“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott

I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.


I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.

        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

The Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Today would be the two hundredth birthday of Florence Nigthtingale, and the World Health Organisation designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife in her honour. Although the Coronavirus crisis may have taken some of the attention which might have otherwise been paid to this remarkable woman, it has also emphasised the importance of nurses.

One of the results of the Corvid-19 crisis, has been the release for anybody to read, of all the Scientific American Coronavirus related articles, at https://www.scientificamerican.com/tag/The+Coronavirus+Outbreak/


A particularly relevant recent Scientific American article is “Nurses Are Playing a Crucial Role in this Pandemic—as Always” – interesting to see the similarities and differences between nursing in the USA and here in the UK, as well as an acknowledgement of the shared history, leading back to the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – not only for her care for her patients, but for her putting nursing on a professional basis, with an emphasis on hygiene, infection control, statistics and training.

I am particularly grateful for the kindness and professionalism of the nurses of the Oxford Churchill Hospital, both the Peritoneal Dialysis team and the Renal Transplant team.


Everybody who is reading this article has been born, which is a minor miracle in itself, which we take for granted nowadays. I have already written, in ‘On being born‘ about historically high mortality rates for both infants and mothers, and it is due to improvements in midwifery that we all benefit from this.

Florence Nightingale

A side effect of writing this blog is finding out about subjects of which I had no significant previous knowledge. Reading, mostly from the Wikipedia article, I found several items that had a particular resonance

My Methodist friends would, I hope be pleased to learn of the Wesleyan influences on her theology.

Margaret Box, nurse and midwife

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, left me much correspondence relating to her time nursing in Salonica and Serbia, but little of that actually relates to nursing. I do have some information from Census and other records which give a skeletal framework to her career.

She trained as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital between 1914 and 1917

I know from the Midwives Roll of 1931 that she qualified as a Midwife on 9th February 1918, by Central Midwives Board Examination.

From September 1918 to April 1919 she was nursing in Salonica and Serbia.

The 1923 Nursing Register shows her living in Frensham, Surrey, with her nursing qualification being from Guy’s Hospital in 1917.

In 1931 and 1935 Midwives Rolls she was a Midwife at the General Lying-in-Hospital in Lambeth.

In 1937, the Register of Nurses shows her living in Broadstairs, Kent, with a date of registration as a Nurse of 17th February 1922 – this gives her 1914-1917 training dates and nursing certification.

The 1939 Census shows her as a Matron, State Registered Nurse, in Broadstairs, Kent.

I still have several family history related letters I have not read, but as far as I know, that is all I can discover about her nursing career.

Margaret Box still in Bralo, October 14th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, was nursing in Salonica and Serbia at the end of the First World War. She wrote many letters home, which I am transcribing here. This one, to her father, follows the one she wrote she wrote to her mother, from Bralo on 11th/12th October 1918.

Previous Index Next

c/o 49th Stationary Hospital


14 x 18

& 15th

My Dear Dad

We are still here & still expect to be ! The work in the hospital now is much lighter so we are not helping any more. We generally go out for a walk in the mornings & come in for lunch at 12.30 – in the afternoon we stay inside & read – it is much too hot out then to be pleasant – we have to be in camp by 6 p.m. so there is no time for an evening walk. Yesterday morning Miss Sinclair & I set out together – we walked thro’ the vinyards by a winding footpath then across a Tobacco field & down to the river bed – just now there is only a little brook running & we easily crossed by stepping stones. We climbed the bank the other side & went thro’ a farmyard into the village street – now more than a rough cart track, the cottages are mostly made of mud (I believe I said stone before) & mostly all have a wooden stairway leading up to a veranda. I believe the family lives upstairs & the donkeys, pigs, goats & chickens downstairs.

Under the eaves & in every available hanging place are strings of tobacco leaves hanging up to dry. The wooden shutters are all bright blue. Everyone greeted us as we went along & the women & girls love to shake hands. This village was at the foot of a mountain & we thought of climbing up a little but we had no time & the mountains are all very rough & rocky with an awful lot of dwarf holly about – so we wandered on & came back again to the river. We climbed down the bank & sat on a stone under the shadow of a bridge. Some pretty little birds came down to drink. They looked like glorified yellow wagtails – there are lots of pretty birds about but they don’t sing – only twitter. Further down the river under shelter of a bridge a crowd of greek women were talking – presently ‘Whiskey’ – our dog – a huge black & white animal with red eyes jumped up & barked furiously at a woman who came to wash some clothes in the brook. Altho’ he is a Greek dog – he hates the Greeks – we had to hold him in & talk severely to him. Just then 2 pretty girls came along carrying wine barrels on their backs – they stopped & stared at us & I believe they thought we were lost – anyway they made signs for us to go with them – so we did.

We patted each other & admired each others clothes & then set off together – one took my hand & we all jabbered as we went along – as you may imagine we were all very much amused & they laughed as much as we did. We passed a church with a whole crowd of men discoursing outside in the yard. Then we went on til we came to the next village where we said Goodbye to our friends.

We saw a woman carrying her baby all wrapped up in a blue bundle & tied on her back with string ! The babies look very pale & wizzened tho’ the children look bonny enough. We left the village behind us & followed a track across a bare field towards our camp which was a good way off – but as there are no hedges or other obstacles about we could make a bee line for our tents. We were back in good time for lunch. We rested in the afternoon & at 5.30 went to church in the camp. The service is very simple & nice & the Chaplain preached a very good sermon. We miss the church bells – tho’ all thro’ the service we could hear the goat bells as the herds were being driven home. This morning we set out with the intention of climbing a mountain ! To begin with we are quite a long way from the foot of a mountain when your time is limited (we always have to be in for lunch) so we looked longingly at the 1st motor lorry that came along & the tommy stopped & up we climbed. That took us along the very dusty, uninteresting road to the village of Gravia – at the foot of the Pass we came thro’ from Itea so we walked thro’ the village & started up the mountain along a donkey track – it was very rough & prickly – you see we left the donkey track & made a bee line for the sharp edge of a ridge. I picked crowds of little pink cyclamen on the way. A little Greek girl with bare feet came with us – her feet must have been harder than shoe leather for they did not seem to get scratched & our own shoes did!

We eventually got to the top of the ridge after climbing a long time & sat on jagged rocks. We looked down on Gravia nestling below us on one side & the winding road & rocky ravine of the Pass on the other side & up behind us towards the mountain we’re going to climb! We rested there 1/2 an hour or more & discussed the nearest way home & whether we would chance getting a lift back along the road. We intended climbing down the other side into the village but it was too steep & prickly so we came down the same way. Luck was with us for just as we reached the road a lorry came along & we all climbed up in front with the driver. We had just got thro’ the village when the Colonel came along in his car – it was much nicer than the lorry. How we flew along !

This afternoon being very hot I seized the opportunity to wash my clothes & hung them out to dry while I rested on my bed ! Your clothes dry very quickly in this sun & as I don’t know where my kitbag is I can’t get any clothes out of it – so that is a great reason for washing to proceed. The clothes I am wearing will be worn out before I see the kitbag again.

After tea we walked up to the canteen to get soap & a few other things. Soap was an unknown quantity so we got Turkish delight instead & very nice too.

Coming back we watched the sun go down behind the mountains, the light on Mt Parnassus is beautiful & as it is the highest mountain the light is on it the longest. It is a lovely mountain & I never get tired of watching it – it is quite different from the others. As soon as the sun has gone it gets very cold & we rush for coats – just now there is a moon & the stars are grand – they seem to be so much bigger & nearer. I watch them every night from my tent door.

15. x. 18

Still no word of moving on & we are trying to practice patience. This morning we strolled thro’ the vinyards & down to the brook. We sat under the shadow of a tree & read our books for some time – but we saw rain coming over the mountains so thought we had better return. On the way back we found some mushrooms & have given them to the cook for breakfast. We got in before the rain which is coming down this afternoon in torrents. We had planned to take our tea to a mountain & search for an old monastery but that of course is out of the question now. No doubt we shall get a chance of going one day later as there seems to be no hope of marching orders yet.

This afternoon the sisters have all gone on duty in top boots & oilskins. The mountains have all disappeared behind the clouds & the whole camp looks a completely different place.

I enclose a leaf of some pretty green stuff we found on the mountain – it grows about 8″ to 1 ft high & looks so pretty in with the pink cyclamen.

I think I will say Goodnight now – am glad to say the rain has stopped.

Very much love to all

Your loving daughter

Margaret Box.


Work in the hospital much lighter

When Margaret wrote on October 11th, the sisters on the wards at the hospital had not been off duty for a month, as they were at the peak of the Spanish Flu epidemic. As I write this, we have been in isolation for over a month in response to the Corvid 19 pandemic, and it is encouraging to remember that too came to an end.

Bralo, Gravia and Itea

Bralo, is the small village below the 49th Field Hospital, which is the village Margaret and Miss Sinclair visited on the first morning.

Gravia is a larger village, down the valley from Bralo – the very dusty, uninteresting road on which they had lifts from lorries and the Colonel’s car is now part of European Route E65.

Itea will be where they disembarked from the troop ship on 3rd October, before catching a train to Bralo on 6th October.

Shopping in the Canteen

The substitution of Turkish Delight for Soap may seem like an early example of supermarket home delivery substitutions, but when you look this does not seem so silly, and according to Wikipedia ” soapwort may be used as an emulsifying additive. ” in the production of Turkish Delight, as well as having been used to make soap.

The Colonel

From Margaret’s diary, which I also have, the Colonel was Colonel Bailey – I don’t know who he was beyond that.

Convoy of Indians

The diary entry for the 14th also says “We saw a convoy of Indians come in”, which is a reminder that people from all over the Empire fought in the war. The Fibis web site, about life in British India, has a page full of useful links about Saloncia and the Balkans in the First World War.

Map showing Bralo and Gravia, Itea is at the south end of the valley