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Ancestral Footnote To 'Priceless'

Judge Jeffreys

Commenting on my recent blog post about the Pilgrim Fathers, Nicholas Mackey asks if I've investigated the line of ancestry which inspires a heartfelt fascination with its theme. The answer is that what has been discovered to date is sketchy. I spend so many hours researching other people's antecedents and piecing their jigsaws together that finding time for my own isn't easy! But there's substantial evidence for what follows:

One branch of my genealogy appears to have sailed for America in the wake of the Mayflower. The family was settled in Newington, New Hampshire, by the 1640s. In 1650, John Trickey was born in Dover, Strafford County, when his mother, Sarah, died in childbirth.

In 1685, after the Battle of Sedgemoor, a forebear, John Trickey, was tried and condemned to death by Judge Jeffreys at the notorious Bloody Assizes in Taunton, Somerset. The West Country was a stronghold of Protestantism which still resonates today. Roman Catholic churches in the South West are thin on the ground.

The Western Rising, as it is sometimes called, was a bid to overthrow the Catholic James II who succeeded to the Throne on the death of his brother, Charles II, in February 1685. However, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, Charles' illegitimate son by his mistress, Lucy Walter, tried to contest the right of his uncle. He had been brought up in Holland, in a climate of Protestant Reformation, where his father had taken refuge during Cromwell's Protectorate after the beheading of his grandfather Charles I. Monmouth saw a chance to exploit his popularity in the region and lost no time in raising an army. His attempt was doomed to failure and he was put to death on July 15th, 1685.

Many will be familiar with Roman Catholic/Protestant struggles down the ages and how they were little to do with religion and everything to do with reactionary forces in the face of power politics. Nothing is as potent as putting an official 'God stamp' on a course of action. It is difficult to convey to those who've never lived here how deep-riven in the history of a group of small islands that can be.

The John Trickey who appears in the list of those executed at Taunton has long been understood to be our ancestor. But it has puzzled researchers that there seems to be no trace of his origins in the British Isles. However, I recently discovered that New World settlers remained zealous about securing Puritanism in the Old Country and that some of the (perhaps fitter) members were ready to return and fight in Monmouth's resistance movement. I'm pretty sure that John Trickey was one of them. One thing that makes me wonder is that the emigrant Trickeys ran a ferry in New Hampshire at a place called Bloody Point. Did that gain its name principally, not from boundary disputes as some have said, but from the Bloody Assizes? Such martyrdom would have underlined the reasons for their gruelling flight across the Atlantic and would be embedded deep in the psyche. Certainly, there were New World bound vessels whose name referenced the bloodthirsty Judge.

One of my father's favourite books was R D Blackmore's Lorna Doone, a tale of those times written in the Victorian era. His own upbringing was in the dissenting Baptist tradition. After much exploration and soul-searching, I was confirmed as an Anglo-Catholic twenty five years ago. I don't want to go into the hair-split between us and the Roman Church because the liturgy is identical. But an English Catholic would consider me Protestant. Suffice to say that fine lines can become monumental sources of schism when factions reach for arms instead of trying to work towards peaceful solutions side by side. What we experience today is only the palest echo of the past when religious faith was a wholesale way of life and in tune with the seasonal calendar in mansion and hovel. It was the common starting point for whatever personal beliefs might later develop.

Several weeks ago, I visited, for the first time, Stonegallows Hill, Taunton. Exmoor and the apple-green Blackdown Hills tinctured with sanguine reds, bright golds and crisp gingers, stretched far beyond under the shy blue of a November sky. In October, 1685, John Trickey was hanged there. (If he was the American John Trickey, his death is recorded in the US as 1686.) And I reflected on that fateful cause, like so many with which our heritage is studded, and thought that it is the energy and conviction of the sacrifice that lingers and bequeaths the freedoms we enjoy in the twenty-first century. Triumph in our objectives is largely an irrelevance. But sincere endeavour gathers spiritual momentum that rolls on into the future and brings change.

The area is now widely populated and somehow the word 'settlement' has profound connotations. The mysterious nightmare of strangling which plagued my teen years has long faded.

Lorna Doone Farm courtesy of David J Rowlatt Photography

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It is worth reflecting on this Feast Day how one little book, crudely produced by early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, has become the most expensive book in the world, outstripping unique versions of the Bible, Shakespeare's First Folios and Jean-Jacques Audubon's famous Birds of America.

On Tuesday, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $14.2 million, a sum even Croesus would have found eye-watering. Rarity is, of course, a factor. There are believed to be only eleven of these volumes in existence. The books were so thoroughly used that most fell into disrepair sooner rather than later. These few have survived Independence Wars, Civil Wars, World Wars, boundary disputes and hard-driven migration. But their intrinsic value is surely bound up in all the hope, the longing, the nostalgia, the idealism, the quest for freedom, equality and a Promised Land, dreamed by the founding fathers of America. This was the pilgrims' rightful inheritance, in the gift of a beneficient God whose bounty was freely available to the focused and thankful heart.

Months of pitching and rolling on the Atlantic under changeable stars, in insanitary conditions and fed on a scratch diet that barely kept body and soul together, must have caused some misgivings. The sight of an expansive, untamed wilderness must have been daunting, their cultural heritage abandoned for good. For most, there was no going back. It would have taken many seasons for the magnitude of the undertaking to sink in. It is impossible to dwell on this with a dry eye.

But what did they seek in order to steel their courage and confirm the ground under their feet? A book of Psalms, the first recourse for the bewildered and anchorless, where the map of God's heart is reflected in daily human vicissitudes, a compendium of 'givens', without any challenges to theological construction and meaning.

What those pioneers sought was a new translation from the Hebrew, one fit for the realities of the New World and couched in democratic phrases. In such circumstances, the striving for commonwealth was not a design, but an instinct of survival. They wanted their Psalms in verse. Singing was their inspiration. Breathing together, chanting harmonies, strengthened a sense of family and corporate purpose whilst engraving truths in the memory.

The text is said by some scholars to be graceless and awkward. But the ministers responsible made it clear they 'attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language'. The press had to be transported all the way from England. The ink is said to be uneven, the standard of workmanship poor and the book riddled with misprints and idiosyncratic punctuation.

But what remains to the twenty-first century is a living legacy charged with the power of that virgin experience on the threshold of a vast unknown. It is a moving testimony to faith rewarded, to the hardwon fruits of labour in field and vineyard, to the population of a Continent pledged to freedom and opportunity. This little book flags the chapter in global history in which Western civilisation took root in America and led to the birth of a great nation.

What a fine irony that capitalist cultures can only express their homage to a vision via mercantile currency!

Wishing all American friends and colleagues a Happy Thanksgiving (and Hanukkah) !

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Vermeer's Muse

From The Twain, Poems of Earth and Ether

I am passing through

a sequence of spun still frames

shedding, showering

rhythmically recycled

ephemeral dust

This too solid flesh

belongs to time's illusion

I am a whisper

in your head, a quickening

of the soul's marrow

I am mere cipher

reflection of perception

I, a backward glance

down the halls of memory

glimpse of future past

Yet am I present

in the consummate design

unpolished carbon

scintillating in the beam

of a loving eye

I am passing through

one, two, three, four dimensions

God exquisitely

aligns the daguerreotype

eternal lustre

Not With A Bang But A Whimper

They are focused on an interior landscape. The barrel of the lens will reach far into the future, capturing a moment in time more powerfully than any modern app. He sports a soldier's uniform, a ranked officer in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, standing a little aloof from his young wife, as resigned to duty now he is recalled to his own fireside as he was in the trenches of Ypres. Owing to injury, he's been drafted into the Corps of Military Accountants. In April, 1915, he was gassed with chlorine. One of the lucky ones. It took the company unawares as it drifted over the Flanders fields one daybreak in a nicely-judged wind, benign as ectoplasm, amid the whining blasts of shot and shell. Everything turned green in its path, metal, cloth, skin. Scores of them staggered and fell. Harrowed, harrowing. They slumped into the rat-infested mire, writhing in agony, choking with acid nausea, their lungs seared, their innards turned to fire in a spectacle reminiscent of those medieval depictions of the spheres of hell. Surely this was Armageddon, as foretold. Comrades in arms, here today, gone tomorrow. One taken, one left. Except that many were taken and only a few are left to bottle the abomination so that rising generations may enjoy peace and freedom. Men of his stamp will not speak of what they have seen. They will be wary of bitter winters, mind their diet and not complain of sensitivity to ulceration. They will not explain the nightmares, nor why they sometimes have to retire from the scene when lucid memories are triggered and they are plunged into a terrifying parallel reality. Even Guy Fawkes Night taxes the mettle.

No, he will never speak of it. Braced with youthful idealism, his wife and homeland are what he set out so loyally to defend. He bites at the ankle those rearing thoughts which protest domestic routines are an irrelevance now he knows mankind is capable of Lucifer's hubris in wanting to be God. He will adapt, keep a stiff upper lip, but will tread a lonely path through the decades of the twentieth century, unable to communicate the truth that it is better not to go there, better not to tempt fate, better to husband the gift of life and the cornucopia on your own patch. If only he could tell that to the enemy!

She is seated on his right, looking askance, swaddled in rigorous Edwardian attire with a joyful posy in her hat. George V has wrestled his dominions from the Hun, but the stunned world, embattled for four years, has not moved on. The long Victorian era still presides over the affairs of hearth and nation. She dandles an  infant on her lap, the first of four children, plus one adopted. Eventually, these will disperse to various points of the compass. War confers a sense of the global village, of common human destiny, and that allies are not always to be found in the next street. One of their sons will have his Halifax Bomber shot down over Brandenburg during the next outbreak of hostilities. He will be captured and become a POW in Stalag Luft III exactly one month before the Great Escape in which, thankfully, he has no part.

But their first child, a little girl, was begotten against the horrors of the front line. They have called her Eva because this is 'the war to end all wars'. A new age hovers over the horizon. The world reborn. New beginnings. Her mother's mouth faintly quirks with whimsy. She has a secret. She is expecting another child. But she will not tell him yet. It's women's business. In fact, she will not consult her doctor for several months. Nature's affairs are all in a day's work. But she knows for sure. The halted cycles, the way the blood fizzes around the sinuses and scent and colour are subtly altered.

Don't smell the poppies, Bessie,” her mother used to say as they strolled the Dorset lanes together when she was small. “They'll likely give you a headache.”

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Spell Check

You don't need spell check

to know Love's

a four-letter word

linguists can't argue

lovers might

the metaphor's tame

but nowhere near tamed

no science

just subtle aspects

of configured stars


of latent forces

neither is the blunt


word synonymous

Love's neither shorthand

nor icon

nor tailored to fit

tethered and tagged, you

can't save Love,

upload it to Cloud

it plucks the moment's

ripe apple

and plants next year's crop

prodigal spirit,

for some that

goes without saying

others sustain the


with coin of far realms

Image courtesy of Anna Mason Art