Branches against the west window, Beverley Minster

This word is being used again and again for what is happening in the ‘mother of parliaments’, or, to give it another name, in the Palace of Westminster, London. ‘What a shambles!’ Indeed, but where does that expression come from?

The most picturesque street in the ancient city of York is called The Shambles. It is very narrow and has a gutter down it to sluice away the water that washed blood off the pavement. This is where the butchers sold their meat, but instead of the more common ‘Butchers’ Row’, it became known  ‘The Shambles’. It would have been crowded as servants and housewives jostled and the butchers shouted to attract more customers than their neighbours. It was where the citizens bought their meat. Imagine carcases hanging in the shops, every counter piled with all cuts of meat and, in front of them, noisy customers bargaining while avoiding the water streaked with blood that was gushing out of the gutter. Centuries pass. Their shops have turned to selling tourist memorabilia; no water runs in the gutter – there’s no blood to wash away. And the sounds are muted: no sellers shouting, no shoppers asking, wondering, chattering, checking coins, dogs yelping as their paws are trodden on while they nuzzle for scraps and the butchers chop and chatter behind their open counters, a scene of noise and confusion united in a common purpose – to sell or to buy. Now there is no ‘shambles’, no confusion nor untidiness once associated with such markets.

My bedroom is a shambles. I am sorting out all the files and random notes made while writing the book I have just finished and am preparing for publication. It is daunting. So many notes of thoughts leading somewhere or often nowhere, but masses of them nonetheless. I am trying to avoid this task for as long as I can, though the realisation that it has to be done blocks all the metal paths I would prefer to tread, slowly and carefully. A licence to dream.

Outside the bare tangled branches of a mossy chestnut tree move in the wind and sketch a tangled pattern over the almost lyrical curves of the stone tracery in the Minster’s west window, all geometrically controlled to reach gracefully towards the pointed gothic summit.  Straight, slender trunk-like columns divide into branches of curving tracery – an elegant embrace of natural forms and human invention.

This could be seen as a visual message of hope. Out of shambles may come some attempt at order, coherence, forward thinking. I fear this may not happen, while trying to delight in the scene in front of me until the sun hides behind a cloud. One has to remember that it, at least, is constant and not lose hope.


Bedroom shambles

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