Beware The Snowdrop

Snowdrops were not indigenous to Britain, possibly introduced to this country by Italian monks in the 15th century or as early as the Roman occupation. By the time John Gerard wrote his Herball, published in 1596, snowdrops were well established as garden plants, “maintained and cherished…for the beauty and rareness of the flowers, and sweetness of their smell”, so much so that he had to remind his readers that they were not a native species; “these plants do grow wild in Italie and places adjacent, notwithstanding our London gardens have taken possession of them all, many years past”.

Writing half a century later, John Parkinson, whose snowdrops had been imported from Constantinople, was more pessimistic as to when they would flower, suggesting February, if the weather was mild, or else the beginning of March. He too referred to them as bulbous violets.

Snowdrops did escape from the confines of the garden into the wild, often found adjacent to gardens or other plants of garden origin, but it was not until 1778 that the first wild snowdrop was recorded in Britain.

Originally, they were associated with the Leucojum genus, given their passing similarity to the Snowflake, despite the latter being larger, having more than one flower per stem, and green spots on the end of their petals. Carl Linnaeus, in 1753, put an end to the confusion, giving the snowdrop its own botanical name, Galanthus nivalis, a mix of Latin and Greek meaning “milkflower of the snow”. That was not the end of the snowdrop’s taxonomical identity crisis, only resolved for good in 1805 when Jean Henri Saint-Hilaire placed it in the Amaryllidaceae family.

In Germany there is a charming tale set at the dawn of time to explain the early arrival of the snowdrop, often when snow is on the ground and conditions deter other bulbs from showing their heads. The snow, desperately seeking a colour to call its own, was snubbed by the more colourful plants not wishing to be associated with something so cold and unpleasant. Taking pity on it, the snowdrop allowed it to adopt its colour, white. In gratitude, the snow protected it from the rigours of the cold and frost, a symbiotic relationship that has existed ever since.

According to the Scottish poet, George Wilson, in his poem, The Origin of the Snowdrop, published posthumously in 1860, the snowdrop was created after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden into the frozen wastes. Pitying their plight, an angel scooped up some snowflakes, and breathed on them, transforming the ice into soft, pearly flowers, the first snowdrops. “And thus”, he wrote, “the snowdrop, like the bow/ that spans the cloudy sky,/ became a symbol whence we know/ that brighter days are nigh”.

The Victorians planted snowdrops in the shady areas of churchyards, particularly on the graves of loved ones. In some parts of the country this led to the flower being associated with death, especially as the flower’s head looked like a corpse in a shroud. The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World (1903) noted that “they are so much like a corpse in a shroud that the people…will not have them in the house, lest they bring in death”. Failure to heed the warning meant that a death would occur within twelve months. A single bloom in a vase made it even more likely.

If that was not enough, snowdrops in the house would, according to The Handbook of Folklore (1913), “make the cows’ milk watery and affect the colour of the butter” or reduce the number of eggs that a sitting hen would hatch. Far better to wear one or eat it. “The snowdrop will ensure purity of thought to the wearer”, the Encyclopaedia told its readers, while “if a girl eats the first snowdrop she finds in the spring, she will not get tanned in the summer”. 

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, however, they took a contrary view, carrying snowdrops into the house as part of a purification ritual, defying the gloomy prognostication that it “was unlucky to decorate your rooms with snowdrops”. Others saw it as a symbol of health and wellbeing – its bulb contains the alkaloid galantomine, used for the management of Alzheimer’s – and its white tepals as a representation of the wintry sun gaining strength as the days lengthen.

Like George Wilson, I regard them as a symbol of hope, a sign that the earth is stirring, and that winter will soon be gone. Taking no chances, I will keep mine in the ground.

Parents Of The Week (2)

A perennial problem besetting parents in this digital age is how to control their children’s access to the internet. A father in Messanges in south-western France thought he had come up with a perfect solution to cure his children of their addiction to social media, using a signal jammer to block radio frequencies.

It seemed to work, although, unfortunately, a little too well. From midnight every night for three hours any resident in the small town trying to access the internet or use their mobile devices found that they could not. The Agence nationale des fréquences (ANFR) investigated the problem and concluded that a signal jammer was being used to block the town’s radio frequencies.

The location of the jammer was tracked down and it has been disabled. However, use of a jamming device is illegal in France and carries with it a €30,000 fine and a custodial sentence of up to six months.

While the ANFR are sympathetic with his plight, the man is likely to face charges, pour décourager les autres, as they say.

Still, if he is inside, he will not have to worry about his children’s social media addiction.

Strawberry Of The Week

Congratulations go to Israeli farmer, Chahi Ariel, who has just been confirmed as the producer of the world’s heaviest strawberry by Guinness World Records. Tipping the scales at a whopping 289kg, beating the previous record set by a strawberry grown in Fukuoka in Japan of 250kg by some distance.

The strawberry is from the Ilan variety, known for producing hefty fruit, and was picked in February 2021. It has since been stored in a freezer, waiting for the record to be verified. During the wait, it has become a shadow of its former glory and looks pretty unedifying.

Still, a record is a record!

Fifteen Of The Gang

In London a bender was the name given to sixpenny piece because of its propensity to wear down and bend. It was also the name given to an elbow but its more common usage to denote a drunken spree may, according to James Ware’s Passing English of a Victorian Era, be a corruption of Bon Dieu. Good God, I never knew that.

The prelude to many a bender is an early drink. In naval circles in the 19th century, it was not good form to take a sip of alcohol until noon, when eight bells rang. For those who could not wait, the phrase call it 8 bells was a sign to denote the party’s agreement that, irrespective where the hands of the clock were, it was time for a drink.

Often the bender would result in someone not being able to see a hole in a forty-foot ladder, a delightful way to express the degree of their inebriation. To pay for the drink may result in the request to smash a thick ‘un. This was a request to change a sovereign. There is an element of despair in the phrase because the sovereign, a visible sign of affluence amongst the poor, once changed, had gone, and perhaps the owner would never possess another on again.

The morning after there may be an inquest as to what the drunken sot had got up to. A proposition may be put to them with the rider, can you say uncle to that? It was a challenge to come up with a plausible answer to the question posed. Depending upon the state of their wits, it may seem to be a carriwitchit, a puzzling question.

To sober up, there may be a need to resort to cat-lap, a term used, with some derision, by drinkers of alcohol to describe tea and coffee. It was also used in London’s club land to describe champagne by those who preferred their liquor stronger.          

Dancers In Mourning

A review of Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham

There is no getting away from the fact that in terms of style and literary quality Margery Allingham is a cut above many of her contemporaries who wrote detective fiction. This book, the seventh in her Albert Campion series and originally published in 1937 which also goes under the title of Who Killed Chloe?, has all the hallmarks of Allingham at her best, vivid writing, splendid characterisation, and an intriguing puzzle, but I must confess, I did find it hard going at times.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I did not really engage with the puzzle to begin with. A musical star, dancer Jimmy Sutane, is unsettled by a series of practical jokes which are played on him, the strangest being when a large party of the bigwigs of the County set arrived en masse at his country home, having apparently received an invitation to attend an afternoon soiree. There was barely enough china to go round. By this time Campion has been invited by Sutane to get to the bottom of these practical jokes.

Those impatient for a body have to wait some time until Chloe Pye, a dancer who has been recently hired by Sutane and who has invited herself down for the weekend, is seemingly run over by Sutane after she leant over a bridge and toppled over. Even the least astute of readers will realise that there is something fishy about the accident.

The police investigate and Campion is placed in somewhat of a dilemma. He has been engaged by Sutane and prima facie Sutane looks to be in the frame, especially as investigations unearth details of Chloe’s shady past and her previous involvements with the star dancer. Is he going to be instrumental in sending his friend to the gallows? To further complicate matters Campion has taken more than a shine for Sutane’s wife, a surprise for some readers who have followed the series who have always considered Albert to have a rather ambivalent attitude to the fairer sex.

Worse still Campion finds himself withholding evidence and providing misleading information. The situation becomes so intolerable that he decides to withdraw back to London and let events unfold for themselves. What rocks him out of his languor and brings him back into the action is a bomb blast at a quiet suburban in which Sutane’s understudy, amongst others, is killed. The investigations lead to the discovery of what we would now call an international terrorist connection, blackmail, and to a previous marriage.    

Reluctantly drawn back into the fray Campion is convinced of the identity of the culprit which makes him even more uncomfortable about the situation he finds himself in. However, a song and his recollection of the circumstances of Pye’s death lead him to realise that he had misinterpreted the clues and that he had overlooked the real culprit. As events quickly unfold, we see that Campion, while providing much valuable assistance to the police, is capable of making a monumental mistake.

In this novel Campion is a much more vulnerable, more human individual, less certain of his intuitions and in his actions, an interesting other side to him. Allingham is fascinated to explore and describe her hero’s inner conflicts, which while making him a more rounded figure does slow the pace of the narrative down. It is as though she is fighting against the constraints of the genre.

One of the undoubted highlights of the book is the appearance of Magersfontein Lugg, Campion’s man, who is lent out to the Sutanes. His friendship with their young daughter provides some charming and comic moments, especially when he teaches her some of the tools of his former trade such as lock picking and the three-card trick.    

An intriguing point is that a pub that features in the book is called the Spiked Lion, perhaps a reference to Brian Flynn’s book of the same name, published four years earlier.

There is much to admire about the book, but I do not think it is one of her best.