Book Corner – February 2018 (3)

A Month in the Country – J L Carr

There are many different motives for reading a book – a desire for pure entertainment, to educate, to discover more, intellectual stimulus – but sometimes you come across a book that is just wonderful and gives you a zest for life. One such is Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country, set in 1920 and published in 1980.

At one level it is a paean to the lost English countryside and the crafts that sustained the rural economy until the dark clouds of the First World War changed everything irrevocably.  Carr has an acute sense of the minutiae that make up the countryside and his descriptions take an almost elegiac form; “the sound of the bees foraging from flower to flower seemed to deepen the stillness.” And in a longer passage; “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage magic… I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at
all, it was that I’d like this to go on and on…”

But on another level, it is a bitter sweet tale. The protagonist and narrator, Tom Birkin, is on his uppers, has suffered a painful break-up in his marriage and has been mentally scarred by (and has a facial tick from) his war-time experiences. He has arrived at the village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval mural hidden behind a whitewashed in the church. The vicar thinks it is a waste of time and money but Birkin soon realises that he is uncovering a masterpiece. This rare opportunity for Birkin to practise his ancient craft allows him to find some solace, some comfort.

Birkin strikes up a friendship with Moon, another former soldier scarred by his wartime experiences, who is employed to find the bones of his patron’s ancestor. They both realise that they are experiencing a moment of catharsis and eke out their work to extend their stay.

And then just for good measure Birkin meets a woman, Alice Keach, the wife of the vicar. She is considerably younger than her rather crabby husband and beautiful to boot. Carr indicates that her marriage is not a satisfying one and there is a frisson of romantic attachment between the former soldier and her. But it is a chaste relationship, offering promise rather than fruition. Alice is portrayed rather like a paragon of beauty locked in some painting, someone to be admired, venerated but not touched.

And for me this is the essence of this rather wonderful book – the realisation that even the most imperfect and damaged life can contain moments of happiness and perfection. These may be fleeting and impermanent and need to be enjoyed when they occur. Or as Carr more memorably puts it, “If I had stayed there, would I have always been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

Carpe diem is a motto that has a lot going for it, I have always thought.

If you are looking for a tender, elegant, beautifully written novella that evokes the beauty of the English countryside and the impermanence of happiness, you will not be disappointed with this book.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Five

Great Zimbabwe Walls

It comes as a shock to many of us who are imbued with an occidental view of history that man was capable of extraordinary feats in what has been dismissively termed the developing world. One such edifice is the Great Zimbabwe walls which formed the perimeter to the Bantu capital of Great Zimbabwe, near the modern day town of Masvingo in the south-east of the country. One of the first westerners to clap eyes on it was the Portuguese sea captain, Vicente Pegado, who wrote, “among the goldmines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers [is a] fortress built of stones of marvellous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them…This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms high.

Built between the 11th and 14th centuries CE and covering some 722 hectares, Great Zimbabwe has three main architectural zones. The Hill Complex is the oldest and may well have been occupied from the 9th century, serving as the religious and spiritual centre of the city. There was a boulder shaped rather like the Zimbabwe Bird, upon which the King sat and administered to the religious and secular affairs of the community. A raised platform was to be found directly below the boulder and it was here that sacrifices were performed.

To the south of the Hill Complex is to be found the Great Enclosure with its astonishing walls, some five feet thick and eleven metres tall, made of cut granite and resembling from the air a grey bracelet. Remarkably, there are no angles in the structure. The third area is the Valley complex, a series of living areas made from earth and mud-brick. It is thought that thousands of goldsmiths and potters would live and work here. At its peak around 18,000 people lived in the city, although only a couple of hundred nobles lived in the Great Enclosure.

Great Zimbabwe owed its prosperity in part to its geographic position – it was situated between the gold producing areas inland and the Mozambique ports – and part to its own mineral wealth. More than 4,000 gold and 500 copper mines have been found on the site and it is estimated that between the 12th and 15th centuries 40% of the world’s gold came from the area. Artefacts went backwards and forwards along established trade routes to the Levant, Syria and Persia and China. The city went into decline midway through the 16th century. The reasons are unclear but it may be that the natural resources and food supplies had been exhausted and the population thought it was time to move on.

The tragedy of the walls of Great Zimbabwe was that when white men got to hear about it and see the magnificent structure, they could not believe that it was built by Africans. The German explorer, Karl Mauch, visited it in 1871 and opined that it was a replica of the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Jerusalem and that “only a civilised nation must have once lived there.” Worse still, Richard Nicklin Hall, appointed “curator” of the site by the British South Africa Company in 1902, destroyed up to four metres of archaeological deposits whilst removing what he termed “the filth and decadence of the kaffir occupation”  in his frantic search for proof that the city was constructed by white men.

In 1905 sanity prevailed when British archaeologist, David Randall-MacIver, concluded that the site was medieval and had been constructed by local tribes. It is now a World Heritage site and, fortunately, the marvellous bracelet-like walls remain to be enjoyed. And the drainage system still works!

Air Travel Tip Of The Week

It may be because I am going on holiday – South India, since you’ve asked – that I have been particularly fixated on air travel this week.

One of the problems the air traveller faces is the sheer boredom of the flight. In-flight entertainment systems will only fill up so much time before you despair of the human race. The cramped conditions make it difficult to do anything remotely energetic but here is something I came across this week which might just help you while away those long hours.

How about drying your washing mid-flight? After all, there are some handy air blowers above your head.

Well, this is what a woman was filmed doing aboard a Ural Airlines flight from Antalya in southern Turkey to Moscow. It took her about twenty minutes or so to dry a rather natty pair of white knickers with black trimming – they look like a child’s pair to my untrained eye – by holding them up to the air vent and moving them about, to the astonishment of her fellow passengers.

Seems to have worked and a tip worth knowing if you spill your wine en route.

Fart Of The Week (3)

Air travel can be pretty stressful these days, what with the hassle of getting through security and then the worry of who you will be sitting next to. So I have some sympathy for a couple of Dutch men on Transavia Airlines flight HV6902 from Dubai to Schipol.

They found themselves sitting next to a chap who was following Benjamin Franklin’s advice to fart proudly a little too enthusiastically. His bout of noisy flatulence caused a bit of atmosphere in the aircraft cabin and despite requests from the aggrieved duo that he desist, he wouldn’t stop.

They then called upon the cabin crew for assistance. The pilot got involved, asking the man to bottle it but the serial farter refused. So the Dutch men took matters in their own hands, sparking a fight, serious enough to cause the plane to be diverted to Vienna.

The Austrian police boarded the plane and removed the two Dutch men together with a couple of women who happened to be sitting in the same row. All four have since been banned from Transavia flights but were not charged as they had not broken any Austrian laws.

It is not clear whether any action was taken against the farting provocateur. Perhaps he should content himself with fizzling next time.

What Is The Origin Of (168)?…

Dribs and drabs

This phrase is used to describe small or intermittent sums or amounts or bits and pieces or people which appear irregularly. An example might be that the guests turned up at the party in dribs and drabs.

In trying to determine the etymology of the phrase, it is probably best to start where there is some sense of certainty. The word drib was in use from at least the 18th century in colloquial speech around the United Kingdom. There is an example from Scottish dialect dating from around 1730. It meant a small quantity or a drop and it is thought that it was a variant of drop or drip. That this may be the case is perhaps confirmed by an earlier verb form, to drib, which meant to fall to the ground in drops and looks to be an abbreviated form of to dribble. Driblet, which is the diminutive form of drib, dates from around the 1590s.

The word drab is a much trickier proposition altogether. For the modern English speaker, it is an adjective used to describe something which is dull and dowdy, without much colour. This is not surprising because this form of the word has been in use since the 1530s to describe a piece of cloth which had not been dyed, hence without colour and a bit dull. It owed its origin in this context to the Middle French word, drap, which meant a piece of cloth.

There was another form of drab which was used to describe a dirty and untidy woman and by extension a slattern or a prostitute. This probably came into the English language via the old Low German word drabbe, which meant a mire. Perhaps more germane to our enquiry is the usage of the noun in Yorkshire dialect. A glossary of the dialect of Craven, a town in North Yorkshire, published in 1828, contains the entry. “he’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.” The rascal had run away and left behind some debts. So is a drab a small amount of money or a minor debt? At least it has the merit of balancing the diminutive that is provided by drib.

Our phrase first appeared in print in a letter written by Miss Nelly Weeton, a governess and traveller, on 17th March 1809. There she wrote, “whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” That it predates the reference to drab in the Yorkshire glossary should not cause us too much concern because a word needs to be in currency and intelligible to the reader or listener before it can be used in print without an accompanying gloss.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861, has one of his interviewees saying, “None of us save money; it goes either in a lump, if we get a lump, or in dribs and drabs.” Henry Green’s novel, Concluding, published in 1948, contains the line, “they entered by dribs and drabs, lazily, slack.” Each of these three citations shows the phrase in its current day usage.

So what was a drab? It could be a small amount of money or a debt but I can’t help thinking that this definition hardly fits better with drib than do the other two that we have rejected, a dull cloth or a slatternly woman. It may be that what we have here is just another example of the reduplicated compounds that pepper our language, drab providing a pleasing alliterative and rhyming balance to drib. That there were other meanings associated with drab is just a coincidence, no more than that.

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns

Violet Jessop (1887 – 1971)

Whether you agree with G K Chesterton’s analysis or not, there is something deeply fascinating about coincidences. I particularly enjoy stories of people who have cheated death on a number of occasions. They provide proof that some people can sail through traumatic experiences unscathed. One of the most pre-eminent examples is Miss Unsinkable, Violet Jessop.

As a young child Violet had already shown a remarkable propensity to look death in the eye, contracting tuberculosis and given just a few months to live. Proving the medics wrong, she survived and at the age of 21 took a job as a stewardess on an ocean-going liner. To achieve this position Violet had to overcome institutional prejudice. Although women worked on passenger ships they were usually of a certain age, the owners thinking that a young slip of a girl would cause too much of a distraction to the lusty matelots. To secure her position, she attended interviews wearing dowdy clothes and without make-up in an attempt to distract attention from her age and appearance. It worked and she secured a position in 1908 on the Royal Mail steamer, the Orinoco.

Sailors are superstitious characters and call unlucky crew members and passengers Jonahs after the biblical character who investigated the insides of a whale. Had they known that Violet was on the crew list, many a sensible sailor or passenger would have avoided the ship like the plague. Violet’s chapter of disasters started when she secured a position with the prestigious White Star Line and its luxurious liner, the Olympic. On 20th September 1911 the Olympic was sailing in the Solent in parallel with HMS Hawke. In manoeuvring the Olympic struck the Hawke’s bow which had been designed to ram ships, and the hull of the Olympic was holed above and below the waterline. Although two of the watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to sail under its own steam back to Southampton and no one was seriously hurt.

Then Violet took a position on board the White Star Line’s newest and most luxurious liner, the Titanic which the owners claimed was unsinkable. On the night of 14th/15th April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking with it some 1,500 souls. Violet, though, was one of the lucky ones, being ordered by one of the ship’s officers to get into lifeboat number 16 to show the passengers that it was safe to do so. Her one regret, she recorded in her memoirs, was that she left her toothbrush on board.

To many a life ashore might have seemed appealing but not for Violet who transferred to the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. During the First World War the Britannic was commandeered by the Navy and Violet saw service as a nurse aboard the ship which ferried troops back and forth across the Aegean. On 21st November 1916 it struck a mine planted by a German U-boat, sustaining substantial damage and sank so quickly that Violet and her fellow crew members hadn’t time to man the lifeboats. Clutching her toothbrush – she had remembered it this time – Violet jumped overboard, striking her head on the ship’s keel as she was sucked under. It was only years when she was complaining of frequent headaches that she learned that she had fractured her skull. Miraculously, only 30 died in this incident.

After the war Violet transferred to the Red Star Line and worked on ships for a number of years. The albatross that had hung around her neck had clearly disappeared because the rest of her career passed without incident. She died at the ripe old age of 84 of congestive heart failure.