windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: February 2015

Police Raid Of The Week

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There is something rather romantic about the setting – a bright full moon shining down on a field containing cattle in rural Spain. Alas, the three men who entered the field were not there just to enjoy the scenery.

As soon as they had unfurled their red capes they found that they were surrounded by the old Bill. They fled the scene prompting a police chase and, when they finally were apprehended, a claim for damages for €53,000.

You see, they were trying to resurrect the old Spanish practice of honing your bull fighting skills by moonlight. Decades ago, before regular bull fighting schools were established, it was customary to arrange clandestine moonlit training sessions. Two of Spain’s most prominent matadors, Juan Belmonte and Manuel Benitez, learned their trade this way.

But it is now illegal. Moreover, Spanish law dictates that animals involved in bull fighting which survive have to be killed in case they anticipate the moves of any future matador they encounter. Pretty unsporting, I would say, but the farmer was left with no choice but to slaughter the cattle, even though the suggestion was that they were all heifers, hence the claim for damages.

Caramba!

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A New Day Yesterday – Part Two

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More observations from the pre-tirement frontline.

There is something intensely satisfying about waking up from the Sunday evening post-prandial stupor induced by Call The Midwife to realise that you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn (or earlier as rising times are static and dawn is a moveable feast) the following day to battle with the public transport system to get to work.

Of course, the puritanical streak that resides (deep) within me means that I want to use my extra day off profitably. What this means is that I rise a couple of hours later than I would ordinarily do if I was going to work but early enough to have the satisfaction of being up and showered whilst parents are engaged in blocking my drive dropping their little darlings off to school.

The extra day at liberty means that those annoying jobs for which there is insufficient time to accomplish during the conventional two-day weekend are quickly being knocked off. The garden shed has been re-organised (for the nth time) and the garage sufficiently de-cluttered that TOWT can now park her car in it for the first time in over two years. These are the measures of my productivity.

The next jobs looming imminently on the horizon are sorting out our two lofts and the planning for this immediately reveals the deep-rooted difference in attitudes between the sexes to impedimenta accumulated over a lifetime. I have thousands of books – the space taken up by my voracious reading appetite would be even greater but for my embracing the digital book form some seven years ago – an extensive vinyl record collection and thousands of football programmes and cricket magazines and memorabilia. As well as being an inherent reflection of what I am I see these enormous piles as accumulating assets (albeit imperceptibly and appealing to a limited but select clientele) whereas to the fairer sex they are nothing more than junk to be jettisoned in the same way as last season’s shoes and fashions. Battle lines are drawn and I will need the skills of the most consummate diplomat to emerge with the majority of my collection intact.

We then set out for a bracing walk. We are fortunate that within five minutes of where we live there are woods which we can ramble through, providing every now and again you don’t mind coming across a member of the military in camouflage hiding behind a bush. To some, the benefits of this exercise may be impacted by the fact that the ultimate destination of our perambulation is our splendid pub where a hearty lunch and a few pints are consumed before we retrace our steps.

It is quite apparent that those of us who are over 60 and fortunate to be in receipt of occupational pensions but too young to draw a state pension, occupy somewhat of a twilight zone. We qualify for free prescriptions and various store discount cards but are unable to benefit from a free bus pass or the Senior Citizens’ Menu offered at the pub aimed exclusively at those drawing (State) pensions. Life can be very cruel at times!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Sixteen

Ding dong bell

Ding, dong, bell

I well remember this nursery rhyme from my own childhood. The modern-day version of this ditty, complete with shocking final rhyme, goes like this; “Ding, dong, bell,/ Pussy’s in the well./ Who put her in?/ Little Johnny Flynn./ Who pulled her out?/ Little Tommy Stout./ What a naughty boy was that,/ To try to drown poor pussy cat,/ Who ne’er did him any harm,/ But killed all the mice in the farmer’s barn.”

But its origins are much older. The first printed variant of the rhyme dates to around 1580 where, courtesy of the organist of Winchester Cathedral, John Lang, the following has been preserved, “Jacke boy, ho boy newes,/ the cat is in the well,/ let us ring now for her Knell,/ ding dong ding dong Bell.” Thomas Ravenscroft in his Musicks Miscellanie of 1609 has the song arranged as a canon or a round featuring four voices.

Not unsurprisingly, the descriptive phrase “ding, dong” has been associated with the ring of bells. After all it is the sound they make and is a wonderfully evocative onomatopoeic description. That it was in common currency at the turn of the 17th century is evidenced by the fact that it appears a couple of times in the plays of Shakespeare – in the Tempest (Act 1, Scene 2), “Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:/ Hark! Now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell” and in The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 2), “Let us all ring fancy’s bell;/ I’ll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.

What are we to make of it all? What is fascinating about the earliest variant is that the cat is left to drown in the well and the description of the sound of the bell appears at the end of the rhyme. As with Shakespeare’s usage of the description in the Tempest the sound of the bells is associated with the knell with its connotations of death and funerals.

However, by the time we get to the modern variant of the rhyme, not only has ding, dong moved from the end of the rhyme to the beginning but also the cat has been rescued from the well, thanks to the good offices of Tommy Stout. The modern version also begs the questions as to who are the dastardly Johnny Flynn and the angelic Tommy Stout?

Nowadays we consider neutering to be an acceptable method of controlling the population of our feline friends but in earlier times it was considered to be barbaric. The more preferred approach to cat control was to drown the moggies and as wells were the source of many people’s water it is not difficult to imagine that the unfortunate was dunked in a well.

Modern sensitivities being what they are coupled with the positioning of nursery rhymes as a source of enlightenment and education to the young, the later variant can be seen as an exhortation to the young not to be cruel to our furry friends.

We have seen Jack being used in other rhymes to indicate the stereotypical male and I’m sure that is what Jacke is in Lang’s early version. It is not necessary for Johnny Flynn or Tommy Stout to be real historical characters. They are just names that help the rhyme along.

The origin of this rhyme shines an interesting light on to the changing mores and sensibilities over time.

Book Corner – February 2015 (2)

victoria

Victoria – A.N.Wilson

The world’s bookshelves are groaning with books about the two World Wars, Churchill and Victoria – worthy subjects all but, as I mused when picking up Boris’ tome on Churchill, does the world really need another one. Surprisingly, this is the first biography about Queen Vic for thirty years, although that in itself is not a reason for inflicting it on the great reading public. But, actually, it is a pretty good study and worth finding that extra inch on the bookshelf for.

Wilson’s focus is to shine light on the woman herself rather than what was done in her name during her long reign which transformed the face and nature of Britain. This is not as easy as may seem at first sight because although he has access to papers that have not previously been available, her family carried out a major cull of papers and letters shortly after her death removing many incriminating and illuminating documents. So many of the key questions remain unanswered, none more so than did the Rev Norman Macloed, as he claimed, secretly marry Victoria to her Scottish ghillie, John Brown? Wilson can provide no definitive answer but he indicates that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that might well have been the case.

A good part of the book is devoted to what Wilson describes as Victoria’s zoological role. Her succession to the throne was a consequence of some happenstance but also some determined matchmaking and succession planning on the part of her relatives and, in particular, her mother. Victoria was also the womb of the monarchy of mitteleuropa, providing links to both the German and Russian monarchies amongst others. In some ways the origins of the catastrophic First World War can be seen to stem from rivalries and jealousies within the extended royal family.

Wilson’s portrait of Victoria is of a woman of two parts – the rather submissive, domesticated doormat who feigned political ignorance to allow Albert’s light to shine and the more confident, domineering and even popular woman who emerged after the consort’s death and what the historian describes as her bout of mental illness in the 1860s. Undoubtedly, Brown helped her through that dark phase. Victoria was not averse to sticking her nose into political matters, was overtly political in her comments (in favour of the Tories) and treated Gladstone appallingly. It is not difficult to see where Charles gets some of his less welcome quirks. Equally though, her quotidian existence was deadly dull.

Wilson takes great delight in puncturing the myth that Victoria endured an unhappy childhood – her mother’s love shines through in many of the extant letters – rather, the myth of an unhappy childhood was invented to explain away the queen’s harsh treatment of her mum.

The book really takes off when Victoria is an old lady and, amazingly for one who was greedy for the public purse and was reluctant to carry out the most minor of public engagements, becomes the object of public affection. It was as if she was born to be an old lady and Wilson seems to have an extra spring in his stride when he tackles this phase of her life.

I found this an interesting take on Victoria’s life, thought-provoking and quite entertaining as a read. I think, though, thirty years will be too soon for another book on this rather extraordinary and enigmatic lady.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Three

mohocks

The Mohocks

The Bullingdon Club, a drinking and dining Club at that rather minor university in Oxfordshire, has gained some notoriety in recent years because amongst its membership it counted the current Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mayor of London. Its members drank to excess and carried out minor acts of vandalism which would earn the likes of you and I an ASBO. There has always been a propensity amongst our betters in the first flush of their youth to associate together with the intention of drinking and terrorising the honest citizenry. Perhaps the most notorious such group was the Mohocks.

The Mohocks, flourishing at the start of the 18th century and meeting in the Fleet Street area of London, took their name from the Native American tribe, the Mohawks, who were considered to be the most fearsome of the tribes vainly trying to protect their homeland from the onset of what we term “civilisation”. The President was known as the Emperor of the Mohocks and he was distinguished by a crescent tattoo on his forehead. Ordinary members of the club were known as Young Bloods or Bloods and the adjective bloody which prior to the 19th century had not assumed its now imprecatory connotations is thought to have owed its origin to their antics.

The rules and orders of the club were pretty simple – they, according to contemporary reports, “took care to drink themselves beyond reason or humanity” – sounds good so far – and their avowed design was to cause mischief. A particular and prime objective was to put the night watch, the early version of the Old Bill, to flight.

But, of course, one man’s mischief is another man’s hooliganism and it is quite clear that during their heyday the Mohocks terrorised the parts of London they frequented. They bludgeoned and beat their victims, sometimes drawing blood by cutting faces or slitting nostrils. A popular trick was to put their sword through the side of a sedan chair in the expectation of skewering the poor occupant inside. Night watchmen bore the brunt of their attacks and a certain John Bouch was attacked on Essex Street by around twenty bloods armed with swords and sticks, intending to nail him up in his watch house and roll him about the street.

Their notoriety was such that they received (dis)honourable mention in John Gay’s satirical poem of 1716, Trivia, “who has not trembled at the Mohocks’ name?/ Was there a watchman who took his hourly rounds/ Safe from their blows or newly invented wounds?”  

According to contemporary accounts, they particularly enjoyed putting women into barrels and rolling the unfortunates down Snow Hill or Ludgate Hill. Gay reports, “How matrons, hooped within the hogshead’s womb,/ were tumbled furious thence; the rolling tomb/ o’er the stones thunders, bounds from side to side”.    

By 1712 enough was enough and the authorities offered the princely sum of £100 for their capture. But these were gentlemen with money and family connections who could buy their way out of trouble and so few were apprehended and even fewer were held to account for their crimes. The Club was not disbanded until near the end of George the First’s reign.

There is nothing new under the sun, it seems.

No One Is Free, Even The Birds Are Chained To The Sky

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As well as the eruption of pretty flowers, one of the joys of spring for me is the sight and sound of birds coming back to life, building their nests and chirping away. Man has always had a rather fractious relationship with the fauna with whom he is sharing his living space and the bird population has over the centuries suffered more than most. We have reported before on the dramatic decline of certain types of birds as we cheerfully hack away at the habitat they need.

Focus has turned recently on the decline in migratory birds, the species who spend the winter in winter climes (no doubt still claiming their heating allowance) and returning in time to enjoy the British summer. Recent figures published in the UK Birds report suggest that species such as whinchat, nightingale, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher which winter in the humid zone of Africa have declined by around 70% since the late 1980s and the cuckoo by 49% – I can’t recall the last time I heard a cuckoo – and the turtle dove by an astonishing 88%.

Of course, their plight isn’t helped if they are silly enough to fly over the Mediterranean island of Malta. The island has an exemption from the EU Birds Directive which enables its hunters to shoot turtle doves and quail during their spring migration, the only country in the EU to have what is termed a recreational spring hunting season which allows birds to be shot. What gets environmentalists cross is that the hunters are pretty indiscriminate in their shooting, downing many other species of birds which were meant to be protected.

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France represents the next obstacle. For the gourmet one of the most treasured delicacies that could be served was the ortolan. Caught in traps set in fields during their migratory season when they fly from Africa, they are then kept in cages and force-fed grain to double their size. The coup de grace is delivered by throwing the bird into a vat of Armagnac which both drowns and marinates them at the same time. They are then cooked for eight minutes and served with heads still attached. There is a certain ritual to be observed when consuming ortolan – a napkin is placed over the diner’s head to ensure that the aroma is not dissipated and the bird is put in its entirety into the diner’s mouth and eaten whole. As the ortolan weighs less than an ounce it is hardly a satisfying meal but those that have eaten one rave about its hazelnut and gamey flavours. Although killing and selling the bird was banned in France in the late 1990s, the ban was not enforced until 2007 by which time numbers had plunged a further 30%. Last autumn a number of French chefs launched a campaign to overturn the ban.

Once here, it seems that the birds are severely affected by noise and light pollution. Background noise from roads and factories creates a low drone that blocks out the subtleties of birdsong and the sounds made by insect prey. Light pollution upsets their body clocks, causing them distress and impacting their ability to breed.

It is a wonder there are any left for us to enjoy.

Unsympathetic Judgment Of The Week

chainsaw

I know the law’s the law but occasionally you see something that makes you wonder. Take the case of Timothy Withrow from Port Willunga in South Australia.

While clearing some trees he had a chainsaw accident which resulted in him gashing his hand. On being told that there would be a 10 hour wait at the local hospital and being concerned that the wound might get infected, Withrow set about stitching it using a large needle and some fishing line. He had no antiseptic in the house so (natch) used some gin to wash the wound. The procedure being quite painful he consumed some of the gin, as you would in the circumstances.

Withrow then rang his doctor who advised him to see a surgeon so he jumped in his car and drove himself to the Flinders Medical Centre. Alas, for our brave Aussie he had his collar felt after failing to stop at an intersection and was found to have a blood-alcohol reading of .175. He was charged with and convicted of unlawful driving.

Not unnaturally, Withrow appealed the decision but this week had it rejected on the grounds that he had other options available to him to get to hospital – summoning a taxi, getting a neighbour to take him or waiting for an ambulance which would have cost him $800. All true, of course, but I can’t help thinking that Justice Nicholson, for it was he, got out of bed the wrong side that morning. The moral of the story – follow Pink Floyd’s advice and be careful with that axe, Eugene.

Reflections Of The Week

sundogs

Whilst many of us have forgotten what the sun looks like, the denizens of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk woke up on Tuesday to see three suns appearing over the horizon. No, they weren’t suffering from hallucinations caused by a particularly strong batch of vodka. What they were observing were sun dogs or to give them their technical name, parahelia.

The phenomenon is caused by light interacting with ice crystals in the atmosphere and typically appear as two coloured patches of light either side of the Sun approximately 22° distant and at the same elevation.

The city is not unaccustomed to unusual phenomena. A few days earlier they woke to blue tinged snow, caused by powdered dye being used in a local factory to colour Easter eggs escaped into the atmosphere. And in 2013 a 570 kg meteor shot across the sky above the city, injuring more than 900 people before landing in a local lake.

On reflection, I am happy to live in my patch of boring Surrey suburbia!

What Is The Origin Of (63)?…

haystack

A needle in a haystack.

A few days ago I used this phrase and it set me wondering where this unusual image came from. In popular speech it usually attracts a verb such as looking or finding or searching for a needle in a haystack. It is used to mean a very difficult task with the connotation that to find the object of your search is well-nigh impossible. After all, a haystack is big and a needle small.

The first recorded usage of a phrase which gives the sense of the current manifestation appeared in the works of Thomas More, later sainted for his troubles, in 1532 where he states, “To seek out one line in all of St Austin’s works were to go to look a needle in a meadow”. The use of a meadow rather than a haystack suggests that it is even more of a fruitless and forlorn task.

A novel which is considered in many circles to be amongst the greatest and most influential ever written is Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, although I have never been able to get through it. The book was published in two volumes – the first in 1605 and the second in 1615 – and it was soon translated into English. In Book 3 chapter 10 we find the phrase, “as well look for a needle in a bottle of hay

In Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom says, “Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay” So a bottle was in use in English at that time in the context of hay but what did it mean? Well, it seems, bottle was the diminutive form of the French noun botte which meant bundle as in botte de foin, a bundle of hay. So both Cervantes’ and Shakespeares’ bottle of hay meant a bundle of hay, smaller for sure than Moore’s meadow but still a difficult and perhaps fruitless task.

Although I have been unable to track the definitive first usage of the modern-day version of the phrase, it is easy to imagine that a collection of bundles of hay which is what a haystack is would enhance the sense of the futility of the exercise.

Of course, there is someone who is always prepared to take these things literally. Step forward, performance artist, Sven Sachsalber. In November 2014 he persuaded the director of an art gallery in Paris to instal a haystack and hide a needle in it. The “artist” spent around 30 hours over a couple of days searching frantically for the needle. Eventually he came across it proving that the task can be accomplished but that to do it involves a time-consuming and tedious search. Heaven help you if you suffer from hay fever!

So now we know!

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Twelve

280px-Standard_Vanguard_1954

Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next and final couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Henry Cooper, wakey wakey, England’s labour/ Standard Vanguard, spotted dick, England’s workers”.

London born Henry Cooper (1934 – 2011) was a heavyweight boxer whose powerful left hook, known as ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer, won him numerous British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles. His moment of fame came in 1963 when he knocked down Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali. So discombobulated was the American that his trainer, Angelo Dundee, in contravention of the rules, had to guide him to the corner and attempt to revive him using smelling salts. With a propensity to cut easily Cooper eventually lost the bout and reverted to type as one of Britain’s foremost horizontal boxing champs. On retirement ‘Enry became a TV personality and sprearheaded the advertising campaign for Brut aftershave. But to many he was the epitome of a brave Englishman undone by the devious foreigners.

The catchphrase “Wakey, wakey” was familiar to many listeners of the radio between 1949 and 1968 as it heralded the start of the Billy Cotton Band Show on Sunday lunchtimes on the Light programme. Cotton (1899 – 1969) was an entertainer and band leader of his eponymous orchestra, one of the very few to survive the passing of the British dance band era. As well as waving the baton Cotton sang and many a Sunday lunch was brightened up by his music.

History is written by the victors, they say, and until recent times historical narratives concentrated on the derring-do of royalty and leaders. But for many the real powerhouse of Britain’s industrial development and dominance was the honest blood, sweat and toil of the common man. Of course, post Second World War organised labour tried to redress the imbalance between the spoils of the few and the rewards of the many through campaigns to improve wages and working conditions. The result was often an impasse and some form of strike action. By the 1970s the popular misconception of the British worker was of someone who was prepared to down tools at the drop of a hat. Thatcher, seizing the opportunity this reputation created, severely curtailed the powers of organised labour opening the way for many of the egregious employment practices that now prevail.

The Standard Vanguard, launched in July 1947 and produced up until 1963, boasted a completely new shape, unlike any previous model. Built in Coventry and sporting a name that was redolent of the British Navy, the car had a sloping back and large doors which blended into the rocker panels. The second version of the car was the first British car to be fitted with an overdrive operating between second and third gears which effectively gave the vehicle a five speed gear box.

And what better to finish off this review of British culture with than spotted dick, a favourite pudding of mine, especially if served with oodles of custard – none of this modern predilection for cream or ice cream for me, thank you very much. A staple of school meals and bearing a name playing with the English passion
for double entendre it was ordinarily a circular pudding made of suet pastry and liberally sprinkled with currants or raisins. The word dick was widely used in the 19th century to denote a plain pudding.

And there we must leave England’s Glory. I hope I have shed some light on what is Englishness and provoked some memories along the way!