A New Day Yesterday – Part Eight


As I get older – it is my birthday today – I realise there is nothing certain in this world. There is no point building your hopes up that there’s a nice little earner you can rely on in your dotage because, as sure as eggs are eggs, some bean-counter somewhere will have blocked up the well of plenty just before it is your turn in the queue.

So far I have managed to evade the long arm of the law although not, sad to say, the long-distance lens of the traffic police but deep inside me somewhere is an unfulfilled yearning to assist the rozzers. Bluntly put, I’ve always fancied lining up for an identity parade, along with a few other well-meaning coves and the suspect. Of course, I would need some kind of security blanket like a cast-iron alibi or a DNA that doesn’t match anything found within a mile of the crime scene or a fervent belief that I do not have any doppelgängers in the local criminal fraternity. But it would be an afternoon out and something to recount and embellish upon down the local. And of course you got paid for your time and trouble.

I was devastated to read the other week that this route to supplementing my pension has pretty much been closed down due to advances in technology and, dare I say it, penny-pinching. West Yorkshire police developed something called the Video Identification Parade Electronic Recording Bureau or Viper for short in 2003 which holds images of individuals – the would-be identity paraders – on a database which the victim of the crime can review at their leisure. Makes sense, I suppose, and it has now been universally adopted by all the forces in the land.

There is now a recruitment drive to increase the number of images held on the national database. Anyone can volunteer provided that they don’t have facial tattoos and/or an inordinate number of piercings. I guess if you are one of those with a heavily pixelated face like suspects invariably have who get caught on CCTV, that would rule you out too. But you get rewarded for your trouble – a measly tenner. And there are no repeat fees! What’s the point of perfecting a mean and moody stare if you don’t get repeats?

The adoption of video based identity parades has reduced the cost of holding one from £800 to £150. That’s all very well, but it has put a big hole in my retirement plans, I can tell you. And with the cold winds of austerity blowing through the corridors of Whitehall you can easily imagine that some of the other benefits of being a retiree such as a free bus pass, a heating allowance and a free TV licence will disappear before I can get my hands on them.

The only consolation is that we are not the only ones in the firing line. In a nice touch the Japanese authorities present those of their citizens who reach the grand young age of 100 with a saucer-like sakazuki or sake cup worth around Y7,000. However, so many are now turning 100 – some 29,000 in 2014 alone – that the government are having second thoughts. They are considering scrapping the gift altogether and leaving the old codgers to make do with a congratulatory letter from the prime minister.

Life isn’t a bowl of cherries being old!

All Change – Part Four


In continuing our look at words which have changed their meaning dramatically over the years, it is astonishing how many words which make up even the most basic vocabulary have shifted sense. Take meat for example. It owes its origin to the Old English noun, mete, which referred to food in general rather than liquids or drink and, specifically, for fodder for animals. Even towards the end of the 18th century it had this meaning as this quotation from Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1775, shows: “our guides told us that the horses could not travel without rest or meat”. Nowadays, of course, when we use it we mean the flesh of a mammal. Still you could make a vegetarian blanche by reverting to its original meaning!

You would think you were on safer ground when considering words which differentiate the sexes. But Chaucer uses girles which is the Old English equivalent of girls in the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales (line 664) in a general context rather than one in which the sex of the individuals is paramount.

The adjective sly is used rather pejoratively these days. The connotation is that the person so described is sneaky or deceitful. But the word, when it was introduced into English from Old Norse in the 13th century, was a brush you wouldn’t mind being tarred with. It denoted someone who was clever or wise or knowing and was related to sleight, a noun which nowadays also carries with it the whiff of something underhand or at least deceitful, especially when it is used as a synonym for a magician’s presdigitation.

Cheater is another badge you wouldn’t want to wear these days as it denotes someone who is out to pull a fast one. But originally it was a position of some power and influence in mediaeval England. At least as far back as the 12th century, the English king would appoint an escheator and by the 14th century there was one escheator per county. When someone died intestate without heirs, their property passed to the monarch, much as it passes to the Treasury these days. The role of the escheator was to manage the process. But, of course, the role put significant temptations in their way and often they would prey on people’s distress and ignorance of the law to feather their own nests. So endemic were their corrupt practices that their office became a byword for a swindler, a meaning it retains today.

Artificial today has the meaning of something which is ersatz, not the real thing. But its root comes from the Latin artifex which meant someone with skill or a craftsman. So when it was originally introduced into the English language it was complimentary and suggested someone who was full of artistic and technical skill. There is skill, to be sure, in producing something which at first glance could be passed off as the real thing but somehow and sometime over the centuries the adjective attracted a more pejorative meaning.

And to finish off, here is an example of a word that started off with a negative connotation and is now very complimentary, the adjective pretty. In Old English the word meant crafty or cunning, a bit like the meaning we now attribute to sly. A speech might be described as pretty, meaning that it was cleverly or elegantly put but, perhaps, gilding the lily somewhat. By the 15th century the adjective had lost the pejorative aspects to its meaning and had adopted the one with which we are more familiar.

Our wonderful language never fails to fascinate.

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Twelve


Smallpox in South and Central America

Conservative estimates put the indigenous population in the Americas in 1492 at around 50 million of which some 25 to 30 million lived in Mexico when Cortes arrived. Fifty years later the population was down to some 3 million. In other areas of the Americas there was a similar story. The cause of this mass reduction in population was the cocktail of previously unknown diseases that the white man brought with him. The extent of the impact of the diseases on the populations has led some to describe it as biological genocide.

The reasons for the widespread destructive nature of the diseases are fairly simple: the local populations had not previously been exposed to them and, therefore, had not built up any immunities. When the disease struck they had neither the medicines to deal with the symptoms nor the understanding of how to quarantine or isolate those who were carrying the disease. And culturally the sick were tended and visited by relatives spreading the disease’s reach still further.

Europeans brought many diseases with them including measles, scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, influenza, tuberculosis and cholera. But the biggest killer was probably smallpox.  The pox is thought to have first emerged around 10,000 BCE and the first known physical evidence of it was a pustular rash on the mummified body of Ramses V. The disease was no respecter of rank and status. It was so endemic in Europe that towards the end of the 18th century it accounted for around 400,000 deaths a year. As Europeans explored the world and expanded their empires, it was inevitable that it would be transported across the Atlantic.

The key symptoms of smallpox were rashes and fluid-filled blisters. Survivors were usually left with tell-tale scars and blindness was often a by-product of a bout. The Lakota called it running face sickness. The only consolation was that if you contracted the disease and survived, you wouldn’t get it again.

Cortes’ arrival in Mexico in 1519 brought smallpox to the Aztec empire. It accounted for most of the Aztec army and around 25% of the civilian population and enabled what was a pitifully small invading army to accomplish an astonishing coup. A contemporary wrote, “as the Indian did not know the remedy of the disease..they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in the house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of the dead, they pulled down the houses over them, so that their homes became their tombs”. When Cortes marched into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards could not walk anywhere without stepping over the bodies of smallpox victims.

For the Incas the effects of smallpox were even more catastrophic, claiming some 60 to 90% of the population, its spread aided by the efficient road systems that were in place. But smallpox didn’t stop there. It reached Chile in 1561 when a ship carrying the new governor, Francisco de Villagra, landed on its shores carrying the virus. Within a year around a quarter of the population had died, so devastating was the disease that, as a Spanish historian reported, the gold mines had to close because all the native labour had died. The Mapuche, who were fighting the Spanish at the time, thought that the pox was a magical device to aid de Villagra’s campaign to subjugate them.

Next time we will look at smallpox’s effects on North America.

Historical Figure Of The Week


Dragged this week from the obscurity in which he had been languishing for many a century was Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, who lived from around 1284 to 1312. He was such a firm favourite of Edward of Caernarfon, later Edward II, that his exclusive access caused him to be exiled three times. The last time was in 1311 on pain of being declared an outlaw if he returned. Gaveston did return in 1312 and was hunted down and executed for his pains.

There were allegations dating from mediaeval times that Gaveston and Edward II were lovers, a charge made explicit by Christopher Marlowe in his play, Edward II. Whether they were or not is a matter of some conjecture but what got the nobility’s goat was Gaveston’s unrestricted access to the king, not rumours about his sexuality. I couldn’t find any reference to a pig.

Bet David won’t be calling Samantha Babe, though, for quite a while.

A Fool For You


Richard Thompson Electric Trio – Royal Festival Hall

It is always a pleasure to attend a Richard Thompson gig. At the very least, you are going to get value for money as his sets are always lengthy affairs. The RFH, revamped since I was last there, was pretty much sold out, the crowd’s age profile reflecting the advanced years of their hero, now 66 years young.

Unlike many of his era Thompson makes no concessions to his age. Judging by this concert his voice is in fine fettle, his fingers lithe and supple and there was no need to resort to backing singers or videoed sound tracks. Indeed, by opting for a trio format Thompson makes life difficult for himself because the line-up puts even more demands upon the guitarist. But he rose to challenge, aided and abetted by the solid rhythmic base laid down by nodding bassist, Davey Faragher, and the phenomenal Michael Jerome on drums.

There is an air of gloom and melancholy about Thompson’s best work and this mood was built on by the wistful and mournful set of the support band, The Rails, featuring Thompson’s daughter Kami and hubby, James Welbourne. At times if you closed your eyes you could imagine you had been transported back 40 years and were listening to her mother’s vocals – now that would have been a treat. The Rails seemed a bit nervous and had a false start with a Martin Carthy cover but managed to carry it off, encouraged by a benevolent crowd.

That wasn’t the last we saw of the Rails as they accompanied Thompson’s opening number, That’s Enough, an appropriately anti-establishment number to accompany his Citizen Smith-stylee black beret. The Rails disappeared and Faragher and Jerome took residence to play a set which was a mixture of tracks from the current album Still and some old favourites from his extensive back catalogue.

Thompson teased some astonishing solos from his Fender Stratocaster, none more so than in All Buttoned Up and a personal favourite of mine, For Shame Of Doing Wrong. The set wasn’t all electric rock. Thompson changed the pace of the show with an excellent acoustic solo version of the Fairport classic from 1968, Meet On The Ledge – one to be played at my funeral – and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning which showcased his finger picking virtuosity.

The backing band came back on and launched into a more jazzier strain with perennial favourite Al Bowlly’s In Heaven and two songs soon to be established as regular crowd pleasers, Beatnick Blues and Guitar Heroes. The latter, which required his guitar technician to help out on acoustic guitar, pays homage to Thompson’s formative influences, a theme he returned to in the opening number of his first encore – we were treated to two encores, the first of two songs and the second featuring three – a fine version of Hey Joe. There was a sense that in his mind Thompson is still striving to establish his place amongst the all-time guitar greats.

Judging by this performance and the reaction of an admittedly devoted crowd, Thompson is up there amongst the true greats of his instrument of choice. There were moments which were absolutely sublime and with his voice as powerful as ever, there were no signs that he will let up. I walked back to the train station thinking this was one of the best concerts I had seen for many a long year. But maybe I’m biased!