Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fielding Questions About Life

Published in Facts and Arguments, an anthology edited by Moira Dann, published by Penguin Canada, 2002

There had been altogether too much talk about crisis and security and air strikes and danger.  We had just returned from a fall visit to England and even four-year-old Sam, innocence personified, had been part of a world that left no one untouched.  No dream unmolested, not even his.
            “I dreamed about plane crashes in my last sleep,” he told me.
            The world was too much with us.  It was time to get the boots on and head for The Back Field.
            A world apart, The Back Field rises from the windy northern quarter of our farm, cresting like a slow rolling wave over the ice-age hill, full and complete in its encircling palisade of oak, maple, white birch and spruce.  Early on a good crisp day in October, if I’m lucky, the geese will just skim the hilltop and I can feel and hear the wind vortices of their V-formation just above me as they head south.  Maybe a fox will pass; last spring there was a bear.
            But today there would be no geese.  Just Sam and I, surrounded by the ancient trees and saplings, wind-tossed cloud cover and distant rumblings of winter.
            Katy and I had always wanted to give shelter to the childhood realms of our kids.  If it was possible to build a storybook world and let them live in it, then good.  If free from the tarnishing influence of the 21st century’s darker aspects, then better.  And this field, at the centre of our old farm, hours away from the city, worlds away from the war zones, was where we directed the little hands and feet for the most quiet peace of all.
            So Sam and I walked and talked.  He could talk a lot, as four-year-olds often can, and, freed from the dumbfounding sensory overload of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, he was able to air out his mind and go off on a rich variety of tangents:  Bob the builder.  When’s my birthday?  I am Robin Hood, watch me shoot my bow and arrow.  What am I getting for Christmas?  Daddy, are you a hero?
            I didn’t much like that last one.  To him, I hoped I was a hero, but he was getting around to something deeper and more troublesome.  He’d heard the television news in passing, seen the coloured photos in The Times, heard discussions on the Underground, seen the soldiers at the fenced-off entry to Downing Street.
            A walk in The Back Field had to be an antidote, however gradual.  Farmer Ron Hewitt had ploughed while we were away and the soil smelled rich and full of promise.  Next August, this field would be a sea of his special strain of sweet corn.
            “Raccoons love corn, Sam.  Let’s talk about raccoons.”
            I thought of my own Dad, working these fields during the Second World War, struggling to keep the John Deere together, picking a fresh crop of rocks every spring, looking at adolescent versions of the same trees that now towered along the western horizon.  If anybody had been in the safe central haven of peace in 1940, it had been him, broadcasting wheat seeds by hand, back here in The Back Field.
            But the de Havilland Aircraft Co., builder of the Mosquito bomber, got some of its parts from a local factory in Orillia, Ont., and from time to time would send a bomber for a fly-past, rattling farmhouse windows and bringing a deep rumbling of patriotic pride to the workers below.  It was a visceral tie to the war effort, a sudden deafening reminder that the world’s problems were a lot closer than you might think.  We’re all in it together, lads – that sort of thing.
            For my Dad, spreading seed in a quiet corner of Ontario in 1940, it was a jarring reality check.  A reminder that no man is an island.
            But that was a different time and a different war, and Sam and I enjoyed our peace, unruffled  by the throaty roar of a twin-engined bomber.  Somewhere off to the south we could hear a dump truck shift down for a hill, but that was it.  Snow clouds were massing out over Georgian Bay but, for now, peace reigned.
            Can we ever really give our children the nurturing isolation we think they need?  Can we hope to preserve their innocence?  We try, but are we kidding ourselves?  Do the words “terrorist” and “anthrax” and “cluster-bomb” need to be part of their vocabulary? 
            We change the subject when the uncomfortable gets too uncomfortably close.  “Let’s talk about raccoons, Sam,” I say, but I really want to say, “Sam, I wish your injured world was different, my little one.”
            He asks if I’m a hero, but I think he’s really saying:  “Daddy, will you keep me safe?”
            Safe?  How could he not be safe back here, in the quiet centre of solitude?
            And then, as if cued by God for maximum effect, a massive airliner, maybe a 747, thunders by overhead, climbing from Toronto, headed for Europe.  Full of people.  Full of fuel.  The mind’s projector wants to replay the horrible images again:  the planes swinging around and lining up the towers...
            Sam sees the plane too, and to him, it is right over us, its shadow ready to collide with ours.  What plays on the little screen in his mind?
            I want to stick out my chest like Rat in The Wind In the Willows and say, “Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide  World, and that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me....Don’t ever refer to it again, please.”
            But I can’t.  It’s as clear as the vapour trail that veers sharply off to the east above us.
            The Wide World is right here, Sam.  And yes, little one, we are all in this together.
            He takes my hand.  For now, that seems good enough for him.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oxford, London, Sam & me

Originally published in The Globe & Mail Mar.22,2000
We knew not what to expect, my wife and I, when we set off for six long weeks of trekking around England. We'd been there before, but then it was just the two of us, a bit of loose change and a couple of BritRail passes. This time, it would be an autumn trip with three children in tow, all under 9, (which means 18 Beanie Babies, six extra backpacks, a baby seat, a stroller, and enough gummy bears to drive toothpaste shares through the roof.) And as with the English weather, we had no way of predicting if things would be fair or foul, stormy or calm.
Yet we were fairly certain of one thing at least: Samuel would make life difficult for us. Sam is 2.
Nothing wrong with 2, of course; some of our nicest friends had once been 2. But Sam, being 2 and proud of it, was out to undo what he could of our adventure. He was growing a few more teeth at the time (molars), was long overdue for some sort of life-threatening sickness (probably Ebola), had just learned to run (sideways) and was developing an alarming fondness for anything edible (and sugar-coated) or toylike (and plastic-coated).
Well-meaning but totally heartless friends had smiled weakly and suggested meekly that perhaps we should consider leaving Sam at home. Rumour had it that we were taking nannies in sufficient numbers to post a round-the-clock watch on Sam and his habits of mass destruction. Yet in the end, we went it alone, ready to take whatever he could throw at us.
What he did throw at us (apart from masticated gummy bears and half-empty bottles of HP sauce) was the chance for self-appraisal; the opportunity to take stock and ask some slow-motion questions of ourselves.
Did we really need to travel at that old hectic pace, cameras blazing? Did two cities in one day mean as much as one city in two weeks? Were massive monuments to long-dead heroes anywhere near as interesting as playgrounds with junior-sized teeter-totters, and real flesh-and-blood neighbours?
Afternoons came and with them, Sam's sleepy time. At first, as we and the other two children recovered from jet lag and adjusted to mushy peas and beans on toast, we all took it easy. But the Glories of the Empire awaited. There were Lakeland Fells to climb, architectural landmarks to visit, worthy pubs to frequent . . . and we grew restless.
But Sam was a bear without his afternoon nap, and it soon became painfully apparent that we'd either have to sit inside every afternoon, losing the best part of a days exploration, or he'd have to sleep while we explored. The choice was between Simmering Frustration (and British soap operas) or Travels With The Amazing Sleeping Baby. We opted for the latter.
We went on tour, baby Sam and I, during the afternoons. While Katy took Harry and Molly into cavernous museums, through market squares and on adventures in search of dragons and elves, I pushed Sam in a peaceful sleep-walk through the landscapes of my dreams.
I'd been to Bath before and marched through its crescents and squares like any duty-bound student of architecture, but this time it was different. My pace was slow and the rhythm of my walking was measured, thoughtful. Baby Sam slept in tranquil oblivion nestled beneath his horsey-blanket, Curious George next to his blushed cheek. At such a pace, the nuance of the honey-coloured stone wasn't lost on me, and hardly a doorway in John Wood's Royal Crescent escaped detailed analysis.
I studied the serene proportion and rigorous symmetry of the Georgian architecture in complete silence under the October sky, walked the leaf-strewn side streets, chatted in hushed tones with doormen, followed the movements of the clouds as they hurried towards winter.
It soon became a habit, these afternoon strolls; quiet, thoughtful, introspective. Strolls that would once have been frustrated aggravation became walks of discovery. I began to see just how much I'd been missing. The tour books had lied: a city a day? Walking tours that cover the centre of Oxford in just three hours? Sam and I spent as much time just crunching through the russet leaves of a deserted autumnal Botanical Garden, the shadows of Magdalen College growing long beside us. Nothing could give one the sense of quiet contemplation that can be achieved at the controls of a stroller filled with a sleeping two year old.
In the walled garden of Rhodes House, I thought of my little charge's future. Scholarship material? On the banks of the Cherwell, punters passed silently as under the blankets, Sam sailed on plush waves to the land of nod, sung to sleep by the ancient stones around him that "whispered" as Matthew Arnold put it, "the last enchantments of the Middle Ages."
Weeks of such afternoons passed, the stroller wheels showing their age, axles squeaking. We passed through villages and small towns, ruined abbeys and walled gardens and arrived finally in the hectic bulls-eye of action: London.
We studied the millennium construction site at the British Museum, circling the model of The Great Court for half an hour, reading captions, soaking in the freedom of a slowed pace. We walked the paths of Regent's Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, avoiding the yells from impromptu football games by a safe margin, shielding sleeping ears from the laughter behind the next hedge, lightly crossing the cobbles, greatly enjoying the peace -- peace in the centre of the metropolis.
It would never have been like this without Sam and his annoying, confounded, frustratingly restrictive need for an afternoon nap. I would never have slowed to this pace without the pace of a slumbering child to slow me. I wouldn't have noticed the frozen angels in the cathedral close in Salisbury without him, or had time to solve the maze at Hampton Court (twice). Instead, I would have rushed on, camera blazing, striking names from the list I had mentally prepared back in architecture school. Shooting photos, marching through history, missing the minute details, the quiet lanes, the subtle shadings of beauty.
Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe said Heraclitus in 500 BC. Heraclitus knew his babies, I'd say.
My wife and I had given our family a six-week trek through the heart of an autumnal England. Sam, his little blonde head oblivious to it all, had given the subtle shading of the ancient stones back to me.

-March 2000 see original article in Globe travel archives, go to

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Barn at 100

       Originally published in The Globe & Mail, Spring 2004
            I hate those birthday parties – the ones to which you are obliged to attend ; the ones where you are never quite sure if the celebrant really wants to celebrate…or forget. I’m going to a party like that on June 10th. It’s a party for my family’s old timber barn.
A century worth of the scars of endurance. The old barn is a survivor, and that’s good; that’s worth celebrating. But it lives on into graceful old age in the dim twilight days of the Ontario barn. It is the cancer survivor whose friends have all succumbed. It is the old soldier the rest of whose regiment has long since departed. 
I don’t like it, this “death of the barn” thing that seems to be gaining momentum.
So I try not to look at the bigger picture, I reminisce, I retreat into the past.
            I had a toy farm when I was a child; a miniature homestead in enameled steel  -   barn, livestock  and little brick farmhouse. Emblazoned on the barn’s tiny gable was a title that for generations has evoked vivid recollections: “Grampa’s Farm.”
            To a central Ontario farm boy like myself, it all made perfect sense. This little play world was a microcosm of my own and not some nostalgic icon. It was as real as the scene outside the windows of my childhood.
            But that was generation ago and the days of the family farm’s presence in the landscape - and in the memory - have faded.
            When my father was a child, he would count 27 timber barns on the six mile drive to town. 27 barns meant 27 family farms. Today, not a single one stands along that old route and the pasture landscape of the 1940's has given way to a parade of big box stores, curb-appeal country homes and the steel insta-barns of weekend horse ranchers.
            The pink granite corner stone on the leeward, downhill side of our old timber barn, laid by my great-grandfather George,  reads  simply “June 10, 1904".  The central pivot of a whole community’s hard-won working life, it is a typical Ontario bank barn, snuggled hard into the hill, sited with uncanny  intuition , elegant in its rugged simplicity. Great Uncle Frank, who long ago moved off to California, left his mark in wet concrete while forming a water trough in 1918. There are carvings, now weathered into hieroglyphic gibberish  on select boards. We have  old photos of barn-raising day…women in billowy white laying out long trestle tables for the barn-raising bee…a sepia print of swaggering, timber-top bravado played out against the raw sky…
            The timber beams, posts and purlins are as sound as ever, seasoned for a century, wicked dry with the silica-sack effect of a rotating volume of tinder dry hay. But the hemlock and pine barn boards worry me: they start to loosen one afternoon in a January blast, vibrating like reeds. Then it’s a short downhill ride to a loose-tooth flapping, then a squeaking full yawn as they peel away and spin slowly to earth. Hard to put back, those old barn-boards…they never fit as well as they did in 1904.
            Yet we keep putting them back; keep re-nailing, fingers lightly touching the old holes once made by square nails. The gun-metal grey wood grain is deep and sinuous, ridged and rippled by sun and wind.   
            Those old walls could tell stories, if only we had the right ears to hear. Uncle Bob fainting in the pig-sty and almost eaten alive. Clandestine romantic meetings, tearful  prayers. But it takes patience and silence to hear these enchanting whispers, two things we are finding it harder and harder to come by.
            Instead, I turn to the glossy new shelter magazine that tells me that for 2004, old timber barns are the “super-sized folk art must-haves” for the wealthy weekend country squire.  I don’t know if our barn, or the dwindling numbers of its weathered colleagues, can survive as  folk-art must-haves , let alone as trophies for country squires.
            The barn survived tornadoes, Hurricane Hazel, grass fires and the vagaries of agricultural fashion. But will it survive the onward march of progress that even now is a distant dull rumble down the side road? Or will I one day have to fumble through my attic boxes for that tiny enameled steel barn, set it on the kitchen table and explain to my little Sam the ancient writing on the miniature gable wall: “Grampas’ Farm...”
            For now, though, there’s a birthday cake to bake and a cornerstone, soft pink in the June sunset, to be polished and  photographed. And honoured.


David Gillett

Thursday, March 10, 2011

To The Manor Born

Originally published in the Globe & Mail, 2005

I am married to a woman from another age. She is practically Medieval, in fact.
Soon after we married, I made a pact with the demons of The History Textbook Club: I’d give up the twenty-first century in return for a happy marriage. I got the happy marriage, and the twenty-first century is looking very distant indeed.
Our nineteenth -century farmhouse has become decidedly fourteenth-century. My Latin is rusty but improves with each session of chanting. I have taken to singing motets in the shower (on those rare occasions when I take a shower. I’ve heard that being too clean exposes  one to the vagaries of noxious humors.) The kids are keen on hunting wild boar should one ever cross the back garden.
I’ve become an afficionado of chain mail and wheel pommels, illuminations and flying buttresses. I’m as likely to crack open a cold pint of mead and read my Book of Hours by beeswax candle as I am to brew a java and scan the Globe on a Saturday morning. I no longer haunt the aisles of Canadian Tire on weekends. Instead, I’m on the prowl for crenelations, cruck-frames and seige engines.
It wasn’t always thus. My wife, Lady Katherine DeBurgh, was once just Katy. She was once just my young wife, mom to our three kids, firmly planted in the present, a woman who listened to U2, coached soccer  and used a debit card like everyone else.
But now? Now she has gone all middle-ages on us and turned our farmhouse into Hillcrest Hall, Manor House of the Estate. Bolts of exotic fabric swamp the library floor. Barbettes, surcoats and various linen chemises  be-deck the dining room table. Stacks of texts with arcane titles such as “ St.Benedict’s Rule For Monasteries” and “The Book of Margery Kempe” crowd the kitchen counter, amidst stone crocks of anise seed, cinnamon and nutmeg. She has a brood of colourful ancient chickens who know her by name and has taken to carrying a jangling ring of keys on a thick rope round her middle. Well, almost.
It all started a few years ago, when, in a fit of historical hysteria, Katy blurted out a long-suppressed dream that she’d kept inside her decidedly well-coiffed, mid-nineties head: “Hang it all, David! I’ve always wanted to be a Medieval Noblewomen, and darn it, I’m going to be! It’s now or never!”
And so, with her nose to the grind-stone and a keen eye for historical authenticity fueling her passion, Katy set about creating her persona. She began Medieval studies at the University of Toronto, gradually built an impressive library of hundreds of books on medieval life, studied costumes, and traveled to England in pursuit of the authentic. Then she took her act on the road, making presentations to grade four kids in the character of Lady Katherine, disrupting moribund history lessons with jolly cooking demonstrations, readings, courtly dancing and feast preparations, her un-stated mission to counter what Umberto Eco calls “the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp, wash and wear sorcery and Holy Grail frappe.”
We were all drawn into the vortex that swirled behind Lady Katherine’s rich robes. Little Sam, my gallant seven year old, became page to my not-so-gallant Sir Ranulph. I, in turn, would interrupt feasts in school gyms and regale children with tales of battle and inquire, perplexed, about their digital watches, Gameboys and televisions.
I’ve  learned to live with chain-mail helmet-hair. My broad-sword quickly became my ticket to respect amongst the soccer-ball and Spiderman set. Yet, I remain but an amusing side show to the one who has made the fourteenth century her own.

She is, I must admit, very, very good.
When she dons her headpiece and Christine de Pisane costume of richest brocade, she has the ability to free, from somewhere deep inside a nine year old, that little beating heart of imagination that TV has not yet killed. She brings non-readers out of themselves and into a world of story-telling and haunting, simple melodies. The jaded skater-boy becomes the chivalrous noble. The frustrated teacher sees her plastic classroom transformed into a realm of ancient arts and simple joys.
Its all a bit like magic, even though there’s a deliberate lack of fairy princess and Merlin stories. It says as much about the magnetic pull of all things medieval as it does about Lady Katherine.
Admittedly,  it’s just plain fun being along as armed accomplice. I’m learning to tell my villeins from my villains, my hammer-beams from hammer-dulcimers.
But even better, I get to build a Norman castle behind the barn without any twinge of guilt. Its just what I do. After all, my Lady Katherine will soon be 800 years old and her birthday gift had better be a big one.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Letters to a Young Poet"

In writing, sometimes the best advice is to ignore artstic advice. Rainer Maria Rilke writes:  "You ask whether your verses are good...You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."

- from Letters to a Young Poet

I'm A Chicken Hipster

....originally pulished in The Globe & Mail

I hadn’t meant to become a chicken hipster. But there was the issue of the omelettes.
  The 19-year-old me, newly urbanized and studying architecture, was destined for greater things. Things like gallery crawling, bookstore haunting, riding the streetcar into the city’s gritty heart. Late nights deciphering Tolkien, debating Nietzsche and drinking bitter, hot coffee. Black.  
  Collecting brown eggs and lugging laying mash was off my radar. I was breaking the chain: The long family line of farmers ended with me. Thanks for the memories, mom and dad, nice farmboy childhood and all. But I’ll be off now.
The student me morphed into the small-time professional, chasing sophistication on junkets to world centres known for their design cred and pronounced lack of chicken coops. I walked Central Park, monographs of obscure European architects under my arm. I sipped café au lait on the Left Bank, hoping the artsy flavour of the passing Parisians would infuse my freckled Ontario skin. London made the most sense and my English blood gave me an emotional connection.
  But something wasn’t right. I felt a tug from behind, a pull toward my rustic roots, like a salmon called back to its own stretch of river.
  And then it got worse: I fell in love with a city girl who loved the country – and the idea of chickens.
  We married in 1988 and moved back to my family farm in 1992. Despite fifth-generation status and all the baggage that came with it, we looked forward to gutting the old house and painting it in cool shades of white and grey. There would be stainless steel and concrete, blonde wood and artful compositions of urbane stuff.
“Chickens?” I asked in exasperation.
“You’ll love them,” Katy said, studying a retro edition of that old gem Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps.
Five dozen week-old chicks arrived in short order, tawny brown puffballs, chirping incessantly. The old coop was gutted and painted a cool shade of white. The chicks grew and became chickens: noisy, demanding and dim-witted. Their schedule inserted itself into our routine, their daily needs trumping trips to town for a civilized latte.
  Little by little, my pretence of sophistication gave way to the realization that chickens weren’t so bad after all. Our kitchen scraps took on new meaning as we went to a whole new level of recycling. We began to collect fresh eggs with more taste than anything we could buy.
  Katy named them all: Blanche and Moon-Chicken, Jane and Henrietta. I took to calling them the Ladies. Our carefully arranged back terrace was soon decorated with the colourful plumage of wandering poultry, scratching and pecking for worms and slugs. Things started to look suspiciously farm-like again.
  The rhythm of birth, life and death played out in front of us as it always had on this old farm, a lesson for our kids. On occasion the gun came out when the evil weasel came calling. Little grave markers sprouted in the quiet glade beneath the old pear tree to mark the final resting places of a few chickens, family cats and the odd mouse or mole.
  August arrived, and the chickens were ready for a final trip down the side road to Dan the Chicken Man, our local poultry processor. But how could we eat Blanche?
  John Berger once put it this way: “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an and not by a but.”
  So the freezer was filled. Never had chicken been tastier, or more honestly appreciated.
  Now, years later, the tenacious old Ladies are just a fact of life, part of the routine along with chicken manure, feed sacks, rodent attacks and wire cuts.
Those things hadn’t been part of the plan when I graduated from architecture school, yearning for that elusive aura of sophistication. But recently I read in the paper that the urban chicken is the new cause célèbre of the uber-hipsters in New York, London and Paris. The man in the photo wore Hunter wellies, a plaid jacket and two days of stubble on his ironic, self-aware chin. He had architect’s glasses on his face and a plump Rhode Island Red under his arm.
I sucked in my breath and looked at myself in the mirror of that photo: hipster status at last, after all these years. Then I looked out at the old barn, planks missing, roof needing paint, the ghosts of farming ancestors thick in the air. Hipster nothing. This is just what I was born to do, and the Ladies, pea-sized brains and all, appreciate it more than even I can understand.
  And you should taste our omelettes.

For original article, plus a variety of comments (including chicken haters, chicken lovers, vegans and free-range back-to-the-earthers) go to

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Chicken Hipster is coming....

Shortly, The Chicken Hipster piece will be posted.
Until then, relax and think about something else. Like architraves or pediments. Maybe ancanthus leaves.
Or simply Google "Chicken Hipster" and be amazed.......

My Daughter Is Leaving And I'm A Wreck

First published in The Globe & Mail
August 25/2010

In a few days I’ll be a pathetic lump, a rudderless ship, an embarrassment.
My daughter is leaving home and man, I’m going to miss her.Even though we’d planned for this day, even though we’re proud of her, I never really thought it would happen: this breathtaking metamorphosis from baby to girl to woman. I’d somehow fooled myself into thinking that this delicate creature, who hung on my every word and looked to me for everything, would stay forever thus, sort of like the ultimate house pet in flowered tights.
It was a selfish view, of course, and naive. I’ve been proved wrong and now I’ve been brought to the brink and forced to look over the edge. What I see mystifies me. I don’t see disaster, not for her at least, but rather a wide road rolling out under her feet, a world beckoning. And I don’t see her looking back and hesitating.
So I asked Katy, my wife, to help me get some perspective. Or, more accurately, to throw me a lifeline. “I don’t see her all broken up about this,” I said. “It’s like she wants to leave.”
Ever so sensitive, Katy replied, “What did you expect? We spend 17 years preparing her to go and so now she does it. Hardly rocket science.”
That wasn’t the solace I was after, so I moped.
David Gillett for The Globe and Mail
But she had a point. We’d entered into the bittersweet season with Molly-Claire: bitter at her leaving, but tasting the sweetness of knowing she’s ready. This was what we’d wanted, after all – that she be able to confidently soar in her own sky.
Louis L’Amour once said, “How long is a girl a child? She is a child, and then one morning you wake up she’s a woman, and a dozen different people of whom you recognize none.” I get it, Louis; well said. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.

Honey, Be My Keira Knightley

Originally published in The Globe And Mail July 30, 2010
It was a perfect day to have a midlife crisis, but not in a Porsche with a tattooed yoga instructor. Instead, I'd chase Jane Austen and track her down in the wilds of Derbyshire, on her own turf. My wife, Katy, was resigned, recognizing the telltale signs: I'd been practising my posture and had stuffed a waistcoat into my carry-on. “Let's just keep this to ourselves, okay?” she said.
It's not that I didn't want a Porsche and a tattoo, but there was something about dear Jane that got my blood going. The good diction maybe? The witty repartee?
Actually, it was Keira Knightley playing Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, standing on that exposed ridge, her skirts flowing out like smoke behind her, the music swelling, the achingly impossible beauty of it all. I'd find it and Katy would pose there. On that very cliff.
Our trip to Derbyshire, England, was to be a warm-up for a week climbing in the fells of Cumbria, but it quickly morphed into a serious search for iconic scenes from period costume dramas. We explored Chatsworth, lost in the endless corridors of Mr. Darcy's overblown Pemberley, gliding with reverence through the sculpture gallery, catching glimpses of Her Ladyship's chickens beyond the sash windows. We walked the misty shadows of Haddon Hall, that most perfectly preserved medieval pile, which stood in for Lizzie's bedroom, featured prominently in The Other Boleyn Girl, and played Thornfield Hall in the most recent Jane Eyre.
But that was all tea cups and costumes. I wanted raw drama, the wild moors, the bleak soul-searching loneliness of what, for the Georgians, spoke of noble wilderness.
So the Peak District had me. The first of England's National Parks, it is within an hour's drive of a third of England's population, and visited by 20 million people a year. But for us it was still lonely on that day in May, the trails empty, the narrow lanes populated only by puzzled sheep and muddy tractors.
In one of Hathersage's many hiking shops, I approached the map shelf. Before I could ask, an Aussie with skin like a brown lizard anticipated my question: “Need a route map for Stanage Edge? Lizzie Bennet's famous rock. Have the lady pose there, eh mate?” He dealt me a waterproof map outlining an 17-kilometre loop that would take us up onto the moors and across the edge of the world, the millstone grit escarpment where Austen's heroine went to clear her head.
It was hard going at first, seriously uphill, a leg-burner. Katy followed, no doubt rehearsing a Jane Austen quote: “Husbands and wives generally understand when opposition will be vain.” Then the narrow path gave way to rolling moorland where we had only reeling rooks and scudding clouds as company. The escarpment loomed ahead of us, a sheer cliff in stark contrast to the lush heather and flowering gorse of the moor.
“There it is, that's it!” I enthused. Grumbling, Katy climbed the knobby column of stone and balanced precariously on its narrow podium. I hadn't told her that the Edge was a mecca for British rock climbers. “Sorry, not quite right. Watch your step.”
Katy dutifully climbed a few more before we found it: the perfect silhouette, the right background. “Hold your hiking poles out behind you a bit. Make them look like a Georgian frock, kind of blowing in the wind if you can manage.” Cue Jean-Yves Thibaudet on piano. She finally had it: Lizzie Bennet in all her innocent angst and gazing into the distance. It was a wrap.
On the way back down to the village, rain threatening, we passed isolated North Lees Hall, an Elizabethan manor house where Charlotte Bronte had Mrs. Rochester jump from the roof to her death in Jane Eyre.
Katy, with a furrowed brow, looked at the house, gauging its height against the stormy horizon, then at me. “Not a chance,” she said.
I put my camera away. She'd done more than her share of posing for the day. “Time for the Packhorse Pub?” I suggested, smiling innocently. She had suffered enough for the sake of my midlife crisis. And as Jane once put it in Persuasion: “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has all been suffering, nothing but suffering.”
And we still had more Derbyshire to see.

Patience is a virtue

This blog is under construction.
Being an architect has not helped much in the flow-chart, get it done on time and under budget aspect of blogging. After all, there are buildings to design, snowshoe treks to undertake, books to read and new things to write...but be patient and check in again soon.

Sorry. Really, I am.

(...well maybe....)
Being known as The Chicken Hipster is not what I'd hoped for, but its sometimes good to take a (self-deprecating) shot at yourself in the national press...

Coming soon....

Articles originally published in The Globe & Mail newspaper on subjects ranging from: Jane Austen to Urban Chickens to Statement Architecture to Missing My Daughter...


In Village1349, Charlie Cooper finds himself fighting with the memories of one night of senseless violence and nine long years of mystery revolving around the disappearance of his war-veteran grandfather. A family trip to a run down manor house in northern England only adds to his troubles as the mysteries pile in on him: bizarre links to a classified World War 2 operation, ominous threats from a shadowy corporation, rumors of a secret community and run-ins with costumed characters who seem to be from another age - scared, mystified and pre-occupied with the bubonic plague. As the storm clouds of fundamentalism , pandemic disease and biological warfare gather, a strange mix of characters emerge: medieval re-enactors, disillusioned ex-hippies, savvy executives…and well-armed warriors caught in what seems like a time warp, the year 1349, when the Black death ravaged Europe.
Charlie meets Alfred, a sickly fugitive his own age, dressed in Medieval clothes…and adept at swordplay. They soon find they have much in common but how different their respective worlds are: one framed by technology, the other by ancient arts; one world governed by science, the other a universe where God and faith are all.
In the tradition of books such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake and The Pit by Ann Pillings, this story plays with the tensions between past and present and the fine line between reality and fantasy, but always keeps one foot solidly in the here and now, tenuous though that footing is.
I’m an architect with a penchant for Medieval architecture and have had two mystery novels for young teens published: Mystery Rider at Thunder Ridge and The Great Reptile Race (both Chariot Books). I’ve also written for periodicals and anthologies on issues of creativity, architecture and social history. I live in Ontario and have roots in northern England, a place I often visit and where Village1349 is set. In fact, I recently returned from walking the ancient Offa’s Dyke Trail in Wales, (105 miles, 1005 blisters) with my wife, a medieval scholar at the University of Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. (Yes, it’s a mouthful…)


This blog is under construction...various pieces of writing from past years are being assembled for posting, including pieces originally published in The Globe & Mail, Cottage Life Magazine, The well as links to books and other writing.