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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ode to Ullenwood

Dr Phillpotts, in his definitive history of the Below Average White Band, which I posted here, in November, makes reference to the performance of the "Ode to Ullenwood". Dr Ferris remembered John Boden's recitations, in the style of John Cooper Clarke, here.  One such recitation, after a session at the Air Balloon, took place in 1980: the accompaniment to JB consisted of Phillpotts on hosepipe, teapot, kazoo and jug, Ferris on cider jars filled with varying amounts of water to change the pitch of the notes, and Parker on Piano. I seem to remember playing the pianowires, inside the piano itself, with the assistance of some cutlery purloined from the kitchen. Hmm...

I have unearthed the original typed manuscript of the Ode to Ullenwood: it was written one evening at my parents' house in Crouch End in London by Dr Phillpotts, myself and my mother. We were, if I remember through the haze of time, assisted by liberal libations of rough cider made by Westons of Much Marcle. That was my mother's preferred drink: one of my schoolfriends once remarked that my parents's house was the only place he knew where rough cider was treated as a soft drink that you were given if you couldn't think of anything you'd rather have.  My mother had been trained, in her schooldays in the early 1930s, to write verse: she was good at rhyming and very hot on scansion. But I digress. Here then, after a doubtless welcome absence of 28 years, since its one and only public performance, is the Ode to Ullenwood, together with a commentary, not all of which survives.

Ode to Ullenwood Line

Near Ullenwood a hill was found,
A fort with ramparts bless’d:
Courtney’s woeful Leisuredrome
Was built upon its crest. 4

An archaeologist came by,
Of Mediaeval bent,
And all at once he was inspired
His passions there to vent. 8

So Dixon set his crew to dig
With catbasher and pick,
Continuing ten years and more
Since work is scarcely quick 12

The Secretary, a bearded man,
Driving Volkswagen van,
Prepared the camp at Ullenwood
For Dixon’s rabid clan. 16

The end of Greenway Lane once reached,
Is met with Lofty’s glare
But girls may find reserved for them
A leering Parry stare. 20

The dormitories are bare indeed,
But homely all the same –
Straw mattresses which Michael Dash
Flea-powder’d into fame. 24

Are cubicles anathema
And cramping to your style?
Then tents erect and there inspect
Your partner’s winsome smile. 28

Each evening one is forced to queue
To fuel the hungry gut,
With beans and sausage pie and stew
And baps, that fearsome glut. 32

The vile corpse thus satisfied
Can never be too soon
Restored by running down the lane
To reach the Air Balloon 36

At closing time, the camp regained,
The Mummers take the boards
With kettle, hose and dustbin-lid
To tame th’unlovely hordes. 40

Cacophony is shrieked aloft
To make the rafters ring:
Three drunken diggers take the stage
Endeavouring to sing. 44

The Bacchic frenzy lingers on
Till one or two a.m.
Bewildering the new recruits
O! Who the tide will stem? 48

The breakfast eggs the stomach turn,
Reduce strong men to pulp;
The sausages and beans and grease
Resist your every gulp: 52

But soft! the Sound of Lofty’s horn
Summoning all in sight,
To mount the fearsome Magyar’s coach
Worsens your morning plight: 56

The summit reached, the dumper trucks
With clangor fill the air,
And Parry’s morning curse therewith
Chills the brave and fair. 60

But Parry’s curse, put into verse
Immodest here would seem:
The poet now discreet must be
To sully not his theme. 64

Scorn not the Bard whose noble aim
In doggerel is fram’d
The broaching of the tool shed door
By such verse is not shamed. 68

The supervisors name their tools
As Philip tugs his beard
Why blench they all at Bernie’s belch
And why is Courtney feared? 72

The limestone rings to trowel and pick,
The shovels scrape and swing,
The barrows climb the spoil heap side
Their weary loads to fling. 76

Then Corky’s cry – O blessèd sound –
Tea and relief provides,
One cup for each of us, no more,
And biscuits there besides. 80

The work continues then apace,
Till sandwich time arrives
Egg and mustard – mayonnaise –
Th’industrious digger thrives. 84

Another session yet ensues
Till four o’clock – more tea,
But two more weary hours must pass
‘ere diggers can be free. 88

He who would wash must rules obey,
Prevailing in this clime:
He gets the chance on each third day
To scrape away the grime. 92

The ladies’ fate, sad to relate,
Equality foreswears:
Two days in three the showers pour
Cleansing their matted hairs. 96

Despite such strife, the digger’s life
Congenial to few
To us is best, so let the rest
Dear Ullenwood eschew. 100

Commentary and notes on " Ode to Ullenwood"

Title: the poem is addressed to Ullenwood, more specifically to the Civil Defence Centre situated there. (NGR: SO 936 174). It has been the accommodation of numerous volunteer diggers who work on the excavation of Crickley Hill, an Iron Age and Neolithic site situated a few miles from Cheltenham.

The poem consists of 25 four line stanzas and describes many features of life on the excavation and at the camp and several peculiarities thereof.

Line 1: "Ullenwood": cf. note on title.
Line 2: "A fort with ramparts bless’d": the centres of Iron Age and Neolithic occupation are surrounded by an extensive ditch and rampart defensive structure.
Line 3: "Courtney's woeful Leisuredrome" this refers to the decision of the Gloucestershire County Council in the late 1970s to deem the part of the site which belongs to them, and not the National Trust, a "Country Park". To ameliorate the facilities on top of the hill and therefore attract the general public, a public lavatory complex was built at the site. This was a cause of much chagrin to the diggers who, resenting the modernity of the lavatories and furthermore the sudden influx of tourists to distract them from their work, would have preferred to continue to use the "Elsan" chemical toilets which became such a prominent feature of the digging day, in the years from 1969 to 1979 when the toilets were built. Terry Courtney is the assistant director of the excavation, and an unidentified digger name to the lavatory block after him. Suggestions from one of the diggers, Flt Lt David Southwood, RAF, that he should bomb the Leisuredrome has been turned down because of the ensuing havoc, despite the desirability of the programme.
Line 5: “An archaeologist” : a reference to Dr P. W. Dixon, of Nottingham University, the Director of the Excavation.
Line 6: "Of Mediaeval bent": Dr Dixon's preference is for the aforementioned period.
Line 10: "catbasher": a word in vogue at Crickley meaning an entrenching tool, cf. refs to J. Parry Esq.
Line 11: "ten years and more": the excavation has been in progress since the summer of 1969.
Line 12: the site covers 9 ½ acres of which an area in the region of 4 acres has been completely excavated.
Line 13: "the secretary": R.D.A. Savage, lecturer at the Gloucestershire College of Art and Design, who is an expert on the British Iron Age Mirror series, and also upon Celtic myth. He is the secretary of the excavation, and in the evenings lectures upon these two subjects with great zest as well as on the maintenance of Ullenwood, notably the dangers of blocking the drains with foreign material.
Line 14: "Volkswagen van" Mr Savage possesses an "F" registration Volkswagen bus which has performed over 120,000 miles with a few technical hitches on some of the worst terrain in Great Britain. The van has only been known to collapse after conveying no less than 23 people from site to camp, along the old quarry road; this proved too much for the suspension but little else ever has.
Line 17: "Greenway Lane": the lane which leads from the B4070 to the Civil Defence Centre.
Line 18: "Lofty": the Hungarian caretaker of the camp who is tremendously helpful, but positively frightening if riled or if he suspects that all is not quite what it should be.
Line 20: "a leering Parry stare": you'll soon meet John whose principal occupation is coin dealing, though this is linked with colourful language, and leering at everybody. A fixture at Crickley.
Line 21: the dormitories certainly are bare but the rain is rarely known to penetrate the corrugated iron roof and the accommodation is much superior to that of most sites.
Line 23 to 24: the straw mattresses can be a trifle hard, but during his years of work on the excavation, Michael Dash of Sussex University, has by regular and extensive application of powder ensured that we can all sleep comfortably beds free from bites at the hands of any creatures that may be fool enough to attempt to inhabit the mattresses. The probability of getting respiratory problems because of the powder is, however, accordingly increased.
Line 25 to 28: It is, perhaps, worth noting that camping is available as an alternative to listening to other people snoring in the cubicles.

The rest of the commentary is lost, which is perhaps as well.

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