusted uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. He was licking his wounds after a trouncing by what became known as the 'Wonderful Parliament', which  had stripped him of a number of his powers, in his eyes seriously damaging his royal prerogative.  

In Shrewsbury, Richard called together the chief justice of the day, Sir Robert Tresillian, and a group of other judges and eminent lawyers, and invited them to deliberate upon the validity or otherwise of parliament’s actions.   Richard's powers of persuasion were plainly considerable because this band of legal minds came out with exactly what he wanted to hear, whereupon they were sent home to put their opinions in writing.

Later, in Nottingham, Richard II met this group again, and received their written judgments. That these judgments were unconstitutional in their undermining of parliament was neither here nor there - Richard II wasn’t letting go of his power without a fight.

And a fight there was too.  When parliament discovered what Richard had been up to, they made his legal experts pay for their advice in the 'Merciless Parliament' of 1388. Those with seats in parliament faced impeachment. Some were fined, others were imprisoned and their advice overturned. The Lords Appellant who acted against the king included his uncle, Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke.  Keep an eye on that name.  

Meanwhile, back in Shrewsbury a spate of  grievances were being blamed on a group of non-elected burgesses who ruled the town for their own ends. At the beginning of the 1380s these burgesses had had their period in office extended because they were seen to be ‘conducive to tranquility’. By the end of the decade, however, these men were causing great dissent. 

Maybe change would have come about anyway but in their History of Shrewsbury Owen and Blakeway reckon that the cause of change was helped by that same group of constitutional lawyers who had been so useful to the king.  A legal Composition was produced on August 15th 1389, reciting a long list of grievances, fallings out and complaints. Chief amongst these were the town’s long-since unelected bailiffs and the fact that Shrewsbury’s profits and revenues were being disposed of by them to ‘the benefit of the same’.  

To remedy this state of affairs, the Compostion called for parliament to be petitioned  to produce an Act which would set municipal life in Shrewsbury on a more equitable footing. A procedure was proposed by a committee of the town whereby townsmen, [‘lawful, indifferent residents all’] should be nominated by the present bailiffs [having first sworn openly before the commons ‘not to be influenced by lucre, favour or enmity in their choice’]. Once this had been done, these townsmen, in their turn, should elect equally lawful and indifferent bailiffs who would receive £10 a year of land or rent in fee for their lifetimes, or £100 in merchandize.

This sounds to me like one lot of people voting in another in order to vote the first lot back.  What a lark. According to Owen and Blakeway some of the details of this Composition came in part from other towns’ constitutions [bailiffs should reside continually, dwelling as householders in the town, contribution to all its charges; no person who had been elected a bailiff should be re-elected for the following three years] but some were original, coming from the bailiffs who [surprise, surprise] were active in making suggestions as to how they should run the town. 

Hard as it is to believe, the result of all this constitutional re-alignment  was that something was put in place that corrected some of the evils that had been complained about.  There was, however, opposition.  One of the last acts of Richard II’s reign, before his abdication, was to issue to the bailiffs of Shrewsbury a mandate from their king stating that as some of them had infringed the Composition penalties would be levied against them.

But I run ahead of myself here. Back in 1389, the young Richard had moved to seize control of power, declaring himself to be of age and able to govern for himself.  Peace negotiations with France began. Westminster Hall was re built. Treaties were made and truces sealed. Opposition was put down,  including the murder of Richard's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and the condemning of the Earl of Arundel to the block. Now was the moment for Richard to tighten his grip on power - and to have his revenge on a parliament which had sought to cut him down to size. Parliament was convened in Westminster in September 1397, and then prorogued and moved by the king - to Shrewsbury.

Yes, you heard me. Shrewsbury.

Why Richard moved to Shrewsbury rather than anywhere else is not clear. Some say he reckoned he could more easily get away with the unhallowed project he had in mind in a more remote provincial town.  Richard claimed he did it solely because of his great love of the Shropshire people, but the true intention of this parliament was to establish his authority on the firmest of all possible bases – and in many people's eyes he did this by bringing about the ruin of the country’s freedom. For the years following the Great Parliament were a time of unbridled tyranny.

In history there are two names for the parliament that sat in Shrewsbury. One is the Great Parliament, the other the Revenge Parliament. Every Shrewsbury child should know this fact. It’s one of the fascinating but little-known details of our town’s long life.  In the centuries-long battle between king and parliament, this parliamentary is most definitely one that stands out. 

The king arrived in Shrewsbury determined to have his way, not least by overwhelming parliament with his kingly splendour.   On 25th January, having previously set up court in Lilleshall Abbey, he entered the town with great pomp and circumstance. The opening of parliament provided the perfect opportunity for Richard to indulge his taste for magnificence. He put on a sumptuous feast that dazzled parliament with the awesomeness of monarchy.  By the time that it sat, parliament was completely in Richard's hands. This obsequious parliament is how it's described in Owen and Blakeway's History of Shrewsbury - and it's not hard to see why.

Previously, parliament had punished Lord Chief Justice Tressalin and his fellow judges for their unconstitutional advice to the king. Now that advice was agreed by the full assembly to be totally constitutional, and all the proceedings of the previous parliament, instigated by the Lords Appellant, null and void. In other words, all the powers gained by that earlier parliament now returned to the king. Not only that, but parliament granted subsidies on wood and leather for the king’s life, and a generous sum of money for the purpose of making compensation to ‘those persons who had suffered for their attachment to the royal cause’.

Richard had what he wanted – but it wasn’t quite enough.  To put a seal upon his achievement, he forced all lords, spiritual and temporal, to swear in parliament on the cross of Canterbury, [brought in for the occasion] that the statutes of this parliament would be kept for ever. The clergy had to swear this too. So did the knights of the shires, called to stand around the king as they did so.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Richard sought the backing of the mob, sending out a proclamation to the people of Shrewsbury, demanding to know if these new parliamentary measures had their assent. In an act of solidarity with their king, the good folk of Shrewsbury are on record as having lifted up their hands and cried aloud that they were well pleased. Highborn and low, common men and lords, at the Revenge Parliament in Shrewsbury all gave their assent.

Richard must have left Shrewsbury in a fine frame of mind, blithely unaware that his victory would be short-lived. For the last chapter in the story of his kingship proved to be turbulent.  What the country wanted wasn't kingly elegance and pageantry. It was wisdom in government and courage on the battlefield, and though Richard II had shown great promise in his youth [the way he stood up - in person - to Wat Tyler and the mob was nothing short of extraordinary] he was to finally fail  on both those counts.  

In 1398, Richard's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, was exiled to France. In 1399, Bolingbroke's father died and Richard seized his lands. That year Bolingbroke returned, gathering an army around him.  It was the end for Richard [as witnessed by the picture above, which is of Henry IV being presented to parliament].    

By the time that Henry Bolingbroke had seized the crown as Henry IV [that usurper is how Blakeway and Owen refer to him], the tide in Shrewsbury had turned too. Henry’s arrival in the town that only two years before had proclaimed in loud voice its support of Richard as king, was greeted by an outpouring of extravagant joy. Shrewsbury’s townsfolk are described as Henry’s ‘loyal liegemen of the county of Salop’ who, with ‘their most entire will and heart’ attended on the new king to the utmost of their power, ‘supporting and strengthening him and his adherents’. 

So there you have it – the life and times of Richard II as viewed from Shrewsbury.  Richard's end came swiftly. Forced to abdicate, he's reputed to have been starved to death in Pontefract Castle. Henry went on to become a powerful king, but it never escaped him that he'd seized the throne, and his reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts.  

And, after all that research, I never did get to the David Tennant live Shakespeare Richard II broadcast. I'm gutted. Typically I wrote the wrong day in my diary! And it was reckoned to be brilliant too.  By a happy  coincidence, however, I did get to hear David Natzler instead, the Clerk Assistant to the House of Commons, who gave a fascinating talk on Thursday night at Shrewsbury's Sixth Form College on the subject of our town's connection to parliament - including the Revenge Parliament of 1397.  

A poem was written about that parliament afterwards, by someone called Richard the Redeless.  It's in Chaucer's English, I'm afraid, so not that easy to follow. However, the translation points out that in order to get his way - and in defiance of custom and law - Richard is alleged to have appointed knights of the shire and others to sit in parliament, ensuring his wishes were met, and to have promoted a number of earls to the rank of duke.  Richard may have been failing in some respects, but plainly he knew how to swing a vote.

PS. I'm with David Tennant on the subject of Shakespeare. Apparently Julian Fellowes - who's adapted Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet for the big screen by modernizing the Elizabethan language - reckons you need a 'very expensive education' to understand Shakespeare these days. But Tennant disagrees. 'I don't have an expensive education,' he's on record as saying. 'I went to a comprehensive in Paisely, and I don't think Shakespeare's plays are remotely difficult.'

What do you think?   


What's Cricket In India Got To Do With Shrewsbury Today?

Photograph: Babu/Reuters
My Tonight From Shrewsbury is slightly thin on the ground when it comes to sport. It's covered the first ever Shrewsbury marathon [in fact covered it three times], and it's tried to make contact with the town's boxing club, but with no success.  Why then, you might ask yourselves, am I writing a post on cricket - and in India too - when not a single post has been written about cricket, football, swimming, athletics, judo or any number of other sports that happen here in Shrewsbury on a daily basis?

The answer lies in this photograph which I turned up this morning whilst reading the Guardian.  All these people, all these banners, and raised faces, and upturned hands and smiles - they're for one man, Sachin Tendulkar, who started playing cricket for his country back when the Berlin Wall was coming down, and yesterday stepped out for his 664th and final international appearance. 

Sport doesn't do a lot for me, but heroism does, and so does the  striving of the human spirit to leave its mark.  I love human interest stories and, over my Shrewsbury breakfast this morning, I certainly stumbled across a good one.  

Tendulkar's final match is taking place in India, against the West Indies. It started yesterday. As the Indian side, including the great man himself, prepared to enter the Wankhede Stadium, umpires and opponents alike formed into a two-line guard of honour for the forty year-old cricketer and his fellow team-mates.  'After breaking nearly every record in international cricket, scoring more runs and more centuries than any other player, Tendulkar seemed the calmest person in the stadium,' wrote Guardian journalist, Dileep Premachandran, in his news item, 'Adoring fans serenade the Little Master's parting shots'.  

Certainly, at the sight of Tendulkar, the 32,000 capacity stadium went wild.  Banners waved, fans roared and screamed and feet stamped. The West Indies went in to bat first, but it can't have been easy. The stadium roof was ringed by blown-up pictures, one for each of Tendulkar's fifty-one Test centuries.  Every time the great man moved to catch a ball, the sorts of roars broke out that you'd expect from a Cup Final's winning goal. 'We want Sachin' roared the crowd, along with ululations, chants and the boom of fans banging the hoardings in front of them.

Above the proceedings, a giant electronic screen showed messages from around the world. A tweet came up from England cricketer, Joe Root: 'Sachin made his debut before I was born. Then played in my test debut. Thank you Sachin.'

Why am I telling you all this, here on a blog which is all about Shrewsbury? In fact, why am I telling you anyway, when I seem to show so little interest in sport?  It's because reading the article and seeing the photograph with all those upturned faces made me cry.  Even before I read that Sachin Tendulkar's mother received a standing ovation from the crowd on this, the first match of her son's that she'd ever attended,  I had tears in my eyes.

Partly it was the unshowiness of Tendulkar that got to me.  Whilst the whole stadium was in ferment, the man himself remained extraordinarily calm. Partly, too, it was the longing for heroes that we all seem to have deep down inside, be they Nelson Mandela, JFK,  Mother Theresa or, indeed, Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt.  

But, most of all,  it was the quiet doggedness that made me cry.  I felt it the other day when I read about the jockey A.P.McCoy and his 4,000th win. There are people out there who don't just win the short, sharp sprint. They hunker down for the marathon.  They don't shout about what they're achieving either, or seek adulation. They just get on with it.  

In fact, for most of us that's our lives.  They're challenging and hard, full of ups and downs. Some matches we lose and occasionally there are some we win. But, win or lose, we go on doing what we have to.  

I'd like to think there's a bit of Sachin Tendulkar in all of us, even here in Shrewsbury.  A bit of A.P. McCoy too.   Races aren't just won somewhere else. Successes aren't just notched up by cricketing legends. Quietly and unheralded, Shrewsbury people notch up triumphs every day. Maybe no one sees them happening and no crowds come to cheer. But that's not what doing it is all about. Even in this media age with its hunger for heroes, a job seen through to the end can bring its own rewards. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Shrewsbury School's Ancient Library

I’m beginning to think this blog should be called ‘My Yesterday Morning From Shrewsbury’, or even ‘My Last Week’.  In my mad panic to fit everything into the one year I’m beginning to develop a backlog of posts. Foremost in my mind, however, isn’t the film club I went to on Friday night, or the film makers I met a few days before that, but last Sunday morning’s visit to the library at Shrewsbury School.

Shrewsbury School is [geographically in particular] part of the backdrop against which the town is set. ‘The town is of great importance to the school,’ somebody told me on my Sunday visit to its library.  But the school – one of England’s seven great public schools, alongside Eton and Rugby – is important to the town too. Set up initially as a Grammar School by Edward VI, to educate the sons of the town, today it still has significance in shaping Shrewsbury’s life and character.

You can’t miss the schoolboys wandering about town. Even out of uniform you can pick them out. Many a boy comes to Shrewsbury for school and, barring university, never quite leaves. Take a walk along the river, and you’ll pass Shrewsbury schoolboys rowing on the Severn – and Shrewsbury schoolgirls, too, these days. Walk through the Quarry and look up Beck’s Field and you can’t miss Shrewsbury School standing high above the river, or fail to hear its bell ringing out the hours.

Shrewsbury School has stood on that prime site in Kingsland since the demise of the Old Shrewsbury Show, which I wrote about earlier this year.  Before that it was housed in what’s now the Castle Gates Library. Its old boys include the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Christopher Brooker and Paul Foot, not to say anything of traveler and ex-Python, Michael Palin, and Radio One’s John Peel.

The view of Shrewsbury from the school’s current site is one of my favourites. I climbed up Beck’s Field and sat at the top in front of the main school building a number of years ago now, to witness the town’s last total solar eclipse. I couldn’t have chosen a finer place to do it. The wind dropped, the sky began to darken and the birds fell silent. In the unnatural twilight the rooftops, spires and towers of the town fell into shadow. I sat until the light returned and won’t ever forget the experience, including the wonderful stillness that fell across the town. No finer place in Shrewsbury, I reckon, could have been chosen to witness what My Tonight From Shrewsbury’s forebear would have called a ‘freak of nature’. 

The forebear in question is anonymous, but the manuscript in which he wrote about freaks of nature, amongst other things, is not.  In Shrewsbury School’s Ancient Library it’s known as ‘Dr Taylor’s MS’.  It’s an Elizabethan town chronicle, dated from the late 1570s,  penned by an anonymous Salopian using existing local annals, printed broadsheets and pamphlets, and drawing more widely for a fuller, more national – and indeed international – appeal. Apparently it was full of murders, suicides, executions, prognostications, freaks of nature, fires, floods, earthquakes etc.  Has the world changed? I don’t think so.

Certainly there are no executions or freaks of nature so far in My Tonight From Shrewsbury, but we’ve had floods this year, sadly we’ve had a murder and an unexpected death. And as for prognostications - well, who am I to say?

Until last Sunday I didn’t know about my Elizabethan counterpart, but now I can’t stop thinking about him – and I want to read more. You’ll know, if you’ve read many of My Tonight From Shrewsbury’s post, that I love old books.  Well, on Sunday I was in book heaven – and I want to tell you all about it.

My visit began on the stroke of eleven o’clock, when I arrived at Shrewsbury School in time for its act of remembrance. Sad to think, looking at a photo later of a group of boys, that within a couple of years of it being taken exactly half those boys would be dead, killed in battle.  Young lads, scarcely out of their childhood we might now say. And masters died as well. Their names are all read out. Every year the same, followed by the school crowding round the Philip Sidney oak to leave their poppies with the dropped leaves on the ground.

Afterwards in the library, Michael Morrogh, the school’s Ancient Librarian [I’m not being rude here; this is Michael’s official – if slightly Gormenghastly – title] showed visitors round a collection of memorabilia from the first and second world wars. Browsing amongst the tables I found a pamphlet on the Re-conquest of America [‘the Most Astounding Document Ever Discovered in The History of International Intrigue’] with fascinating sections on such matters as ‘Hostile Native Tendencies’. Then I picked up the Ruhleben Prisoner of War Camp Magazine, with some extraordinary drawings in it, and several German propaganda booklets putting forward a very different view of their Allied enemies and the war.

The Shrewsbury School library is a treasure house of books, not just old ones either, but modern books too.  On display I found everything from the latest Booker prize-winner to a collection of graphic novels.  There were easily a dozen books I could have stopped to thumb through, but I had a date with something older than them. These were not the books I’d come to see. 

I’d come to see the old guys. The really old ones. The ones that made my own person 19th century acquisitions from Candle Lane Books seem like Johnny-come-latelies. Some of these books were chained. Others were kept in a strong-room so strong that it felt like walking into an air-conditioned safe [but then I was walking into an air-conditoned safe].

In that library’s inner sanctum - a small room packed floor to ceiling with what I heard described as ‘the crown jewels’ - I saw an illustrated Bible from the 13th century, Charles Darwin’s personal atlas, with his name – and other comments – written inside it, and a Tyndale Bible.

This is a big deal. It’s the book, above all others, that I’d come to see. In its day, the Tyndale Bible [or, more accurately, New Testament] was dynamite.  Because of it, William Tyndale ended up being executed in horrendous fashion.  His crime? Translating the Bible into everyday English so that every man [who could read] could read it, and not just the privileged few. Also - equally heretical in the eyes of the church – he dared to translate not from the standard Latin ‘received’ text, but directly from the Hebrew and Greek.

Tyndale Bible
In 1522, William Tyndale acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, and began a translation into English using a Greek text compiled by Erasmus, which was older and reckoned to be more accurate than the Latin Vulgate, which was the only text authorized by the Roman Catholic church.  He was refused permission to continue with his work, which was seen as heretical, but moved abroad and carried on anyway, a fugitive from justice, on everybody’s Most Wanted list.

A partial translation of the New Testament was printed in Cologne, after which Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities. Doggedly, however, he carried on with the work, escaping to Worms where a full translation of the New Testament came out in1526.

It’s hard now to understand what all the fuss was about. Bibles are two a penny and, arguably, make very little difference to modern life. But Tyndale saw the Bible differently. Buried deep in his translation were direct challenges to the Catholic church, which was the major authority of the day.  The word ‘priest’ in the Latin Vulgate, for example, when  translated directly from the Greek came out as ‘elder’ - an elder being not a member of a separate caste but one of the people.  And the Vulgate phrase, ‘doing penance’ [something from which the Catholic Church accrued revenue], in Tyndale’s translation from the Greek came out as ‘repentence [something to be achieved for free]. 

Tyndale’s Bible was a bombshell.  Its legacy continues to this day. Some say that English as we now know it was formed out of Tyndale’s taking of the unpopular Middle-English ‘vulgar’ tongue, improving it with the help of Greek and Hebrew syntaxes and idioms and forming out of it all an early modern English that Shakespeare and others would draw upon.  I’m not a historian, or a linguist, so I wouldn’t know about that, but I do know that Tyndale was a reformer and a man of principle and faith, and that when he died [in 1536, by strangulation, followed by burning at the stake] he prayed that the King of England’s eyes would be opened.

Tyndale Bible in box
And indeed it turned out that they were. The Tyndale Bible played a massive part in the Reformation generally and - in England in particular - as much as Ann Boleyn, the Tyndale Bible played its part.  It changed society by bringing with it a new freedom from authority. It featured prominently in the Geneva Bible that was taken out with the Mayflower by America’s founding fathers. It found its way into the King James Bible, which is still being read. 

Nowadays I have the King James version of the Bible on my Kindle. I can carry it around. And Bible readers in Tyndale’s day could do the same. The Tyndale Bible that I saw in Shrewsbury School’s strong room was surprisingly small.  Given its status in history, I expected some massive tome, but out of a small box came something small enough to pocket and walk out with.

Not that anybody would be pocketing that particular copy, or even borrowing it on their school library card!  But there were other books in that Ancient Library that could be handled, and there were others on display that I want to share with you too.

Included amongst these are John Donne’s poems in first edition.  Then also a first edition of Ben Johnson’s plays, followed by an early Caxton dating from 1483.  None of these were in the strong-room, but on show in the main body of the Ancient Library, alongside Oliver Cromwell’s original death-mask, a whole host of Darwin artifacts, letters and the like, and a tiny but beautiful metrical psalm book bound in an immaculately stitched needlework cover [see below].

The Shrewsbury Fragment
For somebody who loves books, Sunday morning I was as near to Paradise as life on earth can get. Behind glass I saw a whole collection of tiny psalters, including a tortoiseshell one, which is a Huguenot psalm book dated 1660. I also saw the last book to be printed by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; the Gwassanaeth Meir – a devotional work, and rare text, written in the South Wales dialect of around 1350-80; and, oh my God – the Shrewsbury Fragment. The actual, real Shrewsbury Fragment in the flesh.

For one whole year, ever since I began My Tonight From Shrewsbury, I’ve been saving up writing about the Shrewsbury Fragment because I wanted to hang onto a few really special posts for the end of the year.  The Shrewsbury Fragment is intended as one of those posts, so forgive me if I don’t write more now.  All I’ll say for now is that the Shrewsbury Fragment is one of our town’s treasures, it has a remarkable story, which almost nobody seems to know about [in fact most people I’ve talked to have never heard of it] and one day before the end of the year I’ll tell it to you. 

Many thanks to Shrewsbury School, and Ancient Librarian Michael Morrogh, for allowing me to browse so freely amongst so many lovely treasures.  Thanks, too, to Head of Philosophy and Theology, Andrew Dalton, for being my fixer behind the scenes. Much of what I saw is there to be viewed most Sunday mornings after chapel, from 11 o’clock onwards. A warm welcome was extended to me and to other visitors, and I’m sure it would be to you too, if you wanted to arrange a visit.

I left the library with my head in a spin, and walked towards the school gate, heading down Central - an avenue of trees flaming in the autumn sunlight. Darwin’s statue stood tall at one end [representing the sciences] and Sir Philip Sidney’s at the other, profiled against an unsettled sky [representing the arts]. It had been quite a visit. I’d seen more than I have time to tell you now. Not just the Shrewsbury Fragment, but other things too.

Another day, maybe.

Sir Philip Sidney

Darwin's Atlas

A drawing from the Ruhleben Camp Magazine

Darwin with foot on [I think] an iguana 

A bit of a PS here.  On the subject of book heaven, I've just been sent this photograph of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Library in Ohio. Looks fairly heavenly too, so I thought I'd share it: